Thousands of Peace Corps volunteers serve across the globe continent in countries as different from one another as Alaska is from Florida. As part of my blogging goals for 2015, I hope to bring you volunteer interviews from Peace Corps countries from all around the world! This week, I am excited to introduce to you a volunteer from Ethiopia.
Amy Sage – Age 24
Where are you from?
I am from Wichita, Kansas
What country and program do you serve in? Please give a summary of your program goals and what your typical work includes.
I am currently serving in the education sector in Ethiopia. My program is called PELLE (Promoting English Language Learning in Ethiopia) We are the first group since this post reopened in 2007 to come in and direct teach in the high schools. In the past the education volunteers in Ethiopia were tasked with training teachers, but due to many obstacles, the program was changed to direct school teaching.
PELLE has two main goals: 1) To increase student achievement in English Class
2) To improve teaching through professional development
My typical work includes teaching 2 classes a day, four days a week. I have one English club for students and one English club for teachers. I am also required to attend one English department meeting a week. Most of my time is spent lesson planning (for class and clubs) and grading. I have 65 students in each class for a total of 130 students, so grading takes a very long time!
My program likes to stress active learning methods because the current teaching culture in Ethiopia is 100% lecture. The teacher stands in front of the classroom and talks while writing notes on the blackboard. The students are expected to copy the notes and then class is over. Peace Corps trained us to incorporate all of the language skills (reading, writing, speaking, listening) into our lesson plans, as well as games and group work. It has been interesting and somewhat challenging to bring new learning techniques into the classroom and see how the students react.
What is your housing like?
Volunteers in Ethiopia live in a compound setting, which is a group of houses in one gated compound with a landlord and other tenants. It is a nice setup because you become very close to your compound mates, but you also have privacy.
I live in a mud, one room house. It is very small (about 12ft x 8ft) ! When I first moved in I had mud floors, but due to rat problems I was able to have cement installed. I have a tin roof, which radiates heat and amplifies rain. There is no indoor plumbing, we have a water tap on our compound and a well for when the water is off (about 70% of the time.) I haul buckets of water to my house for cooking and cleaning. The toilet is called a “shint bet” (translation: urine house) and it is a hole in the ground, squatting situation. I share it with everyone in my compound and it doesn’t have a door! For washing myself I bucket bathe, which is basically just me splashing around in a big bucket in my house. I do have electricity, but am prone to constant and long power outages. The longest I have been without power is about 5 days, the average power outage is about 24 hours.
I wash all my clothes by hand and hang them on a line to dry. All of my trash is burned. I cook with a propane stove but try to use it infrequently as I have to travel with the tanks three hours to my hub town to exchange them.
What are some of the biggest challenges of your lifestyle?
Like most volunteers I face many challenges like loneliness, language difficulties and harassment. Challenges that are unique to me range from funny to frustrating.
Perhaps the biggest challenge I face is occupational. Like I mentioned above, my program is trying to revamp the educational system that has been in place for generations. Many of my students don’t trust my methods and think they are going to fail the national exams because I am teaching them incorrectly. I can understand their frustrations, the national exams determine their future! I get quite a bit of push back from them.
By far the funniest challenge I face is my freckles. I live in a very rural small town of about 4,000 people. It is quite an adjustment for them to have a “ferenji” living among them, but even more so a white person with all these dots. On a daily basis I am asked:
- What is wrong with me?
- What disease do I have?
- If I have a bug problem (they think they are bug bites)?
- If I am allergic to the sun?
- If I have a mark for every child I’ve had (this is an old wives tale in Ethiopian culture, and obviously crazy because I have millions of freckles.)?
- If I stay in the sun too long will I become black?
Some people rub them and ask me to give them some, other people refuse to touch me and think I am diseased. Almost everyone in my town is very concerned when I walk around without an umbrella and they always usher me under awnings to shelter me from the sun. I actually had to have a session for my students informing them that I am not contagious and if I walk near them to help them with classwork to not be afraid.
As far as my living situation, my biggest challenge is feeding myself. I have learned I am a terrible cook. I sometimes impress myself with the ability to follow a recipe and make something with limited ingredients, but I doubt I’ll be impressing anyone stateside after my service is complete. That being said, in my town there really is no variety. Ethiopian Orthodox fast from meat 200 days a year, so I have become vegetarian at my site. I eat a lot of vegetables, beans, and sauces made out of water and powder. Teff, which is a gluten free wheat like grain, is a large portion of the agriculture in Ethiopia and is used to make injera. Injera is a spongy pancake like bread that is spread over your plate then the food is placed on top of it and you used your hands to gather the food with the injera and enjoy! Injera is life in Ethiopia, and many metaphors and sayings include injera.
My daily diet usually consists of injera and sauce or a bean dish, pasta, or eggs.This shift in my diet has led to some changes. I notice I have lower energy. When I eat meat or dairy in the big city I get sick. But I am very lucky because I find Ethiopian food delicious and have started to crave injera.
What are Ethiopians like?
My compound has four houses in it and all the tenants are quite young. They are just out of college, gaining experience in a small town. My neighbors are mostly farmers or merchants. Ethiopians are very welcoming and hospitable. They are very curious about my life and we spend many hours drinking coffee and talking. That being said, their lives are very different from mine, even here at site. I am 24 years old and am not married nor do I have children. When they ask me why I tell them because I am too young and they laugh at that and tell me I am old.
My neighbors wake up very early and spend their days completing various tasks like going to church, cleaning, cooking, going to work, fetching water and socializing with friends. The pace of life is slower here in Ethiopia as compared to America and that has taken some adjusting. I was somewhat of a workaholic in America and here it is common to take long and frequent coffee breaks, 2-3 hour long lunches, or to miss work due to various celebrations.
One big difference I have with my Ethiopian counterparts is my love of sleeping in. It is not a concept here and I am often awoken at 6:30 am to come join my compound mates for coffee. When I answer the door in my pajamas I am often greeted with a surprised “You’re still sleeping at this hour?” Ethiopians rise with the sun and stay awake well past the time it has set and I do not know how they do it.
Ethiopia is an amazing country located in a dangerous neighborhood in the horn of Africa. Its history dates back to the beginning of mankind as it is where Lucy, the first human bi-pedal fossil, was discovered. It’s history is endless, including several biblical references, there are several holy cities from both the Christian and Islamic faith in Ethiopia. Emperor Haile Selassie was a very famous leader who is credited for blocking the Italians from colonization. Ethiopians are very proud of being one of the only African nations never to have been colonized.
Today Ethiopians enjoy a very colorful rich culture filled with traditional food, dance, fashion and coffee. (Ethiopia was the birth place of coffee!) Almost everything about their culture is unique to Ethiopia. Each region has its own style of music and dance and it is a blast to learn them all. I am often stopped on the street and quizzed on each regions dance. Ethiopia is a unique country that thrives in diversity. I often ask my students what is good about Ethiopia and a very common answer is the diversity and ability to live in harmony with different cultures. Peace Corps volunteers learn one of the three main languages spoken in the country, but there are over 30 nationwide including tribal languages.
Common activities are playing futbol, marbles, and ping pong. Coffee ceremonies take place everyday where the beans are plucked from the trees, cleaned, roasted, ground and brewed on the spot.
What are some of the most rewarding parts of your service? What have been some of your greatest challenges? Has Peace Corps service met/surpassed/trampled on your expectations of what service would be like?
The most rewarding part of my service has been seeing the improvement in my students. I was never a volunteer that thought I was going to make a huge difference. At most I thought I would gain some experience, learn about a new culture, and take a break before tackling grad school. But, as I near the end of my first school year, I can really see the difference I have made with my students English ability. Compared to their classmates who do not have me as a teacher, my students are incredibly advanced in conversational English. In tandem with that they are much more confident and are often translating for me in the community.
My greatest challenge is also occupational as I mentioned above, although I can see and measure the accomplishments of my students, the national exam is purely grammar based and I focus less on grammar than other teachers, and my students are frustrated with that. Societal wise, my biggest challenge is definitely dealing with harassment and sexism. Because I am white and Ethiopia has a large past with NGOs, missionaries, and other aid groups, it is assumed that I have a lot of money and if I want to do any trainings or clubs, the participants expect to be compensated for such. Many times people just yell “money” at me on the street. Being a woman is tough as well, but that is true for all females in Ethiopia. There is an unfortunate gender gap that we as volunteers are trying to face, but it is an uphill battle.
I’m not sure what I expected my service to be like, but I knew it would be a challenge. I suppose I thought I would adjust quickly to the hardships and adapt to my new life. This has been more of a challenge then I expected. I still have troubles with my new lifestyle, I get frustrated easily and some things are hard to deal with on a daily basis. (like the treatment of animals, women’s rights, education system, etc.) I will say I was not expecting the three months of training to be quite so intense so that was a large adjustment for me. Now that I have been a site for a while I can see how my service is going to surpass my expectations. Every day I get to experience things that many people in America will never have the opportunity to. I have engrossed myself in a different culture and now I have a second home. I have unique experiences and stories that will last me the rest of my life, and I’m pretty lucky for it.
I have been in country for 10 months, at site for 7. The gender equality movement in Ethiopia has yet to take serious root. Peace Corps has done a lot of work with this issue, incorporating it into all three sectors (Health, Agriculture, Education) We hold yearly GLOW camps as well as gender clubs in the schools. Still there are burning issues. As a woman, when I go into the big cities I am often cat-called or grabbed. Offers of marriage are constant and some men feel like you are only a sex object. I am fortunate enough to have my site be a small village so the harassment is relatively low. Although I must wear a long skirt to be taken somewhat seriously, and when my site mate and I wear pants or ball caps we are often confused for boys. I will not say, however, that these issues make my service more difficult than a male volunteers. They have to deal with a lot as well. Men will befriend them and then try to show off by treating women poorly and asking the male volunteer to join. Many of my male friends tell me about being offered students for marriage or other unsavory acts. The male volunteers in country do a great job supporting us females and trying to education men on the appropriate way to treat females.
Why did you join Peace Corps?
I have a long standing love of traveling and learning about the world. My family hosted exchange students in high who lived with us during their year of study. This opened my eyes to the world. I graduated with a degree in International Studies and wanted a break before going to grad school. I thought Peace Corps would be a great way to gain some experience, travel, and also give me some time off before jumping back into school.
Looking back, do those reasons still apply to you now?
Absolutely! I still plan on going to grad school and the experience I am gaining is invaluable to my future. I have plenty of free time to study for the GRE and I think I am going to be better prepared for my future studies. An unanticipated perk is I am meeting so many like-minded people in fellow volunteers, expats, etc that was somewhat difficult to find in the Midwest USA. It is probably cliché to add, but I am also growing as a person and really know how resilient and strong I am now that I have put myself through this test.
Do you feel like Peace Corps is still a worthwhile program for the U.S. Government?
I absolutely think that Peace Corps is still a worthwhile program for the U.S. Government. First I think in this ever-globalizing world it is good for Americans of all ages to discover the world and educate themselves about different cultures. Not everyone can afford to travel internationally on vacation and Peace Corps offers a way for qualified people to share their skills while also enlightening themselves. Second I think this is a great investment for the U.S. Government because it helps humanize the United States. It is crazy what some people think about America. From personal experience, the only exposure locals have here of America is from television shows, and for some reason the most popular shows here are “My super sweet 16” and “I used to be fat” both of which are aired on MTV. Some people here truly believe that everyone in America has an extravagant million dollar sweet 16 birthday party. I feel lucky to be able to show a different side of America to locals. They are shocked when I tell them that there are homeless people in America.
If you had to give a piece of advice to someone thinking about applying to Peace Corps or getting ready for staging, what would you say?
Advice I would give to people thinking about applying to Peace Corps… It’s an amazing opportunity and it is one of a kind. It’s not a decision to take lightly because it is two years of your life. You will not be the same person when you come back, but you will know so much more about yourself, the world, and what you are capable of. Make sure the program you apply for is something you are passionate about.
Advice for people getting ready for staging – I’m going to tell you a couple of things that were told to my group as we were loading the bus on the way to the airport.
1. The hard times are hard, but the good times are better.
2. No one has better stories than Returned Peace Corps Volunteers.
The first three months are really intense. I was not expecting that and so I had a tough time. Stick it out. There is no better feeling than swearing in. Go to site and give your community all that you’ve got.
Specifically if you’re coming to Ethiopia and you don’t like coffee at the moment, still bring a french press. I didn’t and now I’m waiting for one to be sent to me, trust me, you’ll develop a taste for coffee.
I have a “Peace Corps Pet” – my cat, named Ruca. I suggest it to all volunteers. Not only does she keep me company and cuddle with me, I also get to teach my neighbors about loving animals. I am terrible at living alone. None of my chairs have backs and I constantly fall out of them. I slip coming out of the bucket bath. I’ve started several fires in my home. I am hazardous to my own health. If I can do it, so can you!
My compound mates may think that I may be evil because I seem to attract scorpions and snakes, both of which are a sign of the devil here.
Ethiopians are terrified of frogs and I think that is hilarious. A good sense of humor gets you so far in this business. Perhaps the best advice I’ve received was from my site mate who recently COS’d. Don’t stress about anything. It’s not worth the strife, if something doesn’t quite work out today, you have time to adjust.
Any plans for post-Peace Corps?
I still have 17 months left in my service and I think about this a lot, I guess I’m just a planner! 🙂 I’m hoping to get into a great grad-school and study International Relations. Then I’m hoping to join the State Department and work as a Foreign Service Officer. I also hope to figure out some sort of personal life in the process. 🙂
Want to read more about Amy’s Peace Corps experience in Ethiopia? Check out her blog here!