Fire Drill

The biggest challenge of my service so far has been adjusting to living in Adaba again after a little over two weeks of being away at In-Service Training.

The first few days I was home I went to the schools to reconnect with teachers and students, but mostly I spent a lot of time watching The Office or TED talks or sitting outside and reading.  I was too depressed to unpack my suitcase or tidy up my little house.  If I did that, then it meant that my life here is real.  I love Adaba, but in my selfishness, I would rather be hanging out with my Peace Corps friends and playing bananagrams and eating burritos than drinking coffee at some Habesha’s house and trying to express in 3 different languages that while I was gone I was in a town called Ambo for 2 weeks to receive training so that I can do my job better and at least last two more years in this country.

Yesterday I decided I was going to get out of my funk.  I miss my friends, sure; I miss modern conveniences, sure; but I did sign up for this.  I do feel called to this place.  I have people in Adaba who love me.  I have a lot of learning and growing to do throughout the rest of my service as a Peace Corps volunteer.

So I did something novel–I washed my hair outside at the spicket.  I had an audience of at least 10.  Everyone said I was the bravest ferenji they’d ever met.  They couldn’t wash their hair in the cold (BTW it was about 78 degrees).  Empowered, I then put on some Christmas music and washed my dishes. Then I straightened up my kitchen.  By that time the Christmas music had finished, so I started being a hippy and began listening to Bob Dylan.  It was great.  Then I got out a week’s worth of coffee beans, washed them, and prepared to roast them on my stove.

I opened up the window above my stove so that my whole house wouldn’t smell burnt for days, and started the process.  All of a sudden, wind got a hold of the fire in my stove.  I turned the ignition to the burner off, then the pipe that carries propane from the tank to the stove came a loose, and there was fire under my kitchen table.  Big fire!

Something like this happened briefly once before, but Bridget was there to act quick and turn off the propane.  In that moment, though, I was alone, and scared.  Really scared!  So I started to scream.


Then Hanuk, my thirteen year old BF and landlord’s son, came over.  Then his mom, Ababeya, and nephew, Jahred, and the new serentena, Birtukan, came over.  And we were all screaming really loud.

Igzhabier! Igzhabier! Ababeya screamed.  Oh my God! Oh my God!

Hanuk and I were throwing water on the flame, but it wasn’t going away because propane from the gas was spurting everywhere, literally fueling the fire.

Then my landlord came in to my messy, wet house, and he started screaming, What do you want me to do? What do you want me to do?

Turn off the gas! Turn off the gas!

In a swift movement Mr. Getaneh flung the propane tank that was so heavy I paid two kids to carry it on a wheelbarrow from the bus station to my house, from under my kitchen table to the middle of the floor.

At this point, the fire had ceased, but propane was hissing all over the place! So I turned the gas off, and then just looked blankly at my house that was now sopping wet, and at the people around me.  Ababeya had tears in her eyes.

Igzhabier yimmisgin! God has saved us, Mr. Getaneh said.

Igzhabier! Igzhabier! Ababeya cried.

Meanwhile, in the whiny little corner of my heart, I was thinking, why does everything have to be so hard here?  Why can’t I roast my $@#!ing coffee without making a @#^$ scene? Also, I was pretty sure I got bed bugs or really bad razor burn that same day, and my legs itched a lot, which made me even more indignant.

I recently read a book by Anne Lamott.  In it, she claims that there are really only three essential prayers, “Help, Thanks, Wow.”  After the fire, Ababeya and Mr. Getaneh were Thank-ing and Wow-ing it up.  I was still on the Help.  Help! Help! Help!

I don’t know why the fire happened.  Like, what it means for me.  Was it supposed to wake me up? Make me thankful? Was it like the burning bush? Because I still don’t know what God was trying to say.

After the fire, Ababeya helped me mop up my house and then she finished roasting the coffee beans.  I put the salt and sugar I bought at the market in my spice grinder, then I ground the roasted coffee beans too.

I like to think of myself as an independent person, but I’m learning that I can’t depend on myself alone.  I thought moving to Africa and joining the Peace Corps would affirm my independence, but if anything, it’s taught me that I need help, a lot of help.  Help! Help! Help!

I’m 23 years old, and I have my own paycheck now (albeit a pretty small one).  I even live in my own house.  But somedays, I can’t even buy eggs by myself.  Somedays I can’t walk into a school compound without a teacher escorting me to fend off the hundreds of curious children who tug at my shirt ends.  I surely can’t put off a fire on my own.

In Ethiopia when two friends are together and one has a bag to carry, each person grabs a strap.  Doesn’t matter that the one person could carry it alone–Ethiopians want to share the burden.  It’s a cultural thing, I guess.

It’s also maybe the reason why, as poor as this country is, the wealth discrepancy here is lower than any developing country in the world.  Very few get rich on the backs of others.

I’m learning this: maybe the Help! Help! Help! isn’t such a bad thing, after all. We need one another, and we need strength that comes from beyond us, even when we don’t like (or want) to admit it.


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