Five Months

In the beginning of my Peace Corps service, I marked each passing month with a set of goals. This month I’ll order a sofa. This month I’ll run 5 kilometers. This month I’ll bake a cake from scratch. Setting goals within the span of four weeks seemed like a good enough way to measure time. The vastness of 24 months in Adaba was something I couldn’t grip, but four weeks to make something happen—that was possible.

After returning from a short trip to America last summer, I stopped setting monthly goals. My life was here in Adaba. Here on the rocky side streets. Here in the broken plastic chairs at the Wabe Shebelle “hotel” where I order bayonet. Here in the faces of the kids at Qasta Damena school who run up to hug me, their tattered blue uniforms catching on the buttons of my shirt. Here. Here. Here. How can you measure your passing life when you’re busy living it?

I became so engulfed in Ethiopia that I considered extending my service. And why not? What’s an extra year when probability and good genes estimate you’ve got over 70 in the bag? You can always gain professional experience, I reckoned, but you can’t always replace family, especially a family that extends across an entire country in the horn of Africa.

Last month I left Ethiopia. I walked around shopping malls and talked to literature professors and ate at Pizza Hut. I rode in cars. I called my parents and friends across the world every day. I went to art museums. I cried—not a single time on a bus. I realized I’d be a fool to stay in Ethiopia longer than my close of service five months from now. I came to this conclusion not because of the stuff or convenience life afforded outside of Ethiopia, but because leaving here reminded me there are other families I love too—families who are getting old and getting married and having babies and moving to new cities.

Life is happening to my families outside of Ethiopia. I’ve had my stint in Africa. I’ve gone off the grid. I’ve flirted with independence and, ironically, in this communal setting I’ve relearned what it means to be a sister, daughter, friend. It’s time to go back and live in the place where I come from…well, almost time.

Now I have just five months left in Ethiopia. Five months. I keep on repeating that phrase in a variety of languages at different times and in different contexts. You see, I along with the fifty-some volunteers in my cohort (reduced from the original 70 who flew to Arlington, Virginia in June 2012 with government-issued passports, Chacos, and a whole lot of nerve) are now the longest-serving volunteers in country. We know the stories of those legendary ones who came before us; we were here when Meles Zenawi died and a whole country cried for days; we’ve bid farewell to volunteers leaving—both on their own will and the decision of Peace Corps Ethiopia; we’ve fought Habesha toughness in every sense— landlords, bus drivers, old ladies in the market hunched over a pile of carrots; and we’ve grown to love each other, even if we weren’t so close at first. I share my experience with my Ethiopian family across the country, but really, when I say five months, gia shani or amist wahr, those 50-some people are the only ones who know how I feel.

After finding such contentment and peace and here-ness in Adaba, I figured these last five months would pass quickly. There’s so much I have already accomplished. I can cook Ethiopian food that impresses Ethiopians. My English students can hold a debate on gender equality without even stopping to breathe. I can ride a bus on back roads with a chicken (child, 4 kilos of rancid butter, or a heavy REI backpack) on my lap for ten hours straight. Triumphant, I shall finish!

But why, then, have the past two weeks been filled with such resignation, exhaustion, and unease? It’s because I have five months to go, but I’m not done yet. Just walking on the side roads without tripping is still an exercise in learning that I have a ways to go. I still smile heavy-heartedly when a mother asks me to take her child to America, because ultimately I know Ethiopia’s not where it should be and these people’s lives are to show for it. I still cry at bus stations, especially when fat men grab me and make vulgar gestures with their fingers and mouths and then come up to the windows and threaten homicide by sliding their hands across their throats. There are days when I still don’t leave my house because I want to be invisible and read and sleep until my flight departs from Bole International Airport five months from now when I can confidently say, I did it.

It’s naïve, I know, to think these challenges will change in five months. They won’t, but I will. And so I can’t sleep. I have to fight. I have to cry. I have to cook every day and wash my dishes when I’m finished. I have to listen to the stories of people I love, even when I can’t change their outcomes. I have to go to school. I have to walk, one foot after the other, even when I’m not sure I can make it upright.


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