Recommending Ethiopia

It’s no secret that Peace Corps is changing its approach to recruitment and placement for future volunteers.  In response to the decreasing number of interested applicants, Peace Corps is now letting those with a desire to join its ranks offer input in their job description and location of service.

I first applied to the Peace Corps in April of 2011 and interviewed with my recruiter in Atlanta, Georgia in June of 2011.  Though originally nominated to teach English at a university in Asia, in March of 2012 I received an invitation to serve as an ITELE (Improving Teaching of English Language in Ethiopia) volunteer.  Unlike applicants of today, I didn’t have a say in where I would be going, and a message from my placement officer informed me that if I didn’t accept my invitation, it was unlikely Peace Corps would reissue another one.

That being said, I was elated to be placed in Ethiopia! Though I would have never known enough about the country to choose it for myself, Ethiopia intrigued me.  I was very curious about Ethiopia’s Middle Eastern influences and its historical lack of colonial occupation.

A few weeks ago on the Peace Corps Ethiopia Pre-Departure Facebook page, a future volunteer asked the following question:

Hi everyone,

My recruiter gave me the option of choosing Ethiopia (leaving February 2015) or another country for my nomination.  I’m wondering if any current volunteers would be willing to talk about their experiences there, especially as a community health volunteer.  I’m particularly curious about specific projects you’re working on, community life, and serving as a female volunteer.  Any input is helpful – thanks!

Here was my response:

While the harassment is unbearable at times, Ethiopians are incredulously hospital and kind despite extreme levels of poverty and hardship! You’re going to be a badass volunteer no matter where you go! I feel stronger and blessed by my experience in Ethiopia, even though there are specific challenges unique to this country.  You are the only variable in your PC service that you can control, and most PCV’s attitudes define their service more than anything else.

Realizing that interested volunteers may be scanning the internet for information on specific country posts, I created a comprehensive evaluation of serving in Peace Corps Ethiopia based on my personal experience here. Volunteers will inevitably have varying opinions – we hail from different places, arrive with different expectations, and relate differently to the environments we’re placed in.  For what it’s worth, here are my two cents:

Peace Corps Ethiopia

Peace Corps only reopened the post in Ethiopia in 2007, though volunteers served here from 1962 – 1977 and 1995 – 1999.  I am a part of the 7th cohort (G7) to serve in Peace Corps Ethiopia since the post reopened in 2007.  When I arrived to Ethiopia in June 2012, G4 volunteers were finishing their service, and now, in July 2014, G11 volunteers are completing their Pre-Service Training in Butajira town, Gurage zone.  Before my group arrived in Ethiopia, there were only a total of 70 Volunteers in country. As Volunteer input increases, the total number of Volunteers in Peace Corps Ethiopia now tee-tolls around 250.  The Ethiopian ministries of Health, Agriculture, and Education continue to request additional Volunteers; as a result, our post is now one of the largest in Peace Corps Global.  Although the number of volunteers serving in Ethiopia has increased dramatically in just the two years I’ve been here, the number of support staff in Addis Ababa has remained the same.  The staff in Addis are attuned to the problems of volunteers.  Unfortunately, they are spread so thin that policies are often inconsistently applied, site visits to rural towns like mine are rare, and volunteers sometimes feel overlooked in the bureaucratic process.

Training

Over and over in Pre-Service Training, the Deputy Programming Manager Dan Baker told my group that Peace Corps Training is world class, and I believe that.  Ethiopia’s Pre-Service Training (PST) is community-based, which means that volunteers live with host families while they attend language, cultural, technical, and medical training.

The Language and Cultural Facilitators (LCFs) who teach Amharic, Afan Oromo, and Tigrinia during PST are one of Peace Corps Ethiopia’s strengths.  These teachers, most of them in their mid- to late- 20s are well prepared to teach Americans Ethiopian languages and understand the huge transition trainees face as they acclimate to life in Ethiopia.  Their command of English is near to that of native speakers.  LCFs often have great respect for Peace Corps Volunteers serving in Ethiopia; they truly understand the motivations of Volunteers and the challenges Volunteers face throughout their service.  My LCF, Abubekar, is still one of my favorite people in Ethiopia.  He even met my parents when they visited the country!

In regards to cultural training, during my PST I lived with a host family in Eteya town, Arsi zone.  Eteya is a medium-sized town that had about 30,000 residents two years ago.  Only nine other trainees lived in Eteya during my three months there; the rest of my cohort was spread across other similar towns.  Since then Peace Corps has moved the training site to Butajira.  Butajira is a large town of about 100,000 residents two hours from Addis Ababa.  Now every trainee lives with a host family in Butajira.  Since Butajira is located in a wealthy area (Gurage) close to Addis Ababa, many volunteers enjoy comforts such as Western toilets and hot showers during PST.  Additionally, there are several upscale local hotels that offer wireless internet.  In my opinion, though the new PST site of Butajira is more accessible for trainers traveling from Addis Ababa, current trainees aren’t prepared for the challenges of living in rural areas the way my group was.

Additional trainings beyond PST include In-service trainings (one focused on technical skills related to Volunteers’ sectors and another on Project Design and Management), All-Volunteer Conferences (held annually), Mid-Service Conferences (a week in the middle of Volunteers’ services), and Close-of-Service Conferences (focused on helping Volunteers transition out of Peace Corps).

Medical Support

One major benefit of joining the Peace Corps rather than pursuing other international volunteer opportunities is the comprehensive health care posts offer.  The reason why the medical approval for Volunteers is so scrupulous throughout the application process is that Peace Corps assumes all medical costs for serving Volunteers in addition to covering the costs of any medical problem a Volunteer incurs as a result of his or her service.

There are three doctors who work for Peace Corps Ethiopia.  Two are male and one is female.  Generally the doctors are all sensitive, understanding, and thorough, although some Volunteers prefer to take their problems to a specific doctor.  After consulting a Volunteer, the doctors often refer them to specialists in Addis Ababa.  Some of these specialists are internationally trained; many are not.  That being said, I know Volunteers who have had serious issues like blood clots, gallbladder removal, and broken limbs treated in country.  They all turned out ok!

Peace Corps Ethiopia continues to improve Volunteers’ access to local counselors who offer emotional support and strategies for cultural adjustment.  In my experience Volunteers’ biggest challenge overall is mental health.  The medical team has worked extensively in the past two years to reduce negative stigma surrounding counseling opportunities in order to reach out to struggling Volunteers.

The Education Sector

The education Sector in Ethiopia is managed by Dr. Daniel Okubit, an incredibly kind man with experience in various levels of the Ethiopian educational system.  Three program assistants work with him to develop the program and manage the education volunteers in country.

The biggest challenge to the education sector currently is transitioning volunteers from working as teacher trainers in primary schools to working directly as English teachers in high schools.  G11, the group currently at PST in Butajira, will be the first group to experiment with this new assignment.

The education sector is the largest of the three sectors working in Peace Corps Ethiopia.  Like the entire Peace Corps Ethiopia office, the education sector is overworked and understaffed.

Site Placement

Volunteers in the education sector are generally placed in small-, mid-, or large- sized towns with populations of 5,000 to 100,000 people.  The average size town for volunteers in the education sector has about 40,000 people.  My town has 20,000 people.

The benefits of living in a larger town are easier access to transportation, nicer facilities for living and eating, and greater numbers of people who speak intelligible English.  The benefits of living in a smaller town are increased opportunity for cultural integration.  In smaller towns, Volunteers are better known by their communities and often forced to speak more of the local language.  In general, Volunteers in larger towns have an easier first year and a harder second year than those living in smaller towns.

I would guess that about 2/3 of all Peace Corps Ethiopia Volunteers have another Peace Corps sitemate serving in their towns.  Another 2/3 of all Volunteers are within 1 hour travel of the closest serving volunteer outside their site.

Future Career Opportunities

Peace Corps Ethiopia offers excellent career counseling to volunteers through the American staff working at the office in Addis Ababa or career counseling for returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) through Peace Corps Headquarters in Washington, DC.  Like a college fraternity, the RPCV network offers a leg up to job applicants, and there are numerous opportunities for RPCVs to receive graduate school scholarships through the Coverdell Fellows Program. Volunteers in Peace Corps Ethiopia have been accepted to schools like Denver University, University of Pennsylvania, University of Pittsburgh, UCLA, Duke, and Fordham University.

There are a number of RPCVs working with NGOs in Addis Ababa.  There is a huge foreign aid presence in Ethiopia, and RPCVs often sit on professional panels to field questions from volunteers exploring career options.  Third year extension opportunities to work with organizations like Catholic Relief Services, Population Services International, or International Rescue Commission, abound, but volunteers pursuing these opportunities generally must seek out connections on their own.

Culture

Ethiopians are so proud to be Ethiopian and love to show it off through their cultural clothes, music, dance, and food.  Ethiopians, especially those in rural areas, don’t have much exposure to foreigners and rarely challenge tradition.

Blatant gender inequality is evident throughout the country, although more and more women are completing their education and entering the professional realm due to programs sponsored by the government and other NGOs.  Female Genital Mutilation persists.

While the quality of the education system is improving, government universities mostly prepare students for professional fields.  Due to brain drain and government censorship during the past 50 years, many of the brightest and most ambitious Ethiopians have been exiled to America, Canada, and Germany.  Other Ethiopians leave home for work in Middle Eastern countries like Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Dubai.  There is not much of an intellectual culture in Ethiopia, and the arts scene is generally limited to Addis Ababa.

For Africa, Ethiopian food stands out.  The savory, flavorful cuisine bids well with most newcomers as long as you like Ethiopia’s staple food, injera.  Smaller town markets only have a handful of fruits and vegetables, though.  Variety is hard to come by unless you have a personal garden and enjoy cooking for yourself.

Harassment

Harassment is very bad in Ethiopia.  There’s no other way to put it.  Every volunteer, male or female; white, black, or Asian, faces some sort of harassment.  Huge numbers of volunteers terminate their service early due to the harassment they receive at their sites.

The tamest harassment is “ferenji, ferenji.”  Since Ethiopians have historically little exposure to foreigners, they only have one word for people who are different from them—ferenji.  However, since the Chinese began road construction in the country, Ethiopians now know “China.”  The Chinese focus in Ethiopia has been on economic investment and infrastructure development rather than cultural understanding and education.  As a result, Ethiopians are extremely racist towards people of Asian descent.

Sexual harassment is everywhere in Ethiopia.  There is a refined generation of men educated during Haile Selassie’s regime (many of them taught by Peace Corps Volunteers) who speak excellent English and have nice manners toward foreign women.  Those men are mostly schmageles (old men) now.  Religious and/or character education in government schools ended during the socialist Derg regime.  The best sexual harassment involves marriage proposals and declarations of beauty.  The worst involves four-letter word insults.  For a few months in the middle of my service, I heard “fuck you” or “I want to lick your pussy” weekly.

Most sexual harassment doesn’t come from the mouths of men who are just ignorant.  Men’s harnessed social powers coupled with the commodification of foreign women leave female Peace Corps Volunteers extremely vulnerable to intense and unwavering levels of sexual harassment throughout the country.

Relationships

The biggest challenge for me my first year of service was cultivating relationships with young, female women.  There simply weren’t many young professional women living in the small town where I served who spoke English and were interested in befriending me.  Some Volunteers hypothesize that Ethiopian women are jealous of the extra male attention female Volunteers receive from young men.  Eventually, I accepted that my closest relationships in Ethiopia would be with little kids and old men, and ever since then, I’ve been pretty happy.

I haven’t had “girl friends” in Ethiopia the way I do at home.  I am friends with my landlord’s wife and their servant, but our conversation is in Amharic only.  Young women don’t hang out on the streets or in the cafés the way that young men do.  Pursuing female-female relationships is more difficult in smaller towns than it is in places like Addis Ababa or Hawassa.  I became fairly close to my 8th grade students and the 10th grade girls I mentored, but my peer relationships were limited to interactions with other Peace Corps Volunteers.

I never engaged in a romantic relationship with an Ethiopian.  Some Volunteers do, and some leave the country engaged, married, or in a long-term relationship.  Dating Ethiopians offers Volunteers insight into Ethiopian culture and an ease in dealing with day-to-day frustrations.  However, many Volunteers are weary of dating Host Country Nationals for fear that their partner see them as a source of income or a ticket to America.

Ethiopians refuse to acknowledge that homosexuality exists.  Discussing homosexuality or openly engaging in a homosexual relationship can backfire.  Homosexual acts are considered illegal by the Ethiopian government and punishable by law.

Safety

I have never felt in physical danger throughout my service in Ethiopia, though I have been a victim of petty theft (mostly cell phones and smaller bills stolen in my town market or on busses).  In order to engage in culturally appropriate and safe behavior, though, I was never out in town past 7 pm alone.  That means I never had dinner outside of my compound, never had beers with friends in town, and never planned to return home from travels after dark.

My house and compound feel extremely safe.  I don’t invite people I don’t know very well into my house.  The most stressful safety incident I experienced occurred the first year of my service, when my landlord’s family sold popsicles from their house.  50-100 school children a day would enter my compound to purchase the popsicles, then they’d stick around, peek into my windows, knock on my door, and just drive me crazy.  Peace Corps responded by giving me the money to build a small fence around my house for privacy.

Despite warnings from the Peace Corps office, I have had to hitchhike several times during my service; there were simply no other transportation options available.  Every time I rode in a private vehicle, I made sure that I wasn’t alone with the driver.  To be honest, every encounter I had hitchhiking felt much safer than a ride in a public minibus.

The only people in Ethiopia who carry guns are bank guards, policemen, and the military.  Violent crime is very low here.  Though sexual harassment is prevalent, sexual assault and rape rates are very low.

According to my understanding,the biggest threats to national security in Ethiopia are heightening regional tensions between Muslims and Orthodox Christians, evidenced by the Oromo protests in the spring of 2014.

Convenience / Comfort

Most volunteers live in one- or two- room houses with mud or concrete walls.  We do not live in huts.  Most volunteers have semi-consistent electricity and access to running water.  My electricity goes out once every other day for a few hours, but I usually have enough juice to watch a movie on my computer, charge my cell phone, or read a book before bed.  There is a spicket on my compound about 100 meters from my house.  I fill up 40 gallon buckets with water a few times a week and use that for cleaning my house, maintaining proper hygiene, and drinking water.  Some volunteers have sinks or showers where they live; I do not.  Hardly any volunteers have access to toilets.  Ethiopians instead employ the squatting method and do their business in shint bets.  To travel within their sites, volunteers usually walk or ride a bicycle on unpaved dirt roads.  The cell phone service is maintained by one government-owned business.  The quality is poor and the service expensive.  Internet access has improved drastically since I arrived to the country, though, and almost every small- to mid- sized town has a local internet café.

Ease of Travel

Traveling within Ethiopia is extremely difficult and dangerous, but flying out of the country is generally easier and cheaper than flying from other African countries due to Bole International Airport’s function as a regional hub.

Peace Corps Volunteers located in Tigray and Amhara regions usually fly to Addis from airports in Mekele, Axum, Gondar, or Bahir Dar.  Recently, volunteers in Western Oromia were offered the opportunity to fly from the Gambella airport. Remaining Volunteers must bus to Addis.  Coach services are available through Selam Bus and Sky Bus from towns like Hawassa, Jima, and Dessie.  Volunteers unlucky enough to live far from these areas rely on the highly unregulated public busses and mini busses that travel from town to town.  I must spend 8 – 10 hours on a bus and change stations 4 – 6 times to travel from my site to Addis Ababa.  Many other volunteers sit on busses for two days to make it to the capital.  For the record, Ethiopia has the highest per capita traffic casualty rate in the world.

International air travel is easier than domestic travel, and for safety reasons, Volunteers are not allowed to travel over-land to neighboring countries.  Emerging airlines from the Middle East such as Saudi Air and Qatar Air now offer affordable flights to destinations like India, Dubai, and Turkey.  There is a direct flight via Ethiopian Airlines from Addis Ababa to Washington, DC that many Volunteers use to travel home during their service.

Overall

To choose Ethiopia or not to choose Ethiopia, that is the question!  Serving in the Peace Corps is hard, no matter where you go.  Some languages, like Spanish, Arabic, or French, are more marketable to learn than Amharic, Afan Oromo, or Tigrinia.  Worldwide, some Volunteers serve in rural communities so small they have to cross a river to get cell phone service; some Volunteers can fly to the States for a weekend with ease.

At the end of the day, I am a different person because of my service with the Peace Corps in Ethiopia.  I could have never chosen Ethiopia; Ethiopia chose me.  The first year was rough, but my community has come to embrace me like a second family.  If it wasn’t for the male population aged 15-34, with mountain views, afternoon sambusas, and sweet booger-nosed babies, my site Adaba would be pretty close to perfect.  Ethiopia is going to be a part of my life forever, and I look forward to joining Ethiopian-American communities when I return home to the US.

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