Thursday, March 25, 2010

Running is dangerous these days

I’ve been in Ethiopia for four days now. Or a lifetime. Something like that.

Addis is a special subtle kind of overwhelming. At first glace it might seem obvious: poverty, dust, pollution, and spicy food. In the four days or four years I’ve been here I’ve only begun to recently notice other layers and implications and beauty. It also took me four days to notice that there are no traffic signals in the city. Hate waiting at red lights? Come to Addis.

While I work out of an AIDS clinic, a disease that has ravaged the population I’m working with- it seems that everything is coming to life rather than dying. There is construction everywhere- big cinderblock frames with bamboo scaffolding. Dusty paths being turned into paved roads. Most employed men I've met work in construction as day laborers.

I’m interviewing people about their employment and income, housing and other factors. The depths of the poverty we’re learning about are frightening. The survey had been modified before I arrived to include other variables that might not actually be useful to the study- but I’m discovering that these questions that ask people about their hopes for their careers and their families are an optimistic way to end our conversations.

I say “our conversations” but mostly it’s a lab tech that is proficient in English who does the interviewing in Amharic and me who interjects with follow-up questions. On the first day he was insistent that I learn how to say “thank you” so that I could personally thank each interviewee. Easier said than done. “Ameseghinalehu” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue but I’m working on it- and five new words a day. Today was the much easier “ishi” or “okay”. The language here is more than just words and phrases. People talk with their eyes as much as their voices and their gasps. As far as I can figure gasp means both “yeah” and “okay” and “understand?” Amharic is a beautiful language and I find it incredibly soothing, so much so that I have trouble staying awake at times…

In the afternoons we go to the kindergarten to try to interview parents of the children. The vast majority of the children who attend these schools are orphans who live in orphanages and many of the rest walk home on their own- so I’ve been spending a part of each afternoon playing with the pre-school class who comes over from the orphanage for the school day. They are energetic, playful and sweet. Yesterday afternoon I was treated to a duet (complete with fancy footwork) by two pre-schoolers. Most was in Amharic but I could pick out “merengue!” and “cha-cha-cha!” with appropriate dance steps inserted. The younger girls called out requests for other songs and the boys were happy to play to their audience.

I also have a new BFF, the youngest pre-schooler from an orphanage run by the organization I work for. Neither of us can pronounce each other’s names so we call each other “Mary.” She started this cause she knows another white lady named Mary- so I think it’s her substitute for “firenje” or “foreigner” – the term people yell at me on my walk to work.

The view from my room

Most of my evenings have been spent in my hotel room trying to get websites to load and fighting jetlag. Last night I met up with some fellow expats for dinner. After just a few days here I’ve come to think of having a security guard and a housekeeper as a social responsibility and income-generating activity rather than a status symbol for expats.

Like most African cities, Addis has rolling blackouts and only the wealthy have generators. One of the expats was telling me about the power flickers at her gym and how the staff keep telling her “it’s too dangerous to run these days”, because she goes flying off the treadmill each time it stops.

For my own exercise needs, I made hiking plans with the new ex-pat friends today. I tried to tell someone at work today, only to have to explain what hiking was. “Walking. In the woods. For fun." More than just a foreign word, truly foreign concept here where only the poorest of the urban poor live in the woods.

In summary: I’m learning a lot, mostly about life and poverty but also about the stuff I was appointed to study while here.

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