01 February 2008

Feb--2008--who knew?

My mom has been begging me for a description of what I do. I have been putting it off because it’s kind of hard to explain. But, after my 100th email request I decided to give it a go. For starters, it’s like I have 3 jobs; which explains the lack of sleep and lack of seeing my husband. This means I have many bosses, but in reality I only have one—the one in control of my pay check! Currently I am being paid by the Micronutrient Initiative (MI). They are a Canadian based NGO that works to end ‘hidden hunger’ aka micronutrient deficiencies like Vitamin A, Iodine, Zinc, Iron, etc. They are paying me to do three jobs:
Work with Jim Levinson and in country staff to create a Long Term plan for them in Ethiopia.
Serve on the Project Preparation Team for the National Nutrition Program of Ethiopia—ensure micronutrients are well served and taken care of in the program. This is a HUGE HUGE amount of my time. I work with the Ministry of Health, and spend most my hours doing something related to this program. We are essentially designing a country wide answer to the problems of malnutrition. It includes programming for the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, Ministry of Water Resources, and Ministry of Education. So, I go to a lot of meetings. How to get the whole thing harmonized and functioning, this is my daily task. I also meet with donors—hoping people will pay for it. For the first 5 years, it will cost 250 million dollars. The Government of Ethiopia is putting in 90 million—a substantial chunk. Many developing nations put little in, when donors are going to be paying for things. Either way, we have to raise the rest of the money. CIDA, USAID, WB, SIDA, Italian Coop, DFID—these are the acronyms of the meetings I go to. Plus, meeting with the minister of health. I have become good friends with the State Minister of Health, Dr. Shiferaw. He is a very funny guy, and has an EXTREME amount of patience with my American ways. I often talk too much in meetings, give lots of opinions, ask very blunt questions, etc etc—He generally just laughs. To be honest, I was unaware I need to act different around him—I blame being American. However, other Americans in his presence treat him differently—a level of respect. It’s not that I don’t respect him, in fact I have the utmost respect for him, but I just don’t feel calling him ‘your Excellency’ gives respect; it just makes me giggle. It doesn’t help that the topic we discuss day in and day out is one I am VERY passionate about, nutrition. So, if someone is saying something or proposing something I think could damage this precious beautiful national nutrition program I have put my blood, sweat, and tears into, I get bitter and speak up. It’s that simple.
The third job they are paying me for is to be part of the Lancet’s Series on Maternal and Child Undernutrition. This is REALLY exciting. The Lancet is a world famous medical journal. It’s been around over a 100 years. Once in a while, they do a special series, outside the regular publications. Before they did one on child survival, for example. A week ago they launched the latest series, from DC and London. They are now going to launch the series from 5 countries, Vietnam (done), Ethiopia, Peru, Senegal, and India. The launch happens to coincide with the launching of Ethiopia’s National Nutrition Strategy. It has b/cm a HUGE thing for Ethiopia—a time to shine. We have 4 days of events planned, including a launching ceremony. I actually will be speaking at the ceremony. It’s not the crowd of 500 that will make me nervous; rather it’s the fact that (as alluded to earlier) I, by nature, am not a ‘professional’ person. I am very casual, in my writing, my mannerisms, my speech, etc. I don’t care about the crowd, actually the bigger the better—you don’t have to focus on eyes. But, me rambling or inserting some personal insight, or . . . The list goes on with my ‘unprofessional’ acts. I’ll let you know how it goes. The MOST exciting part is on day 3 and 4. The BBC filmed a documentary here entitled, “Biblical Famine in the 20th Century.” If you have seen video of Ethiopian kids with large swollen bellies, little stick legs, in a desert setting—it’s from their. This documentary cemented Ethiopia’s reputation as the land of famine, hunger, and desert. Though Ethiopia has had its share of tragedies, this reputation is not deserved and ESPECIALLY not deserved today. So, we are returning to the site of the original documentary, in the North, and filming again with the media. This time we’ll start out in a cemetery, mass grave, featured prominently in the documentary and show where we were (we being Ethiopia) and then show where Ethiopia has come. Ethiopia has come a LONG LONG way. They have some revolutionary programs achieving astounding affects in event he most remote and rural areas. It will be so exciting!

Well—that in short is my story for now. The presentation and whole launching thing happens on Feb 7-10th. After that, with just 2 projects to work on – I’ll be free as a bird!!

Well—onto the regular dose of random observations, complaints, and stories—

I like to keep up with the rest of the world. I am by no means some political guru, nor a great source for all news—but I feel I do my best to keep up. I read the BBC and CNN daily. Many of you ask, why CNN if I read BBC. BBC has a better reputation, and likely has the same stories if not better ones—well, the truth be told—I like random American stories. The random little stories in the US section of the CNN web site entertain me, scare me, and intrigue me. I follow missing persons, robberies, cars that fell in frozen lakes (surprising many this winter), etc etc. I like knowing what’s going on, not just ‘national headlines’ but state by state headlines. However—2007 was a strange year, and 2008 isn’t shaping up to be better. All websites have a place somewhere where it indicates which stories on the website are being viewed most. They generally rank the top 10. Can anyone guess the number story of the year? I am sure you can—as you all (most of you on this list are in the US) are living it daily. It starts with a B and ends in Spears (Britney Spears for those of you living under rocks). It was SOOOOOOOOO disturbing to me to log on and see over and over, stories about Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, etc etc being ranked as viewed more then say, the crisis in Darfur, the crisis in Kenya, the WAR in Iraq, etc etc. What happened to America? When did we stop caring about ‘real’ people and start preferring ‘fake’ people? By fake, I mean it’s not like any of these stories really represent the real person—it’s all hype, and often lies. But, the truth is, the top stories repeatedly are about ‘famous’ people. Do you want to know what you missed? The stories, some that didn’t even make the top ten viewed lists, have a tremendous impact on your lives and lives of millions of people. Well, I will list a few for you (FYI—the following stories are sad, gut wrenching—you were warned)
1--There were NUMEROUS stories of families attending the funerals of loved ones who died in bomb attacks, and then bombs were set off at the funeral. For example, there was an interview with a man who had been attending his father’s funeral. The father had died in the market, where he worked, when a bomb went off. At the funeral, another bomb was set off killing his sister and best friend. This story was told over and over, different characters places, but the same. Can you imagine? I can not. I think the losses people are facing these days are beyond human capacity to handle. However, you would be driven to tears by the absolute humanity of the people who survive. Many of them building again, moving on—holding onto hope. It’s beautiful.
2—Darfur. I can’t even begin to explain the atrocities that have happened in Darfur over the past year—and that continue daily. The people are being killed by their own government, who of course denies this, and the UN does nothing about. They are being funded by China (don’t get me started on China), and the killing, raping, and maiming goes on. Homes looted and burned, people literally fleeing on foot for their safety. Arriving in over crowded refugee camps. Given a tent, enough food for 4 of 7 days. They sit in these camps—they can’t go out, they could be attacked. They sit and sit and sit. Can you imagine? Sitting in 90 to 100 degree weather in a tent. You have nothing to do, not enough food, your kids are bored out of their mind and starving—what would you do? Well, for these people, there is little they can do until the international world puts a stop to the chaos there. Puts pressure on China on Sudan—etc.
3—I got started on China, so I’ll let ‘er rip!! HOW DID THEY GET THE OLYMPICS?!?!?!? I have written on this topic before—and will again. How can the world stand by and let China, who blatantly violates the international human rights laws, host the Olympic Games? Doesn’t that undermine all they supposedly stand for? Even in the construction of the Olympic buildings—seizing land from the poor, making promises of new homes and lives for them and NEVER coming through. Then, what they are doing in Africa! Eeeek. I mentioned Sudan—they essentially will send their people anywhere other oil companies won’t go due to insecurity. The countries are desperate to sell their oil, to fund their wars (e.g. Somali, Ethiopia, Sudan, Nigeria, Burma, etc etc ) So China funds their genocides. And, we are all going to celebrate ‘humanity and good sportsmanship’ with them this year?!? Are you freaking kidding me?!? It’s insane. INSANE. I truly can not figure out how it happened? Did China give the Olympic committee lots of money? What?!? And, how can people actually be supporting this. Do they think it’s bringing good things to China? It is not. Not even close.
4—Kenya. If you don’t know that there is a story in Kenya right now, and only know that Britney Spears is back in the hospital—I am worried for you. Post election violence has turned into what some are calling ethnic cleansing; with different tribes fighting each other; maiming each other, raping each other, and killing each other. Are you surprised? I was (possibly b/c I knew little of Kenyan politics pre this election, but I think I would have been surprised by the outcome regardless) When is the last time Kenya was in the news—something about increase in Americans going on Safari? Kenya was a shining jewel of democracy in Eastern Africa, in all of Africa. Their economic growth, and steps forward in development were astounding. If you visited Nairobi, the capital, you would be hard pressed to know you were in an African nation (most consider this a sign of development. My self, I LOVE that in Addis you still see sheep, donkeys, pastoralists in traditional dress, etc). But now, so much of their progress is lost. A major part of their income, tourism, has essentially dried up. This leaves thousands without jobs—and no where to turn. What would you do if 80% of the people in your town all lost their jobs, in one day; the government is in chaos so no food stamps or welfare; and now your neighbours have started fighting with each other for food and supplies? What would you do? Really—stop reading for a moment and think, what would you do? It’s a terrifying thought, isn’t it?

I DO NOT want to paint a picture of Africa in Chaos or anything. And please, to my Kenyan friends—know I love your country (I like Ethiopia more, mind you, but it’s for personal reasons) And, it is NOT like things aren’t going crazy in the US. How many public massacres happened in 2007? People, who for known and unknown reasons going crazy and shooting and killing innocent victims, is that so different from suicide bombings? I don’t think so. These people start out their rampages knowing they will be dead in the end. What about the fuel crisis? Can you afford gas? How do you think very low income families feel? What about Bush’s cutting the budget to WIC? What about all the HORRIBLE racial, religious, and other slurs being thrown around in this election?!? It’s insane. What about the weather? What about the STILL homeless people in New Orleans? What about the Farm Bill? What about the bridge collapse in Minnesota? Stories like that used to come ONLY from developing countries. Now, the US, ‘the strongest nation in the world’ has bridges collapsing? What about the collapsing housing market (I’ll be honest, as I know VERY little about financing, house buying, banking etc—I understand little of it)? How many families have been made homeless? Where do you think they are going?

I’m not trying to depress you—its just, I can’t believe that Britney Spears is more important to read about then peaceful demonstrating Monks in Burma being beaten by police and arrested. I can’t.

Okay—I will change topics. Forgive me for ranting—it’s what I do best, I suppose. I wonder if someone can make a living off of it. I think you have to be extremely intelligent in your ranting, not just very passionate like myself.

A good friend and colleague of mine is here in Ethiopia, Jim Levinson. He was my advisor in grad school, and I greatly admire his work and well, most everything about him. Whenever we are together, we get into fairly random conversations. For me it is nothing new, it’s like family meal time. My family, unbeknownst to me, is weird. We often discuss very random, historical, political, agricultural topics over dinner. Later in life, I learned that is ‘weird.’ But, back to Jim—we got into an interesting conversation about the ‘kinds of people who live abroad.’ I don’t mean Americans in France or Germans in Austria, I mean when people moved from what are described as ‘developed’ nations to ‘under-developed’ nations; like myself. We were creating different categories to put these people in, yes stereotyping and being overly simple—but nonetheless it was interesting. The first category was military and business people vs NGO/UN people. So, in theory those abroad to make money and those abroad to help. However, as beautiful as this might sound—I know this not to be true in MANY MANY circumstances. Often, business men are who can accomplish the most for a country with their savvy business skills and different approaches to unique problems. AND-the one I know more first hand, and the one that disgusts me the most, are many NGO/UN people did NOT take their job to ‘help.’ Rather, they took it for power and money. If you are willing to live in rural places, you can be given a disturbing amount of power and money to do it by NGOs/UN, and you don’t necessarily need any credentials to do it. I know high school dropouts with 30 employees under them. Its b/c they are foreign. I have met people who worked for NGOs, in charge of people’s lives, health care reform, agricultural projects etc—who merely took the job to get out of debt. See, when you live abroad—your living expenses are covered, your pay check just goes to the bank. So, if you get yourself into too much credit card debt—just sign up for 2 years abroad, make 50,000 dollars EASY (profit) and get out of debt and buy a new car!! It’s very hard for those of us not here for money to work with said people. To do this work to really do it right, you need passion and commitment. These people often don’t have it. We came up with other categories—Those interested in money and those interested in power (as described above). Also, something I doubt you would expect is those interested in integrating and those interested in shielding themselves. I think you would be surprised, but I know American, British, French, etc who live and work—possibly have for years and have NO Ethiopian friends. They know minimal amounts about the culture, religion, and politics—and they don’t care to learn anymore. IT fascinates me. How can you move to a new country and NOT want to delve into their culture, language, religion, history—etc? How? These people go to specific restaurants that are too expensive for 99% of Ethiopians, shop at expensive stores, spend the weekends at each others embassies or private schools with their kids—it is truly possible to live in a country and not be of it. Ironically, some of these same people will complain about immigrants in the US not learning English or not ‘joining the melting pot,’ per se. Yet-they live in a bubble. Somehow, they feel their culture, habits, methods are superior to this country—so why bother integrating. And, to be fair—Jim and I talked about those in that category who don’t integrate out of fear; afraid to feel. Yes, you see hard things here—you see cripples, homeless children, and death daily. If you put yourself in a bubble, possibly it won’t hurt as bad. If you just ignore it—it doesn’t exist. Then, there are those of us who could probably use a bit more of a shield—but fling are selves full force 100% into our newly adopted homes feeling the pain and joy of all of it. I prefer being this second one, and really can’t understand the others. Why they would choose that—it seems it would be more depressing. I mean, can you imagine leaving a country you lived in for a year or so and knowing nothing about it? Wouldn’t you feel bad? I mean, I feel bad I didn’t enjoy Boston more while I was there (I was in my bed, class, or the library generally). I feel I need to live there again so I can really experience life there. However, possibly I’m crazy—in the end, it was a great discussion between Jim and I and his wisdom still astounds me.

Along this same line, the concept of integration. In my limited travels, I have found the US to be the only country where one can become a citizen. What I mean is, in many countries—around the world, Europe, Asia, Africa, S.America---you can’t ever really be accepted as a citizen. You are granted rights by the government, but you are always viewed as an outsider. I know, there are people in America who treat other Americans like this-but mostly, b/c America began as a diverse country, diversity still defines us. When you have neighbours who look Asian or African, you don’t assume they are immigrants—you assume they are American. Possibly they immigrated, possibly their parents, possibly their great great great great great grandparents. It doesn’t matter. For me, I love Ethiopia. I loved India and I loved Moldova. But, no matter how long I lived in any of these countries, I will always be considered an outsider and treated differently. I could become fluent in Amharic (unlikely, but miracles happen), know the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and Islam backwards and forwards, and know all my Haille Selassie history—and STILL be an outsider. It really bothers me, and I think on it a lot. I will never understand what it’s like to be Ethiopian, but Henok will be able to experience life as an American. It’s something I can’t really change—but I have always tried to ‘walk in others shoes’ as it were, as my method of understanding. But, it has its limits. I can’t understand – here I am treated very differently b/c I am white. I get priority over Ethiopians, often when I didn’t even know they were ahead of me inline or that there was a line. People just see white skin, ask the inevitable (Are you American?), and then boom—special treatment. To be honest, and very embarrassed, it’s hard to turn down. Sometimes I don’t realize it’s happening until after its’ over. For example, I went to the bank to withdraw money from my account. It was my first time withdrawing. I filled in the form, and was given a gold coin to hold. VERY confused by the coin, I went up to another window and asked a woman about the procedure. She asked me to wait a moment. Then I realized there was a number on the coin, and there were about 25 people sitting or standing around holding coins. A red sign beeped, and I saw the number change on the sign and someone come forward. Okay, I get it—it’s my place in line. I realize I have a long haul, and start reading some of the posted material. However, shortly after the woman motioned me over and gave me my cash and sent me on my way. I was done—ahead of all those other people. Why? Probably b/c I was a lost looking foreigner. Another time, I had to get a report from the police that I have no record here. It’s a LONG process. I finally get all the paperwork done and paid, and they tell me to come on X day to pick it up. I show up to the designated area and see a line of about 100 people (it’s 8 am). STUNNED—I ask around to find someone who speaks English and learn they are all there for the same thing, making me number 101. Problem—I had a meeting one hour. As I stared dumbfounded at the crowd, a woman came from the office and took my hand. She led me to a chair and I sat down. She then processed my paperwork and let me go. So—should I have taken the moral high road and said, “NO! I am number 101. I will wait!” Or taken the kindness of this woman to a confused foreigner? Well—I took the kindness and made it to my meeting—but I think about it a lot. If Henok had been doing the same process, he would have been number 101. Is that fair? Most definitely not—but what do I do to change it? And, embarrassingly enough to admit, do I want to change it?

Okay—I know this is very long—just two more items of business and I’m done. It’s been a long time, and I saved up a lot of words for you. So—life is dirty. I mean REALLY dirty. You can’t imagine how dirty my life is. You can’t imagine the amount of dust that exists in my daily life. You can’t imagine the air I attempt to breathe daily, filthy. Think how bad the air gets in the US and THEN realize there are laws regulating that air. I know, companies break the rules etc, but it’s nothing compared to developing nations struggling to enforce environmental laws. Add on top of that fairly constant wind (not strong, but constant) and the bulk of the cities roads are not paved, rather dirt roads (or dust when it’s dry) and you have yourself a dirty dirty existence. I am FASCINATED when I wash my hands how black the water will run, when I have done nothing but walk home. The film on my face when I get home it disturbing and trust me my face is not happy about it. And, when you are standing on the side of the road, or even in your car—the literal black, thick, tangible smoke coming out of the truck in front of you is enough to induce vomiting. You see it travel, like a thick black rain cloud straight for you—waving your hands madly (as I have tried) will not dissipate it—just suck it up and breath it in!! No pun intended. This is the reason I try to NEVER be without a scarf—in these instances, I pull it to my face and breathe through until the blackness has subsided. Many people wear their scarves over their noses and mouths whenever in the street. And, this is what has driven me to conclude I need a burkha. A burkha is a type of clothing worn by some Muslim women. It is generally all black, though this is not the case in Ethiopia (I don’t know if that makes it not a burkha to be honest). It covers the women head to toe. The hijab covers their head/face and the niqab covers their eyes. Often you will see just the yes of women through slights in the hijab, but some will wear a thin niqab that covers their eyes as well. I want one. I have decided these must be the ONLY women in Addis with somewhat healthy lungs (lets not get into Vitamin D, I’m focusing on lung health). They also have healthier skin then the rest of us. I am assured by my brother Jonathan, the genius of the family and one who has studied Islam and Arabic that for me to wear one would not be offensive, just weird. As I am already considered weird, this would be no loss for me!! You think I am joking, but I am not. I would LOVE it. Aside from the health benefits, no one would know I was ferenji—thus no one would annoy me. I LOVE to walk, but walking here is not as relaxing as in the states. People see me and want to talk to me—practice their English or harass me, depending. Sometimes I just want to walk alone and be left that way—with the full burkha I could do that. Plus, I SERIOUSLY want to walk down Main Street in Salt Lake City (capital of Utah) in one. Ha Ha Ha. There, I would NOT be left alone—So, FYI you might see me in a burkha one day! Its in the name of health and sanity!!

Lastly, yes the final topic. Food. I am a nutritionist, thus food is always on my mind. I am fascinated by the culture of food; the history of it, and development of regional diets over time. How different plants came into use—how different herbs are region specific, meaning even though the herb existed in another area, it was the staple of ones diet and not the other. Why? Fascinating stuff. The nerd in me comes out when I think about it. Specifically today I want to talk about corn, coffee, and cake.
First corn: corn is the staple (corn flour) in most sub-Saharan African countries. Many countries eat the same thing, what the Italians call polenta –corn flour in hot water made thick, each country or region has its own name for this food. However, there is one big exception—Ethiopia. NO WHERE is corn in the diet (with one exception to be talked about momentarily). You go to Kenya, Sudan, etc and you see corn as a staple. Zimbabwe is the same—so why did Ethiopia NOT use it? Where did enjera come from? They grow corn here—they eat roasted corn on the cob when it’s in season, but corn flour—not happening. Why? Does anyone else find that odd? I mean, the surrounding nations rely on corn, why did Ethiopia deviate? The exception with corn is popcorn. Ethiopians LOVE LOVE LOVE popcorn. If you go to an Ethiopian restaurant, fancy or plain, big or small, they will have a large bowl of popcorn by where they make their coffee. Coffee, originating from Ethiopia is a sacred drink—don’t get between an Ethiopian and his/her coffee. Coffee beans are roasted freshly over a little charcoal stove, right there in front of you. Often, the woman in charge of this-will carry the hot pan around the restaurant to let the fragrance of the fresh roasted beans fill the air. It’s delicious. You can’t beat the smell of fresh roasted beans. No, it does NOT smell like Starbucks. Not even close. The beans are then ground, either by hand or with a little machine, and made into coffee. It is thick and strong. Most foreigners can NOT drink it straight, and must have it with milk. I have had coffee in my life, early college years I gave it a go a few times. It often tasted bitter to me. I tried coffee here—the straight black stuff. My employees had performed the coffee ceremony for me when we found out I was being deported (which was almost a year ago now!!). AS the ceremony was for me, I decided to take a sip. Amazing. Not bitter in any sense of the word—but smooth. Nice. I was very shocked, as I had prepared my tongue for what my memory had from my college days. Anyway—when you have a coffee ceremony, you make popcorn. I have asked around, and no one can tell me why—but it’s standard. So, every restaurant you go to has (free) popcorn to snack on! It’s nice.

Lastly cake: Again, another piece of Ethiopian food culture that fascinates me is their complete lack of desserts. In my VERY VERY limited knowledge (so anyone correct me if I’m wrong), Ethiopia is the only culture not to invent some dessert. They have NOTHING. NOTHING. Historically and still today, the number one dessert is fruit. You can get cakes, cookies, etc in the country now—but they are all European imports (the idea, not the actual product). It’s completely intriguing they didn’t come up with something outside of fresh mangos or pineapples for their sweet tooth. Isn’t it? I don’t know why I am so absorbed in this particular trait of the culture, but I am. Possibly b/c I have a MAJOR sweet tooth and just can’t believe a culture lived without sweets until the Europeans, Arabs, Asians, etc came and brought theirs!! The most commonly liked cake here is Black Forrest and they also love Baklava.

Well—I need to go. I have bored you enough with my randomness today. I am pretty sure this letter is choppy at best, sorry—just no time to smooth it over.

Wish you all a great February!!


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