Monday, June 9, 2014

Ambo Protests: Going back

After deciding that we wanted to leave Ethiopia, we had return to Ambo to pack our bags and say goodbye to our friends. Packing our bags turned out to be the easy part.

When we arrived back in Ambo, the destruction was still apparent, although the cleanup had already started. The burned cars were pulled to the side of the road. The debris from the damaged buildings was already being cleared. The problem, however, was that the courthouse was one of the buildings that was burned. How do they plan on having trials for those hundreds of people we saw in jail, we wondered.

We wanted to tell all our friends why we were leaving, but how could we say it? Maybe we should say, "It's not OK for the police to hunt down young people and shoot them in the back." Or maybe we should say, "It's not OK for us to have to cower in our home, listening to gunshots all day long." Or maybe we should say, "It's not OK for the government to conduct mass arrests of people who are simply voicing their opinion." Since the communication style in Oromia is BEYOND non-direct, with people afraid to really say what they mean, we knew exactly what to tell people:

"We are leaving Ambo because we don't agree with the situation," we repeated to every friend we encountered. Everyone knew EXACTLY what we were talking about.

We told our friend, a town employee, we were leaving, and he said, "Yes, there are still 500 federal police in town, two weeks after the protests ended."

We told a neighbor we were leaving, and he said, "Now there is peace in Ambo. Peace on the surface. But who knows what is underneath?"

We told a teacher at the high school we were leaving, and she was wearing all black. "Maal taate? (What happened)" we asked. One of her 10th grade students was killed during the protests.

We told the local store owner we were leaving, and she said, in an abnormally direct way, "When there is a problem, your government comes in like a helicopter to get you out. Meanwhile, our government is killing its own people."

After a traditional bunna (coffee) ceremony, and several meals with some of our favorite friends, we were the proud owners of multiple new Ethiopian outfits, given as parting gifts so we would 'never forget Ethiopia.'

How could we forget?

We still don't know exactly who died during the protests and the aftermath. It's not like there is an obituary in the newspaper or something. But questions persist in our minds every day:

  • Our two young, dead neighbors remain faceless in our minds...was it the tall one with the spiky hair?
  • Students from the high school were killed...had any of the victims been participants of our HIV/soccer program?
  • What about that good-looking bus boy that is always chewing khat and causing he alive? in jail?
  • How many people were killed? How many arrested?
  • If we knew the exact number of people killed or arrested, would it actually help the situation in any way?

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Ambo Protests: Spying the Spy?

After the protests and violence in Ambo, we fled to the capital city of Addis Ababa and stayed at a
little hotel called Yilma. Immediately, we started telling everyone about what happened in Ambo. We called and texted our friends, we talked to anyone at the hotel that would listen, and we posted things on Facebook. If we tell everyone about the protesters in Ambo being imprisoned and killed, surely it will stop, we reasoned.

The next day, two strange men - one tall with dark skin, the other short with lighter skin - struck up a conversation with us in the hotel restaurant.

"We're from Minnesota, here to visit our family in Wollega," they said.
"Oh, we're from St. Paul!" we replied, excited.
"Oh, we're from St. Paul, too!" they said, pulling out a fake-looking Minnesota driver's license.

The address said Worthington, not St. Paul.

"How long have you lived in St. Paul?' we asked.
"Yes." the tall man said, nervously.
"I long have you lived in St. Paul?" we said, slower.
"Just 2 weeks."
"And you're already back in Ethiopia. And you just drove through Ambo, past all the protests and the police, to visit your family in Wollega?" we asked, thinking about the single paved road that heads west through Ambo.
"Yes." he replied.
"You must be very brave," we said, thinking about how the road was closed due to the violence.
"Why?" he asked, baiting us with a stoic face.

We froze, afraid to speak further. At that moment, after 20 months in Ethiopia, we finally understood why so many people in Oromia are afraid of spies. When we first arrived in Ambo, people thought WE were C.I.A. spies, which we found amusing...spies who couldn't even speak the language? If we had been spies, we certainly weren't very good at our job. But now, the tables were turned.

The two men began following us around the hotel area, sitting next to us whenever possible, walking slowly past our table, then returning slowly past our table - sometimes up to 10 times per hour. A different man followed us to a restaurant about a mile from the hotel, then sat at the closest table to ours, rudely joining a young couple's romantic dinner.

For the next three days, we stopped telling people about the protests and the imprisonments and the killings in Ambo. We were afraid that the two men would be listening. We were afraid that someone was monitoring our communications on the government-controlled cell phone service and the government-controlled internet. Were we just paranoid? Were we really being monitored? Maybe we had just integrated too much, to the point where we had become Oromo, afraid of government spies and afraid of speaking out and being put in jail. While being ferenji (foreigners) gave us some level of protection, thoughts of the Swedish journalists thrown into an Ethiopian jail in 2011 lingered in the backs of our minds. The journalists "were only doing their jobs, and human rights group Amnesty International said the journalists had been prosecuted for doing legitimate work." Did we seem just as suspicious to the government as those Swedish journalists? We didn't want to find out.

Peace Corps gave all the volunteers strict instructions NOT to blog or post on Facebook about the protests or killings across Oromia. It is just too dangerous to say anything about the Ethiopian government, they pointed out.

That's when we decided to leave Ethiopia. For us, staying in Ambo, not ruffling any feathers, was not an option. How could we go back and pretend that our neighbors, students, and and fellow residents didn't die or didn't end up in prison?

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Ambo Protests: A Personal Account

Barricade on main road in Ambo
Disclaimer:  We are no longer Peace Corps Volunteers, and the following is a personal story, not a news report, and does not reflect the views of the U.S. Government, the Peace Corps, the Ethiopian Government, or the people of Ambo.

Friday, April 25th, the protests began in Ambo. We heard the sounds of a big crowd gathering at the university, walking east, yelling and chanting. The single paved road in town was barricaded, and traffic was diverted around the outskirts of town.

“What is going on?” we asked a group of high school boys.

“Oh, the students are angry. They have some problem,” they responded. 

We called some friends at the university, who were able to explain further. Apparently, there are expansion plans for Addis Ababa, which would displace poor Oromo farmers and considerably shrink the size of the Oromia region. Justifiably, many Oromo people were upset. The Ethiopian Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of speech, press, and assembly, so demonstrations started across Oromia, mainly in towns with universities. Some of the protests turned violent.

Saturday, Sunday, and Monday were quiet, somewhat normal days in the town of Ambo. However, in other parts of Ethiopia, journalists and bloggers were arrested and thrown in jail.

Main road in Ambo, cars & buildings being burned
Tuesday morning, the protests resumed. Friends in town called us to warn us not to go into work and not to leave our compound. Apparently there were protests at the preparatory school and the federal police were in town. We stayed home all day, listening to the sounds of the protests, denying to ourselves that the ‘pop, pop, pop’ we heard in the afternoon was gunfire. That night, the government-run news station reported that there was a misunderstanding between Oromo university students and the government. Other online reports said that the protestors were defending the Oromo’s right to their land.

Wednesday morning, the protests resumed, and our friends emphasized NOT to leave the house and NOT to answer our front gate. This time, we heard sirens. Ambo only has one ambulance - no police cars or fire trucks - and it wasn’t the normal noise. Again, we heard the ‘pop, pop, pop,’ every few minutes. We poked our heads out of the compound gate and talked to our neighbor, who confirmed that they were, in fact, gun shots. Neighbors said the federal police had already shot and killed demonstrators who were participating in the protest. As we were finishing our conversation, a group of at least 30 adults ran past, glancing nervously behind themselves as they ran.

Maalif fiigtu? (Why are you running?)” I shouted.

Poliisii as dhufu! (The police are coming here!)” a man responded, ducking behind a corner.

An hour later, we headed to the nearest store to stock up on phone cards so we could put minutes on our cell phones and data on our internet device. The storekeeper is a tough older lady who doesn’t tolerate any nonsense.

“Maal taate? (What happened?)” we asked.

She paused, looking down at her hands, her eyes welling with tears.

“Hara’aa….sirrii miti, (Today… not right)” she said, fighting back tears.

Ironically, as we sat at home, listening to gunshots all day long, John Kerry was visiting Ethiopia, a mere 2 hours away in Addis Ababa, to encourage democratic development.

Around 3pm, while the sounds of the protests were far on the east side of town, we heard gunshots so close to our house that we both ducked reflexively. An hour later, we talked to a young man who said, numbly, “I carried their bodies from their compound to the clinic.” Our two young neighbors – university students – had been hunted down by the federal police and killed in their home while the protest was on the opposite side of town. 

Other friends told us other violent stories of what was going on in town, including an incident at a bank. Apparently, students attempted to enter the bank, and one was shot by the police. Not being armed with weapons, protesters retaliated against the shooter by hanging him.

Another friend told us about 2 students who were shot and killed by the federal police in front of a primary school…again, far away from the protest.

Wednesday night, we slept fitfully, listening to the sounds of the federal police coming around our neighborhood. They were yelling over a bullhorn in Amharic, which we didn’t understand, but was later translated for us: “Stay inside your compound tonight and tomorrow.”

Thursday, the bus station was closed and there weren't any cars on the roads. That morning, a Peace Corps driver finally came to get us, looking terrified as he pulled up quickly to our house. We had to stop at the police station to get permission to leave town. While waiting at the station, we saw at least 50 people brought into the station at gunpoint, some from the backs of military trucks and many from a bus. Inside the police compound, there were hundreds of demonstrators overflowing the capacity of the prison, many of them visibly beaten and injured. After the U.S. Embassy requested our release, we headed out of town. The entire east side of town, starting from the bus station, was damaged. A bank, hotel, cafĂ©, and many cars were damaged or burned. Our driver swerved to avoid the charred remains of vehicles sitting in the middle of the street. 

We couldn't help but shed tears at the sight of our beloved, damaged town. 

One of several vehicles burned during the protests

Our favorite restaurant/gym, damaged
Large truck overturned during the protests

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Original Rastafari

Old coin featuring Haile Selassie
The term ‘Rastafarian’ often conjures up images of marijuana, Bob Marley, Jamaica, and maybe even Snoop Dog. It should, however, conjure images of Ethiopia!

Haile Selassie, who was emperor of Ethiopia from the 1930s to 1970s, was known to some as Ras (head) Teferi (respected one). Some Ethiopian Christians saw him as the second coming of Jesus Christ and was therefore worshipped in a similar fashion. While Selassie did not claim to be the 2nd Jesus Christ, he did claim to be related to King Solomon, which could make him a distant relative of Jesus.

At the 1930 coronation, Haile Selassie was crowned the ‘King of Kings, Elect of God, and the Conquering Lion of the Tribe Judah.’  A few Jamaicans, who were in Ethiopia at the time, linked Haile Selassie with certain statements from the book of Revelations, and returned home to spread the word.
'Lion of Judah' in a bajaj, or 3-wheeled taxi

Say the term ‘Rastafarian’ to an Ethiopian, and they will respond ‘Shashemene.’ The town Shashemene, just south of Addis, was donated by Haile Selassie to the movement in the 1950s. Today, many Rastas live there, and there is even a Rasta museum. Some Rastas view the area as Zion, or the promised land. Our Lonely Planet tour book views the area as “a strong contender for the least-attractive-town-in-Ethiopia award.” Most Peace Corps Volunteers view it as a transfer point on public buses and a good place to have your phone or wallet stolen.

Rastas in Ethiopia generally lead a simple lifestyle. They only eat fresh foods and reject red meat or packaged foods. Many Ethiopians in our community are Orthodox Christian or Protestant Christian, so they generally scorn the Rasta lifestyle. They don’t like the long dreadlocks, saying they are dirty or lice-infested.
Rastafari painter

Our favorite bajaj (3-wheeled taxi) driver in Ambo is Yoseph, one of the few Rastas in town. We originally bonded over a mutual love for singing along with Shania Twain music. When we first met, he had the traditional dreadlocks, which he shaved when his grandmother died a few months ago. Every time he sees us walking through town, he slams on the brakes and greets us from the middle of the road, stopping traffic and making his passengers wait while he asks about our day, our families, and the weather condition. He has promised to teach us how to drive his bajaj, so stay tuned for that blog post!

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Arba Minch Has All

Our two dear friends recently came to visit us in Ethiopia, so we decided to take a road trip down south, an area we had not yet explored. While Northern Ethiopia is better equipped to handle tourism, Southern Ethiopia is more….umm….’authentic.’ There is, however, a satisfying mixture of cultures, wildlife, and scenery.

After an all-day drive on unfinished roads, we arrived at the aptly-named Paradise Lodge in Arba Minch.  The view was gorgeous. Overlooking lakes Chamo and Abaya, as well as Nechisar National Park. This is one of the few areas in Ethiopia where you can still spot huge crocodiles, hippopotamus, zebra, dik-dik, kudu, gazelle, and a huge variety of bird life.

For about $15 per person, we took a boat tour across the lake, then a walking safari in the national park, complete with an armed guard. Despite the glaring heat, it was incredible to walk alongside herds of zebra, who paused occasionally to stare at us, staring at them.

We hired a local guide, an honest-to-goodness Rastafarian, to show us the cultural aspect of the area. He took us outside of Arba Minch, high up on a mountain, where the Dorze tribe lives. Famous for their weaving skills, the women spin the cotton by hand, then the men weave, using a foot-powered, complicated-looking loom. Most still live in their traditional beehive-shaped huts, which sometimes have the face of an elephant.

At the village, we sampled bread made from false banana roots, chased it with locally-made arake moonshine, and haggled for colorful handmade scarves. Our Rastafarian guide even proposed to our friend, hours after meeting her. “My brother has a fereji (foreign) wife,” he cajoled.

So, we can say with confidence that Arba Minch truly has it all: endangered animals, gorgeous views, unique cultures, and convincing marriage proposals.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

“Are you sure these handicapped people can learn?”

Several months ago – too many to count – we spoke with the Dean of the local Technical-Vocational Training College. When we asked if he could accommodate a short-term training for adults with disabilities, he readily obliged, saying that Ethiopians with disabilities are his brothers and his sisters.

Weeks later, when we were ready to start the training, we talked to the teachers, who were clueless about everything. We told them that the dean of the college had already approved the idea, and that conducting a training for their fellow community members was the right thing to do. After all, people with disabilities in Ethiopia face so many struggles.

“Are you sure these handicapped people can learn?” asked the teachers.

“Yes, of course they can learn. Most of them use a crutch to walk, but they can stand, they can use their hands to work with wood or metal, and they can definitely learn,” we replied.

“Well, OK. We will write a lesson plan. Come back next week,” the teachers said.

We returned the next week, only to have the exact same conversation. Maybe they had forgotten everything we said? We planned to return the next week, to give them time to prepare the lesson plan.

We return the next week, only to have THE EXACT SAME CONVERSATION. Again, we planned to return the next week, to give them time to prepare the lesson plan.

We return the next week, and the next week, and the next week, and…well, you get the idea. 

Three months later, the training began, although the teachers decided that it should be held at the old campus, about 2 miles outside of town. Eight brave people with various physical disabilities joined the training. Some were amputees (with and without prostheses), some had polio or cerebral palsy or uncorrected clubfoot. 

All of them walked (or crutched) the 2+ miles to the training every day for over 2 months.

We were the only ones to complain about the distance.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Top 5 Things To Do in Harar, Ethiopia

We’re only posting the top 5 things to do in Harar because, well, there aren’t many more things to do. Here it goes:

1.      Feed the hyenas
The so-called ‘Hyena Man’ calls the hyenas just outside the walls of the city at dusk. It is worth the trip just to hear him call the creatures. He yells the hyena’s names (yes, he has given them names) at the top of his lungs, in Amharic, “Tiny, Tiny, won’t you come here, Tiny?” Finally, ‘Tiny’ shows up, and is a large, skittish hyena with a fat, round belly. Clearly, she comes for the feeding every single night. For 50 birr per person (about $2.60), you can feed the hyenas some raw meat using a stick – which, in my opinion, should be a longer stick, considering the strength of the hyena’s jaw. They can crunch through bones with that jaw! Hyena Man may even encourage you to place the stick in your mouth, and let the monstrous ‘Tiny’ eat from there.

2.       ‘Tour’ the Harar Coffee Factory. 
Admittedly, this isn’t much of a ‘tour,’ per se, but you can walk into a tiny building to see and smell where the world-renowned Harar coffee is roasted, ground, and packaged, all while wondering if the employees wash their hands. You know you’re close to the factory when you see a big mosque and the smell of the coffee overwhelms all other senses.

3.       Feed Avoid the hawks. 
For 10 birr (.50 cents), one of the camel meat vendors will let you feed scraps to the hawks, who are patiently waiting for any opportunity. I’m not sure if hawks can see color, but they sure seem to perk up when the foolish ferenji (foreigners) show up. Their eyesight and accuracy is truly amazing – just missing people’s head by a few centimeters as they swoop down aggressively towards their small chunk of camel meat.

4.       Forgive someone in the Street of Reconciliation. Although all the streets of Harar are narrow, this one beats them all. It is so narrow that if you try to pass someone you are quarreling with, you can’t do it without reconciling your differences.

5.       Get busy in a traditional Adare house. 

There are still many traditional-style decorated houses within the walls of the city. The main rooms have plenty of seating (on the floor) so visitors can lounge and chew chat, a stimulant that comes in the form of fresh, foul-tasting leaves. The walls are jam-packed with colorful bowls, baskets, and other useful kitchenware. Just off the main room lies the ‘honeymoon room,’ a tiny, dark space…wonder what they do there?