Monday, May 21, 2012

Ruminations on Ethiopia

I am currently slowly making my way back to America, stopping off to visit several friends along the way.  My first stop was Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to visit a new friend that is the principal of an international school there.  I was only there for a few days, 2 of which I spent helping out at school, but that was still plenty of time for a few adventures and some random thoughts.

- If you haven’t flown internationally, you should give it a try, particularly in Asia and Africa.  My flight from Nairobi to Addis was only 2 hours and I still got a full breakfast.  Also of note, Ethiopian Airlines has excellent radio stations.  Egypt Air does not.

- As a general rule, people in Addis Ababa were incredibly helpful.  So many strangers went so far out of their way to make sure I got where I was going, which was really good because…

- …it’s very difficult to get around Addis as a foreigner.  Seriously, streets are not labeled well and the minibus system is really confusing if you can’t read or speak Amharic.  (It’s so hard!  ‘Thank you’ is so many syllables long!)  On my first day, I took one 20 minute minibus ride to get from Joyce’s house into downtown.  To get home I took 3 minibuses, walked several blocks and, after an hour and a half, finally gave up and just took a cab for the last bit. 

- Apparently elementary school is my natural environment.  I spent one day helping out in first grade and within an hour or two I was correcting kids, creating/giving a math assessment and making a plan for the work I would get done during my break. 

- If you ask one guy about something on a map, you’ll soon have every man in the area peering over your shoulder to have a gander and put in their two cents.  I’m not sure if this has more to do with what appears to be men’s innate love of maps or the fact that they were banned in Ethiopia until not that long ago, thanks to the Russians helping the country be communist briefly during the 70’s and 80’s. 

- The food is cheap and the coffee delicious.  Though, personally, I am not sold on the amount of traditional dishes that include raw meat.  I’m willing to give that a go once, but I’m just not sure I need to push my luck repeatedly. 

- Despite being neighbors, culturally, Ethiopia and Kenya are worlds apart.  Ethiopia has a very long history of influence from the Egyptian/Arabic/Ottoman north that really shows in their culture. 

In between lending a hand at school and pretending like I could actually get places, I managed to hit up a couple museums where I saw the remains of some of the oldest humanoids discovered thus far as well as some very interesting prehistoric animals.  I had never considered how different they would be from North American prehistoric animals.  I also got to see inside an Orthodox cathedral, which was not at all what I expected – much more functional than beautiful.  A huge thanks to Joyce for being such a lovely host – I had a great time catching up with her.  Until next time!
Mock-up bones of Lucy (I'm pretty sure the real ones are still on tour)
St. George Orthodox Cathedral

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Last Day in Kakuma

My last day in the refugee camp was a Sunday and William, my host from LWF, was kind enough to walk me around the camp.  We started the morning at the Burundi Pentecostal Church, which was so much fun.  Everyone was singing and dancing and praising the Lord.  It was great to see so much joy under one roof. 
Burundi Pentecostal Church
In the afternoon we went on a walk through the Ethiopian and Somali sections of the camp.  As we were walking I timidly asked if it would be possible to see inside someone’s house.  William responded by telling me that Mama Phyllis had just called and invited him to a wedding and would I like to go to the wedding and see the house?  Umm, yes, please. 

Mama Phyllis turned out to be quite possibly the biggest character I have met thus far in Africa.  She was a very large woman with a presence to match.  She commands the men in a man’s world.  We picked her up from her home and went with her to the wedding.

Father of the Bride, Me, Mama Phyllis
The actual ceremony was finished but everyone was still celebrating.  They led us into the house and sat us down on a low cushion couch as a fresh rug was brought in for the floor.  Then, almost by magic, a coffee table appeared, followed by several pots of fake flowers.  One of the young men was sent to get sodas and water for the visitors and we proceeded to sit with Mama Phyllis and the father of the bride, joking and talking.

As it turns out, Mama Phyllis has been a major driving force for peace in her home community, as well as in the camp.  In the past she was invited to the States by the UN as an advocate for peace.  When I met her she had just come up for resettlement and was looking forward to moving to Minnesota.

In the midst of the conversation, a man came in with a huge platter of bread and cooked goat liver for us.  It was amazing.  One of the best meat dishes I have ever eaten.  The thing that really struck me about it, though, was the level of hospitality.  For people who have so little, they were willing to give so much.

2 girls watching the dancing
We finished off our day by heading to the Sudanese section of the camp to watch the traditional dancing of the Dinka tribe, which happens every Sunday evening.  Watching all of the people there, particularly the children, I couldn’t get over their uncanny resemblance to the kids I taught in Houston.  It was crazy to look at them and see my former students, and I appreciated being able to place them in both contexts.  To know that this is where they’ve come from and then to think of them trying to make it in America dramatically increased my level of compassion.

All in all, I’d consider it a pretty successful last day.  Thanks to everyone at LWF that made my visit possible, especially Winnie and William for showing me around!

If you are interested in looking at the 100 or so pictures I took while I was there, you can look at them here.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Lessons Learned from a Refugee Camp

Talking with the young adults in the camp, I was again reminded of how arbitrary much of a culture can be.  It’s hard to see it when you are living it; it’s not until you take a step back and try to explain it to someone with essentially no shared background that you realize how strange your customs can be.  I feel as though I have this experience often as I travel around and it always surprises and humbles me before putting things back into perspective and extending my compassion.  In this particular instance, I was answering questions about how the American education system works.  The youth couldn't understand a system where age carries so more weight than skill level when determining classes, which, if you ask me, isn't an unreasonable argument.  I can see both sides (though I would tend to side more with the refugees to some degree). 

Cultural differences aside, life in Kakuma is difficult.  Over and over I heard about a lack of resources.  Youth talked about not being able to go to school for lack of space, foster parents lamented their ability to get enough clothing and otherwise support their children.  The camp helps to meet these basic needs, but there is never enough to give everything to everyone in the endless stream of refugees pouring in.  And, just as in any society, the people here face a variety of social pressures.  Youth are teased for being different or coming up for resettlement before their friends.  Foster parents are discriminated against socially and sometimes passed over for resettlement because of the difficulties in resettling a family with a foster child. 

Throughout all of these conversations, I felt like the most important word here was hope.  The hope of getting out someday, either returning home or going to a new country, is what carried everyone forward each day.  Without that, I think it would be too difficult.  That said, many had a relatively positive perspective on their current situation.  Those that remembered living through conflict recognized that being here was better than being there.  At least in Kakuma they aren’t hiding in the bush starving, constantly running.  Here they are safe and have steady food.  It’s not home, and nothing is ever as good as home, but at least it’s safe.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

[Several times while I was in Kakuma Refugee Camp, I was asked for advice from refugees awaiting resettlement.  They wanted to know what they could be doing in the camp to prepare themselves for their new lives.  I had a hard time coming up with ideas.  How do you prepare yourself to move from a mud hut in the edges of Kenya to a modern city in the West?  This is my complete stab in the dark at useful advice.]

Advice to a Refugee

As you await your resettlement, the most important thing I can tell you, is to practice English as much as you can.  I can’t stress it enough.  This will be the key to opportunity.  The better your English, the more options you will have in your new home for school, for jobs, for friends.

My next best piece of advice is to cultivate a willingness in yourself to try new things.  Go to other groups in the camp, try the food, find out their customs.  This way, when you get to a new country, you will be used to new and unusual flavors and ideas.  The more things you are open to, the easier it will be to embrace the culture of your new home and start your new life.

Finally, know that it won’t be easy.  I don’t say that to be discouraging.  I actually think that having an accurate expectation will make it easier.  Just know that arrival is not the end of the journey.  There is still much to be done once you get here.  The opportunities will be there, but it will be up to you to seek them out and make them happen.  And of course you can and you will, because you have already made it this far.  

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Visit to a Refugee Camp

One of the things that I wanted to do before I left Kenya was to visit one of the refugee camps in the northern part of the country.  A large portion of the students that I worked with in Houston were refugees from various countries in Africa.  Many of them had only known life in a refugee camp before they came to the States.  This created an interesting behavioral dynamic that I sometimes had a hard time handling.  I wanted to at least see what life was like in a camp, so that, hopefully, I'll be able to relate better to future refugees that I work with.

The way things worked out, I was able to spend about 3 days in Kakuma Refugee camp, near the Sudanese border.  I am in no way suggesting that this is even close to enough time to really understand what it is like for the people who live there.  I am also not suggesting that the camp I visited is like every other camp.  I have no idea how representative it is.   That said, I do think it was a worthwhile visit and being there did allow me some perspective and interesting insight into the lives of the displaced.

In order to get there, I did some research to find out which organizations were working in the camp and managed to find a fairly comprehensive list of acronyms.  So I googled each one and sent out emails to any organization with an accessible email address explaining who I was and why I wanted to visit the camp.  A couple weeks after I had given up on hearing back from any of them, I got an email from the Lutheran World Federation saying that they would be happy to help me out with my visit.

LWF helped get me on the UNHCR flight and shuttle from Nairobi to the camp, which is basically in the middle of nowhere.  From the tiny tiny airport in Lokichoggio, we had about a 2 hour drive (with an armed convoy) through essentially open wilderness to the town and the camp.  LWF also hosted me in one of their guesthouses, set up opportunities for me to meet with some of the refugees and showed me around the camp.  I wouldn't have been able to do much without their help.

Kakuma is huge.  It currently houses about 80,000 refugees.  It is separated into different communities, largely based on ethnic origin, and each community has leaders that help deal with the day to day running of the community.  Residents and locals are allowed to come and go as they please (though residents can't go farther than 10km) but by 6pm residents must be back in their communities and locals must be out of the camp.  Apparently there is a lot of commerce that happens between the locals and the refugees.  I was amazed at how developed the communities were.  Each one seemed to have its own shops, restaurants, hairdressers, etc.  I had expected to find nothing but temporary homes in tents and huts.
Shops on the main road in the Somalian community.
Several homes

I had told LWF before I left that I was most interested in the lives of youth and families in the camp, so they set up several meetings for me with various groups including a group of junior high/high school youth, a few unaccompanied minors, and a large group of foster parents.  They also showed me the reception center, where refugees first come when they arrive at the camp, as well as some of the youth and cultural programs that were happening within the camp.  I had a really interesting time talking with my LWF hosts and the different groups to find out about life in the camp.
Girls in remedial classes during spring break - there has been a lot of emphasis on helping girls in the past few years.

This is the first home a family receives when they arrive.  They stay here for 2 weeks before they are moved to  a more permanent home.  

Overall, I felt like I had a very successful visit.  Three days is not nearly enough to really understand the life that the refugees lead, but I feel like I got a good sampling of what it's like.  It was very eye-opening to see people that reminded me of my former students and their parents in a context outside of Western society. I feel like I have a much better understanding of their frame of reference when arriving in America.  Which is good, seeing as that was the point of the trip and it seems like a valuable insight, especially given that I'd like to do more work with refugees in the future.
The Dinka Tribe (from South Sudan) still practices their cultural dancing every Sunday evening.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Last Days in Mombasa

The last few weeks have been a bit…manic.  My last few weeks in Mombasa were spent finishing up the first term with my kids, saying hello and goodbye to fellow volunteers and revamping some training materials.  There was also, of course, the mad dash to leave as much curriculum help as I possibly could, to get everyone by until I can get back and really put it all together.  It’s really hard to be gone for so long!

I told my kids just a couple weeks before I left that I would be gone for 2 and a half months, but I would be back in July.  This news was met with varying reactions.  Standard 8 whined that it would be boring without me (I’m assuming that they are referring to my more interactive lessons and not the fact that I’m pretty sure they constantly laugh internally at my absurdity), Standard 7 was upset with me and Standard 6 essentially shrugged their shoulders and said, “Whatevs” (they are pretty used to volunteers coming and going).  Actually saying goodbye to them on my last day proved to be a bit more anticlimactic than I expected, with the exception of one or two students in Standard 7, who responded to my friendly goodbye with outright hostility.  One of them just looked at me and said, “I won’t miss you.”  That’s ok, J, I understand.  I’ll still miss you.

For my last night in Mombasa, we went out to our favorite Western cafĂ©, where I ate a ridiculous amount of chocolate cake (it had to be done).  I also got my certificate for successful completion of my volunteership, which includes a crash introductory course in TEFL.  I found the certificate a bit ironic considering the fact that I had just spent the previous week completely rewriting, giving and training other staff in the training program that I was now officially certificated in. 

I left Mombasa 2 weeks ago and now life is just travel and relax until I get home at the end of May.  I’m not going to say much about my travels here because the coming week will, hopefully, be filled with posts about everything.  I have quite a lot to say already.  So far, though, it’s been a generally enjoyable 2 weeks and I’m looking forward to getting to Greece, catching up with Kersten and settling in.  Cheers!