I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while. I’ve been back in the States for about a month and a half now, and I guess I’ve just been pre-occupying myself with other things. It’ll be a little strange to readers to see a jump between contacting me in Ethiopia and the dreaded ‘ETing’ post. I actually wrote several posts while I was at site, had almost no Internet access in country. When I did, it was limited and slow, so I spent most of my Internet time checking my email or facebook. If I wasn’t doing this, then I was trying to catch up on a month’s worth of news as I also had very little access to English language news stations. I’ve debated putting some of these posts up after the fact. I may still do it, but for now I guess I owe you all an explanation for why I find myself back home.
ETing is never an easy decision; you put so much into the process of getting into Peace Corps from the months of desperately waiting by the phone or inbox (or both), to getting ready to leave, and everything in between. For me, the hardest part was just getting on the damn plane in Atlanta. When you’re waiting around in the American airport, knowing that this is the last time for a long time that you’ll be on American soil, it all hits home: the gravity of what you’re about to do. You’re leaving everything that you know and love behind. Standing in this place that has no other purpose but transition, you call everyone you know and hear their voices for what feels like the last time. Then you hope to pass out on the plane. When you wake up, you’re in a new place and the transition has really begun.
But this post isn’t about a plane flight. It just starts there. What happened next was exhilarating and frustrating; painful, and amazing. I made wonderful friends along the way and got to do some crazy things, but at the end of the day I was drowning. This could be a very long post, as there was no single thing that drove me home. There were many things that pilled on each other that made staying impossible. I’ll give you all a few examples, though, and explain why I made the decision to leave.
A lot of it started with training. I was going through my own set of problems; problems that are common to many PCV’s. I wasn’t unique, though for some reason I was treated that way by the office. I cried in public once or twice, which again wasn’t unusual. I had left a boyfriend that I loved, and I was having some problems with other volunteers. This was compounded with the sheer stress of moving to a place like Ethiopia. It would get overwhelming at times.
The first incident happened on the Fourth of July when I spent the night at a volunteer’s house rather than going home to my host family. I had told them days in advance and they were totally fine with it. I didn’t realize that though Peace Corps had been telling us to not go home by ourselves after dark, this only applies to volunteers, _not_ trainees. It got back to my PST Coordinator, and he pulled me out of my language class to basically threaten me with sending me home. I had no idea that what I had done was wrong. In fact, I thought I was doing the responsible thing as my host family lived 1.5 miles away, and we had a lot of hyenas on our street. Fun fact: hyenas are man-eaters! Yeah… so this was part of the reason that I didn’t want to go home by myself in the dark. I explained this to my PST Coordinator and told him that had I known that I wasn’t supposed to do this, I would’ve gone home instead of spending the night at the PCV’s. I was so shocked that I was a little teary-eyed about it. He accepted my apology and told me that if something like this happened again, he’d have to write a report and send it to the Country Director to “make a decision,” which was a veiled threat.
All of this got back to my PCMO, so he decided to have a little sit-down with me. I was exhausted that day because I hadn’t slept for a few nights due to the dog barking directly outside my window night after night. The stupid animal had this uncanny ability to know right when I was drifting back to sleep and right at that moment he would start barking again, scaring the shit out of me. So, when my PCMO found me to have our talk, I had my head down on a table taking a nap while everyone else was out having lunch. This is apparently super odd in Ethiopian culture, so he thought I was depressed rather than sleeping. I think that was the first 20 minutes of solid sleep that I had had in 3 nights, too.
We start talking, and he asks me if I’m doing OK. I told him that aside from the cold I was dealing with and the lack of sleep, I felt like I was doing fine. He then tells me that he’s had a few reports about me crying in public (which is totally taboo in Ethiopian culture – also didn’t know this until that moment), and he was concerned about it. I told him, yeah, I was stressed about some of the stuff that I had been dealing with, but it’s nothing to be concerned about. The next thing that he said was incredibly shocking and painful. He said, “You don’t have any friends! Doesn’t that bother you??”
I didn’t really know what to say. First off, I did have a lot of friends, they just happened to be at other host family sites. Second, just because of the way that I’m built, I know that there are some people that I have a hard time getting along with. It’s not that I get into fights with these people, I just don’t really know what to say to them. These also happened to be the majority of the 10 PCT’s at my host family site. To me, that is not a problem as, like I said, there were plenty of other people in our group that I got along with really well. Finally, I was more successful in integrating into the Ethiopian culture at my host family site than any of the other PCT’s. I had a lot of Ethiopian friends. I literally couldn’t walk down the street without bumping into a few people that I knew really well, which wasn’t the case for anyone else at my host family site. So to me, I was succeeding in my job.
I explained this to my PCMO, and told him that I’m comfortable with my friend situation. He seemed to be cool with this, and told me that he just wanted to talk to me about it before someone else with decision-making power came up to me to let me know I wasn’t going to be sworn in. He also mentioned that a few people in the office had been trying to figure out if I should be sworn in at all. Honestly, I didn’t understand what has happening, and why we were having this conversation. I was shocked, exhausted and deeply hurt. I still don’t know why I was singled out in this way, as I was not doing anything wrong, nor was I acting any different than any other volunteer. That night I got a raging stomach ache due to the stress of it all, and spent most of the night on the phone with friends and my APCD.
I would like to note here that my APCD was an amazing person. She talked to me well into the night, and she was equally shocked that this was happening to me, as no one had talked to her about it. To her mind, I was acting no different then any other volunteer, and she didn’t know why I was being singled out, either. She told me to keep her informed and if I needed any help, I could contact her at any time. It was a very hard night.
Fast-forward two months. I made it to swearing in, despite spending the night at an Ethiopian hospital a day before with a very bad case of dysentery. I made it to site, and was welcomed by my counterpart’s girlfriend and everyone else on the compound (my counterpart was off in another town for about a month or two going to classes). I got along with everyone on my compound very well. I honestly thought they were amazing people, and my counterpart’s girlfriend quickly became my best friend in town. However, I was living in a truck-stop town in a region that is notoriously guarded against outsiders. Integrating into life there was much more difficult than at my host family site. Almost right away I was dealing with physical harassment. We were warned during training that we would deal with a lot of verbal harassment, and I had already dealt with some of that at my host family site, but it was the physical harassment that was hard to handle.
There was something new happening every week. One of the first incidents happened after I’d been at site for a week or two. I was walking with my counterpart’s girlfriend, Almaz, and her cousin, Helen, to a shop to get wicks for her portable stove. As we were walking, a guy with a bamboo stick came up behind us and shoved his hand between me and Almaz and started making the universal “give me money” sign. We told him several times that we didn’t have any money, yet he wouldn’t go away. He started tapping me on the shoulder and saying “frengi, birr sitching,” – foreigner, give me money. Again, I told him “birr yellegnem,” – I don’t have any money, but then added “hed! Hed!” -go away! Go away! He apparently didn’t like this answer, so he smacked me over the head with his bamboo stick and ran. I chased after him, yelled at him not to touch me, and threw a few swears at him. A lot of Americans will think this is the wrong reaction, but I had been told more than once by habasha (Ethiopians) that if someone does something to you, then you should humiliate them. This didn’t work the way I thought it would, and instead of people getting mad at the guy for hitting me with a stick, they all started laughing and mocking me. After leaving the store, I got several other people coming up to me asking for money and trying to get me to flip out. It was not fun.
There was another incident where I got groped by an old man. My town had another PCV that had been there for almost 2 years at that point. When I got to site, she was in the States to see her sister’s wedding, so I spent time with her counterpart, Fatima. She was walking me down to Samantha’s boy’s home that was under construction when this old man comes up to us and started shacking my hand. It was a little difficult to tell if he was being friendly or aggressive, as he wasn’t smiling and seemed to have an angry look on his face. He invited us in for coffee, but Fatima said no, we shouldn’t in because he’s a little crazy. So we left, saw her boy’s home, and forgot about it. We were having a lot of fun goofing around on our walk back when the same old guy came back up to us and grab my hand again. This time he wouldn’t let go, even though I started pulling away. He was trying to drag us into his house, saying he’d hosted the Chinese and they gave him the weird hat that he was wearing. It was _very aggressive_, and I felt very threatened. As I was trying to pull away, he pulled me closer and grabbed my chest. Hard. At this point, Fatima shoved herself between the man and me and pushed him off. She told him that she was going to get the cops.
She then turns me around and we got a Bajaj (a Bajaj is basically a motorized rickshaw). She told the Bajaj driver what happened and that she wanted to go to the police. The guy said it really sucked, but the police couldn’t do anything about it because we didn’t grab the guy and bring him down to the station. Yes, folks, that’s how it works in Ethiopia. If you’re attacked, you have to grab your attacker, make him stand with you while you wait for a Bajaj, and bring him down to the police station yourself. Otherwise, well, they didn’t see it, so what are they going to do about it? So Fatima asked me if I wanted to go back and get him. My American readers will understand why I said, ah… no. The last thing I wanted to do was confront this guy again by myself and try to convince him to get in a Bajaj with me to go to the police station. So we went home instead.
There were several more incidents like this of varying degrees of violence. I didn’t report any of it to my APCD because I had gotten the impression that if I said anything, I’d be seen as a whiner. After what I’d gone through in training, I didn’t really trust my office either. So I just sucked it up and told myself that this was just part of life at site, and I was expected to adapt to it. About two weeks before I decided to leave, I was called to the next town by my APCD since she was going to be there doing site visit for another PCV. She wanted to give me some invitations to hand out to key people in town for my own site visit the following week. While the three of us were sitting there having a nice lunch, she asked us point-blank: “how is the harassment in your towns?” I told her, you know, I have my days were it’s good and nothing happens, and then there are days were people just feel the need to touch me in inappropriate ways. On my way over to see her I had two separate incidents within an hour span, so I was feeling frustrated. But again, I thought this was life at site, so I told her “chiger yellem,” – no problem.
No. Wrong. This actually is very much a problem, she told me. Yes, we’re going to have to deal with verbal harassment, but we should feel safe walking down the street. We had a long conversation about it, and I told her several things that had happened to me, and she told me that I should make a list of each incident so she could talk to some folks next week during my site visit. She wanted to get a feel for my town and see if she could do anything to change it. I also got the feeling that she might move me to another site, and though what I was dealing with sucked, I didn’t want to move to another site, either, as I was honestly just tired of moving and starting over again and again. I spent the weekend thinking about it and writing my list. It was longer than even I thought it was going to be. I also spent a lot of time talking to both my good PCV friends and the peer-support network. They were very supportive, but told me that this happens everywhere in Ethiopia. It sounds like I was dealing with it more than at other sites, but physical harassment of that sort is actually pretty common.
But there were two other conversations that left me really unsettled. The first one was with Samantha, who was now back from the States and getting ready to move to another town for her third year extension. I told her about some of the things that had happened, and about my conversation with my APCD. She basically told me to have patients, and that they’re just looking for a reaction, so don’t give it to them. But what left me really unsettled was that she was really pissed when I told her that I had talked to my APCD about it. She told me not to tell anyone at the office about stuff that happens at site, because it builds a record. If a site has a record, then they probably wont send someone to replace them once the current PCV leaves. She didn’t want to see that happen because she really liked the town, and thought it needed the help. Though I totally understood this, I felt like she was basically telling me to deal with this on my own, and this was more than I could really handle. It also left me feeling guilty, as if I had ruined all of her hard work just by answering a question honestly.
The next conversation I had was two days later, Monday, with my PCMO. All of the literature we are given says that if you’re having emotional problems then we should call the PCMO. I spent the better part of the weekend debating with myself if I should make this call, as I wasn’t sure how he would react. But I felt like I needed to talk to someone who didn’t have decision-making power, but was still in the office, about what I was dealing with and how to solve the problem. At this point, all of the stress that I had been repressing from these encounters was boiling to the surface along with the guilt I was feeling about talking to my APCD at all, and the fear of moving to another site. All of this was mixed in with the memory of my last sit-down with the PCMO when he told me I didn’t have any friends. It was not an easy phone call to make.
Nor, as it would turn out, was it an easy phone call to have. It should be noted here that up until this point, I still wasn’t thinking about ETing. But this phone call did lead to my decision to leave. I told him what was going on, explaining a few incidents that had happened (the ones outlined above plus the two that I had on my way to see my APCD). We talked about where some of this happened. Yes, there was a part of town where it was about 5-10% more likely to happen, but I had had incidents all over the place. And, it wasn’t like I had no need to go to that part of town, either, as that is where the police station, bus station and the only stationary store in town are. Not to mention the market and post office. However, he told me to avoid this area, and anywhere else that it happens, and to avoid the times of day when it happens. This translated to: since it happens pretty much everywhere, avoid the entire town, and because you live in a truck-stop town, it happens pretty much all day and night, so basically don’t leave your house. The habasha told me to make sure to go out with an habasha, but all of my friends worked during the day, so it amounted to the same thing.
If this wasn’t hard enough to hear, what he said next left me shell shocked. He asked me why I was calling him. Had I talked to other PCV’s in my group about this, or the peer-support network? And don’t I have a PCV living in my town? Have I talked to her? I should get advice from her, why haven’t I done that? Do I even get along with her? Again, I was put in the position of defending myself in a situation that should not have been about accusations. And again, I did not understand why he was suddenly asking me all of this. I had been talking to other PCV’s and the peer-support network about this, and trying to come up with good solutions. I had tried to get advice from Samantha, too, but she was often gone, busy finishing her project, or simply not interested in helping me. Many PCV’s develop an attitude that newbies need to learn to figure this out on their own, and I always got the sense that she had this feeling towards me. She had been pretty unhelpful. I think I saw her a grand total of three times the entire time I was at site.
It should also be noted that though Samantha did deal with a lot of things when she first got to site, it was mainly from children. When I told her that I was dealing with primarily adult men harassing me, and explained some of the things that happened, she was surprised, as she didn’t deal with the same things. This was mainly for one reason: you could tell by looking at Samantha’s long hair that she was American. However, to the habasha, I looked Chinese because I have white skin and short hair. Neither hair and eye color, nor eye shape seemed to mean anything to them. There are a lot of issues between the Chinese and the habasha, and because of the massive industrialization that China is doing in their country, many Ethiopians _hate_ the Chinese. So, because of the way I looked, and mistaken identity politics, I was dealing with more and worse harassment than what Samantha had gone through. She didn’t really have any advice to give.
I hung up the phone with my PCMO feeling more hurt and insecure than when I had first called. On that beautiful fall day, I picked the phone back up, called a trusted member of the peer-support network and told her what had just happened. I never talked about wanting to ET, even at this point I hadn’t made that decision yet, but she could hear it in my voice. She brought it up, and we talked about what it would mean. We talked a long time about the process of making the decision, if it was right for me, and if I should wait a while, perhaps until after IST, or make the decision sooner than that. She was perhaps the most helpful person I had talked to about the entire situation that I was in. She explained that this really is part of Ethiopian culture, and that I would need to decide if I was willing to put up with it, or if it was too much. Either decision was fine, as I had dealt with perhaps more than my fair share.
I got off the phone with her and it hit like a ton of bricks… I just couldn’t do it anymore. What it really came down to was not so much that it was part of the culture, but rather that I would always feel like I wouldn’t be able to get the support I needed to make it through this. Not only had I become annoyed and frustrated with my town, in that I _always_ had to be on my guard, but I also felt like I couldn’t turn to anyone in the office to report what was happening to me. The reactions were too extreme, either I was being accused of not being able to cope, or I felt like I would be undermining either Samantha’s work or my own in the future. And the truth was, I wasn’t coping with it. I was trying really hard to, but it was just too much. Not to mention the idea of staying in my house all the time was just absurd to me. I didn’t fly 8,000 miles across the planet to stay in a small 15 x 20 room for two years. What I wanted was a way to create a solution to the problem, not accusations or being moved. I was tired. I didn’t want to be touched again. I wanted to feel safe, and I wanted to feel like I could move towards solutions. It’s possible that I could have worked it out, I know that, but I was also at the point were it had happened so many times that I would probably spend the next two years wondering if someone was going to touch me again. And that’s exhausting.
I told my APCD that day, and went into the capitol the following day. She gave me a day to hang out and enjoy town (I do love Addis Ababa, so I was really happy about this). Six days after I told her, I was packed and on a plane heading home. It was a bit surreal, especially walking down the quite streets of Seattle, but it feels good to be able to walk around without getting harassed. I don’t regret my decision to leave. That’s the biggest lie they tell you to keep volunteers from ETing. It’s not easy, and yes, there are days when I miss my friends out there, PCV’s and habasha alike, but I don’t regret the decision I made. It was the right one for me, and it’s not like I didn’t try to make it work. I was there for 5 months, and I felt like I was battling everyday to make it work out. In the end, it didn’t. I learned a lot from it, and it has drastically changed the way I view the world, and at the end of the day, that’s a major reason why I joined the Peace Corps. But there is only so much that one human can take, and I had reached my limit.
But I want to leave you with this: I don’t regret my decision to go to Ethiopia, either. This is a sad post to write, but I also had many amazing, beautiful moments. I have an entire family waiting for me out there, people that I will hold in my heart forever. I did things that most other Americans or Westerners can never dream of doing, and in one town, at least, I became habasha. I learned about the politics of living in a dictatorship, and how despite everything, people have beautiful, open hearts. No matter how hard it was, no matter how painful I felt it was, I met people who had dealt with worse and come out stronger. They are my inspiration, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything in the world.