I am in constant awe of the people I get to work with. From my first day in Ethiopia, it has been clear that I’m surrounded by exceedingly capable, intelligent, fun, and adventurous colleagues. Last week was the southern portion of our annual general meeting, which brought together all the staff from Mercy Corps’ southern cluster. Spending time with colleagues and other MC staff from all over southern Ethiopia reminded me how privileged I am to work alongside these incredible people, and I want to tell you a bit about some of them.
Getahun is the project manager for CHELBI, the USAID project I’m working on which I’ve
|Getahun conducts a training.|
described in previous posts. My first foray into fieldwork was with Getahun, who patiently allowed me to tag along as he conducted capacity-building workshops for youth around the SNNP Region where we work. We have covered more miles in the Land Cruiser than I can possibly count; shuttling between villages so remote the closest guesthouse or hotel is two hours away takes a lot of gas. These car trips have been wonderful opportunities for conversation. We’ve discussed everything from the conflict dynamics of South Sudan to his new baby daughter; the time his car broke down in South Omo and they had to walk for several days to reach help with no access to food or water, to Amharic idioms that I’ve been trying to pick up; the virtues of a macchiato to his adoption into an Omo clan. Together we have perilously crossed rivers in our bare feet to visit project sites, and fumbled with uncooperative printers, projectors, and tablets. I will truly miss working with Getahun when I leave the south. He’s been an absolute delight to get to know.
Shimelle, who is affectionately referred to as Shime, is Getahun’s beloved minion. He’s one of the Mercy Corps drivers based in Arba Minch, and before he came to MC he drove for Catholic Relief Services for 15 years. Getahun seems to trust him infinitely; he’s often relied upon to collect and
|Shime (right) and Tesfa, another MC driver.|
transport supplies for projects, and his is the only car Getahun rides in. Shime is very short and very bald, and of these two lovable characteristics he is endlessly self-conscious. He also has a very dry sense of humor. During one afternoon in the field, I stood by the car fixing my ponytail. Shime looked out the window at me very seriously, and with his limited English said, “give me half.” He’s also exceptionally talented at napping. The alternative is absolute boredom; he drives teams to field sites, and then must wait throughout the day for them to finish working. On the day of my survey pilot, we delivered all the enumerators to their respective interviewees, and then Shime and I parked on a ridge overlooking the Rift Valley, waiting for them to finish. I got out of the car and walked along the ridge for maybe 30 seconds. When I turned around, the driver’s seat was tipped back, a jacket was spread over the occupant’s face, and Shime was snoring healthily. He is prone to do this at any opportunity. Of course, driving conditions here are such that a lot of rest is needed to compensate for the anxiety of being on the road, so I can’t really blame him.
Shime brought his son along to the Mercy Corps general meeting last week in Awassa. Their relationship is precious. His son, who must be about 11, is nearly his father’s height. But everywhere they go, Shime walks around with one hand on the boy’s shoulder. It is clear that they share a mutual adoration.
|Tesfaye practices our survey during training.|
Tesfaye is one of our survey supervisors. While he isn’t a Mercy Corps staffer, I’ve spent a lot of time with him and the other supervisors as we’ve prepared for the survey. Tesfaye—which means “hope” and is a very common name in Ethiopia—has a regular job lecturing in the Geography Department at Addis Ababa University. Geography was for a long time my favorite subject in school (it’s really a shame that American schools don’t put more stock in this subject, by the way) and so we
got on right away chatting about geography. Tesfaye has two master’s degrees, one of which he obtained in Norway. I’ve made no secret of my admiration of Scandinavian infrastructure and social services, and we’ve had really interesting conversations about Oslo public transportation, and the banning of private vehicles from the city center. He’s also told me about his research on land use in Ethiopia, particularly in the town of Awassa where he completed his first master’s degree. We talked about the near-universal problem of a lack of affordable housing, from Washington, D.C. to southern Ethiopia. In October, Tesfaye is heading to Germany to pursue a M.Sc. in GIS, which he hopes will allow him to practically apply his theoretical research to improve land use and natural resource management in Ethiopia.
|Visiting Lake Awassa|
Vimbai was one of my first friends in Ethiopia. She started working for Mercy Corps just two weeks before me, and on my second full day in Addis Ababa she came with some others for lunch at the house where I’m staying. When we were introduced she told me Emma is her second name, and since then we often refer to each other as “Namesake.” Vimbai is from Zimbabwe, where she worked as a community health worker for several years. She then worked for a series of international NGOs, landing eventually at Mercy Corps on the PRIME project as the section leader for Nutrition Behavior Change Communication (that title is definitely not accurate since I can never remember the order of the words, but you get the gist). These section leaders are referred to by the “intermediate result” they work on, so Vimbai is “I.R. 5 Leader.”
Vimbai is a storyteller of epic proportions. Her years as a humanitarian and development health and nutrition worker have provided her with plenty of material. Once in Zimbabwe, she stood before 3,000 people from her community explaining the use of certain birth control techniques, causing her two older brothers to flee the premises. As she put it though, when it comes to talking about safe sex, “you have to call a spade a spade and not a large spoon.” While working in South Sudan, she often met with community leaders who would show up wearing naught but a cloth wrapped around their waist, and upon arrival this would be removed. They would plop down on a rock in preparation for a long meeting under the equatorial sun. Laughing at this display was considered the utmost insult; I can’t imagine the willpower it must take to keep a straight face under these circumstances.
We had an absolute blast together during Mercy Corps’ general meeting. After spending only bits of time together, we now had three full days to hang out. We visited the beautiful Lake Awassa, sat together in sessions, and practiced our Ethiopian shoulder dancing at dinner.
|Jeton does the produce shopping on the way home from work.|
Jeton has been my host in Addis Ababa. He is the “I.R. 1 Leader,” the resident livestock expert for the PRIME project. I have repeatedly felt so thankful that I get to stay in a beautiful house in a quiet Addis neighborhood where I feel safe and happy. Jeton’s house has a beautiful garden and a tortoise, which gave me a good surprise the first time I saw it. (Tate, the regional resilience advisor, left it behind when he moved to Nairobi. I’d expect nothing less from Tate.) Jeton is from Macedonia (FYROM), but has lived in places like Mongolia and Azerbaijan throughout his career in development. His wife and two daughters are back home in Macedonia, so both of us enjoy having someone around to talk to. As definitely-not-morning-people, we have a mutual and unspoken agreement to maintain silence from breakfast through arrival at the Mercy Corps office, which is suits me just fine. Our dinnertime conversations, however, reflect our shared interest in history and politics. The looming Greek debt crisis has occupied a good deal of our discussions, but we’ve also talked about the political climates Macedonia and the US, and watched the absurd shows of the History Channel.
Michael is the PRIME Chief of Party, a position with unimaginable complexity and responsibility, which he seems to approach with the jolly lightheartedness he wears at all times. While I don’t work directly with Michael, he was another of my first friends. He immediately reminded me of someone
|Michael and Cathy at dinner in Awassa.|
my parents would be friends with (I’m looking at you, Coppocks and Sinexes). He’d started at the same time as Vimbai, so was still a newbie when I showed up. For my first week in the office we had lunch together on a daily basis. We exchanged stories of living in crazy places and doing nutty things; his tales always won. Michael and his wife Cathy have worked together as ecologists for about 30 years. They are the sweetest couple, and I imagine they’ve had a blast sharing some wild experiences together. They’ve tracked grizzlies in Alaska, worked with pastoralist communities in Afghanistan, and written management plans for two of Ethiopia’s largest national parks. They’ve had run-ins with everything from a hungry pair of grizzlies to armed groups in the Ethiopian bush, and relay these experiences as if they’re no big deal.
What I admire most about Michael is his humility and modesty. Noticing it in him, I’ve realized what a rare commodity this is, especially amongst development professionals who enjoy touting their vast experience and deep understanding of different cultures and countries. Michael has all this, but tells his stories without a hint of pretention. It’s clear he’s more experienced and intelligent than anyone in the room, but never makes you feel as though your experiences or opinions are any less important than his. I aspire to be this kind and open-minded no matter what my place in life.
Esther is one of my two supervisors, and is based in Addis. Her title is very long and essentially designates her as the person in charge of humanitarian programming and monitoring and evaluation. She makes me feel lazy. I don’t think she ever runs out of energy, and I mean this quite literally—she’s a triathlete, and is currently casually training for her third or fourth Iron Man, while at work she is always on the go, never tired from her 4:30 am workouts despite the long list of responsibilities she’s always on top of. (I, meanwhile, lose my breath walking up a gentle slope in Addis, where the elevation makes oxygen intake a daily struggle.)
|Esther during a staff outing in Awassa.|
The most important thing Esther has taught me about working in Ethiopia and development more broadly is to “be a Type A person with a Type B attitude.” This sounds totally contradictory of course, but in this context it makes perfect sense. With a portfolio of projects and responsibilities as complex as hers, you have to keep meticulous track of your performance, monitoring your work plan to make sure you’ve not missed any tasks or deadlines. However, not everyone in the world is as Type A as the two of us. To deal with the different work paces of others, and the fact that things can go wrong a fair bit in this line of work, you can’t be uptight or get easily frustrated by things not going the way you expect them to. Having a laid back attitude, while ensuring nonetheless that all your ducks are in a row, can smooth and ease the process of working in some very challenging contexts.