Friday, July 24, 2015

Week 8: Colleagues and Friends

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
with Vimbai.
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.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Week 7: Eating Dust

Nowhere is a more literal understanding of “eating dust” realized than in semi-arid regions of Africa during the dry season. I would say that I’ve lost track of how much ground we’ve covered on dirt roads in the last few weeks, but that would be a lie. We’re pushing 700 kilometers, conservatively. The sensation of inhaling dust that is invisibly suspended in the air long after a car has vanished down a dirt road was immediately familiar and intolerable to my body. There is a satisfaction that comes at the end of the day when you can feel dust saturating your hair, itching at your eyelashes, and settling in your respiratory tract. It is a feeling of accomplishment—a great journey must have been completed to feel dusted like this. On the other hand, I have sinuses that regularly punish me, and they seized the opportunity of being filled with African dust to rebel. A stubborn cold set in after the first 500 kilometers. Thank goodness for the NyQuil I packed.

Traveling in many parts of Africa is at once a trial and a delight, and Ethiopia is no exception to this. I often find myself snorting involuntarily at some of the more amusing sights, but it is also exhausting and occasionally terrifying. For the most part, travel between major towns and cities can be done on a tarmacked road, which, in my experience, are typically in pretty good condition here, with intermittent patches of potholes the size of a small cow or short stretches of missing road. Arba Minch, the town which houses Mercy Corps’ last field office before you enter the districts where projects are implemented, is also the point at which the road quality begins to falter and eventually peter out entirely. 

The communities participating in the survey I’ve been administering are located as much as 6 hours’ drive from Arba Minch; as such, we were based in Konso for a couple weeks, a town about two hours south of Arba Minch that, according to my Bradt Guide, is at first look simply an over-developed intersection. From Konso, roads diverge toward the Kenya and South Sudan borders as well as further west into Ethiopia from the single roundabout intersection in the town. Unless you follow the main tourist route toward Omo National Park, which I have not, the roads out of Konso are some mixture of dirt and gravel. The Land Cruisers, which are an essential asset for anyone hoping to stray off the Google Maps-beaten track, can take these roads at 60 km/hour, although the drivers must frequently slow down to negotiate bits of road that have been washed out by the recent rainy season. Further out into the communities where we are working, however, the roads often become nearly or totally impassible. At one point, my program manager and I had to get out of the car and cross a seasonal river on foot—which truly wasn’t that big of a deal, but was fun—in order to reach a project site. In other instances, however, traveling 10 kilometers has taken upwards of 45 minutes as the driver slowly picks his way among gullies and potholes in the dirt road.

Land Cruisers are truly unsung heroes, and a huge accomplishment in Japanese engineering. When my family lived in Kenya, we had a Toyota Hilux pickup truck, featured on some History Channel show as a vehicle that is very nearly indestructible. The Hilux, which is driven widely here, does not have the unnervingly solid suspension of a Land Cruiser, so a long trip on a dirt road leaves one in desperate need of a chiropractor. The Land Cruisers, however, really put their pickup cousin to shame, creating a ride that feels effortless even when the roads seem quite dubious. I feel pretty spoiled getting to ride around in the vehicle I always wished we had in Kenya. I also feel rather smug when I see tourist caravans pull up in the newer Land Cruiser models, which resemble luxury SUVs in the US but which do not have the utilitarian power of the old white model that is ubiquitous amongst aid organizations. Ah those poor devils, they don’t know what a true driving adventure is like here. In all vehicles used for travel outside of major towns, manual transmission and four-wheel drive are a must, as is a mastery of how to use them appropriately. (More than once I’ve thanked heaven for Mercy Corps’ incredibly skilled and trustworthy drivers.) Another essential feature is the “Jesus” or “O.S.” (an unprintable exclamation one might use in a near-miss situation) bar, as my aunts call them. On some of the rougher roads, one must hold tight.

Technicalities of the roads and vehicles aside, there’s a lot to pay attention to when you’re driving in the field. Other vehicles aren’t of the greatest concern, although there are certainly some interesting and frightening encounters with them. Today on the road to Teltele, a town about 60 km from the Kenya border, we saw an overturned bus that had conveniently laid itself to rest across the road. The farmer whose land it had encroached on as it crashed had set up an impromptu toll booth, hoping to stop vehicles from passing around the erstwhile bus by stretching a piece of string between the bus and a small post. My team was absolutely livid at this. Most vehicles can be seen from a long way off, their dust rising in their wake. As they approach, everyone frantically rolls up the windows in order to avoid the eating of dust. On paved roads, the bajaj taxis—auto rickshaws called by their Indian brand name here—are of the most amusing annoyance. They are incredibly slow but do their utmost to take up as much of the road as possible. I have a strong feeling that the driving test for bajaj operators is not very rigorous. Further outside of the towns, and often in the middle of a downtown, livestock pose an enormous inconvenience. The communities where we work are for the most part pastoralists or agropastoralists, but even in Addis Ababa it’s not uncommon to find a goatherd crossing a major thoroughfare with his charges. In the more rural areas, the roads are of course the easiest way to move animals to grazing land or market, but the bleating beasts have no interest in sharing the road. Some are more responsive than others to car horns, but many will not move unless threated with the prospect of momentarily becoming a pancake.

Those responsible for the herds are often children who look to be about 10 years old. These children are one of the more entertaining features of a drive through this region. They are typically entirely unperturbed by the vehicles barreling towards them and their families’ most essential assets, preoccupied instead with eliciting a response from the car’s occupants. I fancy myself a bit tanner than when I arrived in Ethiopia—my right arm in particular has taken on some color from hanging out the car window all day. Even so, it’s absolutely no secret that I’m white. My appearance immediately elicits screeches of “Faranji!!”—“foreigner”—from these children, usually accompanied exclamations of “You! You! You!” and “Highland!”—a brand of bottled water in Ethiopia. These bottles are multi-purpose and highly coveted devices for these kids, and some of the staff I travel with will occasionally indulge them with an empty bottle, much to their delight. In order to convince the faranji—or, for that matter, any passing driver—to share a plastic bottle, these kids along the road perform a little dance that involves squatting and leaping up repeatedly and in quick succession, wobbling the knees with inhuman agility. This, more often than not, is what gives me a good chuckle.

What I have enjoyed most, perhaps, is the scenery on these drives. Southern Ethiopia is absolutely breathtaking—it is not only the incredibly diverse people, its flora and fauna, and grand landscape—it is the sum of all of these things, and more, which lend an ethereal and otherworldly feel to this region. From the Rift Valley and its escarpments to high plateaus and low arid semi-desert, from mountains jutting up beside the road to bright flashes of colorful succulent blossoms between the scrubby brush, from dik-diks and guinea fowl and baboons darting across the road to the world-famous terracing of the Konso farmers and the Borana pastoralists with their distinctive turbans—the sights of culture, animals, and geography are almost too much to take in. I probably started to irk my colleagues with the number of times I said, “Look how beautiful it all is!” But I can’t get over it. I watched Out of Africa the other night, and felt reassured that I’m not the only one whose camera cannot capture the true majesty and overwhelming expanse of the landscape and all that occupies it. Frequently Shime, my favorite driver, has seen me pull out my camera and slowed down so I can take a picture. But no matter how many times I try to pull this larger-than-life place into a tiny frame. I can’t do it, but how else can I try to convince everyone back home that I’m living in a place this beautiful?

I returned to Addis this afternoon with a feeling of grief that it might be a long time before I again ride those roads in that sturdy white truck and watch the wonders of this corner of the world go by.

The floor of the Rift Valley is a patchwork of agricultural land

Ye olde Lande Cruiser

Driving from Konso to Burji, SNNPR

Traffic jam, pastoralist-style.

Sometimes you have to cross a river on foot to get to the field site.

Riding in a bajaj, the motorized tricycle that plagues Ethiopian traffic.

Driving north from Arba Minch to Awassa, SNNPR.

Mountains and farmland in Teltele, SNNPR, about 60 km north of the Kenya border.

Dusty roads through Teltele, SNNPR, a semi-arid region populated by numerous pastoralist groups.

Wildlife sighting! Guinea fowl in Teltele, SNNPR.

Views of mountains in Teltele, SNNPR.

Pit stop.


The Konso people have been terracing their land for generations,
and the terraces have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Week 5: Work, work, work

Alright, wonk friends. This post is going to be highly nerdy, with my DC and IR friends in mind. It is also dedicated to Allison Shean and Esther Salazar, for being awesome MC ladies that have taught me so much about XLS coding, nerdy M&E shenanigans, and life over the past few months. Enjoy.

With four weeks of work under my belt here in Ethiopia, I think it’s high time I tell you all what it is exactly I’ve been up to. My title is “Learning and Knowledge Management Intern.” This title spans two major departments at Mercy Corps—Research and Learning and Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning (I’m learning SO MUCH!!).

The Research and Learning Department receives funding from a variety of sources to do research all over the world, sometimes directly linked to Mercy Corps programming, other times a bit more tangential, but always on issues at the forefront of international humanitarian assistance and development. When I joined the Policy & Advocacy team at Mercy Corps in January, Keith Proctor (who bridges the PA and Research departments) was wrapping up a fantastic research piece called “Youth and Consequences,” which sought to understand why it is that young people join extremist groups. It was exciting to get to see that piece in some of the late stages of production, as well as its rollout this spring. Our Director of Research and Learning, Jon Kurtz, did a wonderful piece of research here in Ethiopia a few years ago—it’s called “From Conflict to Coping,” and well worth the read. Allison Shean, a research officer who is based in DC and who’s been of invaluable assistance to me in preparing for this position, did a very cool report called “Rethinking Resilience” on gender and resilience in Africa’s Sahel—another fascinating piece that’s become ubiquitous in MC offices and an essential resource for resilience programming.

Mercy Corps received funding in 2012 to do a pair of studies in Uganda and Ethiopia that look at whether certain of our programs across a variety of topics contribute to household and community resilience (come to my presentation in DC this fall—I’ll go into more detail on this survey then). The Ethiopia baseline portion of the study was completed in 2013; I’m conducting the endline. The survey tool is one of the coolest things I’ve ever gotten to work on. It’s brought together so many themes from my first year of Georgetown classes, and the most interesting parts of my last two internships (again, see me in September for more detail). I’ve spent the last two months coding the survey into XLS (no small feat, if I dare say so myself). We’re now in the process of uploading it to a server and downloading it onto tablets, which we’ll use to administer the survey. My scope of work says I'm administering the survey, but I have the invaluable support of several Mercy Corps staffers I got to work with the last time I was in the south. I’m working with a team of four supervisors, each of whom will supervise a team of three enumerators, who are mostly university instructors. Tomorrow I start training them; then, they’ll go out into three different woredas (a large county-sized regional division) and visit households that were interviewed for the baseline survey in over 10 kebeles (very small village divisions). I’m then responsible for cleaning the data, checking it to make sure it’s all good quality, and preparing it for analysis by our technical consultants. This is the quantitative portion of the study; our supervisors will also be conducting semi-structured interviews with community members to add a narrative piece to the data. I’ll be helping to analyze and report on this data back in DC.

MEL at Mercy Corps is a bit different—while there is a headquarters MEL department and there are some organizational standards for MEL, project- and country-level staff are really essential for designing and implementing monitoring and evaluation plans for MC projects around the world. They are tasked with understanding the communities Mercy Corps serves, and therefore they have the best sense of how to identify entry points for impact and tracking that impact over time. If you’re less of a wonk and therefore not particularly familiar with the granting process of NGOs like Mercy Corps, this is the quick version: grant-making organizations, corporations, or agencies (here is USAID’s process, for example) will put out a solicitation (a “request for applications” or something like that) describing the sort of project they would like to fund, with detailed requirements for agencies applying. These agencies then assemble a proposal, and the grant-makers will decide which of the applicants has put forward the strongest project proposal, and award the grant accordingly. One of the application components is monitoring and evaluation (M&E), which describes how the agency will track its progress on the proposed project, and how it will report on its progress to the grant-makers. There are a bunch of tools used to monitor and evaluate projects; some combination of qualitative (surveys and interviews) and quantitative (LOTS of numbers tracking money, beneficiaries, milk, goats, you name it).

At the moment, the Mercy Corps Ethiopia office is in the process of launching a national-level M&E system that will allow all projects from here on out to use the same tools for data collection, making the M&E process much more streamlined. I’ve been supporting our national level team in finalizing various components of this new system. It’s very interesting to see what’s common across all projects—you have to be very clear about your problem statement, explaining why this project needs to be done; about your strategic objectives, which try to address the issue at hand; about who you’re trying to reach, and why they are the targeted beneficiaries, rather than someone else. What’s probably much more interesting than writing these M&E forms is seeing the answers come in…sadly I’ll be out of here by the time they start rolling in, but the standardized system will allow Mercy Corps Ethiopia to look at individual projects as well as the system as a whole and see whether  they’re meeting targets and how they're making change.

In addition to this broader, more technical aspect of M&E, I’m also getting to do an exciting, meaty piece of it in the field. I spent my second week in Ethiopia in “the field” following our CHELBI team around to several capacity-building workshops, visiting areas of land that have been rehabilitated through the program, and fording rivers to visit nurseries that produce trees for these rehabilitated areas and for peoples’ farms. Over the next few weeks I’m writing a series of case studies for the office at USAID that funds this program to look at some intricate aspects of the program—my favorite of these is the youth part. It was so fun and fascinating to sit with the kebele youth as they discussed climate change, their natural resource needs, and what they can do in their communities to ensure a bright future for themselves and their families.

Ok, I think I’ve gone on significantly longer than is really acceptable for a blog. I’m back in Arba Minch and super excited for the next three fieldwork weeks of training and data collection. I’ll try to keep Facebook filled with photo updates, and obviously keep an eye on Instagram too. The moment I stepped off the plane here I felt elated to be back, and I can’t wait for this survey process to finally begin.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Week 2: "The Field" and a guest blogger

With Rachel at Georgetown.
This week, I've asked a close friend and another GU fellow and Mercy Corps intern, Rachel Kuykendall, to allow me to share some of her words here. I am privileged to have friends who have been simply invaluable over the past two and a half weeks, supporting me in various ways from airport rides to late-night Skype calls. While this experience is incredibly rewarding, it also has its challenges, and the compassion my friends have shown me has felt like a lifeline as I face these challenges. I cannot thank you all enough for your generosity of heart and spirit.

My first week being in "the field" has been a great high point but it's also been filled with difficult experiences and concerns. Among these, the phrase "field work" has been bothering me a lot. The morning, Rachel send me a message that articulated some of the obstacles, anxieties, and delights of working in the "world's toughest places" more clearly than my overwhelmed mind has been capable of, and she's kind enough to let me share that message here. I've included some pictures of my workplace this week, and I think they help capture some of those beautiful and painful feelings and moments Rachel talks about.
Dereje, an assistant project officer for CHELBI, on site in 
Kilicho. His shirt bears Mercy Corps' slogan: "Saving and
improving lives in the world's toughest places." 
Photo: Mercy Corps
"Morning Sunshine! Happy Friday, you are almost finished with your first official field visit! (I almost said reality visit instead but I don't like that either. We need to think of something that underscores the vulnerability of the communities we work with in a way that distinguishes a "field visit" from office work while not belittling the experiences of the people we are here for.) But either way, you are almost done!  

Youth participate in a training on environmental awareness and
natural resource management in Kilicho kebele, Burji woreda, 
SNNP region, Ethiopia. Photo: Mercy Corps
I know we were both drawn to Mercy Corps for similar reasons, but I also know it's difficult (impossible) to learn how hard it really is going to be once you actually get into the "field" for the first time. It's hard because it's a reminder of how privileged we really are back home, it's hard because we know to at least some extent our home (the U.S. as a whole) probably played some hand in either creating the vulnerable community or exploiting them at some point which leads to a little bit of guilt that just doesn't go away (maybe that's just me), and it's hard because as beautiful as it is to see the tangible change our organization is making on the ground, we also see how much there is left to be done... And it's terrifying.

Me and Hassan, the Kilicho kebele manager.
He's been invaluable in supporting and helping
to facilitate Mercy Corps' natural resource
management program in his community.
So where does that leave us? Two fellows in struggling parts of the world that are trying to learn the ropes of what will hopefully be a career full of positively impacting people all over the world. It might sound cheesy but I'm starting to realize that more than anything, being an intern in the field is an inspiration to the communities we work with—it shows community members that the world has not forgot about them and that new generations are learning about their struggle and are coming from around the world to try to help alleviate it. But still where does that leave us? Trying to be a source of inspiration when each day we turn off the lights and climb into an unfamiliar bed to be overcome with stress and anxiety—but about what? At the end of the day the things eating at us are laughable in comparison to the struggles of those we traveled across the world to meet and help. It reminds us that solitude is a lost art, and that it will break us if we let it—but we won't.

Children in Kilicho kebele, Burji woreda, SNNP region, 
Ethiopia. Photo: Mercy Corps
I've found myself repeating the phrase "deconstruct the house ego built" a lot. (From an incredible book called "awakening the Buddha within,") The "house" in this case being all of the senses of security and self-esteem we are used to. But because we are under new skies now, and we need to learn to love them the same way we love and are comfortable being at home. Because at the end of the day, it's the same sky. We are just interacting with it under new circumstances, new climates, new relationships, and it's a lot at once. "A traveler without observation is a bird without wings." Think of “deconstructing ego’s house” as a process of observation. Naturally when we travel and go new places we observe the pretty things, the scenery and the sunsets, the good food, the cultural differences that we wish America had, but we tend to either force ourselves to look away from, or judge, or critique etc. the things that might not be as pretty.

For example how shockingly dirty Amman is. But the deconstruction of that thought would be: why does the filth make me uncomfortable/angry? It's because I'm used to (comparably) cleaner streets. Why are D.C.’s streets cleaner? As much as I complain about our government, at least our public service provision is relatively efficient. Why isn't Jordan's service provision efficient? Generations of refugee influxes from around the region mean that the country is surviving on foreign aid that is more prone to help the refugees than the actual Jordanians. And now all of the sudden I feel bad for judging the dirty streets. It's a sobering process, but it helps you to break down what and why certain things are harder than others.
View of the Rift Valley, Konso, SNNP region, Ethiopia

So observe everything. Not just the sunsets and the sceneries, but the things that trigger anger or disgust or even sadness. Traveling is as much about learning who you are as it is about learning to see the world beyond your front door. You are doing incredible things, and our journeys have only just started. Literally just started. There will be a lot more hard days, but turn them into days of self-growth. The trickiest part of the rest of our lives will be remembering to balance—we can only help the people that need it most if we also remember to take care of ourselves. So treat yoself, ground yourself, and love yourself. Because I do, Justin does, your family does, Ethiopia does, and the rest of the world will soon enough."