This is the End

March 31, 2011 3 comments

Well, this is it. We survived the long flights home, with all sixteen pieces of luggage (more than 300lbs total!)  We have been back for three weeks (is that all?!?) and still seem to be in the honeymoon stage of transitioning back to life in Michigan. We have been warned that the whole readjustment can take two or more months to really get through.

The boys started right back at their old school the Monday after we returned and have had a good couple of weeks. I made a quick trip to Atlanta to wrap up the Fellowship with the ITI officeending where it beganand am getting myself reacquainted with working at big pharma and not an NGO. Sandi is busily getting the home life reorganized, reconnecting with all of her friends in the area and looking for her next work engagement (definitely not teaching, though).

Ben's Mom joined us for a South African vacation before we returned to the USA.

We have received innumerable comments from people who enjoyed following our Ethiopian adventure on this blog. We are thankful for all the positive feedback. I was amazed at the interest our posts have generated–lots of emails, 76 subscribers, 286 comments and almost 4,500 hits! The kids’ writing consistently drew the most hits and comments. Even more surprising were the many exhortations to continue the posts even though we are back into the USA.

It was cathartic to write about our adjustments and the unusual situations we encountered. It helped us keep everything in perspective, thinking about how it would look from your side of the pond, while giving you a few laughs, too. But, I do not think it would be the same trying to do it from here. Ending this blog will be difficult for me. It has been a good run and I will miss the little voice chiming up in the back of my head saying, ‘I bet the folks back home would get a kick out of this!’

Before I sign off for the last time, I do have one more ‘it ends where it began’ story for you:
When we got back into our house, I turned the water back on (we had drained the pipes to prevent any burst pipe catastrophes). After flushing the lines and confirming everything was flowing fine in all the rooms, I noticed a big puddle in the bathroom… Oh no, more toilet troubles?

Yup, the seal on the toilet had dried out while we were gone and was now leaking with every flush. However, after one trip to the hardware store (and five trips to the basement to get tools), the toilet was reassembled, leak tight! How refreshing to have the right tools, know which store to go to and what parts were needed; I was not left gasping for breath when I picked up the tank, either. Our Ethiopian adventure was fabulous and I would do it again in a heartbeat, but there are some things that make it feel good to be home!

As we sign off for the last time, it seems fitting to end with a line from the Grateful Dead:
“It’s a long, long time to be gone, but a short time to be there.”

Thank you again for all of your support during the short time we were there,
Ben, Sandi, Camden and Branden

Categories: Benjamin

Teaching, Volunteering, Working…

March 10, 2011 3 comments

I finished teaching chemistry at BIS and presented my last seminar at Addis Ababa University in early-February.  I liked being busy with work that had a purpose, even though there were times when I thought I had lost my mind agreeing to do both jobs.

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I had talked with the AAU School of Pharmacy, Dept. of Pharmaceutics, about doing a lecture series before I came to Ethiopia.  However, I did not expect that they would request 16 hours of seminars covering all aspects of developing new drugs.  I learned a lot in preparing for these seminars.

  • First of all, my friends are the best!  I am still amazed at how many came forward with old presentations, advice, support, tutoring and ideas.  It is too bad I couldn’t whisk them here to present in person—I was the spokes person, but the information and experience came from all over the USA and I made very sure everyone here knew who had done the real work!
  • I now have a very clear understanding of what aspects of drug development I know very well and which ones I don’t.  Now, I knew I didn’t know everything before this series, but now I really know where my strengths and weaknesses are.
  • I like being around college students and faculty, but I need to have a defined role.  I liked being asked to do a very specific task, like presenting on the specific topics they requested in the seminar series.  Being a newcomer, I felt uncomfortable “forcing” my ideas of what they needed and was happy to have them define what they wanted.
  • Lastly, six months is not long enough.  It wasn’t enough time to get to know the faculty or the students and to become more than just a visitor.  I expected to have more time at the Department and to be able to participate in student education more fully, but I did not know that I would be teaching chemistry at BIS, too.  By trying to do too much, I shortchanged my relationship with the faculty and students at AAU.

Teaching at BIS (British International School) also taught me and gave me a perspective about children and teenagers that I would never have had.  Chemistry is a difficult subject at the best of times, but at BIS there is the additional hurdle that English is often a second, third, or fourth language for the kids.  Many of these kids have moved frequently which has left their education in shambles. Quite often their parents were absent or disengaged from their kid’s education.  I have never experienced the attitude that parenting was simply “feed them, cloth them, and deliver them to school.”  As you might imagine, absentee parenting led to a lot of behavior challenges.

Regardless of the challenges, I am still glad the Head Master ran me down and somehow talked me into thinking teaching chemistry to 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10th graders was what I wanted to do during my time in Ethiopia.  The kids could and did drive me crazy on occasion, but for the most part I liked them and many of their antics were no different than in the US.

  • The 6th graders were a bunch of sweeties.  Two of their chemistry topics were “weather in Britain” and “how snow forms” (no snow in Ethiopia!).  On the last day of school before Christmas holiday I taught them how to make paper snowflakes :)
  • Camden was in my 7th grade class.  There were some real pains in this rambunctious and loud class; the girls also had a bit of attitude.  How different, really, is that from any US class?  We had a long module on geology in which I used group projects to have the kids make model volcanoes, maps of Ethiopia showing the volcanoes (25% of the world’s active volcanoes are located here) and games using all the information they had on rock formation.
  • The 8th grade (both classes) were loud, rowdy, and hard to control.  However, they were not mean and basically I liked the whole bunch of them.  They loved experiments (probably because that meant no lecturing) and everyone wanted to “help.”  Experiments were very difficult at BIS due to the lack of a laboratory, glassware, equipment, supplies, and a laboratory technician.  I did the best I could with what I could find.  Also, I was grateful for the advice and help from a whole host of additional friends who sent me to websites with experiments that could be done with very limited materials.
  • The 9th grade class was funny.  One boy in particular, Peter, was always willing to answer a question and quite often was very wrong…but he still remained pleasant (“Yes, Miss”) and kept on trying.  This age group was well into the boy/girl thing and flashy dressing, yet if I rolled out an experiment they were like little kids.  We did paper chromatography with washable markers (stolen from Branden) and you would have thought Christmas was early that day.
  • There were also two classes of 10th graders.  Many of the 10B students struggle with English.  I often wondered why their parents didn’t get them tutors in their main language so that they could at least understand the subject.  There were several in this group that had given up on chemistry, which is really too bad.  All the support in the world won’t help a kid that doesn’t want the help.  But, I still like this bunch and I hope they fall on their feet wherever they go.
  • The other 10th Grade class was very difficult.  This is the class that I caught plagiarizing during a quiz (they all got zeros) and who regularly plagiarized their homework.  Two-thirds of the students received a “U” (Upgradable in the British System) for first term, meaning their understanding of the material was so poor that an examiner won’t even grade their paper.  When they complained I reminded them that I didn’t give grades, they earned them!  However, as individuals, most of these kids were interesting and pleasant.  It was just as a group that the attitude was out of control.

Overall I think my teaching experience at BIS was positive, despite some of the difficulties.  I don’t believe I’m terribly talented at teaching and have no need to teach in the USA.  I do appreciate the great teachers my kids have had and the demands of the profession.  I especially appreciate those dedicated teachers who have spent their entire careers in the field…you’re crazy, but I am so glad you’re there for our kids.


Categories: Sandra

Reflections on Ethiopia

March 8, 2011 6 comments

Well, this is it.  Our time in Ethiopia is finished.  We are heading home today.  So please bear with me while I reflect on our six months here.

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What did I hope to accomplish?
In retrospect I think I had three goals:  To be a good representative of the USA with ITI, show Sandi and the boys how different, and enjoyable, life is in another country and to relive the excitement/joy of an itinerant lifestyle.

So, how did it go?
Without a doubt, these six months have been an unequivocal success.  I think I have been able to show the ITI offices, both Atlanta and Ethiopia, some new ways of working together.  The mechanics of the work is the same, but I believe they understand how to interact a little bit better.  In the process, I have a better appreciation of the challenges of being in an overseas office and will take that back with me.

The family has seen a different way of life.  They have experienced beggars on the streets and road closures due to the excesses of government officials, survived frequent power outages and water shortages, and enjoyed the pluses, while adjusting to downsides, of big city living.

The boys were successful in their integration into their new schools.  They were challenged with different classroom conditions, different kids from different backgrounds, different curriculums, and different teachers with different expectations.  It made me proud to watch my boys face these challenges head on, willing to adapt as needed in the new environment.  They now walk more confidently through new places, smiling, laughing and enjoying life.  They have proven that they are colorblind and, even better, were oblivious to being in the minority themselves, making friends with children from all over Africa.

Sandi found new opportunities to explore and fill her days; they are not what she wants to do long-term, but she proved again that she is amazingly flexible and adaptable, for which I am happy and grateful.  Who knows what this newfound insight might mean for our future!?!

And we have been able to experience a portion of the world that most have not—the ancient wonders of Aksum, the lovely churches and Orthodox beliefs of Lalibela, the grand empire of Gonder, the wildness and endemic African animals of Awash, and the tribes of the Southern Nations.

The whole experience was not, of course, perfectly smooth, but the whole family took everything that happened in stride.  We adjusted to those things we could not change.  And we dealt with a few sicknesses and minor injuries and everyone is no worse for the wear.  We did enjoy times of reminiscence of the USA and what we were looking forward to upon our return, but it never got in the way of enjoying the present.

So, what did I miss from home?
Here is the short list of some things that I have craved while in Africa:

A tender, medium-rare, grilled steak.  There is plenty of beef in Ethiopia, but it is tough, overcooked and not the same as a good ol’ American sirloin.

Hot, crispy smoked bacon.  It is just not sold here.

Good, micro-brew ales.  The Ethiopian lagers are all okay, but there is nothing like that crisp, hoppy bite on the tongue to bring a smile to my face!  (Now, if I can just get all three of them together…)

What will you miss from Ethiopia?
The habesha foods are very tasty.  Tibs, shiro, gomen are all staples that we really enjoy.  Hopefully Sandi will be able to learn the recipes, but I would be surprised if they will survive on our menu for long after our return.  Injera, the staple sourdough pancake, is something I have been eating every day and have learned to tolerate, although I don’t expect to actually miss it!

The possibilities of the unknown.  I enjoy living with the giddy expectation of being in a new place and, back in Michigan, we will go back to our normal life without the wonder of what will come next.  There is always the next vacation, which I will continue to enjoy preparing for far in advance, but the day-to-day adventure of life on the road will fade away.

All in all, I am very happy with our time in Ethiopia.  I have scratched that insatiable travel-bug for the time being, and I am refreshed and looking forward to getting back to the USA.  See you all very soon!


Categories: Benjamin

GHF Journal – March 2011

March 7, 2011 5 comments

7 March 2011

It is hard to believe, but the time has come to say goodbye to Ethiopia.  These six months have passed quickly and I am amazed that I am already heading back to the USA.  It has not helped that the last month was a whirlwind with back-to-back field trips, in addition to preparing for departure.

ITI was asked to participate in a training program from Feb 2 to 4 for WorldVision, a partner that is getting ready to start Mass Antibiotic Distribution (MDA) in nine regions.  It was a pleasant surprise for to me to be part of the presentation of the drug management (warehousing, handling and storage) training that was part of my Fellowship’s scope.  No trainings had been expected before April.

For the training, we traveled to Awassa, the capital of the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Region (SNNPR) in southern Ethiopia.  Although it was mostly conducted in Amharic, it was very interesting to attend (fortunately most of the slides were in English).  During the training, the participants were very engaged and asked many, good clarifying questions.  From these questions I have been able to help with updating the training package before my departure.

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Further, ORBIS International was preparing to start another round of treatment in the adjacent SNNPR region.  To minimize the travel time to this remote area, we continued south from Awassa over the weekend and combined the separate trips into a two week sojourn.

SNNPR has a very different culture from the Amhara area we visited in September and the Oromia region we visited in November.  There are about 59 different ethnic groups (70% of the ethnic diversity of the country) in this one region, which has only 10% of the population and land area of Ethiopia.  The villages are more remote and the travel more difficult.  But the visit to the ORBIS treatment areas was very enlightening.  Although the cultures are very different, the warehousing and distribution issues are exactly the same.  This is fortunate in that it simplifies the training, too!

Once back in Addis Ababa, I finished tying up the remaining loose ends of my Fellowship, turning final documents over to the local office and sharing the updated training package with Atlanta.  Cleaning out my apartment has been more difficult than I expected.  It is amazing how many little things I bought for my apartment, but cannot bring back to the USA, and which now need new homes!  I will turn over my cell phone, internet access cards and apartment keys on my way to the airport for the final time.

The physical work has been only a part of the transition.  Our Fellowship training, a distant memory from last June, included an extensive portion about ‘reverse culture shock’ and included recommendations for reinserting ones’ self back into the USA.  I have increased the discussions with my fabulous Pfizer manager, Laura Martin, and have started the process of catching up with all those friends who have been surviving the cold Michigan winter without me.

My family has also been busily preparing for our return.  They have had a very busy and enjoyable time in Addis Ababa.  My wife has handed off the activities she was involved in and has been busily picking up a few more things to take back with us.  My children had easily settled into the new routine here and are now finding it hard to remember what it is going to be like back home.  They are unhappy about leaving their new friends, although they are excited to catch up with their old schoolmates.

As I look ahead to the flight home, I am thankful for having had this fabulous experience.  I would like to thank Pfizer for continuing the GHF program, the PGM-Kalamazoo site for supporting me as a fellow and my fellow CI Project Managers for picking up the extra work in my absence.  You guys are awesome and I am forever in your debt.

Categories: Benjamin

Mursi Me

March 4, 2011 3 comments

The Mursi women are famous for stretching their lips and inserting very large lip plates.  They also stretch their ear lobes—up to 2-3 inch diameter holes were seen on our visit, with and without the wooden or clay “plugs”.  Wouldn’t it be interesting to know, first hand, how or why these traditions developed?  We have heard that the lip plates were used to disfigure the women so that slavers would stop making off with them…but, is that true or just speculation?

We wanted to ask about their history and culture, but, unfortunately, our guide that day did not understand what we wanted.  It seems that most foreigners come simply to take photos and never try to learn about the people.  They had developed their traditions and culture long before the first cameramen arrived and it is a shame that foreigners are not interesting in knowing about it.

We had been warned that the Mursi were persistent in asking for Birr (money) for photos and we found it to be true.  Over the years the Mursi have seen their family members (living and dead) on postcards and posters.  They realized that others (read foreigners) were making money off their images without ever paying them or even asking them if it is okay.  Their response has been to be aggressive in getting paid for each and every photo taken of any member of their village.  This cheapens their culture in many ways.  We left this village feeling disappointed that the modern world had so negatively impacted their culture.

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There were a couple of bright spots during our visit.  One was the mandatory guard that we picked up at the Mago National Park entrance.  He was a member of the Mursi and he took a shine to Branden; he also happened to have an AK-47 on his shoulder…so, Branden took a shine to him, too.  He was very nice and readily had his photo taken (no Birr required) with Branden.  Also, on our way out, we saw several Mursi men with their huge sticks along the road.  We asked if they would demonstrate stick fighting for us (they are well known for this) and the men obliged.  After getting our initial ‘show,’ our driver, Alazar, posed with the stick fighters.  Then, of course, Branden had to try it, too.  Branden looked like he was fighting for real and the Mursi man had to actually block him a few times to keep from getting hurt.  It was all in fun and the men were laughing and enjoying the little forenge.

We were able to learn more about the area when we visited a local museum that had excellent information about all of the Omo Valley peoples.  There were displays of clothing, tools, jewelry, and cooking utensils for at least twelve different tribes.  In addition, there were nicely done, detailed, descriptions of village life for each one, plus maps that showed where they lived in the valley.

The role of women in these cultures had been the subject of an extensive study some years ago.  An unmarried girl, a married woman, and an old woman from each people were brought together with ethnography scientists to discuss how each culture expected a woman to act.  The women talked with each other and compared their norms with each other.  The transcriptions of some of these conversations were used in the museum to highlight similarities and differences in the lives of these women.  Pretty neat.

The following are excerpts from a Mursi woman talking about the lip-plate.
“If [a girl] doesn’t wear a lip-plate she is like a Ngidini [Kwegu].  Nobody will want to marry her.  If she wears her lip-plate, wherever she goes, people will pay attention to her.”

“If foreigners or government people come and talk to us [about banning the practice], we will say:  ‘I won’t cut my lip!  No, we won’t cut our lips!  We won’t put in lip-plates.’  We will say this to them.  We will say it like this, but when they leave we will go on living the way we do.  And when they come back, we will hide our children until they leave again.  This has not happened yet, but it could happen in the future.”
Bi Kalumi Haba Korro, Makki, May 27, 2004, from the South Omo Museum and Research Center

Categories: Sandra


March 2, 2011 1 comment

On Saturday we visited the Konso village.  Our guide was an official member of the Konso Guides Association, which was a first for us.  The Konso have figured out a different way to ensure they share equally in the revenue generated from tourism.  They charge a flat rate to enter their valley (you must show your receipt to enter) and they have formed this guide association to ensure visitors use Konso guides rather than outsiders.  The upshot of paying like this is that the guide takes care of you and we were not incessantly bombarded with requests for Birr like in some other villages.

If you were visiting a museum or historic landmark, you would most likely pay an entry fee.  In southern Ethiopia there are not any ancient buildings to visit.  You go there to visit and experience the various cultures and people.  So, basically these people are asking for an entry fee to allow us into their lives and villages.  Quite honestly, this didn’t bother me at all.  I am okay with it because they have been exploited quite enough through their history.  It’s in the “how” they are collecting the fee that I think the Konso have figured out a better way than the Mursi.

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The Konso are agriculturists, farming incredibly steep, mountainous terrain that is full of rocks.  Over the centuries they have terraced everywhere it is remotely possible, picking the rocks out of their ‘fields’ to build walls and have some ground to plow.  The terraces are so narrow that they can only be plowed by hand.

They have some pretty ancient villages that are surrounded by thick stone walls.  Since stones are just everywhere it is an easy way to protect the village.  As the village got bigger, they added new outer walls.  You can count the number of walls to get an idea of the age of the village (about 400 years old for the one we visited).  The Konso style of home is part wooden poles and part mud daub with thatch roofs.  The interesting aspect is that the roof line is deliberately made to look like a phallus for those buildings that are only for males.  Hmmm…  At our lodge in town Ben and I stayed in a “regular” hut and Camden and Branden had a “males only” style hut.  Konso also celebrate victories and great hunting skills by erecting stelae.  This was the first time we had seen any type of permanent ‘monument’ in the south.  Since we had seen the stelae fields in Aksum, we did recognize these unworked stones as stelae, but I bet a lot of visitors do not.

As usual, the village kids were delightful.  They followed us in droves and practiced their English (“hello,” “what is your name,” “where are you from”).  There were about 3,000 people in this village (which is huge compared to every other village we saw) and we enjoyed wandering through the entire complex.  It was market day, so a lot of people were off buying and selling; it was an amazing number of people in a rather small open area.

At one end of the village is a small gorge that bares a strong resemblance to Bryce Canyon in the American Southwest.  The area is known locally as “New York” due to its pinnacles that are supposed to resemble the NYC skyline.  An alternate story is that an early visitor to the area saw recent village expansions near the gorge and exclaimed, in heavily accented English, about the ‘new work’ that had been completed since his last visit.  Either way, the odd name has stuck.  It was quite scenic and rugged and was a nice diversion from our walk through the village.

Last Stop:  The Mursi

Categories: Benjamin, Sandra

Hammar Time

February 28, 2011 2 comments

The Hammar are the second largest population in the Omo Valley (behind the Ari) but are probably one of the best known outside of Ethiopia.  They are famous for their beaded jewelry and for the way in which their boys pass into manhood, “Jumping the bulls”–the boys must run naked across the backs of a line of 30 cows, three times.  Of course, the cows are not consulted and they don’t really like having humans running on their backs.  If the boys fall off, the older women whip them until they get back up and try again.  Luckily for the cows this tradition only occurs once a year in the summer.  Unfortunately we were not able to see it when we visited.

We went to a village late in the afternoon.  Hammar women are quite beautiful.  They all have a “pageboy” haircut that they sometimes coat with a reddish-brown substance.  Clothing is somewhat optional in this culture.  The little kids and babies were naked, but the girls dancing had on “skirts” made of animal skins and held on with belts of shells or beads.  They all had on many necklaces, bracelets, and headbands and they like to have shiny things hanging from their jewelry…so we saw a lot of keys and at least one silver watchband.   The men, likewise, used a lot of jewelry and decorations.  Some had feathers in their hair or other decorations and all of them had colorful cloths around their hips.

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There were lots of kids in the village and they were all curious about Branden and Camden.  Our boys followed the guide into a home and at least 15 kids piled in after them, laughing and chattering the whole time.  Ben took some photos and eventually our boys came out, followed again, by this gang of kids.  We also met some of the men and the school teacher.  We could see the village school in the distance and left a big bundle of pencils with the teacher.

Just before sunset they prepared for some dancing.  We saw a courtship dance where the men were lined up on one side and the unmarried girls on the other.  The men leaped high in the air and were singing/trilling/chanting (pick your verb).  It took some time before any of the girls were bold enough to approach a man and indicate she was interested in him; then they would dance together briefly.  There was one older man in with the young bucks who thought it was funny to come out and dance with the very young girls.  Of course, these girls ran away giggling and embarrassed every single time; some things are the same the world over :)  The entire village (over 100 people) turned out to watch the dancing.  The married women and babies were in the background behind the older men, while the younger kids crept closer and closer…some eventually joined in.

I enjoyed the Hammar people.  They were living their life the way they wanted, we were not rushed and hassled for pictures and the people were friendly.  Our guide was also quite happy to talk about his traditions.

Next Stop:  Konso Village

Categories: Sandra

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