>Lesson 1: Patience is the greatest virtue

>All travelers know that patience is required on any trip to remain sane. My trip to Ethiopia was certainly not an exception. Not only was I in a developing country, but for the first two weeks I was with a group of 12 Americans (a significant percentage who were new to traveling and certainly new to Africa) and 4 translators. While there are many benefits to traveling with a group such as safety, resources, knowledge, and planned daily activities, there are several negatives. The most aggravating is the amount of time it takes to do anything. There is always someone lagging behind, always someone with their own agenda, and always someone who is just clueless. So my patience was often tested, good thing I’m such a easy going and patient individual.  My sister, on the other hand, struggled a bit more than myself. (Have I mentioned she travelled with me? Amy is 25 and a grad student in public policy at University of Maryland. Despite being a seasoned traveler, it was her first time to a developing country.) You see, Amy does not handle groups well. Sometimes I wonder if we grew up in the same family. My teen years and young adulthood consisted of lots of youth group, mission’s trips, and constant group activities. Amy’s apparently did not, as the large group made her often anxious. However she was a sport! She is terribly personal (so much so that she will likely be irritated I spoke so much of her… unless I fill this page with praise, then she will be perfectly comfortable with it) and very intellectual, so the nature of the trip tested her patience often but I think the experience was priceless for her.

Another test of our patience was the constant shouting to us (I suppose “at us” would be more appropriate to say) on the streets. When your skin is as light as mine (and even more so for my transparent sister with blonde hair and blue eyes!) you attract a bit of attention in Africa. People of all ages will shout to you on the street, yelling either “Firenjis!” or calling out to practice their English with you, “HOW ARE YOU?!!” The children are the best though, since English is taught in schools from a young age, even the smallest child wants to walk up to you and shake your hand saying “Hello, my names are [insert name I cannot pronounce here]. How are you today? I am fine. Thank you.” Why does this require patience? I’m not joking when I say constant shouting. The first couple days it’s a novelty. No big deal… but by the end of the three weeks, Amy and I swore to return to DC where there is a large Ethiopian population and yell “FIRENJIS!” to any Ethiopian as they walk down the street. We literally could not walk five feet in the overcrowded capital without someone shouting something at us. We forced ourselves to smile and remind ourselves that we chose to come to a country where we would clearly stand out… so how could we be angry? And they were never rude to us. The people of Ethiopia are so kind and warm. If anyone showed any disrespect to us, they would immediately be chastised. We were treated better in Ethiopia than even here in the “Bless your heart” South! 🙂 Once a boy purposely ran into me with his bike (he was a young teen boy being a punk… they exist everywhere) and an older man witnessed it and reprimanded him. Despite the respect and warmness, the constant attention (even for two girls that love to be the center of attention) got a little old.

As I referenced in my only post from Ethiopia… the internet requires patience. It was slow and that was if we could find an internet cafe that was open. As I said… it was a luxury that was greatly missed. A friend I met in Ethiopia and I got in an argument over a reference of a movie (“The Hangover” and I WAS RIGHT!) and we could not immediately check the internet to establish who was correct. I wonder if Andy and my marriage would survive that? Public transportation requires patience and elbow throwing. If you want to get on a mini-bus during rush hour, you better be prepared to shove your way in and also hope that you are going the right direction. At lastly, organizing ANYTHING requires patience. I found this out the last week very well. Amy and I stayed a week after our group. We made the most of this time, scheduling appointments with different organizations, volunteering at AHOPE, and making sure we had a translator/guide when exploring new areas. And we made so many new friends and tried our best to make the most of the limited time we had left with them. Now, I’m a planner. I’m an organizer. I am the one that plans the activities for everyone, I send the texts, emails, and occasionally even make phone calls. (I hate the phone.) But in Africa, all my skills were worthless. You can’t plan with a simple email (the internet barely works, remember?) and texting usually consisted of getting a response that said “call me.” ARGH! So I would call and say, meet here at this time and place. “How about you call me in a little bit?” What?! I just said meet there. “Well, just call me.” So after 25 phone calls, the location and time are finally established. Now, I know I make this sound like a negative thing and it was for me because it goes against my nature. But it’s likely a lot better and less stressful way of living. It’s certainly a go with the flow kind of attitude. However, thanks to my dear and hyper father, I did not inherit the ability to just go with the flow. Maybe after a few years of living in Africa I will develop that skill. Who knows? But I did learn a little more patience than I had when I arrived there. I’m more hesitating to plan every moment of every day. I’ve slowed down a bit. Let’s see how long this lasts. 🙂

Perhaps the greatest lesson of patience I had learned was that things do not change overnight. No matter how good your idea, how great your intentions, or how big your heart, change takes time. The organization I volunteered with my first two weeks is called Mocha Club (http://www.themochaclub.org/). Mocha Club sends approximately 40 street boys in Ambo, Ethiopia to school. Street boys are a large problem in Ethiopia. Often times they are either orphaned children living on the streets, children from poor families that could not support them, or runaways. They are often shunned by society because they are seen as troublesome, aggressive, and often resort to stealing to survive. Mocha Club (while building a school in Ambo) saw the need to find a way to decrease the street boy population in Ambo. Education is one of the best ways to do this. Without education, the boys are left to spend a life on the streets. But perhaps with an education they could find jobs once they graduate. At the very least a basic ability to read and write is necessary for nearly any employment. So Mocha Club found 40 boys to sponsor. They promised the boys either day or evening school, uniforms, books, and a meal when they were attending school. Mocha Club continued to send teams of Americans to spend time with the boys, showing them that we have not forgotten about them and will continue to support them.

My sister and I were always wary of the Ambo portion of our trip. We didn’t understand the point of the trip there. They kept saying it was to build relationships with the boys. We couldn’t see the value in “building a relationship” in two days. It seemed that it would cause more harm than good. And we were sadly right. When we arrived in Ambo, we quickly saw that the program was not working. A few team members and nationals had gotten an apartment for the “leaders” of the street boys and this caused animosity amongst the street boys. Many of them were saying that they’ve never been given lunches, so they have had to drop out of school. If they aren’t fed, they have to find jobs to work for their food, making it impossible for them to go to school. Others said they never received their uniforms. Others said they didn’t have books, etc. Mocha Club had a community contact that was supposed to be ensuring the boys had everything they needed to attend school. He was supposed to check in with them weekly. There was a disconnect occurring somewhere. They said he was lying, he said they were lying. It was chaotic. We tried to do a soccer tournament at a field behind the church and it kept erupting in fights. Many of the team members were overwhelmed by the aggressiveness of the boys. We had to keep reminding ourselves that they were boys raised without parental guidance or supervision. They have had to fight to survive their entire lives, they were not going to act civilized. Most had no more than 2nd grade education, many with far less. We could not expect them to act as we were expected to when we were their age. It was really tough to see. We ended up leaving town early because we clearly were doing harm. They kept asking for things they needed, blankets, food, clothes, etc. All basic needs, but if we helped one and not all (which we could not do) then we would make the problem worse. The program had been in place nearly two years and the problem had not gotten any better.

Now, before you pull your dollars from Mocha Club… change doesn’t happen overnight. Mocha Club recognizes that an issue exists and the program needs to be reevaluated. In the next few months they will be sending two professionals that specialize in the education of street boys. They will assess the program and make the necessary changes. Like I said before, no matter how well meaning you are… you cannot expect things to change overnight. You have to be patient and you have to be smart. Sometimes we are so well meaning and we think we can make the world of a difference. But you must have patience. Don’t just throw your dollars at something hoping to change the world. Be smart, do the necessary research, and then be patient.

My sister and I went to the American Embassy during our last week to meet with an incredibly intelligent woman that works for USAID (US Agency for International Development.) It was really interesting to hear where our tax dollars were going in Ethiopia. She had worked with NGOs prior to doing governmental work (I will use the term NGO’s often. NGO stands for Non-Governmental Organizations. World Bank defines NGO’s as private organizations that pursue activities to relieve suffering, promote the interests of the poor, protect the environment, provide basic social services, or undertake community development.) I asked her what it took for a NGO to be successful. Her answer was two-fold. She said first they need to see the big picture. She said this is why World Vision and Oxfam are successful. They see how all the elements intertwine, how education, clean water, healthcare, etc all need to happen to establish poverty relief. They do their research. They don’t just implement a program; they do all the necessary research first. They also understand the importance of working with the government to establish support. The second part that makes an NGO successful is the community buy-in. Without community buy in, an organization cannot succeed. It cannot be a foreigner seeking to change an entire village without ever once asking the villagers what they need. The community has to be involved. You can see how after going to Ambo and hearing this, a bit of a light bulb went off in my mind. Mocha Club missed both of these.

But change DOES happen. And I saw firsthand when a group of people look at the big picture and actively engage the community how successful they can be. Enter Ruth and Enut, two remarkable women. Ruth is a nurse at the fistula hospital. She also goes to school at night. Never have I meant as cheerful a woman as Ruth. She is always smiling. Joy just surrounds that woman. She is constantly giggling. One day Ruth was walking through the capital of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa and noticed the large amount of boys not in school. She thought to herself, this should not be. She and her friend Enut started talking to their friends about doing something. They raised some money within their own circle of friends and within a short amount of time they were putting 40 boys into school. Now Ruth isn’t a quiet or shy woman. And she is not the type of woman that walks away from a challenge. She personally signed the boys up for school and then she stayed in contact. When she would hear a boy wasn’t coming to school, she would find the boy and if he had any family, she would find them too. And she would demand that the boy goes back to school. Sometimes it meant persuading the teachers to allow the child back in school. However, 40 boys are a bit much to handle for one person, especially since she was also in school. To assist with the day to day follow up that is necessary when trying to educate boys that live on the streets, she recruited several women in the community. These women have become the mothers to the boys. They make sure they are in school and they have everything they need. If a problem arises, they find Ruth. I was so impressed with this grassroots organization. Ruth & Enut saw a need and believed they could make a change. It is not easy. They are surely met with disappointment, but they keep going because these boys need someone to care for them.

One of my favorite memories from my trip to Ethiopia is the time spent with the street boys in Addis. Ruth & Enut wanted to celebrate Christmas with the boys. They planned to have a hotel cater the food because cooking a traditional meal for 40+ people is not an easy task. But the women in the community insisted that they do it. And it was quite the feast. We were there to help feed the boys and just hang out and hear how they are doing. The boys were, for a lack of better words, rough around the edges. We could not take any valuable with us because chances are that we would not see them again. I don’t say this to imply that these boys were bad; they were just forced to live life in a way that caused them to blur the moral lines to survive. Most of them had never had any family to serve as a moral compass or if they did have family, it was a bad situation that forced them to leave. As soon as the boys entered the dirt floor church, you could see the wear of the streets on them. They were tired and seemed older than they were. This is interesting because most times in Ethiopia we would guess a child to be much younger than they were. But here, the boys had something about them that aged them. I was given the task of washing their hands before they eat. Ethiopians eat their traditional food with their hands (one hand actually… it’s quite amazing and I have not even come close to mastering that!) So washing your hands is part of their dinner ceremony. I stood outside with a pitcher and a bar of soap as the boys stood in line to wash their hands. I have never seen hands so dirty in all of my life. I am not exaggerating when I say that it appeared that there was months of dirt and grime on their hands. Some were embarrassed by it and washed their hands quickly to get out of the firenji’s sight. But others took as much time as they could justify, trying to get the dirt off of their hands. The sight of this humbled me. I imagined these boys as my son or my brother, lacking the very things we take for granted such as a shower (heck… a hot shower!) or warm meal. These boys likely go days without a real meal or clean water. Tears welled up in my eyes and I fought them. These boys do not want to be pitied. I sucked up the tears and continued to clean their hands, promising myself and God that I would not go back to the U.S. and forget about these boys and others just like them. Government school costs only a couple US dollars a month. Surely I could afford that. School isn’t enough for these boys though. They need uniforms and shoes so they can attend class. And most of all they need at least one meal a day so that they don’t have to drop out of school to work or scavenge to eat. But even with uniforms, books, and food, it only costs a few US dollars a month. I could do that. I can give of my wealth to give these boys an opportunity at life. And I hope others do too. Keep reading my blog and I will be sure to show you ways you can help.

Change takes times. Developing countries are just that… developing. You cannot expect things to happen quickly. We live in one of the most developed countries in the world, but think about the countless times you have been standing in line at the DMV and wondered when on earth they will figure out how to do this more efficiently. Ethiopia has come a long way but it still has a long way to go. No matter how far they have come, there still mindsets there that we would consider behind. Such as the fact that women aren’t treated equally, young girls are still married off and female circumcisions (which is the kinder word, it is in fact mutilation) is still prevalent in the rural areas. Sexual health is not discussed, especially in the rural areas. And as I have shown in my explanations of the street boys, there is a social order and often times it’s the parentless child that is seen as insignificant. The only way to change these mindsets is through education. It has been proven that education makes the single greatest impact on the economic growth of a nation. Education is the most promising route out of poverty and toward sustainable development. You know the saying “give a man a fish and he will eat for a day, but teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime?” The key word in this is TEACH. Education is the single greatest gift you can give to a child. I’ve seen that first hand.

I have about four more stories that prove the importance of education, but I fear this post is already too long that you may have not made it this far. In a couple weeks I will give a listing partnering organizations and I will be sure to include Ruth’s grassroots effort. Stay tuned for my next lesson learned, “One person CAN effect change.”

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