Let it Burn

Ethiopians believe that the cross that Jesus was crucified on was uncovered on their sacred soil. And whether that’s true or not, Meskel, or the finding of the true cross, is an exciting holiday to celebrate. It is on this day, that we ignite the pyromaniac flame inside all of us by burning crosses all across the country in celebration. And by crosses, I mean giant bonfires stacked like a Christmas tree and stoked to burn for more than a hot second. I was lucky enough to be in Addis for the 2014 celebration. We all gathered with the crowds of Ethiopians at Meskel Square (duly named) to watch the parades and flames commence. The most magical moment is when dusk dusts the sky with a blanket of shadows and the first beeswax candles are lit on the sides on the stadium; then the flame is passed from hand-to-hand until it becomes one bright, burning mass (no mind to fire and safety, just don’t think about it); all around you in twinkling golden flames and soon enough the bundle of firewood at the forefront of the stadium is torched and you find your eyes aglow from the leaping flames of the kindling.


Top 100 Photos of Peace Corps Service

In light of Enkutatash, the Ethiopian New Year 2008, I thought I would take a moment to reminisce upon my time in Ethiopia. I have shared some of my favorite photos from service, the top 100, including photos of the annoying bird that fought his reflection in my window everyday and the many glasses of home-brewed beer (tella) and coffee (buna) shared with good friends.

Also featured are the unforgettable the weddings, the doro wat, my entourage of children, and the youth empowerment camps. I will always remember my child (lij) Malikam and her friend Fatle, and of course my bestie Alem and her husband Bereket. I won’t forget the generosity of the rural folk who always overfed me. It was impossible to capture the pride of the women I gardened with, and all the excitement of the kids when we repurposed trash into bottle brick benches. Memories of the people at the HIV/AIDS office, the Yekokeb-Berhan NGO, and my host family will outlast these photos. Of course I won’t forget my fellow group 8 Peace Corps Volunteers (some of whom are still serving in Ethiopia). And I especially won’t forget watching all my GLOW girls grow.

Happy New Years 2008! I’m thinking of you Ethiopia and wishing I had some burbere to make doro wat! Enkutatash!

Goodbyes and Gonging Out

November 25, 2014 was my last day in Liben. I had been telling everyone for weeks that my departure date was approaching, but in a land of no planners, it came as a surprise to some. I met up with Alem, my BFF, and her husband, Bereket, in Bahir Dar (my hub town) to say my goodbyes. I went to my Habtish’s home for coffee and to see her baby girl one last time. My HAPCO pals, my true counterparts from the HIV/AIDS Prevention Office, threw me a going away party, as did my other true counterparts, colleagues and friends at Yekokeb-Berhan. And on my last day, I moved all of my stuff out (leaving my landlord with no goodies besides a Hawaiian shirt), had one last burn party to dispose of the remaining trash, and of course I couldn’t refuse one last coffee ceremony and food from my little helper, Fatle, the next-door neighbor girl.

My departure felt a bit anti-climatic, as there was no huge celebration, or parade of people marching me out of town. I had originally planned to throw a [fake] wedding for Henry and I, because there are really only two times when Ethiopians from all different backgrounds get together: weddings and funerals. And since I wasn’t about to kill myself over it, I thought it would be a brilliant plan to have a wedding goodbye celebration, but in the end, it fell through. So my departure wasn’t a huge hurrah; it was much more humble than that. As I trekked down the main road with Fatle, Amatabal, Nikki and Amy with my backpack on and one last bag in hand, I got a simple nod of acknowledgement here and there. After exchanging hugs with my friends, I boarded my last bus to Durbete, and that was the end of Liben. I’m sure that the people of Liben will pester Nikki, Amy and future PCVs about the whereabouts of “Cassich,” and that is a sufficient goodbye in and of itself. In ten years time, if and when I return to Liben, I hope that the word of Cassich will live on and some little kid or young lady or grown man will run up to me yelling “Cassich! Cassich!” [rather than “Ferenji! Ferenji! (Foreigner)].

My last day as a Peace Corps Ethiopia Volunteer was on December 2, 2014. I participated in the traditional Peace Corps Ethiopia “Gonging Out Ceremony.” Our money man, Bob, read a quote by JFK and we all took two swings at the gong for 2 years of service. Before I peaced out though, I made sure to make one final trip to see my host family from pre-service training down in Bekoji! I had missed them so much and hadn’t had time previously to go visit them. I also was lucky enough to time my departure around Thanksgiving, and a number of other PCV departures, so it didn’t feel quite so sad saying goodbye. My last day in Ethiopia, however, wasn’t until December 14! I spent my post-PCV time in Ethiopia going where no PCV is supposed to go: Danakil Depression and Omo Valley. More to come on that.

Site Mate Love

Dear Nicole Mandall and Amy Sage,

The first year and a half of my service was spent in what Peace Corps described to me as LIMB: Loneliness, isolation, miserable, boredom. I was utterly alONE in this new place called Liben. I joined Peace Corps partially for the challenge. Could I survive living in a new culture with a different language, food, religion, weather, in a mud house, with scarce water, electricity, and no internet? The answer was yes. I survived and thrived. However, I would be lying to you if I said it didn’t improve when you two arrived.

I came first, the (G8) Environment; then you came along Nikki, from (G10) Health; and then of course, we needed a (G11) Education Volunteer too, welcome Amy. A blonde, a brunette and a redhead walked into a town in rural Ethiopia to collaborate on projects in this small community of Libenites. Together, we were a trifecta, a multi-sectoral approach to development in little ol’ Liben. We were able to implement projects like: (1) Club GLOW, a gender empowerment club for high school girls, (2) Grass Roots Soccer Malaria, a malaria prevention project, (3) English for Civil Servants, (4) WASH hand-washing and hygiene for primary school kids, (5) Yoga sport club with high school kids and civil servants. And we even put on a mini-camp at Liben High in my very last week to create a world map, permagardens and one last bottle brick bench (we were crazy to do that btw).

I’ll never forget our fun programs together either like that trip to see Yegna, an Ethio-girl-power band, or treks up our backyard Zimbisa Mountain, or best of all that excursion to the Blue Nile Falls. I’ll miss our regular shiro dinners, and coffee ceremonies. Thank you for eating my crappy food when I attempted cooking and surprising me on my birthday! Nikki, I couldn’t have done a lot of my second-year work without you; you were an integral part of the success of my (our) projects.  And Amy, I’ll miss drinking lots and lots of Cokes together and our Wednesday baya ayinats! Our circumstances fostered a friendship closer than just simply site mates. We shared birthdays, successes, failures, tears, hugs and laughter.

I will (and already do) miss you two dearly, but I know that will continue to serve Liben well and carry on our good work. Amy, I’ve been told you’ve been carrying on the blogging torch! GOBEZ (clever)! [Check her out at http://thefreckledlife17.com/] I wish you two the best of luck in the remainder of your time in Liben, Ethiopia! L4L! Libenites for Life! Ayzochiu (Stay strong)!



Composting Toilets

Open defecation is a massive issue in many places across Ethiopia; I can attest to this, as it’s one of the biggest problems that my community faced. A ghastly 80% of households in Liben lack latrines! Even at the Liben Primary School, which serves over 2,000 students, there were no latrines at all! The stand of eucalyptus trees on the compound is covered in people pies; a trip through that area is like a dangerous game of hopscotch.

I decided to tackle this issue with a composting toilet (CT). A CT is preferable to a normal T because the pit is generally shallower than a standard latrine, and thus less work to prepare. Additionally, the “house” that goes around the hole is preferably moveable; it should serve as a temporary structure to later be relocated when the hole is full. Lasting, the “C” part—it’s a composting toilet, which means that with each #1 or #2, the user should also toss in some dry materials like old leaves, saw dust, or soil. After the mixture decomposes, in about a year’s time or so, the plot is primed and ready for a fruit tree to be planted in its place!

Thanks to 846 Ethiopian Birr (~$40) in mini-grant funds from the Peace Corps Partnership Program (PCPP) and to the hard work of the 32 dedicated Environmental Club students at the primary school, there are now two functioning composting toilets on the premises. Hopefully, some of the students can take CT concept back to their own homes to combat the public pooping problem at the household level. It’s a serious health concern for all Libenites.

Simien Mountain Trek

Although I’m often critical of the tourism in Ethiopia, a trek through the Simien Mountains is [probably] worth the struggle. The stunningly beautiful views, which we’ve attempted to capture in our photos below, are innumerable and inevitably counteract the negative aspects (i.e. hitched-up prices, bed bugs, and a road-side view). Despite the challenges, it was absolutely breathtaking—in fact, it was quite literally breathtaking at such a high altitude!

Coming over a ridge to find ourselves in a field with a troop of peaceful and voraciously grazing Gelada mountain monkeys was a pleasant surprise. We witnessed a mountainous landscape that was all new to us, with diverse flora and fauna. The red hot pokers or kniphofia, the fiery red, orange, and yellow stemmed flowers, were a vibrant burst of color, contrasting from the vastly blue-green setting.  The cotton candy-colored sunsets and the crisp bite of the frosty air at dawn was unbeatably refreshing. We felt an overwhelming sense of solitude here at the Simien Mountains National Park amongst the behemoth Ethiopian mountain range. If you get a chance to see the Simiens, I’d tell you to take it!

Photo Credit goes to my boyfriend Henry Onslow.


Harar is a magical gem; a walled enclave of colorful Muslim peoples in Eastern Ethiopia. It overwhelms the senses with color and the wafting scent of spices and animals. Where else can you feed hyenas and eat camel meat? It’s so vastly different than the rest of what I knew of Ethiopia before. It is quite possibly the coolest place in Ethiopia and it’s up against an active lave lake at Erta Ale volanco!

We went to the Camel Market one town away by public mini-bus to play with camels and indulge in some camel meat at “Mana Nyata Tokal Restaurant.” There, we also went to the local market to purchase some reasonably priced harlequin scarves and found ourselves eager to get henna immediately so we enlisted the help of two young girls to buy and paint our henna.

We spent quite a lot of time walking around the walled city, roaming the narrow passageways and surveying the multi-colored walls. Our tour guide led us to a few key places: the Harar Coffee Factory, the Rimbaud Museum, hawk-feeding in the city, the Christian market, the hyena-feeding place and most importantly–our guesthouse. It’s really easy to get lost in the tangle of walkways. His friend led us to the best fatira place in town, and a place to get baklava, a professional henna lady, a place to get a puff of hooka and shop after shop overflowing with goodies, which we’d never have been able to find without him. You’d better believe we found the Harar Beer Factory on our own though!

Not featured: khat, chat, and more khat. Khat is a leaf that is chewed in many Muslim cultures. Similar to coca or chewing tobacco, it is a stimulant. And might I add also an illegal drug for Americans, though consumption is totally legal in Ethiopia. Though I had previously associated khat with the crazy people in my area of Ethiopia, the people consuming khat in Harar were, for lack of a better word, chill. It is chewed in the cheek and often mixed with peanuts or Coca Cola to cut the bitter taste. It is an integral part of the Harar culture and just one more reason this walled city is so interesting.

Addis Museums

  1. National Museum of Ethiopia—fantastic for one simple reason—Lucy. Australopithecus, or Lucy, is housed in this surprisingly cheap museum. The first floor has some other artifacts and information, but the fossil bit is by far the best. Floors two and three house some modern art.Lucy Reconstruction The Real Lucy
  2. Ethnological Museum—more expensive but definitely interesting if you care for history or Haile Selassie. The museum is a bit difficult to find because it’s hidden within the Addis Ababa University campus, for good reason though since the university used to be Haile’s home. You can even take a walk through his bedroom and bathroom or explore his pleasantly plump wife’s quarters. There is also quite a lot of pertinent Ethiopian cultural information!Messi in Haile Selassie's Bedroom Haile Selassie's Indoor Plumbing Christian Art
  3. Red Terror Museum—a free museum, though they’d happily accept donations of any amount, which highlights the horror of the “Red Terror.” The Red Terror was a horrendous time for Ethiopia after the coup d’état. The oppressive Derg was in control, and any opposition to their rule was met with torturous death. I encourage you to read the historical fiction piece Beneath the Lion’s Gaze by Maaza Mengistu if you’d like to get a better image of this time in Ethiopia. And be sure to visit the Red Terror Museum too, but brace yourself, because you’ll walk into a graveyard from history.Human Remains at the Red Terror