Friday, February 3, 2012

ciao, ethiopia.


Unbelievable as it is, our time here has come to a close. Tonight we sleep, tomorrow morning we pack up (and see if we can’t catch a few more rays), and tomorrow evening we fly Bahir Dar --> Addis Ababa --> Khartoum, Sudan --> Amsterdam --> Detroit --> Good ol’ GR.

There is so much I could say right now about my time here, and I’m not sure where to start. I’m so incredibly thankful for it all, and a mere blog post cannot do justice to the immense complexities and joys I’ve encountered and confronted here (and will likely find myself wrestling with for some time now), but I rest in knowing that the needful stories will come out over time.

Traditional papyrus boats on Lake Tana
A stone-hewn church of Lalibela
In reflecting, some key words that come to mind include: whirlwind, overwhelming, inspiring, challenging, delightful, frustrating, fulfilling, beautiful, impassioning, exam-week-like stressful… and totally worth it.

  • I spent some moments stressed out, wishing more than anything that I could be home with my housemates or even just in school, and I spent other moments entirely at peace, trying (unsuccessfully) to imagine where else I would rather be. 

  • I (/we) spent hours and hours (upon hours!) crunching data and preparing for the workshop, and spent very few hours sleeping (think: exam week sleep schedule or worse). But I also experienced tremendous joy in teaching (oh how teaching makes me come alive!) and doing work that was difficult but intensely meaningful for a place and a people who have come to be so dear to my heart.
Crunching data, one of our primary activites. Yeah.
Leading & teaching my team of map-makers (the cultural and socio-economic geographers)!
  • ·We came face-to-face with some of the crippling challenges that Ethiopian students & academics (and especially Ethiopian geographers) deal with (such as data poverty and bureaucracy, for starters); but we also saw these geographers bind together, overcoming adversity with unity and a renewed sense of purpose. (This played out concretely when they boldly made the collective decision and plan to re-found their national association of geographers that had died out decades back -this is history, ya’ll!)
    These are people who know and love their place (that’s what geographers do!) and they know that they have so much to bring to their country (and particularly to its development.) But due to broad misunderstanding/ignorance of their discipline by the public (a situation not all too different from geography in the states), and even more, by the political establishment, they have been stunted. Their discipline is in danger of extinction here, because politicians (who dictate where student majors & funding go) don’t find it valuable for development, and also just have arbitrary preferences (likely due to friend & family connections) for the more traditional hard sciences. Well, if you met any one of these geographers, it’s hard to imagine who could possibly contribute more to the welfare of the human landscape and physical environment of Ethiopia than them.

    But before I go on too long about the negative of their situation here, I must say that these geographers gave me so much hope this week – through their unification as well as just because of who they are. 

    Their kindness and hospitality is enormous and it overwhelmed me throughout the week and especially tonight as they thanked us and gave us such thoughtful gifts at our closing dinner (gifts of both their words as well as in the traditional sense of the word.)
    With Yirgalem, a brilliant, kind (and mennonite!) geography prof in Addis who took us up Mt. Entoto.
    me & the women of the workshop! this picture utterly fails to capture their beauty :)

    … My time in Ethiopia was not at all what I expected it to be (but how often in life do things turn out the way we expect or plan?) But this by no means made it worse. Oh, quite the contrary! While the trip was much more difficult and tiring than I had counted on or bargained for, it was also far more meaningful and important than I had imagined it would be.

    I just feel humbled and honored and crazy blessed to be a small part of the beauty and goodness that is already growing in Ethiopia. 

    Jason and Desalegn in a rousing game of rock-paper-scissors :)
    mango yogurt with guava! for you Lyddie!
    I will miss this place and these warm, hospitable people (oh, and the COFFEE! The best of my life, with no reservations about it), but I’m ready to come home. I cannot wait to see my dear friends and family, and get started (1 week late – yikes!) in my final semester at Calvin.

    I feel crazy blessed, I feel small, I feel empowered, I feel full of possibility and full of joy and life. With a full, warm heart and open hands, I give thanks. Exabier yemesgen.

    grace and peace,


    Saturday, January 28, 2012

    even the donkey deserves an audience.

    buenas tardes,

    Today I just want to leave you with a quick sound bite of Ethiopian history that I learned today and found rather poignant and inspiring.

    (Quick context: today we flew back from Lalibela, but since there was no direct flight to Bahir Dar, we flew to Gondar and made the two hour drive back from there. The arrangement worked perfectly because Gondar holds another of Ethiopian’s most incredible sights. We stopped briefly for Prof. Bascom to give us a quick tour of the castle complex where Ethiopian kings and queens lived in the 15th – 18th centuries.)

    King Johannes (16th century) was a very good king – he was the people’s king. The story goes that in King Johannes’ castle, there was a bell that problem-stricken peasants could come ring, and he would give them an audience. One day, the bell rang and instead of any human waiting there, there was a donkey standing in front of the door who was ridden with saddle sores from being worked so hard. Someone had brought this poor sick donkey hoping that the compassionate king might help. When his attendants told the king of the strange guest that they found, he told them not to shoo it away, but rather to bring it in to him, for he insisted that in his kingdom, even the donkey deserves an audience. And so King Johannes went on to care of all the residents of his kingdom – from the downtrodden peasants to their lowly beasts of burden – for all of the rest of his reign.

    …What a king! The story speaks for itself, but I must just say that this sounds to me a lot like the King of Kings, who makes room for the sparrows by his altar. (Psalm 84 ) :)



    Friday, January 27, 2012

    lakes and mountains, rivers and roads.

    Selam y’all,

    It marks a week now since I left GR for Ethiopia, and so much has happened that I can hardly believe it’s been just a week. While time is flying here, the full days also make it feel like we’ve been here for weeks on end. I find myself rather overwhelmed at the thought of trying to communicate all we’ve experienced in just 3 days. I’ll try my best to be concise! More stories when I get home :)

    The morning after I last wrote, we hopped a quick flight up to Bahir Dar, and upon landing I was instantly in love. The sunshine, the beautiful lake (and the lush green landscapes around it), the bejajes (think: indian rickshaws) puttering along the palm-tree lined boulevards (speaking of the street network, Bahir Dar is one of only 2 planned cities in Ethiopia, so it’s quite refreshing after crazy Addis), and the lovely guava (and mango, and avocado) tree-surrounded home of the loving Bascom family (where we’re staying for our tenure in BD) – I love it all. By no means is Bahir Dar luxurious, but its gritty beauty enamors me.

    We hit the ground running in Bahir Dar with 2 days filled with hard work at the University, preparing for our workshop (which starts next week). Much of our time was spent in the lab -- readying the computers, gathering data, and designing maps -- but we also spent considerable time meeting with various professors and administrators, trying to get some details in place before next week. Through this process, I got to observe so much Ethiopian culture – not how one might expect, like out in the traditional villages – but right there in the halls of the university. (With such limited space here, I think I’ll wait on explaining this, and try to write an entry about culture next week sometime.) I finished both Tuesday and Wednesday exhausted at the end of the day, but working hard is why we are here, after all. (One highlight I’ll mention is that we got to experience a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony on Tuesday evening! The Bascoms’ neighbor came over and performed the coffee roasting/brewing/serving ceremony that has been performed for centuries here in Ethiopia, the original home of the coffee plant. Best coffee ever! I have concluded that it’s altogether fitting that I leave my background the same on my blog :))

    Thursday brought us a chance to slow down when we flew back up into the mountains to Lalibela, perhaps the most popular tourist spot in Ethiopia (thought it doesn’t yet feel too overrun, thankfully). It is in the middle of nowhere, but owes its fame to the 12 stone-hewn churches constructed under King Lalibela in the 12th century. After landing, we enjoyed the windy ride up into the mountains (or maybe that was just me that enjoyed it), had a delicious lunch and brief rest at our hotel, and headed up to the churches to start exploring. But due to the celebration of an orthodox festival, the churches were closed. All was not lost, however – when we met up for the tour with our new Israeli friend, Moshei, we gained a 5th member to our group, a Spaniard named Jesús (un madrileño) with very little English. Jesús and I were able to settle our differences over fútbol teams (Barça vs. Madrid, claro) by agreeing on our love for la Roja (the Spanish national team) – and also because neither of us yet knew the score to the previous day’s clásico. :) From this point on I became his translator, and the 5 of us enjoyed a relaxing evening up on the mountain among the tropical birds, watching the sunset and drinking Ethiopian beer over good conversation about travels, world history, and current events. After this we came back to the hotel and fell asleep to the joyful sounds of the church celebration: drums beating, men chanting, and women singing (and all of them dancing). Mmm, Africa.

    Today was simply marvelous. We woke up early for a quick breakfast (Ethiopian pancakes with local raw honey!) and made our way back to the entrance to the Lalibela churches to meet our guide, Asefa, and our 2 new friends for a morning of touring. Truly, this place was one of those few places where I’ve been that I have had to pinch myself as a reminder that it’s ME walking there, and not just a tour guide on the travel channel special I’m watching. (One of the only other experiences I can think of that’s been like that for me was meandering through the medina of Fès, Morocco, which, if you've heard me rave about Maroc, means a lot!). Exploring churches nestled into dim basalt caves, traipsing through unlit underground tunnels between the churches, standing on ground that has been worshiped on since the 11th century, walking among the ornately dressed priests and worshipers who worship there still today, and getting caught up in the movement of the colorful, noisy, celebration of the traditional timket festival… nothing shy of ‘magical’ could describe the experience.

    Pictures will have to continue to tell the story when I have a chance to upload them. But here's one quick one from Jason's blog... that's the roof of a 3 story church dug out of the ground you see there!

    When we made it through all the churches and saw the beginning of the celebration of the St. George church, we said adiós to our amigo madrileño, Jesús and proceeded up the hill (catching some sunburn along the way) to the funkiest restaurant (architecturally) I’ve ever been to, with a 360º of the surrounding mountain ranges ( The restaurant is a newly-launched operation by a lovely Scottish woman, and we enjoyed the shade, the breeze, and a leisurely lunch there before heading back down this hill to our hotel, where sat and watched the sun creep down over the mountains as we settled in to our work for the evening.

    (at the restaurant. snagged this from Jason's blog -

    Thanks so much for your prayers and thoughts. I miss y’all and think of you often as I continue to wish we could share these amazing experiences here in beautiful Ethiopia.

    peace, love, and some African sunshine,


    Monday, January 23, 2012

    under african skies.

    Salaam everyone,

    As the photo would indicate, I’m writing to y’all from sunny Ethiopia.

    For those who didn’t know, I’m here as part of a Fulbright project that one of my geography professors, Johnathan Bascom, is organizing this year. He’s working at Bahir Dar University (sorry, not visible on the map above), teaching and putting together a textbook on the geography of Ethiopia – the first one written since 1972. I’ve flown over here for 2 weeks to be a small part of that project – Jason VanHorn (another one of my geography profs) and I are here to lead a workshop for Ethiopian geography faculty from across the country, launching the digital atlas for this textbook and equipping these geographers with skills in cartography, GIS, and in using data from their own country (something most Ethiopian geography profs have not been able to do much.) Since they know their country better than we do, we’re hoping to empower them with the skills they need to go forth and make maps. More on the joys and travails of this endeavor a bit later…

    But first, a quick overview of what we’ve been up to. Since the moment we left Calvin on Friday, January 20, our time here has been a non-stop adventure.

    It began with our 24 hours of travel, which mother nature took the liberty of kicking off for us with a bang, sending a massive snowstorm sweeping through the Midwest. I’ll spare you the gory details, but some of the results include: a mad dash through the length of the Detroit airport, a re-routed flight schedule (no stroepwafels in Amsterdam….Hallo, Frankfurt!), and the failure of our luggage to arrive on time (guess it couldn’t run as fast as we did in Detroit). But our bodies arrived to Addis Ababa on time (Saturday evening here), which is most important, and lucky for me, my luggage came the next morning (Jason is still waiting for his.)

    Sunday morning, we took it easy to catch up on sleep (plus the altitude adjustment – we’re at 7,500 ft), and headed off to lunch at a restaurant to share a meal with some other Grand Rapidians (Calvin folks, in fact) currently residing in Ethiopia. I was eager to chow down on some injera, but they told me the best thing on the menu was the fajitas, and reminded me that I’d have traditional Ethiopian food for the remainder of the two weeks… so why not? Yep, my first meal in Ethiopia was Mexican food. A bit disorienting, but the guac was spicy so I can’t complain. In the afternoon, a geographer from the university was gracious enough to take us on a drive up Mount Entoto, where the emperor used to have his palace. It is the highest mountain around Addis, which afforded us some beautiful views in addition to a helpful orientation to the geography of the city and a chance to bask in that lovely late afternoon light. When we came down the mountain, we enjoyed some pineapple fanta (it’s no fanta limón but it’s better than any refresco americano!) and then came home and tried to fall asleep to the jams of the neighboring nightclub.

    Today we woke up to communal breakfast at the guest house in Addis (which is the headquarters of the SIM mission organization) and had breakfast with a variety of missionaries, including a board member of a health organization in Southern Ethiopia, who is also the retired Vice President of Administration and Finance at Fuller Seminary! Well I’m rather fond of Fuller and even more fond of VPs of Admin & Finance, so naturally we got along well. (Oh, and he knew my personal favorite VP of Admin & Finance, my pops. Small world!) Then we got our fancy clothes on and headed to the US Embassy for a day of meetings with various officials there (they are the co-sponsor of our workshop.) It was at once overwhelming, exciting, challenging, intimidating, informative, and empowering. As the mere TA (teaching assistant), I didn’t talk much in our meetings – but keeping up with the complex consulting and large-scale vision casting was work enough to keep me busy.

    A few things struck me most about these meetings (particularly our meeting with Ed, the Regional Environment Officer for most of East Africa.)
    • Ok, a small silly thing first, and this is mostly dedicated to my housemateys. Wearing professional clothes (dress jacket, heels that make clicking noises on the floor, etc) can do a lot to make you feel powerful. Oh, and hipster fake glasses ARE ridiculous, BUT they come in handy when you want to look more like a grad student and less like an undergrad in meetings with high-up USAID officials and such.
    • More importantly, today I was very much struck by both our opportunities and limitations working here in Ethiopia. I’m realizing how this work we’re doing here is intimately tied in with international development. In fact… it IS international development in a way. We’re working on capacity-building with Ethiopians so that they become able to do mapping work that will primarily be used for development projects that address food security, water access, climate change, public health, and economic stability. Our work here, I’m realizing, is not merely a chit chat between high-up folks in the ivory tower, bur rather, more of a practical exchange between (academic) people who desire to see positive change in both the academic landscape as well as the socio-economic landscape of this place. I like that a lot, and the more I experience this mutual exchange of knowledge (for certainly, we are learning much, too!), the more excited and grateful I am to be here. At the same time, I am coming to a better understanding of our limits (it's always good to be humbled). The cultural, economic, infrastructural, etc. boundaries are massive. All development and change is slow – with or without the Fulbright name attached.
    • I could go on about that development stuff, but maybe another time :)
    All told, it was a very productive time at the US embassy. And I got my first Ethiopian meal there – delicious, by the way.

    We rounded out our afternoon with a visit to the ethnographic museum, where (for all you history buffs out there) we saw former emperor Hallie Selassie’s old residence.

    Now I’m writing to y’all in the sunshine and we’re headed out for what I hear is the best Italian food in town (lingering remnants of the Italian occupation here during WWII). (update - we just got back from dinner. Yep, it was delicious.)

    I’ll try to write again soon with more reflections on Ethiopian culture (and food), power relationships, simple living, and other things I’ve been thinking about a bit in our time here, as well as on our latest travels. Tomorrow we’re out of Addis on the 1st flight to Bahir Dar to start prepping the lab for our workshop. Next, I’ll be writing from the shores of beautiful Lake Tana.

    grace and peace,