‘Hidar’ (or November as we know it) has been a strange month in Gilgel Beles. It seems like something bizarre happens on an almost daily basis. (Don’t get me wrong – it’s been a good month for me, just weird.) And I feel the need to share some of the weirdness with you all. So here it is…
1) Georgebush. After a recruitment drive throughout the region, the new first year students have just arrived at the college, and this year, a high number are from the local Gumz people. (A consequence of the government’s current policy to get more of the local communities into education.) Anyway, we were doing conversation club with some of the newbies, and I was asking them their names, and one guy said “George Bush.” So, I’m like “Sorry?”, thinking I must have heard it wrong. “George Bush”, he says again. And it really is!! And it’s not like George is his first name and Bush is his surname. His full name is Georgebush Takele! (I find out later that, in the Gumz community, it’s not unusual for parents to name their kids after a word that’s common or being used a lot around the time that they’re born. Now, this kid must be around 17 or 18, which means he would have been born around 1995… But, Clinton was in then….Even more baffling!!) Anyway, whenever this guy comes into the ELIC I find myself saying , “How are you Georgebush?”, “What do you think about that Georgebush?”, “Are you listening, Georgebush?” Not questions I ever thought I’d ask!!!
2) The curse. Last week, in the town, I bumped into the college history instructor – a nice, newly-married young guy. We were having a chat, and I’m thinking – “this is cool – I know my colleagues pretty well now” – and then I asked how his wife was:
“Oh, she’s not good. She is very sick.”
“Oh no! Is it woba (malaria) again?”
“No. Someone has stolen her success.”
“Yes. They put a curse on her. They make her unsuccessful. They take her success.”
“So, I inform the priest and he will come and remove the curse.”
“Yes, he will come tomorrow.”
“Ok..well I hope she gets better soon. Please give her my best wishes.”
God, I’m so British. Sometimes, because I have a good relationship with my colleagues now, and we chat and have a laugh, I forget how different our backgrounds are. Anyway, the good news is that the priest came, and the wife is on the mend!
3) The resignations. There seems to be a culture in Ethiopian government institutions of annual public denunciations. These are free-for-all meetings where any employee can stand up and accuse / blame / criticise any other employee in front of all the staff. They often result in sackings, demotions, side-ways movements and other ‘redeployments’. (Thank God we don’t have them in the UK…do we?)
Anyway, this month there was one of these hideous occasions at the college. I wasn’t involved (thank God again!!) but apparently this years’ was pretty bad, with one particular member of staff getting it from all corners. The fall-out started the next day. First of all, there’s a strange atmosphere in the college and all the instructors are huddled in small groups having hushed conversations. Then, the head of the language department comes and tells me he’s resigned. Noooo!!!! Despite a shaky start, we’ve developed a really good working relationship, and he’s one of the most co-operative and supportive members of staff for me now. This is not good! Then, the next day, I check with my line manager that he’s still able to attend the College & VSO Annual Partnership Review meeting the following week. He smiles, looks at the ground, and says, “errr…actually I don’t know. To be honest, I don’t know anything now…”. Ominous.
Later, my source (well, one of my neighbours who I walk with sometimes after walk and get all the college gossip from) tells me that my line manager has also resigned, having been accused of corruption. Noooo again!!! My line manager has just started being brilliant – he can’t leave now! Then, he goes on to tell me that one of my other neighbours, one whose wife is my best friend here, has had enough, and is also resigning. Nooooooooo!!!
That night, I go to bed worried. I know it’s selfish, but these are 3 key people for me here. If they go, things could get bad…
Anyway, it turns out to be a storm in a teacup. A few days later everyone’s kissed and made up and no-one’s going anywhere. Apparently it happens every year…I wish I’d known – that’s several days of angst wasted!
4) Power! I don’t want to say this too loud because I don’t want to jinx it, but (whisper) since they got a new transformer at the main power station, the electricity has been really good here… like REALLY good! It maybe cuts out for a few minutes or an or hour or so now and then each day, but otherwise it’s brilliant! True, we had a week this month when there was nothing (apparently someone stole the new transformer…) but even then, I think I’m getting better at dealing with it. And I think I’ve got the cooking without power sorted. I managed to get some (very impure) kerosene on the way back from Bahir Dar last time. No, I’m not using the bloody kerosene stove again – our relationship is over – but I’ve found the perfect use for the fuel. Pour some on charcoal, put a match to it, wait 10 minutes for the towering inferno to die down, and you have lit charcoal, ready for cooking. No flapping, fanning, or tantrums required! Problem solved.
5) It’s a yes. In mid-November, Tesfaw, my VSO programme manager came from Addis for the VSO – GBCTE APR (Annual Partnership Review). This is a meeting when we look at what the volunteer has achieved in the past year, and what progress has been made as a result of the partnership…eek. Anyway, about 20 of us were involved, including key members of college staff and some ELIC committee students. Tesfaw made a speech, I gave a short presentation on what we’d done, they did some group tasks, my line manager made a speech…and it was all going swimmingly – in fact, it was one big love-in…and then suddenly, Tesfaw introduced a hideous activity! He brought out a wall chart with tick boxes ranging from ‘Highly satisfied’ to ‘Not at all satisfied’, and invited each person present to come up one by one, assess my contribution, and tick the relevant box IN FRONT OF ME! (WTF?) Seriously, I felt like I was on the X-Factor or something, waiting for the judges’ decision – my heart was pounding, my palms were sweating…I honestly had to go outside and pace nervously until they’d finished. Luckily the ticks were at the right end (I don’t know what I’d done if they hadn’t been..?!) and I was through to the next round! So..I’d just like to thank my family, and all those who’ve supported me to this point…I just never thought this could happen…I never believed this day would come…sniff…
6) Suzie’s ark. Recently, it seems that every creature known to (Ethiopian) man wants to hang out at my place. Of course, Buzayehu the cat is still number one, guest of honour and the bat is still around, (though he’s been somewhat flaky of late…)but now everyone (everything?) else, from pregnant dogs to toads to preying mantis’ (s???) wants to move in (see gallery). They just want to be near me! I’m not sure how I feel about it…though I’m definitely less freaked-out by it than I was. (Except for the time when I got up off the toilet, flushed it, and a small frog jumped out from under the rim – a bit of a shock, tbh!) Oh, and the damn scorpions are back! The one saving grace of the rainy season was that the scorpions disappeared. But the other day I found one, under my boots, in my bedroom. Welcome back scorpies! It’s on!
7) Post office melt-down. There’s no Royal Mail here – in fact, people don’t even have addresses – so when I first got here, I opened a PO box at the tiny post office. (It’s not the best set-up as it’s run by one woman and only she has the key…which means that if she doesn’t turn up to work for any reason – and this is an extremely common occurrence – no one else can give you your mail, even though it’s sitting there..) The PO box costs 68 birr for the year – just over 2 quid. Not exactly a lot, but on the other hand, 2/3 of a day’s salary for me. Anyway, I go to see if there is anything for me, and there are 3 lovely-looking packets…cue major excitement! (Remember , not much happens here.) Unfortunately there seems to be a problem. My PO box seems to have ‘expired’ and they won’t give me my parcels. After a lot of confusion, gesticulating and really bad Amharic on my part, I ascertain that despite my receipt saying I have my PO box until Feb 2014, everybody’s ran out in July. It’s the rules… OK, whatever, I’ll just pay for another year, chigar yelem…BUT THEN, they want to charge me a penalty fine because I’m late paying for the next year! WTF!!! After a lot more confusion, gesticulating (in particular pointing at the clear date on my receipt – to which the woman shrugs, and says she didn’t write it – she’s not lying, she’s new ), and even more bad Amharic from me, I realise that this is a battle I cannot win, and that my wish to see what’s inside my parcels is far stronger than my principal of not getting taken for a ride. So, I pay up, take my parcels, say thank you and walk back to college, (wondering all the time why I bothered to argue over less than 3 quid, and worried that I’ve got Emebet’s (post office woman’s) back up. I need to keep her sweet – she’s my link to peppermint tea bags, cereal bars and other necessities from the developed world…)
Incidentally, I don’t think it helped my case that I mixed up the Amharic word for ‘mistake’ and ‘monkey’…Unsurprisingly, she didn’t seem convinced, just completely baffled when I kept bleating, “But it’s your monkey! Not my monkey – your monkey!” Oh dear…
8) Trouser-terror! I can’t really explain this better, but recently, while visiting Debbie in Assosa (6 hours away by car, and the capital of my region), I found myself cowering in a local’s house, trying to escape from a well-known crazy man who attacks ferenji women who wear trousers. Apparently, he cuts the legs off (the trousers, not the ferenj) with a pair of big scissors he always carries round with him…. Fortunately, my friend (she was fine – she had a skirt on) and I were able to hide until the mentalist disappeared, so my pantalon remained intact.
9) And the weirdest thing of all this month…wait for it…I had a night out …with other people!!!…. in Gilgel Beles!!!! Seriously, I was out til after midnight and I had more than 2 beers!!! Go me!!! Yes, flushed with the success of the coffee ceremony for male students, I went out for a few drinks with the speaker and his colleagues, and it was almost like a normal night out (except for the music selection and the squat toilet…) As we walked (stumbled) back, one of the guys said, “Ahh, intoxication..”, and I’m thinking ‘yeah, I remember this…’)
So it’s been a month of brilliant bizarreness / bizarity / ??? I’m never bored here (and I usually have a really low boredom threshold) – even when I don’t do anything. I realised this month that I love it here, and it’s going to be really hard to leave!
Suzie’s Ark Photo Gallery
(NB. These are only a fraction of my current creature tenants…)