Stories from the Road: Kristie in Ethiopia!
I’m back in Addis Ababa after spending 10 days out in the rural area of Begi, in Western Wologa. It feels strange to be back in a city with buildings and cars and showers and plumbing! Turning on a switch and having a light go on (Begi was out of electricity the past 5 days and we had only a couple of intermittent hours before that), turning a faucet and having water come out… these are utter luxuries! And it’s not so common here in Addis for a goat or cow to wander in the room during lunchtime!
My brain and heart are full of a broad, colorful palette of diverse experiences from these past days.
The time with the fistula patients was amazing. We drove out to different villages nearly every day to tell them about the meeting we wanted to have all together at the BGS compound. Living out in mud and stick huts they don’t have cell phones, so there was a lot of logistical legwork even letting them know about our plan. Some of the women we talked to directly, a few we brought back with us, and to others we sent word via other villagers or family members since it would have taken too long to hike all the way out to their locations.
This past Friday was a full day of meeting together in Circle. I’d hoped there would be 8 fistula patients present (all of them are uncured), but only 5 were able to come. (One got the day wrong and showed up the next day with a brand new baby, the result of a rape 9 months ago, and both before and after this pregnancy she’s been leaking urine uncontrollably like the other women. Now she’s really in a bad state with a new infant and little energy or support, and the man is denying all charges. Please keep her in your prayers…)
Our day in Circle was really transformative for all of us. I set up the space with wooden benches in a circle with a small table with a candle, my blue headscarf, and multi-colored construction paper hearts and butterflies with everyone’s name around the center. I also taped more hearts and butterflies on the walls and on the back of the benches and it looked quite colorful and festive.
The women of course, (even Diribe, the Ethiopian fistula project manager who is well educated) didn’t have any idea of what Circle was about, but I explained that the traditional model of leadership was triangular with one person at the top of the pyramid (typically male) disseminating knowledge to the others. Conversely, Circle is about the power being lateral, being able to see each other’s faces, and everyone having an equal voice (foreigner, Oromo, male, female, etc.)
The women seemed to really resonate with that idea which was hardly surprising since these fistula patients rarely, if ever, get a voice in their own families or communities. I explained about the power of the center of the circle that provides energy and grounding. I had a red construction paper heart for a talking piece, so that whoever was talking could speak freely without interruption. I brought some small bells from India that make a gorgeous, resonant, crystal “dinnnnnnng” sound that they all liked tremendously and had fun trying out.
We did a check-in with each woman’s name and what she was hoping for during the day (sharing, support, hope) and then launched into our stories. A couple of them I knew already (Ajayibe, Melesen), but some of the others were so tough to hear. One young woman named Ayalu lost her mother to some kind of stomach disease, and after her delivery Ayalu was leaking both urine and feces. Her father and mother-in-law threw stones at her and didn’t feed her for a month, hoping, I imagine, that she would just disappear. Ayalu was sobbing as she recounted all of this, and even though her words were in Oromo I could tell from the other women’s reaction (tears, hiding their faces in their headscarves, clucking, looking distressed) that it was a really tough situation. I just kept focused on the flame in the center, sending energy, holding space, waiting for the translation, and the eventual bell…
It was a full, emotional morning of stories like that, and Diribe and I intentionally shared some personal challenges that leveled the playing field a bit too. There were moments when I wondered if the Circle really could hold the deep level of pain that was present. These women have been through so much, (and continue to live with so much!) that I could only lean in and trust that a power greater and stronger than me was present.
We took a coffee and tea break, and then moved into some beadwork for some creative, lighter collaboration. The women were so excited by the memory wire bracelets that they could make into their own personal creations, and Melesen was proudly wearing the necklace she’d made last fall during my previous visit. I was really touched when one of the fistula patients made a necklace for ME. Really sweet!
After lunch we had some great conversation together about their ongoing challenges and some creative solutions. We talked about the possibility of 2 fistula patients living together to help support one another and to share with their income generation projects. For a time it seemed like Ajayibe, who has received a flock of sheep but doesn’t have her own hut, and Ayalu who has her own hut but doesn’t yet have any sheep, could come together even though they live in different places. I asked what the other women thought about this and reactions were varied. One thought a new, neutral location would be best. Another said that fistula patients are always discriminated against and if they both lived where no one at all could be an advocate that there was nothing to keep anyone from coming in and stealing their animals and leaving them even more vulnerable.
Eventually the women decided on their own that both Ajayibe and Ayalu wanted to stay put in their respective villages. But Ajayibe wants her own hut, and Ayalu wants animals as a means of self-reliance. Both said that they would feel safe and secure enough with this additional support. I was so proud of the thought process and the collaboration that went into this decision, and the end of the day was filled with bright smiles, renewed hope, some small gifts I’d brought, and portraits of all. The Circle held, and I’m profoundly grateful for every single aspect of the day.
The next day we arranged transport back home for the women (they’re not typically allowed on public transport since they’re leaking), talked with the husband who had come to bring Melesen back, and drove a couple of them directly. Diribe and I also drove to the junction where Ajayibe lives and hiked a couple of hours out in the mud and rain to Ajayibe’s village so that we could see her new flock of sheep, meet her family, etc. It was a bit of a slog, and Ajayibe was barefoot, but we made it ok, despite all of the camera, video, and NPR audio equipment that I was schlepping.
We paused along the way for me to do some recording for NPR, and I can only hope that this is the last time that Ajayibe will need to recount her heartbreaking story of hanging herself from a tree, being rescued, and her 3 unsuccessful surgical attempts at fistula repair. It’s tough, tough, tough, stuff.
It did seem to be a very good thing that we made the effort at hiking out to her home, however, since the reaction of the villagers to a foreigner is that they are a blessing from God. So, if there is a foreigner coming to Ajayibe’s house, then she must be blessed (kind of a karmic twist since previous opinions had been that because Ajayibe ended up with fistula then she must be cursed.) I was the first foreigner to have ever been there.
The hut, like most all of the others, was made of mud and sticks, though it had metal sheeting for a roof. Still, it was very elemental with one grimy straw mattress on the floor that all share (so it’s understandable that no one wants Ajayibe there since she’s continuously leaking urine on their bed) with chickens wandering in and out, and the occasional rat running in and out of the walls. We had some good conversation with her father, uncles, grandmother, brother, and cousins, all of whom kept staring at me in disbelief and taking in every little detail of my appearance and expression: the gluey mud on my REI pants and boots, the bead necklace at my throat, my wet hair, my hopefully-supportive-and open-minded smile. We had a very basic lunch of injera made from sorghum instead of tef (SUCH a personal relief for me after 3 meals a day of the typical injera!) and coffee with salt instead of sugar, which is the custom in the countryside.
After a couple of hours Diribe and I, along with the father, and uncle, and a brother, began the hike back to the main road where our driver Gizaw was waiting. I insisted that Ajayibe not make the barefoot hike AGAIN, so she and I had a very tearful goodbye at the edge of the maize field. She wouldn’t stop hugging and kissing me, and I had such a surge of emotion and sense of protection toward her well up that I could barely see for the first ¼ mile or so. God, please keep this woman (and all the others) protected, and help her have a hut of her own as soon as possible!
I can’t sign off without relaying a little bit about the other cultural bits from Begi:
I had thought that during my time in Begi I was also going to be attending my friend and colleague Tsega’s wedding; I didn’t realize that I would be an actual part of it! He rented a traditional Oromo outfit for me: a long white skirt and a white one-shouldered tunic with a colorful sash and white beaded jewelry for my neck, arm, and forehead. I was, in essence, a member of his groom’s party, which put me in the unique position of being able to move fairly seamlessly across gender roles and to be accepted with both the men and the women.
An Ethiopian wedding has events over 5 days, (and longer than that, really, since it all begins with the “ring ceremony” when both families come together and formalize the wedding intention.) But that ring ceremony happened a couple of months ago.
I helped the women outside the main house with peeling garlic and potatoes, trying my hand at pouring injera batter onto the metal pans over open fires, and chuckling at our hopeless language skills. Tsega’s mother is such a dear; she’s a round, huggable grandmotherly type with bright eyes and apple-doll cheeks. We couldn’t communicate linguistically at all but liked each other a great, great deal and I could tell that she had a saucy sense of humor!
The days up until the wedding had lots of feast preparations (including the slaughtering of an enormous oxen which up until then had been peacefully munching grass under a mango tree in the back of the compound.) There were also a dozen chickens wandering around and at one point I heard a loud “cluck” only to look over and see one lying on the ground, headless! Then 5 more of his/her friends joined the headless-chicken lineup. Then followed the defeathering and disemboweling and cooking of the creatures…. I have to say I had renewed appreciation for my garlic clove job at that point!
The night before the wedding I went with the groomsman to Margitu’s house (the bride) with a huge suitcase full of loot. Tsega wasn’t there; it was just his friends, and Margitu wasn’t visible (she was hidden behind a curtain), but all of Margitu’s family was there in a formal line-up, and her bridesmaids were there to receive all of the gifts that were brought out one by one, for close inspection. One of the gals was clearly the main one in charge and she was very good at her role: unsmiling, serious, skeptical, questioning everything.
There were all kinds of gifts: (dresses, skirts, shawls, sweaters, underthings, cosmetics, jewelry, shoes, etc.) and with each item the main bridesmaid would question the guys about why this or that, did they really think that sweater matched that skirt? What was this kind of cosmetic for? With one filmy nightgown that seemed to be too big she asked if they thought Margitu was fat? And on and on.
The poor guys were sweating: they didn’t seem to know much about fashion or cosmetics, and I wished that I could speak Oromo since I could have helped them out more! But the biggest discrepancy came when there was only one shoe from a particular set: a sparkly, high-heeled shoe that was clearly meant to be for Margitu’s wedding outfit. Were the guys trying to take advantage of Margitu’s family? What did they think only bringing one shoe?? Surely a bride’s family could never accept a groom who would be so careless with his gifts!
Eventually it was confessed that the bridesmaid had come over to Tsega’s house earlier in the day and stolen the second shoe so that it would be missing, and with great laughter and conviviality all relations were restored. We were served dinner, and eventually that evening was complete!
The wedding day itself had so many parts… cooking and ox slaughtering in the morning, final decorations; then the groomsman, Tsega, and Kristie driving through Begi town in decorated cars honking, honking, honking, letting everyone know that there was a wedding afoot. Then we went to Margitu’s house with more honking, singing, and dancing, to collect Margitu and the bridesmaids. Then more honking, honking, honking through town on the way to the church where there was a ceremony of dancing, singing, vows, etc. Then more honking, honking, honking through town where all of the wedding party ended up in a big field for photos and some cheesy videography by a local guy. Then honking, honking, honking back to Tsega’s compound with more singing and dancing and fireworks where the wedding party plus about 300 more guests entered a big tent for feasting and more ceremony.
The main public event of the evening finished late by singing and dancing the bride and groom to their wedding chamber (i.e. a decorated mattress laid down on the floor of a room in the house while everyone laughed and waited outside the door.) I left at this point since it had been an incredibly long day, but Tsega had told me that people often stay until the couple “graduates” as he put it. Quite a different format than in the USA where the couple rides off into the sunset to a private hotel suite! But then everything is so much more communal here… ahem….
This is turning into an epistle so I’ll sign off here. I’ve scheduled lots of meetings here in Addis for my final couple of days: at the Hamlin Midwife College, with the Norwegian Mission Society (NMS) which has been supporting efforts in Begi for years and with whom it feels strategic to connect, with Lule from Healing Hands of Joy, and with other folks who are supportive and strategic to the fistula efforts. Tomorrow is also my final connection with Greg from NPR before we both head back to our respective homes: he back to Nairobi to his wife and son, and me back to Seattle!
Thanks so much for your continued support, prayers, encouragement, and virtual presence on this continually unfolding journey!
Lots of love to all,