Thursday, December 10, 2009

In Limbo

I awoke this morning to the sound of a hammer pounding somewhere in the distance. For a moment, I wracked my mind for an idea of which patient might have died. Then, it slowly dawned upon me: It wasn't a coffin being slapped together in the morgue next to our house. I wasn't in Gimbie. I was in Maine, and I was listening to my father-in-law tinker around in his workshop.

Yesterday, I was sitting on the couch, cozily watching the falling snow out the window. My eyes lighted on an oddly-shaped object high up in one of the pine trees. For a moment, I craned my neck to see whether or not the monkey was carrying a baby. Then, it dawned upon me: It wasn't a colobus high up in the tree. It was the stump from a black branch, dusted with white snow.

Much of my life has been spent in limbo between cultures. Pausing at intervals to re-align my brain to the changed environment is nothing new. But it doesn't make it any easier. It's hard to peel a banana, expecting a delicious sweet taste, and be met with Costa Rican cardboard. It's hard to begin a hospital narrative to a group of friends, and have to include so many explanations and descriptions. It's hard to be surrounded by such affluence.

But, no matter how hard it is, it's worth it. It's totally worth it. The joy on my mother's face when I give her a hug - in person - is worth all the culture shock. The joy on the faces of the hospital staff when I return to Ethiopia will be worth it too. Praise God for cultures. Praise God for people. Praise God for an ever-broadening world view.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Official transaction

I looked at my watch. It was 4:20 pm. The library wasn't supposed to close until 5:00, but the lady behind the desk was getting ansy. I was the one and only patron, and had been there all afternoon reading old mission stories and nature books. But, I wasn't finished yet. I had just discovered an old Sam Campbell classic and wanted to enjoy its contents. I glanced out the window to see if Paul was around. Nope, no sign of him. Too bad... he would love to page through this old favorite too. I sighed. The chance that Paul would show up before closing time was extremely minuscule. Wouldn't it be nice if I could actually check this book out of the library? I had tried to check a different book out of the library several days ago, and had been refused. I looked at the lady again. Maybe in her ansy state, things would be different today...

Cautiously, I approached the desk.
"Do you mind if I check this out?"
Her brow furrowed. "No, sorry. Not possible."
I donned my most adorable, innocent face. "Are you sure?"
"Yes, sorry. Books are only allowed in the library."
"I promise I will bring it back."
There was a long pause while she wrestled with her conscience.
"...Okay. But! Not tonight. Tomorrow."
"Yes, tomorrow."
I gushed forth bounteous exclamations of gratitude and returned the book to its shelf.

I won't deny I was a little puzzled. Why had she asked me to wait until tomorrow? Did she need to borrow a computer in order to register me on a network? Maybe she had forgotten the library stamp at home? Perhaps she needed special permission from the Union president?

The next day, I returned to the library with curious anticipation. Retrieving the book from the shelf, I ceremoniously carried it in both hands to the lady's desk. She greeted me with a knowing smile. Then, she solemnly reached into her drawer. I held my breath. After fishing around for a couple minutes, she finally decided on a suitable piece of scratch paper. She licked the end of her pen and glanced up at the book in my hands. Her eyes narrowed behind her glasses. "What is the title?" "Too Much Salt and Pepper," I said. The dictating needed several repetitions but eventually she got it. Below the title she wrote, "Name:-" and "Signature:-" She almost forgot to write the date, but remembered right before she handed me the pen. "2 December 2001" Then it was my turn. I dutifully wrote and signed my name in the indicated areas. She sniffed her approval after examining my contribution. "Okay," she said, "bye bye!" "bye!" I replied, and left with my book under my arm. No stamp. No return date. No registration. I had officially checked-out a book from the Union library.

Saturday, November 21, 2009


It was Sunday afternoon, and Mom and I were both starving. We eagerly climbed the stairs to Lalibella Resteraunt, the rich scent of Ethiopian berberri wafting from the upper floor and filling our minds with giddy thoughts of good food.

“This is the best place to get beyaineut.” I informed Mom as we seated ourselves by a window, “They bring it out in individual steaming pots and you can fill your plate endlessly. I’m always stuffed by the time…”

“What would you like?” the waitress was already standing by our table.

“Two beyaineut, please!” I said without hesitation. Beyaineut is the traditional Ethiopian “fasting” platter. “Fasting” means that you aren’t given any meat or dairy – good news for vegans. Typically, a beyaineut consists of several rolls of injera* opened up on a large, communal platter, topped with at least six or seven different weuts* - firfir*, shiro*, misira*, gomen*, kik*, and either potatoes or cabbage or a spicy tomato salsa. A hollowed-out kariya pepper stuffed with garlic and onions is usually served as an additional appetizer. My mouth watered as I envisioned my upcoming meal…

“I’m sorry,” the waitress said, “we do not have beyaineut today.” My heart sank.

“Are you sure?”


“You cannot make it special for us?”

“No, I’m sorry. Only Wednesday and Friday.” Wednesday and Friday are weekly fasting days for devout Orthodox church-goers. I sighed.

“Well, I guess I will have shiro then.” Shiro is the vegetarian’s faithful standby. It’s super cheap, takes two minutes to cook, and is mighty delicious. Most resteraunts can whip it up for you in heartbeat, even if they didn’t have any prepared ahead of time.

“I’m sorry, no shiro today.”


“No, sorry.”

“You can’t just go buy some for us really quick?”

“No, sorry.”


“No.” I looked at Mom. She smiled patiently and began looking at her menu again.

“Well, maybe we’ll each get a salad.” She suggested.

“Okay.” The woman shuffled away with her menus under her arms to see about our salads. I apologized to Mom, and she assured me that it was no trouble at all, and we would just come back on Wednesday for beyaineut. The woman returned in a few minutes.

“Sorry sorry, but no salad today.”




“Yes. It is Sunday, we could not buy vegetables.” I was about ready to storm out of the joint in a huff, but Mom persevered. She took the menu once more.

“Do you have fasting pizza?” She inquired. The woman’s eyes lit up.

“Yes yes yes!” She crowed delightedly. So, we had fasting pizza – crust, tomatoes, peppers, and canned mushrooms.

On Wednesday we returned. Still no beyaineut.

* Large, spongy, sour-dough tortilla
* General term for sauces
* Crumbled injera, sautéed in tomato and onion
* Lentils
* Greens
* Split peas

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Hurry Up and Wait

Today is typical day for Gimbie staff visiting Addis. We each have five different things on our lists of things to be accomplished. However, none of them can be done. Either the machine isn't working, or the signature is missing, or the office is closed, or the person is on annual leave... So, we're chilling in our crowded room at the Union guest house, listening to Bach organ and brass music on my computer. We plan to walk five kilometers up the road and visit Bambis - Ethiopia's largest import store (about half the size of a typical Safeway)- in order to add some excitement to our day.