Meaning

The last week has been a bit less of a whirlwind than the previous, which has afforded me time to think. The pervasive, reoccurring theme in my thoughts has been meaning. As you may have gathered from my previous post, almost every name in Ethiopian culture is meaningful, which is often shared during the initial meeting and greeting. “Hello, my name is _______, which means________.” Similarly, everything in the church has a meaning. Now, when I say that everything has a meaning I mean EVERYTHING. There are often multiple, layered meanings; this holds true for names, objects, designs, ideas, you name it. This has become a bit of a joke between the American fellows and some of our Ethiopian colleagues. Be careful when you ask an Ethiopian Orthodox Christian what something in the church means, you better have some time to sit and listen. Adino, the name of one of our colleagues, means healer. His mother had a particularly difficult pregnancy and labor and when he was born, her health improved dramatically. Her improvement was attributed to the arrival of this baby boy, this “healer.” One of my favorite “meaningful” explanations thus far was in response to my inquiry as to why Orthodox churches are round. The answer was that the round shape represents the world, and the fact that God’s grace has no boundaries… or something like that.

In the midst of my thoughts and reflections about meaning I started reading the book of Ecclesiastes. One of our less religiously observant, Ethiopian colleagues mentioned that it was his favorite book in the Bible. He likes the way it contradicts the meaning ascribed to life throughout much of the rest of the scriptures. Ecclesiastes speaks of the meaninglessness of life and of all our activities on earth, and the backwardness of our world. “There is something else meaningless that occurs on earth: the righteous who get what the wicked deserve, and the wicked who get what the righteous deserve.” As I walk amongst people who live such a drastically different life than my own, and who have arguably received the “what the wicked deserve” undeservedly, I sit with Ecclesiastes. I sit with uncomfortable questions left unanswered and frustrations unsettled. Comfort and explanation evade me and somehow the unease feels right, appropriate. I am trying to embrace the complexity of this place and lean into the questions, even if I know there will be no answers. In the midst of the “meaning” ascribed to all things here, I acknowledge meaninglessness. Ironically, the question that I end up with is, “what does meaninglessness mean?”

On a lighter note, Kate and I had a rather humorous weekend as we attempted to make a cake for our colleague, Getahun’s upcoming birthday. Luckily we had designated this a trial run because we failed miserably. The main culprits, among many were the wrong oil, and “butter” that absolutely could not have been intended for human consumption. We laughed and learned from our baking woes and on the up side our hunt for ingredients gifted us with some very fresh milk and some new friends.

This morning we had the privilege of attending a lecture by Kefyalew given to third year medical students. It was fun to see our colleague up front commanding the attention of his students. He spoke about the cascade of disease transmission and primary, secondary and tertiary disease prevention… what a necessary and vital topic for these students! They were attentive and participatory throughout Kefyalew’s well prepared lecture.

The upcoming week holds a visit to the Woleka clinic where the original SCOPE Soul Fathers project was implemented as well as a visit to the North Gondar Diocese. As my thoughts meander from the mundane to meaningful, I look forward to the activities and experiences that lie ahead, and the continued unanswered questions that will undoubtedly meet me.

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 What Kate and I looked like for most of the week.

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Dr. Getahun, who always greets us with a warm smile and shares his office and desk with us.

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Notice the scale. The presence of scales in the street stems from the original HIV/AIDS outbreak in Ethiopia when people monitored their weight as a way to measure disease progression.

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In other news, the hair didn’t last long…

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Mickey: trusted taxi driver and owner of the barber shop responsible for my fresh do.

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“butter”

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One of the views on our almost daily walk to the hospital where Getahun and Kefyalew work.

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Kefyalew in this morning’s lecture.

 

Surprises

Today was a day full of surprises. I woke at 6:15 and headed out for my first run. The first surprise came in the form of an Ethiopian running partner. A young man dressed in blue jeans, an Obama T-shirt and plastic sandals spotted me from across the road and began running along with me. Soon he made his way across the street and ran next to me for about a mile or so. I huffed and puffed while his sandals scuffed along the ground and he sounded as if he could carry on a perfectly normal conversation while keeping pace. Eventually he said, “go, go” and turned back. We exchanged smiles, shook hands and I said a quick thanks and continued on.

The next surprise came when Kefyalew, the Ethiopian SCOPE fellow picked me up in a Land Cruiser for our morning trip to visit the Dabat Health Center, located about an hour outside of Gondar toward the Simien mountains. His sweet wife, Ferehewete, meaning fruit and his friend and colleague, Adino, whose name means healer, accompanied him. Kefyalew and Adino implemented the second chapter of the Soul Fathers project at the Dabat Health Center beginning around 2 months ago. I was under the impression that we would simply be touring the clinic, but I soon found out that this was an official monthly meeting with the priests and religious women who had been trained to teach their communities about the importance of antenatal care, assisted births, HIV transmission, prevention and treatment and a few other complimentary topics. I was again pleasantly surprised when all of the priests and religious women showed up for the meeting, relatively on time and Kefyalew, who is small in stature took command of the room. The respect for Kefyalew and the project was palpable. The highest ranking priest who had recruited the other participants reinforced the church’s support for this important project. According to Kefyalew he referred to these health teaching activities as a very important part of their priestly duty and emphasized the importance of integrating the teachings into their routine. The meeting concluded after about 2 hours.

From there I expected we would head back to Gondar for an afternoon of reflective note taking and project planning; however, I was surprised to find that we had been asked to a coffee ceremony at Adino’s mother’s or brother’s house in Debark, abot 20 minutes further north and the jumping off point for trekking in the Simien mountains. I was very thankful for our Land Cruiser as we made our way through the mud to Adino’s brother’s house. His eldest brother Meseret, whose name means foundation, insisted on hosting us. The coffee ceremony was absolutely beautiful and was performed by Meseret’s wife, named Zena, whose name means news or good news. The coffee was hands down the best coffee I have ever tasted! Smooth, dark, earthy flavors with a flawless finish left my palate begging for more.

After leaving Meseret and Zena’s house, I was sure that we would be heading back to Gondar. After all, the trip had already gone on far longer than expected. Kefyalew surprised me with the news that we would first head further into the mountains so we could see a road called the Lima Limo road named after the Italian man who designed the windy path through the mountains. I went along in confusion as to why he would want us to see a road. Well, I was again thankful for our Land Cruiser and trusty driver as we barreled first up then down the very muddy road, hugging the side of a beautiful, lush green mountain. The road was not the point. The view was spectacular. We took some moments to take pictures and ogle at the unbelievably gorgeous landscape. I also managed to teach our new Ethiopian friends about jumping pictures.

As we left the “road” I was sure we were headed straight for Gondar. I was mostly right this time aside from a quick stop to buy the most exquisite honey and another to pick up a sick child and his parents who required transport to Gondar for care. We finally arrived back in Gondar 11 hours after we left.

This day taught me so many things. My conversations and observations were priceless. My heart is happy and my soul sings sweetly as the day draws to a close. I can only imagine the lessons and surprises that lay ahead. Now it is time for sleep. It has been a long day.

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A view from the drive to the clinic.

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One of the priests giving his report.

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Some of the women and priests being restocked with green, antenatal care referral cards to give to the pregnant women they talk to in their communities.

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Coffee ceremony – The beans being crushed with a mortar and pestle after roasting over the fire and the water heated and the pour

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The view from Lima Limo Road.

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Our most successful jumping picture – clearly we have work to do!

First Few Days

I’m sitting here watching the World Cup sipping a beer… not too bad. The last few days have been nothing short of a whirlwind. The trip over was relatively uneventful aside from Kate’s swollen ankles and lots of salty airplane food. When we landed in Gondar we were greeted by Dr. Getahun’s warm smile in his gray Toyota, which carried us to our place of residence for the next three months. After being wowed by the beauty of the countryside, I was pleasantly surprised by the size of our apartment along with the presence of running water and flushing toilets! On our first night we met up with Nancy and Peggy, the co-directors of SCOPE, for a meal and a drink. We, not surprisingly slept very well that night.

Our first full day began at 8 a.m. with a meeting at the University of Gondar Hospital. After meeting Peggy and Nancy we sat Dr. Sisay’s office to discuss financial matters. I floated through the rest of the morning until we met with a group of interested parties from the University of Gondar in the afternoon. This was when the excitement hit. My enthusiasm became hard to contain when we arrived at the Woleka clinic and received a tour from Dagne, the clinic administrator. Walking through the exam rooms and finishing in the birthing room, I had to remind myself that there would be time for all of my burning questions.

The last few days have been filled with meetings, meals and more thoughts than could ever be put on paper. My mind is still reeling as I attempt to digest all that I have seen, heard and felt. In the end I am unbelievably thankful to be here. I found myself thinking, I wish that I had 6 months instead of just 3. Tomorrow we will visit a second SCOPE site and then head out to visit a Food for the Hungry project in rural Gaiynt on Sunday. Now, it’s time for sleep so I can put my full energies toward tomorrow’s activities.

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Dagne showing us the flip chart the Woleka clinic uses to teach the importance of male partner participation in antenatal care and HIV testing.