One Month in Nepal – Part 2 

When booking the bus to Pokhara, I was told to get the “tourist bus” because it’s quicker and I’ll be there in 6hrs max. LIES! The tourist bus and the local bus are basically the same, one has more character than the other and I’m not talking about the tourist bus. If you are one prone to have motion sickness, then you are in for a ride because Nepali divers are…. Not gonna say it! Come to Nepal and be your own judge. Anyway I said this was gonna be a serious post so let’s get to it.

Warning: I alternated the paragraphs to tell two stories at a time so pls dnt get mad if its annoying to keep track! i just wanted to kill two birds with one stone 🙂

Pokhara is in great proximity to many of the mountains in the Himalayan range so many people visit the area for relaxation and to do some trekking. I really enjoyed the vibe of the town when I arrived, most of the accommodations are right by the Fewa Lake, which made for some great relaxation and journaling time before I decided to make plans on how to proceed. I hadn’t fully decided where to head but after living in the main city areas of Nepal, I wanted to go off the map and see how people live in small villages and towns nestled within the Himalayas, preferably the Annapurna conservation areas. The best way to do this was through trekking because you can’t just waltz into the area without permits and what not. So it was decided! Some adventure in trekking to the Annapurna basecamp and learning experiences of what it’s like to live remotely in the mountains.

Before heading up there, what my time in Kathmandu thought me was that among Nepali’s, the strength of their social fabric and interrelations among families and ethnicities was very important. Considering the theory I’ve been exploring throughout my journey, I could see where the many cultures in Nepal could foster a sense of interdependence (Ubuntu) but I couldn’t really figure out how that would play out in terms of public health. Specifically since many people live in areas removed from several healthcare facilities, I thought it would be great to learn about their perceptions of healthcare since about 85% of the population utilize traditional medicine as their primary form of healthcare. And honestly with Nepal overrun by so many NGOs and tourism oriented organizations, I wanted to see and observe through the eyes of the locals not someone’s annual report- there are legitimate NGOs doing great work in Nepal but I just wanted to do things my way.

Getting the permits was easy but packing for a 10 days of trekking was tough as the lesser things you packed the better your chances of moving faster and smoothly. Apparently and truthfully the higher you went, the colder it got and the weather also unpredictable. Also trekking for 10 days alone in the Himalayas was a different level of loneliness I wasn’t ready for so I made friends with some fellow travelers that were headed my way. The journey started in the town of Nayapul where we walked for several hours- about 7hrs- to the town of Ulleri then the next day about the same time frame to Ghorepani (Poon Hill). The terrain was undoubtedly beautiful and local people you meet along the way even more beautiful and welcoming. Along the way, I noticed that many of the towns at least had a little health center equipped with mainly first aid materials which were mainly utilized on occasions but the people seemed to be generally healthy. Speaking to some locals and some guides who have worked in that region for a while, I found that most traditional Nepali’s utilize two forms of health practices, Ayurvedic Medicine and Folk Medicine, both of which are extensions of traditional practices passed down through lineages and gurus.

Trekking for 9 days to an altitude of 4130 meters, wasn’t all sunny and fun as it sounds, from one town to the next, the landscapes were either extremely steep of very downhill. At some points I felt like I would have fallen down had it not been for my awesome bamboo walking stick. The weather was incredibly moody, occasionally it would seem cloudy but then nothing would happen so my traveling buddies and I would just ignore it. However, on the 5th day, while walking through a really beautiful forest full of faunas and orchids, we got caught in the middle of a rain and hail storm. The sad thing was we had only 25 minutes of walking before the next town but it felt like forever as the hills were steep and the weather kept getting crazier. We arrived in the town Himalaya all soaked up and freezing because as the temperatures get lower the higher we went. It was a miracle that none of us got sick because we were literally drenched and the next day we had to proceed with mostly wet clothes- thank goodness I had one last pair of dry socks.

In each if the towns we visited and passed through, I often times didn’t get to talk to as much people as I wanted but in the towns that I stayed in, I occasionally met some people who were great to talk to. Generally after they fulfill their curiosities about what I was doing in around there, they were very chatty even with little English and shared what they thought about current situations in Nepal and their villages. In one conversation with a lady, she told me about how many Nepali communities have gradually become reliant on the help of NGOs for most of their health and development issues. Thinking about her comment now, I could certainly see why so because there aren’t many local people who can afford to take the initiative to shoulder an organization to benefit his/her community no matter how deep their sense of motivation and dedication is. Thus most people would rather be affiliated with outside NGOs than start up something from the very grassroots by themselves. Nevertheless I’d have to say I can see locals being able to champion change through health initiatives because there’s just a really interwoven sense of lived realities in Nepal that makes it definitely possible.

Oh yeah! So getting to the basecamp was quite an exciting feat. The terrain only got snowier after we got beat up by the hail but at the basecamp it was really beautiful with tons of snowy peaks all around and the occasional noises of avalanches around- no big deal! Sike! It was low-key scary! The sunrises at the basecamp were also to die for and really surreal, I hope the photos do give you a sense of it. Descending from the basecamp took us two days because although everything was great! Wearing the same clothes for long stretches of days on occasionally skipping showers (hot showers were expensive) made me feel icky. Anyway being back in Pokhara was great, I did feel a great sense of accomplishment in having gotten more data for my research and also getting to see the Himalayas so up close and personal. At this point, I had a few days left before I have to get ready for Myanmar so after nursing my many joint pains with Tiger baIm, I took a short trip to Lumbini (To see the Birthplace of Buddha) which was really great but also tiring because the 7hr bus ride felt like bumper cars without the bumping.

Alright! I’m tired of typing and you’re probably tired of reading so you’ll have to ask me other details about this journey/stories in person- hahaha! Nepal has been really great to me and I’ve had a really amazing time living here and getting to know the people. I’ll definitely be back later for more amazing food, adventures and to b among such friendly people. Next week I’ll be in Myanmar, where I’m only allowed to stay 28 days but I may or may not break the law and stay a bit longer for a daily fine of $3. Until next time! Namaste!

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One Month in Nepal – Part 1

Arriving in Kathmandu at 1pm after a 23hr layover Delhi left me too drained to want to do anything so what did I do? I slept for passed out for 8hrs and of course I missed Maha Shivaratri (Night of Lord Shiva), which is a Hindu festival celebrating the reverence of Lord Shiva. I actually found out about this festival when I woke up to find the hostel almost empty because all the backpackers left to go watch the celebrations- I also found out that people smoke a lot of marijuana at the festival so I guess that explains why the hostel was empty. Anyway I was staying in Thamel because my earlier research suggested that was the place to gain some orientation before moving on to other parts of the country. I knew I’d meet some fellow travelers but I guess I wasn’t ready for the swarms of deadlocked blondies (not the neat kind of dreadlocks but the one that says I’ve given up everything to go find myself) in saggy clothes who spend most of their days doing yoga, smoking weed and eating mo:mo’s. Okay there might be a bit of generalization here but trust me I’m not lying, those guys and girls are actually cool and easy to talk to – when they’re not blowing smokes of macroaggression in your face.


Okay some seriousness. I spent about a week in Kathmandu, which was longer than I wanted but nevertheless a very good exposure to Nepal. I structured my own walking tours which led me to the Durbar Squares in Kathmandu and its sister-city Patan. The plan was to take in the atmosphere while seeing the changes around the city because even in a taxi ride to my hostel, I could feel how much impact the earthquake in 2015 has had on the city. Walking around, you can see multiple destroyed buildings and several scattered rubbles all around but what’s more visible than this damage in the spirit of the Nepali people as they continue to carry on their seemingly peaceful daily lives. Since Thamel in known to be the tourist/trekker spot, the streets are lined with crazy traffic, multiple trekking gear shops, tons of booking agencies, etc. However, further down to the Durbar Square area of Kathmandu are glimpses of normal Nepali life with the several rows of ladies selling strawberries, sweets and other food items (fun observation: The men normally sell oranges and pomegranates while the women usually see grapes and strawberries).


The Durbar Square in Kathmandu was really nice but most of the structures had been destroyed by the earthquake- some were repairable while others were sadly gone forever. Oh! FYI Durbar square is the name given to plazas or areas opposite old royal Palaces, they mainly consist of temples, idols of all shapes and lots of birds! I really enjoyed walking around the Durbar Square even though there were about a billion eyes following me every step I took. The Durbar Square in Patan was actually my favorite, it wasn’t as crowded and a lot of the structures weren’t really affected by the earthquake. What made me enjoy Patan the most was the several alleyways surrounding the Durbar Square, It was like every alley led to some new place and there was always some interesting stuff going on. Although people just stared and occasionally asked “where from?” they seemed very nice and approachable which made it easy for me to make some quick acquaintances to gather some info for my project.

Project-wise, I had planned to work with an NGO and stay for about two months in Nepal but I quickly realized that working with NGOs in Nepal is largely a voluntourism business and I am not up for that. So I decided to stay one month, travel by myself, meet people and learn about Nepalese culture and I couldn’t have made a better decision. Volunteering for NGOs are fun but from what I learned in Rwanda, lines soon get blurred and you get sucked in further than you want, which makes leaving and having some independence tough. Any who, I decided to head east to Pokhara after Kathmandu to spend some time among locals and away from the various forms of pollution available in Kathmandu (seriously everyone in the city wears a surgical mask because vehicular pollution and dirt from rubbles is not a good combination for anyone’s lungs)

At this point you must be wondering why I haven’t said anything about Nepali food. Don’t worry I may or may not be stuffing my face with some paneer masala curry and garlic naan while writing this post but just know that the food is really good. Due to proximity and historical factors, a lot of Nepali food has Indian influences but they do hold their own and make it theirs like the famous Dal Bhat which I can’t get enough off- well mainly because you can ask for more when you’re done and its free99!!. I also I think I found my favorite local restaurant already, Western Tandoori, which I’ve frequented every day for lunch and dinner since I arrived in Nepal. They have the best selection of curries and naan in town, also their masala tea is to die for and if you ask nicely, they might hook you up with their masala mix- I didn’t tell you this.

One more thing before I go. Nepali clubs are really fun! Especially the club that may or may not be known as Purple Haze (the name has no hidden subliminals) that has giant painting of Jimi Hendrix on the wall. They regularly feature a live band and it’s it’s… just fucking fun okay so go when you get the chance! End of story. Tune in to my next post which would be a mix of adventure and some seriousness about what I’ve actually learned about Nepal- Oh and awesome photos if I find good internet.

Re-grounding myself/ Facing the realities of change

Let me start by saying that being told by an immigration officer that you can’t go home because “on paper you’re not from here/there” is pretty painful to hear.

That was what I was told by the Ghanaian consulate in Rwanda when I wanted to apply for a visa to visit Ghana for the Christmas holidays and also because I haven’t been there since I left 8 years ago. The immigration requirements are pretty ridiculous and unnecessary so basically if one doesn’t apply from their home country- in my case the U.S. – it’s pretty impossible to visit the country. Oh and get this, it’s freaking 2016 and they don’t offer visa on arrival for anyone regardless of country.  Anyway being frustrated and turned down in Rwanda didn’t deter me so one of the first thing I did when I got to Ethiopia was to visit the Ghana high commission and pretty much grovel to be considered for a visa to go home. Thankfully the guy in charge was very understanding and asked for a copy of my mom’s passport before he would consider me for a visa. Before I started my project and traveled around Ethiopia in early December, I turned in application and around a week before the end of January, I got a call that I had been granted a visa- I don’t know how to do a back flip but if I knew how to, that’s the first thing I would have done. I mean Christmas had passed by then but I was glad that they gave me the chance

Fast forward, after a 10 hour flight I was in disbelief that I was actually in Accra waiting to be picked up by my mom at the airport. I doubt I can use words to fully describe how it felt seeing my mom again after so many years apart but I’ll always remember the words she said when she saw me – “Wow! My baby boy is now a big man”. After a long hug which led to many people at the airport staring awkwardly, we went home and so began a much needed break to ground myself and to relax from doing my project continuously because i was feeling burnt out. On our way home, I think I caught my mom staring at me multiple times- I’m not a fan of being stared at– but it was cool, 8 years is too damn long. Arriving home was followed by a series of phone calls to numerous family members to announce my arrival and receive well wishes in the most Ghanaian/ African way as possible.

My first week back home was filled with endless meals and the trying of new recipes because lord knows my mom couldn’t stop cooking even if she tried. I had lost a good amount of weight from all the delicious vegan dishes in Ethiopia but Ghanaian food is not vegan friendly- annnd my grandma famously said that in Ghana if you don’t eat meat you go deaf. Speaking of my grandmother, I went to visit the wonderful old lady and it really great to see her still smiling, making jokes and being herself even though it was a little sad that she no longer remembered me because of her dementia. Nevertheless, it was honestly good to be back, seeing many people and doing so many familiar things that I hadn’t done in so long. So many things had changed and some were still familiar, some of the changes I saw coming and others were shocking and completely out of the blue.

I can talk about these changes for a long time but I’ll just focus on the one that shocked me the most because it’s more closely related to my project. As the story goes, I’ve always longed to revisit my grandfather’s home town because it’s my upbringing in that community that sparked my interest in public health. Going back there, I had expected to see several changes and perhaps some key developments in how the town looked and the people that lived there but damn! What I saw was totally unexpected. It was like the town was dead! Everyone had left, there were barely any young people around and it felt like all the life that was in town had been sucked out by some crazy vacuum- I believe that vacuum might be the twin brother of globalization.  Also, all the things that made the town feel like home was either falling apart or already gone, all the cocoa crops and the large mangoes trees had been cut down and most of lands were just bare! Not sure if I’d have experienced this change differently if I hadn’t left Ghana but that was one painful experience which I guess relates to the new natural cause of life i.e. globalization and other forms of neocolonialism.

On a lighter note, I passed by my old kindergarten and got the ultimate trip down memory lane when I saw my kindergarten teacher, auntie grace who was still teaching the kids and actually remembered who I was. I mean at this point I felt really old but just imagine how she felt- well she was mainly proud to see someone she helped nurture so grown up and so mature. On the trip back to the central region, I kept thinking about how much I would have preferred to keep my old memories instead of seeing what the town was like now but in a way, I was glad I went because all that change emphasized how much I’ve changed as an individual and how inevitable it is to stop changes from happening. Being back home wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows, there were some harsh realities that I had to face and think about I know I am capable of handling them. With that being said, leaving Ghana again was bittersweet but it was a trip worth taking because I needed to ground myself before continuing this journey and being back home helped with that process a lot.

When leaving home, I figured that I deserved more time off, especially some exploration that wasn’t within areas that weren’t near my project destinations. So I stopped over in Germany to visit friends I met while in Peru which was really fun and relaxing because I can’t say no to beer, especially when it’s a quality German beer. Being in Germany also gave me enough time to reflect more on my project as a whole because I couldn’t possibly do that at home when my mom was constantly making amazing meals – ha-ha! I didn’t do a lot of tourist things in Germany because it was freaking cold but it was still fun to see places like Munich and Berlin and that was it….. Okay that’s not all, I made a short trip to Prague which felt dreamlike because the city is unbelievably beautiful: Oh and of course a trip to Europe wouldn’t be complete without seeing Paris and eating a few baguettes. Having this break was fun but I began to feel guilty because things started to get expensive and also I needed to get to Asia before the monsoon seasons got closer. So I booked my trip to Nepal where I plan to stay for a month before heading to Myanmar. I look forward to bringing you more fun updates soon! Au Revoir!

Democracy or Dictatorship?

Understanding the effects of governmental centrality on healthcare access/provision in Ethiopia

Prior to my arrival in Ethiopia, I did my research to find locally run health NGOs as I previously did in my last two project countries. Now before that, I had theorized that with Ethiopia being the only African country never colonized, things might be very centralized. Unsurprisingly, my search results didn’t turn up any leads worth following- yes! Organizations like UNICEF, Red Cross and WFP are present but it’s hard to get in or reach people working with such organizations.  With that being the issue, I structured my approach to be mainly one of participant observation. Thus I’d pick locations, live there for extended amounts of time, get to know the locals and the lay of the area in an effort to understand the local health situations.

I started out by spending a week in Addis Ababa visiting the school of public health and other leads to get a sense of population’s health in Ethiopia. I didn’t get much information in Addis because I felt like I was in a pinball machine, people just kept bouncing me around to the next person instead of just giving me the information I need- mind you these were mainly professors who teach public health smh!. However, I did learn about the Ethiopian Health Extension Program which suited the kind of public health approach I was looking for. I decided to head eastward to Dire Dawa and Harar where I got a little bit of a better picture about health in Ethiopia- I wouldn’t generalize and apply what I learned east to all of Ethiopia because each part of the country is significantly different from the other.

In the several visits I paid to the local clinics and health centers, I was able to learn quite a lot about the local health situation. For instance, in a city like Harar, there is one main hospital but supporting it are four smaller health centers and other private owned health centers. As with other parts of Ethiopia, the city of Harar utilizes the help of health extension workers to reach populations who are not within the parameters of the city to have access to health centers or hospitals. I wanted to talk to one of these health extension workers, I couldn’t reach any but I was fortunate to learn about them through locals and some administration officers. So in short, these health extension workers are hired by the government for the purpose of providing services to those removed from the urban areas and prominent society- this includes communities that live as nomads like the Afar people.

Each extension worker is assigned to a particular village or a group of houses which they are responsible for monitoring and making sure the people are living healthy lives. Some of the duties of the health workers include providing immunization, counselling on maternal health and teaching locals how to avoid common illnesses and diseases. In talking to the clinic administrators, I was made aware that some of the typical focus of the extension work revolves around regulating behavior changes. This is because in the east and other parts of the country for example, local populations live and sleep in the same house as their farm animals which makes them prone to all kinds of illnesses. It’s really unfortunate that I didn’t actually get to talk to an extension worker because it would have been great to pick their brains and learn about their motivations. Nevertheless, as I traveled further north to continue my research, it became more obvious how important these workers are in maintaining and providing health access.

One of the advantages of living in the communities is being able to pick up on several heath issues that honestly weren’t being addressed. Two issues that stood out to me the most surrounded poor sanitation and the high rate of physical disabilities. In the case of sanitation, its uncommon to visit certain places in Ethiopia where there aren’t any means of proper waste disposals- both human waste and garbage. What makes it worse is that there are very few garbage receptacles around so many people just through garbage anywhere- consequences being a high rate of cholera and other diarrheal disease. I am still trying to understand the case of physical disabilities because I am aware that Ethiopia is close to being free totally free of polio so there aren’t any new cases. However, there are several people, mainly older people with untreated cases of disabilities who currently live on the streets as beggars. Also in speaking to some locals, I was informed that some of the disabilities are mainly as a result of past wars in Ethiopia- that can be true because I’ve seen people without some limbs who are beggars on the street.

Curiously, I asked around why those with disabilities aren’t receiving any formal help from the government- surely in they can reach and help those in remote areas, they can certainly help those in the immediate cities. Well I mainly got mixed answers, some of them I wished were not true- one local in Lalibela told me that people with disabilities are locally stigmatized as “sinners” and looked down upon. This led to my rethinking of health approaches in Ethiopia because if the ministry of health sets the parameters of health outreach then who takes care of where and those that the government and its resources can’t reach? It’s great that the government regulates the few health related organizations that conduct health programs in the country but I am concerned about the lack of local individuals orchestrating their own health NGOs in the country. I haven’t found any different answers to why most services in Ethiopia are so centralized. National pride aside, what happens if the government can’t control everything? The current population is 87million and rising so what happens to those that don’t have access to government services? While in the north, these questions I had become more prevalent in my observations because in the Afar region, people really live off the map and the closest health services are miles and miles away.

I haven’t fully understood everything there is to know about the health system here- I doubt I will- but I’ll keep my ears to the ground and my eyes open for more observations. I would say that I am very impresses with how much the health system works despite being so centralized. Maybe having too many options isn’t all that good?!

Quick Update/News Flash: I’ve had an ample amount of time to process and analyze what I experienced and learned about health/healthcare in Ethiopia and I am fully convinced that on paper, Ethiopia is a democracy but in reality, it’s a full blown dictatorship. That’s honestly the best way to understand many of the realities that Ethiopians live in and it’s no wonder many Ethiopians often seek asylum in other countries because the realities most people face under the government is kept under wraps and people who talk about it do so at their own risk. Furthermore, to emphasize my point about governmental centrality not being plausible, the country’s hunger crisis is on the rise as the current drought is worsening. Ethiopia is still a beautiful/amazing country and I’ll definitely be going back very soon!

The Good the Bad the Ugly: Dealing with close-minded people

Warning! The next white person (Non-American white people included) that tells me “You speak English too well to be Ethiopian (African) might get bitch-slapped some stern words from me”.

Solo traveling is undoubtedly exciting and at times slow but when you’re not eagerly looking for doing touristy things, it can be extremely lonely. While I make use of most of my time getting deeper into my project and exploring places not often covered in guidebooks, it is often great to take short breaks to visit “must see” places to re-situate myself. Visiting “must see” places alone kinda sucks so it’s often great to meet and join up with other travelers even if it’s for a short period of traveling together.

In Ethiopia so far, I’ve met many travelers who were really awesome and spending time together has been so great that it makes my solo return to traveling a bit depressing. But there are those people that you meet that make you wish that the earth would open up and swallow them whole because they just suck. Seriously, I tend to avoid tourists because I just don’t like to deal with the ignorance that some might pack alongside their hiking backpacks. I’m honestly starting to believe that there are some people who should be banned from traveling because of their impatience, close-mindedness, obnoxiousness and stupidity.

Fact! I am not separating myself from tourists just because I am traveling with a purpose and a project but I’ll let you know that I do make sure my brains and sense of cultural relativism/understanding are intact every time I travel.

I don’t want to single out a particular group of people from any country so I’ll just speak wholly about my experiences. Whether you like it or not, we are representative of our countries, and our behavior can reflect on our nations as a whole. That’s why even though you might miss the comfort of your own home or country, it is better to use the “spirit” of travel immersion as a form of self-guidance before screaming at the waitress for not getting your order right or the hotel manager for not speaking “good English”- WTF is good English anyway?. I am 100% sure that I am not the only traveler who has noticed that traveler or those groups of tourists that always to do their best to always stick out like sore thumbs. Anyway, here is a breakdown of three of the most annoying things I’ve experienced among other tourists doing in Ethiopia.

 
Ordering Food: I seriously lost count of the amount of times I’ve sat watching in disbelief as people make ridiculous alterations to “traditional foods” while making orders at restaurants. “Like I want so and so food but hold the pepper, onions, spices – anything that makes the food uniquely Ethiopian or traditional”… Yes! You’ll miss out on a lot if you ignore the local food in favor of what’s familiar to you: always seeking out the burgers, pizza and Caesar salads on a menu. However in trying local food, it is pivotal to keep an open mind and don’t be a nuisance. I’ve seen people send back their orders simply because it didn’t look like what they expected it to be- sheeesh!! Ethiopia isn’t NYC, London or Tel Aviv. Okay! I know people have dietary issues and what-not but there’s a fine line between politely asking for something and screaming at the poor waiter/ress for including something that’s in the recipe. Also just because you’ve accidentally had food poisoning in another African country doesn’t equate the whole continent being bad for dining- if I had a nickel every time I heard a sentence like “I’m skeptical of African dishes…blah blah”… I’d have enough to pay the court fees for slapping someone (I’m actually not a violent person).

Fact! Blending in and conformity are the best forms of flattery when in a new country. No one expects you to be an expert on their culture, but they will appreciate your show of interest in trying to assimilate yourself.

Dumb Generalizations: It’s 2016 and sadly people still think Africa is a country. I recently had to resist the urge to utilize my backhand when a middle-aged white woman said “No I can’t eat that because of the Ebola”. What made it worse is that when I corrected her, she had the nerve to say “oh sorry! You know what I mean”- ummm no I don’t dummy. It literally hurts my soul when I meet people who seem cool at first but miraculously turn into morons when the conversation moves past the “where are you from phase”. While in Addis, I saw a woman struggling to find direction – judging by their north face jackets, running shoes and leggings, I figured she was American- I wasn’t wrong. Being a good-Samaritan, I asked where she were going and helped her out, she proceeded to thank me by saying “Thank you, people here just can’t speak good English or give good directions”- insert the face you make when you’re tired of someone’s stupidity but you don’t want to be bothered.

Aanndd on a personal note, there’s been numerous times that I’ve been approached by tourists because of my Michigan hat, who upon finding out that I’m American jokingly say “AHHH I knew your English was too good for you to be Ethiopian”. I’ve counted 4 instances so far, I don’t know if I’ll have any more self-control left by the fifth instance. Seriously it’s ridiculous, there are some tourists who believe that if they encounter an Ethiopian who speaks fluent English, it means he or she is most likely a crook- I kid you not there are several tourists traveling in Ethiopia right now who believe this absurdity. In the calmest voice I could muster, I often make analogies to show these people how stupid they sound when they make such generalizations. There are those who get and apologize but most of the time, people just pull on their hoodies of white privilege and change the topic.

Over the top Photography: I recently decided to travel to Lalibela to celebrate Gena (Ethiopian Christmas) – Gena is one of the most important celebrations for Orthodox Christians in Ethiopia. Every year devoted Christians from all over make a 14-day pilgrimage by foot to get to Lalibela for the celebrations-its honestly beautiful and touching see how devoted the people are to their traditions. Anyway, knowing that things are pricier during the 3 days of the Gena celebration, I arrived in the town a week early to secure accommodation at the regular price- smart travel 101. The local acquaintances I made told me about the high influx of tourists (faranjis) during Gena but I was honestly blown away about how many people showed up to experience the celebrations. During Gena, is normal to see many pilgrims sleeping around the rock-hewn churches or in groups praying continuously. It is normal to want to capture these moments but of course there are those people who just take it too far.

Fact! Locals and local lives in different cultures are not episodes of a national geographic show. So please ask before you invade someone’s personal space for the good shot.

Now, I’d admit, I love photography and I love getting the perfect shot as much as anyone else would but there are moments when people need to realize that they’re just being rude. I witnessed so many people literally shove their cameras in the faces of priests and pilgrims as if they were creatures in a safari. Most of the priests and pilgrims would be deep in prayers only to have disturbed by the loud talking and camera flashes/shutters of these tourists. I haven’t been to Italy to observe mass with the pope but I can bet that people aren’t as rude and inconsiderate to the worshipers. It gets worse, during a morning mass at the St. George Church, I saw a tourist get mad at a priest for refusing to pose in a photo for him – like seriously??!. I can go on and on but seriously I just wish more people who want to travel to African countries- see what I did there?- would invest an equal amount of time in educating themselves/being open-minded as much as they do in buying guidebooks and fanny packs.

Blackness is Diamond: Understanding Ethiopia the Habesha Way

The title of this post is derived from a conversation I had with an old man in Lalibela. As with many other Ethiopians I’ve met, he thought I could speak Amharic but when I told him “no I don’t speak Amharic but I’m from Ghana”, his response was “oh Ghana? Accra! Black stars! Remember you habesha because you’re black and black is like diamond”. That short interaction was another unique chapter in my effort to fully understand why Ethiopians are so proud of their blackness. Coming from America where ones blackness or skin color is often used as a tool for marginalization, I must say it’s been great living and exploring a country where blackness is held at such a high esteem. As usual, I’ve added some photos because we all know photos on a travel blog is the equivalent of free pizza at a college campus event.

As many foreigners experience when they first arrived in Ethiopia, locals often approach you wanting to know where you’re from in efforts to offer their help. Often times there those cases where the particular individual might just want to make a few bucks off of you instead of actually helping. I’ve had several interesting interactions, both good/bad with such locals who are mainly young men in their 20s and 30s. What stuck out to me the most is the way they approach people depending on whether the person is a “faranji” or “habesha”. Faranji is what locals mainly call Caucasians while habesha is reserved for Africans or people with darker skins. I wouldn’t say there is a sense of discrimination but being that Ethiopians are very proud of their blackness, a habesha is bound to easily assimilate into the society faster.

Anyway, in the first couple of weeks, I would often have people come up to me speaking Amharic or frankly stare at me in confusion when I couldn’t answer their questions in Amharic. In the little English that some could muster up, I’d often hear “you habesha but you not speak Amharic”. Confused, I sort to make it an additional project to find out what this word habesha really meant and what it meant to be one. Since I wanted to get my Watson project started early before the tourist season began, I went east to Dire Dawa and Harar where I spent two weeks doing my project and exploring. Dire Dawa is the second most populous city in Ethiopia but honestly the most peaceful and relaxing of all the places I’ve visited in Ethiopia so far. As it was in Addis, people thought I was Ethiopian, well specifically from the southern part where the people have a wider nose and a darker complexion like I do. Becoming acquainted with the locals over chai (shai) or coffee (bunna) and pizza, I slowly started to learn what habesha means and why many Ethiopians love to refer to each other/fellow Africans as such.

Bear in mind that there’s much more historical meanings associated with the word habesha but for the purpose of this blog, I’ll focus on its social and practical meaning. In short and by definition, habesha means black. In practice, Ethiopians use habesha to denote a sense of common unity- community- with each other based on the fact that they’re all the same by blood and color regardless of ethnicity (Amhar, Afar, Tigray, Oromya, Somali, Gambela, etc.). In my experience as a Ghanaian, they refer to me as habesha because of my skin color and my blood from my African roots. I found this realization very fascinating because in Ghana and other African countries I’ve visited, I’ve never felt or experienced the sense of pride locals have in the fact that they are black and African- It’s honestly quite beautiful. As I travelled further, this realization has made my experience in Ethiopia quite enjoyable. When I tell people I’m from Ghana, they prefer to call me “brother” and some even like to invite me to have traditional coffee or chew Khat with them- I can’t say no to coffee but I prefer to chew raw sugar cane when offered khat.

Understanding what it means to be habesha and experiencing Ethiopia the habesha way has also come with several perks as well. For instance, being a habesha means you have to or you will eventually be taught how to perform the Ethiopian traditional dance which wasn’t as difficult as I thought it’ll be. In the northern part, the traditional dance involves the use of the upper body and shoulders while the southern part utilizes the lower body. Learning the dance was quite easy for me because my friends know I’m always that guy who prefers to stand in the corner and move his shoulders instead of actually dancing. Well the traditional dance is more intricate than that but I must say on the several occasions when I was invited to dance, I killed it!

 

Another local perk of understanding and adopting this habesha identity was that I often got the “habesha price” or local price when shopping or taking the bajaj which is quite awesome- sorry faranji’s haha! But more importantly I valued the intangible perks of this identify much more because I’ve been able to understand the importance of “blackness” and its centrality to Ethiopian culture and myself as well. Furthermore, I love the fact that Ethiopians take pride in their blackness unlike some African countries- Ghana included – where the psychological effects of colonialism has caused some locals to shun their blackness both mentally and phenotypically. I could go on and on but in short, I am quite impressed because one of the main reason I chose this country was because it is many ways the de facto capital of this beautiful continent.

Addis Ababa (Ethiopia So Far)

Climbing this wall is what it feels like trying to find reliable internet in Ethiopia

Finding good internet is pretty tough but I plan on uploading a more in depth post very soon. Until then, just know Ethiopia is great and I’m having a more unstructured time traveling around. I am currently in Lalibela celebrating Ethiopian Christmas. To whet your apetites for more in depth posts, here are 15 things I enjoyed about staying in Addis Ababa for a week. 

  1. Coffee! Bunna! Coffee!… Oh man, it’s so good and strong that I get my caffeine fix with one tiny cup. I’ve even started remembering some assignments I never turned in at Wheaton. 
  2. Kaldi’s Coffee is like the Ethiopian Starbucks but cheaper and better… Actually the best coffee in town is at Tomoca (Kaffa Coffee House). Also you can find coffee anywhere for cheap.
  3. Everyone knows you’re not from here. They can spot you from a mile away so trying to be incognito doesn’t work. (I usually tell hecklers I’m studying Aviation at Addis Ababa University)
  4. Having clean shoes/sneakers seems like a must. Tons of people are always getting their shoes polished/ “dry cleaned” all around.
  5. It’s great to see a culture so proud of their blackness and African identity. 
  6. Teff bread is hands down the best bread I’ve ever had. It’s so good that it makes baguettes taste like a questionable churro on an NYC subway platform.
  7. Vegetarian/ Fasting food here is actually full of flavor and very tasty. Taitu Hotel has an amazing vegetarian lunch buffet.
  8. Food in general is always amazing. While you’re enjoying it, remember you can buy a 40 cents (8birr) meal ticket to help others. 
  9. It is normal for people to start a conversation outta nowhere which is kinda cool but be careful of “that guy” who claims to be a tour guide/real estate broker/ or anything that sounds sketchy. 
  10. Being your own tour guide is pretty easy and saves you some Birr. 
  11. Amharic is a beautiful language and might not be as tough as it looks… Well not yet.
  12. Bargaining is actually fun but you must make sure you both agree on the price.
  13. Fashion boutiques are everywhere where!! Italian styles are the most popular.
  14. Taking the bus at dawn? You’re bound to meet the two ladies that sell the best mint chai tea in town. If you’re not ready for a sugar rush, you might wanna skip the sugar all together.
  15. Adding to the list of meanings for my name, “Nana” in Amharaic, means “mint” or “come in” (an invitation)