Shandra Benito : Ethiopia

Reflection #1:

 Having been here for just under a month, it’s amazing how in some ways it feels like I just got here, and it others it feels like I’ve been here forever.  Before I left, one of my friends told me that this experience would have some of the worst and best moments of my life, which I did not really understand until I got here. I will never forget the moment my first day here being alone in my house, with a maid who spoke no English, having no idea where I was, with no phone or internet access and feeling like everything was crumbling around me and that my life was over. But then that day passed, and so did the next couple of days, and I realized that I was going to be okay. It’s an incredible experience to realize your own resilience and to know that you can go to a place like Addis Ababa, Ethiopia by yourself knowing absolutely nobody, fall apart for a few hours, and then have really wonderful experiences. I still struggle with processing some of the things that I am seeing and learning here, but I can feel that I am pushing the boundaries of what I understand about development, the world and myself.

I love the ECDD, and being a part of a national NGO. I often learn the most from just asking my coworkers (most of whom are Ethiopians, and many who have Disabilities themselves) about their own experiences and projects. My work is comprised of doing English editing for grant reports and proposals, office tasks like making spreadsheets and tables, teaching English at the University of Addis Ababa to Deaf students and female students with Physical Disabilities, and working with the Ethiopian National Association of the Deaf to help them put together a grant proposal for a project to increase sign language recognition in Ethiopia. I had a lot of reservations about teaching English. I had never taught English before, I felt (and still feel) unqualified and worry that I can’t perform to the level that my students deserve. In voicing this to the Executive Director, she said “ well right now you are the only native English speaker in all of Ethiopia who also signs, so who is more qualified than you?” There is definitely a tension for me between “better than nothing” and “best practices.” But when you are in the #14th poorest nation in the world, maybe best practices have to be compromised. But then maybe that’s part of the reason why the cycle of inequality is perpetuated. I struggle with feeling like I am not doing enough, and can’t do enough, and question at times if my being here is really a good thing. I think about the fact that the amount of money that I am spending to be here is about 100X the monthly salary of the average family here. I also think about the fact that I am gaining a lot of knowledge, social capitol and experience, and wonder that is just another form of exploitation and my privilege. I definitely have a lot more questions than answers at this point, but I think that’s part of the experience.

That said, I think its important to witness the poverty that most of the world lives in, and to see how complicated and messy development is. In many ways this city and country is changing and growing for the better, but in many ways it isn’t. Anybody here will tell you how different Addis Ababa is than it was five or ten years ago. New buildings are going up everywhere, new railroads, streets and highways are being laid down, and in the car and on the bus my coworkers and friends will point and say “this is being built by China, that by Russia, that by the AU” and so on and so forth. Yet despite all of the money and investment being poured into the city, 50% of people here live in slums, so what does that kind of development really do for the people here? In response to my grappling with some of these questions my boyfriend said in an email, “much of what you see is the result of the willful ignorance of the west and the impact of their actions, and so just seeing this is important.” That is a lot of how I am trying to approach what I see here. Though its hard, though I am not sure if I am doing anything good by being here, just waking up to the truth of what is happening in the world and trying to hold myself accountable to my privilege and the actions of my culture is important. If being here has taught me anything so far it is that nothing is just good or bad, just easy or hard, just right or wrong, its so much more complicated than that.

Personally, I think that this has been a really important opportunity for growth. I’ve definitely had some of the hardest days of my life here, but I find myself becoming more independent and sure of myself in a way I never have before. It has been really interesting to strip away all of the normalcy’s of life in the U.S like my almost neurotic busyness and the constant distractions of Internet, texting and media. While slowing down was hard (it almost felt like detoxing) I am living more in the present than I ever have before, and am cherishing living a little more simply. Being here has also been a really wonderful opportunity for vocational discernment, and I am more confident than ever that I want to do Jesuit Volunteer Corps next year (I submitted my application last week!) and that eventually want to go on and get a Masters in Social Work with a focus on administration and public policy. I feel incredibly lucky to have this opportunity to meet the people here and see what I am seeing, I recognize that this is not something that many undergrad students are able to do. I take each day one day at a time, and this is definitely not the happiest I’ve ever been, but each moment is an incredible opportunity. 

Reflection # 2:

I mark my time here by 3 days a week: Fridays, Wednesdays and Sundays. I left Seattle on a Friday, so with each Friday that passes, I have been away from home for another full week. It is also the day that I take my anti-malarial, so I tend to notice how many pills I have left (shockingly few now). Wednesdays are the day I leave, so with each Wednesday that passes, I know exactly how many weeks I have left. Lastly, Sunday is the day that I arrived, so with each Sunday that passes I know I have completed another full week in Addis Ababa. At the beginning of my time here I cherished reaching each of these markers, it was a sign that time was passing and putting another one of those days behind me always gave me a sense of accomplishment and comfort. Now, having been away from home for 9 weeks exactly (it’s a Friday) there aren’t very many of these markers left, and they seem to be getting closer and closer together. It’s hard to believe that I’m heading home in less than three weeks.

As I prepare to leave, I am spending a lot of time thinking about what I am taking away, and what I have contributed. Over the course of these 3 months the scope of my work has changed a lot, and I worry that I haven’t done or contributed enough. The English classes I was teaching ended up stopping, after I met with several English teachers and they confirmed for me that the situation I was trying to tackle was far beyond what I was capable of. Trying to teach 30 Deaf students English when the group ranged from semi-fluent to not knowing how to read 10 words, using a mix of Ethiopian and American Sign Language, and never having taught English before and without any kind partner, support or curriculum was pretty much destined to fail. Though I had felt and voiced discomfort with the job from the beginning, I felt the responsibility to at least try out of respect for the ECDD, but ending the classes relieved a great amount of stress for me. It also felt like I had failed in some way, even though I know that it was an impossible situation to begin with. However, I did put together a project proposal to train 2 English teachers in sign language, and 2 Deaf professors in teaching English as a foreign language, as a hopefully more sustainable solution to the very real need of improving the Deaf students access to English instruction. In addition to creating the grant proposal, I have been doing general office support and am putting together a manual for universities in Ethiopia on why they should have a center for students with disabilities, and how they can start one.

I don’t know how much I really will have contributed to the ECDD, not much I think. I think probably everyone goes into an internship like this thinking they will get a lot done and make a lot of progress, but then have to adjust their expectations. I think a few things have compounded that experience for me, the first is that work culture and the timeline on which things get done are very different here than in the U.S. The other is that I got here right as everyone was writing their annual reports and wrapping up their projects, and it hasn’t been until recently that people are starting new programs. When I got here there wasn’t a clear job or projects for me to work on, apart from the English classes that kind of fell apart. Another project I was going to do with the Ethiopian National Association of the Deaf fell apart after their board fired their director and the organization scrambled to pull things together. The last challenge has been that the ECDD is not a direct service-providing agency, and so I have been in an office on my computer the entire time, which makes me feel a little more disconnected from the work. The ECDD is also in the midst of a huge growth spurt right now, and so that along with the timing of my internship has made it difficult to produce real concrete outcomes for my time here. That said, I love the ECDD and feel incredibly lucky to be here with the staff, and can without doubt say that being here has been one of the most rewarding and challenging experiences of my life, even if I feel insecure that I have contributed anything concrete.

Before we left, Dr. Bloomquist told us that no matter what we do, always choose people. That has been the anthem of my time here, and the biggest consolation of my experience has been the people, and the community I have been lucky to be embraced by. I can’t imagine not starting each workday by hugging, kissing and greeting the ECDD staff and listening to their stories and words of wisdom. I have learned the most from conversations with people about what they like and dislike about their culture and their home, and about privilege and power, and about relationships and dating and sex and violence here, about corruption and politics and so much more that perhaps doesn’t have a lot to do with my work. Just living here and being friends with the people here has hands down been the most transformative and important part of my experience, and that is completely shaped by the ECDD, as I have developed close bonds with pretty much everyone, but I suppose its not what I expected. I think it will take a while before I can articulate the way that this experience has changed me and what I am taking away but I wouldn’t change anything about it.