The Adventures of Oolibee

Literacy was another feature of this complex animal we called Odyssey II. That passion, my sister Janie brought to the Odyssey, of course. But she kept saying to me, “You’re essential part of this! You’re the bridge between the languages! Especially if you learn to read Amharic like you say you’re going to!”

The plan was, when we returned to Addis Ababa, the artists and writers would collaborate in a workshop to create the raw materials (texts and art) for some early readers in languages of Ethiopia. It was an ambitious goal, but Janie soothed her anxieties by repeating her mantra: Process, not Perfection. Production was even further down the road, and we refused to let our spirits be dampened by worries about production costs.

Ethiopia has 88 separate languages, in four language families (For those who like to know these kinds of details: Semitic, Cushitic, Omotic, and Nilo-Saharan.)

Once the main language groups are accounted for, almost 12% of Ethiopians speak “other”. The Dizi (dee-zee) people of Maji area are one of the small tribes, about 40,000, with their own distinct Omotic language. Some years ago, Bible translators, under the Wycliff spin-off SIL, developed an alphabet for writing the Dizi language. At first, the three translators were the only people who could read and write Dizi.

The Dizi alphabet--there are sounds we don't have, of course, but the Latin alphabet has enough duplication (c and k, x, q, g and j) that translators can make it work.

The Dizi alphabet–there are sounds we don’t have, of course, but the Latin alphabet has enough duplication (c and k, x, q, g and j) that translators can make it work.

 

When I visited the county government headquarters in Maji this trip, I was pleased to see a Dizi alphabet poster on the lobby wall—the equivalent of A is for Apple, B is for Baby. Because it uses the Latin alphabet, I read some of the words. People burst out laughing to hear Dizi coming from a white woman, even though I only knew what the words meant by “reading” the pictures. I was delighted to see that the local government in Maji has embraced the SIL work on Dizi literacy. Ethiopia has taken seriously the research showing that if children learn to read first in their heart-language, they are more successful for rest of their school careers.

And since I was last in Maji, some boys have taken Dizi literacy classes. Passages from the book of Mark, which was written in simple Greek and is full of stories, are being printed and used for these literacy lessons: the Bible is the only written material that exists in Dizi.

Daphne Nelson of Monmouth College created an easy-reader book for children in Ethiopia.

Daphne Nelson of Monmouth College created an easy-reader book for children in Ethiopia. Henrietta the bird (bottom right) visits Ethiopia and searches for a nesting place.

Here’s another piece of the literacy stream that flowed together in Odyssey II: back in Illinois, at team member Jeri’s college and Janie’s and my alma mater, an art student was floundering for inspiration as she faced her senior project. When she heard that the Dizi language has no easy readers, she created one. It’s a simple story: a bird visits Ethiopia and searches for a nest. So one of our mini-projects in Maji was to get that simple book translated.

Mehakle, at the table with me, and friends, worked together in three languages to  translate the Henrietta-the-bird story.

Mehakle, at the table with me, and friends, worked together in three languages to translate the Henrietta-the-bird story.

Jeri and I sat down with Mehakl, a boy who graduated from Maji high school’s tenth grade and now teaches in a remote elementary school. As happens everywhere in Ethiopia, it didn’t take five minutes for eight more boys to gather around the foreigners to see what we were up to now. I orally translated the English text into Amharic for Mehakl and his friends, and asked him to write it in both Amharic and Dizi.

Ethiopian schools teach using the rote method, so the boys struggled with the concept of not producing a word-for-word translation. I kept repeating that we wanted a concept-based translation in good Dizi. (Of course, I was expressing this complex idea in my simple Amharic!) The breakthrough came when one boy said,

“On this page, the bird’s name is in the first place. “Was” is in the middle place. “Happy” is in the third place.” I was able then to say,

“We don’t want a place-by-place translation.”

Jeri Condar of Monmouth College, the translation team, and me, with the finished book.

Jeri Condar of Monmouth College, the entire translation team (which grew as we worked), and me, proud of the finished book.

That’s when the translation committee, as we called it, really went into action. They debated each sentence until they reached consensus: yes, that’s how we would say it best in Dizi.

Janie wondered, would Oolibee, who had never seen a children's book before, be able to "read" the pictures? To our delight, when Janie pointed to a dog, she whispered the word in Amharic.

Janie wondered, would Oolibee, who had never seen a children’s book before, be able to “read” the pictures? We were thrilled when Janie pointed to a dog and she whispered the word in Amharic.

Daphne, in Illinois, had named the little bird Henrietta. I asked the boys to choose a common Dizi girl’s name, and to our delight they suggested Oolibee. A real Oolibee was three years old, full of spunk and adventure, running around our guest house while her mother acted as sous-chef to our cook.

Another mini-project Janie and I had taken to Maji with us was to create a book with photographs of children from Maji. We asked Oolibee’s mother’s permission to photograph her. Nahosenay, with his true artist’s eye, agreed to follow little Oolibee around and photograph her. The text will be simple: she is running; she is eating; she is sitting.

So we’re making our little contribution to Dizi literacy, with the adventures of Hennrietta-Oolibee. We also got a little noun-book, made with photos of Ethiopian children in adoptive families in the USA and printed in Amharic and English translated into Dizi as well. And we have hopes of adding the verb book featuring Oolibee.

One Maji-morning, to prime the creativity pumps for her upcoming book-making workshop back in Addis, Janie showed us beautiful children’s books she’d lugged in her suitcases from the US. Some artists used torn-paper art. Some artists created with broad strokes and bright colors, others used misty neutrals with lots of white space. The beauty of children’s book art in the US is stunning.

But at the time, Addis Ababa and the book-making workshop still seemed a long way from Maji. We loved the people who were hosting, driving, guiding and cooking for us. The scenery never tired. It was going to be hard to tear ourselves away from Maji, even with the literacy project to launch ourselves into back in Addis.

Ethiopian Odyssey II–Artists

A card by Stephanie from Ethiopia Odyssey I.

A card by Stephanie from Ethiopia Odyssey I.

Ethiopian Odyssey I had taken four artists deep into the Omo region of Ethiopia, capturing the beauty of that land and donating their art to raise money for Ethiopia Reads, the non-profit my sister Janie helped start. Ethiopia Reads plants libraries for children in Ethiopia.

Odyssey II came into my life when Janie told me she wanted to go to our childhood town of Maji, Ethiopia one more time while she was still hale and hearty. “But I’ll only go with you or Chris,” she’d said. Since Chris (who also speaks Amharic) is a full time elementary school teacher, I became the tour guide of choice. Janie’s artist friend, Stephanie, had heard her talk so much about Maji, she suggested this trip become Odyssey II.

“Okay,” I had said, and we settled on January, 2016. At the time it seemed so far away and so unlikely I hardly took it seriously. Finding myself in Ethiopia at the end of January, with a team of eight including Janie and Stephanie, amazement washed over me—we were in Maji, and my new friends were finding SW Ethiopia as beautiful as I do.

As I began to write, the four artists (two Ethiopians and two from the US) were hard at Yacob paintingwork. Yacob, who teaches at the fine arts college in Addis, wore an apron and sat on the ground spread-legged, painting. We dubbed him Mr. Pandora, and enjoying the jazz coming from his Jambox through his phone.

As always in Ethiopia, a small crowd gathered to watch whatever we did. The Ethiopians from Addis were as interesting in Maji as we foreigners!

As always in Ethiopia, a small crowd gathered to watch whatever we did. The Ethiopians from Addis were as interesting in Maji as we foreigners!

Nahom, a full time artist, also from Addis Ababa, finished one painting by sitting against a tree and bracing his canvas-board on a rock. His second piece he started, pinned to the tree. He stood back, reaching at arm-and-paint-brush-handle length to apply the paint, just as I picture painters doing.

Troy, from Connecticut created a

The breeze was stiff that morning, but Troy was resourceful.

The breeze was stiff that morning, but Troy was resourceful.

studio for himself by arranging some pieces of corrugated iron to shelter his easel from the mountain breeze of Maji. The report came back that he had found his zone, so we didn’t disturb him.

And Stephanie took shelter from the wind in the former mission teacher and nurse’s house until mid-afternoon. She produced gorgeous washes of color representing the hills and ridges around us, then gathered everything up and headed back out into the sunshine after lunch.

The other four of us wandered the former mission compound, drinking in the view from the western side, over the valley and through the gap. We marveled at the eucalyptus trees that were big when Janie and I were children fifty years ago, now grown so huge it would take all four of us to reach around them. Janie and I tried to visualize—where was Mom’s circular rose garden? Dad’s shop, which we called the magazine (emphasizing the second syllable as the Italians did when they taught the word to the Ethiopians)? The grove of false-banana trees where we caught the tree frogs Janie tried to toilet train?

Poignant moments, with a sister and playmate, overlooking the scene that back-lit our play so many years ago.

Poignant moments, with a sister and playmate, overlooking the scene that back-lit our games so many years ago.

And as friends from Maji town met us on the path, the others wandered on, leaving me to shift into Amharic and play that bridging role I love so much.

The stars over us the first night were brilliant in a totally dark sky. The moon rose later, so bright there was no need for flashlights. The peace of that place soothed us all in mind, body and spirit.

High Tech, Low Tech

Saturday, the day I arrived in Maji, was market day.  I walked around “downtown” for a half hour, enjoying the bustle of activity–not much different from when I was there as a child half a century ago.  But wait . . .

 Wait.  There was a difference.  What’s that hovering over the cattle, the piles of hot peppers for sale, the raw honey in gourds, the

butter wrapped in leaves?  It’s a cell tower!

All over Ethiopia–all over Africa, I believe–cell phones are connecting people to worlds they may never visit.  I hadn’t taken my iPad with me to Maji–could I have gotten on Google using my 3G connection?  Amazingly enough, it’s possible!

But I had realized my battery would quickly run down and make my iPad into a flat, dead piece of plastic and chemicals.  Now I realized people face the same problem with their cell phones.  After all, the real key to technology is electricity.

It turns out that in Ethiopia people can get small solar systems.  They set the collector panels on their thatch or tin roofs, or prop them up carefully on chairs in front of their houses.  The panels hook to car batteries, which store the electricity for evenings or cloudy days.  People who can afford  two- or three-outlet systems power light bulbs for a few hours in the evening.

Cell technology has scuttled the slow, laborious process (that wasn’t really happening) of erecting telephone poles across the world’s second largest continent.  Now it seems entirely possible that the solar technology going with the cell phones could bring “rural electrification” efforts to a halt.  It’s a good thing, because no matter how many dams or generators are erected across Africa, the kilowatts are snatched up by industry, malls and equipment-rich urban Africans, leaving nothing for people who still live in the country and farm.

I was intrigued to think about how owning a cell phone and a solar system to keep it running is going to change cultures that have non-initiative woven into their languages.  In Amharic, you don’t drop something, it “falls from you”.  You don’t catch a cold, “a cold catches you” (and indeed–who would chase down a cold?)

In our years of working in Ethiopia, Kenya and South Sudan, my husband Mark and I ran into problem after problem that seemed rooted in the lack of cause-and-effect thinking.  Pre-science cultures, with a pre-science languages.  That will change for these children–what an interesting process it would be to study–as they grow up watching their parents figure out how to think ahead and keep their cell phones alive!

Another question got me chuckling.  The Suri people also have cell reception in the hot lowlands where they live, off the escarpment from Maji.   (These two tribes flare into violence with each other from time to time, violence fueled by the gun, another high tech import that is changing  cultures).  Where do you carry your cell phone if you don’t have pockets?

Soul-mates in Maji

Ato Marcos in front of the "old garden" where my dad hired Maji school boys to help grow the vegetables I grew up on--now to be a vegetable nursery for the community.

I first met Ato (Mr.) Marcos in a formal meeting.  He looked very young and very serious, sitting behind his desk with its desk-sized flag of the new Republic of Ethiopia. Maji church leaders had asked for my help getting the former mission compound back, and Ato Marcos was the district administrator.

Last month (this must be about eight years later) he met me at the airport in Jimma, to host me and drive with me to Maji.  Later, he and the synod driver told me they had talked together about how to set me at ease, and how to entertain me on the long drive.  Neither of them spoke English well enough, and Ethiopians take hospitality very seriously.   I had not spoken during that meeting years before, and they didn’t know I  was excited that I would be visiting Maji without any other Americans I needed to translate for.  “Well, I can always use sign language,” Ato Marcos had said.

Even later, I told the Maji group in that I had met Ato Marcos before, but had never seen his teeth. He looked at me, confused, until I said that I had not seen him smile or laugh.  I see that I also did not get a picture of him smiling on this trip–Ethiopians often treat photo ops as serious, formal business, and Ato Marcos is intense and takes his work seriously.  But I assure you, he has one of the warmest smiles in the world.

I saw it first when I greeted him in Amharic, there at the Jimma airport.   I’m sure his smile was particularly happy because he heard me speaking Amharic.  And mine must have been wide and happy too–I was feeling almost ebullient, because my suitcase, which had gotten checked through from Malawi to Jimma while I stayed in Addis in the same clothes for two days (wondering if I dared trust that clean clothes would meet me in Jimma), had in fact showed up!

Left to right: Zerihun the driver, the guard, Ato Marcos's children, and Ato Marcos.

 

From there, things among the three of us–Ato Marcos, Zerihun the synod driver and me–warmed right up.

 

 

 

 

 

Last year's rainy season washed out the roadbed completely.  This year they're cutting into the mountain further to . . . well, I don't know!  Maybe it will work . . .

Last year's rainy season washed out the roadbed completely. This year they're cutting into the mountain further to . . . well, I don't know! Maybe it will work . . .

We spent two days on the road, going about 350 miles.  I ‘m not complaining–only  a few years ago you couldn’t drive to Maji at all, and now the Chinese and Korean crews have good road beds started up to the last seventeen steep miles.  Those last miles took us an hour–in the battle between Maji Mountain and the road, Maji Mountain is still winning.

I have never enjoyed a road trip more.  The three of us talked politics (Ethiopian and US), we talked economics and nutrition, we talked about fruit trees and gardens, we talked about faith, we told jokes–well, the jokes  started in ernest when Dr. Yishak joined us on the trip back to Jimma.

You can see a glimpse of Dr. Yshak's sense of humor in this photo!

Here’s my favorite Dr. Yshak joke:  An Ethiopian goes to the States and gets a job, but he he gets fired because he isn’t used to working so hard .  He searches and searches for a new job until finally he hears that they’re hiring at the zoo.  The zoo-keeper says, “Welcome–the baboon just died!  Put on this suit and you can be the baboon.”  The guy puts on the suit and prances around making baboon noises, loving his new job, until one day someone leaves the back door to his cage open and a lion comes roaring in.  The guy says, “Archangel Michael, save me!”  The lion says, “Roar!  Roar!  Don’t worry, I’m an Ethiopian, too!”

We started laughing when the guy got fired.  We were busting out of our seat belts at the word zoo.  When Dr. Yshak said baboon, I don’t know how Zerihun stayed on the road.  I’m not sure I ever laughed harder at a joke.

Okay, it’s a cute joke, but there had to have been something else going on as well.  Don’t we hunger to connect with other travelers as we spin through space on our earthly adventures, often wondering what this trip is really about and are we alone?  When we find fellow travelers, the relief makes us giddy–we link pinkies, make brother- or sister-hood blood vows, swear we are Best Friends Forever, fall in love.  And when what we are reaching across included geography, culture and language . . . the relief and joy is even more transporting.

That is what I think happened in the car on the road between Maji and Jimma last month.  Ato Marcos, Zerihun and Dr. Yshak will be my best friends forever, and I would bet they feel the same about me.

 

 

 

Rattled

I’m rattled for a few weeks after I come home from a trip to Ethiopia. Thrown into confusion about who I am and where I belong. An Ethiopian friend once tried to convince me to buy land and build myself a home in Addis Ababa. “You speak Amharic,” she said. “You belong here. You need to come home every summer, and then retire here.” And I come back to the US feeling the same: I speak Amharic, don’t I belong there?

This trip was particularly rattling because I visited the town of Maji, in SW Ethiopia, where I grew up. I slept and ate and met with Maji church leaders in the former mission compound. I stood in the living room of my childhood home, so clear in my memory—the Franklin stove where we melted crayon bits on the sly, because the drops of shiny color

The house I grew up in--it used to look so much bigger!

The house I grew up in–it used to look so much bigger!

were like jewels; the funky green rug; the platform rocker Mom and Dad took with them from Portland, Oregon; bookshelves lining every wall. It sits empty now, as the church folks try to figure out how to use the space to serve the community somehow. One of their ideas is to start a literacy center for Dizi children—they do much better in school if they learn to read first in their own language.

In what used to be our dining room sits a hand pump wrapped in burlap. Bags of cement lie in the corner, bundles of pipe along the wall under the window, where the dining table used to sit. The pump has been donated, a new well has been dug, and they will plaster the sides with cement and install the pump this spring. I hand carried the donation they needed to get the job finished, and it sat on the table in flickering candle light as we talked together about plans.

The electric and water systems my dad installed were destroyed decades ago in the fever of “Yankee-go-home” socialism. Every other time I’ve visited I’ve had to remind the church leaders that missionaries from the US won’t be coming back with their mechanical know-how and lots of cash from headquarters to back them up. It seems to have sunk in: the church leaders know they will have to come up with their own, locally sustainable systems now. The hand pump will be a good first step.

A woman who brought her sick baby to the clinic

A woman who brought her sick baby to the clinic

Another encouraging sign—the old mission clinic is back in service and was crowded the weekend I was there. A few months ago the church held a fund raiser and people donated cash, quintals of grain, sheep, whatever they had, and hired a nurse. He looks about eighteen. I was thrilled to learn he’s a Dizi himself.

 

 

 

 

And now, here I am back in Oregon, thinking of Maji. I can’t seem to shake it, the love I have for those hills, that sunset sky, eucalyptus smoke in the air, the lilting musical

Looking from the new apple orchard toward the old mission compound.

Looking from the new apple orchard toward the old mission compound.

language, wooden cowbells going tonk with every step the cows take, grazing on the hillsides across from the mission. I’ll be rattled for a few more weeks before I get my heart all the way back home.