Having an Agenda

“What is your agenda for Ethiopia this time?” a friend asked me. “Or do you have an agenda?”

I laughed. As my dad would have said, boy-howdy, do I have an agenda! Several agendas, in fact. A friend has invited me to think about how to be more strategic and organized in the work in Ethiopia that keeps coming my way. That will be one of my agendas.

In my suitcase, as I fly out of Portland, I’m carrying a bag of dried apples. I’m taking them

The apple orchard is young, but thriving. Apples have been imported to Ethiopia from Kenya and South Africa at great expense. We want to make Maji famous for its apples.

The apple orchard is young, but thriving. Apples have been imported to Ethiopia from Kenya and South Africa at great expense. We want to make Maji famous for its apples.

to Maji to show the agriculturalist, Ato Markos, who coordinates the Maji apple orchard what a dried apple looks and tastes like. The 1000 apple trees he’s planted aren’t yet bearing more than he can sell locally, but they will! I need to talk with his leadership team about their marketing plan. And if the grid does get to Maji, might they start a fruit-drying endeavor? Why truck the water in the apples all the way, 500 miles, to Addis Ababa?

This young woman is the one nurse serving the Maji clinic.

This young woman is the one nurse serving the Maji clinic. Photo by Maureen Evans

Another major goal for my time in Maji is to get a solar unit installed on the town’s clinic. This came as a request from church leaders, and took me over a year to organize. The clinic is delivering up to thirty babies a month. Night deliveries take place in the dark—the electric grid hasn’t reached Maji yet—and the midwife and nurse sometimes have to hold flashlights in their teeth to have hands free. A simple solar unit will allow for night lighting and charging cell phones. I’ve found a solar supplier in Addis Ababa and he is sending the unit and an installer with me in the vehicle I’ve rented for the trip.

While in Maji, I will also meet with the

Zerihun is the lead translator for the Dizi language. The alphabet he helped develop is being embraced by the church and the local government.

Zerihun is the lead translator for the Dizi language. The alphabet he helped develop is being embraced by the church and the local government. Photo by Maureen Evans

translation team for the Dizi language, the language of the people of Maji. Dizi has been reduced to written form—that’s the technical term for developing a writing system that covers all the sounds of the language. Now the New Testament translation is almost finished. The translation team is meeting with expert linguists in Addis Ababa several times a year to check for consistency (is the same word in Hebrew, Greek or English translated by the same word in Dizi, for example). They are also holding community checking events, reading passages and listening to discussions to see whether the intended meaning of the translation is what was actually communicated.

Try reading Dizi!

Try reading Dizi! Photo by Maureen Evans

I don’t know the Dizi language, but I’ve been supporting the translation team for several years. I  meet with them and listen (in Amharic) as they talk about their progress, frustrations and concerns. I’ll take a report back to donors, and go over the budget for next year’s work. This trip I’ll start to ask questions about a literacy program. We don’t think about this, having so many centuries of written language of our own—but once there is an alphabet and written materials, the next problem is that no one knows how to read!

And then, speaking of literacy, when I get back to Addis I’ll meet with people who helped Janie and me last January as we began creating stories and art for early-reader books for Ethiopian children. Again, we have such a thriving publishing industry in the US, it’s hard to imagine that almost no books are published in Ethiopia, and there is nothing at all for beginning readers. They drill their 241-letter alphabet, and then start the sink-or-swim process of reading text books.

Children, parents, teachers and librarians in Ethiopia and the US have created the

We'd love to be part of creating fun, colorful, culturally appropriate easy readers for Ethiopian children like these cuties!

We’d love to be part of creating fun, colorful, culturally appropriate easy readers for Ethiopian children like these cuties! Photo by Jeri Candor

beginnings of about twenty simple, illustrated stories appropriate to Ethiopian culture. Now we’re looking for help in the translation and design stage. (We haven’t even addressed production yet!) The enthusiasm, the creativity, the goodwill of volunteers is keeping us going in spite of the steep learning curve for this cutting-edge cross-cultural effort.

In Addis Ababa I’ll be following up with young artists and writers to move from the inspiration stage to the revision stage of creating art. I’ll be looking for someone who has design skills and knows Amharic. I’ll meet with some people who have tried their hands at translation—that’s a creative endeavor as well, because our subject-verb sentences trot along using words like building blocks, each in its own place, but Amharic encrusts the verb with not only prefixes and suffixes, but infixes! We wouldn’t know an infix if we heard one!

So that’s my agenda! I’m writing on the plane to Minneapolis, the first of three legs of my journey. I’ve been crazy-busy getting ready for all this. Now wish me well! My jet lag, the possibilities of picking up intestinal bugs, and political unrest in parts of Ethiopia may be greater problems than the inherent challenges of the work. But that’s the way it always is. Our contexts are part of the work.

I’m grateful for the opportunities I have for creativity, spiritual and relational growth as I do this work that keeps coming to me from God. Thanks to all of you who have contributed encouragement, prayer and resource to be my partners!

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.

Angel Voices in the Dizi Language

"Mish kids" borrow from the culture around them! I was about this age when I made my Dizi language dictionary.

I grew up hearing people “sing” to each other from the hillsides around Maji.  Their language is a tonal language, and common conversation has a musical quality to it.  When people walked from market home, or spent the day out with the cattle on the hillsides, they called to each other,  mellow and sweet.  Or they played gourd flutes with five tones, and the flutes sounded much like their calling.

 Sagu, one of the school boys who worked for Mom to earn enough for school clothes and notebooks and pencils, loved to teach us girls words in his language.  I “nationalized” a tiny spiral notebook and started a dictionary when I was about eight.  Listening to sermons in the two to three languages of every Sunday morning in Maji (English sometimes, Amharic Sagu, right, with Dad and Mom and the Maji health department head (I think). Sagu went from the Maji school to end up with two Masters degrees!always, Dizi always) I grabbed a word in English or Amharic that was repeated, then listened for some repeated word in the Dizi translation, and wrote it down.  I dreamed that I would someday be the only white person to speak the language of the people of Maji.

 

When I was in Maji this January, a small choir came up from the town of Tum to sing in church.  We guests all stayed in one of the old mission houses; I woke on Sunday morning before light to soft voices singing and the sound of soft picking on the traditional instrument called the krar.  It was Ethiopian Christmas morning, and in my half-dream state, I thought at first I was hearing angel voices.  When one sang, the others respond over and around and with her melody.  I lay and prayed while the Dizi choir from Tum practiced in the next room.

It turned out that the lead singer (right, below) had been a shaman.  They told me she had been possessed by twelve evil spirits until Jesus set her free.  Her daughter (left) plays the krar, and  her husband is a skilled drummer.

Ethiopian Christmas morning in the Maji church--praises in the Dizi language and musical style

This woman is composing songs in the Dizi spiritual tradition.  She is composing the kinds of songs she used to sing to the chief, or in honor of the spirits she served.  These are the kinds of songs the Dizi people grow up singing when they try to appease the spirits and guard against the evil eye, only now she sings in praise of a God who showed his face in Jesus, and who is stronger than all the spirits who have haunted her people.

The choir sang three songs that day.  One was much like Psalm 106, an ancient Hebrew hymn of remembrance, praising all the mighty works of God.  But it was her last song that made the hairs on my arms stand up.  The packed church was completely silent as she sang to the krar accompaniment.  She looked down, swayed from side to side and sang in a high, reedy voice.  At the end of every line she let her voice trail off.  She was almost wailing, and she added a tremulo, something I have never heard the likes of.  I knew I was hearing a song deep in the spiritual traditions of the Dizi people, from a place foreigners had never been allowed into.

People listen intently to "cultural" music in church

People listen intently to “cultural” music in church

I knew I was seeing deep contextualization taking place–people taking their experience with Jesus and pulling it into the continuity of their lives and cultures, making it their own.  They don’t have to move into anyone else’s culture, they don’t have to use anyone else’s hymns or praise songs, they know their own style of worship can be turned in the direction of Jesus and used to praise God.  When this happens, we know that the Spirit of God is working with them and will help them communicate their experiences in such a way that their message truly is good news to those who hear.

It’s been over sixty years since Presbyterian missionaries Fred and Daisy Russell first went  to Maji, and now it looks as though the good Kingdom of God, the Shalom of the Beatitudes and of Jesus’ introduction of his ministry–to heal people, to loose the bonds of the captives, and set the prisoners free–will begin at last to come to the Dizi people.

Roads More Traveled

Have you heard the one about the first road in Ethiopia?  So when King Menelik ordered a car from Queen Victoria, his British advisers told him the car would need a road.  The road was built, the car arrived, and as he ran along on his first trip out, the car discovered that various Ethiopian animals had gotten used to using his road.  He came first to a goat and

Ethiopian goats using the road

Ethiopian goats using the road

said, “Hey!  This is my road!”

The goat said, “I like this road.  I want to use this road, too.”  So the car agreed the goat could use his road if it paid a fee–two birr  and fifty centimes (the Ethiopian money).  However, the goat only had two birr, so it gave the money to the car and scampered off into the underbrush.

The car went on and came to a dog using his road.  He said, “Hey!  This is my road!”  And just like the goat, the dog said, “I like this road.  I want to use this road, too.”  The dog agreed to pay the fee, but only had three birr.  The car took the money and drove off, because he didn’t have change, either.

Donkeys use Ethiopian roads with impunity

Donkeys use Ethiopian roads with impunity

Then the car came to a donkey, standing in the middle of the road.  The car said, “Hey, this is my road.  Get out of my way!”  The donkey said, “I like this road.  I want to use this road, too,” and  it agreed to pay the fee.  The donkey even had exact change.

To this day, when a donkey in Ethiopia sees a car, it just stands there in the road, because it paid its fee and has every right to use the road.  When a goat sees a car, it scampers away because it knows it owes fifty centimes.  And when a dog sees a car, it chases after the car shouting, “Give me my change!  Give me my change!”

With apologies to Robert Frost, in Ethiopia every road is heavily traveled.  And until recently, there have been no sign posts on Ethiopian roads–there was only one road to anywhere you wanted to go, and you had to know  where to turn at one of the few crossroads, or you had to ask someone.  In Amharic, queen of passively elegant languages, you did that by asking, “Will this road cause one to go to Maji?”

 You can hear the relief in people’s voices when they tell you the road is coming in Ethiopia. It means they will finally be connected to the rest of the inter-connected globe, and to all the creature comforts the world has created–fuel to run grain mills, so women don’t have to pound grain by hand; matches; batteries for radios; clothes; plastic basins and buckets to use instead of gourds.  I had been told that the road was coming to Maji, and what a difference the new road made!

My companions on the new road told me which sections  the Koreans are building and which sections the Chinese are building.  They told me how the Koreans treat Ethiopians and how Chinese treat Ethiopians (there’s even a joke in Amharic about Chinese English!)  I remembered conversations with Ato Solomon Nega.  He had been a street boy, taken in by Presbyterian missionaries and given work in people’s homes and the guest house.  I worked for him after he had become the Bethel Synod coordinator.  He could tell me which missionaries were tender-hearted, which were selfish, which hadn’t worked through residual attitudes of racism . . . Ethiopians are gracious, but they miss nothing.

As the road of short term mission trips becomes more and more heavily traveled, we need to be aware of how we come across to our hosts.  I heard someone recently say that white men are the only population in the world methodically taught to say no to other people.

Cross-cultural roads can be rough going.

Cross-cultural roads can be rough going.

And I suppose that means white women have learned unique ways to get around white men and their bold “No!”  Are we aware of these differences in culture?  Do we ask people what would be helpful from a partner–and then shut up and listen?  Do we know to listen for a “no” that comes in silence, or in polite evasion?

Will we do the work it takes to make sure our cross-cultural relationships can bear the weight of linking us as the "body of Christ?"

Will we do the work it takes to make sure our cross-cultural relationships can bear the weight of linking us with the rest of the "body of Christ?"

 

 

I’ve also heard it said that short term trips are an expensive way to do mission–high transport cost per time spent in the field, no cultural understanding, no shared language,  and relationships too new for deep spiritual conversations.  But they are very efficient ways to get education.

Let’s be sure we go as gracious guests and learners when we travel into the majority world, and not just dominate with our wealth, expertise and confidence.  The church is not our road; we all, like the donkey, belong there!

 

 

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.