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.

Asphalt and Apples

Ethiopia and Kenya 218

The view of the other side of the valley from the Maji parish compound.

The small rains are ending, and Maji is as lush and fine as I remember it being.  There’s something new in Maji, though.  On my April trip, I ate a Maji apple–we dreamed of apples, and didn’t have them for years at a time when I lived there as a child!

In those days, the only fruit-bearing tree in Maji, over a mile and a half in altitude, was a single huge, spreading plum that grew like the tree of life in the middle of Dad’s vegetable garden.  It had been there before we arrived in Maji, and no one knew where it came from.  Schoolboys scaled the thorny, live fence and stole plums when they ripened just around Christmas time.  Monkeys hid when Dad came around with his rifle, and sat eating plums and taunting him when he went to the garden without it.  And still, the plums came to the house in bucket loads.  Mom canned plums, and we ate them with home-made yogurt year around.

Now Maji has apples.  I was surprised to learn that these highland apples actually require _MG_5220high altitudes to bear.  The project director, Ato Markos, and his Development Department boss are experimenting with six or seven cultivars.  The hardiest of the trees now stand taller than my head.  There are some mid-altitude apple types that do not seem to like the thin, nine-thousand foot air of Maji as well as the true highland apples, and they will be transplanted to some slightly lower valleys.

The evening my colleague Tara and I spent in Maji, after our welcome feast—after we had consumed the chicken wat sauce, the hard-boiled eggs in the sauce, and then, the coup de grace, the meat tenderized in lime juice and boiled in the hot wat sauce—after we’d resisted all the pressure to have our plates refilled again and again (required of our hosts as proof of their genuine generosity), after the delicious aroma of coffee being roasted there in the dining room and the bitter richness of the coffee itself, Ato Markos brought out a plate of apples and a knife.  Most of the dozen of us at the table had never tasted an apple.  I quartered one, and showed everyone how to cut out the core.  We chomped in.  Wow!

_MG_5236In Addis Ababa, a person can buy apples imported from South Africa.  They are small, hard, and expensive.  These Maji apples glowed.  One, in particular—Crispin—was sweet as candy and left my fingers sticky.  Ato Markos had also glowed as he showed us the orchard.  Now we ate and raved over the apples.  He told us that people all around have heard about the Maji apple orchard.  They ask about the apples—when will they come?—as far as Mizan, two hundred fifty miles away and too low for highland apples.  I’d thought maybe we’d soon find everyone in Ethiopia growing apples.  Now the vision of Maji having a market niche danced in my mind!

_MG_5287The other shock was this–Maji town has asphalt!  The road from Mizan to Maji is sometimes fine, smooth gravel, and through some of the towns, wide asphalt.  Jemu.  Shay Bench. Bachuma.  They used to be market centers deep in forests.  Now an asphalt road runs through the towns, and some have cell towers as well.  Now it really is possible that Maji apples could be transported out of the area and become a source of health and income for thousands of people in Ethiopia.

The project is not over—any new project is a prototype, and faces all the challenges innovation brings.  A market plan needs to be developed for distributing the apples.  There is a scab attacking some of the trees.  Are there partners out there who could go to Maji for a week and help with problem solving?  Ato Markos will work with the agricultural department of the Ethiopian universities, but we could also, if we have experience with apple growing, come along side.

Thank you for helping fund the initiation of this project, something that will benefit not only the small band of people learning to follow Jesus in Maji, but will add to the healthy diet options of people for miles around.  We have two more years of commitment, about $10,000 more to raise for the establishment of this orchard.  Maji still needs you!

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And some things are the same as ever–if you ever visited Maji, you would remember the evening fog, rolling up the valley to cover the mountain top and muffle the sounds of birds settling down for the evening.

(Thanks to Tara Chase and her mongo camera, for photos.)

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.