The Unexpected

I came to Ethiopia ignorant. The farthest I had been from America was when I was 12. My sister spent an afternoon looking at the University of Toronto. I got to tag along. Besides that adventure and the exotic Canadian side of Niagara Falls I had never been outside of the United States. I want to share a few of the unexpected pleasures, challenges and experiences I’ve had so far. Some of them you will think to yourself   “no shit John, of course you fool, what were you expecting.” Well, I wasn’t expecting.

Using the bathroom at night.

A dance with the devil on a daily basis. Most people planned for this, packing a headlamp. As my friend Anna said have you not been camping or to a developing country before, nope and not really. I had a bad experience camping as an 8 year-old. My sister and I thought camping would be cool. We setup a tent in the backyard and off we went. About 10 or 11 for whatever reason we wanted to get something from the house. The door was locked. After pounding and shouting my parents came to the door, my father with a wry smile, my mother bewildered. My father had locked the door as a joke. It scarred 8-year-old John Keller (To be fair I will play the same pranks on my children one day). I was never a big camping fan. Back to the point. My source of light is a brick cellphone. Used in America circa 1999. It’s wonderful, long battery life, Snake and Tetris. Producing light is not its strong suit. When I have to go to the bathroom at 10 o’clock at night it is dark. No street lights, no brightly lit houses, heck, half the time the power is out period. I can’t see my feet walking to the bathroom. Once I get to the shint-bent it’s like a game of DDR trying to position myself correctly, except the middle square is a pit of feces. All while holding a phone emitting just enough light to see the spiders littering the walls. So far all has gone well. I have dropped my phone twice. My heart sinking, praying to whatever god will listen it doesn’t fall in the hole. I’ve been lucky. My friend Bryan Molk wasn’t so fortunate. He dropped his Iphone 6 plus in the shint-bent. Yes, he tried to fish it out with his hand. No, he did not retrieve it.

Learning Afan Oromo.

I was petrified of learning a new language. As a sophomore in high school I got a 79.4, C, in Dr. Pignotti’s Spanish 3 class. I forever swore off Spanish. I took first semester German as a freshman in college. I took second semester German my last semester of senior year. Needless to say my German isn’t very good. I’m skilled at a lot of things, foreign languages isn’t one of them. I hoped to have a passing knowledge of whatever language I was forced to learn. Now I find communicating in a different language one of the most fulfilling aspects of my experience here. The Peace Corps has an incredible language training program. In three months I gained a working knowledge of Afan Oromo and with time I hope to be fluent. I enjoy speaking Afan Oromo because of the reactions I get. Afan Oromo isn’t the national language. It is spoken by 40 million people. The Oromo (Country: Ethiopia, Region:Oromia) people get a glint in their eye when they hear me speak, often times butcher, their tongue. It is the single most pivotal skill that has allowed me to be accepted by my community. I have a few go-to jokes in Afan Oromo now too. When someone asks me what kind of teacher I am, I respond with  I’m the Afan Oromo teacher. Or, when someone asks me how long I will stay in Ethiopia, I say, two years, maybe three, maybe twenty, maybe I’ll get an Ethiopian wife and stay forever. At least people laugh at my jokes in one language.

Playing volleyball.

Now that the rainy season is over the fields are dry enough to play on. Surprisingly, the sport most played in my town, and what I hear from other PC volunteers, is volleyball. I have the fortune of being 6’3. I am head and shoulders taller than most Ethiopians and the tallest person in my town. While this has given me an innate advantage the Laloians can play. They jump out of the gym and each plays a unique, unconventional style. There has never been a coach within 150 miles of my town so everything is learned by trial and error. This leads to whirling, backhanded spikes and digging with feet just as easily as forearms. I play in shorts. A big deal in Ethiopia. Not a single adult Ethiopian owns a pair of shorts. I get plenty of chuckles but not sweating profusely because I’m running around in jeans is absolutely worth it. I’m hoping to start a fashion revolution.

The birds.

In Ethiopia I wonder if I’m in an aviary. Every bird I see is magnificent. Hummingbirds, Hawks, Fire Finches, Ibis’ and Doves. Those are just the birds I know the names of. I find myself looking up, not for monkeys, but for birds. Take for example the Fire Finch. They are the pigeons of Lalo. They have splatterings of scarlet on their faces and tails, the rest covered in charcoal gray. A pretty bird by any standard. But, when they unfurl their wings they are engulfed by blood red, their entire underbody covered in the same color as their face and tail. Or, the Ibis’. They look like Neapolitan ice cream with their pink, brown and white contrast. Putting Sebastian and the Florida Ibis’ to shame.


I have no working light in my home. I have electricity at times, but I cook by candle light. It gets dark about 6:30 P.M. or so. When the dark is not vanquished by bright TV’s and a myriad of wasteful lights, just a lone candle flickering in the pitch black, getting tired comes early. I rarely find myself going to bed past 10 P.M.. I can’t sleep in, because right about 7 A.M. the dent I make in my foam mattress gets too overwhelming for my back. On my worst nights in Lalo I get 9 hours of sleep. A welcome improvement from my daily 3 A.M. binge sessions of playing Rocket League or Gears of War.

Explaining last names.

In Ethiopia a person’s last name is their father’s first name. For example, Steph Curry’s name would be Steph Dell after his father Dell Curry. Normally it’s no problem, someone asks me my father’s name and I just say Keller. On a few occasions I have gotten bold, or just bored and tried to explain the difference. It’s not a complex topic and Ethiopians enjoy the differences or similarities of our cultures (For example they love that Americans drink coffee and are bewildered by snow). One glaring problem. I am John Louis Keller III. Next door at my favorite coffee place, Mana Jihad, I was explaining this concept. I have the language skills to rudimentarily describe the topic. He asked me what my father’s full name was, well shit, John Louis Keller Jr. How about your grandfather Jihad retorted. Shit, John Louis Keller. I do not have the language skills to describe I am a 3rd and Americans are rarely in my case. I tried to use my sister and even friends as examples, but the confusion had been cemented. There are now a few dozen Ethiopians who think all American families have the same names for the entire lineage, sorry America.

Soap Operas.

I have alluded to their popularity a few times but I want to break it down. Indian and Turkish soap operas are wildly popular. Any hour of the day, at any place with a TV Ethiopians are gathered around watching soap operas.The most popular soap opera is an Indian soap named Zara. In the teacher’s lounge of Lalo Secondary School there are 4-5 teachers without a class watching the latest drama. The dramas are in Amharic, the national language, but a language I don’t speak at all. Even if I wanted to watch them my comprehension would be all but zero. It amazes me the demographics of the audience. Everyone. Young boys, guys my age, women of all ages, everyone loves them. It blows my mind. Here in Ethiopia there aren’t really many other options. It’s the news or soap operas. On the minibuses traveling around they often have pictures of their favorite athletes or religious symbols. Also, pictures of Indian soap stars.

To end this post I want to share my most unexpected moment in Ethiopia. I was walking back from a liquor store to my hotel about 9 P.M. in Addis Ababa. Addis is a bustling metropolitan city. Still, it’s in Ethiopia, anyone who looks like I do gets a few stares. Anytime I see a fellow white person I think to myself, hmm, do I know you? Then, if no, what’s your life story? Why are you here? So,  I’m with my friend Alicia and I see two guys about my age. One white as Larry the Cable Guy the other appearing African. What struck me was what they were wearing, unmistakable and matching. Short-sleeve, white cotton button down shirts with plain ties and sleek, black pants, holding a book. I walk right up to them and ask “Are you Mormon?” Then in a normal, American accent, of course, he responds with “Yes! Do you want to hear about the word?” I just propositioned a Mormon, whoa, first and last time I’ll ever do that. After deflecting the comment I wondered what the heck they were doing standing alone on the street in Addis Ababa. Turns out he was from Kentucky and here for his missionary stint. Same with his friend who was from Malawi. Totally makes sense, but man, I did not expect that. Nothing made me question my life choices like holding a $3 bottle of gin wrapped in newspaper while talking to two guys that can’t drink soda.  That night we drank to the Mormons.

2 thoughts on “The Unexpected

  1. If I thought you would have a way to play it, I would like to send you the sound track to the play “The Book of Mormon.” In it the main characters are sent to, of all places, Uganda! It is clever and hilarious (at least I thought so, and so did Judy, but some took issue with some language.) You would love it and I loved your comments and your step-right-up courage to speak to them. You go, kiddo! Love you … more, Gram…


  2. I was going to suggest the same! I’m from Utah and definitely not Mormon. Many members quite relish their diet coke, just no caffeinated tea or alcohol. I talk to the Mormon missionaries I see in Swaziland; it’s just as weird for me as for you.


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