Living in Lalo, Oromia, Ethiopia has been a life altering experience. I’ve met a wide assortment of people. I’ve learned and integrated into a new culture. I’ve adjusted to a completely different diet. I squat to use the bathroom and carry a jerry can for water. One aspect I didn’t expect is the complex, personal social challenges. To be specific, I am the loneliest I have ever been while simultaneously the least lonely I have ever been.
At any moment I can walk outside or call numerous people and have people to be around. We can hang out for as long as I desire. Every person in Lalo knows my name. “Johnny, Johnny, Johnny!,” rings through the town as I meander about. People ask me how I’m doing and genuinely care about my answer. I couldn’t ask for or expect a more welcoming, delightful community. I love my town.
At the same time there’s an engulfing lonliness. There’s no one here who can remotely relate to American experience, culture or perspective. Conversations are shallow, do they have coffee in America? Are you adjusting? What’s the price of clothes in America? My mind inevitably wanders to America. I miss little things, walking my dog, Hammling, driving anywhere I want, watching Tuesday night basketball on TNT. I knew the deal when I entered the Peace Corps. But, it’s like failing 50% of my students. Sure, I knew it would happen. But thought and practice are wildly different.
There are respites to the lonliness. Talking to other Peace Corps members going through the same situations. Talking to my mother and grandma on the phone. Looking back at old photos. I go back to one innocuous video on my phone over and over again. It’s with Hammling. I just throw a ball in the kitchen and he goes and fetches it. Simple. After dozens of views I appreciate more and more. Hammling snatching at the ball in my hand, him trotting curiously towards the pitter patter of the bouncing ball, him trying to quarral the ball with his mouth. The clutter on the dining room table, a bucket, papers and a Whole Foods bag.
I find it fascinating what I miss. I don’t miss food all that much. Don’t get me wrong I would love to devour a bacon cheeseburger with extra bacon and extra cheese from Five Guys. Maybe I like Ethiopian food, maybe it’s because I’m so far removed from American food. I don’t quite know. I don’t miss the internet all that much. About once a month I can get access to a painfully slow internet cafe. Once I check how Wisconsin basketball is doing, check Facebook and scan the NYTimes, I’m satisfied. I miss the personal, mundane moments. I miss talking to Commander Cole, Sooo Much Death and Mils on Xbox Live at 3 A.M. I miss the moment when a parent would thank me for making their son or daughter the High School Player of the Week. As mentioned, I miss my dog, but his personality most. Chasing him around the backyard in tight circles, trying and failing to outmaneuver him. Walking around the neighborhood with him pulling on his leash at every moment possible. Watching him sleep, being amazed he can sleep. There are lots of dogs in Lalo, they are universially mistreated. I miss going to Trees Wings on Saturday nights for trivia with my mom and her friends and bitching about the expensive, mediocre food. I miss having hellacious arguments with Prentice, Greg and Connor about the Knicks potential moves at the trade deadline. Okay, I’m done. It’s a psychological rollercoaster. All these things I mentioned I can’t remotely explain to anyone here. Heck, I can’t even describe what American Football is. If I slip up and say soccer everyone looks at me confused, what is soccer? It’s going into public and having to put up a facade and filter. Interactions are inevitable, even if it’s 2 feet outside my house. It’s the chipping away at the facade and filter that is difficult. Some days the shield is as strong as titanium, sometimes it’s made of straw. The tough part is I don’t know until the facade gets tested with a child blaring “Johnny” in my face what it’s made of that day.
Paradox two. As is clear throughout my blog I enjoy the town, people and culture of Lalo. I am also a proud American. I feel a sense of pride with the opportunity to represent my nation. I was watching Vice, the TV show, and children in Yemen were chanting “Death To America.” The children and people of Lalo love America, and that’s because of me. It is a wonderous feeling to have a tangible impact. It’s a unique opportunity to be the first Peace Corps volunteer in a remote town. Here is the paradox. People want to come to America with me. I get asked the question on a daily basis. Often times I joke and say “lets go, right now!” And I walk towards the road. But, people are dead serious. I have been offered multiple wives, to take them to America. They ask me the legal and illegal ways to get to America. How much it costs. What its like there. It’s a daily conundrum. I tell them what life is like in America and it can be unobjectionably great. Things we take for granted are unthinkable luxuries here. A washing machine, hot water, heck, running water, toilets, personal cars, constant electrcity, a library, and internet. There isn’t a single one of those aformentioned neccessities, by American standards, near Lalo.
It’s near impossible to talk about drawbacks of American society too. Debt, depression, dependence are all difficult to explain to Ethiopians. Even with those drawbacks, I still love my country. Even if at times I can’t fathom how people or policies have come to power.
How do I tell people well, ya America is awesome, but I’m here to help improve your country. It has taken me a long time to get even to this point. I felt condescending having the position your country needs improvement. It felt a bit colonial, I quickly learned Ethiopians are transparent about their situation. It still presents the question what do I tell people who say they want to go to America? I don’t have an answer, I’m not sure I ever will.