Zanzibar: A Dream Come True

April 12, 2011                                  Nungwi Beach, Zanzibar

After a month in Ethiopia I arrived in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania and anxiously waited for my sister. From the day I received the fellowship I had a vision of the two of us being in Zanzibar together and miraculously it was actually happening.

I picked Jess up from the airport and observed as she got her first taste of Africa. The chaos, the people, the colors…I loved seeing her shocked reaction and even more so it made me realize how normal it had all become to me.

After a 2 hour boat ride and 1 hour taxi ride, we arrived at the amazing boutique hotel on Nungwi beach that my mom got us for my birthday. For a week Jess and I sun tanned, swam, ate amazing zanzibari food, went out, drank, danced, constructed theories about the Mesai men with Italian women and just caught up on the last six months of each other’s lives, on one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Each morning we got up to go to breakfast we would turn to each other and ask “Are we dreaming or is this real?” It’s one of those magical places that is hard to believe even exists.

Along with our days of lounging we also swam with pods of dolphins in the wild, visited the national parks and went on a spice tour in a local village where we sampled various spices from lemongrass, curry and turmeric to cinnamon, vanilla, and nutmeg.

After a week at the beach, we spent our last two nights together in Stone Town, the main city of Zanzibar. Stone Town is this fascinating mix of Arab, Persian, Indian and African culture. Zanzibar was once the center of the spice trade for the rest of the world which accounts for the combination of cultural influences. Interestingly enough, one of the first people to inhabit the island were Persians. It’s for this reason that many Zanzibaris consider themselves Persian or of Persian ancestry. The locals would get so excited when we told them we were Persian and would often respond, “Then you are our sister.” After the Persians left, the Arabs invaded the island which accounts for the majority Muslim population. In addition to spices, Zanzibar was also the epicenter for the eastern slave trade. We visited some of the sites where slaves were bought and sold as well as the holding places where people were kept in horrendous conditions. It is one thing to see and read about the horrors of the slave trade in school but to actually see with your own eyes how people were treated like animals, made it so much more real.

In Stone Town, each morning we would awake to the 5 am azan (Muslim call to prayer) and then wonder through the narrow alleyways and shops of the walled city as the locals constantly called out to us in Swahili “Karibu” (welcome) or “Mambo” (how are you?) to which we had learned to respond “poha” (cool). I realized that in Zanzibar, people acknowledge your presence. There was not one person we walked by that didn’t meet us with a smile and a warm greeting. Even if at times this was motivated because we were tourist presumably with money, there is something about being seen and interacted with that makes you feel welcomed and a part of a community.

Jess and I’s time together ended too soon and saying goodbye to her and sending her off to her own experience was one of the hardest things. Although I knew I would be seeing her in a week or two, she was stepping into a world of unknown much like I had done 6 months prior; I could feel every piece of what she was going through.

After Jess left, I stayed in Zanzibar and spent a few more days in Stone Town as well as another week on the beach. After a long time of always being on the go and trying to cram as much in as possible, I just relaxed and let myself stay in a place without the looming pressure of moving on.

As a result, I was able to really get a feel for the people and the culture of Zanzibar. One incident in particular revealed this for me.

One day when I was walking in town, a man called me over and told me he saw someone take something out of my purse. Not believing him at first, I looked down and realized my small leather bound notebook was gone. Before I even had a chance to explain anything a crowd of 60 men all gathered around me ferociously plotting a search party to catch and punish the thief. I had to beg them to let it go and insisted that it wasn’t anything important until they finally agreed under the condition that I would allow the police officer to escort me around the town. For the rest of the day, everywhere I went people had heard about the incident and would say, “So sorry about your wallet. This usually doesn’t happen.”  Needless to say, I was stunned by people’s protectiveness and caring but what struck me more was how people didn’t give a second thought to going out on a limb for someone else; this is what separates life in Africa from the west.

After a few days I left Stone Town and returned to Nungwi beach with one goal in mind: to go scuba diving. After I panicked in the pool the first time I tried to breathe underwater, the next day I set out to sea and went on my first dive. The moment I let go of my fears and just embraced the experience, it was one of the most incredible feelings. Not only was the colorful marine life so beautiful with live coral reefs, tropical pods of fish, sea turtles, and other exotic species but the feeling of being weightless inside the water was like nothing I have ever experienced. I loved it so much that 30 minutes later I went on a second dive. It really does feel like you are dreaming and have entered another world.  When I finally accomplished my goal, I realized that my process with diving paralleled my patterns on this journey. Once I am able to really let go of control and of my anxieties, I suddenly gain the confidence to do the things I never imagined possible and the most incredible experiences come my way.

So after diving…it was back to the beach. Since I couldn’t afford to stay in the fancy hotel this time around, I found a little family run guesthouse directly behind the boutique hotel I originally stayed in. Though the first week I was in the bubble of paradise, this time staying in a local place, I felt a bit more connected to the community (although I can’t lie, it was still paradise). Given this, I wanted to see what was behind the tourism industry in Zanzibar so I ventured out to the local village of Nungwi. A young boy saw me wondering the village and closed his shop for an hour to show me around. We bought some candy to give to the kids and he gave me a tour of the whole village. Along with the kindness and vibrance that defines small African communities, I also saw the reality of life there: sick children who are not getting care, people who are malnourished, and poorly constructed homes. I quickly realized how much poverty exists right behind the walls of a luxury hotel. The reoccurring question ran through my head: does tourism actually help or hurt an impoverished country? From what I could see, it disenfranchises a local community but then people become dependent on it so pulling out has devastating effects. Though tourism in Nungwi is a relatively new phenomenon you can already see the toll it is taking on the people and how in a way, it is recreating a legacy of colonialism that Africa has been cursed with for centuries.  

I couldn’t help but think about the role I played in this and how I am also implicated in this whole system as a westerner, as a tourist, and as a muzungu (Swahili for white person). How lucky I am to have the privilege to come to Zanzibar and experience the dream and paradise of it all but how simply these pieces of my identity (westerner, tourist, white) are what has allowed me to do so. Though Zanzibar was and always will be a dream come true for me…I know now that sadly, my dream often comes at a cost to others.

Read about my sister Jessica’s experiences in Zanzibar and Tanzania here: http://jessnor.tumblr.com/

 

This monkey unzipped my purse, dumped everything out, found my gum, unwrapped it, and then chewed it for 20 minutes before spitting it out on the sand!

 

 

 PS Does anyone see the irony in this picture? 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More photos from Zanzibar:

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The Story of Ethiopian Jews

March 23, 2011                                                           Gondar, Ethiopia

The first Israeli I came face to face with when crossing the border from Jordan into Israel was an Ethiopian Jewish soldier. As he stood there quizzing me about the authenticity of my Jewish heritage, I wondered about his life:  How connected does he feel to his Jewish identity? What did he leave behind in Ethiopia, if he has ever even been there? What is it like for him living in Israel? Does he feel accepted? Like me, does he feel like he has to pick one aspect of his identity over the other?

As my time in Israel progressed, I often interacted with Ethiopian Jews yet knew very little about their culture. Although they clearly live in a lower socioeconomic bracket and hold menial paying jobs, people were very resistant to talking about their status in Israeli society. I would often ask Israelis, “Is it because of their skin color?” Most would be timid to respond, not sure what to attribute it to, only knowing that they come from a background of subsistence farming which has made it more difficult for them to acclimate to the new country compared to other ethnic groups.

After a few weeks in Ethiopia, my friend and I decided to take a trip up to the north of the country to visit the city of Gondar.  Along with an ancient castle and some local markets, I had heard that there is still a small community of Ethiopian Jews left in Gondar called the Falasha. Most Ethiopians Jews, or members of the Beta Israel community, immigrated to Israel in the late 80’s and early 90’s when civil war and wide spread famine struck Ethiopia. Several rescue operations, executed by the Israeli government, airlifted thousands out of the country yet little is known about the communities that still remain in Ethiopia today.

While traveling in Ethiopia I met several other Israelis who happened to be in Gondar at the same time as me all with different ethnic backgrounds: an Indian Jew, Moroccan Jew and Egyptian Jew. One day as we were sitting at lunch, a young Ethiopian man walked up to me and started speaking in Hebrew. Seeing the blank look on my face, my friends began to laugh and said, “She is the only one at this table who does not speak Hebrew.” He responded, “Well she is the only one I was sure was Israeli,” firmly cementing my belonging to the Jewish community.

He explained that he works for the Israeli Department of the Interior and has been sent on a mission to investigate the families from the Felasha that are intending to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return, which gives Jews and those with Jewish parents or grandparents the right to settle in Israel and obtain citizenship. He said that there are over 3000 families living in Ethiopia who still want to come to Israel for a variety of reasons but mostly to escape poverty and for a better life and future for their children. However, there is the belief that many of these families are simply ‘claiming’ to be Jewish and participating in the community and religion in order to emigrate. He went on to tell us that during the early 1900’s members of the Beta Israel Community (Ethiopian Jews) were mistreated and discriminated against by the Ethiopian government and many were coerced into converting to Christianity. It is believed that this current wave of immigrants, though may have Jewish ancestry, converted and have lived their lives’ as Christians for several generations. Though their return to Judaism is partly to reclaim a piece of themselves, the main motivation is the chance to leave Ethiopia.  Therefore, the Israeli government, represented by our new friend, is investigating their eligibility to come to Israel i.e. their heritage as Jews.

Seeing our interest, he invited us to come along to visit the community for a Friday night service. After two minibus rides packed in like sardines, we finally got off at a dark dirt road. We walked up a windy, muddy path and then in the distance I heard chanting. We approached the garage like door of the synagogue which read, “Welcome to Gondar Beta Israel Synagogue.” We entered at the front of the open-air room constructed of flimsy tin and wood and saw all the woman sitting on one side dressed in white with their heads bowed and the men on the other wearing their kippahs and talits with their prayer books in hand. Suddenly 500 sets of eyes locked directly on us; we quickly made our way to the back of the room and sat on the wooden planks used as pews. They were reading that week’s portion of the torah. As I listened to the service, half in Amharic the other half in Hebrew, there were times I would catch myself chanting along and realized these are the same prayers I had learned 20 years ago in Sunday school. I looked around at my 3 Israeli friends and noticed them singing along as well.  It was such an indescribable feeling to walk into a village in the middle of rural northern Ethiopia and have that deep of a connection with the people. That is the power of diasporas: though we have been spread all around the world the moment our world’s collided, we found ourselves sharing a common heritage, culture and experience.

That night before we left, the Felasha community insisted that we come back the next day for the Purim celebration the kids had been putting together. So the next morning we made the same trip up the dirt road, this time in the daylight which further revealed the poverty they lived in. As we approached the synagogue we saw the kids dressed in beautiful costumes preparing to act out the story of Queen Ester who ironically first hid her identity as a Jew and then revealed it to the king in order to save the Jewish people who were at risk of being executed.

I watched as the kids recounted the story of Purim incorporating their Ethiopian culture such as Amharic music, dancing, food, and dress, beautifully weaving their two ethnicities together as one. I saw how their heritage and practices were the same as any other Jew around the world yet it was infused with their unique cultural traditions, similar to mine as a Persian Jew and my friends as Moroccan, Egyptian and Indian Jews.  In that moment I got part of the answer to the question running through my head the first time I encountered the Israeli Jew at the border: The Ethiopian Jews did not have to choose one piece of themselves over the other because they didn’t see one as separate from the other.

I observed as the parents proudly watched their children and the community came together to rejoice in this holiday. There was a feeling of warmth and togetherness in that room. Even though it may have seemed that they had so little and were so poor (which they are) I couldn’t help but be envious of the richness of their lives and the connectedness they feel with one another.  I wondered if that would be ripped away from them once they left the country.

On the crammed minibus ride back, I thought about the diaspora, identity and what makes someone authentic. What is authenticity? 25%, 50%, 75%? How much you practice a religion?  The ethnic/religious background of your mother or father? Isn’t it all relative?

As a Sephardic (Middle Eastern) Jew participating in a mostly Ashkenazi (European) Jewish community in the US, I related to the feeling of having my authenticity questioned: “You don’t come to synagogue, you’re not really Jewish.” “You eat rice on Passover, you are not really Jewish.”  “Your family speaks a different language, you are not really Jewish.”

However, I never felt like I had to prove my Jewish identity in the way that Ethiopians have had to do. Once I left the Felasha I did a little bit of research which revealed that throughout history, Ethiopian Jews, time and time again have had to struggle to be accepted by the Jewish community. Their genuineness has constantly been questioned and even attempted to be refuted (sometimes through DNA tests) regardless of the fact that since the 1900’s Rabbis have officially declared Ethiopian Jews’ belonging to the community. Why did they have to prove their authenticity more than any other Jew in the world? Why didn’t I or any of my three other friends from various countries around the world have to justify our heritage? I came back to the question: Is it because of their skin color? I couldn’t help but conclude that it is in fact a product of racism.

Realizing this I felt sad; Sad that the story of Ethiopian Jews has to end in this way. Always having to justify that they belong to a community they feel so closely tied to yet never accepted into. Not really having a choice in their immigration knowing that better economic conditions await them yet also not aware of the tradeoff: Leaving their community and the only home they have ever known to be a foreigner in a country they consider their ‘other’ homeland but where they will actually be seen as the ‘other.’ This is the same bitter sweet experience that all immigrants around the world share yet for some reason, people continue to leave their homes each and every day. I guess it’s the perpetual hope that things can be better, that life can be easier, and that a brighter tomorrow lies ahead.

A Milestone in Addis

March 17, 2011                                           Addis Ababa, Ethiopia  

As I set out for this trip, though I knew that I would be turning 30 on the road, I didn’t give much thought to where I would be on my birthday. This is very unlike my usual self, who loves to celebrate and be celebrated. However, this year, I was somewhat relieved that I could just slide by my birthday and avoid making a big deal out of the looming 30 milestone that I wasn´t so keen on facing. So, I made a pact with myself to continue on my journey and make the most out of whatever place I land in.

This place just happened to be Ethiopia.  From the moment I arrived in Addis Ababa (meaning new flower in Amharic), I felt a sense of community that I have not felt elsewhere in my travels. After only a week in Addis, I had made so many incredible friends: Shimrit-an amazing Israeli girl (also a social worker) traveling Ethiopia solo; Selome and Yibe-both friends of friends back home living in Addis; The owners and staff of my hostel; And many other local Ethiopians that I had met and befriended at local cafes and restaurants. Walking through the streets of Piazza, (the area of Addis I stayed in) I felt as if I had lived there for years.

After some time in Addis, Shimrit and I decided to take a road trip to the south of Ethiopia. I very coyly mentioned to her that I prefer that we be back before the 14th of March. Surprised at my rigidness around dates, I had to explain so I finally broke down and told her it is my 30th birthday. Excitedly she exclaimed, “Well then we HAVE to celebrate!”

Our trip was truly a journey of a lifetime. We hired a car and along with it came three staff people: a driver, mechanic, and guide. As our road trip progressed they transformed from the “driver, mechanic and guide” to three of our very best friends. Together we visited beautiful lakes, played with monkeys, sailed in swamps with hippos, went to natural hot springs and visited one rural village after another.

When I arrived back in Addis, I walked into my hostel and immediately all the guests exclaimed, “Did you hear about Mike??? He stole your birthday money?”

Mike is an English guy who I believed was the co-owner of the restaurant and hostel I was staying in. During my week in Addis we became friends and he constantly went above and beyond for me. When my phone got stolen in the market, he replaced it for me within 1 hour, anytime I needed anything he was the first to offer to help and he had volunteered to host a party for me in ‘his’ restaurant. A few nights before I was leaving for my road trip he asked to borrow $500 and promised to repay it the following morning. Though at first I obliged, I immediately had a really bad feeling about it and my instincts told me something was wrong. Conflicted, I talked to my friend Shimrit. She told me, “Rox, trust your gut. You cannot risk playing with this money. Just tell him no and if he’s really your friend he will understand.” So I called and told him I couldn’t loan him the money.

When I got back I found out that he is a scam artist who has been traveling the world, creating fake identities and manipulatively stealing money from people. He stole several hundred dollars from the hotel, thousands from other foreigners, and a lot of money from local Ethiopians who work so hard for every dollar they earn. In his final venture he stole the $100 my mom and sister had wired to the hotel to buy flowers, champagne and a cake for my birthday and left the country.

Upon hearing this, although I was shocked and angry at myself for being manipulated and not seeing through him, most of all, I felt so sad for the local people he had hurt so much. The irony is that in coming to Africa there is the presumption that you are always viewed as a walking wallet that Africans try to take advantage of. Yet in this case, what happened is precisely the opposite; A westerner exploited African people’s kindness, simplicity, trust, and willingness to help a friend and I am sure this situation escalated their mistrust in foreigners.

That night at the hostel, we all bonded over the loss and being duped by Mike. In spite of everything, people just kept telling me, “Don’t worry Rox, we are not going to let Mike ruin your birthday.”

So I decided to put it behind me. The next morning I woke up to so many phone calls and emails from my friends and family and my friend Shimrit knocked on my door with flowers, a gift, chocolate, and took me out to breakfast.

Later in the day, I went up to my room to get ready and Shimrit said, “Don’t come down until I call you.” Around 8:30 pm she walked me downstairs and I saw the whole restaurant was decorated with balloons, lights and a long table where all my friends were sitting. Yibe and Selome and some of their friends, a group of pharmacy students (who had kindly rescued us by giving us a ride home the night before), the three guys who we had gone on the trip with us, other guests from the hostel and many people from the Piazza community. The staff of the hotel pitched in and got me a huge birthday cake in the shape of a 30, some of the other travelers bought bottles of champagne, and everyone contributed to the celebration in one way or another. I saw that even in spite of something bad, people could be so good. We ate, danced, drank, sang and laughed together.

Throughout the night people kept coming up to me and saying “How did you make so many friends here this fast?” I wondered the same thing myself. I was so deeply touched by everyone’s kindness and couldn’t believe that in less than two weeks, I felt like I had so much in this country. The only answer I had is there is something special about Addis that made me feel so filled with love and so close to home, even when I was thousands of miles away. 

After all the celebrations and excitement, I woke up the next morning, for the first time in my new decade, and thought about if I felt different. I was the same person I was the day before when I was 29 however, turning 30, as corny as it sounds, I felt a new sense of empowerment. I realized there is not a better place I could imagine being in my life. Taking on this trip independently has taught me to trust my instincts (like I did with Mike) and not doubt my path in life. Society precribes that you should strive for certain milestones at 30 such as  have a career, get married, buy a home, and have children. However, I realized that what I am doing now, makes me feel just as fulfilled if not more than having those things. I am living every single moment of my life to the fullest and I feel alive in a way that I haven’t felt in a very long time. There is nothing holding me back in life.  I am embracing so many different experiences and seeing the world; I really couldn’t ask for anything more and I vowed to be proud of who I am and where I am in my life instead of dissing on 30.

As much as 30 represents independence and empowerment for me, even more so it has made me realize and appreciate the importance of relationships. I thought about all my friends and family back home who even from thousands of miles away were still a part of this moment in my life. How their love, support, and encouragement, is what gives my journey meaning. Then I thought about all the people I have met along the way and how through each person, even Mike, I have been able to see a piece of myself. That sometimes it doesn’t matter whether you have known someone for 20 years or for 20 seconds but it is about the connection you share. Being able to cultivate a community in such a foreign place like Ethiopia made me realize that community is not just where you live or where your friends/family are but anywhere you feel love. And this love is truly what makes us fulfilled in life: not necessarily the other milestones we are pressured to value.

I am a believer that everything happens for a reason. You are meant to be in certain places at certain times. I feel that somehow the stars aligned for me to be in Ethiopia and be on this incredible journey on my 30th birthday. I will forever be thankful to all the people who shared this birthday with me, made it such a unforgettable night and witnessed my transition into a new phase of life. Guess milestones are not such a bad thing to celebrate after all.

Ethiopia: A World of Inspiration

March 24, 2011                                 Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

During the 5 years I worked as a case manager in Seattle, I formed a strong bond with so many East African families. These families allowed me into their world as they shared their stories of escaping oppressive regimes to come to the US in hopes of a better life. When I was writing my Bonderman essay and thinking about why I want to travel the world, these families were the first thing that came to mind. I wanted to go to East Africa to experience their culture first-hand, learn about their history and feel the same warmth I felt when I was around them.

The moment my plane landed in Ethiopia, all of my clients’ stories came flooding back to me.  One in particular stood out.

Zufan came to me after a year of being homeless. When she walked into my office, though I could sense the burden she carried around with her, I felt the room light up with positive energy. Her son Dawit was one of the happiest kids I have ever met. As I interviewed Zufan he joyfully bounced off the walls and played with the toys in my office.

At the young age of 19 Zufan had already been through so much in her life. At 16, her father was in-jailed by the Ethiopian government for opposing the tyrannical ruling party. Fearing for their lives, her family was forced to escape the country. On foot, herself, her mother, and her 5 younger brothers and sisters left their home and headed for Sudan. As they were approaching the border, the strain was too much for Zufan’s mother to take and she died tragically. When Zufan told me this story, her voice became heavy as she explained that she had no choice but to leave her mother’s body behind and continue on towards the border. For a few moments, that brightness in Zufan’s face that was always present disappeared. She continued on to tell me how she became responsible for her 5 brothers and sisters. She safely got them to a refugee camp in Sudan where they lived together for several years. When Zufan gave birth to her son, she knew she couldn’t raise him in the camp. She worked in Sudan until she made enough money to pay a coyote to help her escape to the US. She was flown to Mexico and then was pushed in a floatation device across a river with her 6 month old baby on her chest until she crossed the border into Texas. In Texas she was held in custody by INS and declared that she was seeking asylum. With a contact in Portland and $200 in her back pocket, after several weeks, Zufan and Dawit were released from INS detention and made the long bus journey to Seattle.

The thing that always surprised me about Zufan is that even with all the hardships that stood in her way, she was full of hope. She had not spoken with her brothers and sisters in over a year and everything that she had ever known and loved had been torn away from her yet she took joy in the smallest things like spending time with her son, learning English and volunteering at a food bank.

Over the 2 years I worked with Zufan I couldn’t help but feel inspired and filled with energy and exuberance every time I was around her. I felt like I could take on anything if I even had one tenth of the willpower that she had. That there is no obstacle that cannot be overcome.

Zufan’s spirit and experiences along with all my other client’s stories are what brought me to Ethiopia, but what lied ahead of me I could never imagine. Ethiopia captivated me in a way that is hard to describe. I reached the highest of highs, lowest of lows, and everything in between in this country.

Ethiopians or the Habesha are a proud people and as one of the only countries in Africa that has successfully resisted colonization, they have retained so much of their original culture and lifestyle. This includes their own calendar (13 months instead of 12 and the year is 2003), time (10:00 am is 4:00 in Ethiopian time), holidays (fasting lasts all of lent), religion (majority Christian Orthodox), physical appearance (a mix between African, Arabic and Indian), music (it’s amazing-you just have to hear it), alphabet (one of the oldest written languages) and of course languages. I encountered some of the warmest, kindest people I have ever met and had so many moments I will never forget. Just to give you an idea, here are a few memories I noted in my journal:

Walking through a small rural village and being invited into a tiny hut to partake in a traditional wedding celebration while men prepared the newly slaughtered cow. Clapping and singing along with make shift drums as I watched the family rejoice in the celebration and the excitement of having a foreigner in their home. Of course, they would not let me go until I stood up and did some traditional Habesha (Ethiopian) dancing.

Waiting on the street corner and suddenly joining a crowd of marching kids. Letting go of all my inhibitions: chanting, jumping, singing and dancing in the streets with them. Feeling an energy and spirit that we often have to tuck away rise to the surface.

Driving through the beautiful rural countryside and looking out of the side window to see the lush, green landscape while women carry buckets of water on their heads and their babies on their backs and young boys herd a crowd of goats.  Watching as the kids chase after us screaming, “Farangise…You you you…give me one birr… give me one caramel…give me one pencil!”

Entering a village and seeing all the people run out of their homes to greet you and walk with you while the kids fight over who gets to hold your hand.

Eating some of the best food I have ever had with creamy espresso macchiatos, sour injera bread that we eat with our hands along with the shira (mashed chickpeas and beans), tibs (chicken or lamb marinated in rosemary), and fresh mango, pineapple, avocado juice.

Participating in a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony in the Kaffa region (coffee’s namesake and one of the biggest producers of coffee beans) while a beautiful Habesha woman roasts the green coffee beans, grinds them and prepares the most amazing, pure cup of coffee with such elegance and grace.

Stopping in the streets to talk to people who just want to walk with you, ask you were you are from, practice their English or welcome you to their country. Feeling the genuine meaning of life and what it means to live in the moment, be a part of a community, feel that you are a part of something bigger then yourself.

Of course, not every moment was filled with joy and excitement. In Ethiopia, the level of poverty was truly gut-wrenching and I would say among the worst I have seen. The government has no infrastructure to deal with the poverty and the streets of Addis are filled with sick adults, begging children, and starving elders. Not a minute passed that someone didn’t ask me for money, food, or anything I was willing to give them. Child labor is rampant and people are jsut REALLY poor.

Visiting a catholic charity situated in the center of Addis really substantiated the poverty I experienced in Ethiopia. As I entered the compound, the first thing I noticed was the sign by the entrance that read “Catholic Missionaries for the sick, dying and destitute.” That sentence said it all.

When I entered the compound the stench of illness and highly compact bodies hit me in the face. As I toured the compound I visited each cement room that was filled with cots just inches from each other and housed hundreds of people who were getting minimal care and just waiting to die. Cancer patients, those inflicted with AIDS, TB, malaria, and other diseases. Untrained nurses taking blood samples without gloves and moving on to the next patient.  People who were malnourished and starving, poor mothers with new born babies and disabled orphans left by their parents due to their economic inability to take care of them. Human suffering in the raw.

Yet the suffering in Ethiopia does not only stem from poverty. As I was traveling the country, so many people shared their stories with me that coincided with Zufan’s life. Squished next to a young girl in the back of a minibus (the form of public transport in Ethiopia) she told me she has lived in the US for 10 years. When I asked her why she came to America she explained that both her mother and father were killed in one day by the prior Ethiopian government due to their opposition of the regime.  She and her brother, afraid for their lives, escaped the country and it’s only been recently that they have been able to return to their homeland, like many others in the Ethiopian diaspora.

While sitting at a coffee shop I spoke to a young Eritrean boy. Surprised that he was even granted admission into the country due to the separation and the continued inability to bridge the tragic divide between Ethiopia and Eritrea, he explained that when he was born in the 80’s, Ethiopia and Eritrea were still one nation. His parents separated when he was a child and his mother moved to be with her family in Bahar Dar (a city in Northern Ethiopia) while he stayed with his father in Eritrea. Soon after, the two countries split off and a superficial but very significant border separated him from his mother throughout his entire childhood. Similar to the conflict in Israel and Palestine, people from both sides are unable to cross the border which has caused many families and friends to be separated for years. A country, culture and people who used to be one, now divided due to political differences. A few days ago was the first time this boy had seen his mother in 14 years. When I asked him how it felt he said, “We both just fell to our knees and cried.”

These along with the many other stories I heard while traveling the country left a imprint on my life. Between the good and the bad, the rich and the poor, Ethiopia changed how I see the world. Like Zufan, I found joy and hope in all the unexpected moments from the most extreme heartbreaking poverty to the simple, amazing, beautiful moments that just make you feel alive and vibrant; I couldn’t help but be moved by this country.  In Ethiopia, I found the same inspiration that I saw in Zufan that very first day she walked into my office-an inspiration I realized has given me the strength to take on the world.

More photos from Ethiopia:

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