Thursday, November 30, 2006

World Aids Day 2006

A year ago tomorrow, I was in the foyer of the University of Toronto’s medical building, wearing a sweaty tshirt with a red ribbon on it, peddling my heart out but getting nowhere. I was participating in the Race for Dignity on stationary bikes, raising money for anti-retroviral treatment for Africans living with HIV/AIDS. I never expected then that I would be celebrating the next World Aids Day in Africa while working with non-governmental organizations who deal with primary health care and HIV/AIDS issues every day.

Ethiopia’s experience with the AIDS pandemic is both lucky and unlucky. Estimates say that 1.5million people have been infected here, out of a population of 75million- a devastating number. But, with the institution of universal access to free anti-retroviral treatment comes the possibility of change for those infected and affected by HIV/AIDS.

Yesterday I went with a coworker to visit Addis Hiwot, an organization of people living with HIV/AIDS. In Amharic, Addis Hiwot means “New Life,” and for the twenty people in the group, the organization has lived up to its name. Yalemzoud Mengistu, one of the members of the group, described to me what her life was like before coming to work in the Addis Hiwot’s recreation centre. AIDS was beating her, leaving her bedridden as a result of her low CD4 count. After receiving ART drugs, Yalemzoud was able to start working again. She told me, “When I was at home, I was thinking about the virus, crying every day. Now, I don’t have the time to think about the virus. I’m busy every day and surrounded by others in the same situation as me.” As well, through the organization, she is able to afford the balanced diet necessary to make the drug cocktail taken by her and her son effective.

The story of Yalemzoud’s situation repeats itself all over Africa, and increasingly, Asia. But most people bedridden with AIDS don’t have the chance to get out of bed and make a new life for themselves.

World Aids Day seems to have more meaning to me than Thanksgiving just past, or Christmas coming up because it deals much more with Humanity. This past summer I was so inspired by the sheer number of people working towards positive change who attended the AIDS 2006 conference in Toronto. But even the thirty or so thousand attendees don’t represent the numbers infected in one Sub-Saharan country, let alone in the whole continent.

I know there’s no turkey, or stockings, or mistletoe, but I urge you to grab hold of World Aids Day somehow so we can better represent the people affected and infected, and mobilize ourselves towards change. I’ll be in Ethiopia, attending the theatre and music festivities in the middle of Addis Ababa.

World Aids Day Actions
• Wear your red ribbon
• Attend an event at your university, high school, community centre
• Donate time or money to an organization working for change
• Read an article to increase your awareness, and then discuss it someone else
• Share whatever action you take, to prompt others to take an action too

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Reflection after 2 Months

I have just past my 2 month mark here in Ethiopia. Before leaving, I had been preparing for my year abroad since getting into the International Development program at the University of Toronto, and felt ready for anything. More specifically, I felt ready for an extremely difficult year of cultural difference, heart wrenching poverty, and loneliness. I couldn’t have been more wrong. There is something about Ethiopia and Ethiopians that make my time here so different from the year I was expecting.

To start off with, I am moved daily by the universal generosity here. Sometimes the culture of beggars here frustrates and disturbs me because it is so entrenched in society. How can growth and development occur if people ask for money and food rather than doing something productive to earn a living? But the thing that amazes me about it is that every single Ethiopian, no matter how poor they are themselves, will find 10 birr cents to put into the hands of a blind man or leper that comes to ask at the door of the minibus, or a quarter to give to the rural woman in rags with a baby strapped to her back. This distribution is common among everyone. Even when you present someone with a gift, they thank you and take it (without the protestations we are used to in the West), because they know that they or someone else will return the generosity to you in the near future.

This redistribution relates closely to perspectives of poverty among the poor themselves. Ethiopia is the 5th poorest country in the world, it suffers frequently from natural disasters and food insecurity, and the rate of HIV/AIDS is steadily increasing. I knew not to expect the glamorized distended bellies that appear on World Vision commercials, but still those images were there in my head. I met an 18 year old woman last week. Her mother had died from AIDS contracted from commercial sex work, she and her brother had been raped by men in the community, and she has a 4 year old daughter as a result. Now, as the oldest child in the family, she is responsible to take care of her daughter, brother and sister. Despite these terrible difficulties, the woman was smiling and welcoming as I entered her house. Her attitude showed that despite poverty, life and happiness continue, and she’ll do what it takes to provide herself and her family with a better future. Apart from the odd pessimist, this mentality has been visible in all the struggling people I’ve met, from CPAR beneficiaries to my neighbours and friends.

At CPAR, I’ve been surprised by how wrong my expectations were as well. During pre-departure training with the University and CIDA, we often talked about cross-cultural difficulties in the work place. I was to expect that as an independent Western woman, I would find things in office that contradicted my understanding of myself and my worth, or even simply made deadlines hard to meet. I wouldn’t necessarily be able to be “me”. Over my first few weeks here, I tried to keep my “heart-on-my-sleeve” temperament in check, keeping culturally sensitive issues to myself, like my lack of religion, my acceptance of homosexuality, and my tendency to take control to get things done. As I became closer to friends at work, I realized that they understood and expected me to be different, and that was okay. The first time my “get it done mode” kicked in before a deadline, I called my boss later to apologize for my assertive behaviour, but was encouraged to take this roll again when needed. And one of the favourite past times of my co-workers and me is to joke about our respective cultures. If you come by the office at tea time one afternoon, you’ll see me walking around like a chicken, poking fun of the “Toronto hurry”.

The generosity, positive attitude, hope and tolerance of Ethiopians contributes daily to my African happiness. At this point, I feel more at home here than I have in Toronto, with fulfilling work and a great social life. I might have felt prepared to leave Canada and come to Addis, but I can’t imagine what it will be like to go back. Only 8 months to go.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Believe it or Not

Most Ethiopians Believe. In fact, I haven’t met one yet who doesn’t.

According to my pre-departure Ethio-Info package, the population is made up of about 45 percent Orthodox Christians, 35 percent Muslims, and 20 percent “Other”. These three groups live together in relative peace, although people tell me that tensions are rising because of the global climate.

As an agnostic with no history of religious affiliation, I wondered what such a pious population would think of me, and whether it would affect my work environment. When asked about my religion, I get different reactions from different people. Some want to take me immediately to get baptized. Others don’t quite understand it, “does that mean that you are a pagen?” as they can’t imagine not having at least some sort of god in life. And others take my lack of spirituality in stride, saying that they’ve met other Canadians who have the same attitude, and they think it’s normal for us.

Since I’ve been here, we’ve celebrated the Christian holiday of Meskel, lived through the month of Ramadan and experienced the Islamic holiday Eid. But it’s not just these big holidays that get the faithful riled up here. Each church has a patron saint and a certain day of the month when that saint is worshipped, bringing in crowds of people, praying, selling and begging. Driving by, you can tell what saint’s day it is by the number of people around the church. It’s possible to follow the celebrations around the city from church to church, if you like the crowds of people and loudly broadcast messages from the Bible. The poorest people in Addis follow them too, knowing that Ethiopians are more generous on holidays.

Yesterday was the annual worship and celebration for Medhane Alem (“Medicine of the World,” or Jesus) which is the church across from my house. When I stepped out of my compound onto the street yesterday, I wasn’t expecting to end up in a sea of begging bodies, bright umbrellas and ladies in white head scarves, a sermon blasting from the huge speakers. A coworker took me inside the church compound after work. I’d been nervous to go, as tourism in other people’s holy places makes me wonder, but she encouraged me to come and see the festivities. The scene was a strange mix of serious and celebratory. I was surprised at how individual the worship and prayer were, not with a priest in a pulpit, but one broadcasting over the loudspeaker from the front steps. Inside the church itself, worshippers got down on their knees or raised their hands in the air without direction from a member of the church hierarchy, and the sheer emotion of faith that many exhibited was quite moving. As I moved outside again, I realized that of the thousands of people in the compound, there was a careful division between men and women. The aesthetic result was powerful: white clothed women on one side, and men in dark suits on the other.

As I walked through, with my own white head scarf falling back from my forehead, I made mental notes of the practices, trying to fit the whole situation into my world view. The Saints, and the sign of the crucifix made me think of Catholicism. The people with their heads pressed up against the wall of the church in prayer made me think of Judaism. And the division of men and women, and the head scarves, reminded me of Islam. How did I end up in such a unique country?