Loveship, Hateship

April 27, 2014 at 4:38 am 10 comments

Not sure how many Ethiopians use the term “Where I come from” as a “crutch”. I do, or so says Troy, every time I come across: somebody complaining they don’t have a washer/drier in their unit/when I gotta throw away a box of expired eggs/a carton of sour milk or when I, once again, mistake 5 am for 11 am [11 am for 5 am]. I laugh and explain how “where i come from” the day begins at 6:00 am, not midnight, and how I still am in an “Addis State of Mind”.

The speaker, who has thus far probably assumed I was another angry black woman from the deep south, would usually end up asking “So where is home?”

I say Ethiopia. East Africa. Next to Kenya, yes. Then we discuss what great athletes they have before the question of how long I have lived here, why I hardly seem to have any accent and how I found America ensues.

What I haven’t done, atleast conciously, is ask myself that very same question. Where home, my home, really was. Then came my N-400 Naturalization application, with it’s demand to “Renounce or give up citizenship in or allegiance to all other countries” if given a chance to become an American. That day I asked the question [So where is home, really].

I still haven’t found a satisfactory answer for it.

Is home the place where you grow up being told by all those that pass by that [since] you do not look like us. [That] You weren’t one of us. [Thus] You may not belong with us?!

Is home the place you were born in?
That country you fled from?
That land where you were mentally and/or physically abused and emotionally drained?

Is home that particular place [you look back at nostalgically]?
That particular person [who gave you this vision of who you could become]?
That song [which still sends a ripple among your insides]?

Or is home some place else?

The following won’t help you answer that question, it didn’t [help] me! But it has brought back all the rage and pain I used to feel; rage and pain that still induces the desire to throw up every time I came across most abesha men [and avoid the company of a certain type of abesha woman – beteskiyan sami.. tswami.. tselai]. Visit 800 Days in Ethiopia to read more, or apologize to the writer on all our behalf.

On Being Hated

As our end of service approaches, and we get nearer and nearer to home and questions and Ethiopian storytime, I think it’s an appropriate time for some gritty honesty, for my own sake. Lately I’ve limited myself to hints, but the problem has become all-encompassing, comparable to the sorts of sun-blocking storm clouds that hang over Mt. Soloda in our rainy season, and I know I should share before coming home—I guess so that, well, you believe me, and do so while it’s happening. So that you know it has never been hyperbole.

“I’ve never felt so disrespected in my life” is a line I know I’ve heard before, fielded and responded to before, in conversations with family and friends. Something happens at work, at the store, in a board meeting, and you can’t forget it. This isolated moment hangs there in your mind and your heart, for weeks, maybe months, and you try to set it loose to be forgotten and overcome.

I want you to know what it looks like to be a foreigner and a woman, to be a target for unceasing ostracism and contempt. To be a foreigner and a woman living in Ethiopia.

At least twice a week I go through a bout of misery. A deep hopelessness resulting in bitter anger. That statement—I’ve never felt so disrespected in my life—is not an isolated, once-in-a-blue-moon moment for us female volunteers. It has become our state of being. Every other day, at the very least, for the past 21 months, I have been sexually harassed. Men have licked their lips, kissed the air, stared at my breasts, invited me alone to their homes (we’ve been told that in Ethiopian culture, if a single man invites a woman alone to his home, it means the likes of Come sleep with me), asked about my sex life, professed their love for me, gawked at me for half hours like I’m a poster, described my features in inappropriate detail, called me sexy, etc. And I come home feeling like a used object on a broken shelf.

The male volunteers will never quite understand this. They support us dearly, and listen well—and they sometimes see it happen—but they’ll never fully feel it as their own. It will rarely ever be directed towards them. They’ll always be the supporters, not the ones needing the support and not wanting to ask for it.

What this means is: when, weekly, I vent and cry to Daniel about the particular sexual harassment I’ve been given that week, I end up feeling relieved in the moment—for having told him, and for how he soothes and encourages me, lifts me up—but gradually, gradually I end up feeling like an awful individual. I struggle with the questions: Am I an awful volunteer? Am I becoming a horrible person? Am I so full of hate—and how is he not? Am I so weak, so thin-skinned? Could I be exaggerating this somehow? Is it even a problem, or is it only in my head? Shouldn’t I be over it by now? Will I be like this when we go home, too?

I am an object of hate. I am ridiculed, I am blatantly desired. They see me as separate, as other and yet simultaneously, as theirs. They think I belong to them, that I exist for their entertainment and lust.

I only leave our home when I have to: school, church, market. It’s inside my house, within our stone-wall compound, that I feel like a person. Like a loved woman, not an abused one. Like I can be healthy and normal and free.

I’m legitimately afraid of who I’m becoming, of the gentle self I may have lost, of the thoughts that run through my head, of the comments I make about Ethiopia, about Ethiopians. I am angry. Most of the time I feel like a burning ball of hate. I feel unfairly wounded, and feel the need to fight back. I don’t feel the same loving person that I arrived. And I feel alone in this. Daniel and the rest of the male volunteers despise being called Money and You! White! It’s awful, the continuous psychological strain is exhausting, but it can’t quite ever reach the likes of Sex! or Pus*y!

My sweet friend was told by a stranger on the road: “I want to lick your…” Fill in the blank yourselves. (Southern Nations–SNNPR)

My good friend had a man on the road run up to her and grab her crotch, right in front of her husband. A police officer stood by on the road, playing with his phone, while her husband had to be the one to do the “punishing.” (Amhara)

Multiple friends have reported of men showing them pornography on buses, as a sort of sick invitation. One volunteer sat beside such a man on a bus, as he masturbated beside her and her visitor from the states. (Multiple regions)

Three of my friends often tell me how frequently they are grabbed and groped as they walk to work—their breasts, their buttocks—by men they pass by. (Amhara, Oromia, Tigray)

Enjoying a gracious meal with one of our favorite families, the Negas, our good evening took a turn when I received the first of what became a long string of texts that night from an unknown number. The sender described for me what the different parts of my body would taste like. (Tigray)

And this is no longer shocking to us. It’s commonplace. We expect it; this is what it is. It’s a part of our lives now. And all the while we give up so much to help our predators. To serve them and their country.

When I cry to Daniel, I often belittle my experience, to question my own psychology. I haven’t been grabbed once. The other girls have it so much worse than I do. Why am I so affected by this? Why can I not keep it out of my head? Why is it so so damaging? What’s wrong with me?

A wise friend told me, “But we shouldn’t have to qualify it! Why are we telling ourselves that this isn’t that bad, that there are worse things? No one should have to go through this, any of it, ever, whatever the degree.”

It is always affecting us women. We walk to school, to market, anywhere, and we have our mantras prepared. We are muttering to ourselves what we’ll say, what we’ll do, when they target us—not if, no it’s never if, it’s when. So even when they’re not speaking to us, they’re winning. Even when they’re not speaking to me, I’m hating them.

Unless they’re my colleague or shopkeeper or trusted friend, I purposefully ignore men in the age group of 15 and 45. I ignore their hellos. When Daniel greets his students on the road, I usually continue walking, eyes focused ahead, indifferent scowl plastered on my face. It’s grossly unfair: a very vocal minority have made me of wary of an entire group, filled with good men who could be making my time in Ethiopia richer, if I gave them the chance. Four hundred or so men, in the course of my 21 months here, who have exercised that power they think is their right to lord over me—a mere woman—have sullied the image of the other 30,000 men in my town. These 30,000 men have become untrustworthy until proven otherwise. It’s generalizing at its worst, for the sake of my own safety.

How it changes us: We wear frumpy, unattractive clothing, and no makeup. We make eye contact with no one. We keep to our houses, our rooms. We avoid certain colleagues and schools whose principals make moves on us. We welcome no conversation from strangers on the road, because we know what the comments will quickly become 70% of the time. If we own headphones, we always wear them when out in public. We are losing our sweet, loving, and welcoming spirits. We have become hardened.

I say we, because I only just fully realized. I knew we were being sexually harassed, I knew it wasn’t only me, that it was happening to all 160 of us female volunteers living in Ethiopia; we can’t escape it. We learned this early. But what I didn’t know was that it was affecting all of us almost entirely the exact same way. That all this time, we were fully together in this—every single bit of this.

We just attended our annual All-Volunteer Conference in Addis Ababa. On the first day we had a session for the ladies, to discuss gender inequality in this country, to discuss how we’re treated, and how we can cope with it in healthy, non-destructive ways. When our session leader shared that “when my parents came to visit, they said, ‘Wow, honey, you’ve become quite mean,’” the relief that rose from my chest was unquantifiable. That’s me, I whispered. When one friend talked about having lost her ability to keep eye contact with people, to be friendly with strangers, the tears began to surface. That’s me, I whispered. When a volunteer talked about the “stink face” she wears everywhere in public—how shocked she was by it when her friend took a candid photo to show her later—I laughed knowingly. That’s me too. The entire session, as we all unloaded on each other for support, and shared and coped, all I could do was weep silently. I didn’t know how powerful, how important, solidarity and understanding could be. For the first time, I was looking into my fellow female volunteers’ faces and seeing my own reflection.

And then our male staff-member, there to support us, to hope along with us for some solution or answer, stood to encourage us, and he couldn’t finish his sentence. He cried alongside us, and we wondered that he could feel the weight of it too.

I thought I was less, I thought I was pathetic. I thought I was becoming as unchristian as I could possibly be, and that it was my own fault, that surely I could be handling this better, more maturely and compassionately. But, in fact, we’ve all been psychologically forced to the same dark and difficult place. The place in the corner of our minds where we must daily try to force the light back in, reminding ourselves that we are strong, good, beautiful women, and we are no one’s objects to possess. We are our own selves.

I suppose I want you to know the truth of it. That this is really really hard. That today, in Ethiopia, you have 160 strong women serving your country and world to help work towards peace and development and education and quality of life for all. That many days, maybe most days, we’re suffering through it. But we remain strong, and will defeat this. The western world is outnumbered in their earnest and successful efforts to keep men and women equal, and if this is all we ever see, this is all we’ll ever see. I wish you knew what it was like almost everywhere else.

In our All-Volunteer Survey, over half of our volunteers surveyed reported that they are sexually harassed at least a few times each week. A quarter of all the volunteers surveyed reported they are sexually harassed more than once each day. When these surveys were compared to those throughout the rest of Africa’s Peace Corps posts, Ethiopia ranked First in sexual harassment.

And yet we’re only getting a two-year glimpse—and though an awful one—just a two-year period of being treated as less, as worse, as not good enough, i.e. as “woman”. We’re told, “No—you can’t climb that mountain; you’re a woman,” as they laugh at us; we’re asked, “How can you be fat and single? No man will marry you,” as they laugh at us; we’re asked by male colleagues, “Would you like me to measure myself for you, so I can tell you my size?” as they grin at us; we’re asked, “Is your husband good in bed?” as they snicker at us—and the entire time we know in that bright corner of our minds that we are getting out of here in just a few months, in just another year, etc. We will escape these common horrors eventually—it’s a sacrificial sliver in our lifetimes—but the women around us, the women and young girls in our communities whom we come to love and adore and admire: they have to live with this. Indefinitely. And while we at least have the relief of complete awareness of our injustice and the indignation that follows, they will go on thinking it normal and acceptable and their own burden to carry—until someone will do something to change it.

To our families: I suppose maybe you’ve compared Daniel’s musings about Ethiopia with mine, the way I had been doing, and found me falling short. I’ve been afraid you think me weak and under-qualified for this job I committed to. That I’m weak-willed, less tolerant, and simply more dramatic than my husband. I’ve been afraid you think me prejudiced and bitter-hearted for no reason (for how can you possibly know what this is?). I’ve been afraid that maybe, around your dinner tables, you discuss how bad and inappropriate my attitude has become, how I blow things out of proportion, how inadequate I am for this job, how I haven’t lived up to the task I’ve been given. But what I want you to know, before we come home, is that I am brave. I am resilient. And after 630 so days of this, I am still here. I didn’t quit. And I suppose, somehow, I still actually want to be here to help them. I think that has to say something.

And perhaps, with the hate, love is there too.

This is undoubtedly “the toughest job I’ll ever love”. The toughest job, thing, two-year stretch, whatever you want to call it, that I will never experience again.

As I trudge through the murky recesses of a wounded and slowly-recovering spirit while the near-nightmare continues, I’m focusing on Love. Specifically, on Christ’s words in Matthew 5: 43-48.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

A Christian for 15 or so years, I thought I knew what this meant, what Jesus meant when He said this. I thought “frenemies” counted in this category. Annoying people, know-it-alls, and the “least of these.” I thought they were who it was hard to love and who we had to love anyway. Let me suggest that maybe that is quite easy by comparison. I didn’t really know Hate until I joined Peace Corps. When I become most hopeless and full of rage and doubt, I remember that Christ knows exactly what it feels like to be an object of disgust. He didn’t have frenemies—he was “despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.” (Isaiah 53: 3). The Son of God was trampled by hateful men, and yet He tells us to love those who hate us. To turn the other cheek. To respond not in hate, but with love. For if we love those who love us—should we be congratulated?

Before now, I’ve always prided myself on being an exceptionally nice person. Kind to everyone, always assuming the best of people. Then I came here and realized that for the past 25 years, people were being kind to me too. What credit was it to me? Yellen—there is none. Easy peasy.

So while I’ve certainly never been so disrespected in my entire life, and never will be again to this unyielding, heightened degree—neither have I been so humbled. So shocked into a deep understanding of my sinful humanity, Christ’s perfection, and the depth of His love for us. To, for the first time, understand what my Lord meant when He turned an age-old custom on its head and made it nearly impossible to fulfill—and entirely impossible to fulfill by our own human power. To, for the first time, know that I don’t know the first step to fulfilling this command. On my own, I am no different from the lowest of men: I know how to love those who treat me nicely; big, amazing deal.

So I thank God for His grace. He knows how to love those who hate us—He’s done it, and He did it well—and He won’t keep it a secret from us. If we ask Him to show us how that cheek-turning thing works, surely, surely, He will.

Upon Him was the chastisement that brought me peace, and with His wounds I am healed.

Footnotes

I’ve written this same “blog entry” three times in the past five months—and yet I never post it. I end by crying into my hands, angrier than when I started, and knowing I can’t possibly express or share what can barely be understood and only judged. Daniel and I have made a conscious decision to keep our posts as positive as possible, to sift out as much negativity (even if deserved) as possible. Because this is our fear: Crude catcalls linger in the memory more vividly than beautiful coffee ceremonies; inappropriate colleagues may be more memorable than our stories of our sweet Meron. We do love Ethiopia; we do love living in Ethiopia. And so we use our writing carefully, so that we don’t distort your image of this unique place when we’re in our worst and weariest moods. But I also believe that we can’t fully understand what it means to love a place, unless we know the whole of it—unless we know how difficult it can be to love that place. Somehow the value of the love increases. And the fact that I’ve tried and wanted to give you the full account of it at least three times—tells me that maybe, somehow, I should tell you. That maybe, somehow, you can benefit from it.

One of the main manifestations of Christ’s gracious love for me has been the one who listens to every account of this every day, with compassion and hurt and love, not knowing how to deal with it but trying as hard as he can, and who tells me that I am a good volunteer, that I am a good Christian, and I am a good woman. As I speak words of doubt, he counters them with words of encouragement. I’d have been on a plane home a year ago if it wasn’t for this daily and very crucial help from the worthiest and best of helpmates. He helps me to be the strongest of women. I think I’ll be forever inspired by my 150 or so role models who somehow withstand and overcome this, and stay here, without their own Daniel. We weren’t meant to bear such burdens. And yet somehow, we do.

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If I Coulda, I Woulda Nana-na-na-nah

10 Comments Add your own

  • 1. rebeccafisseha  |  April 28, 2014 at 12:26 pm

    Wow. Thanks for posting this excerpt! I’ll never complain again about the small annoyances I experience as a female back home because this is 200% worse, and I had no idea! Yes, apologies on behalf are much due.

  • 2. Shishig  |  April 28, 2014 at 6:56 pm

    Horrible experience I admit, and rude awakening for those of us who preach every sexual perversity is imported from the west. That may justify your desire to throw up on Habesha men — at the risk of being guilty of “generalizing at its worst”—but what’s wrong with beteskiyan sami, tswami, tselai Habesha women? And does the behavior described here really characterize us as a nation, even to the point of hating one’s identity?

  • 3. Scooby  |  May 2, 2014 at 2:12 pm

    Meharene kristos.

  • 4. DaNegus  |  May 4, 2014 at 3:11 pm

    Whoever thinks internet brought perversion to Ethiopia has obviously not been to Kazanchis. Still I think it has to do with the lack of maturity that comes with being novis to things. Who among us hasn’t skipped classes and avoided responsibilities to get to his room and his stash of porn? Too bad accessibility to technology doesn’t come with the sensibility how to use it properly.

  • 5. Welloyew  |  May 4, 2014 at 4:53 pm

    Abesheet i think sometimes you are always looking for reason to hate ethiopia and ethiopians. You know there are bad people in every culture. Ours is comparatively much better than most.

  • 6. Chuchu  |  May 9, 2014 at 12:21 pm

    Wow.. and here i was thinking my bus ordeals.. i.e. some jerk rubbing against you on the bus.. were the worst that could happen to you in Ethiopia.

  • 7. Daniel  |  October 29, 2014 at 9:52 pm

    Just read the top story on Google News today … “Woman gets 100 catcalls in 10 hours in NYC” or similar headlines in hundreds of other major news agencies… the original YouTube video went viral with 8 million+ hits and 40,000+ comments in less than 24 hours… and counting! It reminded me of this article I read on your blog a little while back.

    While I do not condone catcalling (and have never done so in my life) even as an Ethiopian man who lived in Ethiopia most of his life there, the above-mentioned news story AND the 40k+ comments clearly confirm that catcalling is not just an Ethiopian phenomenon – as implied in the blog post – but that it is common in other countries as well, including the US where both ‘Abesheet’ and the Peace Corps volunteer/’victim’ in the blog are from.

    My intention is not to restart the debate on catcalling – that, you can find in the comments sections of the YouTube video mentioned above. I also understand that some of the things mentioned in the blog post on Ethiopia are more than just catcalling. But this is just to put things into perspective here.

  • 8. andthree  |  October 30, 2014 at 8:55 pm

    @ Daniel, tebarek!

    And if she got 108 catcalls, then why are a worrying number of the guys shown on the video black?

  • 9. Daniel  |  November 1, 2014 at 7:09 pm

    @andthree

    Again, no need to continue this debate here … all that can be said about this topic has been said in the 98k+ comments on the YouTube video. But just to answer your question, here’s what various media sources wrote: “Director of viral NYC catcall video reveals white men were edited out”

  • 10. abesheet  |  November 4, 2014 at 7:50 pm

    I have yet to watch the video and the comments. However, when I heard an NPTR interview with the viral-video maker, I wondered the same thing andthree did. Why do the “cat-callers” sound black?

    Ofcourse, I needed no answer. I don’t own a car and I live near downtown Seattle. So I have had my fair share of cat-calling and, if there were white men in it, they were holding a sign that promises work for food or begs for “anything” [that would help]. Oh yeah.. one or two of them were either in the company of other loud-mouthed young red-necks or reeking of marijuana. But, alas, still… I doubt many women [ordinary, average-looking women like myself] always associate cat-calling with sexual-harassment. Or maybe they do when cat-called by men they wouldn’t go for [I personally feel insulted when losers try to be sweet on me – like they think I was a fellow loser-ess, quite at home in their league. Unfortunately, the african-american community has been so starved of men that black men are used to scoring with women much better-looking and perhaps more accomplished than me. So they cat-call whoever they can. And more-often than not.. especially nowadays when white men seem to either be going gay, proving to be perverts or seeking comfort in exotic women and dating black men seem acceptable .. they aim a lot higher].

    I started with how women tend not to associate cat-calling with harassment. At worst its a nuisance. At best … when its a clean, decent-looking man who doesn’t make you feel like u were a piece of meat; or… when he is all that and seems to genuinely admire you – cat-calling feels like a compliment. [So does a look and a smile. Or a asking where you were headed to after complimenting you on how fast you walk – as it happened to me the other day]. The French take it further, I heard. For them, not being cat-called means not being found interesting or desirable. Many a french women, especially those not needing to work or are past their primes, get dressed up, made up, and go out looking their best so the leaf-blowing guy across the street would whistle at them. So those african-american and Latino men were probably responding to beauty and desirability in the way they know how. But that is where civilization comes in. [Innit?!] Because civilized means not not-having the urges, but having the wisdom and self-restraint or sometimes the unself-involvedness of when and not to exhibit them. Right? And that, we all know, is the one quality most african-american men and perhaps Latinos, too, lack.

    But maybe sexual-harassment is like racism. The director of the movie “Dear White People” was defending a statement one of his characters made in the movie, that blacks can’t be racist. Not prejudiced, that they can, but not racist. Because racism is prejudice+power: when you can exercise the power to marginalize those you are prejudiced against you are racist. When you are hating on Chinese people and/or are indiscriminantly cat-calling women in the street you are either abesheet or a douche-bag!

    (Reply made from phone. Sorry for typos and mis-constructed sentences)

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