When I first moved to Adet and things were still new—when a town the size of a mall seemed the size of Manhattan—Ayele would walk me the ten minutes to and from school so I wouldn’t get lost (and trust me, I would have). Soon, when various back roads began to make sense, I realized he purposefully took a roundabout path around my house, when we could have instead cut through a shorter, more direct back alley.
“You must always avoid that area,” he explained when I asked. “It is a danger path.”
Always the bratty kid sister at heart, I took this as an invitation to explore on my own, and after quick preliminary investigations, I assumed the path’s ruggedness was what made it so “danger.” To get through, I needed to balance on logs and hop over rocks, and afterwards (obviously) gloat that I so effortlessly “conquered the danger.” I dubbed myself Adet’s Christopher Columbus, or more prestigiously, the new Dora the Explorer.
It wasn’t until several months later that I realized “danger” meant a road full of tela behts: houses selling homemade beer and, more surreptitiously, prostitution. While this didn’t deter my back road exploration, it pressed me to pass with a keener eye. I spent more time studying the women’s faces. I made it a point to talk with, to meet—to know each of these neighbors.
Today, this back alley is the best part of my day. When I round that first corner and hop the first log, I can’t stop smiling. Today, my favorite person in Adet lives on that road, in that corner tela beht.
No matter what she’s doing or whom she’s with, when I round that first corner, Betty will sprint to my side. “Eyeeen! Eyeeen! Eyeeen!!!!!!” she’ll yell with her two-year-old drawl. She’ll slip her small hand in mine, struggle with her five-size-too-big shoes, and escort me to the road.
If we’re walking toward school, she’ll ask about my schedule. “Are you going to primary school or high school, Eyeen?” “What will you teach?” “Will you come back?” “When will you come back?” After school, she’ll walk me all the way home, always first asking, “May I escort you to your house, Eyeen?”
No matter where we’re going, she’ll always kiss my hand and chirp “Chao, Eyeen!” before leaving my side.
I could be in the worst mood of my life—heck, I often am in the worst mood of my life—but no matter what, my heart is warm on that tiny back path. When I walk that short leg to school, I’m smiling.
Sometimes, if Betty’s not on the road when I approach, her sister or mother will yell in the house, “Betty! Erin’s coming!” and like lightening, she’ll sprint out to my side (often without shoes or clothes).
Once I found her bouncing around in the back of a parked truck with other neighborhood kids and she ecstatically trilled, “Eyeen!!! Look! It’s a car! I’m in a car!” I had to run so she wouldn’t throw herself off the side to come hold my hand, and it was only after 10 handshakes that she finally let me go.
“Will you come back?” she yelled after me. I’ll always come back, I vowed.
Now as I prepare to leave Adet in three months, I can’t stop thinking about Betty. What will she think when I’m not there? What will she do? Who will she be?
She’s been so integral to my Peace Corps experience… but such a small chapter of my life experience. I can’t imagine not seeing Betty every day, but soon, I won’t. In three months, she won’t be there.
In America, when preparing for the Peace Corps, I thought my most memorable moments would be at school; I thought my breakthroughs would be in the classroom. I assumed the moments when a child really got it, moments when I really got through, would be the times I murmured, “Yes! This is why I’m here!”
When preparing for Ethiopia, I thought the best moments would be the big ones. Moments after a big, successful project or a big cultural event, like a wedding or a holiday.
Within the past month, I’ve attended a wedding. I’ve gotten closer and closer to opening Adet’s first public library. I’ve coordinated two amazing female empowerment seminars. I’ve had breakthrough moments with my students. I’ve seen people really get it.
Yet amid all of these perfect project successes, these typical pamphlet moments, my favorite thing is rounding that corner. My biggest success is Betty’s smile; it’s hearing her “Eyeeen! Eyeeen!!!!” from a distance. No matter what happens—no matter whom I see or what I do—she’s the best part of my day. She’s the moment when I think, “This is why I’m here.”
I thought the Peace Corps would be about what I did. I thought what would matter most is how I changed, or how I helped.
But today, what matters most is the little girl who’d jump from a car to hold my hand. It’s the girl I’ve never taught in a class or coached in a program. It’s the girl I see for only five minutes a day.
Today, the most beautiful thing in my life is the most seemingly mundane. And in fifty years, when I remember Peace Corps, I’ll remember rounding that corner. When I think of Ethiopia, I think of those five minutes.
Today, tomorrow, and in 5,000 tomorrows, my greatest success will be Betty’s smile.