One of my lowest points in the Peace Corps was in the fall of my second year, when I returned to my assigned primary school to start the new school year. I hadn’t seen most of my students for the three months of summer vacation and on that first morning, I basically ran to the school compound, giddy and excited for the familiar faces.

I walked in that morning, however, to find many of my favorite female students missing. Girls I had grown to love and admire–active and curious young women who had gone out of their way to attend my English programs and female empowerment events–had been pulled out of school by forces beyond their control. In the previous school year, these girls had shared with me their dreams of moving to the city for university and dreams of their careers. But someone in their lives had decided that, because they are female, they were more useful at home.

UNESCO estimates that only 18% of female students in Ethiopia make it to university, and even there they face an uphill battle against sexual harassment and bias in the classroom. Last weekend I was lucky enough to participate in a gender mentorship program at Addis Ababa University, in which students were encouraged to share their fears, challenges, goals and accomplishments.

Though living in a world of blatant gender inequality can be disheartening, it makes these experiences, like meeting these Ethiopian activists, all the more moving. These women have had to face negativity, criticism and cruelty all of their lives, but they are still fighting for their dreams. They’re still fighting the uphill battle. They still believe in their potential and self worth.

Check out this blog to read more about “Berchi,” the Amharic word for courage. After three years in this infuriating and inspiring country, I can say without a doubt that Ethiopian women are the most courageous that I know.

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Girl Rising

Adet was featured in the female rights-focused documentary “Girl Rising!” Check out this clip to see my beloved Farmville (and Boob Mountain) 🙂 :

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Welcome to Our Library

Six months ago, Adet’s closest public library was two hours away down a bumpy, windy mud road, for a bus fare few students, or lower class Ethiopians, could afford. Six months ago, students had to share outdated, used textbooks to learn about the world.

On Saturday afternoon, we celebrated the grand opening of our new, first and only, public library, which wouldn’t have been possible without the help of friends, family, and incredibly kind strangers from home. Today, thanks to your overwhelmingly generous donations, we have 1,700 books–novels, encyclopedias, atlases, dictionaries and children’s books–right in the center of our town. (Scroll to the bottom of this post for some pictures!)

I cannot thank those who donated enough. You’ve changed the lives of my students, friends and neighbors forever. You’ve changed Adet forever. Thank you.

An especially big thank you to the following people for mailing books to Adet!

  • Alexandra Korba
  • Alexis Lavi
  • Alyssa Wolice
  • Amber Yothers
  • Andreina Ray
  • Angie Thompson
  • Ariana Carrillo
  • Arielle Sodowick
  • Bogdan Bistriceanu
  • Briana Brown
  • Brittany Fields
  • Brittney Manchester
  • Cait Chew
  • Colin Crane
  • Corey Schneider
  • Danielle Coelho
  • Darin Itdhanuvekin
  • Doris McGean
  • Erica Bleicher
  • Eva Glass
  • Georgia Wells
  • Haleigh Duggan
  • Jean Carrillo
  • Jen Holthaus
  • Joanna Blatchly
  • Jose Espinoza
  • Josh Desai
  • Karen Chittenden
  • Kate Faherty
  • Katie Tippett
  • Kay Sardo
  • Kish Raja
  • Laura Jernigan
  • Lauren Hardgrove
  • Linda McGean
  • Lindsey Carothers
  • Linsey Gosh
  • Liz Watson
  • Lois Hanson
  • Mackenzie Hill
  • Maria Smyslova
  • Martin Franzini
  • Meagan Carney
  • Meg Broad
  • Mika Carillo
  • Myra Carillo
  • Nadiah Abidin
  • Nancy Koenig
  • Nikki Dillon
  • Pam Sullivan
  • Patricia Yacob
  • Patrick Sullivan
  • Renee Schoch
  • Robin Sager
  • Samantha Gannon
  • Sarah Fugate
  • Sedale McCall
  • Selina Morris
  • Shannon Radsky
  • Sofia Bobie
  • Sophie Decher
  • Toni & Wally Leopold
  • Vanessa Buenconsejo
  • Vered Shpigel
  • Veronica Torres
  • Winston Wong

Now here are some pictures of the grand opening:

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Bottle Bricks… Happy Ethiopian Earth Day!

In honor of Ethiopians doing everything late (Christmas is in January, New Year’s is in September, it’s currently only 2006) my students and I decided to celebrate Earth Day… in June.

First, we went around town collecting old water bottles, bottle caps, and garbage (paper, rags, food wrappers, etc). There’s A LOT of litter in Adet, so this didn’t take long.


Then we stuffed garbage into the water bottles, pushing it down with sticks, so the bottles became really hard like bricks.


We ended up with 102 garbage-stuffed water bottles.


We used them as bricks (bottle bricks) to build a cement bench on our school campus.


Then we decorated the final product with old bottle caps.

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And now our school campus has an Earth Day garbage bench! (Yes, I’m rocking an Obama t-shirt).


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Stop Telling Women to Smile

Yesterday afternoon, 42 incredible young women took a step to stop gender-based harassment in Ethiopia. As part of the global “Stop Telling Women to Smile” campaign, my school’s 5th through 8th grade Girls Club students crafted messages for Adet’s street harassers (including my favorites, “My name is not Baby, Honey, Beautiful or You,” and “Women deserve respect, not your cat calls”) and then covered the town with their anti-harassment posters.

While part of me will always see my students as babies (my babies), today I realized that they’re also some of the strongest, most beautiful, mature individuals I’ll ever know. Today, I’m proud and inspired and so empowered having watched them bravely step up to help give all Ethiopian women a voice against harassment.

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25 Weird Things I’ve Learned As a Peace Corps Volunteer

  1. Chickens and goats love to eat broccoli.
  2. Oranges only turn orange if it gets cold enough at night.
  3. Birds are attracted to their reflection.
  4. Closed windows are the number one cause of death for birds between the ages of 0 and 100. So many birds die here because they fly into closed windows and break their necks.
  5. After a week or two, unwashed hair will stop looking greasy and instead just look tangled and knotty.
  6. It’s possible to live weeks, even months, completely unaware that you have a parasite.
  7. Squatting is the most natural and easy position to poo.
  8. Mud is great for heat insulation. Even when it’s freezing and rainy outside, the inside of my mud house is always warm.
  9. That said, it can get really cold in Africa…. like winter jacket cold.
  10. It’s possible to carry a goat and ride a bike at the same time. Just put the goat on your back like a backpack.
  11. In some parts of the world, people eat raw slabs of meat like popcorn.
  12. In some parts of the world, 8-year-olds still breast-feed.
  13. Contrary to popular belief, roosters crow at all hours of the day, not just at sunrise. I think the first person to ever kill a chicken did it to shut the little guy up, not to eat him.
  14. Roosters are freaking obnoxious animals.
  15. Zebras are just stripe-covered donkeys.
  16. The Lion King illustrators were big fat liars. Hyenas are huge!
  17. Camel faces and giraffe faces look exactly the same. After looking both animals straight in the eye, you’ll swear they’re twins.
  18. It can take 5 or 6 hours to drive 25 miles. (Oh, the joy of mud roads.)
  19. The (clothing) washing machine is the greatest invention of all time. I miss it every day.
  20. Ethiopia has the largest fly population in the world. (Okay, maybe I’m making that up…. but I’m pretty sure it’s true.)
  21. A mule looks just like a horse. I still don’t understand the difference.
  22. It’s relatively easy to live without electricity. It’s painfully difficult to live without bagels, ice cream and cheese.
  23. Boiled pumpkin is the most amazingly delicious food. Never again will I waste those babies on making jack-o-lanterns.
  24. When you don’t have a fridge, fruit and vegetables go moldy faster if they’re in zip-lock bags.
  25. (In Ethiopia) loud front-door-knocking in the middle of the night can only mean one thing: the water in the tap is back on after a really long dry spell. (Although being woken up by manic knocking in the middle of the night would have freaked me out in America, in Peace Corps life, it’s engendered a Pavlov’s Dogs-like reaction, and I usually grab my empty water buckets and run out the door before I’m even fully awake. So as a side note, please pray that a psycho killer’s never loose in Adet, because I know I’ll just instinctively run toward him with an empty water bucket.)

**I dedicate this blog post to all of the Ethiopian birds who have lost their lives due to barely visible closed windows. RIP.

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The Best

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.

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