Listening with my eyes

Now you may be asking yourself, how does one listen with their eyes? Weird, right? Well I’ve actually gotten really good at it. I’m beginning to get really good at figuring what people are saying or the situation by sheer observation. For starters, I don’t have many people to converse with in English, I can literally count on one hand how many different people I’ve had full English conversations with. (Oh by the way, the national language in Ethiopia is Amharic, a language with completely different script and pronunciations. I know probably 30 words total.) This has been hard for me, because I am definitely a talker. I’m the type who hates awkward silences or lulls in the conversation. However I’ve learned to deal with the lulls because of the language barrier. But because of this, I’m becoming a better listener and observer.

My translator/friend/original sewing girl, Hawi has been by my side most of my time here. She has been great at translating and answering any questions I have about the culture, traditions, or just general curiosities. However when we are surrounded by other people, she often resorts to having conversations with them in Amharic in between translation. She will often begin telling a story, begin joking, or ask the other person questions. I don’t want to be rude and interrupt her in order to insert myself into the conversation, so instead I just watch, listen, and try to figure out what she is saying. Because I know a few Amharic worlds and because I’ve gotten really good at noticing her hand movements and voice inflections, I have begun to understand a little more. Later, after the conversation finishes, I ask what they talked about to see if I was right about what they were saying. When the conversation gets too hard to follow, my mind begins to wander.

My mind wanders about the similarities and differences between Ethiopia and the United States. Because I have been here twice, I have done this comparing and contrasting before. But every day I begin to find new similarities and differences. What can I say, I’m a curious cat.

Below are a few interesting similarities and differences I’ve noticed on this trip specifically:

  • In Ethiopia, paying for education is swapped. In Ethiopia a parent must pay for their child to go to Kindergarten-12th But when they pass their 12th grade exam, they can now attend college, but for free! The government pays for any student’s college education. Where in America, the government funds public school from Kindergarten-12th grade, but then college is super expensive. I found this interesting, which way do you think is better? One thing that I realized is that the Ethiopian government is probably spending less because not that many students can pass the 12th grade exams to get to the college level. It is a high honor when a student gets to the university level, where in the United States; college is a normality/necessity in life and not as honorable because it is expected.
  • In Ethiopia, people also garden! You would think that the climate is too hot or that they only grow things for eating, but surprisingly I learned that women will grow flowers. I learned this because the sewing teacher, Friwot, said this was her favorite thing to do when interviewing her.
  • In Ethiopia, some people will use tablets as smart phones because they can’t afford both. I find this funny because there is the running joke in the USA that some smart phones are so big they are basically small tablets. In this case, the tablet is a phone!
One of the teachers, Efrem, with his tablet he uses for a phone
  • In Ethiopia, Christian service practices are very similar (the Christian religion here is Ethiopian Orthodox Christian). I am a Catholic so our services are definitely different. But I have attended Protestant church services before which usually consisted of a sermon from a Pastor, praise and worship singing, and praying. This service was mostly the same in several ways. First, people would raise their hands while worshipping. Second, A sermon was delivered to the congregation (even if I couldn’t understand it). Third, the church was set up like a stage with many rows of seating. The only differences were that in the praying moments, people often paced, knelt over with their hands and heads on their chairs, or they would sit down and bend all the way over with their head basically touching their knees. I personally am used to kneeling and praying with my hands folded, so these stances were different for me. Also another difference was that when agreeing with what the preacher was saying, people (mainly widows) would make this yodeling sound with their mouth and wave one hand in the air back and forth. I also was able to figure out a lot of the motions or what was going on simply by watching what everyone else is doing. That whole listening with my eyes thing…
  • In Ethiopia, funerals and burials are very similar to those in America. The deceased gets measured and fitted for a tomb. Then the family gathers for a burial service in a cemetery and eventually a tombstone is placed where the person is buried. Similar to America, cemeteries are separated by religion. However, in Ethiopia people are placed in plots based on the period they die and are buried next to strangers. Where in America, we often purchase plots in order to be eternally buried next to our family members. (I know this was kind of a weird fact, but found it an interesting concept after hearing about the death of one of the sewing girl’s grandmother)
  • In Ethiopia, preschool is available but a child must be at least 1 years old to begin attending, it is also relatively cheap. This means that working mothers have to stay home for the first year of a child’s life. Many women don’t mind it because most of them don’t have appealing jobs so they’re happy to stay home. Imagine a working mother in America taking a full year off to have a child. It can often set the woman back a whole year in her career and she might begin to miss her work. In contrast, preschool in the United States can begin shortly after the baby is born, and it is also relatively pricey.

When also listening with my eyes, I’ve began to notice how other perceive me. I thought because of my olive skin color (I’m multiracial –Polish and Indian Descent [Trini]) I wouldn’t be as noticeable when maneuvering through the town, especially since I am alone where on past trips I was surrounded by a team of other Caucasians. But people still stare and refer to me as “firenge” (the Amharic term for white person). I still stick out like a sore thumb. Or when I try to use some of my Amharic vocabulary and the sound comes out a little off, people laugh at my innocence. The kids laugh the most when I try to speak English to them and they don’t understand. This doesn’t bother me that much but can sometimes be frustrating when I’m trying to communicate with them. I’ve began to find other communication alternatives such as hand gestures, smiling, and laughing. It’s amazing how some of those simple gestures transcend cultures. Also because I am a “firenge” I am often stereotyped for having more money and privilege. This is something we discussed in our preparation sessions. But often I find I’m culturally expected to pay for anyone I eat a meal with (sometimes hard for me because I’m very frugal). I’m also upcharged for things at the market which I learned on my last trip. On the other hand, because I’m a “firenge” I am often served with amazing hospitality. I am always offered a chair just for my backpack to sit next to me, the door is always held open for me, and someone is always at my beck and call when eating. I wonder, do they give such amazing service to the locals? Do they give such amazing service to uphold a reputation? Do they put the bags of locals on a chair next to them? While I appreciate the service, I wonder if it is cultural or just because I’m an American. I’ve also noticed there are a lot of Chinese people in Ethiopia; I’m told they are here helping rebuild the infrastructure of the city (construction, roads, and businesses). They also stick out like sore thumbs to the people of Ethiopia. I have noticed some of the children stereotyping them too by widening their eyes when talking about them. While I find this very offensive, I began to educate some of the kids about the concept of stereotypes. One example I used was the stereotype that everyone in Ethiopia is poor and hungry just because it is in African country. They began to understand because they realized that there are some very rich people in Ethiopia and how that statement is false. I explained how those false statements can often be really mean and offensive. I don’t expect the stereotypes to change overnight but if the some of the kids learned something new, then that’s all that matters to me.

Well wow, this blog post got really long. If you’re still reading, you rock! Thank you.

But I have to continue with my weekly challenges and milestones:

Week 7 Challenges-

  • Wi-fi has been better, but still iffy.
  • Not being able to explore for safety reasons. I am the type of traveler who finds a cool opportunity and takes it and figures it out. I can’t always do that here because some areas are unsafe.
  • Communication….I definitely miss the companionship of an English speaking team like I’ve had in the past, however it is forcing me to get out of my comfort zone in new ways if you read everything above.
  • It is final exam season here so many of the kids are out of school and studying at their homes and the library. I miss being able to be surrounded with kids all the time.

Week 7 Milestones-

  • I’m 2/3 done with teaching the sewing curriculum to the teacher, Friwot. We are making amazing progress and translating the whole curriculum into Amharic for her
  • I paid 18/21 girls who have earned money from the past year. This completes the 2nd cycle of the Gifts for Confidence Sewing program. The payment ceremony is always a wonderful experience to see their faces light up when they receive money. The remaining girls were unable to attend on that day, but I am still finding other times to pay them.
  • I’ve interviewed 18 of the girls and taken their individual pictures with a DSLR camera. This material will be used for nonprofit marketing in the future.

I’ve so far been very productive, I do miss home though. Hope you enjoyed my super in-depth reflection! Haha

Jessica- Post 8



2 thoughts on “Listening with my eyes

  1. Communication is a huge cultural difference. Knowing you and how you are someone who makes meaning through verbal processing, I can imagine it is a huge challenge to not have English speakers in your proximity (which could explain the blog length!), but I agree that this is an awesome opportunity for you to develop listening and nonverbal cues. I really love your reflection about noticing how you are perceived by locals. We talked about this in class a bunch–how interesting that you are considered white even with nonwhite skin. The connection between whiteness and American identity is evident and tells us a lot about our perception in other areas of the world. Thanks for the good read!

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