[Note from editor: This was originally published on an Aggie in Ethiopia]
The cool wind rustles the fragrant eucalyptus leaves as I slowly make my way down the hill one last time. The kids see my overly full bag and ask where I’m going. When I say America, they ask how long I’ll be gone. “Kisab macherasha,” I say. Forever. A flood of emotion pours over me like a long overdue kerempti rain, taking with it the composure I had hoped to keep. Today I know what bittersweet means. Today I understand what a goodbye truly is.
As the bus pulls away from Atsbi, I think back over the tumultuous past two years. What have I given Ethiopia? What has Ethiopia given me? What has she taken from me and what will I carry away from this experience? Is Ethiopia better off because of me? Quantifying a Peace Corps service is impossible, like avoiding bed bugs in a $2 hotel, but at least I can reflect on my time in this paradox of a country.
My days-long journey home continues with a death defying minibus ride from Wukero to Mekele, and I choose this dangerous hour to ponder what Ethiopia has given me. Where can I possibly even begin? Strangers that welcomed me with open arms who quickly became the best friends I’ve ever known. A warm, heartfelt culture that shaped my worldview and reminded me to wholly appreciate life. Coworkers, students, and neighbors who taught me more than I could ever hope to teach in a lifetime. The highest of highs and the lowest of lows that led to more personal growth than I thought possible. After all, I was never out to “find myself,” but it seems even those of us who think we know ourselves, don’t really. Let me continue my list…parasites, adventure, nightmares about being stuck in Ethiopia forever, the full heart feeling that comes from thinking about the loved ones at home whose support means so much, a safety net of other PCVs who I’ll lean on forever. Before I know it, the terrifying ride is over, but my list is nowhere near complete. It never will be.
Sitting in a dingy hotel room I click through photos of my students and consider what I’ve given them, consider what I’ve given my community, my “village.” Of course there are tangible things, like the wardrobe full of clothes I distributed among several dozen people last week and the million fist bumps I’ve passed out to screaming kids. My friends and family back home gave the school a cow. But these are not the things a PCV wants to leave as a legacy. This question can really only be answered five, ten, thirty years from now. When my girls are sitting in the front of a university lecture hall, answering questions with all the boys. When a farmer’s patience and hard work are rewarded with healthier soil and a brighter future. When my campers walk out their front doors and pick fresh, healthy vegetables to cook for their families.
The wheels of the plane part with hot Mekele asphalt and I worry that Ethiopia will leave me cynical and jaded forever – that I’ll roll my eyes when I hear someone mention foreign aid or that I’ll never regain the trusting demeanor I once possessed. What are the long-term consequences of being sexually harassed every single day for two years? Extreme feminism, to name one. What about poverty? Will I ever take poverty seriously in countries where they have food stamps and homeless shelters?
From Atsbi to Addis Ababa I’ve contemplated these questions, but I don’t think I’ll ever know whether or not Ethiopia is actually a better place because of me. I like to think that in some small, indefinable way, it is. Then again, maybe not. But through the good and the bad, the beautiful and the hideous, the simple and the impossibly difficult, the daily collision of two vastly different cultures, there is one thing I know to be true: I’m better because of you, Ethiopia.