"It's a dangerous business, going out your door.
You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet,
there's no knowing where you might be swept off to..."
--J.R.R. Tolkein

Monday, July 11, 2011

Quiz Question

The following question appeared on my grammar quiz this week:

Apple is bringing ____ its newest iPod.

Any idea what the answer is? I was teaching a lesson about verbs that take prepositions (which seem to become adverbs when used with these verbs...long story...), and the students needed to fill in the correct preposition/adverb.

Give up? The answer is "out," as in "bringing out."

But the students were puzzled by something else. They did not know what an iPod was.

It seems I have done the impossible. I have found a high school student that didn't know what an iPod was. Call Guinness.

I guess when you zoom out and look at the situation, it kind of makes sense. Most of the major Western corporations haven't made their way into Somaliland yet, and most of my students have never left the country before. One of my colleagues teaches finance classes for university students, and he says that in his examples, he can never mention McDonald's, Burger King, RiteAid, Dunkin Donuts, or Starbucks because it just confuses the students. Also, iPods play music, which (depending on who you ask) is "against Islam!" So I guess they wouldn't have a need for those things.

But seriously: no music, no iPod, and no McDonald's where you can eat a burger while you listen to your iPod. What a strange place to be a teenager.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Djibouti Calling

We have some news at our little school: three of our students have been selected to attend a prestigious boarding school in Massachusetts. Two girls to work on future programs for girls from Muslim countries to attend, and one boy will be spending his entire junior year attending this school on a full scholarship.

Naturally, the kids are over-the-moon excited. None of them have ever been on a plane before, or have even left the region. The boy grew up in a refugee camp and has barely a penny to his name (he actually stays on campus during the school vacations and does manual labor for a bit of pocket money). This trip to the US is an incredible opportunity for them all, and I, for one, couldn’t be more excited for them.

But then there’s the problem of the US visa. Trying to get a visa to my country is difficult for anyone; it’s expensive, time-consuming, complicated, and a bit invasive.

Now trying being from an unrecognized republic inside Somalia, the world’s favorite failed state. Citizens of Somaliland cannot get a valid passport, so the well-connected father of one of the students helped get them Somalia passports. With that comes it’s own problems, namely proving that these hard-working, dedicated young people aren’t terrorists. To compound matters, there is no American embassy in Somaliland or Somalia, so we had to send the kids to Djibouti to submit their applications and undergo an interview, in which they convince the official that they don’t want to overstay their welcome in the US.

So, here’s the mission: get these kids to the embassy in Djibouti. Assist with preparing their applications, communicate with my boss who is doing promo work in the UK, and with the former teacher now in Malaysia. Also, book plane tickets, get the kids to their various medical appointments, and gather as much information as I can to help the kids through the process.

And here’s what happened:

Work through vacation. Hurriedly scan passports for the nearly late application. Break into someone’s room to find a key to someone’s room to find the last passport. Take the kids to the hospital to get chest x-rays and vaccines for American school. Down the hall, a mother loses a child. Be haunted by the screams. Doctor calls us in. Says one student has tuberculosis. Recommends further tests.

Next day, take the kids to meet with a Somali man who has lived in the US for many years. Sit through a lecture on American culture (That was hilarious! More on that later.). Get picked up by the school car. Have a minor argument with the guards. Minor argument turns into a near hostage situation. They say they’re going to shoot the car. So much screaming. Somehow, it ends and we head home.

Coordinate meetings, get parent signatures (some who can barely write their own name) prepare meticulously organized application packets, work a 20-hour shift, get two hours of sleep, put the kids in the car, send them off to the airport.

I should say that my boss decided against sending an American staff member with the kids on their journey to the embassy. He had his reasons, I’m sure. Instead, we sent the mother of one of the students, who turned out to be nearly illiterate (could barely write her name) and nearly caused the kids to miss their flight.

Kids arrived in Djibouti. Two kids were accepted, one told to wait for “additional processing.” She was heartbroken, but we’re doing all we can. I told her over the crackly phone call not to give up yet.

Anyone who has ever been at the mercy of the US government knows this feeling. The feeling that someone doesn’t trust you, and doesn’t give you a chance to prove otherwise. Why reject one girl but not the other? What did she do? She is a member of the student council, has some of the highest marks in her class, and dreams of becoming an engineer. She has so much to gain and so much to contribute.

At this point, we’re calling Djibouti every day.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Field Trip

Recently, we took all of the students to the beach for a day of swimming and fun. After a four-hour trip on bad roads, on a bus packed with kids singing at the top of their lungs, it was really pretty great to arrive at the searing-hot beach town of Berbera.

Berbera is awesome, no question about it. Even though it has a fairly active port, the city feels like a small town, with crumbling Italian villas next to makeshift shacks belonging to fishermen. As the waves hit the stunning beaches, mountains rise up sharply from the horizon. It is quiet, peaceful, and ruggedly beautiful.

And don’t forget the camels plodding along the beach.

When we arrived, the kids piled off the bus and we separated: the male teachers taking the boys to a spot on the beach, and the female teachers took the girls to a secluded spot FAR away from the boys. It would have been absolutely improper for the girls to be seen swimming (without headscarves!).

We set our things down and got ready to swim. I wore a one-piece swimsuit and the girls all wore long shorts and t-shirts. Most of the girls had never even tried to swim before, so we had to coax them to even try. Mostly, we just hung out in the shallows. At one point, a group of dolphins swam right up to us. I actually had no idea they were grey; I always thought they were blue like in the cartoons.

While we were trying to help the girls get comfortable in the water, we always had to keep an eye out for men who would be lurking around. Some of them, I suspect, were just curious about the white teachers, but others, I’m sure, wanted to harass our girls about swimming and taking off their headscarves. One man started to make his way over to our group, and I stopped him before he could get too close. In broken English, he asked me what was going on, and I told him we were on a school trip and that he needed to leave us alone. Then, he grabbed me and tried to hug me (totally did not see that coming!). I pulled away and told him to leave us alone. He sauntered away and I went back to my group. I told the supervising teacher that we needed to be careful of lurking, lascivious men, and she said to me, “Oh, you must just seem nice to them. They would never done that to me.”

Undermining, much? I bit back about half a dozen curse words and went to tell the other chaperones to watch out for stalkers.

We spent the whole morning in the water, then took a break for lunch, and then went back to the waves. At one point, the supervising teacher disappeared and the girls were asking where she went. We sent another teacher to find her, leaving two teachers with the girls, including myself. Ok, fine.

Until a gang of about ten teenage boys showed up.

They walked over to our spot on the beach and started pawing through our stuff. The other teacher and I charged out of the waves and yelled at them to leave us alone. They wouldn’t budge. By then, the girls had begun to gather around. The boys didn’t speak any English and refused to listen to the girls, so I went to one and shoved him hard, thinking there was no other way to communicate to them that they weren’t welcome. They had no right to make the girls uncomfortable and should not be poking through our stuff.

Shouting ensued. Girls and teachers alike started screaming at the boys to get away. One of them grabbed a handful of sand and chucked it in my face, screaming a curse in Somali, while his friends gave us the middle finger.

And then, I did something I never thought I would do. I picked up a rock and threw it as hard as I could at the leader. That made them step back a bit. We charged forward and unleashed a hail of rocks on the boys, screaming and cursing at them. They responded with their own curses and stones, but turned tail and ran. The beach spot was ours.

Later, a guard from nearby Maansoor hotel came to us and asked if we were okay. He said he had seen everything, and then said “Don’t worry, I took care of them.” Whatever that means. Also at that point, Supervisor reappeared, acting like it was no big deal that we were harassed and almost robbed.

My thoughts: Is this normal: to have to engage in low-level violence in order to have a field trip? If throwing stones was going to be the response of the community, why did we even do this? Given the state of most educational institutions in this country, field trips are probably not normally done. So why did we have to do this, if we would be putting the girls in danger? I mean, how many teachers and field trip chaperones would be comfortable with having to physically defend the students’ right to a field trip? Why would we ever put our kids in that situation?

On the way home at the end of the day, one of the girls said to me, “That was the best! We just took a day to have fun and not think about work. I loved it! Thank you.”

Ah yes, that’s why.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Portrait of the Copy-Machine

Think about how important a copy-machine is. Now, think about how important a properly functioning, regularly working copy-machine is. Please enjoy this guest post by our dear friend, the copy-machine.

My Life, by: the Copy-Machine

My life is hard. I spent my days churning out copies of books, lesson plans, homework assignments, and the occasional handout, which makes me believe I’m working in some kind of school or something. Sometimes, I pity the poor suckers who have to do the work that I copy. They probably have even less free time than I do.

That isn’t the worst though. I came here around the end of September, and it has been downhill ever since. I’m not quite sure what it is I copy, but whatever it is, it must be pretty important because not a day goes by when some stressed-out teacher doesn’t swear at me at least once. I seem to recall copying some stuff on intransitive verbs, then some math problems, and then some epically long readings about accounting or something for some university class or whatever. Whatever it is, copying is usually accompanied by some kind of swearing or screaming fit. All this, of course, happens in the school office, where there are little people who come in and pester the big people, who then inevitably scream “Detention!”

The thing is, I get sick constantly. Because they expect me to work all the time, I am always tired and keep breaking down. When I break down, they open me up and poke around in my insides and make jokes of a sexual nature. If I’m really sick, they send me to town, where they fix me temporarily and send me right back to the salt mines. Then. I break down again, and the process repeats itself.

The other problem is the power. We get our electricity from diesel generators. Yes, generators, plural. In the morning, we run a small generator what doesn’t provide enough voltage for me, so I only work at night when they run the big generator (which provides enough power for lights, which have to stay on so the kids can’t sneak around at night). However, it doesn’t work perfectly and the voltage is sometimes irregular, which really messes me up. But everyone still expects me to work all the time.

If there were a prison for copy-machines, this is sure it. I really hope they fix the power soon, and send the students on vacation ASAP so I can catch a break!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Bathroom Sign

This picture was taken at a seaside restaurant in the port city of Berbera, Somaliland. I've seen some odd bathroom signs, but this is definitely the best. Is the concept of "woman" here just a pair of eyes in a lump of laundry?

Not necessarily. Like most things, the question has a complicated answer. There are many women here who wear the niqab, the strip of cloth covering the face as well as the hair. Not everyone chooses to wear dress this way, though. As a parallel, think of the sign on most women's bathrooms in the US: a person wearing a skirt shaped like a triangle. We don't all wear triangle skirts.

Here's an odd nugget: It is absolutely non-negotiable that I cover up my hair, neck, and chest but it's okay to show my arms (for a full discussion on what I have to wear to work, see my earlier post on 'How to Dress for Success'). Why, exactly? I have no idea. When I was traveling in Syria and Egypt, it was definitely more important to cover up the arms than the hair.

It goes to show that the issue of covering hair in other countries is definitely more nuanced that it may seem.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Somaliland Independence Day

Last weekend, Somaliland celebrated the 20th anniversary of its separation from Somalia. Though the official date was 18 May, celebrations took place for a length of at least three days.

This is a strange country. Though still unrecognized by the international community, people here staunchly maintain that they are different from Mogadishu and the rest of Somalia. After a civil war in the late 1980s, carried out by former president Siad Barre against a rebellion in Hargeisa, Somaliland declared independence in 1991. Twenty years later, Somaliland has maintained peace and stability, while the south has descended into chaos.

Despite differing views on whether this little state 'deserves' independence, it has been clear from Day One that people here are dying for recognition. Even children in Hargeisa will tell you in English 'we want recognition,' which, considering the state of the public schools here, is remarkable. The 'country' has its own flag, its own currency, and its own rule of law.

And, it's own three-day Independence Day.

I had the honor of being one of the few foreigners to attend this celebration. I have done my best to capture the complete outpouring of joy on the streets of Hargeisa, but somehow I think I fell short. Imagine a normally austere, conservative Muslim country in Africa transformed into a countrywide party.

Did I mention that everyone had dressed up in their national colors?

Even an umbrella in the red, white and green.

A member of the female police force.

An Egyptian teacher in downtown Hargeisa, making a pro-Somaliland speech in Arabic. He said that as a member of the 'new Egypt,' he felt that Somaliland deserved recognition.

Happy 20th, Somaliland!

Friday, May 13, 2011

Unwanted Advances

At 5 am, I climb onto the overcrowded bus and find my seat, only to have a guy shove his way over and give me the standard entrance interview for sexual harassment:

“What’s your name?”
“Where are you from?”
“Are you married?”
“Are you Muslim?”

Without really listening to the answers, he takes the opportunity to fondle my crotch as I try to squish myself against the window, away from him. Not exactly my favorite way to start a trip to remote northern Ethiopia.

New Year’s Eve in Harar, there’s a guy who stared at me all night and managed to get my number from another guy, then happened to be on the same bus to Addis the next morning. He continued to stare at me the entire 8 hours, and I avoided him by pretending to sleep. But then he wouldn’t leave me alone at the rest stop. “I’m a lawyer for SOS Harar, the orphanage. I care so much about the children,” he said to the area just south of my shoulders. When we got to Addis, he said, “You. Me. Bedroom?” More like, “Me disappear.” Which is exactly what I did.

And to top it all off:

It’s the end of my trip and I’m headed back to Somaliland. I’ve just done 18 hours of traveling across the country and it’s late at night. I had stopped quickly in Harar to buy some books for my school, and then had gotten on a bus to Jigjiga, in the Somali region, the last town before the Somaliland border. It has a edgy, out-there feel, exactly what you’d expect of the last town before the border of the fabulous failed state. Anyway, I learned I had missed the last bus to the border and would have to spend the night there, alone. Oh look, a guy is talking to me. Telling me in a hushed he’s part of the “Ethiopian Special Forces.” Yeah, right! Oh look, he’s following me upstairs to my hotel room. Now he’s begging me to go out somewhere. Please, I’m tired. I want to go to bed. He’s taking my hand, telling me he loves me. Moves closer. I pull myself away from him and tell him to get out. Something in my voice must have told him I was serious. Who knows? Maybe I’m “Special Forces” too. I get him out of my room and lock the door, only to realize that the bathroom is down the hall, and I haven’t brushed my teeth in two days. I creep out for all of two minutes, brush, and then scamper back. I lock the door and make as little noise as possible. Outside I can hear the rough men’s voices as they chew qat far into the night, speaking Somali, the language that sounds like rocks cracking together. I curl up on the little bed, fully dressed, and get a few hours of fitful sleep before waking up at 5 to leave.

Later, I met a Peace Corps volunteer who had done her assignment in Ethiopia. She said that while she was with the Peace Corps, she wasn’t allowed to go to Jigjiga because occasionally the rebel groups operating in the Ogaden have ties there. Yeah, I could see that. It’s a sketchy-ass place.

But I made it back in one piece. I left on the first bus to Wujale, and as we approached the border, they stopped at the last Ethiopian military checkpoint, pulled me off the bus, and after seeing my passport, the soldiers tried to rob me. They asked me to declare how much money I had in US dollars (I didn’t have much), then asked to see the bills, and then this big fat lady in a uniform ripped it out of my hand. I screamed at her in English to give it back (‘cuz ya know, there’s nothing more intimidating than that). But it must have worked, because she did, and I raced back to the bus and made it safely across the border.

Into Somaliland.

As a female traveler, sexual harassment is one of the unique challenges that I face while my male counterparts travel through the world, blissfully unaware. While these challenges can sour any travel experience, there is absolutely no reason why we should miss out on the fun. If you are a woman traveler and you feel uncomfortable, here are some tips that I’ve learned on the road:

--bring an iPod. If you have to do a long bus ride alone and some pig won’t leave you alone, you can put in headphones and close your eyes a little to pretend to be asleep (but keeping one eye open a bit so you don’t miss the scenery!)

--wear a belt with a sharp and intimidating buckle

--if you’re going to drink, open your own beer (and don’t accept one that has been already opened)

--get good at saying ‘no.’ It’s a tiny word, you can do it!

--find a trusted a friend to travel with. The more, the merrier! Also, it’s nice to have someone to talk to on those epically long car/bus/minibus/train/plane rides.
--accept that some form of sexual harassment will happen to you at some time, but don’t let it stop you. That means they win.

--realize that it’s not your fault, and the guy is the one in the wrong. And anyone who says differently can suck it!

Keep on truckin’, Lady Adventurers!


Friday, May 6, 2011

Up North

The journey north began in Addis Ababa. Crowded, cosmopolitan, and a whole lot of fun (great food too!)

The piazza.

On the way up to the northern city of Gonder (12 hours by bus!)

And then, four more hours to the little village of Dubarke, near Simien National Park.

We went on a four day backpacking/camping trip through the mountains.

Our scout, Naga' (how ironic is it that I ended up in one of the few places in Ethiopia that requires an armed escort?!)

The Simien Mountains are home to the gelada baboon (a species found only in this area).

The view.

A waterfall in the mountains.

Then we explored the castle in the city of Gonder. (Yes, it's really called that. Many Lord of the Rings references were made.)

A wedding in the castle.

Arial shot.

Thanks for viewing!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Irony of the Orphanage

One of the other things we did in Harar was check out an orphanage, run by the British organization SOS. I was definitely expecting something along the Dickensian line, with haggard little faces lining up with empty plates, and ruthless adults patrolling the hallways. However, what I saw was something very different.

I suspect nobody had ever said, “Please, sir, I want some more” at this place.

We were shown to a modern, Western-looking office, introduced to the director, and then were shown to the “houses,” where the children lived. About eight children occupied a house, which had comfortable rooms, a dining room, a kitchen, and a bathroom. There was also a woman who lived in the house full time, whom the children called “mother,” who took care of them, cooked for them, and made sure they did their homework. The mother that we met said that she had grown children of her own who lived in Addis Ababa, but she definitely saw these children she cared for now as her own as well.

Then we wandered over to the school, just as the high school students were leaving their classes for the day. We walked past a crowd of smiling girls and boys in crisp, clean blue and white uniforms. At the school, we met a few teachers, who spoke English well and seemed passionate about their subjects.

It seemed like such a lovely place for a child to grow up. The catch? They only take babies.

After our tour, we left and headed back to the center of town, passing a few dirty street children on the way. I have heard that these children actually have parents, but are sent to the streets by their parents to beg for money to buy the family's food. Ironically, these children were the ones holding out their hands, asking for more.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

A Field Guide to Ethiopian Food

Some of my favorite Ethiopian dishes:

injera-- spongy bread made of teff flour. Has the texture of sponge and is used to soak up oh-so-delicious sauces and stews.

fatira—breakfast item made of paper-thin wheat bread, and fried in oil with egg. Often served with fruit juice!

firfir—similar to fatira, but made with torn up injera and fried with meat and spices. Also eaten at breakfast.

tibs—bite-sized pieces of meat fried in oil with fresh chili peppers.

kitfo—very finely chopped raw meat, mixed with spices and melted butter. Warmed slightly, but not cooked. When I tried it, it reminded me of chewed up pepperoni. Tasted great, but the idea of raw meat kind of bothered me.

doro wot—spicy chicken stew, slow cooked in an earthenware pot. Delicious and hot as hell.

bozena—my favorite! Another slow cooked stew, but with ground beef (cooked this time), spices, and ground chickpeas.

tej—an alcoholic beverage made from honey. Usually consumed in a tej beat, a traditional drinking house. Most definitely a male-dominated space, although I managed to get inside one in Addis (more on that later).

Life is delicious!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

First Days on the Outside

You know a holiday is going to be interesting when your cell phone falls out of your pocket and into the filthy hole in the ground serving as a toilet.

All lines of communication have been cut. I'm officially on the outside.

I had just spent a hellishly long day overlanding it from Somaliland across the border to eastern Ethiopia. A couple of other teachers and I snagged a ride with one of the drivers and a guard from the school to the border, and then promptly had a shouting match at the border when they demanded more money from us. Shaking us down for money seems to be our driver’s favorite sport. Anyway, we managed to evade him with a “we’ll pay later” and went inside the immigration office, got our exit stamps, then crossed the road (!) to the Ethiopian side and got our entry stamps.

Without being followed by a man with a gun! Aaaah, sweet loving freedom!

Then we climbed onto a painfully overcrowded bus headed to the village of Jigjiga in eastern Ethiopia. Anyone who has traveled in Africa will understand just how uncomfortable the ride was—people were practically in each other’s laps, and seat belts may as well have been from another universe. We finally got going and headed off to Jigjiga, only to get on a minibus headed for the ancient walled city of Harar.

We arrived in Harar just as the sun was setting, and checked into a small hostel in the center of town. Only then could we take our headscarves off (more sweet freedom), and change out of our dresses and into pants. It was at the hostel when the unfortunate incident happened with the phone. Oh well, keep calm and carry on…

Anyway, I was too excited to really be upset. I managed to fish the phone out and rescue my SIM card (with all my work contacts on it!). I put it aside and went to see to other things.

Like dinner! We found a Western-style restaurant and had a wonderful dinner of pizza, burgers, and beer. It was unbelievable to be able to sit in a restaurant and have decently-priced, decent-tasting food and drink. Nobody stared, nobody judged, and nobody stood around with guns. No calls from the school saying “Could you pick up xxx while you’re in town? Oh yeah, and don’t forget yyy and make sure you’re back in an hour for zzz meeting.”

We spent the next couple of days eating, wandering around, meeting new people, and just enjoying life. I had never realized it before, but there is a certain degree of stress that comes from living in Somaliland. It’s a very edgy place, with very strict laws and social codes, whereas Ethiopia, being a multi-lingual and multi-cultural society, cannot really function that way, and thus maintains a more relaxed, chilled out atmosphere.

I don’t know, but it sure was nice to wander around town in a tank top and jeans, take pictures, drink coffee in cafes, and not have to always be worried and stressed out.

Harar is located in the eastern part of Ethiopia, and is basically half Muslim and half Ethiopian Orthodox Christian. It sort of straddles the area between the Somali region and the Oromo region, with many influences from Somali culture.

I recognize that outfit.

The city has a wall around it like a fortress, and has been an important market for regional goods like qat.

It is known for it’s dark roasted coffee (ooooooh!).

That’s another great thing. Coffee. Everywhere. Yes!

I think I’m going to like it here…

Saturday, April 16, 2011

It's Been a While...

Hey Gang! Sorry about the long wait. This term has been…interesting and I have had very little time to write. I switched my schedule to teaching in the new for-profit Adult English classes (in addition to teaching 9th grade English in the boarding school). These classes are in the evening, which makes for some very long days and exhausting hours.

Anyway, more on that later. Now, back to Ethiopia.

Saturday, February 5, 2011


Journeywoman will be featuring a series of posts about my recent trip over the border into Ethiopia. Don't miss the following quotes and highlights:

"You know a trip is going to go well when your cell phone falls out of your pocket and into the appallingly disgusting hole in the floor that serves as a toilet."

"I try to take my seat as inconspicuously as possible, only to have the guy sitting in the other set give me the standard entrance interview for sexual harassment..."

"We unrolled the sleeping bags that we had rented from the base camp, only to find flimsy, 70's-era models that would be about as useful as indoor blankets. The temperature was dropping rapidly, as often happens when one is on top of a mountain and the sun is setting. It was going to be one hell of a long night..."

"Why the hell are we tramping through this field? I thought the path went that way!"

"Nicole and I huddled in the taxi, while Nathaniel went to duke it out with the mobsters. I expected the punches to start flying any minute. Oh hey look, the police are here..."

And let's not forget:

The beautiful city of Harar, drinking my first beer in four months, four cups of coffee each morning, actual FOOD, a day-long bus ride to Addis Ababa with a reeeeally sketchy guy, meeting up with old friends and making new ones, a traditional tej beat, my 50-mile hike up north (did I say hike? I meant 'death march.'), playing Lord of the Rings at the castle at Gonder, getting scammed at Bahir Dar and then nearly getting arrested in Addis as a result, and finally getting trapped in a village on the Somali border as a guy (who claims to be 'Special Forces') is trying to follow me into my hotel room

Needless to say, I had a whole slew of wacky adventures, and I can't wait to write about them! Stay tuned...

Saturday, January 15, 2011

A Jolly Somali Christmas

How weird would it be if one were to go through the entire month of December without hearing Christmas music? Or without seeing red and green decorations everywhere? Or working at a school without a Christmas concert?

Well, the Christmas season came and went, sans frills. As the rest of the world celebrated the build-up of the holiday, I scrambled to plan lessons, grade papers, and prepare report cards. Nobody here makes enough money for presents, but we did what we could.

The school set aside some money for a Christmas Eve feast, so we bought a few chickens, some fruits and vegetables, and some cake for desert. My good friends Kyle and Ayu planned out a delicious menu for what we had, and because we had some leftover eggplant, I added stuffed eggplant to the program. Kyle fashioned a grill out of scrap metal because we don’t have an oven.

Meanwhile, Ayu and I furiously cooked the chicken, eggplant, and

various other things we threw together. Stephanie also stopped by and made real Omani kabobs (since she s

pent a semester in Oman), and Mike and Harry made a valiant attempt at mashed potatoes. I also successful

ly made scalloped potatoes (a staple at my family’s feast) on the grill. Eight hours later, we had a decent-looking Christmas feast.

Then something wonderful happened. The father of one of our students knocked on our kitchen door. He was carrying a Styrofoam cooler, which he handed to us. He had been in Berbera and had bought fresh fish for our feast, because he remembered that we would be celebrating Christmas. Fish is a luxury item here, and is not something we could have afforded for the entire staff, but he had brought plenty for all, and then some. As he left, he thanked us for all we had done for his daughter.

I can’t help but think of the ending of A Christmas Carol, when Scrooge buys the poor family a turkey for their Christmas dinner. Likewise, even in the fabulous failed state, where Christmas is not observed nor appreciated, miracles do happen.

After our noticeably enhanced feast, we all filed over to the staff lounge for desert, and were greeted by yet another surprise. Mike and Kenai had hung some lights and had taped a cutout of a Christmas tree on the wall. Meanwhile, Christine had bought a present for everyone, because she believes that everyone should have a present to open.

Then we sat on the floor and ate dessert. Ayu had made yogurt from scratch, and then had turned it into cheesecake. She also had made brownies out of beans and flax seed. You have to admire the ingenuity there!

I have to say that even though I spent Christmas far away from home, in a somewhat hostile environment, but it was one of the nicest Christmases I have ever had. It was wonderful to celebrate with my coworkers, cook for appreciative people, and all pull together to make the holiday special. It goes to show that it doesn’t matter where you are, but whom you are with, and what you are willing to contribute to the experience. Miracles happen if you are willing to make them happen. At the same time, I was touched by the father who remembered us and the fact that we had helped his daughter. She is a hard worker and has shown marked improvement in English (I have her in my Form 1 class). It is so nice that someone noticed the work that we do.

Best. Christmas. Ever.