-See you at 8 -So at 2? -Yes, at 8

Kenya and Ethiopia are both near the equator. In fact, the equator passes through Kenya. Accordingly, both get 12 hours of sunlight a day, basically year-round. Nothing too crazy in that information.

In the US, our “day” according to clocks starts at a rather odd time. What is it that makes 11:59 pm and 12:01 am two different days? Admittedly, time is a somewhat arbitrary concept (see: Daylight Savings, and our willingness to agree that the time has all of a sudden changed). However, it would seem as though the middle of the night is a somewhat odd time to change our days, and start over.

This logic would seem to dominate in both Kenya and Ethiopia. In both countries, they tell time differently than we do. For both, the day “starts” when the sun shows up. The night (our pm) then starts when the sun goes down. For instance, 7 am our time is “1 day” their time, since the sun has been up for one hour. Our 9 pm is “3 night” in Swahili and Tigrinya, since the sun set three hours ago. 

I would argue, especially given their latitudinal position, that they have the more logical time system. However, my theoretical agreement with their system hasn’t prevented me from having a lot of confusion and headaches over the timing system.

First, when studying Swahili, the time would ALWAYS do me in. I would sit and think about what number means what. somehow, being able to say “one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten” in a language isn’t the same thing as being able to say “seven” in the same language without thinking about it. I’d wrack my brains, say a Swahili phrase, and be proud of myself for coming up with the time. A second later, based on the puzzled look on my conversation partner’s face (or in the case of my Kenyan roommate, the immediate correction), I’d realize I had mixed them up, again.

If anything though, it’s more challenging here in Ethiopia. English is widely spoken in Kenya, so Kenyans are very often used to saying the international-style time when speaking in English. Ethiopians less commonly speak English, so when a time is said in English, it’s more commonly expressed using the East Africa system. Whenever I hear that someone wants to meet with me “at 8:30” it takes me a second to realize, right, they mean 2:30 this afternoon.

It’s also proven problematic when our surveyors record questions about what time our respondents did something. I know with certainty that when the respondent gave the response, they were speaking in Tigrinya and therefore using the East Africa time system. However, I’m less sure when it’s translated, did they translate directly, or did some of the enumerators possibly convert the time to the international system. I’ve been on the point of changing times when individuals woke up at “9” (they must mean the international system, there’s no way they actually woke up at 3 am) only to learn that yes, they did wake up early to attend some celebration at church (apparently, being at church at 3 am is not so uncommon here).

So yes, East Africa, I am happy to concede your time system is better than ours. However, I cannot say I will miss that moment where I hear a time and think, “wait, what time are actually we talking about here?”


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Where are the Africans?

A common mischaracterization among the uninformed is to refer to Africa as a country. An Africa expert might retort that in fact it is not a country; there are 54 countries on the continent. However, depending on the “African” you talk to, you might get a much smaller number. This is because many residents of countries on the continent do not think of themselves as African.

First, and perhaps most logically, North Africans often do not think of themselves as African. Those from places like Algeria, Tunisia or Egypt are much more likely to identify with the Middle East, and Arabic culture. Given that much of early “international” travel was by sea and that they are on the Mediterranean, this seems a pretty reasonable argument. For instance, Tunisia was part of the Roman Empire, and North Africans often had much more interaction with Europeans than they did with those south of the Sahara. The (north) Sudanese, while not on the Mediterranean, also tend to identify as Arabs rather than Africans. This is in no small part due to the fact that their colonial masters, the British, used Egypt as their proxy ruler, meaning the north Sudanese in particular had a close tie to Egypt. Before coming to Africa, I was aware of all of these countries and their claims to non-African-ness. What I didn’t know was that the trend sometimes continues south of the Sahara.

First, the Malagasies (those from Madagascar) are decidedly not Africans. Another Princeton in Africa fellow living there told me about how they refer to issues like malaria and HIV/AIDS as “not their problems, those are Africa problems.” Again, their origins might have something to do with their lack of African-ness, as many Malagasies are thought to be re-settled from Southeast Asia.

Somalis are also certainly not Africans. Here the argument gets a little bit weaker, in my estimation. Somalia is distinct from most African countries in that it is comprised of a single tribe. Its strategic position on the Gulf of Aden also meant that much of its interaction was with non-Africans, perhaps developing its distinct culture. However, the nomadic lifestyle of Somalis, and their focus on rearing livestock reminds me tremendously of the region of Northern Kenya where I worked. Somalia and Northern Kenya certainly share some common elements (and a border), and I don’t think many North Kenyans would ever conceive of themselves as anything other than African.

I learned today from one of my co-workers that some Ethiopians also contest the claim that they are African. This time, the central argument is based on their skin, as Ethiopians tend to have much lighter skin (which Ethiopians refer to as “Habesha”. I am white, someone from Kenya is black, and an Ethiopian is habesha). Also, unlike every other African country, Ethiopia was never colonized. I find this argument really amusing, that a country’s lack of colonial legacy makes it less African.

However, my all-time favorite instance of people denying their African-ness comes in the form of the Republic of South Africa. You would think that a country whose name includes “Africa” in it would certainly not contest its relation to Africa. However, many white South Africans do not consider themselves to be living in Africa (and honestly, given how segregated the communities are in South Africa, in practice parts of Johannesburg and elsewhere might not feel very African). When a Princeton in Africa Fellow of Kenyan origin would tell White South Africans her country of origin, she said they would often say “That’s great. I would really like to visit Africa some day.”

I don’t know why so many individuals on the continent are so determined to separate themselves from the classification of African. However, if I had to guess, I would say that it has something to do with the very negative characterizations of Africa presented in the media. When the notion most people have of Africa is place of disease, death, and civil war, it seems natural to want to separate yourself from such a label. I would imagine nearly every country in the continent has some characteristic that makes it unique, whether it’s a lack of colonial legacy, trade partners on the Gulf of Aden, or some other key feature. However, whatever the reason, it’s clear that many “Africans” don’t see themselves as African at all.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

My Graveyard Shift as a Cleaner

It’s perhaps not uncommon for young people (or “youths” as they would be called in Kenya or Ethiopia) to work graveyard shifts. Perhaps they might man the drive-thru or 7-11, or work as a security guard. During my time in Ethiopia, I have found that my work schedule becomes something of a graveyard shift as well. Every night, I burn the midnight oil, cleaning…data.

My team consists of 22 surveyors and 2 auditors. Every day around 7 am, the surveyors leave for a village to interview two households, on topics such as income, asset ownership, family size, decision-making in the household, use of time and other factors. The auditors meanwhile review a random sampling of interviews from the day before. They ask a few of the same questions, to verify that the surveyors are actually asking the questions. The auditors each do about six abbreviated surveys a day. Therefore, once a day, they return (somewhere between 3 pm and 7 pm) with 60ish surveys for the day.

This is when my work begins in earnest. I work with my team’s supervisors plug in all the laptops (my room every night looks like a fire marshall’s worst nightmare, with cords stretching everywhere), and then to load all of the survey data from 24 computers onto a flash drive and then onto a computer. I use a surveying software to decrypt the responses, and transfer them into the statistical software my organization uses to conduct analysis. It is my responsibility to then check and clean (i.e. fix errors, make it usable for analysis) the data. I try to catch logical mis-steps. “This household says they have savings but the amount of savings is blank” or “This household says it sold eggs in the past month, but has no chickens.”

Our survey team then meets the next day at 6:30 am to prep for its day in the field. We distribute computers, talk about the day’s activities, and go over any challenges on questionnaires. It is my goal every day at this time to have some sort of list assembled with errors from the previous day, since it’s easier to recall the previous day’s survey than a survey from 12 days ago. This therefore means my most important work quite possibly takes place between the hours of 3 pm and midnight every night (or whenever it is I finish my data analysis). 

When I signed on to my job, I expected to work from 8-5. What I didn’t realize is that while I would be working 8-5 EDT, I would be working those hours while in Ethiopia.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

The clock is ticking, the meter is running

Our time has a value. And while we might not explicitly think about it in monetary terms, we often make decisions based on our valuation of our time. For instance, if I decide to drive across town to save a fuel dollars (for the sake of argument, we’ll say after the cost of fuel), I have, perhaps implicitly, assessed that the additional time is less valuable than the dollars I will be saving. Alternatively, if I say “It’s only a few bucks” and buy the product without looking further, I’ve concluded that my time is more valuable to me than the money I could be saving. Our transportation preferences reflect similar valuations. A taxi is more expensive than taking the subway, but the subway will likely take longer. We have to decide, given the value of our time, what the best decision to make is.

In the town of Wukro, where I am currently working, I am faced very directly with this question on a daily basis. Wukro is a small town with one main street than spans for a little over a mile. However, this does not stop there from being public transportation. There are rickshaws–known here as budgets–that spend the day going up and down the main street on a continued basis. You can flag a budget, and hop in as it goes on this main, one street loop, and ask to get out when you reach the point closest to you on the main street.

The three locations of most relevance to me, my hotel, the office of REST (our partner organization), and the bus station to go to the bigger town (to get supplies, access an ATM, meet with REST’s main finance department, etc) all fall on the main street. (A fourth location of interest would probably also be the juice bar next to my hotel, but I’m not including it in this analysis). I also regularly make these treks, which are not long at all. I can walk to the REST office from my hotel in 5 minutes. However, I also have the option of taking a budget, which costs…. 5 cents (1 birr).

I am therefore forced very regularly to appraise the value of five minutes of my time. I can pay five cents and get there quite quickly, or walk, get the exercise, and spend a bit longer. It also gets a bit more complicated if there are no budgets and I start to walk. When I then see a budget, do I save 2 minutes and take it the rest of the way? Or better to walk? When I am in the bigger town, Mekelle, and need to hire a budget to do a “private route” for about a dollar to save 10 minutes, again, what is the best value?

Normally, during work hours I conclude that five minutes of my time is in fact worth five cents. (I suppose after all, I AM making more than 60 cents an hour, which is worth considering). However, I find myself constantly hearing the honks of the entrepreneurial budget drivers and asking myself “Worth it?”

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Ethiopians are Fast(ing)

While in Argentina, I had some friends who were vegetarians and vegans coming in. However, given the importance of beef, steak and meat empanadas in the Argentine diet, they realized that their current dietary restictions were likely to prove untenable, and relaxed them for their time abroad.

In Kenya, the situation is similar, if perhaps even more extreme. Meat is an absolutely integral part of a Kenyan’s diet. Perhaps the most famous Kenyan dish, nyama choma, literally means “roasted meat”, and the means of preparation is equally literal. They take a significant portion of an animal (the appropriate unit of measurement is in kilograms), roast it for a length of time, and then chop it up to be eaten. There are side dishes, such as maize meal or flatbread, but the focus of the meal is absolutely on the meat, and not on garnishes, marinates, seasons or any other factors.

It is even more extreme in pastoralist areas, such as where I worked. One study I read found that 60% of a typical pastoralist’s caloric intake is some sort of animal product (ie milk or meat, perhaps occasionally blood as a means of getting a major dose of iron). Moral of the story: being a vegetarian in Kenya would be extremely difficult work.

The same is not necessarily true of Ethiopians. The most common religion in the country is Ethiopian Orthodox, a form of Christianity. A significant element of their religious practices involves “fasting” days, where meat and animal products are not eaten. They fast in this manner every Wednesday and Friday, and on many other occasions. In total, Ethiopian Orthodox members restrict their diets approximately 250 days a year. According, this means around 70% of the time, they are eating vegetarian dishes, meaning a lot of the most popular and best prepared dishes are vegerarian-approved. In other words, aspiring development workers who are vegetarians, Ethiopia might just be the place for you.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

These are a few of (an Ethiopian’s) favorite things

Some insights into life in the Tigray Region of Ethiopia:

I’ve seen exactly one street food during my time here, it’s fruit, delicious, and called “cactus”. It is roughly mango-shaped with spike-esque skin (akin perhaps to a gourd). The ritual for eating cactus is terrific. Street vendors have a pile of cactus on a matt or in a bucket, and a knife. I first went to eat cactus with my field manager, Teame. The vendor skinned it, and held out one for Teame to eat. They then mmediately skinned another, and held it out for me to eat. They are fleshy, but a bit crunchy. It’s possible to slowly eat one, at say apple speed, but also possible to chomp it down. They then sliced another, held it out for Teame, sliced another, held it out for me. Oh, I figured, Teame must have asked for two for each of us. NOPE. Turns out, the protocol is, the vendor continues to slice them and hold them out for you until you cut them off. I stopped at 4; I think Teame might have managed 7.

Pool is an incredibly popular activity. A typical block on the main street here in Wukro probably has at least 4 or 5. They also have different rules. Instead of our 8-ball pool, all of the balls are arranged against the side of the table. The first person tries to sink the 1-ball. If they miss, the other person tries to sink the same ball. You keep going until someone sinks it, and they get one point. Then, you proceed to the 2-ball; whoever sinks it gets two points. And on and on you go.

Juice is serious business here. It’s very common post-lunch, or in the evening to go and get juice, which is necessarily made fresh on the spot. There are three main flavors: mango, avocado, and mango/avocado (simply known as “spris”, or “mix”). Spris also refers to a hot beverage, a tea-coffee mix.

More observations to come!

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

I Guess We’ll Just See Who Takes Home More Honey

On Saturday, I experienced my first “field visit”, where a group of foreigners go to a place where a program is taking place and get the chance to talk to some people in the program, hear how it’s going, etc. It’s a bit of a bizarre experience that I’ll blog about later. Today, the number one takeaway is BEES.

In the program I am evaluating, individuals have the chance to participate in one of four types of income-generating activities: goat fattening, oxen fattening, petty trading or bee keeping. The question of the day was why wasn’t everyone choosing the bee businesses.

Bees seemed like what economists call the “dominant” option, meaning they were better in every respect. The income from harvesting honey is higher than from other income-generating activities, they require less work—you have to make sure you choose a place where bees can forage, but unlike livestock, which you have to help graze, bees are pretty capable of fending for themselves. Finally, the price is much more stable, because the honey is exported, meaning it is less subject to day-to-day fluctuations in the market. Our partner organization even offers training on the practice.

However, only about 10% of participants chose this activity. 72% chose the less profitable goats, and 22% the oxen. One lady we spoke to, who did choose bees, explained that the reason she didn’t choose goats was because she didn’t have enough children to herd for them.

After talking with some staff, it seems the answer isn’t an especially exciting one. It basically comes down to comfort. Everyone knows the basic principles of fattening animals. Moreover, looking around at neighbors, it’s possible to see others who have been successful. Beekeeping comes across as a bit stranger. You have to wear this crazy clothing. You have to extract the honey late at night, with smoke. And there just aren’t that many others doing it.

We are testing this theory in part by seeing how individuals respond to ambiguous situations, in the form of games. It’s hard to ask someone, “how do you do in the face of an uncertain situation?” and get a meaningful response. Instead, we are asking, would you rather have $0.50 for sure, or $5.00 if it rains in Addis Ababa (the capital of Ethiopia, about 20 hours away by bus. Most will have no idea if it rains there tomorrow) and no money if it doesn’t. We’re interested in seeing, is the sort of person who intuits “well, I don’t know if it’s going to rain, but that’s a huge payoff, and I’m only sacrificing a bit (the certainty of $0.50) to take this risk, so I’ll do it”, the same sort of person who picks the “unusual” but profitable beekeeping business?

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 3 Comments