Northwest NEWS

December 21, 1998

Front Page

A Christmas letter from Ethiopia

Ellen Bek

Ellen Bek (pictured above), the 23-year-old daughter of Mary and Richard Bek of Woodinville, joined the Peace Corps following her graduation from Washington State University and was sent to Ethiopia in June of 1997, where she is teaching English as a second language. -- Editor

   At this time of year, the sight of twinkling lights on top of the Space Needle, egg nog lattes at every corner, turkeys on sale in every supermarket, and modern remakes of carols humming throughout every business remind us all that yet another Christmas season has quickly come upon us.

   And now the parties and fun begin, the red and green festivities take off, and soon the stress, also. Feeling fortunate to forgo my gift lists and crazy shopping sprees this year, I am nevertheless beginning to feel that twinge of missing out on the family fun and cheery Northwest air this season.

   Thus, here are my wishes from Africa for everyone at home for a very Merry Christmas and a super-happy New Year!

   This is my second December here in Ethiopia, where I am teaching English as a Peace Corps volunteer. I arrived here in June 1997 with a group of about 30 volunteers, ready to see Africa, eager to experience another culture, a bit nervous to teach English grammar, sad to leave home, but way too curious to be on my own on the other side of the planet--not to mention for two years.

   Yet now, more than a year later, I cannot believe where the time has gone. Regardless, it is at this time of the year that I'm reminded of that so-called "real world" out there.

   We in Ethiopia might not have candy canes, jingle bells, or snow, but we do get to celebrate Christmas twice each year.

   Somehow, after days of travel on rickety buses and scary roads, we American volunteers will manage to meet in a central location to have our December 25th celebration. But then, it's back to site, where we'll celebrate another Christmas on January 7: Ethiopian Christmas. It's one of the perks of having to operate on the Ethiopian Orthodox calendar.

   My plans for "Brihane Lidet" (Christmas) this year are pretty basic and uncomplicated--quite African, indeed. Ethiopians celebrate Christmas in animal stables in this region, believing that to be the ultimate place to remember the birth of Jesus.

   So, in a hut with straw, we will sit and share a meal of spicy chicken and lamb curries with "Injera," the traditional staple bread substance. We'll eat with our hands, everyone helping himself from one large platter, washing it all down with either "tela" or "arake," the local barley brews, which by the way, can be used as fuel.

   Instead of Harry Connick Jr.'s jazzy, festive tunes, there will be a lulling beat of Sudanese drums and guitar playing on someone's decade-old tape recorder. Then, we'll end the meal with the traditionally famous Ethiopian "buna" coffee ceremony. The woman of the household will set up her fire and wash, roast, and grind the beans to prepare the thick, sandy, unbelievable coffee for which this region is popular.

   After four cups of this, a full stomach, and with the air dense with humidity and clouds of "etan" (local incense), one begins to forget the time of day, let alone the fact that it's Christmas.

   There might be a Christmas "tree," though this practice stems from our western influence and has no roots in Ethiopian tradition. If there is a tree, it will probably be a 10-foot long banana leaf propped against the wall, with lots of little holes punched throughout to hold sprouts of bright flowers and colorful pieces of plastic bags.

   There won't be any gift exchanging; people consider being alive and healthy with family and food the only gifts worthy of celebration. Besides, Santa Claus would have a rough time landing on the straw/palm leaf roofs. It's getting hotter and hotter every day; we'll probably hit the tropical 90s by Christmas day--the middle of summer here.

   And if all of this sounds bizarre to you, just imagine celebrating the New Year before Christmas. The Ethiopian New Year, "Enkutatash," began two months ago.

   The Peace Corps experience that I've had these past fifteen months in Ethiopia has been absolutely magnificent. Yes, it is tough being "solo out in the sticks," teaching English in mud walled/floored classrooms, baking under those tin roofs with no textbooks, dealing with the endless threats of intestinal problems, boiling water like a fiend, and being so far away from my family in Woodinville with the worst telephone system imaginable. But the joy and abundant fulfillment flowing from each day cannot be paralleled.

   What could be a better gift than a student's bright smile after she finally writes a complete and correct sentence in English, even though she walked five kilometers to school without shoes? I get that gift every day: bundles of them, each wrapped with painstaking effort, sacrifice, toil, and pride.

   My gift to my students is to help them realize their worth, their importance, their significance, and their potential. My gift for my village is insight into our big world out there that they can but wonder and dream about.

   In return, I have been enveloped in open arms and tender hearts, showered with trust, respect, hope, and love. This, to me, is the sole reason to celebrate, for whatever season.

   During this Christmas time of happiness, I am thinking of Woodinville and home, offering you all a wish of peace from Ethiopia. Remember that stockings, turkey dinners, snowy vacations, and piles of expensive presents do not mean Christmas everywhere.

   However, love, generosity, and peace mean Christmas in every corner of our world--and the most precious wrapping for these three simple gifts is the family and friends with whom you share them.

   Merry Christmas, Mom, Dad, Margaret, Mike, Emily, and so many wonderful friends. Have an egg nog latte for me sometime.

Ellen Bek, Peace Corps Volunteer