Weeks 6, 7 and 8 – Beekeeping in the Dark… and My Site Visit!

The content on this blog is mine and mine alone and does not reflect any position of the US Peace Corps or Government.

Beekeeping in the Dark… and a “Model Farm” Visit             

The G20 Team was excited to go to a farm and learn how to conduct a colony night transfer by taking bees and comb out of an African traditional hive into a transitional hive with a top bar coated in wax. It is used to tie the cut-out honeycomb to the bar to better manage the hive.  This transitional hive idea is brilliant because trying to go from a cone tree hive (see pix) to a “modern” hive with super boxes is in many ways too much of a leap.   In addition, the cost of modern hives might be prohibitive for Ethiopian farmers whereas making a hive from local wood and mud is effective. From my own experience, bee-keeping can be an expensive endeavor.

In Virginia, I was taught at Mountain Empire Beekeeping Association’s beginner classes that beekeeping is best on a sunny and calm day because many of the bees are out foraging so there are fewer bees to confront.  The law in Ethiopia, however, requires beekeepers to manage their hives at night to avoid the possibility of working with the race of honeybees that are much more aggressive so much so that the bees might end up harming or killing children, adults and livestock.  The G20 team suited up and many were nervous about being stung though still very enthusiastic.  We had some solar lamps, a knife and we each took turns smoking the hive, cutting the comb out and determining if it was mostly honey, pollen or brood and then, if the comb was promising, putting a hole or two at the top and tying it to the bar with twine.  This process results in a box of managed bees that should be able to survive the experience of having honey stolen so long as enough is left for them to get through the winter or down times.  The African bees I observed seemed somewhat smaller and more grey colored than the Italian bees I kept in Virginia.  Though they were somewhat more aggressive, it was dark and their homes, larvae and honey stores were being cut out of the hive.  Naturally, anyone would be pretty upset if they were woken up at night, thinking there was a fire (smoke), and their home and children were being moved somewhere else.  It was fascinating to start this new hive for them and at the end to try to find the Queen (we couldn’t) and move the remaining bees into their new home.  If we were able to get the Queen into the transitional hive, all of the bees will follow her and a new beehive is born.  Back on my farm, it was always great to get a call from someone wanting a swarm removed from a tree or elsewhere because they were usually very easy to handle, the bees falling in clumps into their new home.  And, people think you are so brave to catch a swarm when in fact, it is much easier to work with bees when they are in swarm mode. They are drunk from binging on honey and patiently waiting to be directed to a new home. In my bee world, we call it “freebees.”

Yes, a few people from the Peace Corps team did get stung and handled having a bee or six get into their suit or being stung on the lip very calmly.  It was difficult to get the bees to leave them alone when we were ready to board our bus and return home because once a person is stung the other bees will be attracted to the scent from the sting and try to attack the victim again.  Over the next couple of days I asked the stung trainees about the stings and it seemed to me that though the bees were a bit more aggressive, the stings did not produce the swelling or awful itch that I experienced more than a few times as a beekeeper or when stung by yellow jackets.  Once I was stung near my eye, my face swelled up throughout that day. I looked like Alfred Hitchcock with a big puffy face and eyes and I refused to go to work the next day. Though swelling is unattractive and often itchy, the allergic reaction to fear is the inability to breathe.  Our Peace Corps trainers had an Epipen just in case.

It was wonderful to see the team get so excited about working with bees.  There is something magical about the process.  I hope that at my site I will to be able to set up a transitional hive and a modern hive to show the farmers the benefits of the new transitional type and encourage the eventual shifting to the modern super (box) hive which does produce the nicest honey and preserves the most bees.  Though honey is not as nutritious as fresh produce and eggs as far as our goal of improving the nutrition of children and young mothers (more on that later), it does provide a source of income for purchase of healthier foods.  But, honey does make life a whole lot sweeter!

After our beekeeping in the dark experience, we had a wonderful day visiting a model farm where an excellent farmer was very gracious to show us his fish pond (small “fingerling” fish) with chicken coops built part-way over it to provide chicken poop food for the fish.  The pond was drained from time to time for excellent water/fertilizer for his gardens which included alfalfa – good for bees, chickens and cattle.  He also had about twenty beehives and he appears to have gone directly to a cross between the transitional branch/mud hive to a wooden built super.  He explained that he was having great success with his honey production and it was bringing in decent income for the farm.  From the pictures I post you can see the old “cone in tree” style and the new style, trainees tasting his bright yellow honey, and the fish pond chicken coop set up.  It was a beautiful day for all of us and we enjoyed having many of the schoolchildren following us around for the morning.  We visited the local farming training center, an example of the local government farming groups we will have the chance to work with during our service. It is fun for me because I remember interesting conversations with my county’s local extension agent who visited my farm when I first moved there. I hope to establish educational conversations with my site community here and there and with some of the 4-H Clubs in the next couple of years.  There may be opportunities to share helpful information and different perspectives on life and farming if the kids could be connected virtually in a learning and sharing project.

I recall a cool bumper sticker I saw on cars in my Virginia farming community that read, “No Farms, No Food”, a message some people seem to forget in our tech obsessed world. I am delighted to spend the next couple of years working with people who work the land and work on animal production. My site community has such beautiful farms, many around a large lake surrounded by large mountains.  Cows, goats, donkeys and camel graze around haystacks while farmers plow the field with large horned oxen preparing the ground for seed.  What an honor to be able to work with and learn from them as well as share some insights from our agricultural team.

My Site Visit in Amhara!

During the seventh week, we spent some time in Addis where our site announcement was held and we were able to meet our counterparts each of whom work for the local farming training center run by the local Kebele or Woreda governments. The site reveal was a topic of conversation amongst the trainees for the weeks prior to the announcement as we each wondered if we’d get our preferred regions.  I was looking for a mountainous, cooler region like Amhara because I enjoyed being in the mountains on my farm in Virginia and I did not think I would do as well in a hotter region.  My agricultural trainers suggested Tigray because it is famous for its honey but I felt being in the mountains would be more for me.  Boy, did I luck out!  My site is near a large lake (not Lake Michigan, but big) surrounded by beautiful mountains and farms. The mountains are more dramatic than the Blue Ridge mountains and as a girl who grew up in Virginia Beach, I have associated mountains and waves since I was a child. I annoyed my parents when travelling to West Virginia to visit relatives by screaming “tidal wave!” when the mountains came in view. And, for some strange reason seeing haystacks always tickles me. It has something to do with the Monet haystack painting I loved at the Art Institute of Chicago. The haystacks are so lovely in the sun and delicious for the cattle.  All of it takes my breath away. Flying to Addis today and riding on a bus over the mountain last week I was reminded that Ethiopia is called the “Roof of Africa” because of it’s huge and beautiful mountains. From the sky, it looks like what I imagine the Grand Canyon would look like from the sky. Obviously, I am very happy to have been placed in Amhara.

When I arrived at my compound site, I was greeted with an aqua green house with the word “WELLCOME” painted over the door as a greeting. My landlord and his family are terrific and have helped me get through a language block that I’ve been having the past couple of weeks. They press me to talk and they only speak Amharic.  Each delicious cup of bunna or shay (coffee or tea) seems to come with a price of at least a few correct conjugations or new words though that isn’t implicit.  The interesting part is that I join them in their living room which has no table or chairs, just mats and pillows to sit on.  We sit together and drink our hot drinks and share breakfast or lunch, often from the same plate.  Sometimes a chicken strolls in and the other day a new baby goat colored white, black and brown, started making its way to breakfast much to the dismay of its mother who could not follow.  Then there is the kitten.  I am going to post a picture (or my friend in D.C. will) of the kitten.  Peace Corps strongly discourages volunteers having dogs or cats because rabies vaccinations (or lack thereof) are a problem here, but I am not a fan of rats either and the cat is awfully sweet.  It is already a compound cat so I am basically a goner for this kitten as it will likely be sharing my breakfast for the next two years.  I think I’ll call him Tiger.

My agricultural counterpart is great and he has introduced me to the local government and farmer training center employees, the police chief, and other important people in the community.  The language barrier has been tough and it is especially  tough because I speak Amharic somewhat better than any of them speak English which is pretty scary.  At one point with a meeting of the agricultural leaders I was able to impress them (a little)by being able to write out some of their names in the Amharic fidel which has 231 letters/symbols. I also sing it badly and they laugh. We all laughed a little when after a fell a second time (despite wearing hiking boots or Chacos) they managed to gently pick me up from where I fell. Walking around with my head in the clouds and mesmerized by the mountains has resulted in a badly skinned knee and finger. My landlords’ family fusses over it and puts vaseline on it as though it were a serious injury. I love them for that. Truly, I am falling for Ethiopia. Two of my five farmers I will begin my work with are women which is pretty great and I loved meeting them. I will be assisting all of them with bee-keeping, chicken management and/or nutritious gardening.  It is very interesting to see their farms, two of which have traditional hives I hope to transport to a new and better home.

I have been given a wonderful welcome in my new community though I do get stared at very intensely.  This community has never had a Peace Corps volunteer and likely no “Ferengi” (foreigner) living here from what I can tell. It is predominantly Muslim and the women dress in long flowing dresses and always wear a scarf on their heads. The men sometimes wear skirts and often wear scarves or a hat on their heads. Ethiopian men and women are some of the most beautiful people you will ever see. I get especially warm greetings from the older ladies.  They kiss my hands and smile at me so I kiss their hands and smile back at them.  They say to me, “Izosh!!” which means “Be brave.  Have courage!”  It is humbling to have them support me in this way. Their strength, grace and dignity impress me and inspire me as well as their wonderful smiles. When I move to my site later this Spring, I look forward to sitting with my compound family on the mats, playing with the kitten and little goat and laughing as the neighbors visit and we sip delicious coffee and tea. After all, it is the best way to learn Amharic!

The contents of this blog are mine and do not reflect any position of the U.S. Government or Peace Corps.

Week 5 of Pre-Service Training Mirror, Mirror on the Wall?

The contents of this blog are mine and do not reflect any position of the U.S. Government or Peace Corps.

Sadly, I was unable to post to my blog on Valentine’s Day because the internet was insufficient in the town where I was having training classes.  I am going to try to post on February 24th in another city at which point I will try to post both articles.  Even more sadly, when I get to my site in a month or so my connectivity issues may be worse than here which means there may be no real point in having a blog but I do enjoy jotting down some thoughts about my experience for those who might be interested.  I have been keeping in touch one of the only ways that works and is semi-affordable – WhatsApp!  It is great to text with friends and hear about what they are doing so if you are my friend reading this and want to communicate please download free WhatsApp and send me a text at my old number which only works for Whats App.  I am having trouble with email and Facebook eats up my data too quickly.  Enough tech stuff!

I am finishing up Week 5 and had a language test today –  oral.  I sounded ridiculous in several parts of the conversation I am sure.  When asked what I was going to do after the mock test, I started talking about my farm in Virginia instead of about returning to my host family and washing my clothes and hair.  While I am not anywhere near where I need and want to be with my Amharic, I’ve come pretty far for such a short time frame.  In my Spanish classes in Chicago I would be at least in the third semester for what I am expected to learn.  Four hours a day does produce progress even if you don’t always feel like it.  Many words and conjugations are jumbled up in my head now but in time I will be speaking more.  It is hard to find the time or a good place to study in the evening, and after a long day of classes and practicum in the field, I am much more likely to sleep than study when I get to my bed which is the only somewhat quiet place to study.  Having girls, ages 5 and 1, around can make it hard to focus but they are fun to have around and can usually talk me into watching some Disney film or Wonder Woman movie for part of the evening. 

Something my fellow trainees and I have noticed is that our host families do not have mirrors in their homes the way Americans have large mirrors at least in the bathrooms if not throughout their homes.  In my home, there is a small hand mirror hanging on the wall by the door but you can barely see your whole face in it.  I brought a small mirror with me but it is very strange to live life without seeing yourself in mirrors throughout the day.  Given the stress of training, no meat, greatly reduced calories and lack of a hot shower or bubble bath, I am not sure I want to see myself in a full-size mirror at the moment.  I have pretty much given up on make-up though I slather on the sunscreen.  My hair without blow-drying is very thick and wild looking.  My plan to just put it in a pony-tail has not worked because it is too bushy. It is down and dirty as once a week hair-washing outside in my big bucket is the max I can manage.  My plan is to try to not care how I look and be grateful there are no full-length mirrors around.

This week we started studying beekeeping which is something I love!   The classes were great though I am sorry to hear that none of my fellow Peace Corps trainees has owned beehives though some have worked a bit with bee-keeping.  I was hoping to be with people who could teach me more about it but this will still be a great opportunity to learn.  The exciting thing about this part of my service is that Ethiopia has such great potential for beekeeping.  With a little over 100 million people, only about 2 million households practice beekeeping, mostly small farmers.  Beekeeping has been around here since 3500 – 3000 BC but it is done in the trees which sort of makes sense since that is where bees tend to swarm when they get sick of a human provided hive.  Ethiopia has the largest bee population in Africa with 10 million bee colonies and forests magically rich in biodiversity.  With 18 agro-ecological zones, Ethiopia has the most diverse flora and fauna in Africa with 7000 plants and 400 nectar plants. There are five different types of honeybee races and African bees tend to me more aggressive than bees in America.  They can sting more than once like a yellow jacket but the good news is they produce more honey.  The African “killer bees” I heard about when I was young were actually not from Africa but created by a British scientist trying to capture the gentleness of an Italian bee and the productivity of an African bee – he failed.  Typically European or Italian bees are used in the U.S. at least where I was in Virginia (I used to call mine “Beatrice in Italian” – only a few of you will get that joke.) 

One of the reasons beekeeping has not caught on as much here is that the hives are cylinders high in trees and when they are cut down, most of the bee colony is lost which is very sad on all sorts of levels.  I would also guess that since Ethiopia is rich in sugarcane and they use lots of sugar in their delicious coffee, honey is not used as much as sugar here which is probably true in the U.S. as well, at least from my observation. Using the cylinder style is much cheaper and requires less skill but ends up with a lot of bee-stung farmers producing less honey full of wax, pollen and dead bees. 

The Peace Corps has a middle approach between using cylinders and the “new” modern hives which are like boxes (“supers”) and use frames with sheets for the bees to brood (breed) or make honey.  A box of sorts is made with local wood and mud and top bars are made for the bees to create a colony and make honey working from one end of the hive to the other, sometimes with a sort of queen excluder in the middle to avoid larvae mixed with honey.  In this way, when they take the top bars with honey, they can lightly brush bees away and save most of the hive, allowing them to continue brooding and producing honey.  While it may not be much more nutritious than sugar, it does have medicinal qualities, can lead to more honey and honey wine production, and provide a new source of income for farmers that is ecologically friendly and delicious. 

My team is learning about taking care of chickens and we had to separate out a chicken being pecked on by other chickens from one of our newly made coops.  Chickens can be quite carnivorous so a weaker chicken can be bullied.  After a few days of being separated, she seems to be holding her own in the coop and her strangely open beak is now back to normal. 

The garden in my compound was doing well until one of the sheep (it seemed by the hoofs) managed to get in and stomp or eat some of the cabbage.  All was not lost, but it was disappointing to lose some of the garden.  Our compost bin is stinky and gross so that is a good thing.

That is all I have to report for now.  Some of you messaged that you were glad I was happy.  I wouldn’t say I was “happy” exactly but I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything even if it isn’t sipping red wine in a restaurant in Paris or putting my feet in a fountain in Rome or viewing fine art at the Prado in Spain.  When I got back to my house from my language test, my host Mom made me beef tibs, onions and hot green peppers with injera.  I have not had good meat in several weeks and it was “Yatafital!” or “Delicious!” and the company was fine. There are many ways to find different kinds of happy even if they are not comfortable or elegant and I am on that journey with or without a mirror.  Ciao!

Weeks 3 and 4 of Pre-Service Training Gardens, Chickens, Weddings and Love

The contents of this blog are mine and do not reflect any position of the U.S. Government or Peace Corps.

It is the end of Week 4 and I am now able to use my smartphone though my town does not have Wi-Fi available.  Unfortunately, I’ll still need to go to a bigger town to get Wi-Fi to post my blog so it is my hope that I’ll be able to post tomorrow when I have Pre-Service Training with my team in a bigger town.

Over the past couple of weekends, I had language class for four hours on Saturday morning and washed my clothes outside in plastic tubs.  It was pretty relaxing to sit in the sun and observe the cows and sheep and a newly acquired chicken.  Except for an occasional egg, I am eating vegetarian at the moment.  I miss meat and have fantasized about eating that chicken – roasted or fried – either would be good.  I believe there is a tradition of fasting from meat for over 100 days of the year in Ethiopia for most religions.  The freshly prepared food is really good though and includes along with the daily injera, other bread, rice and pasta, potatoes, carrots, collard greens, beets, tomatoes, lentil stew, bananas and many small cups of coffee. 

My friends and I decided to get out of town after Week 2 but there is no one around our town that seems to own a vehicle, even the host families considered “rich” by these standards.  There are lots of donkey carts with one particularly cute little donkey that has a big furry unibrow that we often admire.  Public transportation is it and is pretty wild in Ethiopia as the buses are very old, filled to beyond total capacity and not very comfortable, with no air-conditioning and terrible roads with potholes to navigate.  My three friends and I expected the trip to be much shorter but with all of the stops for people lugging water jugs or on their way to weddings, it was over an hour. 

Once in town, we went to a Peace Corps office which has good Wi-Fi, had a so-so lunch at a restaurant and enjoyed watching a big wedding party arriving at another hotel for a reception.  The Sunday before many of us were brought to a wedding in our small town and several of us were brought up at the request of the bride and groom for a picture with them and their bridal party.  Ethiopians are famous for extravagant weddings and the one at the hotel was large, so my friends and I enjoyed seeing the wedding crowd in sparkling attire.  We ran into trouble however when we went to catch a bus back to our post and bus after bus went by completely packed.  Apparently, January is THE wedding month and most weddings take place on Sunday.  It was the first time in my 52 years I broke curfew as we are expected to get back to our host families by dark for our own safety and so our host families don’t worry about us.  I felt like a little kid rushing to get home in time, letting my Peace Corps contacts know we were going to be late.  I can tell you Peace Corps takes our safety and security very seriously, but I didn’t get grounded, thankfully.

Last week in training, our focus was on gardening and we were double-digging gardens and setting up compost piles for some host families as practice for our permanent sites.  We had an interesting program on Climate Smart Agriculture for development – a G015 2009 initiative whose focus is on sustainability through intensification of productivity, strengthening resilience through adaption to climate variability, and reducing agriculture’s contribution to climate change through mitigation of agricultural impacts. We learned that our goal in Peace Corps is to reduce exposure to shocks, reduce sensitivity and increase adaptive capacity because developing countries have more trouble adapting to climate change and are more susceptible to shocks like flooding, high temperatures and erratic rainfall.  Ethiopia is working towards a “green economy” supporting such projects as the water dam to reduce the need for coal, a railroad transit project, reducing methane producing cattle (though not a popular idea with everyone – somewhat understandably if you are like me and craving a steak!) and cover crops to reduce carbon dioxide. 

While my host family eats quite well, I hope we can add some nutritious diversity to their diet that they will enjoy. For example, sweet potatoes/orange yams have been encouraged because they provide some of the nutrients that are often lacking such as Iron, Iodine, Zinc and Vitamin A.  My host Dad is a strong man and a fine person and was out helping us turn the soil.  I do not forget that most of the people around me have been farming the land here for forever. After all, Ethiopia is one of the oldest agricultural societies in existence.  They know a lot more about farming than I ever will but even small changes to improve nutrition and productivity can have big benefits.  One program provided to us had a slide that read that often Peace Corps volunteers will never get to enjoy the shade of the trees they plant.  I will try to keep that in mind if I ever feel like my efforts are not meaningful or relevant.

Over last weekend, I tried to get more organized, washed my very dirty hair and decided to go on a hike with a few trainee friends.  It was wonderful to sit out in an open field under a beautiful acacia tree, drink a little red wine and see some beautiful birds and many cows out on the pasture.  I am excited about bird-watching here as I am already seeing beautiful, colorful birds I didn’t know existed. The ones I have noticed most are little finches in red and a pretty blue – firefinches and cordon bleu finches.  My friend gave me great pair of binoculars and a book on birds living in the horn of Africa that I know I will enjoy while here over the next couple of years.

Speaking of birds, this week, our agricultural focus was on building chicken coops and learning about the care and feeding of chickens.  Of course, I had experience with chickens on my farm in Virginia, but it was easy there to run to Tractor Supply and get all of the feed and supplies you could ever want.  I am excited to try some of the information provided and hoping I will not experience the hardships that can occur when disease strikes.  Peace Corps is encouraging people to build coops for their chickens to provide eggs to improve nutrition for families (and possibly offer another source of income), to keep chickens healthier and safer from predators, and to keep families safer from unsanitary conditions of allowing chickens to be kept in or too close to the home.  Some American families learned after getting chicken coops that getting too close to chickens can be dangerous as they are feathery vehicles for salmonella. I had a good time sawing and hammering our coops and spending time with my team and the wonderful family that benefited from our efforts.  Hopefully, some of the pictures will download this time but, if not, I will keep trying.

Amharic language training is really fun but also very difficult.  Amharic is considered by some one of the top ten hardest languages to learn.  My class plays a lot of Jeopardy and Concentration-like games and we have a lot of laughs as we increase our vocabulary.  Though I spent some time studying it over the summer it is challenging to learn the verb conjugation rules.  My teacher says my pronunciation is good and I think that is because I put a lot of time into learning the fidal – the Amharic “alphabet” of over 200 symbols and sounds stemming from Arabic and Hebrew.  I still feel overwhelmed with all that I need to memorize but I try to take it in stride.  I will have a tutor when I get to site to help me throughout my service.  It will also be easier to learn out of necessity when I am at site as I won’t have 50 Peace Corps trainees around me, all of us speaking English. 

I will close with a Happy Valentine’s Day message to allof my friends and family, hoping I can post this on February 14.   While visiting another host family, they played their wedding video.  In it, there are several traditions I thought were quite charming and interesting. First, the groomsmen and other men “fight” with the groom when he comes home to claim his bride, literally surrounding his car and chanting with vigor.  They make a lot of noise and challenge him. Second, once in the house the bridesmaids try to keep him from getting to her and they also give him a hard time before stepping aside. These efforts go on for quite a while and are almost an elaborate dance of sorts.  Finally the groom must beg his bride to marry him. She will take her time in accepting him despite the fact they are obviously decked out in beautiful wedding clothes to be married, While I cannot say how this originated. I can say that to me it said that love is something worth fighting for but it is never to be given away too quickly or easily. Happy Valentine’s Day!