Last Days

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“A Peace Corps Volunteer does not say:

That glass is half empty.


That glass is half full.

She says:

I could take a bath in that!”

I’m clearing out my house tomorrow, so I organized my belongings today. In the process, I found this quotation from our Pre-Service Training more than two years ago.

One more week in Metu.

Friends say, “I can’t believe Peace Corps is over.”

I can. It’s been a great two years. Enlightening. Fun. Tough. But it feels like two years to me.

Another quotation I found in an old notebook, this one from Scott:

“Celeste always sees the silver lining. Sometimes she misses the cloud.”

Scott claims I have “positive blinders,” but Peace Corps has been difficult for me at times. Sometimes I’d walk down Metu Main Street and be greeted by name every few steps, by a mixture of acquaintances and people I didn’t know. I’d feel terribly lonely… strangely, by having so many people know me and not knowing any of them.

I’ve also cried because life can be so unfair.

A friend of mine died of infection after a C-Section at Metu Hospital.

Outside a movie theater in Addis, I saw a little boy crouching in the street gobbling injera out of a plastic bag.

Mostly, there have been happy times. You’ve read about some of them here. Here are a few I haven’t shared before:

I was once handed a baby on a bus when his mother was feeling carsick.

I danced at a nightclub in Jimma, the biggest city in Southwestern Ethiopia, and I was one of three women there… the other two girls were my friends. (Outside of Addis only men frequent clubs.)

And tonight at dinner, I laughed with Kassaye, Aster, and Kim. When they gave me a goodbye gift, the other two tables in the room started clapping.

People ask me, “Would you do it again?”

And no, I would not sign up for another Peace Corps term. At least not until I’m retired.

I would definitely do Peace Corp Ethiopia 2010-2012 over again. Knowing everything I know now.

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Abuti’s Leaf

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Again, some fun, unrelated photos to start us out!


My little neighbor Abuti was wearing a leaf on his head. I pointed out the leaf to his mother, Woynshet, who was carrying him around.

“Kibe!” she explained.

Kibe is spiced butter, which is used in cooking and when slightly off, used to soften hair. The leaf was keeping Abuti from messing with the kibe in his hair. I thought it was too sweet—Woynshet conditioning her 9 month old’s do!

Seeing Abuti’s leaf reminded me of my favorite Ethiopian expression:

“I love her so much, I love her when she has kibe in her hair.”

Meaning: I love her so much, I love her even when she smells like rancid butter!

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48 Days and The Puppy

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I’ve posted pictures that have very little to do with the blog below. Most are from a recent lunch I had for my old neighbors—the photos were just too cute. I love the sequence of Seena. Her friend Kidist got ahold of John’s camera and took about thirty shots. Most posted photos have captions.


744 days gone.

48 days to go.

Normally, I hate countdowns. Countdowns make me feel like I’m counting my life away. But it’s pretty hard not to count down right at this moment… with only 48 days to go. That’s 93.9% of my Peace Corps service completed. Soon, I’ll be proud to claim RPCV status from Environment Group 1 in Ethiopia.

This is the time when Peace Corps Volunteers wrap up their projects and say their goodbyes. John and I are busy writing up a final report for my office, which we’ll present next week. I’ve also written a letter with tips and project suggestions to the Peace Corps Volunteer who will replace me. Hopefully, I can spare the new volunteer my many months of floundering—which were important and an enormous learning experience for me as the first environment volunteer in Metu, but are probably not necessary for the second.

These last few weeks feel a lot like my first few weeks in Metu. I drink tea and coffee with friends, stop into the office once in a while. Life is leisurely. Though, life has been pretty leisurely throughout my service, sometimes to my chagrin.

I’m enjoying my open days.

Especially because I don’t know when I’ll live a life again where I ask myself everyday, “What shall I do today?” knowing I have complete freedom to choose.

I have been so lucky to be a volunteer in Ethiopia and in Metu, but I am also ready to go home. I am ready to see my family and friends in the States and to start something new.


The Puppy

I found a puppy in the street when I was last in Addis Ababa, so I have plenty to do as things slow down. Little Bear and I play for at least two hours a day and she is quickly learning to “Come” and “Sit.” She is very slow in learning not to nip though! I am gradually boring my site mates to death by constantly regaling them with her exploits. It is just so much fun having a puppy!

Before LB, I never thought about how puppies are just little babies. She knew nothing and could barely see when I first picked her up off the curb.

I always get attention when I walk down the street, but walking down the street with a puppy on a leash, it is a whole ‘nother level! All dogs here are outdoor dogs. No one. No one walks her dog on a leash down the street. I’m met with stares and giggles, and “Come quick! It’s the foreigner and her dog!”

People ask me,

“Did you bring that dog from America?”

They can’t believe such a pampered pup was just a regular old Addis stray.

I asked Zeytuna whether it was okay to walk Little Bear on a leash, before our first outing.

“It’s no problem. People have seen dogs on leashes before. In movies.”

Speaking of dogs, in an earlier post, I mentioned that I thought Metu Town’s method of leaving poisoned meat out for stray dogs made a lot of sense for reducing the number of unwanted and pesky strays. Though I love dogs. I was called out for being heartless, which perhaps I was. I rethought the poisoned meat method far before becoming a puppy owner…

One day, John and I left my house to find: Dog Armageddon. There were dog carcasses everywhere. We were stepping over them. Some of the dogs had collars on them, they were cared-for dogs that had wandered out of their family compounds on the wrong day.

We saw only one dog walking the streets and rather morbidly spoke from the dog’s perspective: “Where’s Aunt Lucy? Bobby? Where’s everyone gone?”

All those carcasses were the most effective argument against poisoned meat I could have imagined.

Whoa. I shouldn’t end with a terrible image like that!

Think instead of Little Bear frolicking in the grass outside my rooms, making the nearby children laugh at her silliness.

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The Blessing

Aster and I cut through a herd of cows and then stopped to wash the mud off our feet and sandals in a little stream. We were right outside Metu but taking a shortcut through a pasture.

“We’ll go to church, then you’ll come to my house for lunch, and then I’ve asked one of my pastors to come to my house and bless you. Because you’re going back to America,” Aster said.

I only have two more months in Metu, so the goodbyes are starting. I didn’t expect the first to be a blessing. Aster was sending me off in the kindest way she knows.

I was a little nervous as Aster cleaned up lunch and began to boil coffee. I sat on the bed and made chit chat. Protestant spiritual songs played on TV.

Up to that point, I’d never been blessed by a pastor. At church that morning, I had seen one pastor lay his hands on parishioners. In response, most cried, wailed, or spoke in tongues.

When the pastor arrived, he was a short, young man who laughed often. He ate the injera and lentil wat very cheerfully while asking questions about America.

“Is there injera in America?”

Two of Aster’s neighbors arrived and drank their three cups of coffee. Then the pastor took out his Bible and we bent our heads.

I didn’t understand everything, but I accepted the blessing gratefully. The pastor blessed my family, asked for my life to be peaceful, asked God to hold me in His hand…

Throughout we said, “Amen, amen.”

And when the pastor was finished, we blessed him too.

“Raba si eebbisuu.” – “May God bless you.”

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Come with us… as John, Lindsay, and I discover Ethiopia’s historical side! This August we spent 10 days visiting Lalibela—in Amhara— and Axum, Mekele, and Hawsien in Tigray. We took hundreds of great photos, but here are a representative twenty with captions.

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Visiting the historical loop in Northern Ethiopia is shockingly easy. There are Ethiopian Airline flights to all major tourist destinations that are $50 a pop. And if you decide to take the bus, as we did to the Gheralter Cluster, the roads are perfect and the scenery is fabulous. We traveled on the moderate/cheap, but were able to stay at very nice hotels with hot showers for $12 per night. Lonely Planet calls some hotels “budget” that are really lovely, like Africa Hotel in Axum. We decided many of the $12 options in the historical loop are as nice as the $50 options and have more ambiance.

Spanish and Italian tourists have evidently discovered Northern Ethiopia in droves, partially because of proximity of their countries to Ethiopia (cheap flights). But I loved this trip and would highly recommend it, particularly in the summer time when there are few tourists. At some rock-hewn churches in Lalibela, John, Lindsay, and I were the only tourists visiting. And you don’t have to rough it anywhere in these towns, unless you want to!

I found Lalibela to be a small, friendly, hassle-free place, despite the thousands of visitors who come to see the rock-hewn churches every year.

Tigray surprised me by its cleanliness and organization. Tigray is the driest part of Ethiopia—the region is known for spectacular landscapes as well as famines, in the past. All the houses in the countryside and small towns are made from stone. I almost felt I was in Italy!

If you visit, you’d be in good company. The New York Times Art Critic Holland Cotter wrote about visiting Lalibela and Axum this past April… “Bedrock of Art and Faith.”

Tomorrow is Ethiopian New Year. Happy 2o05!

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Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Has Died

The Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi, died on August 20th at age 57.  Meles fought for 20 years to free Ethiopia from the Marxist Derg regime, as a leader of the Tigrayan Liberation Front. He then governed Ethiopia as Prime Minister from 1995 until his death in 2012.

On August 20th, John, Lindsay, and I were just flying into Tigray, his home region, where he is most beloved. Through the rest of our vacation we encountered Meles posters on every house, billboards of Meles speaking, memorial photo montages on Ethiopian State TV, and processionals through towns. The Girls’ Holiday Ashenda was cancelled. And many Tigrayans told us how upset they were over the Prime Minister’s Death.

We were also in Addis Ababa for Meles’s funeral, the first State Funeral held in Ethiopia in 80 years.  Thousands of Ethiopians attended as well as the Presidents of Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia, Djibouti, Kenya, and Benin; the US Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice; and Chinese and European dignitaries. We did not go, as it was impossible to enter Mescal Square, but we watched the broadcast.

I’m late in posting this blog, but as Meles’s death is very important to Ethiopia and really to the world, I thought it was worth it. There are many good news articles available online on Meles’s life, which give more detail and analysis than I can as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

(Photo is from Belle News.)

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“Girls, Leading, Our, World!!”

That’s what GLOW stands for. Say it out loud, loudly, but this time rolling all your R’s and you’ll kind of hear what our campers sounded like as we walked from place to place on the Nekempte University Campus.

“Girrrrls, Leading, Ourrrr, Worrrld!!

At first, the girls had just looked at us counselors when we’d encourage them to yell and be silly. But only a day into camp and they were participating in everything.

The counselors had also split the girls into animal teams, for games and to build cohesiveness. We’d started them off on a few cheers. Princess and I would prompt our Lions:

“One, two, three, Lions… ROOAAAARR.”

A week later, they were making up their own cheers… Including, “Girls, Leading, Our, World!”

The Elephants would enter rooms shouting:

“Elephants Stomping! Elephants Stomping!”

And the Monkeys would shriek in unison:

“Monkeys Climb Trees!”

The girls were somewhat constrained by their animal vocabularies, but their fight cheers were great nonetheless!

Camp GLOW in Nekempte was a one-week leadership camp for thirty-one 9th and 10th grade girls. Ten of us Peace Corps Volunteers planned and ran the camp. Laura was our fearless and capable leader. We had sessions on self-esteem, gender roles, planning for your future, HIV/Aids, peer pressure, and other life skills.

We also had daily crafts, an afternoon of Olympics, a Girls Night, and plenty of games.

Scott taught gardening—you should see how some of those girls wield sickles!

John and I taught hay box cooking.*

And I introduced my laundry stick during laundry and bath time—slightly modified.**

31 girls did laundry and bathed on a day when the campus was without water…which is no mean feat. Then we proceeded to be without water for the next two days! John, Dustin, and Scott made it all happen– they brought water to campus from town in huge barrels in the Peace Corps car. Mckonnen and the Peace Corps car were invaluable throughout the week.

Every day was non-stop.  The girls impressed us with their knowledge, curiosity, and willingness to learn. They also had a lot of fun.

One thing about Ethiopian teenagers: in some ways the girls are very put together and grown up. They’ve had a lot of responsibilities in their families for a long time. Most of them cook and do laundry for their families. At the same time, these girls seem a lot less self-conscious than American teenagers to me. After the girls learned how to make friendship bracelets, a few walked around with bracelets taped to their foreheads, so they could work during free moments.

During the final ceremony, on a beautiful terrace up in a tree—with a bonfire—the girls roasted smores, wrote in each other’s journals, and drank sodas. Paul broke out his ukulele and everyone sang.

It was an amazing week.

[Photos are courtesy of Paul and John]


*Hay Box Cooking is a method of fuel saving cooking that John and I learned from an Aprovecho publication. Essentially, you cook food as you normally would, but instead of boiling rice or beans or lentils on a stove for an hour, you place the pot inside an insulated box to finish cooking. We modified the design slightly, using a traditional woven market bag (zambelli) and a plastic bag, instead of an airtight box.

1)    Cook food as you normally would, but only bring the food up to a boil for five minutes.

2)    Place plastic bag inside of a zambelli. The zambelli gives the plastic bag shape and solidity.

3)    Pack the bag with about 10 cm of hay.

4)    Place pot inside bag. Fill hay around and above the pot. Use plenty of hay.

5)    Tie off bag.

6)    Allow the pot to sit for 2-4 hours inside the insulated chamber. Time varies based on type of food and amount.

7)    If you are cooking meat, bring the pot up to boil for an additional five minutes before eating.

Read “Capturing Heat: Five Earth-Friendly Cooking Technologies and How to Build Them” for more details.

** The Laundry Stick was a hit! I improved the design slightly, having the carpenter cut the base of the stick to fit the bucket almost exactly. He also cut four holes into the base, which allow water through, keeping clothes from coming up around the side of the base when washing.

In their written evaluations of camp, 74% of the girls said they would try hay basket cooking at home (23 girls). 71% of the girls said they would try the laundry stick (22 girls). Some girls even said that the hay basket or laundry stick was the most important thing they learned at camp!


In other, entirely unrelated news…

John and I just put down money for a cabin on the Queen Mary 2! We thought after an epic two years, it would be pretty incredible to take a transatlantic ship home.

So, our service ends November 30th—though we may leave a couple of weeks early to travel. We board the QM2 on December 15th and arrive in New York on December 22nd. It will be John’s first time back in America in 28 months.

I hope my New York family and friends are free on the 22nd! Let’s have breakfast! Chinese? Japanese? Burgers?! Or just plain old, delicious bacon?

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The Wedding

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Tigist said jokingly, “Zeytuna. She is just like berbere. Spicy.”

Zeytuna shot back, “But without berbere, life is nothing.”

Bedru just grinned and grinned.

Zeytuna and Bedru married two weeks ago. Zeytuna is lovely. Bedru is lovely. I love when good people find each other.

They’d been talking for three months, but Zeytuna didn’t mention Bedru to me until she had definitively decided to marry him. Apparently, Bedru had come into Zeytuna’s teahouse for a coffee, liked Zeytuna, and just kept stopping by.

I was really happy to hear the news. Zeytuna, who is always spunky, is spunkier than ever these days and Bedru appreciates it. He also loves Zeytuna’s daughter, Helua.

Bedru proposed only three weeks before Ramadan. So the wedding quickly followed the proposal. Zeytuna and Bedru had to wed before fasting started.

Weddings here are joint efforts. All of Zeytuna’s women friends and neighbors stopped by her brother’s house to help the day before the wedding. The family set up cutting boards. Women brought their own knives.  The men of the family killed the sheep and chicken.

Kim and I helped peel 30 kilos of onions and then chopped for a couple hours. But we left after the morning preparations in order to make Zeytuna’s gift: a tiered wedding cake. I had the inspiration, Scott was in charge of execution. Scott was so gung-ho, the week before the wedding, he baked and brought samples of cake to Zeytuna’s teahouse for the bride and groom to try. Helua was the most enthusiastic. She stuffed her cheeks full of cake– and looked like a mischievous little chipmunk.

Scott and I mixed and baked the actual cake at a bakery in town, which has a huge mud oven and a friendly baker. We baked a mango cake with mango jam icing. We brought the cake home to layer and ice. Scott was particularly excited to try a ginger fondant icing. Fondant is glossy and supposed to be draped over a cake in sheets. The fondant didn’t turn out quite as Scott had hoped, perhaps because of my tinned Indian butter substitution. The sky looked threatening when I was buying butter and I was not about to run all over town trying to find lard. But, we used red food coloring to tint the fondant a nice pink, Scott was able to roll it into sheets, and it tasted really good.

Under the peculiar florescent light in my old kitchen and after a day chock full of cooking, I laughed and said, “It looks like we’re covering the cake with Miss Piggy’s skin!” Scott replied,  “I’m all about the taste… you’re in charge of presentation.”

In the morning light, the cake looked much prettier, especially once we’d added fresh flowers. You may also notice the modern art style texturing. That was me and a fork– with layered cakes, bumps on the cakes are noticeable! The pattern on the icing helped disguise imperfections. Regardless, the cake was a hit at the wedding and the centerpiece at both the bride and groom’s parties.

Zeytuna’s was my first Muslim wedding. The men and women were separated in two rooms. The ceremony went on among the men of the bride and groom’s families. We women sat and chatted and ate many plates of food, until Bedru came in with his father and brother to present Zeytuna with a wedding ring. According to Ethiopian tradition, the bride is supposed to look demure and even upset when presented to the groom. Zeytuna did an excellent acting job.

Afterwards, Bedru led Zeytuna and some of the guests to his house. At Bedru’s house, we ate more food… until we foreigners and the Orthodox Christian guests started dancing… to everyone’s delight. Ashley, the newest Peace Corps volunteer in Metu, stood up and did some moves too. She earned major kudos that day, for dancing, going with the flow, and cheerfully spending the day at a wedding after stepping off the bus from Addis.

Zeytuna looked beautiful. Bedru looked content. And then they gursha-ed each other cake.

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Moving Day

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I’m writing this entry from my new house. I’m all moved in. Miraculously and with plenty of help from friends, the move took only three hours from start to finish. Zeytuna wrangled an NGO car and helping hands [Photo 1]. And then it was GO, GO, GO.

My landlord had been somewhat difficult for a year, so when she told me she would like my house back for her family, I got packing without any fuss. My old house has many happy memories, but John, Joanna, and Nikki helped inaugurate my new house with a mac and cheese dinner. Cheese was courtesy of my mom, who could be a dairy exporter at this point. I know four more good months are ahead of me. And my new pad is pretty darn cute as these photos attest.

At my old house, some of my neighbors helped, so there were ten or more people carrying boxes including little Natti and his mother, of course. Natti said, “Waah – yoo,” earlier that day, when I told him I was moving. That’s an expression of dismay. I got a little choked-up then, but hopefully he and his family will come for lunch next week.

Four mini-helpers welcomed me to my new house [Photos 2 & 3]. Zeytuna directed everything, Nikki unpacked my bookshelf, Joanna unpacked my kitchen, and John moved heavy things with his muscles. Unfortunately I didn’t get any pictures at the time.

I have two services in a large compound, which contains a main house and eleven services in addition to mine. Services are simple rooms where families, students, and teachers live. A main house and eleven other services means 20-30 neighbors within the fence! The new compound has water almost every day and five bars of internet (up from two). A definite improvement. I have a living room/guest room [Photos 4 & 5] and a bedroom/kitchen [Photos 6 & 7]. I am the only person on the compound to occupy two services. I don’t think anyone else even lives alone in one—but a lot of people visit Metu and it is nice to have the space.

Now, I live half a minute from Joanna and five minutes from Zeytuna and my office. Photo 8 shows the view walking into my compound, my rooms are to the right of the main house—my rooms are white with blue doors. Photo 9 shows one view of the back of the compound. Photo 10 shows the street in front of my house. Yes. I have a vegetable stand, a shoeshine boy, and a tea shop right across the street.

Oh—and if you’re ever looking for a new house in Metu—the way to do it is to tell everyone you know you need a new house. Then, they tell everyone they know. The net widens and widens. Kim and I ended up hearing about my new rooms from Alemi, who lives on Joanna’s compound. While we were returning from house hunting with Habtamu, my counterpart, Alemi saw us walk by and asked what we were doing. Fortunately, Alemi had heard there were rooms available on her street. It’s really all about who you know!

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Who Needs Electricity? Lights and a Washing Machine

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Solar Bottle Lights – Light Without Electricity

Getachew looked on skeptically as Seleshie hammered into his corrugated metal roof.

“Do these light installations come with insurance?” he said, half jokingly.

Seleshie was installing the first solar bottle light in a farmer’s house. Seleshie had warned me on the walk over, “Getachew’s a tough man and an example for his neighbors. We’ve got to make sure this light does not leak when it rains.”

Seleshie is the agricultural extension worker in Sardo. He’s the kind of man who runs from task to task, but makes sure each project is as perfect as possible. Needless to say he’s well respected in the village.

John and I had heard about solar bottle lights through another Peace Corps Volunteer, Mike. The lights were invented by a team of MIT students working in the Philippines. Basically, you place a water bottle full of water in a corrugated roof, half-in, half-out. The sun reflects off the roof through the bottle and lights the room underneath.

In the past month or two, John and I walked to Sardo village, five miles roundtrip through rolling hills, in order to meet with Seleshie. The three of us spent a few weeks over those months crouching on the kitchen roof of the Sardo Farmer’s Training Center figuring out the best way to install solar bottle lights. The sealant was the trickiest problem: use caulking and metal glue? Gypsum and glue? We ended up using corrugated metal tape on its own—it is strong.

It was truly amazing to see Getachew’s previously pitch-dark room light up (pitch-dark with the small window closed). The light shone like a 55 watt bulb, as this this fun news video promised. Twenty neighbors stopped by to walk into Getachew’s bedroom and there were gasps. “Is the window truly closed?” they asked.

Afterwards, Getachew and his wife plied us with coffee, fresh yogurt, and papayas off the tree that shades their house.

Seleshie stressed that the lights only work when the sun is shining, but when John and I returned the next week, there were some disappointed farmers. Sardo has no electricity. There was definitely still interest in the solar bottle lights—but some farmers were hoping we had a solution to dark nights. John and I installed lights in two more farmers’ houses and in three classrooms at the local school. We’ve been working on other projects recently… but I need to go back to see if the idea has spread in the village. We’ve also trained 40 Metu Agricultural Extension Workers on installing solar lights using handouts we created. I’ve posted them above in English, Afaan Oromo, and Amharic for easy download. I’ve also posted pictures of John installing a light, the finished product, and John and Seleshie standing in front of our moveable chicken coop.

Now, John and I are working on compost toilets and evaporative refrigerators for fruits and vegetables. More on that in another post.


A Homemade Washing Machine 

I’ve probably done laundry by hand 80 times in two years. But recently, since I’ve been working on low-cost, locally sourced technologies with John and the extension program, I’ve been thinking differently.

Unsurprisingly, the Internet is chockfull of information on appropriate technologies, including laundry. I Googled, “easy way to do laundry no electricity”—my polite way of saying— “I’m sick of doing laundry by hand!” (Although, I do like splashing around in the water, especially during the dry season…) It turns out, many crunchy Americans who blog do laundry using a toilet plunger in a five gallon bucket. Black Spruce Hound’s blog “How to wash laundry with a plunger” was my favorite.

I’d never considered how a washing machine works, but it is the same way as a toilet plunger in a bucket works or hands work, plus electricity. A washing machine just presses water through clothes. We don’t have any toilet plungers in Metu as everyone uses latrines, but I explained what I wanted to my local carpenter, the same man who made most of my furniture when I arrived. My laundry stick is one meter long with a flat, circular base with four silver-dollar size holes cut out of it. [The base should fit the bucket almost exactly.] A long stick works almost as well. I did laundry this way for the first time today and I was so excited I had to write about it immediately. I’ve posted a photo too.

Instead of washing my clothes item by item, I was able to wash a shirt, two pairs of pants, and all my underwear in one “cycle.” The washer worked best when I filled the water to just a bit above the level of the clothes. I still need to spot wash sometimes and wring out each item, but this washer is definitely faster than hands alone. I did one wash with soapy water and two washes with clean water. Powered soap suds up without too much effort, which makes it a better soap choice than laundry bar soap in this case. I am definitely spreading the word, perhaps at the extension office first.

I mentioned the idea to Scott last week. He tried washing his clothes with a stick the day after we spoke. He is converted. I also wondered to him why everyone here washes clothes by hand in a shallow bucket. Why has no one developed this system? Scott had a pretty convincing hypothesis: it’s impossible to press clothes with a stick in a river… the traditional and still fairly common way of washing clothes here.

In my last five months, I plan to continue to “Ugly American” it up! Working on appropriate technologies has been the most gratifying work so far.

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