Elsabet in Ethiopia

A Migration Maps Interview with Elsabet Merriman

(with some help from her mother Porter Merriman)

Elsabet Merriman

Please describe the geographic region and village in Ethiopia that Elsabet grew up in.

Note: Elsabet grew up (is still growing up!) in Marin County, California.

She was born in Ethiopia and lived there until she was about 7 months old.

She was born in the village of Aleta Wondo, in the Sidama Zone of Ethiopia, south (near Kenya).

Traditional houses in the southern Ethiopian region of Sidama 

The people there didn’t really care how their houses are presented – people here in US really care about how big their houses are, and they want them to look good and they care about what other people think about their houses.

— Elsabet

About the region:

The Sidama Zone is part of the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region (“SNNPR”); “regions” in Ethiopia are like “states” in the US. SNNPR is a particularly diverse region, representing over 45 indigenous groups. The Sidama zone is a rich agricultural area, and produces both great volume of coffee (just over 40% of all the coffee in Ethiopia is grown in there) and superior quality (in the most recent coffee competition, the prizes for first, second and third place all went to coffees grown in Sidama!).

Agriculture is the core of the economy, with major types of crops grown include maize, haricot bean, sweet potato, and enset (also called “false banana” plant, the staple food of Sidama) and cash crops such as coffee, chaat and fruit trees.

About the Sidama people:

Sidama people are the fifth most populous ethnic group in Ethiopia and the largest ethnic group in SNNPR.

Their language is called Sidaamu-afoo which all people there speak; though many of the younger generation are bilingual (speaking Amharic, the national language of Ethiopia) or trilingual (adding English, which is now being taught in schools).

According to the 1994 national census, 14.9% practice traditional beliefs while the majority (66.8%) are Protestant, 7.7% Muslim, 4.6% Catholic, and 2.3% practice Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity.

My friend Lomi who I met there – her mom is a cook.

And my other friend Dinkenesh, her dad works there too.

It’s very important to me, it’s like a part of me.

I feel like I really belong there; I fit in.

— Elsabet

About the town:

Aleta Wondo, with a population of about 194,835, is the administrative center of the Aleta Wendo woreda (a “woreda” is like a county). The town of Aleta Wondo is located in a fertile and forested area at the top of the Great Rift valley, near Lake Abaya, not far from the sources of the Ganale Dorya and Dawa Rivers. Its elevation is 6683 feet, so the days are warm and nights can be quite cold! There is ample rain here and the soil is fertile and red. The town has a longitude and latitude of 6°36′N 38°25′E .

Elsabet teaching a class at the Common River School

The school is especially for the poor kids who might not have parents, or maybe have just one parent and they are poor.

— Elsabet

In Elsabet’s words, a description of the region:

It’s called Aleta Wondo. It’s in Ethiopia. The main city of Ethiopia is Addis Ababa and about 6 hours south of there is Awassa (the capital of Sidama) and about another hour from there is Aleta Wondo.

The town and area are very nature-like.

A view over Aleta Wondo village from our hut

There are some buildings there, but it is a small town.

It used to be very, very small when I was born there.

— Elsabet

The people there didn’t really care how their houses are presented – people here in US really care about how big their houses are, and they want them to look good and they care about what other people think about their houses. Things there are much different. Culture is different. There are some buildings there, but it is a small town. It used to be very, very small when I was born there.

Please describe the community in Ethiopia that Elsabet grew up in – and revisited this past summer – and what this community means to her.

The Community we visited is called Common River. It’s located in Aleta Wondo, but was not in existence when Elsabet was born.

This community was created by a man named Tesegaye Bekele, who immigrated to the US from Aleta Wondo and a woman named Donna Sillan, a public health professional who was interested in creating a sustainable community development project. Tsegaye donated a large tract of land, Donna provided her expertise, and both have spent the last decade building the program.

Currently, there is an elementary school (for the most needy children in the community), a women’s literacy program, a community health program, a livelihoods program, and a burgeoning eco-lodge.

More information about Common River is available at www.commonriver.org

Elsabet and her mother found out about this program and loved that it was in Aleta Wondo, and benefitting the people in this town.

So both have invested in Common River with their time and efforts – including a solar light project that they completed earlier this year (bringing 400 solar light devices to the program to provide to students and staff, enabling them to study at night and reduce exposure to smoke from fires used for light).

Women in the literacy program waiting for a class at Common River

The moms didn’t learn how to read when they were kids because girls weren’t allowed to go to school then.

— Elsabet

In Elsabet’s words, a description of Common River and what it means to her:

It’s a school, mostly. It’s for girls and boys and there are four boys who do not have a family so they live there. There’s a place to stay there called the Taj Mahut. It’s traditionally made like a Sidama house but it’s really tall and two stories and it’s kind of funny because it’s named after the Taj Mahal.

Kids who go there walk to school and it can take hours to walk there and back.

The school is especially for the poor kids who might not have parents, or maybe have just one parent and they are poor. There are grownups who go there too – usually it’s the moms of the kids in classes.

The moms didn’t learn how to read when they were kids because girls weren’t allowed to go to school then, which is really bad and sexist. And there are also grownups who work there, which means they have good jobs. My friend Lomi who I met there – her mom is a cook. And my other friend Dinkenesh, her dad works there too. It’s very important to me, it’s like a part of me. I feel like I really belong there; I fit in.

Sometimes I just don’t really want to stand out – sometimes I like being the only brown person in my class, but sometimes I do not. Sometimes it’s really hard because everybody’s talking about their hair, brushing their hair, and white girl hair is so different than mine.

I feel really at home at Common River and people are SO NICE and welcoming over there.

So, basically, I really love it.

Elsabet playing with the kids at Common River

I feel really at home at Common River and people are SO NICE and welcoming over there. So, basically, I really love it.

— Elsabet

Please describe some of the joys and some of the challenges for Elsabet in moving from her community in Ethiopia to her new community in Marin County.

In Elsabet’s words:

The thing is I actually didn’t quite get that I was adopted when I was little. When you are a baby you don’t really know and then one day you figure it out. My mom always told me I was adopted. But I am just thinking about it as an older kid.

So I don’t know what it’s like to move from there to here but I know what it’s like to be in California and to know that I was born in Ethiopia.

The idea is kind of upsetting in a way… actually, it’s probably not upsetting to me actually because I’m so lucky that I’m not in one of those places where I’m really poor and I need help, and I think that’s what would have happened. Or I could have died, actually, because I had pneumonia and I had to go to the hospital when I was found. I’m just so thankful that I’m living now. I don’t really want to know about what would have happened to me if I didn’t get adopted.

I’m Ethiopian and I’m American. Both.

I definitely want to stay connected with Common River.

— Elsabet

But the struggle is that everyone talks about how their hair goes and I feel left out because I can’t use brushes and I wish I could brush my hair like white girls can, and I feel like I have nothing to say.

It’s really frustrating and that I’m brown is hard and to know the world doesn’t always like brown people is kind of hard to process. I just think that if I was white I would be more popular and I would have more friends. I feel this, but I also think that maybe it’s not true – everyone in my class is so loving. I just kinda wish I was in somebody else’s shoes for a day. I think: what would it be like to be white?

I’m Ethiopian and I’m American. Both.

I’m really happy to be here and I think I would never move back to Ethiopia. But I would move to Paris!

And I definitely want to stay connected with Common River. I want to visit again but I’m sometimes nervous to travel on planes and I don’t like getting shots before I can go.

Elsabet in Addis Ababa visiting the cathedral built by Emperor Haile Selassie

_____________________________________

Thoughts from Emma Davila —

 

Elsabet’s visit to Pencils for Africa enlightened me with facts about the Ethiopian culture and continued to change my perspective of Africa. For example, the structure of the traditional homes in Elsabet’s village acted as an example of the advancement in Ethiopia.

Elsa’s comment regarding how people felt about the appearance of their homes touched my heart and helped me to develop a mindset like Elsa.

On Elsa’s Migration Maps page, there was a stunning photo of her view from her hut in the village. This photograph allowed me to witness the beauty of a foreign country that I may never visit or see in person.

I think that I can truly understand the struggles that Elsa is facing as a young, different, and adopted girl. As I have grown up, I have faced the same insecurities that Elsa is facing now because I was adopted when I was just 8 months old too.

I was so touched as I read all of Elsa’s comments and struggles about being adopted and looking different. I feel connected with her on a more personal level after reading her story. I think that I can truly understand the struggles that Elsa is facing as a young, different, and adopted girl.

As I have grown up, I have faced the same insecurities that Elsa is facing now because I was adopted when I was just 8 months old too.

I would feel extremely, extremely privileged to have the same opportunity that Elsa did.

Elsa’s story and her thoughts and opinions have helped to shape the narrative of Africa for the members of Pencils for Africa as well as her fellow peers.

— Emma

 

Thoughts from Kylie Johnstone —

 

The visit with Elsabet was very fascinating and taught me a lot about Ethiopia and its ways.

I enjoyed her eagerness to tell us about her visit. Elsa was always answering each question with the right content and accuracy.

My favorite part of the discussion was her explaining how much she loved teaching and playing with the kids. She seemed very elated to explain how she was a teacher!

My favorite part of the discussion was her explaining how much she loved teaching and playing with the kids.

She seemed very elated to explain how she was a teacher!

I never knew that Elsa was from Ethiopia.

She’s such a happy person, so I would never think that she would have lived somewhere that does not have the life resources that most people need. I learned that Ethiopia is able to have special schools for both children and adults! It’s hard to believe that the adults are learning the same content as the kids.

I am so glad that Elsa was able to talk about her visit and tell me things I never knew about Ethiopia.

— Kylie

 

Thoughts from Cole Vasquez —

 

Before I say anything I want to thank Elsa for coming and speaking in front of all of us.

Ethiopia sounded interesting to me by the way Elsa described it.

I enjoyed looking at the pictures of the school and outside areas of Common River.

What was most interesting to me though, was how grown women are learning the same things as their children. 

This is so sad for these women that they have to be in such a situation. But at least they are learning.

What was most interesting to me was how grown women are learning the same things as their children.

This is so sad for these women that they have to be in such a situation. But at least they are learning.

If only people had thought of this type of equality years ago and not made such devastating mistakes.

I send my prayers to all women and children who don’t have access to education.

— Cole