Ethiopia: Fetena Moves Me

Some of you have been interested in an update on the story of Fetena, a little boy who can replicate every Michael Jackson’s dance move without hearing music because he is deaf. This weekend I brought the Michael Jackson movie “This Is It” to him and we set up a portable DVD player so he could watch it. As each new MJ move was introduced, Fetena swiftly replicated it there on the spot. Amazing!

I also brought him a Nike soccer ball sent from my Ethiopian friend Yonnas who lives in Portland.  At first, Fetena would not accept the gift. He could not believe he actually could take it home with him. He kept giving the ball back to me, gesturing gracefully as though he was giving me a gift. Back and forth we went, giving, giving, giving. Finally, someone had to get stern with him and wave him away with the ball. Only then was he stunned to realize the ball was really his.

In a country so passionate about football, it was surprising that he did not know what to do with it. Someone showed him how to kick it, and off he went with his friend, rapidly learning how to maneuver the ball with his feet.

May we all learn to overturn our own inadequacies in such a way.


Fetena and Yohanes, using “natural” sign language to communicate


Fetena studies Michael Jackson dancing from the “This Is It” movie


Fetena with his soccer ball (Check out the amazing homemade barbells made of cement next to him!)


Fetena plays football with a friend


Fetena with his momma

Ethiopia: Exposed

In a jet lag stupor, I sit on the edge of my bed staring at my camera equipment. Neatly arranged in their little Lowepro nests, the lenses and cameras stand ready for the job ahead.

And at this moment, I don’t want anything to do with them.

I have lived life behind a camera since I was eight years old, my way of participating yet remaining an observer, rarely fully integrating into the occasion. I can break down cultural barriers, communicate without language, and both equalize and shift power to my subjects with the best of them. Sure, I can set aside my camera and join in the fun, or crisis, or event at hand, but my mind is always, and I mean always, on how to frame the subject. I stand independent, often.

Today, my heart is restless. A few things happened here in Ethiopia within the first forty-eight hours that have been immobilizing. It is not worth detailing exactly what happened because it doesn’t really matter. The important thing is that I feel raw and exposed, and I have turned the lens upon myself. I see who I am, as a reflection in my Ethiopian friends’ eyes. I have never so fully appreciated how bonding into another culture can transform a person. It is one thing to go to a country to taste their food and enjoy the scenery; it is quite another to invest oneself so fully that a mirror erects itself and is present with your every move and gesture. While I rejoice in this new frame of mind, it is painful to stand on the fulcrum of now and then, and not be self-imposing if not downright critical of my past ways of relating.

Here in Ethiopia, I see how humans can relate to each other on an innate and intuitive level and I celebrate this relief from my guarded self, only to become saddened by the realization that I most likely will go back to old ways of relating upon returning home to our easy society. When I land on familiar soil after visiting Ethiopia, I increasingly isolate in my house for a period of time. I can’t bear to see how we relate (or more accurately, don’t relate) to each other. We can’t help it. We have been raised on a steady diet of adequate and swift fulfillment and we avoid obstacles at all costs. Here, obstacles are a way of life, and from an early age, people learn how to traverse them with gusto and lean upon their hearts for solace. In turn, love flows expressively from one person to another.

My friend Daniy told me that when he is really happy about something, he does not eat because he feels full in other ways. I think about how often we turn to food or entertainment for pleasure in the US. How often do we turn to each other to make us feel equally, or more, full? Who makes us feel so happy we can forgo the need for food?

Increasingly, we are relating to each other more via social media and other means of technology, with less face-to-face time. I am struck by how often people touch each other here, holding hands, stroking each other’s hair, kissing cheeks, removing a stray hair that crosses a loved one’s lips. I get in a bit of trouble when I come back home, because I start to touch people again, and it often startles others.

An Ethiopian friend who moved to Portland seven years ago told me how he now has to refrain from his culture’s practice of kissing a child or elder upon entering a room and greeting them, whether they know them or not, because he could be seen as a molester or manipulator. How amazing to be raised in a culture such as his.

I think of my relations back in the US, and I want to take this Ethiopian culture filter and overlay it upon my home life. As I sit here now, I realize that the cameras have been a way for me to build instant intimacy over the years. I long for more of the overt gestures of humanity in my life. I have walked through a door on this journey, and there is no turning back.

I leave my cameras behind, exit the hotel, jump into Daniy’s van with all of his friends and we make our way toward a place to go dancing. Night passes into morning hours, and I realize how much I have to learn by this culture. We form a circle and dance with arms around each other’s waists, one leg lifted up, feet intersecting in the middle to see who will outlast the rest, the instigation of shared physical exhaustion, set to a rhythm. It helps to stay in the game by focusing not on my weakened knees, but upon the faces of my friends. As we all feel pain and shortened breath, exhilaration takes over and we become high on this thing called life.

My self-reflection dissolves, and I no longer feel like a separate entity. I am less as one, and more as community.

Music Permissions for Video

I was interviewed for this ASMP Bulletin about the difficulties in securing permissions to use music for multi-media presentations. Thank you, David Schommer, for granting permission to use one of your groovy songs from Bole 2 Harlem for my Ethiopia: Feel The Love video. Bole 2 Harlem was playing everywhere I went in Addis last month!


Read interview here.

Betam Konjo!

Ethiopia: A Streetboy With Integrity

Day ends, and I am bone tired.  Dani took me to meet his aunt Welansa and I instantly fall into her and her very enaging friend who recently moved back to Ethiopia. They are a duo of fun, and I once again find myself wanting to stay here forever.

I feel like I fit here….my humor is understood, I dance every day, my visual senses are fed. I miss my family and friends at home, and I wish I could somehow bridge the two. Perhaps there is a way….

I find myself wanting to be silent – watch everything go down in front of me.  Mix mash of people, classes, tribes and various forms of transportation and languages. A sashay of Amharic and Oromic interplay, here, there, everywhere.  Music, click click of high heels on sidewalks, people running everywhere, fast. Rhythm. Everything has rhythm here.

Out of the chaos, a small boy tugs my sleeve.  I look down, and see Miki, hair church-ready slicked back and torn shirt haphazardly tucked into his frayed pants. I see a lot of street kids here, box of gum in hand, showing a persistency that any CEO would envy. But Miki seems different. There is something about him that makes me want to engage with him. Yet, experience warns my heart, and I pass by, finding a seat at the nearby coffee shop.

I see that Dani offers Miki one birr ($.05) for gum.  Miki’s face lights up and he asks Dani to choose what flavor he would like. Dani waves at him and says it is ok, he doesn’t need gum today, sell it to someone else. Miki instantly begins to cry, deflated that Dani was not taking his gum. He pleads with Dani, saying that it is not right to take money without giving Dani what he bought. With integrity front and center, he stands firm until Dani relents and takes a piece of gum.

Miki works the same corner, in front of Friendship Mall in Addis Ababa, every day. He was born on this busy street, and remains at the same spot, living with his mother and trying to make a few cents each day in the most fair manner.

Ethiopia, I am so honored to be here and learn from your people.

Ethiopia: Selflessness

Addiss talks with each woman, giving swift advice and health care diagnosis as she recognizes issues. One by one, the women come in to the makeshift clinic, exposing their vulnerabilities and asking many questions.

Every woman has the right to deliver a healthy baby.

The husbands wait nearby, eager to hear of any news, with their hands reaching out to their wives. Waiting, waiting.

I watch Addiss care for one patient, two patients,…..six patients. Their eyes tell me of their desperation to be seen by a knowledgeable health care worker. Addiss simply moves through her day, ego in check. After all, this is what she sought: to help all rural women in this area give birth to their children without devastating results.

I ask Addiss if she has time for herself, and this question is met with curiosity. She can’t even comprehend what I am asking. After searching my face for a sign of understanding, she simply relays: I am dedicated to the mothers of Ethiopia.

Ethiopia: Meet My Bro, Dani

Dani appears from the darkness surrounding the Mimosa Hotel, and my heart takes an extra jump. DANI! I am incredibly happy to see him, this young man who keeps me safe, and more importantly sane, in Addis Ababa.

I am here! He says. Do you think otherwise?

We share the same love for hip hop and rap music, as well as more traditional Ethiopian fare, and when our eyes first meet each time we see each other, we break into shoulder dancing. It is always so great to see him!

He helps me get settled the first day here, and the love I feel for him grows each day I am with this funny and spirited guy. Dani!

Each morning, he comes to pick me up in his van, and helps me navigate language barriers, cultural protocols and equipment issues. Such a creative soul he is. Give him any problem, and he will think of a solution. He only likes spending time with “people of positive” and I watch him as he intently looks at people….he has an uncanny ability to assess situations and make the most of them….or get the hell away.

Do you want to take lunch with me, he asks? YES! I say, and off we go on another happy van ride…..he in modern style, me trying to respect and emulate Ethiopian traditional culture. We make a great pair, and by the end of each day, my cheeks are literally aching from laughing so much. He personifies the Ethiopian wicked sense of humor.

Dani works with me at the Hamlin Fistula Hospital, helping to set up interview equipment for our time with Dr. Hamlin and other work. He also is a compatible travel partner; our time in BahirDar following a midwife by foot into the bush to see her outreach health post was productive…..and wildly fun.

And can he DANCE! The professional dancers can not even keep up with him, whispering in his ear on stage that they are tired and need to rest.

I learn so much from this special soul. We sanction our friendship into “family”. He is now my bro in the most heart bonding sense.

I love you, Dani.


Ethiopia: Meet Addiss, A Hamlin Midwife

Her name is Addiss and she is 21 years old.

She lives in a small village, Wotetabay, just outside of BahirDar, Ethiopia and she has dedicated the next six years of her life to helping rural Ethiopian women give birth to healthy babies. A recent graduate of Hamlin College of Midwives, she also knows the signs of fistula and will refer at-risk women to health centers and hospitals where they can receive the care they need to prevent this devastating condition.

She lives alone in a small thatch roof hut, after completing her three years of study at the Hamlin College of Midwives, and her dedication is unlike anything I have ever seen.

She sees patients as they arrive daily, helping them through miscarriages and difficult births and general health care issues.  Five times a month she walks, sometimes for seven hours each day, to outreach health centers where she educates the community on women’s health issues.

My heart reaches for her.

I watch her as she helps a women who has just had a miscarriage. She educates the women about hygiene and proper care, and she tends to the husband, answering each of his questions.

She thinks nothing of my words as I say I honor her and will work hard on her behalf.  This is simply her calling in life: to dedicate her time to the Hamlin philosophy of ensuring maternal health for all Ethiopian women. She looks intently, directly, into my eyes.  She has seen far more than I have.

I follow her to her outpost, walking through corn fields and forests and open fields. She asks for water, and I give her my bottle.  It is the least I can do for this girl, my hero. Confidently and with grace, she proceeds to traverse over harsh landscape, focused on arriving before too much time has passed.

The bush clears, and I see a large group of Ethiopians, celebrating church services. Addiss takes her place in the middle of the village people crowd, and when the priest gives her a signal, she begins speaking, educating those around her about maternal health. Clapping, cheering, declarations of promises break out, and the energy is so fervent, I cry. Look at her!

I hear that the village is building a new church, and I give a donation of 400 birr ($24) and the crowd cheers with heartfelt passion. A $24 donation really goes a long way for this village. They proceed to show me the base infrastructure that is in place, and as much as  would like to stay and look at every element, and I see Addiss in the distance beckoning me to come. She is late now, and I need to move on.

We walk further, in terrain more difficult to navigate. Finally, I see a break in the landscape ahead and there, nestled in a small field, is a cluster of small mud walled structures. The health outpost at last.

Women are lined up, having waited hours for Addiss to arrive. Pregnant women, mothers with babies, older women. They count on Addiss’ dedication to them.

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