14 May 2018

Peace Corps Week 2018: Home

I wrote this in response to the 2018 Peace Corps Week theme of “Home.” Companion photos for this story are available on Instagram: @learningaboutrice
On the wall of my childhood home, the one between the dining room and the kitchen, hung a decorative touch of my mother’s. It was a quaint wooden piece, featuring hearts and the familiar expression, Home is Where the Heart Is…

Something I did not expect as a result of my Peace Corps service was a heart, drawn and quartered, between different corners of the globe. Throughout my first – and so far, only – year back in the States, immediately after my service in Ethiopia, I was overcome with an inextinguishable longing for what I had left back in Bekoji.
Following a rather tumultuous order of personal life events, I decided to pack my bags and go back, first to Ethiopia for three weeks, then onto Kenya for at least a month, but with a clear schedule and an open heart.
I was going, in part because I missed it so damn much, but also to follow-up on a baseball program* that I and my site mate got going in our town, about 6 months before I’d finished my service. I had an open invitation to Kenya to participate in baseball teaching activities there, so I figured I’d take that up and “swing” through Ethiopia on the way.
I was greeted at the airport by Foad, one of my “host brothers” – the son of the landlord on whose property I lived for two years. He was one of my closest friends throughout my service – a true brother, who spent my final, emotional moments with me in Addis and saw me off to the States in 2014.
Foad helped me to a cab that whisked me off to Forrest’s house, on the other side of town. Forrest and I became friends mostly through working on the Peace Corps Ethiopia website together. He had extended his time by working in an extension position with the Peace Corps office in Addis. He welcomed me into his home in typical Peace Corps fashion and hosts me for the night.
In Peace Corps, your fellow Volunteers become your brothers and sisters in a way. For in treating each other as family, we foster a network of support for what is often a very challenging two years. Of those challenges, traveling, in and of itself, and doing so in a budget can be incredibly stressful endeavors. Having a friendly floor – or in some lucky cases, an extra bed – to spend the night upon helps make it all a little easier, and pretty much all of us opened our doors to our PC kin.
In the morning, I wake to the sounds of hand-ground coffee and Orthodox prayers and make my way down to Bekoji. Everything – from the experience of getting on the bus, to the scenery along the way – felt like home. The feeling of calling out my stop, in Amharic, walking down the old dirt road, and opening the sheet-metal front door filled me with a nostalgia so strong it was overwhelming.
Werknesh, my “host mom” for those two years – though I always thought of her as more of a grandmom – was in the middle of washing clothes when I strode through the gate. She dropped everything, shot up from her “Habesha squat” and wrapped me in a strong hug. For a woman of her age and stature, it was quite impressive.
We went through extended traditional greetings of alternating cheek touches and reciting the standard salutations. She welcomed me into the home, took my bags, and fixed me a plate of food. In accordance with Ethiopian tradition, guests are always to be offered something to consume when visiting a home. Soon after, Abdella, her husband, returned from town and the warm greetings were repeated in earnest.
Once we were all caught up, Werknesh excitedly announced, “You go, Josey home” and showed me to one of the two rooms that I had occupied on the compound. I stepped inside, overwhelmed with emotion as I took in a space nearly exactly as I’d left it more than a year ago. It was like a museum of me, preserved and (mostly) unaltered.
“Josey bet,” as they call it in Amharic, still felt exactly like home.
A few days later, I made my way back up the road to Sagure, where I lived for the first three months in Ethiopia. In Peace Corps, those initial months are your training period, which accounts for why Peace Corps service is considered a 27-month commitment. During that time, you live inside the home of a local family. You share meals with the family, wash your clothes with the family, and follow the family rules. You are part of the family.
As you might imagine, this isn’t a smooth experience for everyone. I, however, was incredibly lucky to have landed with Elsa and Tesfaye – close in age to me, but much more advanced in stature. They insisted I think of them as “brother and sister” rather than “mom and dad.” Their three young boys – 3, 5, and 8, at the time – were indeed more like nephews than host brothers.
The boys, now visibly grown – and with a brand new baby brother in tow – attack me the moment I walk through the gate. “Josey! Josey! Josey!” Their big, giant playground from the other side of the world had returned. Smiles and laughter lit up the cool mountain air.
Despite a packed house – Elsa’s mother was visiting from Las Vegas – there was no question that they would put me up for the night. I didn’t really have an option. I had to stay!
It was in that moment that it occurred to me: outside of blood and close ilk, I am one of only two people in the entire world that could show up to this home and be received in such a way; the other being Paul, who had also lived with the family as a trainee. Paul and I often joke that we’re “brothers from the same host mother,” and have indeed forged something of a kinship from our unique, shared connection to our Peace Corps host family.
I’ve realized in the time since those joyous reunion moments why my longing to return to Ethiopia was so strong. In the absence of a shared language or culture or past, we – myself and the collective lot of Ethiopians and Volunteers with whom I shared my time – had carved out serious, meaningful connections that transcended our place of origin. It showed that, while place of origin is so often synonymous with home, a sense of home does not have to be defined by where one was born and raised.
We shared our hearts, and that’s what made it feel like home.

  • 2+ years after that moment, I find myself in Vietnam, just now starting to reflect and recount the space between now and then. Please feel free to follow along here, on Instagram, and on YouTube to see what I put out to the world.
  • If you’d like to learn more about the baseball development work I’ve done, which includes efforts to continue building on my work in Bekoji, or would like to make a contribution to the start-up stages of my effort to “make this thing official,” please visit the World Baseball Project Go Fund me page here: https://www.GoFundMe.com/WorldBaseballProject.
  • If you’re so inclined, a more detailed account of my return to Ethiopia is available in two parts: Part I Part II

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