Photo: Javier Ballester/Shutterstock

How Ethiopia Taught Me to Get Over Myself

Ethiopia Student Work
by Isabelle Martin Sep 9, 2014

In 2010, I spent two months in a remote outpost of Awash National Park, Ethiopia, while conducting fieldwork for a research project on baboon social structure. I lived in a one-person tent with no running water, electricity, or contact with the outside world. And with no one from home being able to see me, either, let’s just say I got a little rough around the edges.

I’m glad, because I picked up some important truths.

I learned to let go.

I came down with a raging case of amoebic dysentery halfway through my trip. GI distress is unpleasant enough in the privacy of your own home, but the lack of running water, climate control, and general personal space at my field site made it unbearable.

I can still hear Mat, the project manager, yelling: “Are you sick? Were you having DIARRHEA?!” at the top of his lungs as I came slinking back from the toilet for the eighth time that morning.

I felt like a horrifying failure on many levels: for not being tough enough, for wasting a valuable workday at the hospital, for being generally gross. At some point, though, all the talking about it normalized the situation.

I remember sitting in our truck outside the hospital, close to tears, and then feeling terrible about that when I zoomed out on the whole thing and realized how hilarious and ridiculous the situation was. Mostly, I realized that everyone poops, everyone knows that everyone poops, and for the most part, no one cares.

Now I talk about pooping too much.

I learned to forget about mirrors.

Women seem both to take on, and have put upon them, an inordinate responsibility to look good at all times. The baseline upkeep — hair, makeup, clothes, plucking, waxing, shaving — consumes a lot of time and money, even for the “low maintenance” among us.

This presents an additional, silly obstacle to anything we want to do in public, particularly when traveling to an unfamiliar place. My hair can’t handle that humidity. How can I put on makeup in the morning if there aren’t any bathrooms? I can’t go out looking like that.

In Ethiopia, I learned to neutralize this concern. There’s nothing like waking up, putting on your shorts and boots, grabbing your backpack and a piece of bread, and just starting your day.

I learned that I’m tough, and that just about anyone can be, too.

Right before I left Germany for Ethiopia, one of my professors had been telling me increasingly disturbing stories about the last girl who tried to work at this site. Within days of arrival, this girl developed a severe allergic reaction to sunblock and all her skin blistered off. She got her period for weeks on end. She passed out from heat exhaustion so constantly during the daylong treks that it was impossible for her to collect any data. Ultimately, she abandoned her project and started working with a different baboon study population in South Africa.

“And she was a marathon runner, too. Not an ounce of fat on her,” this professor had said, raising an eyebrow at my little layer of bratwurst-derived winter insulation.

I smiled and nodded, while freaking out inside. I can not be like that girl, I thought. For the next month, I trudged around in shin-deep snow in Leipzig with a hiking backpack full of books, determined not to embarrass myself in Ethiopia.

The first day at the site was a little rough, and my body was sore that week, but I adjusted. I learned that you don’t have to be a marathon runner to be able to walk around outside for most of the day. People have lived outdoors for millions of years. Most of the time, the anticipation is the worst thing about it.

I learned to embrace new things.

Before I moved to Ethiopia, I had never really gone camping. While this led to some equipment mishaps (like sleeping in a coffin-sized tent for two months because I didn’t think to purchase a bigger one), I caught on to the routine pretty quickly. More or less, you do what you do at home, except more of it is outdoors.

I’d never driven stick before, but when Mat decided to turn over the wheel of our rickety manual truck while we were jolting down a flooded dirt road, I went for it. I managed to not careen into a tree or get jammed in the mud, which was more than could be said for some of the scouts who tried.

I learned that I am mortal.

For much of my time in Ethiopia, I felt invincible. This led to some overconfidence at several points, and in those moments, awareness of my own human fragility was overwhelming.

When I lay alternately boiling and shivering in my tent, racked with amoeba-driven fever and wild hallucinations, I felt sure I was going to die or suffer brain damage. On my first night, I lay awake with my buck knife in hand, listening to lions roaring in the distance, certain they would come pick us off. When an Afar man casually waved his perpetually misfiring Kalashnikov in my direction, I realized how quickly I could be removed from this earth. I attended the first funeral of my life in Ethiopia, for one of the park scouts who was shot by a member of another tribe.

I learned the limits of my own identity.

Living among Ethiopians for two months did not make me Ethiopian. I wasn’t a part of their struggles and couldn’t speak for them. I grew up with more access to everything — clean water, food, medicine, education, protection from violence — than most people I met there. If I were really sick, I would have been medevaced out of there in a heartbeat. I came into my fieldwork healthy, vaccinated, armed with malaria prophylaxis, and protected in a way that the people I worked with were not.

At the same time, being female in a place where we don’t get much autonomy or respect, my movement was restricted in a way I have never experienced before. In such a wild, free place, I couldn’t do anything without Mat or Teklu coming with me. When Mat was away for a few days, I couldn’t even take the five-minute trip to the hot springs to bathe, so I had to content myself with tepid, insect-strewn well water until he returned. One of my favorite things about travel is that feeling of autonomy, and the loss of freedom was sometimes stifling.

I learned that perspective and humor are the best antidotes to mortification and a profoundly shitty day.

Being around a bunch of turd-talking hooligans allowed me to blow off some steam. Everything was a lot easier because I didn’t have to go through the social formalities of looking nice and being polite — I just focused on doing what I could to feel better. When I was sick, I didn’t have to deal with the double-challenge of feeling terrible and also having to lie about why.

I learned how much my own feelings about a situation depend on the context. Why was I finding being tricked into eating a goat testicle funny? When I finally got near a mirror and saw the accumulation of rashes, infected mosquito bites, greasy hair, week-old leg stubble, and weird sunburns I’d accumulated over two months, why did I react with laughter and not horror?

Because it is what it is, and at some point you just have to suck it up and deal with it. All your crying isn’t going to make you look nicer or feel better. It isn’t going to get you a cold drink or a TV if you’re out in the middle of nowhere. Laugh it off and focus on something else.

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