Human touch varies across cultures, races and gender.
In Ethiopia, homosexuality is not looked at highly but yet touch is very common among same-sex individuals. Many times with the closeness in buses, Ethiopians are comfortable putting their hands on each other’s knees or putting their weight leaning against one another. Ethiopian men are also often seen holding hands, but women are usually a little bit more reserved, even with the opposite gender. Due to the fact that this is a very paternalistic society, I have seen many women practice the hand/shoulder bump shake to greet others.
As a single, perceived white woman, not having close contact with someone is difficult and takes a toll on each person individually. Volunteers struggle to cope with the lack of human touch in their time overseas. Yes, it is wonderful and fun to do the hand/shoulder bump but anything else could be interpreted the wrong way by society. For example, I am not comfortable going in for a bear hug with men, but am totally comfortable with my close Ethiopian female friends. In a way, I’ve had to re-write my definition of friendship. I feel a lot more comfortable talking to women because they are genuinely interested in learning about you but men on the hand, they have a conversation with you and suddenly you are best friends, therefore you have to give your number to someone.When I first arriving in Chiri, I was warned not to get close to any males because perception is everything. Maintaining this rule was difficult because I so desperately wanted to connect to someone, but it was quite a task as many Ethiopian women struggled with English and keeping an English conversation, while I struggled keeping an Amharic dialogue. I got lucky to have had two really great Ethiopian females that I connected with.
Having joined PC Ethiopia, a country so far away from my own, I had to learn to be on my own. I have friends in Ethiopia, sure, but no one knows me like my peeps back home. Also, because we serve in four different regions and due to the fact that I was so isolated, my close friends and I weren’t in the same vicinity. This made for some very lonely nights when all I wanted was someone to hang out with, have popcorn and just have honest and gritty conversations. I was so grateful to see my friends when I had the opportunity as I could break down my walls. However, because I was far from my friends, I had to rely on making my community my new family. So, in reality, it wasn’t always that bad.
Joining Peace Corps means having a commitment to constantly remind yourself why you joined in the first place. You have to remind yourself that this is what you wanted past the frustrations, past the stares and past the language barriers. You have to remind yourself that you chose to be here past the tears and past the breakdowns. This is what you wanted and you can do it. Sometimes all it requires is a change in perspective. Feeling Sad? Go have some coffee with your friends. Feeling anxious? Change your scenery. Feeling happy? Spread the love. Open mind, open heart.