Having lived in Honduras when I was younger, I didn’t know about applying make-up or worry about washing my clothes. I lived there from a wee lass of one all the way to eight and I did normal child things: rode my bike around with the wind in my hair, wearing my little pink dress and my blonde straight hair a mess, but I was happy. Then, I grew up and others dedicated how I should look and dress.
When you live in a developing country, you do your best to fit in, but some things are just out of your control. When I lived in Ethiopia, I didn’t shower for 3, sometimes 4 days, I re-wore the same clothes, I did the sniff test way too many times, didn’t wash my hair for a few days, and I sweated under the hot sun. To American standards, I was a pig and living filthy. I cleaned my house as best as I could, but with muddy roads in the wet season, dusty roads in the dry season and rat droppings, there was only so much I could do to stay clean. I didn’t have a shower but I was lucky to have “my own” latrine. When I did shower at the health center [they were courteous enough to lend me their shower that had hot water (a luxury in Chiri, Ethiopia)], I made sure to scrub away dead skin cells pilled over days’ worth of filth. Then, I would leave the nicely kept house, go into town and eventually my home and feel dirty within seconds. I also washed my clothes with rain water which meant that I couldn’t manage to wash all the grime off my clothes. Hanging it outside to dry also didn’t mean that the wind wasn’t going to pick up some dust.
I have never sweated so much in my life.
I woke up at 8 a.m. to get started for my day, made breakfast, sniffed test my clothes and went to school to teach. I came back with my clothes drenched. I felt the sweat form on the nape of my neck and linger on my upper lip, as I taught 40-60 Ethiopian students squeezed into one small classroom. I quickly stripped off my clothes and my work coat that stuck to me after a 10 minute walk from school to home to something that’s a little cleaner and sigh a breath of relief. I would repeat this every day like clockwork.
I have never cared so little about my physical appearance.
Each morning, I brushed my teeth, put deodorant on, brushed my hair and I was good to go. (Long gone were the days of mascara, eyeliner and tinted moisturizer). There was no point in putting any of that stuff on as I would sweat it off within minutes. I adapted to Ethiopian culture and lived like the locals, which in fact made me appreciate the work they have to do. The locals didn’t shower every day, so why should I? The locals didn’t hire a maid to wash their clothes, so why should I? The locals wore days old clothes, so why shouldn’t I? At one point, a hot shower became a treat, and not an everyday occurrence, but even with never feeling fully clean, I had never felt more beautiful. I was beautiful because people saw me as beautiful. I had to learn to feel beautiful without the superficial things that I needed in America and even though I have now adapted to the American life, I will never forget the way that Ethiopia and the people changed me and made me stronger.
And despite all the filth – never in my life have I been called beautiful so many times.
Ethiopians loved my lighter skin and my curly hair. Ethiopians loved my clothes and they loved to practice their broken English with me. My community loved to say hello to me on the street and my students for the most part loved being taught by a foreigner. I was different in a community that wasn’t used to different and I was viewed beautiful. And in turn, I learned to love myself and see myself as beautiful despite the grime and dirt. I may not have had the latest gadgets, or had been the cleanest, but I persevered in a community that defines hard work.