Archive for category Ethiopia

Graduation Day

Sunday we attended a 9th and 10th grade graduation. As is evident in my last post, we were under the impression that we would be attending a graduation for the man we were going to meet in Jimma. He did graduate that weekend, but it happened before we arrived. Instead, we were going to the graduation of the school he taught at, a high school in town.

Our presence was far more significant than I had expected. I thought that we would just be led to a seat in the back to observe the ceremony, and then be on our way to talk with our host somewhere else. Instead, we were immediately shuffled into the principal’s office upon arriving where we were formally introduced to the principal, two vice principals, and a local master’s student, and many pictures were taken. After being given a brief tour of the school, we walked over to the collection of classroom desks under a patch of trees where ceremony would be held. As you could probably guess at this point, we were not given a seat in the back, but were shown to some chairs at the front facing the audience. We sat with the teachers to our left (there were 16 for the 1,000+ kids in the school) as the administrators to our right began their various speeches.

The graduation setup

The graduation setup

All in all, the graduation was not too different from any other. Music from a drum line started off the ceremony, people made some speeches, some names were read, and people clapped. A few notable differences were the addition of a skit, people applaud in rhythm, and the administrators, having more sense than those in the U.S., don’t read off each person’s name, but instead present prizes to the top students and declare everyone graduated.

The scout drum line that opened

The scout drum line that opened

Of course, my experience at the graduation was different than others I’ve attended given my role as a notable guest. After the ceremony, we again spoke with one of the vice principals, who explained to us the significance of our visit. He told us that, above all else, our presence was a symbol of peace. I am paraphrasing liberally here, but he saw it as a chance for us to witness the peace in their community, as well as to express the peace and brotherhood between our country and theirs. We later learned that one of those pictures of us taken earlier would be printed out and hung on the wall to commemorate our visit.

A healthy dose of imposter syndrome came with this news—none of the other graduations I’ve been at ended with my picture being hung on a wall, so why should this one? While I do think the project we are here for is a good one, receiving such pomp and circumstance was more than a bit frightening.

But the more I thought about why I am here in Ethiopia, the less insane it seemed. I still feel unworthy of the extent of special treatment, but the sentiment is sound. I am here on a Peacebuilder Fellowship, which is built on the belief that peacemaking is not the exclusive realm of presidents and generals. In fact, it is best performed by regular people. Sometimes it can take a lot of work, but sometimes all it takes is showing up. On Sunday all it required was showing up at the school and telling them that we wanted to hear what they’re up to. It resulted in special meetings, special seats, and special pictures, all of which seemed over the top. But more importantly, it resulted in at least one man feeling that there was peace to be had.

The fundamental peacebuilding aspect of this fellowship had been pushed to the back of my mind by thinking too hard about the research side of the project. I have been thinking of myself exclusively as a researcher, but the fellowship is titled “Peacebuilder” for a reason. I may be performing research, but it is with the intention of constructing a good relationship between the people of two countries. The visit to the school became a quick reminder of this goal. I unexpectedly upgraded from researcher to peacebuilder within a few hours, and I won’t forget it. It was graduation day for me too, I suppose.

The girl who won school

The girl who won school

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Getting Started

This was written Saturday, July 5th, after arriving in Jimma.

I have now been in Ethiopia for over a month, and I think it is fair to officially declare this week as the beginning of real fieldwork. I am writing this from a hotel room in Jimma, having just arrived from a seven-hour bus ride (it was supposed to take four). We will be here for a few days meeting with an environmental activist before heading back to Addis. Then we’ll go to a town near Adama to see the water management techniques there. Then we’ll go to a village near Harar to see a well-building project. Then we’ll go to Mekele. Then Arba Minch. Then Bahir Dar. Then we’ll go home.

I’ve become a researcher all of a sudden, hopping from city to city, town to town to dig up stories. I spent a month as something else. We did a few interviews in that time, and spent plenty of time in meetings to set up future interviews, but my days seemed to be filled with activities primarily aimed at setting up a home base. It took weeks to find a house, weeks to figure out food, weeks to decide where to keep things on me (not in my pocket it turns out), and weeks to set up meetings. I have been less of a peacebuilder and more of a homebuilder. I’ve been an adapting species shedding vestigial limbs like eating utensils and a driver’s license.

Addis Ababa, the home base

Addis Ababa, the home base

Not everything is settled, but it is enough so that we can leave Addis. We needed to get everything set up so we could leave it behind. Now here we are in Jimma, preparing to meet an environmental activist in the morning to see his graduation before continuing on to the business at hand: everything water in Ethiopia.

Ethiopian club music is being blasted outside my hotel room door, the sink doesn’t drain, and I’m tired, but it’s good to be here. We’re here to dive into our work for the first time, and I can’t wait to start.

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Two of the rooms in the compound. Mine is on the right

Two of the rooms in the compound. Mine is on the right


My shower this morning

My shower this morning


Last Thursday I moved into my very own Addis home. I share it with 4 others: 2 are away on holiday, 2 dogs and a guard. It’s noting special, but it is nice to be able to unpack and cook for myself. I got a pretty good deal and will be paying less then $300 a month for the rent, a maid, dinner cooked for me every weeknight, and a security guard. I am happy with my find yet it still does not warrant $300 a month for two reasons: 1. While the water is fairly reliable (which is such a big deal!), the water pressure is hit or miss when it comes to the shower.  Today was my first bucket shower in Ethiopia. 2. The more important issue is that my rent costs so much. As I said before I feel like I got a great deal but we should all keep in mind that the average person in Addis Ababa makes from $50-$100 a month. My rent is $300 and that is a great deal.



Finally unpacked

Finally unpacked




I am living in Bole, which is an expat haven, something that certainly affects the high price. Yet, the main culprit for the high living costs is inflation. Ethiopia has got it bad. A friend from Addis and I were talking the other night about inflation and he said that 6 years ago, you could buy 3 eggs for 1 Ethiopian Birr. Now, he said, you can buy 1 egg for 3 Ethiopian Birr. He told a story about how his cousin, who now lives in the US, used to love coming back to Addis. She thought it was heaven because with the money she made in the US she could buy so much here. Now she can get less for $100 then she use to. High inflation of course has greatly affected this country which was recently called the  2nd poorest country in the world by an Oxford University report. (Here OXFAM explains Oxford’s Index



View of the garden from my room

View of the garden from my room



I would be wrong to blame all of the housing issues on the inflation, there are many reasons rental rates are so high, here are a few, yet they seem to all come back to inflation and good old supply and demand. Addis is the international hub for International NGOs working in Africa. The UN, African Union and countless embassies call Addis home. These organizations offer exuberant housing allowances for their employees. Most of these people are making dollars in a country where US currency goes along way (although not as far as it use to).  All that, and needing to find a quick, easy, nice place makes people pay more in the ballpark of $2,000- $4,000 for a place that is definitely not worth that in Birr. Landlords know there is a constant stream of these employees who will pay these prices, so they keep their rents high, which then drives up the prices for the lower-range places like mine.   A second reason is the boom in population Addis has experienced in recent years. Addis Ababa was founded as the capital in 1889-1891 and has only recently seen so many inhabitants. It just does not have the infrastructure to house so many people. Talking to people out and about you get a sense of how quickly the city is growing. I have asked many residents how many people live here and I have gotten anywhere from 2 million- 10 million people. A  Google search will give you no current numbers, which may be  why there is such confusion. Development is moving faster then the city is ready for and it is interesting to see.



A slum (aka 'village') use to hose thousands. A large hotel and empty field now take its place

A slum use to house thousands here. A well known hotel and empty field now take its place


A third reason for the highly inflated rents is because the government has been demolishing the slums. The administration is to provide government housing for displaced people, but in the mean time those who can afford other housing are desperate for shelter and will pay  high prices while they wait. Rent prices keep increasing for many reasons. The rent prices are rising but the income of Addis residents in not necessarily doing the same. All of this is equals out to a tough housing situation here in Addis.







The house comes with these friends!

My house comes with these friends!


The last 2 ½ weeks have been very stressful without housing. As I walk along the roads of Addis I see all the men, women, boys, girls and elderly sleeping in the street or under a propped up tarp, I think about how much stress they must be under and how small my complaints are. I am no longer homeless in Addis Ababa, but many many many still are.

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A donkey ran into me today. It did not simply brush or nudge me; it plowed into the side of my leg with force, and, dare I say, purpose. I was left physically unscathed by the event, but my view of the animal kingdom has surely been scarred by the donkey’s blatant disregard of decency.

I was standing on the sidewalk next to Katie as she attempted to buy guacamole ingredients from a fruit stand (and having a somewhat difficult time), unaware of the coming danger. Amid the normal din of street noise, I heard the familiar cry of “Hallo! Mister! Hallo! Sir!” It is something I hear at least ten times a day as various people try and get my attention either to sell me something or purely for entertainment. Today, it turns out, it meant that I was about to be struck by a donkey. A few seconds later, the donkey’s face ungracefully met my thigh and pushed me a few feet down the street. Everyone around—Katie, the shopkeepers, and especially myself—were surprised at first. But it did not take more than a couple seconds for the surprise to turn into laughter. The owner of the donkeys continued on down the street as if nothing happened, and soon enough we returned to buying food as if nothing happened as well.

Laugh it up

Laugh it up

A few days ago, Katie and I asked someone to take our picture at the request of our director, Pushpa. She needed a picture of the two of us in Addis to put online. We were at our old hostel, which has a balcony overlooking the street, and we asked one of the employees to take our picture. He immediately directed us to another one of the employees, implying that he was the true photographer of the bunch. Sure enough, once being shown the correct button to push, he moved around us snapping pictures at all angles. It looked like he pushed the button fifteen or twenty times, yet we later discovered he only managed to take three pictures. In all three, the large cactus near us featured prominently in the photo. Fortunately there was one in which the cactus only covered part of Katie’s head, so we used that one.

One of the pictures that we did not use

One of the pictures that we did not use

Most of the minibuses are covered in stickers of Jesus, Mary, or other Christian figures. I would estimate that about 90% of the stickers on minibuses are Christian, and that’s not that hard to understand, since a lot of people in Addis are very religious. The other 10%, however, are totally inexplicable. These stickers range from “Don’t mess with Texas” to “Power Steering”, but the most common non-Christian sticker is, without a doubt, the Apple logo.

Apple logo

You can’t explain that.

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Learning our way through Addis



Phoenix, Pushpa and I at the Bete Maryam Mausoleum





Driving around the streets of Addis Ababa

Our director, Pushpa, came in Saturday night. Since then, the 3 of us have been on the move. We have made our way though restaurants, markets, hotel lobbies, parks, squares and mausoleums. We have sat in UN offices, NGO offices, university offices and in plenty of traffic. We are mastering this ever growing city and it is only week 2! Mastering may be a strong word, but I am proud to announce Phoenix is the minibus master and that has to count for something (see his blog).







Countless of these buildings are being constructed as the city grows and expands.

Really, I wish you could see this city.  It is beautiful. If you talk to Pushpa and Phoenix, they will tell you I say “wow” almost every 20 minutes. I am in awe of the old architecture, the food, the people and the colors. The new architecture is equally impressive because there is just so much of it. Today we were riding around and to our right we saw at least 10 huge buildings under construction. Addis Ababa is a rapidly developing city and I have had several native Addis dwellers say to me that they drive around and always find new areas of the city because it is constantly growing. I think we, like these locals, will continue to learn and explore the city and keep finding new things.


Breakfast, coffee and a shoeshine at these street-side vendors











The usual bustle outside of St. Stephen’s Church

This investigation is already underway. We have made so many contacts these last few days and we will be doing quite a few interviews around the city and throughout the country. Our first one this week will be on Thursday. We hope to take pictures of people lining up for water because they have no access in their homes. This is in the far northern part of the city, and it is not an isolated case. We are learning more and more about how the rapid development of this expanding city is affecting the water supply.We have even heard of people who have been living for 5 years without water during the daytime. Water issues, it seems, are prevalent not only in the rural areas or drylands, but right here in the water-rich capital.




We are slowly learning our surroundings and about the water issues Addis is facing. Development is playing a role in this issue, yet the people seem hopeful for the future. In our upcoming interviews we want to look at how the water situation now will play a role in that future.


Looking out at the city from Meskel Square

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Firengi in the Minibus

I beat a record tonight. It was only a personal record, but a significant one nonetheless. I am talking of course, about the amount of human being fit into an Addis minibus.

I say “amount of human being” instead of “number of people” because that record was not beaten. That remains at 20 people fit into a 12-passenger van. However, that number had previously included teenage girls and small children who fit more easily into the small space. The record set tonight was the squeezing-in of 20 full-grown, fairly large men, including myself, into a van headed from Bole to Mexico.

For reference, here is what the layout of the van is supposed to look like:


Superb MS Paint cred goes to

And here is the reality (numbered in order of non-seats typically taken first):

taxi 2

D and C represent the driver and collector (conductor?) respectively

It was truly something special.

That statement is not made entirely in jest either—I do think there is something important about cramming into a sputtering van with the rest of the town. This occurred to me largely because that record was set as I was on my way home from the first bona fide tourist trap I’ve experienced in Addis Ababa.

Due to some cab driver miscommunication, Katie, Pushpa (who just arrived!), and I accidentally ended up at a restaurant that we had tried—and failed—to get to last week. It came well recommended by the internet, so we figured it must be good. The food was excellent no doubt, and they put on a music and dance show too. But we certainly paid the price, ending up with a bill about three times the normal amount for dinner here.

The restaurant was packed to the brim with people, including a group of about 30 Americans sitting next to us. It may seem like a silly qualm, but I couldn’t help but think later that it was sad that they probably wouldn’t get the experience of smashing themselves into a van filled with Amharic and poorly vented exhaust fumes.

There are a lot of places my mind could have gone from here. I have been trained to connect everything to broad social implications, and there was no shortage of such implications to be had from contemplating the experience of this group of Americans, who were here on a charity/mission trip. At the very least, I could have thought about the significance of their presumed lack of experience with a popular form of local transportation.

But honestly, my mind was blank in those places. I just wish they had the chance to stuff into a minibus full of strangers.

I don’t know what, if anything, riding on minibuses has taught me, what it means, or if it is useful. But it feels important. At any rate, it’s kind of fun, and you certainly don’t get to do it everyday back home.

I had the same thought regarding the dancing we were all watching in this restaurant. At one point they did a dance that was in a traditional Northern Ethiopian style. When Katie and I were out on my birthday, we happened to be led to a small bar in a isolated part of town that was full of this traditional Northern Ethiopian song and dance, and it was amazing. The way the dancers moved their bodies was nothing short of incredible, not to mention surreal; it was if someone possessed was popping and locking. The dance we saw in the restaurant simply did not display the intensity or personality of the dancing we saw in that bar. Again, I don’t know what there was to learn from it, but I wish the big group of Americans could have had that experience.

Katie called to the dance floor

Katie called to the dance floor

Really, I wish everyone could have that experience. Seeing it was cool. It was fun. It was interesting. And yet so few people around the world will get to see it, let alone get there in a packed minibus.

I suppose my only recommendation to you, readers of this blog, is to come and do it yourself.

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One Week

I just got done talking to Nebiyu, a journalist student working part-time at the hotel I am staying at. He has been nothing but helpful and hospitable. After I told him why I am here in Ethiopia for the next 2 months, he said, “The people are with you”.

I couldn’t have put it better myself. I have been here for one week now and Nebiyu is only one of many Ethiopians who have bent over backwards to help me, both personally as I set up my life here, and professionally with this research project.

This first week has been jam packed with coffee dates, dinner dates, meetings and any other form of gathering one can have. We have been here a short time and we could not be more pleased with our progress. Here was our week to help illustrate just how many wonderful people we have met.



Phoenix and I after a dinner with a new friend

Friday – Phoenix’s 21st birthday! We met some nice local guys who taught us how to celebrate birthdays Ethiopian style!

Sunday– We left our very nice hostel on the southern part of town to move into our new place. Joannes, the manager of the hostel was such a sweetheart!

Monday– I left the new place because it wasn’t a good fit. Our housemate Joel offered to take Phoenix and I around the neighborhood to look for new places. That night we had coffee at Kaldi’s (Ethiopian version of Starbucks) with a new friend Marta. She was kind enough to travel through rush hour traffic after a long day of work to make us feel welcomed.

Tuesday– A flood of amazing people entered my life as I moved into a small hotel  with a very friendly staff and I found 2 really great cab drivers. Our first big breakthrough happened when we met with the lovely Hermella that afternoon. Hermella and her team of volunteers started a local non-profit called Drop of Water. This organization builds water wells to help support communities who do not have access to clean water.

Wednesday– Phoenix and I finally had time to research water  organizations here in Ethiopia. There are a lot! For dinner we met up with Abby who is from the States and is working for International Water Management Institution. She was so helpful in telling us about IWMI’s work here and she gave us all kinds of tips on life here in Addis.

Thursday– We had two very successful interviews with Hermella and Joel about their connection with water here in Ethiopia and why they started Drop of Water. Two very inspiring young people! For coffee  we met Billene, who is a UPeace alum and inspiring in her own right. She gave us lots of advice and leads on who to contact for our research.

Friday– We spent the day setting up meetings for the coming week. Our director  Pushpa is coming and we are hoping to make a lot of connections with people who are working on water issues while she is here. Our search for housing continues but has led us to meet a lot of really great people, both locals and foreigners. Lucky  for us, a lot of these people work in international organizations and have given us leads on whom we should talk to for our project.

Saturday– I had coffee with a local masters student, Jerusalem. She just defended her research on water pollution of a nearby river. She has been very accommodating and knows a lot about the water issues in this country.


A typical day- eating and working


The people here have been so supportive of what Phoenix and I are trying to do. The two of us are quite hopeful about the stories we will be able to share with you in the coming months.



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My Friend, Serendipity

We are starting to understand the transportation system, we are almost settled on housing, and we are starting to meet with useful contacts. We are still in the very early stages of the research process here in Addis, but the pieces are slowly but surely falling into place.

Of course, I should really emphasize the word “falling” in that phrase. I cannot say that I have been putting pieces into their rightful place, carefully selecting and arranging the parts of the puzzle into their respective slots, so much as tossing a bunch into the air and counting on some to land in the right spot. This has been true for finding housing and transportation (each search for a taxi is a roll of the dice) just as much as finding contacts for our project. We have made two solid contacts so far, and each one was an accident.

The first one was an American. The day after I arrived, I was going into my room at the hotel as he was leaving his. A little conversation began after exchanging courtesy greetings, and eventually I discovered he was in Ethiopia to help build a well in a rural village where water is very scarce. On top of showing me some good restaurants and teaching me how to use the minibus system, he said he could help Katie and I go to the village where he is working and interview the community leaders there about the water situation. An all-around good connection to make in the hotel hallway. (You can check out his NGO, Concordia Humana here)

Contact number two came from the housing search. When I came to visit the house where I am now staying, I met a young Ethiopian guy, Joel, who lived there and helped to manage the place. Lo and behold, he has helped out for a few years with a water NGO, Drop of Water, started by a group of Ethiopian women at the university in Mekele. After I looked around the place, he gave me the full story of the organization, slideshow and all, and it was immediately clear that it could be a great group to work with. Yesterday he arranged a meeting for Katie and I with the woman who runs the organization. It was an excellent meeting, short but sweet. We learned more about Drop of Water and made plans to interview them tomorrow and tag along to one of their field site visits in a couple weeks. (You should take a look at their website here)

Joel (pronounced Jo-elle), one of our first contacts

Joel (pronounced Jo-elle), one of our first contacts

We have emailed and called people in a concerted effort to make contacts, and we will email and call a lot more. The next week will be largely filled with us trying to make useful connections and purposefully putting those pieces into place. But so far, it can’t be denied that the most useful tool has been chance.


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Traveling to Addis Continued


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Map of my Trip

Day 3 & 4 6/10/14 & 6/11/14

I’m back! Houston Airport -> DC-> Frankfurt, Germany -> Saudi Arabia->Addis Ababa -> New Home

     I have always loved to travel. As a very small child my grandparents would put me in their pop-up trailer and we would travel the coasts and swamps of Texas. My mom took us on the Amtrak train all the way up to New York and DC. My church took me to rural mountain towns and old colonial cities in Mexico. My dad would drive me to see his side of the family in the plains of Texas, and my extended family would take me to reunions in Colorado and the farmlands of Illinois.
    I have always loved to travel. As a teenager I dreamed of going to far off places like Paris, Moscow and Sydney. My first airplane flight was when I was about 15 years old, and I remember thinking of planes like magical time machines taking you quickly into the future as you chase the sun going West, or go back in time to the past as you go East.

    I love to travel, and if I could travel for the rest of my life I would be a happy woman. The last 5 days have been filled with travel and with that comes challenging myself, learning new phrases, new cultures, and learning more about myself and the world around me. To me travel is hopeful. Nothing ever goes to plan, but that is life, and you learn and grow and become a better you throughout it all. I have arrived to Addis and I couldn’t be more grateful.

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Traveling to Addis


Saying goodbye to my David for 2 months

Day 1 06/06/14  Ciudad Colon (my home) -> San Jose -> Houston -> San Antonio -> Mom’s house
    Today was a big travel day. I flew away from my home for the last 11 months, from my friends, from my Costa Rican family and my husband. It is a lot to leave behind.
   I moved to Ciudad Colon 11 months ago with my husband to study at the UN mandated University for Peace. We had planned for 2 years to go to that school and now 3 years later it is crazy that this chapter of my life is over. I will miss waking up with the sun shining every morning and going to school excited to see the smiling faces of my classmates, who became my family. I will miss the discussions and being challenged, my friends and all the smoothies. I should have grabbed a smoothie before I left…
I am on the plane now from San Jose to Houston and it looks like I will be an hour or more late to arrive in Houston. I probably won’t make my next flight, I hope it’s not an omen for the long 3 days of travel I have ahead.
   A little over 2 months is a long time to be away from my husband and I will miss him a lot. Yesterday was our 4 year anniversary which means we have now been together for 9 years. Happy anniversary sweetie, I’m going to Ethiopia! Of course he has been nothing but supportive and hopefully he will join me for a few weeks to see Addis as well. Addis is becoming a reality. Phoenix is there and searching for housing. It sounds like he is learning the city and transportation quickly and I am excited to do the same soon. The list of contacts I have in the city is growing. The people I have connected with so far have been nothing but helpful and should be an invaluable asset as we begin to look at a water conflict and learn the city. With Ethiopia being the birthplace of coffee I am getting excited for coffee dates with my new friends and colleagues!
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Clouds over the Houston Airport

Day 2 06/09/14   Mom’s Home -> San Antonio -> Houston -> Airport Hotel

       In high school my favorite class was Astronomy. I loved learning about these far off things that affected us but also operated
completely separate from us. One day my teacher Mr. Atkins asked if we ever thought about the sun, if so what did we think of it. The smart-aleck cowboy in the class knew where our teacher was going with this and said “You know before now I only thought of the sun as that big bright thing that I curse every morning on the way to school cause my sun visor can’t block it out of my eyes. Now that I’m thinking about it, Mr. Atkins, I realize it is a big ball of burning gas that keeps us all alive”.

    Today’s travel day was kinda like that class. I am about to go off to learn about water conflict, look at the issues and how they affect peoples’ lives. Today, though, water affected me.  It affected me to the tune of $110 lost and 14 hours added to my travel.  Thanks universe for this lesson. The lesson is this: Water is important, water keeps us all alive but sometimes it is an annoyance and you just want to curse it. The region of Texas my family lives in is in a several-year-long drought. This is pretty normal; we say that in South-Central Texas the weather is drought followed by flood, but drought is never fun. When I got into San Antonio the other day I was surprised to see the grass and trees as green as they were. Blankets of yellow, red and purple wildflowers are covering the hills and it is quite lovely right now. The recent start of the hurricane season in the Gulf of Texas has brought much needed rain to the area and the people here are upbeat and hopeful with every falling ¾ inch of rain they get.
   Today a big rain storm came through the region which is not ideal for a 4 hour drive to Houston from San Antonio. Yet, who can complain when rain is so needed? I can! The rain made the 4 hour trip a little over 6 hours and my mom and I weren’t able to see my brother at his new job in Houston. At least we made it to the airport just in the nick of time. Checking in to my flight they informed me that my flight had been canceled due to softball-sized hail the airport received earlier in the day. They had no more flights out to DC and there was no way I was going to make my flight to Addis Ababa the next morning. I had a hotel reserved in DC to make my 12 hour layover more comfortable, but I lost the reservation and the money for it. My mom was kind enough to stay in Houston the night with me in a hotel near the airport, to get me off to my new flight in the morning which will get me to Addis 14 hours later, but still on the same day.
    In this fellowship we are defining conflict as the inability to reach ones goals. My goal was a smooth flight, but water in the form of giant ice balls in a drought-ridden landscape obstructed this goal.  My summer journey with water conflicts begins. 



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