Twelve years ago in China I really disliked my typical day, but I found that after I had left I really appreciated the experience. Older and wiser now, I do not dislike my days here, and even though they are challenging, I am sure that I will value them once my year here is finished. When the opportunity to come here arose, I googled Asaita from the hedonism of Tokyo, and my first instinct was to ask to go anywhere else. But I figured that if no one comes to live and work here, what chance does the region have of integrating with the rest of Ethiopia and the world? Somebody has to come here. Not many have. Afar is a huge region with four VSO volunteers. Peace Corps isn’t allowed to operate here. World Vision was run out of town by rioting high school students. UN and Save the Children vehicles pass through now and again, and the UNHCR is building a field station here. Other than that, foreign visitors are limited to adventure tourists trying to reach the nearby salt lakes, and they do not mingle with the local community. So despite it being a constant struggle, I consider myself rather lucky to be spending a typical day as I do.
A regular morning in Asaita begins at 4:45am with the call to prayer. Numerous mosques throughout the town have loudspeakers set up outside and the place where I live happens to be very close to one of these loudspeakers. Because the afternoon temperatures reach 45 to 47 degrees and the overnight low dips down to 30, I sleep outside. Another reason that I sleep outside is that my home is made of concrete and the building releases its heat overnight, so it is noticeably hotter inside than out. While sleeping outside lets me doze in a more comfortable temperature, it also means that the prayer call is very loud. The closest one has the highest volume, and there is kind of a stereo effect as more distant ones belt out the call at lower volumes. The tone of the prayer call varies. There are times when either the imam has woken up on the wrong side of the bed or he is delivering a stern moral message because it sounds like he is screaming in anger. On the odd day, the imam wakes up in a singing mood and starts things off with a soothing hymn. Sometimes the tone is wondrous and it sounds as though the world and all its mysteries are being spoken of in awe.
There is about a fifteen minute break between the first call to prayer and the actual sermon which follows. The sermon varies in tone much like the prayer call. It is much easier to sleep through the calm ones than the scolding ones. Prayers take place five times daily. It is a pious town.
It is not just me sleeping outside. There is a family that shares the compound: parents, four children, an uncle, a nephew and two live-in maids. Factor in wandering relatives and friends and there are sometimes a dozen people sleeping around the yard. The prayers usually rouse one or all of them, and this activity gets me up and into my apartment between 5:30 and 6:00am. A top priority first thing in the morning is boiling water and getting it into my filter. Finding the time to boil all the water I need is a challenge. My pot can hold around 3L, but it takes quite a while for my element to heat up, and quite a while for it to cool enough to pour into my water filter. I drink about 6L of water a day, so it is sometimes necessary to supplement my boiled water with purchased bottled water. My filter works by running the water through limestone. I have heard tales from others that this makes the water taste bad, but I boiled my limestone for about an hour when I first arrived before putting my filter together and my water tastes ok. After preparing my water I get ready for work and depart just after one of the maids comes to help me put my bed back in my apartment. I leave for work just before 7am.
The walk to work involves dodging a lot of poop. There’s goat poop, horse poop, donkey poop, dog poop and human poop. Humans surely have the worst smelling poop in the animal kingdom. Bless the ever considerate cats. At least they have the courtesy to bury their poop.
In addition to all of the poop, there are a lot of children to dodge. Around town, I never know what I’ll get from the children, but the ones in my neighbourhood are relatively harmless. They don’t throw stones at me and don’t curse at me. The guy who owns the compound where I live has made it clear to the neighbourhood not to do those things. That doesn’t prevent them from screaming ‘ferengi’ and coming running out of their houses to gawk, yell, and poke me. But like I said, the kids between me and the College are nothing to worry about.
The shortcut to the College is through an Eritrean refugee camp. The refugees have set up a makeshift village in an abandoned lot and live in traditional Afar homes. There are two possible routes through the camp. On one route I have had stones thrown at me, so now I take the other one and have never had any problems. The edge of the refugee camp borders the back entrance of the College.
This journey from home takes about fifteen minutes. Since there are no toilet facilities at the College, I sometimes I have to trek back home to use a toilet, and then back to the College. People urinate behind buildings and bushes, but that’s not much good with a mild case of food poisoning. Luckily, upset stomachs are not the norm, so heading back home for the toilet is not typical, but worthy of note because the temperature breaks 40 degrees by 9am, so it’s a sweaty walk that feels longer with a case of the trots.
On a normal day, I walk the length of the campus to the front guardhouse where an entrepreneurial guard makes ‘ful’ every morning. Ful is made with brown beans, lemon, chili, and onions. It is mashed up to the consistency of dal, and served with bread. It is a delicious, hot and spicy breakfast and beats the porridge that I make at home the odd day when I can’t stomach the ful. After breakfast I knock back a cup of strong Ethiopian coffee and I am ready for the day. Many faculty members gather at the guardhouse every morning and in addition to eating breakfast I can get information about what is going on at the College, and spot ways that I can be useful. Long-term plans are not popular. Things change quickly.
After breakfast I head to my office in the English Language Improvement Centre (ELIC). I have recently moved into a new office. The old one was in a windowless and dusty room at the back of the library. Now, the ELIC has windows, fans and catches a breeze. From here I do my work. Typically, this involves finding some way to be productive. As I mentioned, eating ful at the guardhouse makes it possible to find out what is happening. There is quite a bit going on at the College, but there’s not usually much notice about events. Things happen on the fly. Good days involve visiting schools, identifying the needs of teachers and devising ways to improve the capacity of schools. On slow days I man the ELIC and offer English-language support to staff and students at the College.
Lunch time begins at 11:50am. The school and the town close up shop until around 4pm because of the heat. As summer nears, the temperatures get hotter, and it gets hotter earlier. This grinds everything to a halt earlier. During hot days in May, there have been days when the campus is deserted by 11am because the temperature is heading for the mid-forties and the breeze feels like a hair drier.
The afternoon is the most challenging part of the day. Whether lunch is eaten in a restaurant or at home, by 1pm the heat is crippling, and usually knocks me out for about an hour. Like I said, the building I live in is concrete and feels like a pizza oven at this time of day. Sitting upright with two fans blowing on me is the coolest position. Lying down on the floor is hotter, and lying on a mattress is even hotter. Whichever side of my body is facing down breaks into a sweat in less than a minute, but the heat knocks me out anyway and I just wake up quite sweaty.
The porch where I sleep at night is shady all morning until midday, and then the sun pours down on it. There is nowhere to sit outside in the shade in the compound between 1pm and 4pm, except for a little triangular sliver of shade just outside my front door. This sliver gets some use when the electricity is out in the afternoon, and this is something which happens enough that it should not be considered atypical. The power goes out around 3-5 times a week. That’s about every other day plus a little more. It goes off at different times of the day, usually anywhere from 1-8 hours. When the power switches off my computer emits a beep as it switches to battery power. I have come to loathe that beep. If I am in my apartment, sweat begins immediately in the areas you would normally associate with sweatiness. After a few minutes it starts to feel like a yoga session, and the sweat starts to drip. Next, the sweat comes out of my forearms and shins, not places that usually have beads of sweat on them, and then I know that I cannot stay in my apartment any longer and I make my way out to hunker down in the sliver of shade on my porch. Afternoons without electricity in 47 degree heat are the hardest thing I have endured anywhere. No fan, no cold water to drink. There’s no water pump either, but there’s only been one afternoon when my 50L barrel of water was empty without the means to refill it. Add in no shower and it is a new dimension to the heat.
Around 2pm every afternoon one of the children from the main house comes to invite me for coffee. The children are good-hearted, even though they don’t understand either the concept of knocking or privacy. Usually my door is open to let in some air, and a child will come walking in. The odd time my door has been shut, one of the children will just open it and come in. Because of the way I saw the children run all over the previous volunteer, I have kept the children at arm’s length and not been that friendly. I do not need four children aged 2-11 looking through my drawers and asking me for things. Other than this coffee interruption, the children generally do not wander in on me, and that is fine with me. They just come in and tell me it’s coffee time and curiously look around. I can live with that.
Afternoon coffee ceremony jolts me out of my afternoon daze. It takes place between 2pm-3pm. The main house is adobe and is much cooler than my pizza oven. I usually just have one cup, a short chat that is usually about the temperature in Asaita and then return to my abode.
After coffee time is shower time. Showering here involves a few different types of buckets. It’s all about the different sized buckets. The big bucket holds enough water for nearly a week. The medium-sized bucket is used to hold my shower water. The small scoop-like bucket moves water from bucket to bucket, and most importantly, from the shower bucket down over my head. There is also a little tea pot. This bucket acts as the flushing device in the squat toilet.
The toilet facilities are in a concrete building next door. With a towel over my shoulder, my medium-sized bucket in one hand and my toiletries in the other, I shuffle through the courtyard to the shower. One half of the building has the squat toilet, and the other is just a concrete room used for showers. The two halves are divided by a low wall. Showering involves scooping water out of my shower bucket with the small bucket and pouring it over my head. Hot water is not a problem as the water heats up quite a lot sitting in a barrel in my apartment. The sensation of warm water is still pleasant, and the coolness that comes on my wet skin after the bucket has been dumped over me is welcome. Showering with this method is water efficient and an afternoon shower after coffee is refreshing. Once finished in the I shower, I use the broom on hand to sweep the shower out.
Jolted awake with a strong coffee and invigorated with an afternoon shower, it is now time for Round 2 of work. Around half of the time I have things going on at the College and I have to head back in. It’s often still above 40 degrees at 4pm, and the sun is low and in your face, but 40 feels a lot different to 45. 45 degrees is the breaking point of human activity I think. If it’s blazing hot and all I’m doing is working on my computer, I will work from my desk at home.
The work day finishes between 5:30 and 6:30pm. After dinner three times a week I teach the oldest son in the compound English for an hour. The maid comes back in the evening to help me put the bed back together and hang my mosquito net. I take another shower just before going to bed.
The evening is the denouement. Once the sun is gone, life here feels quite normal. Even on weekends when I can enjoy the morning shade on my porch and read a book in relative coolness, things feel not so much out of sorts. But everyday around noon life here stops being about productivity or work and simply becomes a matter of getting through the afternoon. If the electricity is on and the fans are blowing, it feels like I pass the afterno
on hour by hour. Without them and I start counting hot, sweaty minutes.