Dispatch from Ethiopia – Part 1: Joining the Peace Corps

For those of us who are wanderlusters at heart, there is a persistent internal voice that whispers promises of something more: more than the cubicle in which we dwell, more than the paycheck we receive for it, more than the grind most of us resign ourselves to as a means to an end. But what do you do when the means come up woefully short of the end you truly desire? 

Meet Paul Voigt, a midwest native and communications professional who began scaling the corporate ladder, and realized it was time to take the path less traveled instead. Paul has graciously agreed to guest blog periodically, sharing his experiences with us from his new home, in Ethiopia.

What do you think of when you hear the word Ethiopia?

If you’re like I was, you might know very little about this country in northeast Africa. Eight months ago my only concepts of Ethiopia were famine, coffee, and the Queen of Sheba. Now I wake up thinking, “How did I get here?”

The little kids on my street get excited every time they see me.
It’s one of my daily joys. Contributed photo.

I’ve had some good jobs in the last 20 years. After college I landed at the Menards corporate office (a Midwest home improvement store chain) working on radio and TV commercials. Then I moved to Minneapolis to work at the Best Buy corporate office. After seven years I started getting restless. I was making good money but a career in Corporate America would never fulfill me. I decided to quit my job and live off of my savings while searching for a job that resonated with me.

 I run the English Club at a teacher college Shambu, Ethiopia.
We meet in a beat-up spare room with only a chalkboard but the students are great.
Contributed photo. 
After more than a year of searching, I got an opportunity to work with a couple of friends who had just started their own design agency. They needed a writer and I needed a real job. It was the best job I ever had until the seven-year itch struck again. Teaching always fascinated me, and I began volunteering at night as an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher for immigrants. I enjoyed it and knew that teaching was the right direction. Working with people from different countries and cultures was fulfilling, so I decided to go for an all-out adventure and join the Peace Corps as an English teacher.

Joining the Peace Corps is a process that typically takes 12-18 months. First you fill out a detailed application and then people are selected for a personal interview with a Peace Corps recruiter. If you’re qualified, the recruiter nominates you for a position. Months go by. The final step is the assignment when your recruiter calls to congratulate you on being accepted to the Peace Corps. “Where am I going?” They won’t tell you. Your assignment comes in a UPS envelope. Ah, the anticipation as you wait to discover which developing country you’ll be living in for the next two years!

My assignment arrived within a few days. I tore into the envelope like a kid at Christmas. Earlier in the process I had been nominated to teach English in sub-Saharan Africa, the countries you typically think of as “Africa”…Kenya, Rwanda, Ghana, Malawi. The nomination is not a guarantee, but a pretty reasonable indication of where you’re headed. I opened the folder fully hoping and expecting to see the word “Kenya” on my assignment document.

Peace Corps trainees stay with a host family for two months before becoming official volunteers.
My four little brothers kept me busy!

Contributed photo.
It said Ethiopia. Ethiopia? I was shocked. I didn’t even know the Peace Corps sent volunteers to Ethiopia. Growing up in the 1980’s, I remember seeing news footage that put Ethiopia in the international spotlight. Visions of famine and emaciated men, women, and children flooded my thoughts along with Band Aid’s song, “Do They Know It’s Christmastime?” which raised millions of dollars for famine relief. This song and the images of famine falsely colored my perception of Ethiopia.
Okay, Ethiopia. It’s not “The Lion King” part of Africa. I had a feeling Ethiopia must be the place I was meant to be. On May 25, 2011, I flew to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, with 69 other Peace Corps volunteers to begin our training. The rest is history in progress.

Every day in Ethiopia brings some struggle, some adventure, some frustration, and some joy. It’s a different life for sure. I have much to share in words and pictures about the people and culture of this fascinating and ancient country.

I live in a small room of a mud house. When you paint mud a cheerful blue, you can’t even tell it’s mud.
Plus it’s a great natural insulator. Contributed photo. 

Akkam ooltan (ahk-kahm OHL-tahn). Have a good day everyone!

Paul Voigt was a corporate communications writer and freelance copywriter in a former life. He gave up pop culture, Midwest winters, and softball to serve for two years as an English teacher with the U.S. Peace Corps in Shambu, Ethiopia.

Creative Commons License
Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World by Charish Badzinski is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at rollerbaggoddess.blogspot.com.

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