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Nindyo Sasongko, of Indonesia, left, listens intently to Tewodros of Ethiopia, as Tedi shares advice about life in Ethiopia at MCC’s Global Service Learning orientation in Akron, Pa. Silas Crews

Nindyo Sasongko, of Indonesia, left, listens intently to Tewodros of Ethiopia, as Tedi shares advice about life in Ethiopia at MCC’s Global Service Learning orientation in Akron, Pa. Silas Crews

Bridge building between cultures begins at MCC orientation

Linda Espenshade
September 24, 2009

AKRON, Pa. – Lydette Assefa of the United States and Hiwot of Ethiopia started building a cultural bridge between their two countries as soon as they were assigned to be roommates at Mennonite Central Committee’s (MCC’s) August orientation for young adult volunteers.

Hiwot, 23, who according to Ethiopian tradition only uses her first name, is from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, but will work with MCC Great Lakes in Goshen, Ind., for a year. Assefa, 23, who is from Indianapolis, Ind., and graduated from Goshen College, will be teaching in Addis Ababa for a year through MCC.

The information they had for each other was golden.

Hiwot described the neighborhood of Addis Ababa where Assefa will be living. Assefa’s host mother is open-minded, Hiwot said, and will not require Assefa to follow the Orthodox Christian fasting rules that the host mother follows. Although Assefa is already familiar with Ethiopian culture because her father is Ethiopian, she welcomes Hiwot’s description of the people she will be working with, the MCC program and safety precautions.

In return, Hiwot soaked in Assefa’s knowledge of Goshen. Assefa told her about the parks where she can find the “peace and quiet” that Hiwot enjoys. Assefa described the fun events at Goshen College (her alma mater) and encouraged her to network with the Ethiopians on campus. Hiwot appreciated Assefa’s guidance as she figured out cell phone options that were different from what she was used to in Ethiopia.

“MCC is always about bridge building,” said Bruce Campbell-Janz, MCC’s Africa director. “This is just another example of that among young people who are beginning their terms of service.”

Hiwot and Assefa were among 112 people, all under 30 years old, who were building bridges at their orientation Aug. 9-14.  The volunteers came from 27 countries and were preparing for service assignments in 30 countries. Nine additional volunteers were oriented in Canada and seven in their home countries because of visa restrictions.

The young people will work through one of MCC’s Global Service Learning (GSL) programs: SALT –  Serving and Learning Together – for those from Canada and the U.S., who volunteer outside both countries; IVEP – International Volunteer Exchange Program – for people who volunteer in Canada and the U.S. but live in other countries; and YAMEN! – Young Anabaptist Mennonite Exchange Network – a joint program with Mennonite World Conference for those who live outside Canada and the U.S. and volunteer with churches and church organizations in another country.

Most of the participants had a week of orientation with MCC personnel in Akron. As part of that experience, roommates are strategically paired to jump-start the acculturation process, said Chris Landes, director of GSL.

“It helps me quite a lot,” said Nindyo Sasongko from Indonesia, “because I am placed in a room with a native who comes from Ethiopia.”

Sasongko will be working in Ethiopia with Meserete Kristos, a Mennonite church of 172,000 members. His roommate, Tewodros, who also follows the Ethiopian tradition of using his first name, shares Sasongko’s interest in churches.

As they compared notes, the men concluded that in Ethiopia, Sasongko will have to get used to a more serious style of worship service than he experienced in lively Indonesian services. Tewodros also described the tensions that he hopes will be bridged between Orthodox and Evangelical Christian churches in Ethiopia.

Tewodros, who is working with West Coast MCC in Reedley, Calif., wants to visit a lot of churches. “I want to see how Christianity is integrated in California and in the way of life,” Tewodros said.

Tewodros already knows English, but he taught his roommate some Amharic words, the language commonly spoken in Ethiopia. Amharic has sounds that aren’t present in Javanese, Sasongko said, but he won’t let that stop him because he really wants to learn the language.

“I’m excited to go to Ethiopia,” Sasongko said. “It’s a beautiful country. It’s a very hospitable people,” he concluded after talking to Tewodros and Hiwot. Plus, he said, he already is friends with other Ethiopians on Facebook.

Hiwot said she liked the personal interaction the young adults had at the orientation. “We already have a chance to tell about our country and hear about theirs, and (we) feel as one family.”