By Sarah Stewart*
The summer after graduating from college, I was supposed to begin working or continue the search for a job. I was not supposed to take a trip. I definitely should not have taken a trip outside of the country to be in a wedding. But from the moment that the bride asked, I knew that I would go. I even thought that in addition to being there for a friend, I deserved a gift for all those hard hours, semesters, years… all culminating in that degree. So I spent my summer after graduation in Ethiopia.
I went with some expectations because after meeting so many Ethiopians and Oromos in the United States, I had a fascination with, and an appreciation for the cultures of Ethiopia. My first time out of the country, my second time on a plane, and I went to one of the poorest countries in the world; a country where people are dying every day of preventable deaths and where the law seemed almost nonexistent at times. It is also a country with a small group of very wealthy people, a place where a strong class system is alive and well and where those with money have maids and guards. I, ever the American, was both intrigued by the system and ashamed to have people do for me what I was capable of doing for myself. I went to Ethiopia and found it to be a country of contradictions. Needless to say, it was not the vacation that I had hoped for, and yet, it was much more.
Arriving in Addis Ababa was not what I had expected. While there and upon my arrival back home, everybody has asked what surprised me the most about the city of Addis and the country of Ethiopia. What surprised me was how few expectations I really had. I had not realized that I really went with anything more than my previously stated expectations because before I left, the only things I knew of Ethiopia were what I had learned from my Ethiopian and Oromo friends in the States.
Before leaving, I had regular exposure to everything from Injera (Budeena) to Iskista to the existence of ethnic tensions in Ethiopia. My friends taught me basic words and phrases in Amharic and Afaan Oromo. They made me Bunaa and Injera in their homes. But I was sure that the people of Ethiopia would be somewhat different on their own turf, so to speak. I knew that I would be in their culture and the only American in the group with whom I would be staying. However, apart from these things, I thought that I had few expectations. Then…I arrived.
One of the things that I expected was ethnic tension. I expected heated discussions of the same things that people talked about in the United States. I had been warned to not speak up about my own beliefs regarding the current prime minister or Oromo/Ethiopian relations. What I found when I got there was that ethnic tensions were real but often hidden. Everyone who talked with me about the different ethnic groups in Ethiopia admitted to belonging to more than one group. Every dance I was part of, every restaurant I attended, every radio station… they all played a mix of ethnic music and every person knew at least the basic dances of every major ethnic group- Oromo, Tigray, Amhara and Gurage.
In the capital city of Addis Ababa, people talked of a unified Ethiopian identity and one Ethiopian history. There was an appreciation for what each ethnic group brought to Ethiopian culture as a whole. People told me these things over and over, and I saw them for myself. However, when I visited Addis Ababa museum, when I read the newspaper, when I was out in the countryside and when people got comfortable, I read something else between the lines. The history told in the museum told an incomplete history of Ethiopia, eventually saying more by what they did not say. There was no mention of the groups who suffered for the existence of such a large Ethiopian empire, whether or not they wanted to be part of this empire, how takeovers were accomplished, or even acknowledgement that takeovers had needed to take place; that what is now Ethiopia was at one point many different smaller kingdoms or regions.
I know that my many questions about these historical inaccuracies and missing pieces were annoying to people at times and seemingly irrelevant. But I went to Ethiopia with questions about these very issues and when I saw my chance to have them answered, I was frustrated to receive answers that were contradictory. I was especially bothered because I eventually saw a country that has taught a unified history, when the reality is that the country’s history is actually multi-dimensional and the cause for the way things are still today. Even in common conversation, there were ethnic jokes aimed at “the other”, causing me to believe that there cannot possibly be a united group or a collective mass if there is an “other”; an “us” and “them”.
Given the history of differences, changing governments and recent happenings in Ethiopia, I expected that the law would be very strict and would have the last word. On the contrary, the law was like nothing I’d ever seen before. I heard so much talk about the government… about what it had been, what its legacy was and what it is today. Many people told me that whether they support the current leaders or not, they feel that overall, the current prime minister is the best man for the job and the current government is the best thing for the country at this time. Then with my own eyes, I went out into the streets of Addis and out into the countryside. What I saw were people who had come to the city to beg… many people from the region of Tigray, which I am told is starving and without resources right now. I saw prostitutes lining the streets at night, some who appeared to be preteens. I heard and saw violence that I cannot put into writing because it still haunts me.
In the worst of these situations, the common factor was a lack of lawful intervention or any intervention at all. In a country that has supposedly made so much progress, horrible things happen daily to the country’s own citizens and the law does nothing to save them or even acknowledge them. And yet, many of the warnings that I had heard in regards to many other African countries (including those neighboring Ethiopia) were not in effect in Ethiopia. There was violence and a scary lack of regard for human life. But I knew that I was much safer than I could have been elsewhere.
Beyond the ethnic tensions, my missing sense of safety, and the discomfort I felt from the class system, Ethiopia offered me things I could never have had if I didn’t go. From the very beginning, I felt that kindness from the people that everyone talks about. On the plane, I sat next to a young girl who was going home for the summer. She was young and chatty, but not too chatty to make the long trip too long. She asked me questions about myself and who I would be meeting in Addis. I told her that I was meeting a friend and that I was worried about how my phone would not work outside of the United States.
When I told her that I was worried my friend might have the wrong time or day, she assured me that if I was left alone; her dad would take care of everything. Sure enough, after I received my Visa, went through Customs and finally to baggage claim, the young girl was there at the baggage claim to make sure I knew what I was going to do. At the time, I did not know that people meeting the plane are not allowed through to the baggage claim and must wait out in the lobby. I was in a panic that my friend had not shown up and I had no way to call her. I also did not have any knowledge of the country that would help me to take care of myself. But the young girl’s dad offered his phone so I could call my friend.
When I finally figured out where to find my friend, the airport security would not allow me back into baggage claim to tell the girl and her dad that I was safe and going to my friend’s home. However, in the car on the way to my friend’s home, the girl called from her dad’s phone, taking my friend’s number off of the Recent Calls list. She made sure that I had found my group and that I would be okay. Throughout my time in Ethiopia, there were many more people who went out of their own way to help me at times when I was completely out of my element.
People showed me the kind of kindness that I can only hope to give someone else in my own country. There were many times when I was at the wrong end of someone’s power trip or at a complete disadvantage because I did not speak the language and nobody around could speak English with me. There were times when I felt the panic of having no control over my situation because I needed to do things like go to Immigration and renew my Visa on my own but I needed to do it out of my element. And yet, even at these times, Ethiopia gave me not confidence, but a greater understanding of how it is for people who come to my country and do not have the power or the knowledge of how things work in order to make things work for them. For this, I know that Ethiopia has given me more than all the Macchiato’s and souvenirs I bought there.
Finally, contradiction of contradictions, by the end of my stay, my parting gift from Ethiopia was a love/hate relationship with her. There are so many elements of the culture(s) that I respect, admire and miss, especially now that I am no longer there. I learned that Ethiopia had much more to offer me and teach me than I had ever expected. At the same time, I also came back disillusioned with Ethiopia. I was more disappointed than I could ever have anticipated, thanks to the realities of poverty and probably just the overwhelming experiences of leaving the U.S. for the first time.
I felt let down and tempted to shake the smell of diesel fuel off of me and leave it in Ethiopia, with every experience and memory I had accumulated there. But as with everything else about Ethiopia, my experience became an entwined mass of contradictions. I am thankful for every experience, good and bad. I cannot forget all of the good, the people or the beautiful cultures. I do not even want to forget the negative parts of my time there because they were what taught me the most. I would not take my trip back if I could. Even now, I miss the little things. I miss the smell of roasting corn, Injera (Budeena), and the rain.
But as I said, everything was a contradiction, and I felt the most gratitude I have ever felt in my life with the Ethiopian Airlines plane landed in Washington, D.C. And yet…I miss Ethiopia still.
* Sarah Stewart is a recent graduate from University of Minnesota Duluth and former classmate. I congratulate Sarah on visiting Ethiopia and applaud her candid views about what she saw and observed – O.A