By Rachel Brock
“Sorry, can you say that again?”
“Ahm-uh-said-genah-loo,” my friend Ezra repeated slowly, stirring more sugar into his coffee, “is the most important word you will need while you’re here. It means thank you.”
We sat at one of the four plastic tables outside of Ezra’s favorite café, watching cars stall, swerve, and stagger in the distinctive Ethiopian fashion. As we sipped our drinks and shared a dish of vegetarian ful, I practiced the new five-syllable word on our waiter. “You’re welcome,” he replied in English and grinned.
I had landed in Addis Ababa earlier that morning to begin my summer internship with the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). My research would focus on the performance of the Ethiopian dairy value chain. Specifically, I wanted to analyze how urbanization affected the movement of milk: from the stages of production, to processing, to how milk products were marketed and sold, and finally who had access to the products. I had intensively studied Ethiopian agriculture and even written a term paper about Ethiopian youth engagement in agriculture before arriving for my internship. But after my first hour in the capital of Ethiopia, I realized that no level of academic preparation could have prepared me for life in Addis Ababa.
To many Americans, ‘Africa’ is an abstract concept. Many of us have been asked to donate to organizations that use small African children with big eyes on their posters, where campaigns promise to build wells, provide mosquito nets, or procure food aid. In schools, Africa is often taught as an exotic, impoverished, and misunderstood part of the world. Africa was historically (and ignorantly) referred to as the ‘Dark Continent’. While political rhetoric has somewhat evolved since the 19th century, public understanding about Africa as a 21st century reality remains stubbornly dim. As I squished the first of many (many, many) bugs in my apartment, I steeled myself to realign the image of Africa I had in my head, and the soggy, frustrating, mysterious, rewarding Africa in which I had arrived.
One of the first things I learned is that domestic activities take time in Ethiopia. I spent several hours per day buying food, cooking, washing dishes, sweeping up the inevitable dust and mud, getting rid of bugs, and sitting in endless traffic for my five-mile commute to the office. I lived in Jemo, one of the up-and-coming middle-class neighborhoods on the southern edge of the city. Due to the rapid influx of new houses and business, the power grid was systematically overwhelmed. At least once or twice a day, the lights above me would sigh dramatically and go out. Sometimes these power failures would last a few minutes. Sometimes they would last a few days. For that reason, I never felt comfortable buying food that needed to be refrigerated—either it could go bad in my fridge or may have already turned during a power failure at the supermarket.
I ended up cooking most of my meals at home, mostly out of necessity. Tap-water in Addis Ababa is not safe to drink, and even my friends who had never left the city drank from water bottles. For me, that precaution extended to produce. I was obliged to boil any fruit or vegetable that could not be peeled or was not imported. At restaurants, according to Ethiopian culture, a group of people shares one giant plate covered with a doughy-like substance called injera. The main dishes, mainly consisting of stews, meats, and cooked vegetables, are ladled on top. People then rip off little pieces of injera, push some of the stew with the thumb into the injera and squeeze into a pouch, and eat. As a vegetarian and sensitive to anything water-born, I ordered separately from my colleagues, and used an inordinate amount of hand sanitizer (I had to sanitize each time after washing my hands, regardless of the situation).
At the time, my physical inconveniences seemed endless. During my second full day in the office, all Internet connections were preemptively shut down. Someone had stolen the national high school exams last year and posted them on Facebook. Apparently, the government wasn’t taking any chances this year. The Internet blackout lasted for ten days. “At least we have Internet,” my colleague and supervisor Getachew joked as I stared bleakly at my screen. “Most parts of Ethiopia still don’t have coverage. For you, Internet blackouts, power failures, and government censuring are frustrating, because you have always had fast and free access to information and technology. For us, even fragile Internet is a sign of how much we have modernized.”
Throughout my summer, I began to understand why Ethiopians are incredibly proud of their history, culture, and status as a ‘model’ developing country. Some of the oldest ancestors to humans have been found in Ethiopia, and the National Museum permanently houses the famous Lucy skeleton. Abyssinia, another name for Ethiopia, holds biblical clout, and the geography’s importance plays a pivotal role in Ethiopian Orthodox practices. Ethiopia is also the only African country that was never formally colonized. Although the Italians occupied the country between 1935-1947, and many concrete buildings in Addis Ababa date to this era, this pride in independence is still manifest in the regularity with which flags are flown, anthems are played, and references to the superiority of Ethiopia are made. Addis Ababa was chosen as the headquarters for the Organization of African Union (OAU) when it was created in 1963, viewed as a bastion of true African independence amidst waves of decolonization.
Today, the city houses the African Union, the organization that has since replaced the OAU. In addition to hosting countless international organizations, Ethiopia is often referred to as a ‘growth miracle’. Over the past fifteen years, Ethiopia has experienced GDP growth of over 10% per year. To put things in perspective, GDP growth in China in 2016 hovered at a more modest 6.7%. The government has aggressively pursued a series of Growth and Transformation Plans, which have taken the form of ambitious construction projects, technological development, and the expansion of services and manufacturing. The recent economic boom has produced a community of nouveau riche, who more often than not hide themselves behind gated communities and tinted windshields. However, suffering still touches the vast majority of the population.
“I don’t understand how people in the United States can keep pets. In Ethiopia, we can’t feed all of our people. Why would we give food to animals, who can take care of themselves, when people are sitting on the sidewalk starving?” My friend Nehimya patted the head of a small child affectionately and whispered a few words in Amharic to him. He giggled and ran away, tugging the arms of a few friends towards where Nehimya and I were walking. We had just finished a discussion about cultural differences between our cultural practices. I had admitted to Nehmiya how painful it was for me to walk past emaciated animals stranded in the street. She had turned to me, surprised. “But what about the emaciated people?”
It was true. Many people on the streets wore clothes that hung off their shoulders. I had been touched when I saw a shopkeeper handing out food at the end of the day to a line of hungry people. This practice is one of the countless manifestations of Ethiopian generosity. I have never I experienced such warmth and openness. My prior experiences have taught me that people want to help. But that desire often remains just that, a desire. Too often, we are too busy, have already made plans, or do not have a convenient moment to spend time doing something for someone else.
The opposite is true in Ethiopia. The society that I entered was truly based around sharing what one has, be that time, energy, resources, or love. After a broken water tank and a bug infestation forced me to change apartment units three times, my new friend Allia* called me while I was at work. “Your apartment situation is unacceptable. I just visited each of the available apartments and chose the best one for you. My twins and I just finished cleaning it for you. We will wait until you get back to help you move, because I don’t want to touch your stuff without your approval.” This was a woman whom I had met once or twice in passing. I thanked her and hung up the phone, too moved for words.
Allia and her four-year-old twins proceeded to become my most treasured friends in Ethiopia. From Allia I learned the extent to which one human can love another. Her tireless energy, patience, and affection for her kids is truly exemplary, as is her compassion for children everywhere. After having spent her teenage years as a refugee in a neighboring African country, Allia moved to the United States. She then learned English, attended college, and spent a few years working on the West Coast. Allia then moved back to Ethiopia to work in children’s adoptions. She has since provided loving homes for over 700 Ethiopian children and is still in contact with many of the families. During my brief stay in her apartment complex, Allia and her twins adopted me into their family. The kids, bilingual in English and Amharic, would often jump on my back, pull my hands squealing with delight, and chase after me as I went for runs around the grassy fields near our apartments.
While my research on the dairy value chain was the professional culmination of my internship in Addis Ababa, my personal experiences are what lastingly defined my summer in Ethiopia. The shape of my person has been remolded and reset in a new, more flexible form. Often at night I would feel heavy, feeling the weight of the realities outside of my apartment. But the experience also taught me much about what’s happening in Eastern Africa, incredible droughts and population movement and ethnic unrest that is often glossed over in international papers. I have become increasingly interested in the intersection of climate studies and population vulnerability. Through my research, I learned about how many smallholder farmers are forced from their lands due to drought or unfair land policies. When farming is one’s only source of income and primary source of food, land becomes key to maintaining a sustainable livelihood. But constant political instability and unfavorable climate change are jeopardizing the futures of many in Eastern Africa. Many migrants arriving on the shores of Italy and Greece are from war-torn Somalia and Eritrea, or from drought-impoverished Djibouti and Ethiopia. These people have journeyed through Ethiopia, crossed Sudan, and sailed from Libya. They have braved conflict, thousands of miles of unforgiving desert, and a precarious Mediterranean crossing for the hope of a better future.
Challenges faced in Ethiopia also constitute some of the world’s most pressing problems. I left feeling physically depleted, yet morally energized. I think that is one of the greatest treasures of Ethiopia. The country teaches you to find an inner strength. It is something you may not know exists, but is almost certainly present in all of us. It requires strength to witness the hardships of the people around you. It requires courage to forego many comforts that are taken for granted in developed countries, such as the ability to eat food raw or the assurance that flipping a light-switch will turn on the light. It requires resilience to internalize the fact that, as a visitor, your experiences are temporary. For 100 million Ethiopians, this experience is the only experience.
To all of my friends and acquaintances in Ethiopia, for making my summer truly unforgettable: Ameseginalehu.
Rachel Brock is a senior at the University of Pennsylvania where she studies International Relations and French.
*Name has been changed