Ethiopia Part II


photo by Sarah Shourd

photo by Sarah Shourd


Ethiopia Part II

Even at 4am the streets of Addis Ababa are busy with life. Through the cab window I see young men poised in the dark like maitre des, holding up woven platters stacked high with hard-boiled eggs. People walk in groups of two or three, I get the impression that a lot of them haven’t slept much. There are old women begging on street corners and younger ones posing seductively in doorways, working the early shift.

The bus station is a bubbling cauldron of people, every driver competing to fill up his bus with passengers first so that he can get going early before the roads clog. People rush at us in the darkness and confusion, demanding our tickets while pointing in several different directions at once. When we finally locate the bus to Gondar there are already two seats being held for us, seats I come to call the “white seats” because they are the best seats to be had, up front with the driver with an extra two inches of leg room, and everyone assumes we will be happy to pay a few extra birr for them.

Our luggage is whisked away, our birr hastily collected and we fall into the white seats. It’s a massive, dilapidated bus (it will break down and demand to be resuscitated twice in the next two days) quickly filling to capacity. The driver is a man with a cartoon-charactered towel wrapped delicately around his head, engrossed in rearranging the items on his spacious dashboard. There are two men, one exceptionally aggressive and the other exceptionally meek, that are apparently in charge of managing the passengers. The first is literally pushing people around, tossing luggage items and personal belongings and yelling at people in Amharic at the top of his lungs. The second lingers at his side, accepting orders with a nod, hovering silently with a fixed smile.

For the rest of the passengers this scene is probably as unexceptional as a Greyhound bus ride. For me it is like watching live musicians, I have to stretch my mind to imagine how each instrument is played and how it fits into the larger fabric of the music. Soon the driver revs up the engine and we begin to maneuver through a sea of people, smoke and animals so thick that only heads, large baskets and the occasional black, beady eyes beneath large, pointed horns are visible from our perch. We leave Addis Ababa and the first hints of morning light guide us out onto the open road.

Outside the City

The road north of is a veritable procession of colorful umbrellas, horse-drawn carts made of sticks and women carrying all manner of things: from huge bundles of sticks to large ceramic pots on their heads or backs. There are an estimated 10, 000 women who bring wood into Addis Ababa everyday, illegally poached from government Eucalyptus groves, and distribute it house-to-house to be used as firewood for cooking.

photo by Sarah shourd

photo by Sarah shourd

Everyone is wrapped from head to foot in long, blanket-like garments, anything from a shocking purple that makes your eyes widen as if to take more of it in, to the colorless fade fabrics take on when lived in, slept in and worked in continuously. At one point we are detained by an old bull sitting in the middle of the road who refuses to budge, another time we stop for an old woman in a hard hat sweeping debris from a construction sight off the road. Pastures of verdant green stretch out like carpets as we slither up steep cliffs and descend into rocky canyons.

There is an life-sized cut-out of a chubby, white baby positioned for maximum visibility on the front window of the bus. I ask Temesgan, who is practicing his English with me, what the deal is with the baby. “This must have some special meaning for the driver,” he says with a slight smirk. In other words, don’t assume that everything you see has a unique, cultural value. As a foreigner it is often tempting to oversimplify everything and come to hasty, often inaccurate conclusions.

Many things that I’ve seen I can’t begin to explain and many questions will never be answered; like the naked young woman painted with mud who was chased from a shop by a woman hurling water and curses. Whatever her story is, I’ll probably never know it. Or the young child in the taxi who said something that caused a group of 6 crammed-in adults to erupt into laughter for a full minute. Much of Ethiopia remains a mystery to me. That aside, the unfettered eyes of an outsider can pick up on some things that a more seasoned observer might miss. Here are a few personal, very general impressions made on the road to Gondar, condensed for your easy consumption into 7 points:

Why Ethiopia is not Babylon

photo by sarah shourd

photo by sarah shourd

1) People walk. The very stretch of tarmac that we travel on, and a few dozen feet to each side of it, is the center of activity for hundreds of miles. Cars are a luxury and very few of them are present in the fight to get out of the city. Many travel by mini-bus or the more economical gargantuan bus like ours; but most people walk.

Men support themselves with a long staff which can also serve as a weapon if need be. Young boys transport loads in make-shift carts make of long, unmilled sticks pulled by horse or mule. Babies ride in slings on their mother’s back. Groups of people sit by the road, families groom each other and friends stroll hand-in-hand. Some seem determined to get somewhere, while for many others the road is the place to be, where the world passes by, and the nexus of everything from commerce to social life.

2) People touch each other and private property is not sacrosanct. People don’t ask before they lean on your backpack, they just lean on it! Things and who they belong to aren’t a big focus of attention. People spill over into common space and stare deeply into each others eyes while talking. The man sitting three rows behind us is sweating out the ride in a thick, dark suit. While re-boarding after a 3-minute stretch break, the woman behind him starts to brush him off. The easy, simple way people interact make the obsession with personal space in North American culture seem puritanical. Bodies are not overly sexualized; physical contact is no big deal.

3) Human life is marked by the presence of animals. There are herds of donkeys and horned cows being whipped to safety by young children. They carry long whips that sound like lightening striking when cracked against the pavement. I was told that these children only work as herders when they are on vacation from school and I struggle to picture these hard, world-wizened youth sitting still for very long in a classroom.

Massive cows with yards of skin hanging loosely from their necks and huge humps on their backs roam in packs. I have been told that in villages animals wander free during the day and are trusted to return home at nightfall. One family may have 50 goats but they have no problem identifying each one (or calling them by name). Donkeys and mules are rubbed raw while hauling sacks of grain or rocks piled high on their backs. Chickens peek out from under skirts and tufts of grass disappear into ravenous goats.

4) Problems are often solved collectively. People are always working things out, be it 5 adults stepping in to break up a fight between kids through dialog or the entire country talking about how to keep everyone fed in the coming year after a season devastatingly short of rainfall. There is always someone willing to jump into a bad situation that has nothing to do with them to attempt and fix it.

photo by sarah shourd

photo by sarah shourd

At one point on the bus, people were handing around a crying baby that wouldn’t be consoled. A stern looking man with a gigantic headdress stuck his arm out the window and hammered on the side of the bus, commanding the driver to stop. The woman with the baby got off the bus and walked around for a few minutes until the it was consoled, then we started moving again.

5) Discussion is constant and education is highly valued. Heated public debates are in Amharic so usually I can only guess at their content but countless times people have approached me to talk politics, Ethiopian history, development, poverty, you name it. “Hunger is the second name of Ethiopia in the world,” one man told me with disgust, “We have a lot of knowledge but we don’t have the money and infrastructure for development. Without it, we can’t do anything.” Another time I noticed a man standing in line in front of me at the bank had a picture of Obama on his phone, I asked him if he thought Obama would help Ethiopia if he becomes president, “I am not this stupid” was his response,”We only hope that Obama can make the world a little less extreme.”

A lot of emphasis is put on learning English in public schools, it is the major criterion for a high paying job working with foreign investors in China, India and the U.S. I ask one student why so many Ethiopian speak English and a response rolls off his tongue “English is the international language. We learn it in order to participate in the globalization process and trade with other countries.”

Some people appear to place a lot of faith in globalization, while others are critical of it . Like in much of the world the economy seems to be rapidly spiraling into a recession and famine looms on the horizon. The local staple, injera, made from a grain called tef is about 4 times the price it was 1 year ago due mostly to oil prices. In a country with such extreme disparity of wealth, catering the economy to the international market appears only to benefit the rich.

Older generations are critical of the process of westernization seducing young people away from traditional culture with false promises of wealth and grandeur. This is particularly true for women who are pulled in many directions. Huge changes have occurred for women since Meles Zenawi took power ten years ago. Women won suffrage, affirmative action is written into the constitution and education is accepted as a right that both genders share.


photo by Sarah Shourd

photo by Sarah Shourd

Of course the majority of women who have benefited from this gender-based revolution are concentrated in the city. Poor women without education are widely excluded from this surge in women’s rights, though they are influenced by it, and for rural women progress is much, much slower. Several Oromo women that I talked to in the small town of Awadi complained that their husbands need to get with the times and start helping more with chores and raising the children. They seem dissatisfied that it’s taking so long for political changes to effect social change in their communities.

photo by sarah

photo by sarah


As a result, social norms are also changing. Women can now freely express love to men, pursuing who they like instead of passively waiting for men to take the initiative. A few friends of mine in Addis told me that it is no longer necessary for women to be virgins to be marriageable and that many men are beginning to see women with experience with previous partners as desirable. Still, women’s right are closely associated with westernization. Wearing close-fitting clothes and dating are seen as harbingers of the loss of culture and loose ethics.

6) Overall I experience gendered interactions to be far more relaxed than what I am used to. There is a kind of modesty and respectful distance between the sexes that makes relating to men a lot easier. Men don’t gawk at women or flirt too much unless you’re doing something perceive as immodest (ie if you’re smoking a cigarette in public in a small town you might as well be topless). Prostitutes flirt openly with foreign men but other than that interactions between woman and men that I’ve observed are marked by a refreshing and family-like familiarity.

photo by sarah shourd

photo by sarah shourd

7) Black/white racial dynamics are entirely different from how I experience them in the U.S. There isn’t the same history of European colonization here as in other African countries, and the resulting dynamic is absent. The Italian fascists tried to colonize Ethiopia in the 40s but were forced to leave after only 5 years. Ethiopia has never been successfully colonized and it shows.
That said, white skin sends a potent message here. We’ve been the only white people sitting in a packed restaurant in Addis Ababa and had the manager come out in person several times to ask us if we are enjoying the food. I am curious how an African-American, or any person of color from the U.S, would experience traveling in Ethiopia. Someone told me that when Oprah first came here to visit orphanages she was livid and almost got back on the plane when her white secretary was treated with more respect then she was.
White people have money, that’s the basic equation. There isn’t the same hostility that you might find in a previously colonized country, but, basically, if you are white everyone wants a piece of you.

And there aren’t enough of us to go around. I’ve had children reach out to touch my skin and then smell their hands. When you give food to one child ten more will catch wind of it and show up. A subsection of poor young men try to make their living off of tourists by latching onto them, scaring them into thinking they need protection and demanding large fees. We had a few really nasty experiences with them, but for the most part racial dynamics in Ethiopia forced me to identify with the global white privilege in a way that’s only been theoretical in the past. Race may be oversimplified in the context of the 3rd world but its by no means devoid of truth.


photo by Shane Bauer

photo by Shane Bauer

On to Dijibouti

My month in Ethiopia was ridiculously brief. There’s so much that I didn’t write about, so many ways that I only scratched the surface, that it seems almost silly to send this out. And now I’m in Yemen, attempting in my own humble way to decipher a culture that is so obscure and radically different it almost feels unintelligible to an outsider such as myself.

But never for a second have I second-guessed the importance of being here. There are brief moments that I feel myself stepping outside of my own cultural paradigm and able to witness a very different way that human beings organize themselves and make sense of the universe. Its these moments, and the awesome possibility that they hold, that keep the monster at bay that tells me there is nothing we can do about global politics spiraling out of control.
Its crucial in a world where our country is the strongest imperial power not to interpret the rest of the world through our own cultural lens, but to see other cultures as autonomous and distinct, as having their own history that guides them separate from our own. Lastly, it’s imperative that we look honestly at how totally off the wall and ill-informed many of our impressions of the 3rd world are, and how this ignorance feeds into our government’s inhumane foreign policy in many of these places.


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