It is very much difficult

That is how my Ethiopian friends often conclude a challenging, sad or unexpected event: it is very much difficult.

I’m a Finn, expected to possess the innate quality of perseverance, or sisu as we say in Finnish, which basically means that once you start something, you finish it, and shouldn’t complain too much. But I swore to myself when starting this blog that I wouldn’t only focus on writing about the positive sides of my life here. Life is not an endless, carefree summer night.

Whether you are a young person soon leaving for your first work task abroad or my friend who will ask me after all of this “How was it? How was Ethiopia?”, you will most likely receive a very circuitous reply, me being unable to explain in that moment the things that I loved here and those that I didn’t. So let me use this blog as a forum for archiving those less rosy moments.

These past 17 months in Ethiopia, I have learned the concept of extreme feelings. There are many moments of euphoric joy, understanding, sisterhood, brotherhood, a sort of world embracing love inside of you. Then there are low moments, and I mean really low moments. Let’s call these the doldrums.

There are not as many regular, no surprises, nothing-new-here days without ups or downs, which for some might be the dream but for me this is new.

And then there is the guilt. With negative feelings come guilt. You tell yourself: this is what you wanted. This is your dream! So shut up. But your mind won’t shut up. Maybe that’s the most important learning point for me. There is nothing wrong in negative feelings. They come and they go. It is a bad strategy, I have learned here, to just think positive when you face something extremely challenging. Sometimes you just got to let the bad stuff out. Then let it go.

There are feelings of total alienation because you don’t speak the language well enough (and here comes the guilt mode again: why haven’t I learnt the language better?). And you feel like you never really know what is going on in the country. You can never, ever truly grasp the psyche of local people, you can never have your finger on the pulse of everyday events. You are an outsider with an expiry date. In these past 17 months, I have finally understood how it must feel for immigrants in Finland. It takes a long time to feel truly at home in a new culture and society. I have lived abroad before but this is the longest stretch of them all, and by far the most challenging (why? because I can never really blend in because of the way I look. It is the curse and the blessing. Blessing, because you suddenly realize how the world feels for many).

There’s a sort of statelessness you find yourself drifting in – this is not really my home, but neither is Finland at the moment. What about my friends and family there? Will they forget me? Am I a bad person for leaving everybody behind for such a long time? (and the back of your mind: shut up! this is what you wanted. Plus you are not really that important. People have their own lives to live).

There is not one single day during which you won’t feel a certain uncomfort due to your gargantuan richness. Repeatedly you try to tell yourself: I am not rich. I am a person with regular income. When I go back to Finland, I am not a rich person. Yet you know that is a load of crap. In the eyes of many locals, you will always be rich, not just because of your money, but because you have realized there is so much more to being truly rich and not poor: to have opportunities and to not have experienced violence or war in your lifetime. And realizing that makes you sadder.

You won’t ever be able to help all people living in fear, extreme poverty or total lack of opportunities. It makes you feel helpless but you are not eager to admit that thought because that is not adult vocabulary. As adults, we should drop words like: systemic change, job creation, economic growth, good governance. We are not supposed to cry out and say: this is so wrong! this makes me so sad!

You tell yourself working in a development aid project is just a job. Still you would need some serious training in making that thought a reality. It is very difficult to think of it just as a job. You feel pressured because it is public money and the public wants to see results. At the same time you feel frustrated because it is public money and some people seem to care very little about results. How can it just be a job, when you are trying to contribute to poverty reduction, and you see needs everywhere? That is the dilemma of aid workers long before me, and long after me. Yet it is one of the most important things to overcome.

Do you feel me? There are extreme feelings. The more I look at it, people working in this field would need mental training and peer support. Ways of not shutting yourself out of the local culture but also not forgetting your own roots and culture, which you should be able to feel proud of, despite differences, despite guilt. Ways of not shutting your heart completely (becoming cynical) but also not becoming blue-eyed, naive or a know-it-all. Ways of creating lightness among heaviness. Not forgetting to laugh. And ways of dealing with difficult things, especially poverty, with some other strategy than just looking away. I am certain overcoming these challenges become easier with experience and age.

Coming here to Ethiopia is the best thing that I’ve ever done, and probably precisely because it has, at times, been so very much difficult. I’m proud of myself for making it this far! It has made me realize how little I actually know.

These are my confessions…. what are yours?

6 thoughts on “It is very much difficult

  1. someday my people will recognize your effort. thank you Laura Kihlström and i know you will create a lot of motivations around the globe for someone who read this title. thank you again

    1. Thank you Kaleb! Sorry, I had for some reason missed this comment, and therefore failed to reply sooner. I hope this post will help others in a similar position.

  2. Hi selam i feel your frustration i know it is very difficult to work such a wonderfull job in developing countries like ethiopia which the working ethics and culture is very much different than finland . I know the situation on the ground because am from that country but keep the good work and try to forget bad feelings and make your dreams come true because what you are doing is noble and i want you to show the ppl there how finnish ppl hard working and trustfull

    1. Hi mom, great to read your comment. I am happy you have found my blog. Ethiopia is a beautiful country with beautiful people, and I think it is only helpful to learn about different (working ) cultures. This has been a great learning experience for me.

  3. Thank you Laura for your wise words. Long time a go I went to Zambia for a volunteer job and got very frustrated with so many things. I never had such a beautiful resevoir of words that you have to express all contradictory feelings in the job. I support the idea of a counterpart in a developing work. In fact it is the way that many social workers maintain in municipal social offices at least in Eastern Finland. Long time ago I had a Zambian counterpart, but I did not understand all reasons for volunteer counterparting. Maybe I missed a lesson already in the course of orientation?
    Katri Karkinen

    1. Dear Katri, thanks so much for the comment! This was one of those posts that I just had to write, and it was interesting to see the reactions of readers – it seemed like many had gone through those feelings as well. I am sure your experience in Zambia gave you lot to think about, lot of memories, lot of challenges to reminisce on. My Ethiopian experience is soon coming to an end but the memories will stay for life!

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