Thank you, Ethiopia

Today Ethiopians celebrate a new year, 2008. Families, friends and neighbours gather together. Since two days ago, we have heard the sheep making their sounds in gardens around our houses. This morning, as we took a walk, the noises had disappeared, the reason being clear: two guys walked into houses and then came out to wash a blood-stained plastic sheet. This is how Ethiopia works: there are vegetarian times, and there are meat-congested times. Almost never is the meat in Bahir Dar bought as a frozen good from the supermarket (such institutions do not exist here), it is consumed as a product of what it is, the best parts of something that was once a living creature, usually walking around your compound a few hours before it gets eaten.

I am bringing this up because when we arrived in Ethiopia almost two years ago and took a walk around our first stop on the journey, the capital Addis Abeba, my culture shock emerged from the way animals were treated. There was an alley filled with goats and as some of you may know, goats can make quite raucous sounds. It was an intense moment of buying and selling. Goats were huddled together and their legs were pulled, their sturdy bodies assessed for their quality, for who wants to pay a huge price for something that is not worth the money? I stood there and looked away, that looking away becoming a repeated pattern in some situations later on. It was and has been animals and their treatment which raised an initial culture shock in me in Ethiopia. I thought: how barbaric, how primitive. And yet I was happy to have myself call my own bluff: What do I mean? Is it worse because I can see it? For what do we really know about animal production and slaughtering these days in Finland? In a way, after spending time here, I’ve come to appreciate the transparency of all of this, the food production, the slaughtering, the fasting, and the feasting. But I admit, it still makes me sad, the way sheep or chicken are loaded on minibus roofs with rope and taken to the market on their final journey. Yes, killing animals makes me sad and I am happy I am a vegetarian. But if I had to choose one system over the other, I’d prefer the Ethiopian meat production system over the Western model in a heartbeat.

Tomorrow, before the break of dawn we are taking off and starting our long journey home. It will first take a 540 km drive from Bahir Dar to Addis Abeba, and then many many more hours until we reach Europe. The other day I was sitting in the car and a radio program was on about the refugee crisis in Europe. My local friend asked me: why are you not helping? It was a good question, and he continued: Ethiopia is poor, but still we take refugees, we have many camps up north. All of this is true. While Europe is debating whether we should take refugees or not, other countries, much poorer than us, are already doing that. But it often seems to be a European/Western trait to forget that there is more to the world than our fortunes and misfortunes. So many stories, so many lives and just one common mankind. Life happens in this very moment everywhere in the world. In the highlands of Amhara, and in the south of Ethiopia, along the Blue Nile and the White Nile. People drinking their coffee and sharing stories. Mostly the world is a great place. I still think that.

I will miss the everyday things, this micro-universe of ours, especially our neighbourhood with all its peculiarities. If I came back after 10 years, would everything still be the way we left it? Are the same women selling bananas on the cobblestone roads? Will the boys be loitering around the shop, talking about how the price of eggs has risen in the past months, or are they watching Ethiopian Idol? Or will they sit in the shelter of that shop during the football World Cup and witness Ethiopia in the games? And if that hasn’t happened, will they again hope Germany wins? Will the women be out on the street making injera in the night, perhaps because that is the only time of the day when they have free time in their hands? The flies will occupy the space around the fire; otherwise it is pitch black dark, and the night is cool, a wondrous December moment with a sky full of stars. Will the dogs howl out in the night?

And then there are everyday things I won’t miss. The power cuts, the bad internet connection. For nothing ever really working the way it should. Some of the ridiculous rules and regulations. And at the same time, it puts a smile on my face how these concerns at times seemed to be the center of my universe. They were all I could ramble on. These gigantic problems. And how minuscule these problems could appear after a moment of cooling down. And yet how they were all significant to feel and go through. But yes, most of all, I will remember this neighbourhood of ours. The sounds and the smells and the voices. The guys on Saturday morning who exchange old clothes for plastic. The shoe sellers, the funeral calls, the church music (I can laugh at that now, but I swear there were times when I was ready to barge in a church and switch off the loudspeaker). I’ll remember the nights I lay awake in our bed because the baby was kicking so much. This rain, I thought, we’ll never ever forget, you and me, little baby. I wondered if you heard it too.

Africa changed me. Of course it did, but writing that also makes me feel like like a typical foreigner who is supposed to write that. So many have written about that before me, and so many have experienced it as well. But this was my experience, and it’s been as real to me as anything. My story, my experience is just one. The thing in Ethiopia is that everyone has got a powerful story to tell. And you fall in love with Ethiopians when they tell you their life stories. Many people have been through a lot, escaped war barefoot, fought in wars, suffered of hunger. These stories make you humble, and I used to think that my life story is so boring compared to all of these other histories. Nowadays I think every story is significant, every life equal! Ethiopians are proud people, and they will always somehow make it through. They are fighters. I hope some of that strength has been contagious during my time here. Yes, Africa changed me, in many ways. It made me not afraid of speaking my mind, because if I don’t, I’m not heard. That is the lesson for often being the only woman around. But I’ve also learned that my image and thought of being a woman is not the only right way of being. Being silent or taciturn does not necessarily mean a woman in a crowd is suppressed. I’ve learned to judge a bit less, but at the same time to respect my own background and upbringing even more.

So, beautiful Ethiopia, this was not an homage to your beautiful scenery, your cities, your attractions. You already know I fell in love with them a while ago. And you know I will miss injera, just like you miss it the moment you have left the borders of your country, and that’s why you pack them in your suitcase. Along with that huge bag of berbere, the red pepper that will make the customs official cough and sneeze. So let’s just put it this way: You! You! Hey Mr! Hey Madame! May I talk to you for one second! Are you fine? Where are you go?

I hope some place peaceful, someplace good.

8 thoughts on “Thank you, Ethiopia

  1. Dear Laura, I love and appreciate your writing of your experience in Ethiopia. I served in the American Peace Corps from 1966-68. I fell in love with Iran and her people. Images of Iran, an Iranian movie, an Iranian meal, a reunion with an old Iranian friend or another RPC-Iran volunteer, are moments of true joy and often tears. As the US and Iran move closer to this momentous nuclear arms agreement, hope springs that peace and goodwill will prevail and that I may again see Iran. I wish every young person in our world could have the experience of living for a year or two in another culture. Living in Iran changed my life, and ‘Thankyou’, Iran. Hodah Havez (Go with God), Emily

    1. Dear Emily,

      Thank you so much for commenting. Your story is powerful and very touching. I hope you will see Iran again one day. I have heard so many good things about it and its people! Wishing you a wonderful weekend.

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