I have just past my 2 month mark here in Ethiopia. Before leaving, I had been preparing for my year abroad since getting into the International Development program at the University of Toronto, and felt ready for anything. More specifically, I felt ready for an extremely difficult year of cultural difference, heart wrenching poverty, and loneliness. I couldn’t have been more wrong. There is something about Ethiopia and Ethiopians that make my time here so different from the year I was expecting.
To start off with, I am moved daily by the universal generosity here. Sometimes the culture of beggars here frustrates and disturbs me because it is so entrenched in society. How can growth and development occur if people ask for money and food rather than doing something productive to earn a living? But the thing that amazes me about it is that every single Ethiopian, no matter how poor they are themselves, will find 10 birr cents to put into the hands of a blind man or leper that comes to ask at the door of the minibus, or a quarter to give to the rural woman in rags with a baby strapped to her back. This distribution is common among everyone. Even when you present someone with a gift, they thank you and take it (without the protestations we are used to in the West), because they know that they or someone else will return the generosity to you in the near future.
This redistribution relates closely to perspectives of poverty among the poor themselves. Ethiopia is the 5th poorest country in the world, it suffers frequently from natural disasters and food insecurity, and the rate of HIV/AIDS is steadily increasing. I knew not to expect the glamorized distended bellies that appear on World Vision commercials, but still those images were there in my head. I met an 18 year old woman last week. Her mother had died from AIDS contracted from commercial sex work, she and her brother had been raped by men in the community, and she has a 4 year old daughter as a result. Now, as the oldest child in the family, she is responsible to take care of her daughter, brother and sister. Despite these terrible difficulties, the woman was smiling and welcoming as I entered her house. Her attitude showed that despite poverty, life and happiness continue, and she’ll do what it takes to provide herself and her family with a better future. Apart from the odd pessimist, this mentality has been visible in all the struggling people I’ve met, from CPAR beneficiaries to my neighbours and friends.
At CPAR, I’ve been surprised by how wrong my expectations were as well. During pre-departure training with the University and CIDA, we often talked about cross-cultural difficulties in the work place. I was to expect that as an independent Western woman, I would find things in office that contradicted my understanding of myself and my worth, or even simply made deadlines hard to meet. I wouldn’t necessarily be able to be “me”. Over my first few weeks here, I tried to keep my “heart-on-my-sleeve” temperament in check, keeping culturally sensitive issues to myself, like my lack of religion, my acceptance of homosexuality, and my tendency to take control to get things done. As I became closer to friends at work, I realized that they understood and expected me to be different, and that was okay. The first time my “get it done mode” kicked in before a deadline, I called my boss later to apologize for my assertive behaviour, but was encouraged to take this roll again when needed. And one of the favourite past times of my co-workers and me is to joke about our respective cultures. If you come by the office at tea time one afternoon, you’ll see me walking around like a chicken, poking fun of the “Toronto hurry”.
The generosity, positive attitude, hope and tolerance of Ethiopians contributes daily to my African happiness. At this point, I feel more at home here than I have in Toronto, with fulfilling work and a great social life. I might have felt prepared to leave Canada and come to Addis, but I can’t imagine what it will be like to go back. Only 8 months to go.