Coffee, Lessons, and other souvenirs

How often do you take the time out of your busy day to think about your contribution to society? This isn’t a guilt trip, because that would be sheer hypocrisy on my end. I so often let “life” get in the way of life. By this, I mean, I am so busy being busy that I forget to take a breath and contemplate what I am really doing. Am I truly happy? Am I on the path I want to be on? What is life? You know…the simple questions. I was confronted with a question while walking down the street with a fellow IFPer, Amanda. A loud and personal-space-invading man asking for money, stuck his hand in our faces shouting, “What the what?!” We were a little caught off guard, slightly irritated by his persistence, yet later playfully giggled with one another, because the existential question he had just shouted in our faces was far deeper than I am sure he intended. What IS the what?

The redundancy of my words quite literally plays upon my utter confusion and disorientation during my time in Addis Ababa. I was constantly asking myself or those with me, “What is going on?” More often than not, I had no idea, sparking a plethora of questions and discussion amongst the group.

I believe that it is through this confusion, while navigating foreign places and cultures that you learn not only about your surroundings, but also yourself. Yes, the cliché of finding yourself through getting lost is extremely true, and I shamelessly live by it. It was on this particular trip that I once again, found out more about myself. I owe this in equal parts to the intelligent and hilarious New School students I experienced this with, the disorienting puzzle of Ethiopian culture I tirelessly attempted to solve, and in the least self-promoting way possible, myself.

The group of nine students I was lucky enough to join on this journey, were a wonderfully colorful, ambitious, s m a r t (did I already mention that?) group. Due to this, I was initially intimidated. Being the only undergrad in the program, I couldn’t help but doubt my ability. I felt like I was behind, having joined so late in the game, and for personal reasons, less capable because of my level of education. (This was the first of my preconceived notions to be proven false.) After the first class in New York I left feeling uncharacteristically timid, anxious (characteristically), and enlightened. I remembered a quote that was the motivating factor in my decision to go; “If you are the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room.” I was definitely in the right room.

The class discussion was a heated one on the topic of “voluntourism” and the harm it does on developing countries, when approached carelessly. I had one of those moments where you hear something you had never thought of before and have to realign your life view in the blink of an eye. I had always wanted to travel and “do good,” and I didn’t really know how to best achieve that. Our professor Mark prepared us for our trip (and my life realignment) by stressing that we constantly think critically in all that we do:

  • Are we taking jobs that we are not necessarily trained to do like build houses? Could we instead aid their economy by helping open up new job opportunities for their society?
  • Are school clothing and material drives to ship to “Africa” the best way to provide necessities? Could we instead sell materials and use the money to buy locally in countries of need? (Mark would be happy to elaborate)
  • Are you thinking “critically” about the work that you are doing? Are you doing the best that you can? Could you be asserting yourself in different areas that could be of more help?

I started thinking differently about my ultimate goal in life, and that’s when I realized I wanted to be around these people. I wanted to surround myself with people who have similar passions and drive. They did not disappoint.

I knew I was around the right people when it only took 30 minutes upon arrival, before the topic of discussion was, “have you pooped yet?” This, and shortly after, the opposite end of the spectrum, were frequent greetings. The openness in the group fostered a safe space for deep discussions about what we were seeing, how we were feeling, and our thoughts on the continuous reel of conflict and destruction as seen through the looping graphic news on Al Jazeera (the only tv channel in our house). This safe space in house 1 was called the “round table,” where we shared our thoughts every night; many of which were candlelit (for lack of electricity rather than ambiance), passing rice and scrambled eggs on the “lazy susan”, and on my end of the table, sometimes shedding tears. The group as a whole enhanced my experience by encouraging one another to continue to think critically as well as creating a safe space I called home in the center of chaos. To them, and their ability to #letitgowild, I am eternally grateful.

Another factor that enhanced my experience, was the puzzle of Ethiopian culture I tried to make sense of. It was those questions that popped into my head every day when walking through the streets, that I mulled over, and then talked with the group about. Is the rapid pace of development causing everyone to create jobs like the young boys charging to weigh people? Will these new jobs be sustainable? How is the education system structured? How do pregnant women or those with young children navigate the rocky and often hazardous sidewalks? More often than not, those questions were later answered by locals and colleagues. Addis residents, young and old, are creating innovative jobs to stay afloat in the competitive and fast-paced capital city. Interestingly, for college applicants, the test scores for men and women are weighed differently, in order to encourage more women to attend. Many Ethiopians brush their teeth with “mefakia” which is a natural wooden toothbrush sold on the side of the street (another booming business), a safe alternative to the tap water approach my chronically ill colleagues took to brushing teeth.

            It is the quirky differences in Ethiopian culture of which I am constantly intrigued. Often the differences aren’t cultural as much as a way of life in adaptation to their surroundings. I learn more about the people through noticing and inquiring about the little details and the big questions.

The last of which I owe thanks to the overall experience would be myself. I owe it to myself, that I was able to push past personal obstacles and temporary hardships along the way. It was in certain times of doubt of the overall experience that I have to thank myself (and reinforcement from my friends) for turning it around. It was yet another reminder that at the end of the day, it is only me who is in complete control of how I feel about a situation. Though in times I may not control the outcome of a situation, I have full power in how I approach it and I have the ability to turn a negative into a positive.

Shakespeare once said, “Expectation is the root of all heartache.” I constantly remind myself of this, and had to replay these words in my mind during my time in Addis. Things were not how I had expected, initially making me angry and discouraged. It was that disappointment that I had to reassess. If I didn’t have those expectations to begin with I would not have felt the way I did. More importantly, I would be doing myself more harm holding onto those expectations, rather than letting them go and making the best of an unfortunate situation. Adapt, adjust and be flexible. My biggest takeaway from this experience working in development is that you have to be able to roll with the punches. Shit happens.


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