1. First Impressions

On one of the first days of our International Field Program (IFP) orientation, we visited, among other things, a women’s self help group. The group is under the umbrella of CoSap, a wide-reaching community development organization in Ethiopia. Under a tree, next to a small vegetable garden, and in the midst of a light rain shower, considered to be a blessing, we sat facing each other, communicating indirectly through our trip coordinator, Yosef.

Ethiopia is a comprised of a patchwork of cultures, but in general has been characterized as a patriarchal and male-dominant society. We learned that, before joining the group, women did not, and would not, have a voice in their community, and had mainly engaged in activities such as hanging out and gossiping. Through pointed questions, and the grace of one particularly energetic storyteller, we heard about a woman who was able to prove her worth to a non-supportive husband in a time of household financial crisis, and another who would’ve lost her house if not for the group’s negotiations. Touchier questions were also raised regarding resistance to change of women’s roles in the home and political sphere.

Questions raised during this meeting have been recurrent throughout the first few days of this trip, and more broadly throughout my studies in development. What does development actually look like? How do people in “developing” countries think about development? Which groups are accepting and which are resistant? Which are empowered and which are subordinated? Finally, what do they think about us? While I would like to not use an “us” and “them” framework, I am reminded that I am a “farenj” (foreigner) often, in may ways. In the back of my mind, these questions reverberate, and I try to explore them without being disrespectful or overstepping boundaries.

Certain answers may come, whether through conversations with my co-workers at the Yom Institute for Economic Development (YIED), through meetings with community development groups such as the women’s group described above, through research, and through observation. I expect my perspective on development issues to change, and for new questions to arise.

As I finalize this post, I am also nearing the end of my first day at YIED. I will elaborate on my project here as it unfolds. But, to add some imagery, first days at work in Ethiopia include a mid-morning traditional coffee ceremony with co-workers and a 1.5 hour lunch break for fir-fir (injera+spicy tomato/vegetable stew – so good!). My walks to and from work are loud, and sometimes I shield my face from the overwhelming pollution on the main road. I walk mostly in the street, and pass hundreds of people on the way; few are beggars, others are sellers or dressed for work, and most, I have no idea (all not so different from NYC). The cluster of goats on one side and the new light rail passing by on the other, is a notable juxtaposition. I will try to get a picture of the scaffolding on construction sites. I hold my breath when I walk past, expecting the thin pieces of wood, seemingly nailed together, to snap at any time. It’s not the most beautiful site. But within the chaos of the city, and beyond – in the mountains, and in the villages, there are stories to uncover, and I hope to share some of them here!