Preparing to depart from Ethiopia has left a bittersweet taste in my mouth. For the most part, the Ethiopian people have treated me well, and traveling outside of Addis has left me even more in awe of the graceful humility that Ethiopians never fail to convey. They are a sincere and welcoming people. But they suffer. Everyone suffers, even us with our “first-world problems,” but their suffering is one that is beyond the capacity of the human imagination and one that leaves you puzzled and in a state of hopeless confusion.
Not one Ethiopian that I spoke to had something positive to say about their government, and it’s easy to see why. When you stand outside of Edna Mall in Bole and stare at the somewhat shocking beam of light coming from the electronic billboard, you think, “progress.” However, this thought is punctuated by a mix of ellipses, exclamation points, and question marks. It leaves you uncertain of how to feel when you walk inside and a blouse costs $25 while teachers in country make an average of $100 a month. Bole is a small heaven complete with cupcakes, burritos, and Chicken Hut, but it’s a blip on a map that is marked by endless suffering, hard work, and that strange mix of hope and desperation. The big screen in Bole isn’t big enough to erase the images of women breast-feeding their babies while fanning roasting coffee beans on the side of the road, or the many people whose physical deformations have left them to beg for money at intersections, or the shoe-shine boys whose hands have been aged 100 years by hard labor, or the countless homeless people sleeping on the ground that have forced me to have the unthinkable thought of whether they were dead or alive. It is an unforgivable poverty, and there has not been a single day that it has left me less stunned than the day before.
So what does it mean? What does it mean when a girl from New Jersey, a child of immigrants that have come up in one generation, has had the chance to fly across the world to see a parallel universe in which the people living there can never fly to New Jersey to witness the way she lives? In some ways, the gain has gone to me, which in many ways, is highly unfair. I’ve questioned, been puzzled, been stumped, and have been inspired–those have been my true benefits from this trip. I may have ideas, but I do not have the ultimate solution. What I do have is the firm belief that people simply should not have to live this way. That parents should not have to rent out their children, women should not have to turn to prostitution or tolerate abuse from their husbands, that students should have a future and that families and whole generations of people should not have to go to sleep wondering how they will feed their children the next day. People should not be convinced that their only way out is by leaving their country. And yet, they do and they are.
I am cautiously optimistic about the state of the world. The course of human history is littered with trials and tribulations, conflict, poverty, and human suffering, and we, those lucky enough to be living at this very moment, are less than a blink of an eye in the span of what has been and what will come for the human race. However, suffering is never justified. Even if only a handful of people are helped, whether working for development or humanitarian causes or not, we can be the generation that makes a true impact if we all act in a concerted and responsible manner and if our faith in change is stronger and more unbreakable than the governments and systems that allow human suffering to run rampant. Once we lose this hope, we have lost the only element that retains our humanity.
Thank you, Ethiopia!