5. Beyond a Single Story

Beyond a Single Story
8.7.16 / Friday, July 8, 2016

What a joy it is to be a vegetarian in Ethiopia! The current month of fasting for Orthodox Christians of course includes injera (tef is quickly becoming the world’s next hyped-up, gluten-free super-food) along with the best veggies and the most delicious spices prepared fresh every day. For Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, fasting essentially means a vegan diet, so every lunch at Hope for Children (HFC) as well as every restaurant regularly features a variety of meat-free, animal-byproduct-free meals (my dairy-free, gluten-free people would also thrive here). In addition to traditional Ethiopian fare, pasta and pizza (even tef pizza! – waaay better than typical gluten-free crust) can also be found on most menus. Although Ethiopia is said to be the only African country to have avoided colonialism, after overthrowing a five-year occupation from the Italians at the Battle of Adwa, the remnants of Italian cuisine have endured, now existing as a fusion with Ethiopian flavors; there’s even a ‘fasting pizza’ on most menus – no cheese but loaded with different veggies on top of the tomato sauce — I’m a big fan. Food aside, there is a deep pride, stated outright and tangibly felt, in being Ethiopian, specifically in retaining an identity that is uniquely and distinctly Habesha (in language, clothing, food, music, dance, religion, time, & overall history). Consequently, when the world learned of Ethiopia’s successful defeat against Italy’s colonizing attempts (circa 1896), Ethiopians were elevated in the Western eye as special or separate from the rest of the continent.

This idea of Ethiopian exceptionalism runs deep, but it is also countered by a single narrative that is often applied to Ethiopia with images of widespread famine, suffering, and depravation (think of which photos of Ethiopia were circulated throughout the 1970s-1990s in the West). Ethiopia’s current economic (double-digit growth in the past decade) and infrastructural push (new roads, bridges, railways, & dams) points to strategic efforts to reclaim an identity as one of the great civilizations of the world, but I wonder how much of the world is actually paying attention or is willing to expand their outlook beyond a single story? I have already heard from friends and family that they have been surprised to see all of the green elements in my photos. Likewise, before I came here, people kept exclaiming, “Your summer will sure be hot!” In reality, I’m cold nearly every day, and while the ongoing rain keeps it green in Addis, it also keeps me bumping umbrellas with the rest of the city. Addis Ababa is certainly not the starving, barren desert that comes to people’s minds when they hear, “Ethiopia.” Yes, there is poverty no doubt, but this country’s diversity (in landscape, climate, culture, and socio-economic status) goes far beyond the forlorn-looking, barefoot orphan standing on cracked, red dirt.

I’m resolved to present stories and share photos that encapsulate the multi-faceted, nuanced reality of this city and country. In the same regard, I am seeking to be extra-conscious and mindful about how I engage Addis and her people, specifically as a white woman holding socioeconomic, US-passport, and often skin color privilege; I do not want to perpetuate the image of the naïve humanitarian/aid-worker “helping the poor Africans.” The recent critique of this narrative, as shown through the Instagram parody “White Savior Barbie” (IG: @saviorbarbie) cleverly illustrates the exact perspective/interaction/presentation I am seeking to avoid as well as deconstruct (see also: White Savior Barbie’s world of orphanage selfies and charity startups). In the same regard, the latest mass-rejection of a privileged, white woman’s memoir capitalizing off of the “suffering” of an HIV+ orphan in Zambia during the Congolese war (it’s embarrassing that such blatant ignorance could get a pass even from mainstream editors and publishers) showcases just how common this perspective/undertaking is as a (truth-be-told) recapitulation of colonialism. As problematic as these narratives are (notably all from white, western women), it’s crucial that I examine them alongside my own practice, making space for ongoing introspection, and being open to critique from outside voices. One such critique comes from Binyavanga Wainaina, a famous Kenyan writer, who poignantly and humorously describes “How to Write About Africa” (published in 2005 and perfect in its satire). Wainaina’s essay is an essential reading, especially for folks throughout the western world (thanks to Mark, it was part of our spring preparation before coming to Addis).

If there are any questions and/or critique about my role here and the work I’m engaging, I would certainly welcome a dialogue; these kind of conversations are how we learn and evolve (know better, do better). Since The New School is an institution founded on social justice principles, which often challenge conventional attitudes/beliefs, I want to be extra cognizant to make real, tangible connections between critical theory and actual on-the-ground praxis. Because we came to Addis Ababa with The New School’s International Field Program and are engaging long-standing partnerships between the IFP and local entities in Addis, it matters to me how our time here reflects on the NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and CBOs (community based organizations) with whom we are partnering. Furthermore, because this internship points to the larger social justice perspective and action that I’m committed to making my life’s work, I care a great deal about how my involvement can positively or negatively impact a multitude of people on both macro and micro levels. Suffice to say, mindfulness as a guest/intern/US passport holder really, really matters.

Throughout the world, the last day of school is always a big affair, and Hope for Children’s brilliant K-12 school, St Yared’s (currently K-6 with a grade being added each year), was certainly no exception. I visited the school last week, meeting administrators, teachers, and staff like the school nurse and the school cooks (who prepare a fresh, nutritious breakfast, lunch, & mid-day snack for St Yared students every day), and I got to assist with individual student photos as well as class photos. The activities of the last day afforded me the opportunity to get to know different groups of students, especially during lunchtime and recess – the final-day-before-summer-break energy was palpable. I kept trying to use my Amareena with the students, but their English was so on-point (the school really excels in bilingual education) that we could easily converse without my Amareena attempts; several students did quiz me on my Amareena knowledge though and patiently taught me new words or corrected my pronunciation. After chatting with the first graders, we spent time on mental math equations, each trying to come up with the answer the quickest – such sharp students! The fourth graders were keen to participate in a cultural exchange of sorts; they would show me traditional dances from different regions and then wait for me to offer a dance move from the U.S. (I stuck with jazz squares & a lil’ hip hop swagger), or they would teach me an Ethiopian football chant (“Buna” is the nickname for the men’s team and “Lucy” is the nickname for the women’s team) and wait for a soccer chant from me (the oft-used MLS “I believe; I believe that we will win!” came in real handy).

Getting to know these bright minds, through playing wall-ball, conversing, and even singing a bit, gave me a chance to see the overall aptitude and confidence that is instilled into St Yared students. And since each student is selected to attend St Yared’s (each receiving a 100% 14-year scholarship – two years of Kindergarten + grades 1-12 – which also includes school supplies, uniforms, transportation, & meals) based on family-need with a specific commitment to the Ferensay neighborhood (a particularly impoverished area of Addis), there are already significant challenges at play, many of which have the potential to impede their success in school. It is evident that the entire staff shares a commitment to each student’s growth, purposefully creating an environment where students can flourish. After working in multiple schools and for a Colorado school district with one of the highest poverty rates, I have witnessed a variety of education settings, noting different patterns that seem to benefit or hinder students’ success. When educators are united around a common vision and there is a shared morale from administrators, teachers, and staff alike, it dramatically influences the overall learning environment and climate of the school. St Yared’s staff truly excels in knowing each student’s story and circumstance and in actively addressing individual learning and living needs. I can’t say enough good things about this school. The co-founder of the school, Yared Wolde, is well-respected by students and parents alike; his own story is a source of inspiration. Yared knows each student’s family and is currently focusing on organizing different parent groups, actively involving guardians in their child’s education and modeling different microfinance initiatives for community members to support one another.

At the end of the school day, I got to join the 1st-6th grade students on their bus (a standard city-bus that the school rents from Addis’ transportation administration) en route to the kindergarten campus and the students’ home neighborhood, Ferensay. On the bus, I chatted with a group of older girls, discussing their favorite subjects in school (science was really popular with the young women who said they want to be doctors), favorite authors/books (James and the Giant Peach, The Lion, The Witch, & The Wardrobe, and Cinderella were all big hits), and a wonderful question, from one of the 5th grade girls, “What is your special talent?” (when I posed the question back, the response was writing poetry – love these brilliant, talented young minds). The conversation then turned to American pop culture; one of the 6th grade girls asked me a barrage of questions which included, “Are Selena Gomez and Justin Bieber still fighting?;” “Does Beyoncé believe in God or the devil?;” “Did you know that the singer Prince died?;” And, “If I stand at a red carpet, do you think I can get a photo with J.Lo?” Oh, how small the world has become through globalized media and mass communication! I stifled all laughter because she asked these questions in such earnestness, and I think I was semi-successful in putting all that ‘illuminati mess’ (the Beygency is strong in Addis too!) to rest.

When visiting the kindergarten campus (presently located at a separate location, next year it will be moving to the main campus), I was blown away by the activities in which five and six-year-olds were engaged. The white board photo below shows the letter that kindergarten students were writing to their HFC sponsor on their last day. Note that even the younger kindergarteners were writing these type of sentences in English (check out the chart of complex vowel combinations), but this is their second language and second alphabet! The other photos display some of the bilingual elements in their classrooms — mastering two alphabets at such a young age is no small feat! The kindergarten staff is just as passionate and dedicated as the main campus staff, and they have the important task of preparing these young ones for a comprehensive and rigorous academic career. Tomorrow, I get to attend the graduation ceremony of the upper-grade kindergarteners; the graduation to 1st grade is a big to-do here with the older grades performing traditional dances, skits, and original poetry – the ceremony itself is a point of pride for the community – certainly looking forward to this.

If you’d like to read more recent highlights about The School of St Yared, you can check out a blog from Claire, a volunteer who just completed a month here partnering with the school.

Rainboots were a brilliant investment before moving here (thanks to last year’s IFP group for the recommendation). My female coworkers at HFC wanted to know where I purchased these black-wedge-ankle-high-rainboots, a super practical shoe for this city; it seems like the rainboot market has yet to make a substantial breakthrough in Addis (word-to-the-wise in case someone wants to open a rainboot store – especially with members of the Ethiopian diaspora continually investing in new businesses here). With daily showers and thunderstorms, rainboots are a must for sloshing through mud. Because our neighborhood is a more recent addition to the city, most of the sidewalks are still being installed, one 6”x6” square at time. In the interim period, there is an extra adventure in navigating over piles of rubble, rocks, or dirt, while also avoiding occasional manholes along the way. I’m a city gal who loves making my way through a concrete jungle in a good wedge or platform heel, so the lack of sidewalks has been a surprise in such a large urban center. The challenge isn’t walking in the street along with the traffic (although trying to avoid inhaling all the diesel exhaust is its own test); it’s more that I’m hoping to not twist an ankle while hiking along the shoulder of major streets without many streetlamps to light the way. I gotta hand it to some of my coworkers who show up to the office each day in actual heels; mad props to these Addis ladies. For now, I rejoice whenever a new patch of sidewalk gets installed along the main road (Haile Gebre Selassie Street – named after the Olympian long-distance runner); the same road where the Addis’ new light rail runs.

The light rail only opened in the last year, and it’s already so utilized that city planners will soon need to reassess this transportation option. NYC subways can get plenty packed during rush hour, but this is on a whole other level. It’s safe to say that personal space and overall touch are viewed differently in Ethiopia as compared to the US, but with some folks resorting to shoving in order to get on and off at their stop, there’s no question more cars are needed to address the overall demand. Since it’s an entirely new system, I don’t think the transportation authorities had any way to anticipate the volume of ridership that would be on there each day. While the light rail provides great views (if you’re near a window) along a seamless track, it makes the somewhat-frenzied minibus scene all the more appealing for getting from here to there.

Sneha, Amanda, and I recently attended an event in recognition of the second-annual International Day of Yoga sponsored by the Indian Embassy with over 800 participants at the Sheraton Hotel, including Ethiopian and Indian locals as well as ferenji (foreigners). Sneha was able to connect with several people who are from Kerala, the state where her parents grew up in India. The International Day of Yoga is now a major event recognized throughout the world, so perhaps some blog readers participated in their home cities too. Although it was sponsored by the Indian Embassy, Ethiopian yogis were the instructors leading the event, and many Habesha locals who had embraced the yogi lifestyle and worldview for decades now were featured throughout the event. Admittedly, I would have preferred less speeches and more actual yoga time, but I was still glad they made the event accessible for newbies and longtime practitioners alike. I love that my women-folk-housemates are always up for a new adventure in as well as out of the city.

In the same weekend, Amanda organized a trip to Menagesha Suba National Forest, established in the 15th century and said to be the oldest conservation area/national forest on the continent! Talk about the lemlem (lush, green) life! Menegesha is located in Oromia (the region which surrounds Addis, also home to the largest ethnic minority in the country), about a two-hour drive from the capital. Because it is the rainy season, not as many folks utilize the trails at this time (we only crossed paths with local farmers herding sheep and donkeys). We lucked out though; there was no rain on our entire hike. A friend from Yom Institute, Bet, brought along two of her buddies to join our crew; one of her friends, Merci, is soon moving from Addis to Denver, so I am excited to connect her with some of my Colorado peeps. We had a guide to lead us through the forest, pointing out the different types of vegetation and wildlife along the way; I was stoked to see several baboons and the menelik bush buck (endemic to this area) as well as vivid birds (the brightest blue!) saunter or fly across the trail. Besides the hike itself, the drive to and from the forest provided a stunning change of scenery and a peek into several rural/agriculture-based communities; comparing the cattle to my hometown’s (Greeley, Colorado) unfortunate notoriety for cows and a sprawling beef plant showed what free-range livestock can look like (happy cows are in Ethiopia).

Thanks to our local IFP coordinator Yosef, Sneha and I were able to attend an annual Community Based Organizations (CBOs) celebration in Debrazeit, also located within the Oromo region. CBOs throughout the country were able to present success stories and statistics from each of their fields. While many of the organizations are focusing on empowering women, often through the self-help group model, the majority of attendees were men (many of whom hold prominent positions of leadership for these organizations). I have loved my experience at HFC all the more with both of my supervisors being women who hold director roles, each overseeing teams which empower youth, women, and the larger communities where HFC is present. It’s also worth mentioning that the principal of St Yared, Hirut, is a woman – she leads the school with the perfect combination of authority and compassion. At the celebration in Debrezeit, Sneha and I got to know three students, breaking away for a bit of adventure time – climbing trees and catching frogs (even with the girls rocking Amhara and Oromo traditional clothing for the celebration). Fenet (a 7th grader and aspiring fashion designer), Mahlet (a 5th grader who loves learning about space), and Fenet’s younger brother Naboni (also a 5th grader, already planning on being an engineer) knew the property well and took us to stunning views overlooking Debrezeit. It feels significant to have spent a decent chunk of time in this region after first learning about Oromia from several of my former students (multiple Oromo families now call Greeley home). The Oromo flag displays a tree in the center, almost identical to the trees we saw in Debrezeit and en route to Menagesha.

In continuing to discuss current events with my HFC colleagues, I was excited to learn that my supervisor Mariamawit Tassew was present for some of the initial meetings held at the African Union regarding the recently announced All-Africa passport initiative. Mariamawait is HFC’s Anti-Human Trafficking Program Coordinator, and since she focuses largely on migration issues in/out of Ethiopia, she holds an important perspective in this area. The single African passport is essentially the opposite of #Brexit (Britain’s referendum to leave the European Union) since it focuses on uniting the continent economically, politically, and socially. This e-Passport will exist as an electronic document and will permit an A.U. passport holder to enter any of the 54 A.U. member states, without requiring a visa. This A.U. single passport seeks to create a common market, much like the E.U., but there are still plenty of details yet to be ironed out, namely how this will be implemented “to benefit the strong and the weak, the rich and the poor, with both productivity and industrial capacity increasing in tandem.” (see: “The Opposite of #Brexit: Africa Launches an All-Africa Passport). With the A.U.’s headquarters in Addis, this announcement, highlighting a symbol of unity across Africa, is extra interesting when seeking to go beyond a single-story perspective in examining the nuances and particularities of the continent – or in the case of this blog, the distinctions and variations of this country and city.

To hear more about deconstructing the notion of a single story (whether a country, culture, or human being), listen to one of my all-time favorite TEDtalks by one of the most gifted writers of our time, Chimamnda Ngozi Adichie: The Danger of a Single Story.