Development, Dependence and Difference

18 Jun

Akam bulte! (Just casually mixing in some Oromifa, ‘cause I can),

This is a post that I’ve wanted to write for a long time, but have been unsure about how to broach it sensitively, or whether I should talk about it at all. But it’s the reason I’m here, so I feel that I need to.

Ethiopia is a developing country, albeit one that is definitely on the make. Everything is getting better here all the time, and the rate of change is unbelievable. I walk past building sites that seem to change at lightning speed, and there is always activity going on everywhere. So in that sense, development is very much happening.

However, there are also fundamental issues, and the main worry that people I’ve spoken to have is about resources. Ethiopia is a country twice the size of France, with a population that is accelerating constantly. The problem is that food production is not increasing. Water availability is not increasing. Access to education, employment and services is not evenly distributed throughout the country, and the drive from Addis to Dire Dawa all that time ago made this abundantly clear. Tiny communities dotted along the roadside were dominated by US Aid tins and foreign food-handout stores. Even in Dire Dawa, those Aid tins are ever present, unrolled into flat sheets and used as makeshift bricks for temporary homes. The contradiction never fails to shock me.

The other big thing that has been occupying my thoughts has been the begging and street children. At first, my attitude was ‘this would never be allowed to happen in the UK’, as I pushed through swarms of children grabbing my clothes and bag and screaming for 1 birr. It was frightening and upsetting, and I wanted to make them go away. And then I stopped to think. The UK can pay to hide ‘undesirable’ situations from the public; Ethiopia cannot. And keeping the problem hidden is far worse.

We have homeless people in the UK. Of course we do. But they are part of this secret world that we choose to avoid. They do not approach us to ask for help, but wait for help to come to them, as a pound dropped into a hat. We have children without parents, who are HIV positive, who have no home to go to, who are disabled, who are starving. But our culture hides them. We put children into care homes, segregate the poor into council estates and forget that our child poverty rates are among the worst in Europe. We congratulate ourselves on our welfare system, our health service and free education. But the UK now has as much of a dependence culture as Ethiopia does. Just as some children in the UK will grow up believing that the state will provide everything, and that education has no value, some children in Ethiopia are taken out of education to beg for money (parents believe it is a better use of their time),. If the plug is pulled, what do these children do? If begging does not make money, they have no education to fall back on, and there is no safety net to catch them. The best scenario is that an NGO finds them and is able to intervene.

I now remind myself that the children who wait at bajaj stops for ferenjiis may well be the same kids that the volunteers are working with on their placement. We find them so appealing within the safe confines of a school or orphanage, when we can control the situation. But flip that round, and when you find yourself being trailed by 6 or 7 5 year olds asking for money, it’s more difficult to be sympathetic.

Last week, the volunteers had their first Global Citizenship Day on the environment. We met with some of the 3rd year Geography students at Dire Dawa University, listened to some talks and then had a discussion.

One of the points that was continually raised by the students was the blame carried by the West for environmental destruction. “The developed countries have contributed 90% of the carbon emissions, but they haven’t done anything to apologise to the developing countries, and we are the ones suffering.” Someone else suggested that we should go back to the UK and tell our government what was happening to the environment in Ethiopia, explain that it was their fault, and get them to fix the problem (of course, the assumption was that we have this kind of power, and that the UK government cares). And then the issue of compensation came up. “The developed countries should compensate the developing countries. They have all the blame, and we should get something to make up for the destruction they’ve caused.”

And I got angry.

I was sitting in a lecture theatre with maybe 40 other people, 12 of whom were from the UK. And the discussion was turning into international finger-pointing. I later discovered that the compensation solution was suggested by the previous Ethiopian prime minister at an African Union conference, and the idea seems to have taken root across society, as well as in academia. I suggested that perhaps financial compensation for environmental problems would create further relationships of dependence, that it would make the situation worse, and that throwing money at problems has been proven unsuccessful many times over. There was recognition of my point, but no further discussion.

The idea that money from the West = A Good Thing is a firmly held belief. In a setting where I would expect exploration of alternative ideas, or debate on other suggestions, I was faced with a group of people parroting back one suggestion from one politician who has now passed away. This is not a criticism, but an observation. The students made valid and very interesting points, and I enjoyed the discussion a lot. But throughout the morning, I became aware that the UK volunteers presented an opportunity for some people to vent their frustration directly at Westerners, and that was very uncomfortable.

This is the dilemma I face as a foreigner. I am seen both as a resource and an interference. I can fix computers, write reports and give an alternative inupt to problems without even thinking about it. But I am also perceived as a walking bank, a potential coloniser, and a representative of the intellectual project that keeps Africa poor. Ethiopia has never been colonised (only briefly occupied by Italians, who left a legacy of excellent pizza), so there is not the same lived experience that is present in other parts of Africa. But the awareness of colonisation and the damage that it has done is present every day.

When I handed in my dissertation a year ago, I never imagined I’d be living my research 10 months later. The twist in the tail is that I’m the exotic other – people want to see what my hair feels like, ask why I have freckles and look at my hands. I often think of a quote from ‘Lost in Austen’ (Pride and Prejudice had to come up eventually), where the girl from the 21st century who ends up in the book asks: “Has there ever been anyone else like me? You know, talks a bit funny, doesn’t know how things operate?” I have many Amanda Price moments.

I’m finding the intellectual aspects of this journey as frustrating as I do rewarding. It’s everything I wanted and more. But it’s challenging and difficult too. Please, if you get the opportunity, come to Ethiopia. Learn from its people. They will inspire you, encourage you and make you believe in yourself if you do not already.

After 5 weeks here, I am beginning to get a sense of the world through the eyes of an Ethiopian, and I have begun to prepare myself for the reverse culture shock of returning to the UK in 7 weeks. The behaviour of ‘those white people’ on MTV shocks me more than ever. I watch so much ETV that I forget there are other countries in the world. I’m becoming as insulated from the outside world as the Ethiopian population are; television is full of cultural music and dancing, Ethiopian programmes and movies dubbed in Amharic. The news concerns Ethiopia and Ethiopia alone. My host dad has to remind me to watch CNN and the BBC to see what is happening elsewhere. I expect touchdown at Heathrow to be a disorienting and somewhat frightening reintroduction to the UK.

But I’m so looking forward to a chicken burger 😛

It’s not all been doom and gloom though. Here’s what made me smile this week:

–          I’m now on first name terms with Tedi and Abel the bajaj drivers. They take me to my door, rather than to the shop that I usually direct bajaj drivers to.

–          En route to church on Sunday, the bajaj driver played an African mix of Single Ladies. It was 6.15 in the morning and it was perfect.

–          I keep hearing a reggae cover of The Beatles’ ‘Don’t Let Me Down’.

–          Oromyia TV News has stolen the BBC News intro music, but nobody seems to care/notice.

–          Ethiopia beat South Africa in the World Cup qualifiers while I was having pizza with some other volunteers at Samrat Hotel. The place went crazy – the staff literally ran all over the place hugging one another and there were parties in the streets.

–          I’ve picked up the ‘carry on, I’m listening to you’ gasp that the Ethiopians use when they are listening to a good conversation. It sounds like they are shocked, but it actually means ‘please continue’.

–          My Ethiopian granny single-handedly proved that the famine in Ethiopia is long gone. For lunch on Saturday, she made me steak and potatoes (starter), doro wat (main course, and I was given about 4 eggs as well as chicken and everything else), and then pulled out the biggest plate of spag bol I’ve ever seen in my life. I swear there’s more food here than at home. I ended up taking the pasta home and eating it for dinner. I am never ever hungry because I never stop eating. And my appetite is miniscule compared to the average Ethiopian. They can put away some amount of grub. It’s impressive.

We are almost half way through (I know, crazy). After next week, I can begin the countdown to home! I’m making a list of things I want to bring back to the UK, and am concerned that I don’t have enough space in my rucksack. Some lucky person in Dire Dawa may get all my clothes so that some lucky people in Scotland get coffee and Ethiopian shirts.

Stay tuned, and thank you for following me on my journey so far.

 

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