Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Ethiopia and what came after

The first thing I remember about arriving in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, is the Ethiopian Airlines employee on the shuttle bus that took us from our plane to the baggage terminal. I asked him, "who's the best wireless carrier in Ethiopia?" (hoping to get a SIM card once we cleared customs), and he laughed, "there's only one carrier in Ethiopia: the government." My initial impression was, "that does not bode well for Ethiopia." (The next morning when my friend Jon and I walked around for an hour trying to find a place that sold SIM cards, were eventually escorted by a young woman who was eager to help us, and found a large concrete building where they wouldn't sell us a SIM card because we didn't have passport photos at least partially confirmed that impression.)

(No, it is not equally difficult to get a mobile phone in America - just a mobile phone contract. If you don't believe me, go to your nearest convenience store and peruse their prepaid offerings.)

But the second thing I remember is that we left the airport and drove to our hotel on a three lane highway that was both paved and flat. I didn't see a single motorcycle taxi the entire way, and I wondered if we were really still in Africa.

The truth in Addis, as in so many places, is that the impression it leaves depends very much on what the observer chooses to pay attention to. Addis is vast and sprawling, unafflicted by the population density - the sheer amount of people - that I'm accustomed to in African capitals. Addis is well-developed, with its paved roads and not totally unbearable traffic, tons of restaurants and coffee shops, and well-maintained power grid. Of course to see that, one has to overlook the shanties that press up right against the walled compounds and ignore the fact that many of the restaurants are pretty empty and what tables are occupied are as often occupied by a foreigner as not.

Nonetheless, I'm still riding high on Ethiopia generally and Addis in particular. Sarah and I joke that we should go there on vacation again sometime when she's not pregnant and can actually enjoy the food (except we wouldn't fly through Juba again). The reasons for my affection for Ethiopia are, in no particular order, as follows:
The generally excellent climate as a result of its high altitude. It never got too hot - at times it maybe even got too cold - and when the rains came they were a sight to behold.
The ubiquity of the best coffee in the world. Our unassuming hotel served up what I deemed at the time to be one of the best espresso machiatos I had ever had. This prestigious award was revoked a few hours later in a hole in the wall coffee shop that actually served the best espresso machiato ever. Even when we were in a far flung village with limited medical services and a dicey road, our $5/night hotel (bed bugs no extra charge) served us top notch espresso machiatos with every meal. I wonder if the Italians give away industrial espresso machines as part of some aid package or something (and, if they do, Mr. Berlusconi, might I draw your attention to the fledgling nation of South can have as many wives as you can afford here).
The Ethiopians we met were, across the board, kind and hospitable. As in, business owners were willing to let strangers use their bathrooms and people smiled at us but didn't stare and stuff. Even the black market currency exchange guy (who jumped into our van, pulled money out of his sock, made sure that we counted it all to ensure that he wasn't shortchanging us, and then jumped out at the next intersection) was really sweet.

Maybe the most important reason that I'll think fondly of Ethiopia was because the projects we saw there were examples of the kind of development I want to be a part of. In particular, we were able to visit three child sponsorship sites run by Compassion International - and at all three we were with friends who sponsored children at the site.

Compassion caught me a bit off guard: I've seen the evaluations of child sponsorship programs by various development economists that suggest that child sponsorship isn't a very cost-effective approach. Visiting a Compassion site, however, reminded me that cost-effectiveness isn't always the most important measure of a dollar spent and that some things that can be observed can't be measured. Goods given and services rendered can be quantified, but is there an equation that measures the depth of kindness and affection that caretakers demonstrate towards children? Is there a way to gauge the impact of the hope offered to families when other members of the community come alongside the families to support their children? I'm not asking if anyone has ever attempted to quantify these benefits - I know people have - what I'm suggesting is that those measures always miss the mark.

In short, visiting a Compassion site reflected to me the tensions that I feel like we're constantly holding: data and good management matter, but so too do people; strong programs can be impactful, but so can strong people. We hold out effectiveness over mere good intention, at the same time recognizing the vital role of relationships in fostering truly vibrant communities.

Sarah and I came to Nimule armed with knowledge that we thought we'd immediately put to work and change people's by the hundreds and thousands. Right away. It has been almost a year now, and as we look back most of the things we expected to do haven't come to fruition - no teacher training, no literacy programs, very little small business development - and the truth is, no one is beating down our door begging us to do those things. And I should be devastated by that fact, except for this: there is a children's home that is right now this very moment being run entirely by a local staff, and those people love those kids with profound affection - we got to be a part of that transformation; there are specific kids that we have seen overcome unthinkable trauma and become more fully the best versions of themselves - we got to stand with them through that process; every day now, children come to our house to read stories, play games, do arts & crafts, and help Sarah in the kitchen - we get to continue investing in their lives; we have men and women from the community come into our home every week and share with us their vision for this community - we get to be a part of helping them achieve that vision.

We are not superstars. We are not anyone's heroes. I think at one time I wanted to be both of these things. Instead, I find that I'm happy with what we are becoming: we are a part of many people doing what they can to bring wholeness, reconciliation, and redemption into this world. It's humbling, it's a whole lot different from what we expected, and it's something that we will carry with us the rest of our lives - no matter where we are or what we are doing.

1 comment:

  1. Hi, Sarah left a comment on my food blog asking for some info about cassava. I don't have a contact email to send my reply. Can you have her get in touch with me at wizzythestick(at)gmail(dot)com Thank You