I’m sitting on my back porch overlooking Freetown on what is my final day with this view—tomorrow I fly to Ethiopia. I’ve been away from the States for almost two months now and it feels even shorter than that. I’ve always thought that I would feel like my Watson year is really beginning when I move to my next country, when I can start making real cross-country comparisons, and when I face the culture shock of moving between two completely new and different places. I guess that means the adventure is really beginning Wednesday morning when I land in Addis.
Sierra Leone has been a wonderful home the past two months and the past few days, especially, have been filled with fun times. The past week, I was able to attend a few official programs, like on September 21 for World Peace Day. I went with an organization that promotes disability rights through two cultural performance groups made up of people with disabilities to two different events. The first was a press conference for an initiative to donate 10,000 crutches to amputees and polio persons at about five sites across the country. It’s a pretty remarkable feat and was empowering to see people who had been using makeshift or poorly worn crutches receiving new ones. The second event was a program of reconciliation between two communities, where violence resulting in the death of a journalist occurred a few months back. One of the communities, Grafton, is home to a lot of persons with disabilities—whenever the government agrees to donate land to associations of persons with disabilities it is in Grafton (about an hour from downtown) resulting in camps of amputees and polio persons and a soon-to-be-constructed training center for the blind.
I’ve had playtime, too, though: This weekend, I went to one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever been to, River Number 2. It is a fairly long drive from downtown, but worth it. I went with some of my friends from Vision for the Blind, a wonderful organization I’ve been meeting with, and together we paddled across to a peninsula and enjoyed a wonderful stroll along the shore. Freetown doesn’t have too many tourist sites, other than the beaches, but I did visit Old Fourah Bay College. It was, I believe, the first university in West Africa. Now, it is an abandoned ghost of a building, but it’s really cool to see how people have built stalls and shacks around it, like it’s not an amazing historical site.
In the “Cradle of Mankind” (and the Yohannes Family)
Happy Orthodox Meskerem (Cross Day)! It is my first night in Ethiopia, on what was a somewhat spontaneous extended layover to my original destination of Uganda and, after only a few hours in the country, saying it was the best decision ever is not saying enough. Being in Ethiopia feels homey and familiar, but has also shown me how little I really know about the culture of half my family—I am overcome with a sense of urgency to learn as much about the nation and its people as I can and have realized very quickly that the month I’ve allotted here is nowhere near long enough for that venture.
Little did I know, I arrived in Ethiopia on a huge Christian holiday, Cross Day. I was relieved to discover this, because the city was nothing like I imagined and hoped for: the streets were quiet and empty, unlike the bustling chaotic metropolis I expected. It was a good day to explore a bit though and with a new friend, I saw a great deal of the city, including the National Museum, a monument to the 30,000 Ethiopian troops killed in defense against the Italian army, and the gate toSidest Kilo (my father’s alma mater).I also ate a delicious meal of injera (the national dish—a sour flatbread) and different stews, some of which were familiar and some completely new. Most importantly, I finally tasted tej, a delicious honey wine and what is now my favorite drink. With an endless supply ofinjera, tej, and the best coffee in the world, I am going to become a 400 pound alcoholic coffee addict in less than a month, but at least I’ll be in heaven!
Coming to Ethiopia from Sierra Leone is like traveling to another world and a prime example of how narrow-sided it is to essentialize African cultures, societies, and development. On first impression, it is striking how strong traditional Ethiopia culture and language is here. Since Ethiopia was never colonized (save for a few-year occupation by Italy that no one likes to acknowledge), the language of the dominant Amhara ethnic group has remained the prime means of national communication extending to the social, political, and economic arenas. Everything is in Amharic and already, I’m learning, it is somewhat difficult to find translations. This is probably the first country I’ve been in where I would not feel comfortable just blurting something out in English or French, assuming the person with whom I’m talking would understand. This is very different from Sierra Leone, where English and Krio (a pigeon English) are the national languages.
Another difference is the face of poverty here. It is difficult to explain, but I see a greater disparity in the socio-economic classes of the people I pass on the street here. The men and women, for example, sleeping in burlap sacks on the sidewalks stand in striking opposition to well-dressed healthy looking people walking by. In Sierra Leone, poverty is so extensive that everyone is touched in obvious ways—from open sores and limps to torn clothing. It might sound shocking to say, but a person begging homeless on the street in Sierra Leone does not look that much worse off than someone walking to a formal employment. In both cases, however, I am talking about the average population—both countries, of course, have great wealthy inequality (in Sierra Leone, for instance, they say that all the power and wealth is concentrated in 140 households).
On a more personal note, coming to Ethiopia is greatly significant. I hadn’t thought about the resonance of the journey until I was preparing to board my flight out of Sierra Leone. There was a group of refugees dressed in winter coats (despite the hot weather) and carrying official transit documents in the designated International Organization of Migration bags. I asked them where they were being resettled to and when they said Australia, I wished them a safe journey and wonderful new beginning, but then started to literally sob as I turned away. That moment felt representative of so many of the experiences that have shaped me and led me to seek out the opportunities I am now—working with refugees and on resettlement issues in the United States, listening to the stories of survivors of the Sierra Leonean conflict for the past two months, and coming from parents who maintain an incredible attachment to the homelands from which their families or they personally were driven. Although Ethiopia is not quite the land of my family, it is a country that has played a significant role in my family’s lives and served as a home to my father for many years. Meeting the refugees in the airport felt like the collision between one family’s new beginning and another family’s happy ending: a safe return home.