International travel is always an incredible privilege. My parents both lived abroad before they got married and made it a top priority for our family to travel when my brother and I were growing up. My dad always said that school should never come in the way of education, so I missed quite a bit of elementary school. They prefer the path less travelled, which meant we were exposed to more than just the shiny tourist destinations that many Americans travel to. In 3rd grade we visited family in Brazil and went to remote villages in the Amazon where villagers lived without electricity or clean water. In high school we did a family mission trip to Guatemala. I’ve seen desperate poverty on several continents since before I was old enough to grasp what I was seeing, but it never gets easier to witness. There aren't a lot of pictures in this post because I kept feeling voyeuristic everytime I snapped a picture.
As I've said before, my parents have been living in a city in Southern Ethiopia called Hawassa, which is the largest city in the ethnic region. My mother has been teaching English at the University, through the US State Department’s English Teaching Fellow program, and my father has been volunteering with local GIS, mapping, and forestry initiatives.
In many ways, Ethiopia looks exactly like the stereotypical portrayals of Africa that Americans are used to—trash on the streets, abandoned buildings, dirt roads, farm animals throughout the city, and mud huts in rural villages. It was almost shocking how much it fit my expectations. It didn’t take long for the existential crisis to set in.
Ethiopia has the unique designation of being the only country in Africa that was never colonized by Europeans. Unlike the rest of the continent, Ethiopia does not bear the same marks of Western dominance and subjugation. It's not to say they are immune from Western pressure, but there is a strikingly different history and current presence to the country because of it. However, they have an oppressive government charading as a free democracy. The Ethiopian people are anything but free. They have no free speech, they have no meaningful vote, and they do not even own the land their homes are on. Ethiopians are not free.
The poverty in Ethiopia is so blatant—children in ratty clothes with flies on their faces, a lack of infrastructure and sanitation, crippled men hobbling along the side of the streets, and beggars on every corner. But there’s also the more complicated side of poverty. The kind of poverty that is in the eye of the beholder. To my Western, wealthy, privileged eyes, the farmers plowing their fields with oxen seem poor. The villages consisting of a few mud huts without access to running water seem poor. The amount that these Ethiopians live on each day seems to be an outright injustice. But they do not necessarily think they are poor. In the eyes of many Ethiopians, the fact that they have land to work means they are not poor. The lack of hygiene isn’t a priority for them, so they do not see it as a problem.
I had an overwhelming sense of guilt over me for most of my time in Ethiopia. These people will never have access to the kind of life I am able to lead. They do not have access to a life even close to the lives many Americans with less privilege than I have. I felt guilty because I thought I should want that for them—the kind of life and opportunities I have. But then the anxiety in my mind kept building, because I’m not sure that is the answer. My ideas of a good life are all based on my own cultural background, and Lord knows there’s been too many Westerners exerting their ideals on unwilling Africans. I don’t want to force my standards of living on a culture that is fine without them. Is "good and and bad" just culturally specific?
If my understanding of a “good life” is only cultural, then what should I want for these people? Because it breaks my heart to see people without access to medical care, who cannot afford to go to school, who cannot marry who they love, who scrape by a meager existence on the equivalent of two dollars a day. They do not have the opportunities to make their own choices for their lives.
Yet, even as I write this, I know it is not even close to accurately portraying the experience of many Ethiopians. They love their country and they are proud to be from Ethiopia, as they should be. What is the way forward, for Ethiopia and for all developing countries? Is it to adapt to Western standards of living with well maintained roads, clean bathrooms, easily accessible internet, and universal education? In my eyes, that would make life so much better for the 93 million people who live in this country. But maybe that isn’t the answer. Even with all the advancements in technology, poverty and injustice still plague Western countries. There is no magic recipe for a "better life."
I have no relevant training, experience, or position to make a difference to the life of anyone in Ethiopia. I didn't even come on a service trip and have no ability to exert my ideals on this country even if I wanted to. But still, I wrestle with what quality of life really means. How can I (or more accurately, my fellow Americans), work toward genuinely improving the lives of people living in developing countries while not operating in a colonialist mindset that forces western ideals on another culture?
I’m sure there’s an answer that smart, educated people have, and I would love to hear it. It feels like a lifetime ago that I was studying Global Development and spending all my time debating these issues. I thought I would be doing development work overseas, and my life has gone in such a different direction. After spending several weeks in Ethiopia, I am grateful for the many people around the world who serve their fellow human kind and work tirelessly to improve living conditions for the most vulnerable communities.