Friday, February 25, 2011

Just a Plane Ride Away

When I think of Ethiopia these days, there's a particular scene that comes first to mind. It was nothing particularly important and I saw similar things a thousand times over.  I don't know why this one is uppermost in my mind.

I was looking out of our guesthouse window one morning, staring down at one of the industrious families living below, and I watched as a teenage girl ducked out of a tiny, metal-clad shack.  She was a beautiful girl, dressed carefully in western-style clothing, and had hair that was exquisitely and intricately coiffed.  She stood leaning against the door frame of her home, looking every bit as if, with a bit of magic, she could be transplanted into any North American family.  She looked so ordinary, slouched there against the wall, as if the whole world were simply waiting for her to make her move.  But when she did move, it was only to walk in her flip flops through the gravelly and rocky rubble of the ground that continued seamlessly from inside the shack to outside of it.  Not being in school, she wandered aimlessly through the 'yard' and into and out of the tiny dwelling that at least ten people called home.  She ended up sitting down against the fence, sorting through lentils piled up in what looked to be an injera platter.

For some reason, that simple scene haunts me, overwhelms me.  I think it's the knowing that, had this girl been born here, just a plane ride away, she would be leading a very different life: a life that included going to school; a life that, perhaps, revolved around teenage rebellion and moodiness and hanging out with friends; a life of plenty; a life of possibility and opportunity.  But because of where she was born, through no fault of her own, it is unclear what her future will hold beyond the corrugated metal fence.


  1. Ruth.... I'm so sorry that you're having to deal with so many overwhelming emotions right now. It's really hard trying to tie together what you've seen with who you are and where you live. But... I would (gently) encourage you to consider whether you are projecting your own feelings onto this family that you saw, and that they might be a lot happier than we might think! It sounds like they had plentiful food, reasonable access to water (if not running water), a house to live in and a family to share it with.

    It's nice, obviously, to have more than this, and I'm acutely aware that I have a *LOT* more than this. I would just hate for you to be unhappy about someone whose life is different from ours, but not necessarily worse. I dunno - I just think we need to be careful about assuming that our standards of living are some kind of absolute. The only example I can think of is if someone super-rich came and observed me. Compared to them, my life would be awful - tiny house, no servants, working long hours, - and it would probably KILL them to think of living like I have to. And of course, I'd rather be richer and have more stuff and do less work. But I've got everything I need (and arguably an awful lot more). I'm not sure this family is really so very different?

    Running water, electricity, universal education are all recent inventions. That doesn't mean that I'm not REALLY glad to have them, but they're not necessary for happiness, and they certainly don't guarantee it. We've got all of those things, but we tend to lvie a long way from our extended families and live isolated, fragmented lives - that girl probably feels as sorry for me, sitting alone at my computer doing some REALLY BORING work, as she does for herself, doing a different kind of really boring work.

    I'm sorry that this comment is really long, and I hope it doesn't seem argumentative! I don't mean it to be. But this girl might be happier than you think :)

    Hope you're doing okay, and I'm sorry about the cranky. I cried solidly for a month between our first and second trips - it was TOUGH. Sending you love!

  2. So beautifully written. A picture of the "where you live should no longer determine whether you live".

  3. Thank you both for your comments.

    Claudia, I hear you about projecting onto this family. Indeed, compared to many other areas of Addis, this family lived well. I think part of my discontent about that scene, which you have put far better than my brain can conjure, is that by virtue of of feeling badly for this girl (and so many like her), I am putting myself into the position of judge and evaluator of what to aspire to in life. I don't WANT to do that, but part of me DOES assume that, given the alternative, she would want a different kind of life, with different opportunities at her disposal. It's the seeming randomness and the lack of CHOICE in the situation that I suppose I'm struggling with more, though. I have so much to think about here, to sort this out.

    I think another thing that haunted me about this situation was knowing how much teens here in Canada (and I know you live elsewhere!) seem to take so much for granted - including those choices that I am projecting her to want. And here was this young woman, without much option in the world, but still finding satisfaction in her clothes and hair being well put together, and in working with her family to preserve and protect that family unit. The contrast was just so striking.

    Anyway, I could ramble on lots more, and make as little sense of it as I'm currently doing. But thank you so much for the comments, and for reading my blathering.

    Blessings to both,


  4. Totally know what you mean... the issue of choices is what really complicates it, isn't it?