Sunday, April 22, 2012

Day 1

Day One:

It's interesting, after four trips to Ethiopia, to see this country through other people's eyes. Perception is an interesting thing. I remember how in one of my undergraduate psychology classes, the professor talked about how unreliable witnesses are to a crime. If there are seven witnesses, you'll get seven different observations. We see things through our past experiences and personal biases. It's human nature.

I remember my first trip here and seeing how beat up the roads were, how dirty everything seemed to be, and saying to Lori, "Wow. This is worse than I imagined." Now, while I still see the dirt and decay, my reference isn't how bad things are, but rather how much progress has been made. The roads are better; it's easier to get around. Construction continues at a rapid pace. There are new high rises and new houses. Someone mentioned to me today that it seems very destitute. Maybe I've become immune to it. Maybe I'm like the teenager in the filthy room who can't understand why her parents think her room is a disaster area. Maybe it's all relative.

Tomorrow we travel to Kombolcha, a small town of 12000 about 240 miles from here. It'll be a six hour drive, and along the way we will see small villages in much worse shape than Addis Ababa. While there seems to be a thriving middle (and upper?) class in Addis Ababa, some of these small villages and towns will show no signs of prosperity. Maybe when we return to Addis on Friday, the folks I'm with will not think of Addis to be as bad as they thought.

I also wonder if people see what they want to see. We are a group of people from all over the country, here to help. Do they see a run down city because otherwise it would make them question why they're here? I don't say this to question anyone's motives. This is a great group, and everyone has worked very hard to gather donations for these kids in Kombolcha. And, there's no question that these kids need help.

Several years ago, when I came here to visit orphanages all around the country, I was surprised at how people wrote about the trip. The pictures some posted to their blogs seemed only to reinforce our stereotype of the country. They certainly weren't reflective of the diversity here. Where were their pictures of the high rises and gleaming shopping centers? Or how about all of the road construction and signs of progress? Instead the focus was on beggars, run down houses, and dirty roads. When they described the kids at the care centers, they described them as listless and apathetic. The pictures tended to be the ones where they were withdrawn. While they were surely sick and malnourished, how about the pictures of their smiles, or the talk about their energy as they played with us? I hugged kids that were nothing but skin and bones, and had awful sores on their bodies. But were they worn down? No. Were they apathetic? Absolutely not. Are they sick and in need of attention and food and education? Absolutely. Ethiopians are a strong people and the children reflect that strength even at this young age. These kids are fighters and I like to think of my involvement here as a way to provide them the tools to wage that fight; to give them the tools they need to rise above the poverty that pervades them.

Surely there are huge needs here. But I think it is wrong to paint Ethiopia in a way that only reinforces what we've seen on tv or read about. This country is rich and diverse. The people are resilient. There is incredible change happening. While there is much to be done, and the help is surely needed (and appreciated), I believe it is disrespectful and self-serving to portray Ethiopia in any way that does not reflect the true nature of this great country.

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