Each summer, students from SGPIA spread out across the world as part of the International Field Program (IFP) and Studio Programs! Students conduct independent research, contribute to the vital work of local non-profits, NGOs, and government agencies, and gain invaluable international experience. This summer, our students are living, working, and learning in Argentina, the Balkans, Colombia, Cuba, Ethiopia, and South Africa. The IFP and Studio Correspondents will be the eyes and ears in the field to help us tell the stories of the summer. Check back to learn about each of the field sites.
“The easy girls are from abroad” – Farangi in Ethiopia
There is a moment in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban where everyone is terrified of fugitive and alleged murderer, Sirius Black. The threat is near, and the suspense brings silence. A background character Hogwarts kid breaks it saying: “It is like trying to catch smoke. It is like trying to catch smoke with your hands”. I don’t know what the text is like in the original English version, but in Portuguese, that sentence is striking. I keep coming to that scene every time I think of Ethiopia.
I am now back in US soil. An ankle injury has prompted my return and I now sit in the world’s most comfortable couch, in my new apartment, in The Bronx. It’s been more than two weeks now, and the pressure of writing this text has been piling up on me like the rain clouds over Addis. A daily silent weight. What will be my final words as an IFP correspondent? How can I accurately express the things I’ve lived and seen in a way that makes an impact?
Being an IFP correspondent was an opportunity to look at my days in Ethiopia and try to translate in words what I saw, knowing I still hadn’t seen enough. Now, the sun is already taking longer to rise compared to the day I arrived back in New York City. After two weeks of rewrites, I surrender. Writing anything instead of giving in to my crippling anxiety – paralyzing fear – of not doing a good job is the only alternative that is left. I look through the window and there is nothing I can do but remember…
The sunset dropping over Addis Ababa, bringing shadows to the afternoon. Skirts and scarves bounce right above the floor as a group of women pass by. The colorful patterns wave at me, dispersing color through their reflexes in the floor of mud and sand. Smells of corn and smoke arise, mixing with the scent of garbage deposited in the stream nearby.
A group of boys were on their knees shining shoes. A grown man with a boy’s face sells shoes. My dirty sneakers are outshined by the elegance of the perfectly polished heels, boots and sandals that parade through Djibouti street. Teddy Afro plays in a shop nearby (I always think it is him). The blue taxis honk, trying to park. Two friends run into each other and go through the path together, holding hands. A water bottle hits me in the head. A water bottle hits me in the head?
A man with a white shirt asks, in English, if I’m ok. A woman apologizes in the name of Ethiopia. A lot of people look in silence. A group of four men smirked in triumph. Other men laugh in the background. And yeah, I was fine.
“They think you are Italian”, said the man in the white shirt. “Are you?” “No”, I said. And we kept walking. The man walked with me until I had to take a turn. “You know, during the state of emergency, they killed farangis.” “Who are they?” – he didn’t answer. He kept apologizing, saying he didn’t agree with violence against foreigners, “but some people blamed them [us] for our current political situation”. He said those people did not follow the laws of God. He asked me if I followed the laws of God. I thanked him and got ready to make my exit. The conversation took a weird turn before I could. Went home through the longest way.
His name is Hafik. Mine is Sofia. I am a 1,64m, skinny as a grasshopper, and apparently Italian-looking girl. Does “Italian-looking” means white? Probably. I keep walking. The idiosyncrasies his words represented to me hit me in the head, just like the water-bottle.
Ethiopia and Liberia are the only countries in Africa that didn’t go through the colonization process as we know it. When I asked my interviewees what their favorite thing about Ethiopia is, the unanimous response has been “the history” and its derivatives. People are proud of their fight and victory against the Italians and they say it proudly – especially to an Italian looking girl.
But what about the future?
What makes Ethiopians proud of their present, and what kind of hope do they have for whatever will come next? That is my question.
In the periphery of capitalism, how can one move past the pains of colonization and imperialism while looking for a future characterized by modernity? A concept invented by the same Western powers that Ethiopia is proud of defeating. It is like the whole country was bitten by a lion and then, hurt, angry and confused it squirms “finally!” in a state of pure joy as it crawls to a lion’s den claiming safety. This anecdote is especially aggressive given that Ethiopia’s symbol is a lion. Oh well, one can only hope I got my point across: when the business students I interviewed demonstrated (rare) hope, it was through faith in the same corporatocracy that swallows Ethiopia in debt.
There are two types of dependency syndrome (Lind and Jalleta, Poverty, Power and Relief Assistance, 12). One that is frequently brought up in politics, is the idea that the beneficiary of social assistance would become psychologically dependant on aid to survive (a.k.a you can’t give the fish, you have to teach how to fish mentality…). The second, more interesting one, is the structural dependency of the entire aid apparatus, which includes the government, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), donor agencies etc… If a country depends on aid assistance as it’s one grounding source for survival there is something wrong with the system that allows organization and private companies to profit from another country’s debt. Ethiopia finds themselves involved in that second trap, one that was set up through a game created by those powers Ethiopia is so proud to have avoided. Imperialism has many forms, and this is one of them.
It is not like I have any other suggestions, but it doesn’t seem like the brightest idea to walk into the lion’s den. At the same time, it seems like there is not much space for a middle ground: either Ethiopia puts down the water-bottle and come to play with those who historically and presently harmed its people, or they shall turn away into isolationism – and that would make the population turn on its government.
At the end, I still have more questions than answers. But the experience in Ethiopia has brought me closer to the kind of questions I want to ask. The way I see it, the United States and Europe stand as a modern lighthouse. It is the standard of life and ways for Latin American and African countries, but at the same time is what deeply consumes them. A lighthouse that devours the same boats it guides. And just like an insect that is drawn to the candle that kills them, countries like Ethiopia and my own Brazil drown permanently away from the shore.
In strategic parts of the global South, there is an almost aggressive adoration of foreigners and, at the same time, a parallel rejection for everything they represent. The flux is thin, constant, hesitant and everchanging. A few blocks away from where I was hit by the water-bottle, a fancy bar vibrated to every goal Belgium scored against Brazil in the World Cup. The crowd swooned for England and other European teams. Rarely a person at a bar could justify why they were cheering for said team. Couldn’t investigate more thoroughly, but to hell with whomever says politics and futebol do not mix. There is something there to be investigated. On the streets of Addis, my Brazilian jersey was praised, but once I got into a fancy bar, the Ethiopian elite didn’t take more than two seconds to openly make fun of me and cheer emotionally for teams whose queen still wear jewels stolen from the ground they stood on. Can’t blame them. Especially when one has access to the cosmopolitan side of their city and finds themselves in a country whose infrastructure was developed by foreign forces, it is hard not to fluctuate between fear and/or an inferiority complex. Let them cheer for England.
Infrastructure, technology and real estate are areas mostly controlled by foreign investment and private corporations, at the same time, the climate in Ethiopia is of liberation, as if the prime-minister Abiy Ahmed Ali’s action to further liberalize Ethiopia’s economy means freeing Ethiopia from itself and not opening the possibility for more exploitation by others. Then again, its not like I have any suggestions, but such moves should be made with caution, otherwise there is too much space for a checkmate. Imperialism is just like shark movies: there is always space for a sequel.
Privatization of previously state-controlled services (like the communications giant Ethiotelecom) will possibly bring an improvement in coverage and efficiency, but it is important to ask who will hold (and benefit from) the profits. No matter where you are, or what political discussion presently afflicts you. From the privatization of previously state-held companies, to the American Health-care crisis, Exon-mobile merges with Ethiotelecom, the government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, AT&T and the local township administration in a unison fear of the same daring-question: Where will the money go?
That question has been haunting me when I think of Ethiopia’s economy. It has the same question that should be asked every time one encounters foreign presence in Ethiopian ground: “your data, your pictures, your discoveries, your profits, your prestige, where will it go? Yes, those discoveries. The ones you wouldn’t be able to get without us and being here.”
If you take into account history’s habit of punching citizens of the Global South in the face, I now think a water bottle was quite a safe gift from Ethiopians to the white farangi walking down the street. What the gesture meant signifies a lot more than the physical impact of the hit, because it forced me to take a look into what it means to occupy my place in the world. I realize, that if I want to participate in the battle against global corporatocracy and the systematic subjugation of countries like Ethiopia and its citizens I need to actively participate in it and remember what I saw. Remember how I, a 1.64m girl, skinny as a grasshopper, frightened, lost, with nothing but a camera, was a threat, when put in the context of a country who only suffered in the hands of people who looked like me. bell hook’s words in Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom alert the reader to the necessity of antiracist behavior, not simply non-racist actions. Same principle applies in the fight for a world where one’s limitations should not be decided by where they were born.
I have to remember what I learned from Ethiopians’ search for “development” amidst a world of private and state players that actively need them to fail and fall into debt. I need to preserve and expand what I saw bringing their words to American ears and promoting conversations and actions that pressure the global and local elites of the world, wherever they may be, including a certain comfortable couch in the East Bronx.
I say goodbye to Ethiopia, but I now realize, after tossing and turning for two weeks about what I was going to say, that my words don’t need to exist alone in this premature departure. I leave here a picture of Hafik, the man who helped me that day and a poem by Ethiopian Tsegaye Gebre-Medhin. My final words as an IFP correspondent should not be mine; I should enable what I saw, who I met, the words I encountered to speak in a new platform. Merge with what I registered and become a more powerful, tridimentional, depiction of stories that need to be told. Otherwise, the idea of Ethiopia will fly through the air like smoke, fleeing through my hands. And through yours, too.
I am the first Earth Mother of all fertility.
I am the Source, I am the Nile, I am the African, I am the beginning!
O Arabia, how could you so conveniently have forgotten,
while your breath still hangs upon the threads of my springs?
O Egypt, you prodigal daughter born from my first love,
I am your Queen of the endless fresh waters,
who rested my head upon the arms of Narmer Ka Menes
when we joined in one our Upper and Lower Lands to create you!
O Sudan, born out of the bosom of my being,
how could you so conveniently count down
in miserable billions of petty cubic yards
the eternal drops of my life-giving Nile to you?
Beginning long before the earth fell from the eye-ball of heaven,
O Nile, that gushes out from my breath of life
upon the throats of the billions of the Earth’s thirsty multitudes,
O World, how could you so conveniently have forgotten
that I, your first fountain, I your ever Ethiopia
I your first life still survive for you?
I rise like the sun from the deepest core of the globe.
I am the conquoror of scorching pestilences.
I am the Ethiopia that “stretches her hands in supplication to God”.
I am the mother of the tallest traveller on the longest journey on Earth!
My name is Africa, I am the mother of the Nile.
O Nile, my prodigal daughter in the wilderness of the desert,
bringing God’s harmony to all brothers and sisters
and calming down their noises of brass in their endless nakednesses,
O Nile, you are music that restores the rhythm of existence
into the awkward stampeding of these Middle Eastern blindnesses,
you are the irrigator that cultivates peace
from my Ethiopian sacred mountains of the sun,
across to nod on the East of Aden and across Sinai,
beyond Gibraltar into the heights of Mount Moriah,
O Nile, my chosen sacrifice for a universal peace offering
upon whose gift the heritages of Meroe and Egypt
still survive for the benefit of our lone World.
You are the proud daughter, O Nile, who taught
the ancient world how to walk in upright grace!
You are my prodigal daughter who saved and breast-fed
little lost Jacob whose brothers sold for food,
you, who nurtured, fed and raised
the child prophet called Moses on your cradle,
you, who stretched out your helping hand and protected
the baby Christ from the slaughtering swords of Herod,
O Nile, my infinite prodigal daughter
at whose feet mountains like Alexander bent
their unbendable heads to drink from your life-giving milk,
O Nile, at whose feet giants like Caesar knelt,
conquerors like Napolean bowed
their unbowable heads to partake from your imortal bounty.
O Nile, you are the majestic blood line of my African glory
that showers my blessings upon the starved of the world,
you are the eloquence that rings the Ethiopian bell across the deaf world!
You are the gifted dancer of graceful rhythms
that harmonize with your sisters Etbara and Shabale,
with your brothers Awash and Juba,
to fertilize the scorched sands of Arabia.
O Nile, without your gift Mediterranean shall be a rock of dead waters
and Sahara shall be a basket of skeletons!
You are Africa’s black soil that produces life.
You are the milk that quenches the thirsty multitudes.
You are the messenger of my gospel, O Nile,
that brings my abundant harvest to the mouth of the needy.
You are the elegant pilgrim of my mercy.
You are the first fountain, you are the first ever Ethiopia.
You are the appeaser of the lustful greeds.
You are the first Earth Mother of all fertility,
Rising like the sun from the deepest core of the globe.
You are the conqueror of the scorching pestilence.
You are the source, the Africa, the Ethiopia, you are the Nile.