Sunday June 20, 2010
The minute I went to step out today the rain came pouring down. Have I mentioned its rains every day? At least it is nice in the mornings and the showers only come in the afternoons otherwise I would be getting really depressed. The droplets right now are as big as hail stones and some even round off that visual effect as they rickashay off the tin roofs. It makes me grateful to have a real roof and a hot cup of tea, but it also pains me as I think about the thousands of people all around me whose roofs are leaking and whose floors are washing away.
I got frustrated at the sudden down pour cramping my afternoon, as I scurried back through my gate trying to get into my warm home. Then while fiddling with the lock I glanced down my street to see a woman with her skirt hiked up to her knees sliding in her rubber sandals pushing rocks up against the metal wall of her house. She was either trying to keep it from falling or keep the water from rushing under.
Squinting my eyes against the golf ball sized droplets I waddled down the street to help her. Upon noticing my presence she disappeared inside and produced an umbrella for me. She actually thought I wanted to watch her struggle (not an uncommon thing for an Ethiopian, around every man changing a tire or hauling rocks at a construction site, there is a spectator group there to offer “expert advice”). “No,” I shouted, “I help” and even when I refused the umbrella she didn’t understand until I started passing rocks to her. I think I made her uncomfortable, like she was supposed to be hospitable towards me, and I had somehow breached my role as her guest with my attempt to help.
When you are a foreigner in Ethiopia every person looks upon you as their personal “company.” If you are a visitor to their country, you are a visitor to them personally, and therefore it is their job to meet your needs and have something to offer. There I was, wanting nothing but to keep her house standing, and she is insisting that I go inside, sit down and accept some coffee. In such a hostess flurry, she was even insisting that I stop passing the rocks to her. Politely refusing my hand-off was more like it, and naturally so, as if refusing a drink or second-helpings.
My attempts being thwarted, I shuffled back home drenched and jumped immediately in the hot shower, (yes, the water came back on Friday evening!), even more frustrated than when the rain began. Why would someone refuse that kind of help? Is it pride, disbelief, or some overly ingrained cultural teaching? If I weren’t so obviously a foreigner would she have accepted me? Have we done a disservice to Ethiopians, aiding them so completely, that they feel the need to act subservient towards us?
I experience the host/guest role nearly every day in almost every interaction. Although it makes me uncomfortable about 99% of the time, I make an attempt to stifle this discomfort and replace it with graciousness. As a very self-reliant person, it goes against my very being to be offered things and then be waited on, especially in places where I feel at home. It goes against my grain even more when an Ethiopian tries to hand-feed me (supposedly an act of respect that I just find yucky). In general, I am not shy and if I want something I will get it or make it happen. But still, as I dry off and decompress, what happened last hour bothers me, even more it hurts me. Her situation was desperate, how could she conceive I came over to distract from what she was doing? Why would she imagine that I put myself in her way just to be served? Is that really the reputation foreigners have made for themselves in Ethiopia?
There is this quote that I recall from my thesis research that stands out at this moment and I apologize because I don’t remember who actually wrote it, but they said, “It is almost a universal human trait to devalue what you know and value what everyone else knows.” But why?