Monday, August 24, 2009

How uncivilized is Ethiopia?

Ethiopia has been in existence for more than 3 millennium. The country is rich with history and culture. It’s had its glory days; but the 1970 to mid 80’s have been the lowest the country has ever gone. Up until that time the terms Aid Organization and NGO were rarely heard of. Some worked on food aid, some on health and welfare and others on ‘civilizing Ethiopia’: bringing it out of the dark-age. 

So how ‘uncivilized’ is Ethiopia? And how effective was the ‘civilization’ work done by the various organizations? What type of education worked? And what type was absurd? And in some cases, who was the ‘civilized’ and whom the ‘civilizer’? Let’s have a look:

Most of the agencies that worked on training and education worked out of the capital, Addis Ababa. The most they had heard or seen of the indigenous people they are supposed to help is on poster or brochures in travel agency offices. All the fieldwork is monitored and ordered from the cozy office in the capital. The agents in the field are like puppets whose strings are pulled according to the Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) that had been written in the head office, in Europe or America, and hasn’t changed since 1980.

One thing some westerners always state as a symbol of backwardness is nakedness: The amount of skin that is bared is proportional with the backwardness of the people. They seem to forget that the whole concept of clothing came not from modesty, but from the need of defense from the elements especially cold, when started to migrate from Africa. Modesty didn’t come until very, very recently.

A typical example would be of the aid worker that goes to the southwest of Ethiopia. When leaving from Addis Ababa, he’s starting from 2,355 meters above sea level. He’s dressed for the cold at that altitude. When he ends his trip he’s somewhere around a couple of hundred meters. Now, the main reason he was sent there was to teach the natives about wearing clothes; after all its taboo in the ‘civilized’ world to bare one’s body. As he’s being led into the village he asks the local why they do not dress or cover up. The local turns around, laughs at him and says “You’re the one that looks the fool. You are so uncomfortable in your clothes that you’re dying to take it all off.” The aid worker got rid of his clothes.

Another thing is thinking that the locals are just uneducated and hence stupid. If a person hasn’t completed the mandatory 12 years of schooling and or some college courses doesn’t mean he’s not life-savvy. Au contraire, he’s living in conditions that would actually kill most people. He’s adapted to whatever lifestyle and is actually happy with it. His senses of contentment and tranquility have been fulfilled 100%. So what gives an outsider, let alone a foreigner, the right to think he’s miserable and hence needs saving. It’s so fascinating to look at tourists arriving at the remotest part of Ethiopia and seeing the villagers for the first time. A local tour guide says it all;”They are so shocked by what they see. Their expressions are first of amazement, amazement at how little these people have. Then it slowly changes to shock as they realize that all their problems, all their headaches at home, REALLY don’t matter. That all the stress they go through daily is REALLY not necessary. In this material world they realize that it’s actually the one with least who is happiest.”

Take the aid agency that wanted to bring modern day education into a village. They chose children from the village and took them to be ‘educated.’ That being formal education. They spent their childhood and youth in schools. After completing high school they found that there were no options of employment open for them. When they tried to go back to their villages they found that they had lost precious time where they should have been learning skills like hunting, cattle rearing, martial arts and getting married to start a family. These children were lost to two worlds, for the sake of ‘civilization.’


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