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Experience #18 - Ethiopia

When we started to plan the initial route of the project, Ethiopia was one of the priority countries. The reason behind it is all the news that usually got to us, putting this one as the symbol of poverty and one of the greatest difficulties Africa faces.

Besides, Ethiopia is considered the cradle of humanity. Lucy, a skeleton of more than three million years old, was found in 1974 in a northern city and it’s considered the oldest evidence of the human species in the planet.

Different from all the places we’ve been through, they had no colonization process. The Italians actually tried, but the little legacy they left summarizes in old buildings and pizzerias. This is a reason to be proud for the Ethiopians, who put themselves up to say that their culture is unique and very special. I was almost attacked by the hotel staff when I said that their language – Amharic – looks similar to Arabic. The truth is that it really looks like, but I had to rather ending the discussion before getting deported.

Even with all these exclusivities and differences, Ethiopia didn’t win my heart and, curiously, it was the first time this happened in these almost six months.

Through the streets of Addis Ababa, the capital, we saw a lot of beggars. It was impossible to walk more than a hundred metres without someone getting close to ask for something. Nothing far from what we are used to, but there it was different.

The children wondered through the streets with dirty ripped clothes stretching their little hands to receive something, while their mothers were waiting seated somewhere nearby. We have an agreement of not offering money, as we believe it is the easiest way of contributing for an empty future, with no perspective of change. Instead, we buy some extra food and usually share with people along the way, albeit it’s never enough.

When we don’t have anything else to give, I offer a hug or pass my hand on the head. These gestures are commonly well received, but with that face of “thanks, now the money”.

I felt a bit paranoid there also, felling that we were being followed all the time. Almost always, for coincidence or not, I was right. Along the walking, normally someone showed up starting with a friendship and ending with a request for money, a bus ticket, a car and a homeownership.

Amidst all these concerns and questionings, with the help of ActionAid Ethiopia we met an incredible project called Women In Self Employment – WISE which reminded me the importance of looking beyond the appearance. We were very nicely welcomed and had a round of conversation with three women benefited by the project. There they learn concepts of household savings and entrepreneurship. Understanding how to save and invest, they initiate a virtuous cycle which includes the creation, production and sales of handicrafts.

As if it wasn’t enough, they are also part of contests that instigate innovative ideas and the most creative ones win a significant money investment to develop their businesses. They did thrilled testimonies telling us about how life changes after we become conscious that we are responsible for our destiny.

These women softened my heart and showed me that among so much hostility, it’s still possible to find a few virtues spread around.

I have an impression that all these characteristics are part of a big city with millions of people. This is because we travelled to the east side of the country to Harar, the fourth most sacred city for the Islam, and we had quite different experiences. Firstly the hotel had no water, no sink and it was a refugee for hyenas during the night. So much luxurious that I preferred not to take a shower neither to look out the window.

Walking around the city we received a lot more smiles and less sales attempts. But the people asking for were still there. It was funny as in a few situations very well dressed children ran towards us pronouncing sonorous “Money”. From these moments on I started to ask them why they needed money. The conversation always ends with a smile, or because they didn’t understand the question or didn’t know the answer.

In a few situations I kept on talking, for example, with two eight years old boys we met leaving the school, clean uniform, polished shoes, backpack and having an ice cream. Our simple eye contact was enough to hear the magic word “money”. I couldn’t hold myself together… My will was to stop there and say “dear, have a seat that auntie will explain something to you”, but I remembered an old motto of my first boss – and great friend Tekinha – who preaches that all teaching and learning done with love, produce more special and lasting effects. Then we chose to keep on walking alongside them while I was telling them that they already had things much more important than money, like the chance to go to school, to have a good clothe and to enjoy a delicious ice cream.

They carefully listened to my speech and before saying goodbye they did a last try holding out the palm of their hands, what I understood, lovingly, as a hand shake hahaha and so I did.

We maintained our walking and got to a natural reserve where there is nothing more than nature, stones and a few families. It was when we were surprised by five children that came up from the bush running and yelling in our direction. I was practically surrendering myself when one of them hung in Fê’s neck and another in mine. All of them were asking for hugs and it almost turned out into one above the other… Everybody hugging each other and I was being kissed, what is an unusual gesture in Africa. This moment might have lasted two minutes and when they were tired of so many affection and squeezing, they got the bucket back and continued the path to the well to collect water. That’s who they went away without asking for anything and leaving us with a delicious sensation of pure and genuine love, a thing that only the children can make us feel easily.

Those two moments combined with the other situations we’ve been living, brought me a curious thought, in line with that philosophical question about who arose first – the egg or the chicken?

We behave like our leaders or our leaders behave like us?

It’s a good question, isn’t it? When we are children our leaders are our parents, our uncles, our grandparents and any other older person who we admire somehow. This means that if you cut the line and pretend that you haven’t seen those 576 people waiting, if you repeat opinions without checking if they have a foundation, if you are gossipy, materialist or opportunist, your child, grandchild or nephew will possibly look all this as an example. And more, if you instigate a child to act with prejudice, discrimination, intolerance and individualism she will grow up with it and in the future will probably leave you behind.

In the other side, if you have a big heart, is generous, grateful, educated and conscious, you are in the way to create an angel of good, one of those that everyone wants to be nearby.

The same happens for the older ones. In a country like Brazil and so many others we visited in Africa, I ask myself: Are we a product of our leaders or are they a product of our attitude?

Please, don’t say that Brazil is like that because “that people” voted in “that person”. The answer goes way beyond this and makes me think about how we act in the day to day.

Who are our opinion leaders? Are those ones who teach recipes of tapioca light (a typical Brazilian dish), exercises to reach the negative belly and where to find the perfect look? Well, I see less people than I’d expect, discussing relevant subjects and getting involved with the world problems. I’m not saying that everybody can only discuss about politics in the happy hour, as I find very boring who can’t find an equilibrium. What I want to say is that as far as we are from building our opinion and having clear what is acceptable or not in the country and in the world, the closer we will be of being led by people who don’t care about anything apart from their own interest. It should be a collective change and if each one of us start in time we still have a chance.

The same should happen in Ethiopia, Angola, Mozambique and other countries extremely corrupted in Africa that learned to survive from international aid. While there is people asking in the street, their leaders are riding on a yacht somewhere. That’s the way they learned and if it has been giving “results” why to change it?

Anyway, I confess I don’t have an answer for my question, but I have thought a lot about what we’ve been teaching and the example we’ve been giving to our children. But before it happens we have to be conscious about how we are acting. Stop looking the neighbour’s green grass and water ours. When it happens, it seems like we’ll be able to dream again with a new generation of conscious leaders, a proactive and participative society.

Due to all this Ethiopia didn’t delight me, but shaken me. It showed me that there is no change if there isn’t good references for us to mirror ourselves and being alive is enough to be a good – or bad – example for someone. Thinking better, in Ethiopia and in Brazil that’s what is missing: think twice our values, recognize ourselves as an example for the ones who live together with us and know how to choose who we consider an example.

Tapioca and look of the day don’t change the world, but if it comes with a good dose of social, environmental and political activism, then we are in the same team.



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