Ethiopian People

Dining with cheerful friends in Ethiopia

The measurement of time is refreshingly new in this Eastern kingdom far from home. First to note, there are 13 months—something to do with an Orthodox calendar which also sets the year at eight years earlier than the U.S., and the time of day, depending on whom you ask, is the time they counted from 1:00 after the rising of the sun. Conceded and ignorant, I initially thought our local project manager, Amanuel, didn’t know how to read his watch when he would always say the “wrong” time. It took me longer than it should have, I admit, to abandon my immediate assumption that the things I consider absolute, to be anything but.

Beyond never knowing the time (a blithe and respiting gift) Africa is a wonder. I’ll rephrase and not allow my narrow observations to apply to the continent as a whole—Ethiopia is truly amazing. It’s a wonder to behold. Here’s why:

The people here surprise with their overwhelming generosity and alarmingly kind hospitality. One lady wanted to pay our taxi fare because, she said, we were guests in her country. Imagine that! She walked into the busy street, stuck her head in our vehicle, and thrust several, precious bills of cash into the driver’s fist, all while smiling and bobbing her head at us. The kindest of gestures I’ve ever received from a total stranger, and yet I felt embarrassed. We were not worth her “widow’s mite.” The attention, and consequent expectation was starting to weigh on my shoulders and here we were at day one.

Another day, another woman, a waitress, returned the extra change from a large bill we had given the day before. We didn’t even know we overpaid, and the amount in American dollars, was pitifully inconsequential. It was the most honest of gestures that led me to believe the locals here weren’t out to swindle us of our cash, as we had been warned back in the states.

Neighbors and townsfolk invite us for tea as we walk by their houses. “Ferengi” they say, the word for foreigner, spoken without the disdain we hear in words like ‘alien’ but with a tone that feels more like ‘guest.’ “Ferengi, come! You take chai, dabo, um…bread, yes? You take bread. Come into my house.” Ferengi soon was replaced with Josi, my nick-name for Joseph that the entire town employed, and suddenly we were part of the fabric. Our neighborhood embraced us, fed us, shared their lives and opened their homes to us without a shred of expectation. Sometimes watched T.V. and other times we talked about the coming rains.

Sure there is an element of exotic, the fact I’m foreign and white. But I am convinced it’s more likely because I’m a new face, not just a white face. And as best as I can surmise when it comes to relationships, “new” here is quickly recycled out and replaced with old, cherished friendship: as guileless and pure as it is immediate.

Sure there are those who beg, and see our pale complexion as a meal ticket—such has been their conditioned response to pale-complexioned givers of meal tickets, so why not? —but even the number that do is far less than what we were told to assume. Actually, there are a lot of things that were told to us before our departure that we are coming to learn were just exaggerated and infectious stereotypes. Western hyperbole: meet Ethiopian sincerity. I shall always prefer the latter.