Wednesday, April 20, 2005

The Cradle and Crush of Humanity

My friends,

I recently returned from a trip to Ethiopia (the word trip somehow seems more appropriate than vacation). Some of you have been eagerly waiting for details or photos of our time in the "cradle of humanity", and I apologize for the delay, but it has been hard to sit down and write something.

Contrary to my previous trip around the Middle East and Africa, I have not felt the urge to write witty travelogues or goofy stories. Don't get me wrong, it was a lot fun, an amazing experience, but very intense and also somehow very elusive. Hard to chew up and spit out what you can't swallow, I guess, but here goes…

As I think about the trip, all the people we met and the injera we ingested, all the beautiful places and things we saw and all the ugly things we didn't want to see but needed to, the miles we drove and the showers we didn't take and the way time often seemed to float and drift like an afternoon nap, I think about catching and singing the sun in its flight with Jesse "hold-em" Long, getting to know Rebekah "café-con-leche" Fletcher, watching Trika "sparkling rain" Harm Zum Sprekel effortlessly making friends and, of course, spending every second possible with Megan "bad ass" Campisi, and when I try and think about all of this now, sitting here on the border of the 19th and 20th arrondissements in Paris, something about the whole experience is hard to grasp, hard to define. Somehow too personal or too grand for the simple recounting of.

You see, you have this idea about what your Africa experience will be, but like a zen koan it eschews you. I for example had this idea about being able to observe these tribes that we were going to visit during out trip around the south, ideas about observing their 'otherness', their 'purity', or something like that. Observe as in calmly, from a distance.

In the capital, Addis Ababa, you're fine, because regardless of how awkward or different it is, it's still a city and so you can understand how or why people and things are the way they are. If you've got money you can get around, go out to bars, restaurants, or even Salsa classes at the Bulgarian Embassy. There are just enough idiosyncrasies to remind you that you are in a foreign land without making you feel lost. For example, besides the food and language there is the time which is measured with a 12-hour day starting just after daybreak at 1-o'clock (7am our time) and ending at dusk at 12-o'clock (6pm our time) and the calendar, based on the Julian system, which is about 7.5 years behind our Western Gregorian calendar.

But then you leave the city and find yourself in the heart of the Rift Valley. You step out of your 4x4 Land Cruiser in your first local village, and Whabbam it hits you. You are immediately surrounded, overwhelmed, lost. You thought you came to observe and look at these remote cultures, but you quickly realize that it's you who are being observed, you are the spectacle. Everyone, especially the kids, wants to hold your hand and show you something, they are asking for caramellos (candy) or they want you to buy a picture or beads, look at their goat, their hut, their wound, their baby. You feel like a movie star, everyone is watching you or wants to talk to you, just to say hello.

You have to know what you want, otherwise you will spend your whole visit to a village saying no thanks or haggling over a price. You have trouble seeing or focusing on the experience because there are so many kids and people around you, in your space. You don't realize it yet, but the experience you came for is right there in front of you, in fact the experience is pulling on your shirt, is smiling for a photo and asking you, "hey mister, 1 Highland" (Ethiopian brand of mineral water, the empty plastic bottles are useful and desired containers) or "please, I am student 1 pen".

You can't be afraid of reaching out and touching the experience, being touched, and as hard as you are reaching for that quintessential "African experience" or even that "deeper, more real thing", the more you find yourself back-peddling, taking a stance, playing a role, rationalizing, distancing yourself, thinking about what kind of story this might make, getting claustrophobic, hot, hypochondriac (it's terrible to find yourself worrying about diseases every time a little boy or girl holds your hand) or you just space out which is one of the mind's best defenses against this unknown and uncomfortableness.

More than once I made the mistake of offering something (a candy or Highland bottle) to too large a group of kids and had to watch as kids trampled and fought with each other over it, crying and screaming. This reminded me of a scene from a Primo Levi book where he witnessed a son strangle to death his own father in a blind struggle for a piece of bread that someone had tossed into their train wagon bound for Auschwitz.

But don't worry; it always comes back to you.

People are struggling or perhaps just plain living without any of the comforts and luxuries, like electricity and clean water, that you can't imagine living without, and they are more visibly happy and alive than most people you see at home. You find yourself feeling guilty, lucky, but wondering if you come from such a lucky country, why do people at home seem so much less happy and alive than these people? Then you question whether you are really helping or only making people dependent on begging by giving out that 1 bihr. You ask yourself how much can you give and is that enough? Are you supposed to just give everything away? If you don't give something, does that mean you are giving nothing? And what about teaching a man to fish, isn't that better than charity?

And so on and so forth you spin and spin the wheels until, selfishly, you feel a little defensive about being so lucky, maybe justified, angry even. Then you feel at home again, because you're thinking about you and not it or them or the little boy with black, dusty buns holding his or her hand out to you or maybe just sitting there with conjunctivitis clouded eyes. It’s safer thinking about you and what you are feeling, but is that the experience you were looking for?

It's not an exhibit.

It seems a little obvious, but you have to realize that there is a difference between what you are doing and visiting a museum in order to get passed that desire to "observe" and "study". You have to accept that by going you are contributing to the contamination of these tribes' culture and way of life, even though that is what you have traveled so far to see and experience. Which is growth and which is contamination? It's like a quantum system you can't observe it without influencing it.

I tried to short-circuit some of these mercantile and colonial mind-traps by juggling for people, but my (Western) idea of what that meant would often get in the way. It took me a while, for example, to realize that juggling doesn't necessarily mean sitting quietly and watching/appreciating my performance. I had to make it clear that these colorful balls weren't meant as gifts and weren't filled with food or beads so they shouldn't be grabbed out of my hands and torn open. And why shouldn't they think this? Most of the other stuff I was pulling out of my pockets were gifts.

Once I could get going, the kids were generally excited to watch and would even give me a ball back if I dropped one, but they were just as likely to keep inching forward wanting to touch or examine the balls. One time in the main village of Omorate some kids ran off and disappeared with my juggling balls. After explaining that I wanted the balls back and offering a small reward (1 ball, 1 caramello), I got all but one of them back. This was about half-way through our trip through the south and I was starting to feel a little used and tired.

Finally, we had to leave and I explained where our campground was and offered a reward of a few bihr if someone brought the final ball back. I had forgot that our campground was about 60 km back down the road near a smaller village called Turmi.

I was completely surprised when that night two of the older boys showed up at the campsite with the last juggling ball. It had been opened and sewn back together again, but it was there. The boys had paid 10 bihr each (which is like the equivalent of several days work) to hitch a ride on a transport truck to get there and had no way of getting back until the next day. Of course I gave them enough money to pay for their trip and a place to stay the night, but I was really touched by how far they had gone to return the ball. It was sort of a turning/breakthrough point for me.

After that I think I kind of loosened up and started having more fun. On our last visit, with the Mursi tribe known for their body painting, lip plates and aggressivity (the guidebooks warn you to watch your socks and the guides repacked our trucks so there was nothing on the outside) we ended up spending an hour or two with them. Afterwards our main guide/driver and friend, Germa, told us that most of his trips only spend about 10 minutes with the Mursi. I ended up playing catch/juggle with a couple of men and women mixed together, was able to joke around, ask questions and even didn't mind the woman who put the lip plate in my hand right away and then came back every 5 minutes to tell me I had to pay her 5 bihr for it. When I finally accepted and paid her, she immediately palmed a bihr and counted back to me that I had only paid her 4 bihr. I just laughed and shook my finger at her.

The times I felt the clearest about visiting these tribes, that is to say the most helpful, was when we were giving out the boxes of medicine and anti-fungal cream we brought along. It definitely seemed like a better thing than giving out candy or money. And I don't really like to buy stuff that I'm not going to use, so apart from the few souvenirs and beads for Megan I purchased, I wasn't doing a lot of "supporting the local economy". Aside from digging a well or something, giving out medicine seemed like a pretty good thing.

But still, I have to say that I think this ends up being another, perhaps more defensible stance, that you take to, to avoid being touched by the experience. It's not an equal form of interaction. Because however helpful what you're giving is, you stay in a power structure of I have, I know and I am giving to you. It's a simple relationship, we know its roles and how we are supposed to act in it so we don't have to struggle with this other more obvious thing: cultures and human beings who are very different and yet very much like you.

In the end, I had to give up or at least put aside a lot of my questions about "helping" or "hurting" and the ideas I had about what my African experience would be like. When I finally did that with the Mursi tribe, I realized that I had a lot of fun. I met them where they were at, not where I wanted or imagined them to be, and if that meant that I ended up haggling about a lip plate in the middle of playing catch with some people, then that was okay too.

I would say I learned that If you push through the differences to the similarities (or vice versa) and aren't afraid of getting dirty or a little malaria or yellow fever or diptheria, then Ethiopia's rewards are worth it.

Egziyaber istelign (may the Lord bless and give to you)
Beh-teh-leh-ku Ewedehalehu (I love you big)