Thursday, December 22, 2011

Holiday Greetings from Hawassa

Greetings friends and family,

Christmas in Ethiopia is a bit different than in the states, although we did see a decorated Christmas tree in our favorite restaurant downtown. Ethiopia is a mixed Christian/Muslim country (55/45), with the majority of Christians belonging to the Eastern Orthodox Church. We wake up every morning - early! - to monks singing Orthodox hymns, broadcast over a loudspeaker beginning at 3:30 AM. While this music can be quite beautiful, this religion is quite formal and severe (in Elliot’s thinking). The Orthodox Ethiopians are mainly from the northern highland region (Amhara, Tigray, and Eritrea); while here in the south we see and hear more “Protestant” churches, meaning Evangelical and Pentacostalists. Their churches are smaller and more store-front than the large and beautiful Orthodox churches, and we find their broadcasts (also over loud speakers) more jarring and grating; they are not singing but preaching, and judging from the loud and angry tone of the speakers we suspect they are harsh harangues that the parishioners are all going to hell in an enjera basket! Why do all these religions (Muslims as well) feel they have to loudly broadcast their message whether you want to hear them or not? Marty says it is because each religion feels they have monopoly on the truth and that God speaks through them only. Oy vey ist mir. Speaking of which, Orthodox Jewish settlers in the West Bank also feel it is their duty to drown out the local Palestinian communities with loud broadcasts in Hebrew.

What are our impressions of Ethiopia now that we have been here three months? Well first off we are tremendously impressed at how dignified, graceful, polite, and genuinely friendly Ethiopians are, at least in our day to day work environments at the University and Hospital where we work. It is a very different atmosphere than Kenya where we worked previously, with its rushed pace, money hungry police, and obsequity/hostility to whites and other foreigners. Ethiopia really is different. In part, this must be due to its non-colonial past – they were never conquered and occupied by a foreign power, with the brief exception of Mussolini for five years in the 1930s. Some people here in the south say that they were conquered by the Amhara of the north, and ethnic divisions are still manifest here. But the government (which originated as a guerrilla army in Tigray and is quite autocratic in its rule) are really trying to deliver the goods, so to speak, to all the various regions in Ethiopia, They are committed to a regional/ethnic federalism, where everyone gets resources to develop. We see a lot of building – in town, at the university, on the roads – and a commitment to growth and social development. The government is also committed to the World Bank neo-liberal orthodoxy of free trade and foreign investment, and one sees enormous greenhouses growing roses and lilies for export, owned by Saudi Arabia, Israel, India, lining the roads. But the large land grabbing schemes for bio-fuels and grains seem to be in the low density areas of the western region, and the government really does not want to displace and alienate small holder farmers, its political base.

This week we had a wonderful celebration of diversity at the University, in honor of all the different ethnic groups in the county. Our region, Southern Nations and Nationalities, has 54 different ethnic groups (70% of Ethiopia’s diversity), and each student group put on dances and songs, wearing traditional dress. They were incredibly proud of their tradition, and loved it when Elliot joined in one of the stick carrying dances.

On the domestic front, we have a very nice living situation, located in the university “guest house”, really a five story apartment building in a big field, here we have the “penthouse” view (with two floors to boot). But electricity goes off many times, and we eat most of our dinners in the inexpensive (and generally delicious) restaurants nearby and in town. Marty is braver than Elliot when it comes to Ethiopian food, happily eating her ‘wot’ or ‘fasting foods’ (which are eaten on the 250 odd fasting days in the Orthodox system), while Elliot sticks to his spaghetti and meatballs, although he can dig into a plate of tsibs and enjera (roasted lamb and the Ethiopian ‘pancake’ to eat it with) with the best of them. Elliot, when not teaching or preparing for class (which in truth does not take more than 2.5 days per week), spends a lot of time as one of the three editors of the African Studies Review, reading five or six manuscripts a week and communicating with authors, more than a few from Africa, about how to improve their articles. Marty, when not working at the hospital every morning 8 or 9 – 12 noon, depending on the day, keeps herself very buys, both preparing lectures she gives, and spending as much time as she can (literally all afternoon and most evenings) reading her beloved medical texts on malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS. ). She is ‘Dr Marti”, whose hospital chief introduced her, “This is Dr Marti, who does internal medicine and is into Everything!” Elliot is ‘Dr Elliot” or simply “Professor”, including greetings on the telephone. We have a good routine, broken by pleasant walks into town center (about 30 minutes), trips to the lakeside resorts to swim, in the pool, mind you, there is schistosomiasis in the lake – tiny worms transmited from snails to humans, lodging in the bladder or intestine while it merrily multiplies to about 100,000 (Marty – please fact check!)

We have developed friends and colleagues here, including two young Americans, Adam and Emilia, who live at our building and work at the university (Adam in anthropology and Emilia in Public Health), our friends from work (Walelign and his partner Beza, also in anthropology and who live in our building), Rehobeth the daughter of a geography professor who lives in the GH), and friends from work (including good friend the ever polite Mulye Girma, who is applying to PhD programs in the US).

We haven’t gotten out of Hawassa much, saving a trip to a wildlife sanctuary no Ethiopian has ever heard of, but there is plenty for us to do and see here. Hawassa is almost a resort town near the lake, and many conferences are held here, including Eritrean expatriates forming a unified opposition to Issais last week. But the downtown streets are full of beggars intermixed with those with jobs. Poor women with small children are the most upsetting to see, while young boys, who can be incredibly annoying with their calls of “You,You! Give me money!”, but in truth could easily have been our own children if life turned out differently.

We miss our kids, although Leah, recently married to handsome doctor Gavin, is the most communicative. Masaye at Hunter College will answer emails and join us on Google Chat, but Mulugetta is quiet and too into Macalester to write or call, although we can occasionally grab him, where he is surprised we are even worrying about him. Shades of being 20 years old. 

We are posting a whole bunch of pictures this time, of harvest, of birds, of Susy, but mainly of the lovely Hawassan students in their traditional dress, celebrating their own diversity. Some are too beautiful for words.  

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