American’s view of Africa is, without a doubt, outdated. And even worse is how American’s imagine Ethiopia. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again; Ethiopia is not a starvation-ridden desert. That being said, some of the stereotypical things about Africa are true. It’s extremely difficult to describe the differences between Ethiopia and the United States, but some of them are worth trying. And some of the similarities between the two countries might astound you as well.
One of the things I found hard to believe when I moved here was the number of cell phones. Just like in America, everyone has one and they are constantly talking, answering during meetings (and funerals…?), and texting. Smartphones are not uncommon. Even many of the high school students in Atsbi have a cell phone. The fact that 82% of Ethiopians don’t have electricity in their homes doesn’t faze anyone. On market days when the streets are crowded and the tej is flowing, so too is the electricity. Each little shop in town has dozens of chargers and power strips, and rural villagers can get a full fill-up for about $.06.
Just like American’s, Ethiopians love to sit at cafés and sip an overpriced macchiato or ginger tea. In fact, they have no qualms about spending hours chatting over coffee everyday. But for the life of me, I cannot describe a drive-through Starbucks in a way that someone living in Atsbi can understand. Why would you get coffee to go? And why would you only sell coffee to bus drivers? Here, no one has a car and the point of coffee is not to wake us up, but to slow us down so we have a chance to be social and “techawit” with friends.
Another difficult concept to explain is grocery stores. In Atsbi I get my eggs from one store, my vegetables from market, flour from yet another shop and my milk hot from the udder via my neighbor Sinite. Just a few days ago she was telling me she wanted to send a gift home to my parents. I told her that would be very kind and she started naming off things she might send. “Milk?” she said. “For tonight?” I asked. “No, for your family,” she responded. Sinite is not stupid. In fact, she’s a great student who will start university next fall. But getting milk from anywhere but a close friend or neighbor who owns a cow is out of her realm of understanding. A grocery store is just too different.
In the end, comparing Ethiopia to the United States just won’t work. They’re different on a whole new level, yet similarities exist. If you’re interested to see for yourself, come check it out. It’s really the only way to understand.