I have often tried to explain why the Ethiopian culture has such an effect on me. And words never seem to quite fit how I feel.
Something happens in this country that the structure of dialog cannot tame. A human connection at its most intimate and deepest form breaks down, bit by bit, my poised self and I find my heart beating a bit more excitedly at various turns. Grace, even under extreme pressure of the difficulties of life here, continues to be the base of existence. And I am seen. Not by what I have or how I look or how old I am or what kind of body I have, but I am viewed within a richer lens: my character is sought by those I meet.
As I struggled with laptop internet connection issues this afternoon, I experienced an example of what I am trying to articulate here. A soft spoken man at one of the many technical shanty shops was able to fix my problems after spending time with my laptop and CDMA communication device. When I asked what I needed to pay him for his services, he refused payment, citing that the problem was not difficult for him, he had the knowledge to be able to fix it, so therefore the right thing to do is share his knowledge with someone in need. He did not say this with a hint of manipulation. He eyes expressed truth and sincerity.
Life is hard in Addis Ababa. Shop keepers need every cent they can obtain, and there is extreme competition from other shops, all vying for the infrequent paying customer. I was astonished at this man’s generosity, and insisted that I pay him something for all of the time he spent on resolving my problem. I gave him 50 birr (approximately $3.00) and he seemed just as baffled toward me. He then relayed in Amharic to my friend Danny that he wished he could show me that the Ethiopian culture is not about repayment: it is more about extending to one another. His question: “Why does she think money has to be involved?”
I left with an uplifted spirit, once again being taught how to engage on a deeper human level.
Our lives in the US have been reduced to such transactional exchanges. I will do this for you, because you do this for me. I will pay you to help. I will trade something for what you have. And all too often, I will take what you have.
I pondered this all the way back to my hotel room and I had to think: What if we all started to live less via transactions and more by extending our hand, with no expectation from the receiver? What if our driving force was less about need and greed, and more about seeking ways to extend to others we engage with? I am not saying we should forgo getting a fair wage in exchange for our skills. But what if that was not what drove us in our interactions?
This extension of ourselves, a sincere and clear extension, appears to be the doorway to the ever elusive unrequited love for one another. And how might that feel, if we loved and never expected anything in return?
Many people in Ethiopia have very little in terms of possessions and housing and food choices. But they are stunningly rich in character.
Galebo Gambro helps women learn to read and write as part of Mercy Corps’ PROSPER program.