Friday, January 15, 2010

Hello, you.

There's a funny thing that happens in developing countries where you don't look like the rest of the population. You'll walk down the street, people will look at you as you pass, and right when you're about to pass them, or just after you've passed them, one of them will burst out "hello!" It's always a little too late to reply to without twisting around and trying to stop them, because at this point they've usually started scurrying away, giggling.

Small town Ethiopia isn't like that. At first I thought the little kids were yelling something at me in Amharic, or one of the other local languages. But then I realized what they were really saying: "You! You! You you you! Youyouyouyouyouyouyouyou!"

Every time our 11-seat minivan with 18 occupants stopped somewhere on it's ten-hour route, the kids of the town would be out, following, waving, trying to touch my arm through the window and yelling "You!" If I waved or said hi back, some of them would stop, shyly. Others would act like I'd just thrown them a fistful of candy.

In the cities, the "Yous" change back to "Hello," but there's nothing shy about it. They'll yell it from far away until they get an answer. If you say hello back, they get really excited and say it again and again. If you say "selam" or "ishi" (hello or hi in Amharic) they become really shy. Sometimes. Last night I had a pair of six or seven year old kids follow me down three or four unlit, suburban, dirt road blocks, just so they could keep saying hello every few minutes.

This place isn't timid. Ethiopia is a proud country. It was the second Christian nation after the Armenians, the only African nation never to be colonized (except when it sorta was for five years, but we don't discuss that) and it doesn't mind doing things differently from the rest of the world.

For example according to the local clock and calendar, it's about 2:30 am, and the sun is shining on this bright day in 2002. Christmas was about a week ago, and the feast of the Epiphany is in four days.

I thought it was funny when I learned that the State of Arizona doesn't observe daylight savings time, but that the Navajo nation, inside its borders, does. I thought it was a bit odd to find that the capital of Argentina observes daylight savings time while most of the rest of the country does not. I thought it was weird of China to maintain one time zone for its entire nation, leaving large chunks a few hours off from the neighbors directly to the north and south.

But that was all before I learned that, in Ethiopia, time is roughly eight years and six hours behind everyone else in its time zone.

I've been to other places where there are alternative calendars to ours. The Jewish Calendar, the Chinese Calendar, and the Islamic Calendar are all in different years. But in the countries they're used in, they mostly seem to be there just to calculate when the holidays occur on the calendars everyone else uses. In Ethiopia, the Julian calendar is used for just about everything, and our calendar is referred to dismissively as "European time."

Same with our time of day. Ethiopia being so close to the equator, daylight almost always lasts twelve hours. So dawn happens at 12:00am, noon at 6:00am, dusk at 12:00pm, and midnight at 6:00pm. It makes sense. At 3:00am you've had daylight for three hours. Four at 4:00am, etc. I still haven't gotten a straight answer as to what time the date officially changes, dusk, midnight, or dawn.

History too, doesn't follow our little rules. I bought and downloaded a pdf guide from Lonely Planet on Ethiopia. This is from page 30, the history section: "The following chapter contains the factual 'real' history that historians like to use, but it's important to remember that for the majority of Ethiopians this isn't the history they believe in. In Ethiopia, like in much of Africa, legends concerning magical deeds, ghostly creatures and possibly nonexistent folk heroes are not just legends, but are taken as solid fact and who cares if the historians say the dates and places don't add up."

These are not the only things that've made me stop and think for a second. I was hosted for my first day in the country. As we walked from the airport into town, I was given the usual modest spiel of "I mean the place isn't too fancy, I hope you don't think it's too..." etc. And I just gave my usual reply to put them at ease: "Don't worry, all I want is somewhere my stuff is dry and secure and somewhere I can wash myself off."

Instead of being a reassured, my host looked worried. He didn't have running water that day. I would later learn that a shower is something he gets about once a week. It's a clean culture otherwise, all people wash their hands with soap both before and after every meal, but body odor here is a fact of life.

Parts of Addis Ababa, the capital city, look like the rural areas of Central America. The neighborhood is made up of little compounds of mud and plaster houses, encircled in tin fences. The toilet is a hole in the ground, covered by a curtain. There is electricity (most of the time). When unplugging a phone charger from my room, I accidentally pulled the outlet halfway out of the plaster wall. The next place I stayed, in the town of Bahir Dar, the way to turn off the light was to gently tug on one of the wires sticking out from behind the sheet of plywood that comprised half of my wall. I was warned sternly not to touch any bare ends that came out.

My first night in town, my host took me out to a bar with traditional music and dancing. It was a great night, some amazing dancing from people just getting up from the crowd, and what looked like the great grandfather of battle rap taking place between a female singer and one of the male musicians, taking turns calling each other goats and saying the other is so cold they don't need to buy a refrigerator. On the way there, my host wanted my opinion on something. Why was it that in Ethiopia, they are poor but happy, while in other countries they are rich and unhappy. The truth was that I didn't think people were all that unhappy in rich countries, but I didn't say so. The question was more of a lesson. Ethiopia may be poor, but it's happy.

And it's working to better itself. I spend a couple days with a 21-year-old woman from Bahir Dar who did something very similar to what I did. From a young age, she saved everything she earned for a cause. But instead of traveling around the world, her cause was much more noble. Her money goes to helping women and children affected by HIV. She's already founded and registered a local charity to help the staggering number of HIV/AIDS victims in her area.

"I don't want outside help." She told me. "Ethiopia has to help itself. We need to solve our own problems."

I've only spent a week in this proud place, but already it's proving to be a little bit different from anywhere I've been.
Well, my camera was stolen before I could save my photos, but I at least put this together.


  1. I never knew about the way Ethiopia considers time of day. Loved the part about the kids and the "youyouyou". Great post! Looking forward to pictures when easier to upload.

  2. That's fascinating. The time and the calendar are things I literally never would have thought of. Don't electrocute yourself!

  3. I railed on the Internet access in Ethiopia before but Ethiopians themselves are a wonderful people. Poverty is there, but I never had to worry about my safety or crime.