In the UK we can take it more or less for granted that there are other Quakers, and a Meeting House, somewhere near our location. What is it like to live in a country where there are few or no other Quakers? On a recent trip to Ethiopia, I was surprised to meet someone who knew two Quakers from Littlehampton Meeting living and working in Addis. I arranged to meet them for dinner the evening before I left to come home to London.
Colin and Annie came to Addis Ababa in February 2009 to work as volunteers with VSO. Colin had retired from working in adult education in 2007 and Annie retired from social work at the end of 2008. The current Ethiopian government has been spending heavily on education, as an investment in development, opening new universities and expanding access to schools, which has moved from 30% to 97% in 15 years. Such progress is of course not straightforward, class sizes are sometimes up to 70 or 80, children in the countryside still find it difficult to free themselves from domestic duties and there is a 65% adult illiteracy rate over the country.
Colin has a placement at the Ministry of Education in Addis Ababa, advising on how to coordinate strategies for adult literacy across Ethiopia’s different federal regions. Health is another major government initiative, though there is still much avoidable disability. Annie has been helping out at an Ethiopian NGO, which that employs blind people to make carpets, mops and brushes, and has recently become involved with kindergarten teaching and training.
Both agree that working in Ethiopia has presented its own difficulties. Annie feels the organisation for the blind does some excellent work but is facing a challenging future in an increasingly global market. “Some farenjis (foreigners) working in Ethiopia get frustrated because it appears that some organisations are reactive and need to be proactive, but you need to keep a sense of perspective and recognise the scope of some of the problems organisations face.” Colin, meanwhile, spoke about a different working culture where qualifications are highly respected but practical know-how sometimes seems to be given less importance. Both Annie and Colin have pondered the seeming lack of forward planning when meetings/workshops etc can often arranged for ‘next week’, but have realised that the payback for this endless flexibility. However, both agree that it is important to remember that as a foreigner working in Ethiopia, the role is to advise and not instruct – VSO’s motto is ‘sharing skills and changing lives’ and it is not only the Ethiopians whose lives are changed.
“Ethiopia is their country, after all,” says Colin, “and as someone at a VSO conference we attended said recently, ‘You spend the first year of your placement thinking that you know everything, and realise during the second year that you actually know very little.” Annie and Colin are thankful to be part of VSO, for the support of local staff who can advise on any problems and deal with emergencies and for the encouragement of their fellow volunteers who are having similar experiences, not to mention contributing to a lively social life!
We talked at some length about our impressions of Ethiopia. They have both enjoyed their time here very much in what is a rich and diverse culture, but a difficult issue is that of the obvious and extreme poverty that you see, especially in a city with extremes such as Addis. Annie says that Addis Ababa has visibly changed even in the year and a half that she has spent here, and in some areas there is an almost tangible feeling of optimism. Countless new buildings – hotels, shopping malls, housing – are appearing, turning from concrete shells surrounded by skeletons of rickety wooden scaffolding into shiny new glass-fronted structures. They tell even a casual visitor a great deal about the direction of the Ethiopian economy, though it is equally clear that some people are left out in this booming city. Even public sector workers have trouble making ends meet – one teacher I met in Harar complained that his salary was hardly enough to live on, and that he is paying back debts every time he receives his monthly pay.
Addis also has its share of the totally destitute. Children in particular, throughout Ethiopia, approach farenji and ask for money, and at times of religious festivals in particular, large numbers of people who are elderly, disfigured by disease, blind, or just plain hungry, gather to beg kindness of passers-by. Not all are genuine: one boy with a crutch and a terrible, stooping gait, who asked me for money outside Medhane Alem Cathedral, picked up the crutch and hared gracefully across the road towards another group of farenji as soon as he realised that I had no money for him. But regardless of one’s misgivings about the risk of perpetuating what Annie describes as a ‘begging culture’, one is also intensely conscious of the fact that Ethiopia can afford precious little social security for people who lack other strategies to see them through times of poverty. Other foreigners living in Ethiopia that I have spoken to are adamant that one should never give money to a beggar, instead remaining confident that their work in development or education is their contribution to the problems. But many Ethiopians (even the poor ones) do give money to beggars, and feel that it ill behoves a visitor to the country to adopt a superior tone on the issue. In any case, the immediacy of the problem seems to demand more than a long-term response. Annie and Colin have been here for longer, though, and tell me about a teacher they know called Jill, in Addis since fifteen years ago, who fills two taxis with food and clean water once or twice a week, and goes around distributing them to around 400 needy people. More recently, she started a half-way house for resting and rehabilitating homeless people who have fallen ill, and occasionally she raises money for more major treatment when someone needs it. Jill sometimes involves her pupils, who mainly come from richer Ethiopian families, in distributing food, and Colin and Annie help in their spare time as well. Annie speaks of how she has been inspired: “It is a wonderful example of how much one person can achieve, through working with compassion and determination.”
Another memory both Colin and Annie (and I) will take home is that of the hospitality of Ethiopians. People think nothing of inviting you to shelter in their house when it is raining, and Colin speaks about how one will sometimes be eating well in someone’s house, knowing that they will probably be going hungry to feed you. This can be a humbling, and even somewhat uncomfortable experience.
What I was most interested in, though, was how being Friends has affected their experience of Ethiopia. They were aware before coming here that there were no Quakers here; a Friend at Littlehampton told them that an Ethiopian had recently considered applying for membership, but had decided against it. About 40% of the population belong to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and 40% are Muslim, with the remaining 20% made up of Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baha’is and others. What does appear evident is that there are very few non-believers or agnostics. Annie and Colin have not been tempted to set up their own Meeting here, agreeing that it would amount to an attempt to change people’s minds or convert them. Neither Colin nor Annie would feel comfortable doing so. But when so much of the fabric of life in Ethiopia is woven around religious observance it is fascinating to learn about it, so they do discuss religion with Ethiopian friends and try to describe what Quakerism is about.
Annie recounts one Ethiopian friend explaining to an acquaintance, almost pityingly, that these poor Quakers didn’t believe in miracles! Annie describes their Meeting as being like “an extended family”, and says that the support of friends in difficult times has given them a deep commitment to, and connection with, their Meeting. In that context, Colin says that it has been “strange” to be so physically distant from the fellowship of silent worship, but they both agree that they have felt very supported in their work here by Littlehampton Friends, who have stayed in touch and raised funds for the organisation Annie works with. But it seems that the main effect of Quakerism on their experience here has been to inform their response to the situations and questions that arise when living and working as a foreigner in Ethiopia. I saw this in how Colin and Annie talk about Jill’s work with the homeless poor, how they try to support Ethiopians especially with education, and trying to react to difficult situations in a Quakerly manner. A common experience in Ethiopia is that a stranger will talk to you for some time and then build to what Colin calls ‘the punchline’ – a request for money to study, for food, for family. In this context, it can be tempting to view everyone with suspicion. Colin says that there are certain passages from Advices and Queries that have been very helpful in these situations, because they have reminded him ‘to think it possible you may be mistaken’ and to react with perspective and to ‘respect that of God in others’.
Colin and Annie will be in Addis Ababa until January 2011. Having greatly enjoyed sharing a meal and good conversation with them, I wished them well and walked off to find a taxi, thinking once again of how you can go almost anywhere and uncover Quakers in unexpected places!
Ben Jarman lives in Brussels and blogs at http://www.benjarman.info.