Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Expectations, Revisited

A year ago I put down a set of expectations I held going into my time working in Ethiopia. These were based on the word of preceding international staff within my organization, as well as a two-hour jaunt around Addis on the day of my arrival (which, for an account of pre-formed expectations could also be known as “cheating”). I remember sitting in the deteriorating hotel room and reflecting on what I expected and wanted out of the coming year. A year later, though, what I put in writing at that time is not exactly a rich resource for reflection.

Below are five expectations I laid out:

  1. I anticipated an obstructionist bureaucracy – Very much the case. Attempting to push a new idea into and through the Ethiopian civil administration seems to be like wading through a field of something semi-viscous (melted marshmallow, say, or salted caramel). I’ll have a little more on this in a brief encore post.
  2. I expected to encounter a lot of social ambiguity, particularly friendly people whose real perspective may not be clear from the surface – This was bourn out as well. A minor example that comes to mind: if I heard my senior local coworker describe someone we’d be dealing with as a “good friend,” it meant they had repeatedly encountered each other before in a professional context, but they might not know the first thing about each other personally, and it was still possible they couldn’t stand each other.
  3. I anticipated more cold and rain than most images of “Africa” would allow for – Right for the first three months. But after I got rainy season out of the way, I am not sure I have every lived anywhere with more comfortable and temperate year-round weather than Addis.
  4. I envisioned a lack of certain goods and comforts whose absence might be the first time they seem so integral (my list included diet soda and fitted sheets) – True as well. Seafood turned out to be very high among what I spent time missing, a few trips to countries blessed with ocean access notwithstanding. Though, the marshmallow and caramel mentioned above would also be on this list.
  5. I anticipated not seeing large parts of Addis due to its density – This was right as well. Although I under-estimated the concentration of places of “interest” (by which I mean mainly the upscale places to eat and shop, as well as traditional tourist sites) and my own lack of adventurousness as factors that would lead to the same outcome.
So I guess I got everything right. There was no need to even live through the year. Could’ve just asked a few people about it and gone home, huh?

Well, here’s a few things I didn’t anticipate:

  1. What I perceive, but still don’t have full confidence to diagnose, as a general suspicion toward foreigners – I have heard some tie this deeply into the Ethiopian historical psyche, as leftover pride from having never been colonized. On a day-to-day basis, not only can you never escape the cries of “ferengi, ferengi,” but I perceived random acts of hospitality to be less likely than other places I’ve traveled. In addition to which, Ethiopians like their food, their music, their language, and even the youth seem as if they aren’t in a rush to adopt American culture.
  2. The degree of antipathy toward democracy of the current Ethiopian government – see here, or here, or here, or here. It could be said on this count that maybe I didn’t do my research in advance, although the participation of so many seemingly reliable arbiters, from the Gates Foundation (backing my organization) or the World Bank to my own friends and peers at ATA, minimized any impulse to doubt. (It has been noted to me that by joining I of course contribute to this legitimization. And this is not to say that in the absence of the current Ethiopian government that I think the likely replacement would be better on this score, a question on which I really have no basis to judge).
  3. Correlated to the above, the paucity of available news analysis, and the lingering sense that over the long-run things may not be as stable as they feel – two things you will never read about in the paper in Ethiopia are ethnic factionalism and the military, and yet if the political situation ever really gets, uh, interesting, there’s almost no doubt that it will be driven be on by one if not both of those forces.
  4. The interpersonal dynamics of being an expat generally and in my work setting in particular – This includes the understandable but sometimes counter-intuitive thirst for comfort and luxury among those who choose to forgo the comforts of home, including myself (e.g., if what you really wanted was fine wine and nice chocolate, why are you in Ethiopia?), as well as the impact on the mindset of spending so much time with former management consultants.
  5. As is obligatory to mention, the growing Chinese presence in Africa – They’re there, constructing buildings, roads, rail. Even non-Asian foreigners can regularly expect to have “China China” yelled their way on occasion (supposedly it is now seen as the generally word for foreigner in some more isolated spots). 
This superficial post, of course, will in no ways do justice to everything I may have learned and experienced in my time in Addis. I expect it would take years to be able to really say what the biggest impact (on me) of my experience was.

However, stay tuned for one more “serious” post, which I expect to be a reflection on my first fulfilled expectation—the shape and texture of Ethiopian bureaucracy (update: see here). This might also provide insight into why I am reflecting mainly on how the experience I had in Ethiopia changed me and not how it (even incrementally or imperfectly) changed anything in Ethiopia.

I also expect to be back with more pictures, to include gorilla tracking and Idi Amin’s torture chamber in Uganda, the Cape of Good hope and Nelson Mandela’s cell in Cape Town, and a week enjoying delicious seafood while relaxing on the beach in Mozambique.

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