Archive | December, 2013

Nations and Nationalities Day

12 Dec

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Last Sunday was the national celebration of diversity in Ethiopia –Nations and Nationalities Day. There are 87 individual languages and as many cultures in Ethiopia. Most of these are tribal languages that you find on the southern border with Kenya where National Geographic worthy communities like the Hammer Tribe live in the Omo Valley.

But even up north in the more homogenous Amhara region, where I live, there a regional differences and a lot of pride. On the west side, Orthodox Christianity reigns supreme, as well as the typical white cotton dresses. Most cities have their own meskel or “cross,” and the Gondar one looks more like a floral diamond.

Lalibela on left, St. George, and Gondar crosses

Lalibela on left, St. George, and Gondar crosses

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The other common costume is a forest green outfit with white buttons for men. Typical of both the Gondar region and south of us in the Gojam region (which surrounds Bahar Dar) these outfits are traditionally the fancy fare of farmers.

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Amhara has been the seat of power, culture, and ecumenical influence for a significant portion of Ethiopian history. Amhara and Tigray (to the North) are seen as more “traditional” Ethiopia, while the south is more tribal. Tigray boasts Axum, said to hold the Arc of the Covenant, while Amhara has both Gondar and Lalibela for historical and religious clout. Natural beauty also abounds – The Simien Mountains, north of Gondar, and the Blue Nile Falls, south of Bahar Dar are breathtaking and unique.

Amhara Flag

Amhara Flag

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Tigray has the rock hewn churchs of Hauzen, the columns of Axum, and a desert like landscape. Oromia, the largest region in the center and the political rival for the last century, has the lush Awash National park, Wenchi crater, and a lot more beads on their clothing. The South has the Bale Mountains (featured in BBC’s Life), and the most cultural diversity of the regions. Apparently the shakala tibs (charred meat dish) are best down here too.  Afar and Somali regions are majority Muslim, nomadic and have landscape as tough as the lifestyle. Somalia just had a polio outbreak, and I randomly met up the CDC team as they prepared to head out that way… shmerrr. In Afar, the Danakil Depression is the hottest point on earth with lava literally bubbling out of the ground. We can’t visit it as volunteers, but it’s definitely on my list for afterwards!

Muslim student carrying the Ethiopian Flag

Muslim student carrying the Ethiopian Flag

Addis Ababa, Dire Dowa, and  Harar boast their own city principalities, and per my previous post, Harar has an interesting and unique twist to its history.

Other regions in our “no-go zone” include Gambella and BG, on the border of Sudan and South Sudan. I don’t know much about them, besides the refugee camps, but I heard they have giraffes! There is definitely an elephant sanctuary out by Jijiga in the East.

So there’s a quick and dirty run down of the some of the cultural and natural diversity in Ethiopia in honor of Nations and Nationalities Day.

Genderisms and Why I Always Have My Camera

5 Dec
All the painted nails, boys and girls alike

All the painted nails, boys and girls alike

On Monday morning this week I was invited to speak to an undergrad gender empowerment class at the University of Gondar. The degree program is Gender Studies, and graduates end up mostly in government jobs working towards mainstreaming gender issues in development work and other policies. It’s a lofty goal, and I was pleased to see the room about half men as well. It’s about gender, not women. It’s about economic development, real strategies on the ground, and not just “empowerment.”

During the course of the morning I was asked about almost everything under the sun gender – from “are you a feminist?” to “why are you so passionate about these issues if compared to Ethiopia women in America are so empowered?”

Am I feminist? No, not really. Not of the 1960s militant theoretical variety anyway. Though the older I get, the more places I live, the more feminist (or mindful of gender inequality) I become.

Why am I passionate? Because we still have issues in the US as well. Because health is one of the strategies to bring women up or keep them down. In Ethiopia, too many women die in childbirth because they didn’t have access or weren’t allowed to go to a health center by family pressure. In America, I won’t even get into the slew of conservative state law going on the books this summer. Because my mother had to deal with a man’s world of upper management. Because I get harassed on the street. Because I lived in Jordan. Because I live in Ethiopia. Because I have had a lot of opportunities these Ethiopian women have had to fight so hard to get. Because I know I’m lucky, and I want those opportunities for others.

So how do you move towards a more equal society? You encourage education, especially for girls. It starts in the family. I certainly wouldn’t be here without the support of my family, and I certainly wouldn’t have made the education and career choices I’ve made if my family didn’t think I was just as capable as my brothers. And that’s a generational, long term answer. It’s exciting because I really think this generation in the universities now is going to be great role models for its kids. Women are on a precipice here, it’s this generation that will get to see that change.

There are still pockets of families in the US who would rather encourage motherhood and housewifery instead of college or work. But as gender norms go, that’s not too bad. And many women choose that path, but at least they had a choice. Some families in Ethiopia are still encouraging early marriage and high rates of female genital mutilation. I’ll take “make me sandwich” any day.

But to switch gears a bit, if gender norms here can be incredibly stiff, gendered symbols are not at all. In America, pink is for baby girls, blue for baby boys. Girls get barbies, boys get tonka trucks.

In Ethiopia, I was sitting in a café that afternoon after talking to the class and two deaf streetkids I know came up to say hi. The boy was wearing a dress and pink rainboots, and his sister had a dark green sweater, no shoes.  He got the rainboots, my guess, because he was the boy – colour be damned. My sitemate and I were painting our nails and offered to the kids. No matter, he went for the bright pink. She thought the blue was great.

Men drape over each other in cafes and hold hands or link pinkies as they stroll down the street. Women can be very shy and quiet, even meek, but still wearing the tightest ,most stylish pants. Short hair for all kids is a must during rainy season – better to keep an eye out for head fungus.

So poverty, practicality and no cultural significance to westernized gendered symbols can mean an interesting mix of cultural norms.

So encourage those women in your life. Encourage the men in your life. No matter where they live, they probably face some preconceived notions. And always have a camera, in Ethiopia, it can mean a very fun gender neutral afternoon.

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One of my grassroot soccer streetkids

One of my grassroot soccer streetkids

She was holding bottlecaps in her shirt

She was holding bottlecaps in her shirt

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this woman wanted us to paint her baby's toenails

this woman wanted us to paint her baby’s toenails

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