Sitting at a restaurant, in one of the many hotels in Addis Abeba, to pen an article, I overheard a conversation taking place at the next table.
It is not surprising to see international travellers who have made friends with the staff of the hotel where they stay and have lengthy conversations with them. But the nature of this particular discussion was abnormal.
“I just need you to bring me this one thing,” the waiter told the guest.
The waiter proceeded to describe how disadvantaged he was, and how this gentleman could help.
“This conversation is very inappropriate, and I don’t think you should be asking me for favours when I have only known you for a few days.” the guest, understandably looking uncomfortable, told the waiter after some back and forth.
The conversation ended thereafter, with a disgruntled traveller and a waiter that seemed strangely unbothered with what had just transpired. I, the third party, was cringing just listening to the whole exchange.
It may be impolite to eavesdrop, and it may perhaps be even worse to write about it, but the exchange was too intriguing. How some Ethiopians interact with non-nationals is amusing, and not in a good way.
A few years back, on a research expedition to a remote area of the Amhara Regional State, a team of which I was a part and that consisted of Ethiopians and a Caucasian American woman, visited a school. As we were outsiders, we had an elderly person from the city administration assigned to assist us.
As we gathered in front of the young girls, that person then told these girls that the “white person had come to help them”.
After this, the elderly person proceeded to make the girls, who were giving up their time to help us, show their gratitude to the foreigner. We were standing in disbelief as to what had transpired. It was difficult to know how we could undo what this person had just done in a few seconds.
Even in a collaborative effort, the assumption is that the non-national is supporting the locals. Most of us are quick to undermine our communities, assuming that our fellow citizens will not garner creativity and that non-nationals are always here to teach us something.
Ethiopians are doing inspiring work in every sector. But the support is not present, and people are not given the right opportunity to make their mark. Even if something is finally accomplished, credit is given to others.
The government spends millions to make changes in the city, yet it is rare to see investment in the inventions of the youth. Sadly, even though young people, myself included, would prefer recognition and support from Ethiopians, the support mostly comes from outsiders.
The narrative of the outsider to the rescue keeps gaining momentum. I am appreciative of collaborative efforts to support one another regardless of race. But the issue has always been that more Ethiopians who are in a position of power – whether financial, political or intellectual – should do more to invest in their communities.
The narrative of the white saviour is one that has plagued our continent, leading us to always look outward instead of within. It is because there is not enough care given to the issues that must be locally addressed and also to those that can be the shared responsibility of the world.
There needs to be more responsibility taken concerning our communities. In community initiatives, there need to be more local people. In the sphere of powerful civil societies, most of them dominated by international staff at the top levels, locals must be able to make their mark. Only someone that is a part of the community can be a better judge of the society’s needs and wants.
We allow many injustices. Some of these that may not seem as evident today will manifest themselves as more significant problems in the long run. We have willingly given over power to non-nationals in places where the power must lie with us. We have believed the story of defeat they have told us.
We have won battles such as Adwa, and yet we have no idea what to do with a victory of such magnitude. We have misplaced our self-worth. Contrary to what some believe, we will not find it by denouncing languages that are not ours and the Ethiopians who speak them. We will find it when we rectify the distortions of our stories, our victories, our strengths and weaknesses.
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