Lost in Ethiopia
I sat on the plane very anxiously: I’d never been to Ethiopia, nor Africa for that matter, and was now heading there for four weeks, knowing no one, and with very little organised (in hindsight, I wish I’d done a little bit more work during the summer).
Upon landing and taking two days to acclimate in Addis Ababa, Bahir Dar, the city I was to be based in, beckoned me with her siren song. Driving there was the first time I was really struck by the different world I was in – a leisurely and bumpy 500 km, 12.5 hour drive, only slightly more than the 6 hours I’d expected. This journey offered me an extended introduction to rural Ethiopia: monkeys, thin air, the Blue Nile (which was incredibly brown), and kind people. It also gave me the opportunity to play the song “Africa” by Toto as we drove in a storm (“I bless the rains down in Africa”…), so I took that as a pretty big win.
The next few weeks were draining but consistent: gender-separated focus groups investigating how women’s empowerment in agriculture informs water security. More specifically, we investigated the gender gaps in the production of cash crops, the gender gaps in the uptake and efficiency of sustainable land management techniques in agriculture, and how we can incentivise men to actively empower women in institutions in the area (could probably do with this last topic in most of the global North as well!).
The idea behind this is reasonably simple but difficult to implement: if we can empower women to use improved agricultural techniques effectively, the water availability in the area will improve (which, for example, can be used for irrigation in dry season farming and for livelihood uses), and soil erosion will reduce during times of too much rain (which will allow for improved yields). Given over 85% of the Ethiopian population is involved in agriculture, and climate change is bringing increasingly variable rainfall to the area, this is something that can have significant beneficial impacts.
The (yet to be fully analysed) initial results from the focus groups indicate that women are disadvantaged relative to men with regards to availability of time, education, access to information, access to training and confidence, to name a few. Encouragingly though, there is optimism by men and women alike that change is on the horizon. The participants’ unwavering belief in the importance of education and its significance to empowerment, and the (relatively) recently introduced educational policy encouraging girls and boys to receive equal educational opportunities, mean people believe the empowerment of women is not far away and the development that comes with this will happen in their lifetime. YEET!
At a personal level though, the significance of this fieldwork wasn’t in the work being done or results being found. It was in the cultural and life experiences that enhanced my worldview, provided me memories, or simply left me flabbergasted at what was happening at that moment. These experiences include:
- Conducting a focus group discussion while a farmer’s AK-47 sat on the table pointed directly at our note-taker and another farmer rested his chin on the end of the barrel of his semi-automatic rifle (while I’m sure/hope the safety was on, I made no sudden movements);
- Having (what felt like) food poisoning for three weeks – a character-building experience of endurance I had never before seen in my lifetime;
- Learning that Katy Perry’s song, Roar, is huge in Ethiopia. Naturally, I did my duty and showed as many people as I could that the west has better music to offer including AD/DC, Billie Eilish, Arcade Fire and Kendrick Lamar; and
- Witnessing and being unwittingly involved in a couple of significant religious events.
One key experience that this trip introduced me to was isolation. Never before in my life had I felt so isolated in various ways. Despite being able to video call friends and family, I felt very alone and, at times, completely overwhelmed (it amazes me how people used to conduct this type of work before such methods of communication were around). While I won’t delve into this much, I feel this is an important aspect of the trip to mention. Before leaving for my trip I had only heard positive reviews from others about their fieldwork which led to a naïve vision of what the trip would be like. For some, including myself, fieldwork can be tough and isolating, but it is a crucial part of what we do to improve the lives of others, and remembering this–along with advice from friends and family–is what got me through.
In times of stark and constant contrast though, it is the things that are similar that become most striking. What struck me wasn’t necessarily the lack of clean drinking water or my bodily struggles, but the sense of community and willingness to help each other in the villages, much like the Rhodes community. What struck me wasn’t the horses, donkeys and cows walking along the roads in the city, but people’s openness to strangers. And what struck me most wasn’t the difference in living conditions between many villages and Oxford, but the sense of hope and optimism for a brighter future, much like what many of us fight for each day.
So as I landed back in the UK and now walk through Oxford during a new school year, it’s the similarities I see. The sense of community, the openness to strangers, and, despite everything going on in the world, a sense of hope for the future that many of us fight for, to whatever extent we can.
After the ‘Lost in Ethiopia’ blog was posted, I received messages from various people concerned with the way I depicted Ethiopia. These concerns included how it contributed to the “poor, war torn and disease ridden” narrative that persists.
After meeting with various people concerned, it was decided to move forward in two ways:
- The blog would remain online as an example of how not to write about and represent Africa in writing, and to show that even in places like Oxford and the Rhodes community, people still have misunderstandings regarding how best to contribute to the various narratives of Africa; and
- I would write a post-script outlining my experience after the blog was published and what I learned.
The following is a reflection on my post-publication experience.
I was initially surprised and disheartened when I received messages and emails from various people regarding how I represented Ethiopia in my blog. My work was planned to be a raw and humorous representation of how difficult and isolating conducting research in unfamiliar settings can be, particularly for those who were naïve prior to going (like myself), with Ethiopia circumstantially being the location of this experience. The blog was read over by multiple people prior to publishing and I had no intention of offending anyone nor presenting a problematic image of Africa in my writing. Equally though, I put little thought into how what was written could be interpreted when read through lenses different to my own. For example, the title ‘Lost in Ethiopia’ may be read as a reference to Africa as the Dark Continent, referring to the mysteries and savagery European colonisers expected to find in the 19th century (an image I certainly didn’t intend to portray); when writing though, I chose this title because it is a quote from the Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ song ‘Ethiopia’, a song that I listened to a lot when there and helped me through some difficult times of isolation. However, not including this context in the article left the title open to different interpretations. Another example is recounting having food poisoning for three weeks; a reader may interpret this as due to Ethiopia being unclean and without remedies, when it was likely due to a significant and sudden change in diet and environment.
There are other examples where I write about Africa in a poor way that ignore nuances that have little to do with the lens one reads through. One example is saying Katy Perry’s song ‘Roar’ was huge in Ethiopia, a country of roughly 110 million people, based on the opinion of a few people I chatted to. Another is unfavourably comparing the road infrastructure of Ethiopia and Australia with no hint of reference as to why this is the case.
Even upon learning how my writing presented a problematic image of Africa, I still had difficulty fully understanding the significance of what I’d written. After all, this was just a recount of my experiences in a blog (which I thought) only a few people would read. So what impact will this really have? This attitude holds within it two problems: the first involves privilege and power. To an extent, I think I tried to convince myself that people would place little-to-no importance on what I wrote and thought, and thus tried to remove myself from the responsibility I held in contributing to the narrative of Africa given my position. This was unrealistic and irresponsible. Rather than shying away from the responsibility that comes with my identity and position (as a Westerner, Oxford student and Rhodes Scholar), I should actively use this to create a positive impact–in this case, a nuanced reflection of my experiences in Ethiopia–to the best of my ability (regardless of how many people I think will read it).
The second issue with my attitude was that I didn’t appreciate the power I could have in contributing to a wider narrative, regardless of my position. I think this was a product of me growing up in Australia: a country with many nuanced narratives regularly depicting, at an international scale, Australia as one of the most liveable countries in the world, or as a place filled with dangerous and deadly but beautiful wildlife, or as a place that mistreats many asylum seekers and its Indigenous peoples, or most recently, as a nation on fire with a government doing little to combat climate change. A poorly nuanced piece of writing about Australia becomes lost like a tear in rain because it is drowned out by countless well-written and nuanced pieces of writing. A poorly nuanced narrative of Africa is significantly more impactful though because it contributes to and strengthens the overwhelmingly dominant narrative in the Global North of Africa as a place in need of help; a narrative predominantly written by the Global North, often ignoring the voices of those who consider Africa home. This is well explained in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk: The Danger of a Single Story. In it, Adichie describes how impactful the single narrative of Africa as a place of catastrophes is, particularly as we ignore many other positive stories, and how this robs people of dignity.
This attitude led me to misunderstand the impacts my original blog would have. However, another important aspect of this situation needs to be considered. That is, that Rhodes Scholars (and more broadly, Oxford academics) face an expectation to be inherently well-versed in critical narrative analysis. I feel that this is an unrealistic expectation. For example, my shift from a scientific background (engineering/economics) to a degree in the social sciences has left me grappling with the ability to critically engage with narratives. This has been coupled with an expectation to be both comfortable with and knowledgeable in a broad range of topics.
I believe that being at Oxford, and being a Rhodes Scholar, is an opportunity for us to reflect, learn and continue to grow upon our existing knowledge bases in important areas that we are unfamiliar with. For instance, I feel that following my work in Ethiopia, it is my responsibility to gain a deeper understanding of the unique representational challenges the nation faces before I contribute to its greater narrative or conduct research. This is regardless of how comfortable I feel in this area. Ideally, this is a responsibility I should have realised before conducting research in Ethiopia, and was ultimately not a responsibility I lived up to.
Ultimately, I have taken away a variety of things from this experience, including: how the lenses different people read through can create meaning in texts that wasn’t intended; how, particularly when writing about an important aspect of other people’s being, it is the writer’s responsibility to be aware of the various ways meaning can be created and try to work around (or with) it sensitively; and the risks one takes in representing themselves and others when expressing their opinions and experiences in public forums. Though this experience has been extremely challenging for me, it has forced me to consider and learn about concepts I otherwise would not have. This is an intrinsic part of conducting research in other countries that researchers must consider: a researcher should do their best to confront and grapple with ideas of power, privilege, race and representation regardless of how uncomfortable they feel in the discussion. Without engaging in these conversations prior to researching internationally (like myself), the impact of important research will be dampened (possibly even harmful) and unneeded barriers to the positive change we passionately work towards will remain erected.
Finally, I owe a word of thanks to those in various Oxford communities who took the time to help me learn from this experience, and bring wider lessons to light. Though small, this reflection will hopefully encourage its readers to write about unfamiliar settings in a way that contributes positively to their complex narratives.
By Rob Ferritto (Western Australia & Green Templeton 2018). Rob is studying for an MPhil in Water Science, Policy and Management.