Monday, August 19, 2013

Still the Ignorant Ferenji

So, yesterday was my last day in Addis Ababa.  These past two months have flown by; I have learned more than I thought possible and been inspired in so many ways by the people I have met.  I will miss Ethiopia:  the people, the work, the sights and sounds, and of course the food and coffee!  My experiences here have been varied, some good and some bad.  All of them have been informative and valuable in their own way.   Each has made me reflect on what I value, rethink my opinions of certain issues, and expand my understanding of complex societal and cultural dynamics. 

One of the most valuable, and exciting, experiences happened last Thursday.  For Ethiopians, it was the end of Ramadan:  Eid Al-Fitr.  I had scheduled an interview at Siddartha Development Organization for that morning, not knowing the significance of the date.  The manager later told me that it would be a national holiday.  I asked him if people would be at the office, he said yes; I asked him if it would be an inconvenience for the staff or for the interviewees for Mikiyas (IOFA’s translator) and me to come in the morning, he said no.  So, I confirmed the time and wrote the interview on my calendar. 

The night before the interviews, I had dinner with a friend who mentioned that there might be protests on Eid Al-Fitr.  I asked when and where they would be, knowing that I would have to plan my journey to avoid those areas.  He said that the activity would be mainly at the Stadium, where the Addis Ababa Muslims would go in the morning to worship.  No problem, I thought, I don’t have to pass by the stadium on my way to Siddartha Development.  Just to make sure though, I told Mikiyas that if things were bad in the morning we would cancel the interviews. 

This might be a good time to give you, the readers, some background on the political/religious discontent in Ethiopia.  A couple of years ago, Islamist extremists put the word out that they were targeting Ethiopia, Kenya, and Nigeria to expand their influence in East Africa.  This, understandably, put the Ethiopian government on edge.  The political climate here has been stable for the past 8 years, but it could change.  Sure enough, some more radical imams began to speak out against the government and stir up discontent among some of the Muslim population.  The government tried to repress these radicals, but couldn’t do so without tightening restrictions on all Muslims.  This, of course, has frustrated the entire Ethiopian Muslim population.  Last year, there began to be protests during Ramadan, culminating in a large protest on Eid Al-Fitr that turned violent.  This Ramadan, there were protests every Friday in some Addis mosques and in many of the regional Ethiopian areas.  About a week before Eid Al-Fitr, calls came for a mass protest for the end of Ramadan.  This was general knowledge for Ethiopians, but not for the ferenji tourists. 

So, on Thursday morning I left my guest house to find that the road was closed—there were no line taxis (public transportation) running.  This wasn’t too surprising since my guest house is located just North of a mosque, and there were quite a few people on their way home.  Everyone was chatting, nothing was alarming.  I decided to walk up to Mexico Square (a major taxi hub) to catch a line taxi North.  As I approached the square, the crowds became thicker, and I soon realized there were no line taxis in the square.  Then I heard shouts and saw a huge crowd filing down the main road.  It seemed that if I could get across the road, I would be able to make my way to the National Theater/Ambassador area, in which is located a fair number of international hotels.  I could hire a private taxi and still get to the interviews on time. 

Some of the protestors around the Ambassador area
I squeezed through the crowd in Mexico square and made my way towards the National Theater.  I soon came to another major road with another large group of marchers.  An elderly gentleman with two young boys pulled me to the side of the street against a building.  “Better to wait here until they pass,” he told me.  I was watching the marchers and wondering how long it would take before I could get to the hotel, when something stirred the crowd and they began to stampede.  I pressed myself against the wall to make as much room for them as possible.  I then saw what had happened—the police had arrived.  The police had their clubs out and were holding riot shields.  That’s when things went bad.  The protestors started throwing rocks, large ones, at the police, who were standing near to me.  I ran to a small book kiosk where some other women were huddled.  The police began chasing down the men and beating them.  The men were fleeing every direction, but still throwing rocks and shouting back. 

The owners of the book kiosk, to whom I am forever indebted, pulled the women and me into the small shop, turned off the lights, and barred the windows.  We sat in the dark, hearing the commotion outside and waiting for everything to die down.  I pulled out my phone and texted a few of my friends my location and what was happening.  After about half an hour, the owners opened the kiosk windows and let us out.  The street was littered with debris, but was otherwise eerily silent.  I hurried to Ethiopia hotel (maybe .25 km away) and sat in the café until the roads opened, then took a private taxi back to my guesthouse.  I thank my lucky stars that I didn’t see the worst of the protests, which took place in the Merkato. 

So what do I take away from this experience?  First, I now have a deep appreciation for the political stability of my home country, which makes it possible for us to enjoy the freedoms enshrined in our constitution.  It has also made me deepened my understanding of foreign governments that I, as an American, by criticize for being repressive.  It’s easy for me to level such criticism in a country that’s secure, where political leaders do not have to worry about being overthrown by radical extremists, where our neighboring countries are also relatively stable.  I’m not saying that I agree with the Ethiopian government’s crackdown on religious and journalistic freedom, but I do understand, and can even empathize with, their motives.  And even though I can become a little frustrated with many Ethiopians’ views of Muslim dissenters (which can be interpreted as unsympathetic and condescending) and their general disinterest in politics, I also know why ths kind of attitude prevails.  In case you have forgotten (or never heard), Ethiopia experienced an extremely oppressive communist regime, a tragic famine, and political upheaval within the past 25 years.  Can we blame the Ethiopian majority for preferring a strong (and stable) government  How does one protect a people’s rights to freedom of speech and worship and also maintain a stable government in a (relatively) insecure region?  On the other hand, can we blame Muslim protestors for claiming their own religious freedom and trying to expose the government’s repressive means of silencing their voices?  There are no easy answers. 

Some of the Eid Al-Fitr protestors

Unwittingly being caught in the middle of a protest is one of those experiences that can often come upon world travelers.  In fact, many people I know who have lived and worked abroad have similar stories.  In some ways it’s become a source of pride and legitimacy—one can claim to be “enlightened” or an “expert” because he/she has been in the middle of a REAL riot.  But this attitude is just part of the ignorant neoliberal attitudes that Westerners have towards the two-thirds world.  I had absolutely no business being out and about that day, if I had had any sense I would have realized that my local contacts were trying to warn me to stay inside.  If I had been smart, I would have turned around and headed back to my guest house when I first saw the agitated crowds in Mexico square.  But I didn’t.  To be completely honest, a small part of me wanted to witness the march, to get the full “Ethiopian experience.”  I counted on my racial/ethnic identity to protect me, exploiting it as a means to be a kind of voyeur—to see and experience the excitement political unrest, perhaps at the expense of others.  In this way, I am just as guilty as the “tribal tourists” I was repulsed by in India.  As a Westerner, I have to consciously and continuously reflect on how my presence stirs the waters, where I do and don’t belong, where I should and should not go.  Only then can I respectfully experience this vast, diverse, and infinitely complex world.   

Note:  I did not take the pictures on this blog, I pulled them from Aljazeera, which republished twitter photos of the protests.  

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Last Round of Interviews

This past Saturday, Mikiyas and I wrapped up the last set of interviews here in Addis Ababa.  All in all, we talked to 58 individuals from 9 different organizations.  Their stories reflect a vast range of experiences, with some being very successful in their independent life and some still struggling to find work and shelter 8 years after they left care.  For some interviews, we were able to go in depth and hear very personal stories of the transition process.  Some interviews included a lot of participants and we were able to get a good idea of what the majority of youth are facing once they leave care. 

Our last interview was at the headquarters of Service In Mission (SIM).  The clinic director, Mary Vanderwal, has been doing volunteer work with young men who aged out of Kolfe--I wrote about her ministry a few weeks ago.  Because of her good relationship with the boys, and because we were providing lunch, we expected a good turnout—maybe 8-10 participants.  The line taxi pulled up with 18 men, aged 22-29, ready to talk about their experiences.  Thank goodness we had enough food!  Because we had so many participants, Mikiyas and I used the large-group interview model we developed for IOFA’s summer research.  A young Ethiopian theology student, Tseyone, was also present and translated for me as Mikiyas facilitated the discussion. 

Mikiyas first asked about the general experience of these Kolfe boys as they aged out of care.  They said that the orphanage gave them a lump sum of money and then basically turned them loose.  The boys had no idea how to budget or manage finances, and this money was gone within a month, without the boys securing a job our housing.  Many of them lived with friends or in khat houses*, which now rent rooms.    The boys may have completed their public education, but received no vocational training or support to attend a university or college. 

Mikiyas then broke the boys into 3 small groups and asked them to discuss three different topics: the primary challenges they faced once they left the orphanage, how they managed to provide for themselves, and the kind of support available to them once they left.  The young men were instructed to write down their experiences and elect a representative to report back to the larger group.  This is what we heard:

Talking about the transition experience in small groups

  •  Primary Challenges:  “Because they know we are from the orphanage, the society doesn’t trust us.  They think that we are all criminals.”  “Landlords won’t rent to us, businesses won’t employ us.”  “We pretend that we have families so that we can get work, but someone always finds out.  Once they know we are from the orphanage, they will find a reason to fire us.”  “We can’t even get an ID card*.  Without an ID card, how are we supposed to get a job?” 

  • Self-Sufficiency:  “We can get some work in day labor.”  “We stay with friends, mostly other boys from the orphanage.”  “We don’t have a choice where we stay.  I have to be careful because I can’t always trust the people I stay with.  I have had many things stolen.”  “We don’t know how to cook, and we don’t always have a kitchen.  Mostly, I  eat food I buy on the street.” 

  • Family and Social Support:  “Our families don’t help us.”  “I found my aunt and uncle, but they wouldn’t let me stay in their house or give me money for my education.”  “Our brothers are in the orphanage, or are outside with us.  They are our only family.”  “We try to support each other, but none of us has much to give the others.”  “Our family didn’t welcome us.  Society didn’t welcome us.  Only addiction welcomed us.” 

After these presentations, Mikiyas brought out a posterboard with a drawing of a soccer goal.  The goal, he explained, stood for success in their independent life.  We then passed out small paper soccer balls and blue stickie notes.  The boys were instructed to write a goal that they had for their lives on the stickie notes, attach the note to a soccer ball and place the ball either on the poster (if the goal had been achieved) or outside the poster (if their attempts had failed so far).  After the boys “scored” their goals, we handed out red stickie notes and green stickie notes.  The red stickie notes were for the balls outside the poster—those goals that had not been achieved.  The green stickie notes were for the goals that had been realized.  On the red stickie notes, the boys were instructed to write the obstacles that kept them from achieving each of their goals.  On the green stickie notes, they were asked to write down the support that made their achievements possible.  They then were told to pair the red and green stickie notes to the appropriate soccer balls.

Many of the balls outside of the poster had to do with finding stable work, having a place to stay, and having a family one day.  The challenges that were most often named stemmed from systemic issues:  there weren’t enough jobs available, the boys don’t have proper vocational training, etc.  Many of the balls on the poster (achievements) were social in nature—many had found friends outside the orphanage, and some had even found romantic partners.  These successes were attributed to the boys own personalities, patience, and hard work. 
Writing goals and placing them on the poster
(successful) or outside (unsuccessful)
After the interview session wrapped up, the boys were invited to lunch in the common area.  We went through 25 injera, 2 pots of lamb stew, and 2 big bowls of vegetable wot.  All of the participants told us that they found the interview process extremely helpful.  It was good, they said, to have somewhere safe to go and discuss their lives and the challenges they face.  Usually, they only come together in bars and khat houses.  They also appreciated that people were actually interested in their experience and that work was being done to help other children.  “Our lives are difficult, they will always be difficult,” one young man said.  “But it is important that our younger brothers [still in the orphanage] don’t have the same experience.” 

*Khat houses are places in Addis where young men can smoke shisha & marijuana, drink, and chew khat.  These establishments often offer a place to sleep and some food for a low price because they make money on the addictive substances they sell. 

*In order to get an ID card in Ethiopia, you have to have a permanent residence and someone to vouch for you, to provide a “guarantee.”  The person who provides the guarantee must also have an ID card and be willing to have some sort of legal connection to you.  Because these young men don’t have either, they cannot get an ID card.  Without an ID card, they cannot enroll in educational/vocational programs or apply for the majority of jobs.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

First Round of Interviews

It’s hard to believe that I’ve spent over a month in Addis, and that I’ll be leaving in just three short weeks.  I am now able to get around the city confidently and comfortably, I have favorite restaurants and cafés, and I’ve made many friends that I’ll be sad to leave.  Moreover, my work has finally changed from meetings with organizational staff to interviewing young people who grew up in care:  hearing their stories and experiences of transition.  This is the work that I am most interested in, and will be the basis for IOFA’s decisions moving forward on the Transitions Initiative in Ethiopia.  We want to know what the personal experience of transitioning from care institutions to independent life looks like, what challenges young people face, what supports they have, as well as the emotional aspect of leaving care. 

So far, Mikyas Feyissa (IOFA’s Ethiopian representative and translator) and I have conducted five interview sessions, each with adults from different organizations.  We heard from 5 youth from CIAI who spent much of their time on the streets until CIAI’s shelter took them in.  We met with 10 individuals who grew up in L’Esperance:  an Adventist orphanage on the outskirts of Addis.  We talked to 5 adults who grew up in Abebech Gobena (Addis Ababa’s most famous orphanage) and who are now employed by that institution.  We also met 4 girls from Kidane Mehret orphanage, who have just started transitioning to independent life.  On Saturday, we interviewed 7 young adults who grew up in SOS Children's Villages Ethiopia.  Additionally, I’ve been able to have great, informal conversations with two young men who grew up in care and who are now living independently.

Mikiyas interviews a girl from Kidane Mehret
 Each individual and group has a unique story, but there are common themes that we hear over and over again.  One challenge that every youth seems to face when they leave care is the extreme culture shock of joining the outside community.  Most orphaned children grow up isolated in institutions with very little community interaction.  Basic social skills that most children pick up through observing adults are completely foreign to orphaned youth.  Tamerat, who now works as a psychologist in a Catholic orphanage, told me that he didn’t know how to buy food or clothes because everything had always been provided in the orphanage. 

[Orphaned youth] have no budgeting skills and don’t know how to save money.  They also don’t have any role models for working and responsibility.  Other children see their parents go to work every day, [orphaned youth] don’t have that experience.  They don’t know how to manage their time to make sure everything is done.”

Every group has commented on how difficult it is to converse and interact with other people outside of the institution.  The youth feel that the community will ostracize them, which leads them to be very reserved; most Ethiopians generally do not trust reserved people, so they treat the youth as though they were of bad character.  This confirms the youth’s fears and leads to further psychological distress.  The youth also have no sense of good and bad behavior in other people, they are often too trusting of strangers.  Because the only interaction with adults has been in the orphanage, they don’t possess the healthy dose of suspicion that most of us employ when meeting new people, looking for a job, and searching for housing.

Children who grew up in this orphanage have similar thinking and conduct. We respect people and we do not pretend like people do in the society. If we trust others; we give ourselves.  On the other hand members of the society do not give themselves, they rather are selfish.”

We are also hearing that although institutions often assist the youth in pursuing some sort of education or vocational training, the support stops as soon as they graduate.  In Ethiopia, the biggest challenge for young people is finding employment.  While young people with families have the option of taking their time to find a good job (they can always stay with their parents until then), orphaned youth must enter the job market immediately so that they can support themselves.  Families also function as a job search and referral system—social connections are the key to getting a good job.  This lack of material and social support leads orphaned youth to take jobs that they are overqualified for, jobs with low wages and little opportunity of advancement. 

We suffer long periods of time without any finances…Students who graduated with fewer qualifications and lower grades secure better employment.  We graduate with honors and do not get a job at all.  You can only explain this by people having contacts: relatives, families, etc., and we do not have that.”

Having fun playing the "yes/no" game at
SOS Children's Village
For many of the participants in these interviews, telling their stories can be cathartic.  The four girls that Mikiyas and I interviewed at Kidane Mehret orphanage were disappointed that we wouldn’t be meeting again.  This was the first time anyone had asked them about their experience, showed an interest in how the transition was affecting them emotionally.  The group from L’Esperance often meet weekly for fellowship.  They said that they discuss the challenges they face and lean on each other for support.  I am glad that IOFA’s interview process gives them the experience to process and reflect on their experience, as well as assurance that people do care about them and want to make the situation better for other youth.

I’ll be conducting interviews for the next week, then compiling them in a full report for the International Organization for Adolescents’ Transitions Initiative.  When I get back to Chicago, I’ll present a project proposal to the board, explaining the basic challenges that these youth are facing and the support they need to become successful in their independent life.  You can STILL help fund this important work!  Visit my GoFundMe page to donate.  Again, every little bit helps!