I. It was actually easy to see the ending of our just-under-a-year stint in Ethiopia. Everyone from our home lives anticipated it so much – at each lapse into yet another bout of illness (from the bugs, from bad water, from the food, from the rainy season), my mother would cry out ‘can you please just get out of Africa?’
But were we in Africa? Most any Ethiopian would balk at that description – highlanders in the capital Addis Ababa where we lived describe residents of the ethnically-distinct Ethiopian South as ‘Africans.’ (Whereas they are ‘Habesha.’) The country used to be called the ‘breadbasket of the Middle East’ – but really it’s more its own unique thing. Centuries of independence in sequestered high altitudes. It’s the seat of the African Union. But holds hardly any correspondence to an ‘African’ identity.
As if that means anything at all – an ‘African’ identity. I remember being in a car in New Delhi with three friends: a Nigerian, South African, and Ethiopian. The Nigerian argued that on the most recent season of Big Brother Africa, the promiscuous women were not adhering to ‘African morality.’ The South African protested that those don’t even exist – how could 54 countries all have one ascribed ‘morality’? While the Ethiopian ignored the conversation and slept. (And me, the American, taking mental notes to write it all down four years later to signify a great message about a continent that I have lived on for several scattered years, but am by all degrees foreign to.)
The point then of ending this stage in Ethiopia, falling on the heels of so many other endings in just the last three years – I said goodbye to living in New York City, to living in Berlin, to Brazil, and now here. Here! But here is a place that is labeled only ‘African’ on the home front. With little thought of what is meant by that incongruous label. Savannah? Poverty? Dancing and drums? Bono?
II. This was the first year I had an iPod touch – given to me by my family demanding that even if I still had no interest in a smart phone, I must have some vehicle to access INSTAGRAM, the be all of communication technology. Admittedly I love to see my nieces and nephews splayed across that little screen at such regularity, and I was able to at least share some images of life here. It’s where my family members’ eyeballs rest the most – not on email or mailboxes or even phone calls (despite the act of staring at the phone to get to the images – images over voice! Images over voice!). So it was important to me to share something of my daily life.
But everyone knows how insufficient that actually is. I don’t think I conveyed at all what life really ‘is’ here, what it really ‘means.’ (Mostly because I myself am still on the fringes of it, taking mental notes, looking in, still in the Delhi cab.) All our lives are poorly shared by filtered photos scrolled past in two seconds.
But I can make that case especially here – especially Ethiopia. It is still seen as just the ‘Africa’ of North American imaginings. So how do I go back to a place and to people who have so little framework for understanding where I just was? Karen von Blixen/Isak Dinesen – made famous by Out of Africa – wrote in her absurd racist superiority that she had an advantage to understand Kenyans because she first understood the animals of the East African plains. I don’t want to say I am more enlightened in my understanding, nor do I want to have made others seeing my trite photos with three sentence captions feel they now understand ‘Africa.’ What they saw, what I saw, what Ethiopia is as I represent it to myself, to the world, is the narrow wormhole vision of this still-naïve 28-year-old American, California born and raised.
‘O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space.’
III. Abstract: That others misrepresent Africa, but that I contribute to that, and that I myself misunderstand it because I am small, I am still removed from ‘it’, mostly because there is no actual ‘it’ relevant for Africa, for Ethiopia, at all.