There's more to Ethiopia than 'kids starving'
By Bonnie Toomey
I had the pleasure of working with a trilingual student from Ethiopia last semester. She was a delight for many reasons, one of which was that she educated us about her diverse country. Throughout the semester, she shared her experiences of education, family and cultural tradition with a classroom full of her peers, mostly white students from the States, the majority from New England. Three students, two with East Asian heritage and one whose parents are Brazilian, made up the rest.
She also shared the many stereotypes that have incorrectly served as quick go-to archetypes for so many of us who do not live or have never visited any of Africa's 54 countries.
I am grateful to her because she reminded me that there still exists a strong negative and uninformed bias that tends to paint a continent with a broad brush of clichés -- warring clans, violent drug lords, high rates of illiteracy and higher rates of povert, some of which is true. But it's not a complete picture, and this is where it can get dangerous.
Some might assume it is either a tangled jungle where Tarzan lives with apes, or a vast dessert dotted in quaint, thatched huts populated by big game and running with poachers. These images are burned into our brains as children. We think Africa and we reduce it to ebony carvings, woven baskets, feathery headdresses and colorful beads.
We picture, with fear in our hearts, a ravaged, war-torn place with little industry and low educational standards. Yet, here it is, a continent where civilization was birthed, learning institutions flourish, cities bustle, rich and diverse cultures abound , and a place with a thousand reasons to visit and many natural resources upon which the world depends, the United States included.
The latter is how Hawi Heyi, a student attending Plymouth State University, portrays her Ethiopia to me as she extends an open invitation for me to visit.
But when I was growing up in the 1960s, Ethiopia was a household word, a euphemism for drought and starvation, a name synonymous in daily admonishments from parents at the American dinner table to belong to the Clean Plate Club. "Children are starving in Ethiopia!" they cautioned. And so there it was -- my first introduction to a country that would be embedded in my childhood head and stay there for years to come.
It's no wonder many of my generation grew up thinking that Ethiopia -- one country on a great continent filled with myriad wildlife and vegetation and one nation of more than 50, was the single representation of a place so big, the second-largest land mass and populated continent in the world -- had been reduced to one drought-cracked and destitute hovel.
Though Ethiopia had suffered devastating drought, that was long ago and should not be the sole story continuing to define the country today, Hawi said with earnestness in her eyes.
She spent much of the semester debunking the common myths surrounding Africa, doing qualitative and quantitative research to clear the stereotypical record for a lot of her peers. She learned of her own biases in the process. We all have them. Her work reminded me of the flat stories we often fall back on that tell us very little about the realities that exist. It leaves little to scratch your head over, especially when school curricula are lacking, at best, as they try to teach our children about Africa, and when our own nation's leader can make such disparaging offhand and uninformed remarks showing his own bias.
Next time you marvel at a diamond ring, take in coffee's aroma or hear the boiler kick on, consider where uranium and copper, among other resources we depend on, are mined. And when you think about the great continent of Africa, consider world history, classic literature, philosophical thinkers and vibrant cultures with poetry, art and music.
Ask your kids what they know about Africa. Ask your family, friends and colleagues about their understanding of things African. We have to stop perpetuating worn out and skewed ideas that seem to support a false status quo if we want to have positive and well-informed relationships with others in our families, our communities, our nation and around the globe.
And if we are to get along in this ever-shrinking world, we have to give respect if we expect to receive it.
What do you know about Africa?
Bonnie J. Toomey teaches at Plymouth State University, writes about life in the 21st century. You can follow Parent Forward on Twitter at https://twitter.com/bonniejtoomey. Learn more at www.parentforward.blogspot.com or visit bonniejtoomey.com.
PICTURE : PD
SOURCE : SENTINEL AND ENTERPRISE