Many of the things which happen to us – the conversations we have, the people we meet – are time and place dependent, but as 2011 finishes I thought I’d share a particularly poignant experience I had in August.
I was in Ethiopia for the second time that year, having been thoroughly intoxicated by the country at Easter, and was enjoying getting further under the skin of this fascinating and beautiful place. I found myself having a rather intense discussion with a local man who was convinced (and was telling me as the BBC’s de facto representative, bring British) that the BBC was solely responsible for Ethiopia’s lack of prosperity. He cited the images broadcast in the ‘80s and explained that these had so influenced the world’s understanding of the country that no one would visit or trade with them as they perceived it to be a famine ravaged dustbowl filled with pot-bellied children too malnourished to brush the flies from their eyes (to be fair, he didn’t use this exact description). My impassioned defence of the Beeb (which I believe to be one of the most wonderful things about the UK) involved trying to explain that ‘Ethiopia is actually rather wonderful’ is not news and is therefore unlikely to get such widespread coverage. He was having none of it.
A couple of days later, sitting in the dirt-floored courtyard of a backwater Ethiopian hotel watching the UK riots being broadcast directly onto the exterior wall of the building, surrounded by Ethiopians, I saw my country through the eyes of others. It didn’t look pretty.
The fire next to me provided warmth and light in a place where both were not freely available in any other form at night-time; the fire on the screen was raging in a city of plenty, bringing fear, chaos and destruction. I was in a country where clothing is worn until it falls apart and is protective and practical above all else, where shoes are often a luxury that can’t be afforded and the notion of disposing of clothing simply because it’s ‘out of fashion’ is incomprehensible, watching designer-clad looters stealing trainers and clothes that they probably didn’t even have wardrobe space left for. This was being broadcast onto the wall of a hotel because most Ethiopian homes have no television – imagine how preposterously greedy those thieves appeared, staggering under the weight of their stolen widescreen TVs.
During my month in Ethiopia last year I had many of my preconceptions challenged – about poverty, aid, and African politics amongst other things. Some of this was a result of simply travelling the length of the country and seeing it with my own eyes but a much stronger influence on my current opinions are the conversations I had with the people I met, amongst them Ethiopians, fellow travellers and volunteers. The ability of people from all educational, ethnic and economic backgrounds to articulate their experiences, views and visions of the future had a truly profound effect on me. As I watched my countrymen babble incoherently through their hoodies and scarves as they tried to justify their burglary, arson, and wanton violence by blaming it on bankers / the Government / anyone else I felt something I’ve never felt before during my travels – shame.
Needless to say, the clean-up stories which were such a feature of the reporting back in the UK didn’t find their way into Ethiopian towns with quite such strength and I found myself increasingly having to explain that not all British people were rioters and that actually most people were either unaffected by the violence or involved in repairing the damage. Clearly ‘Britain is actually rather wonderful’ doesn’t make such a good story either!
Hopefully 2012 will be a year in which I continue to have the opportunity to be enlightened through travel to such surprising places and one in which none of our compatriots will behave in a manner which leaves the decent amongst us ashamed.
May good people continue to explore, learn and debate and may bad people copy them instead of each other.