Imagine preparing to travel 12 hours in a bus to see family, that you haven’t seen in about seven years, worrying about whether they will remember you, or whether you’ve packed enough softs, whether they will understand you, and how you’ll fit in. Then, you hear a statement that shakes the foundation of your whole Ethiopia trip – “Ethiopia doesn’t need you, you need Ethiopia.”
Starts packing up clothes for weekend trip to see family in Kobo, Wollo…
(B) “Why are you in Ethiopia?”
(A) “Isn’t that a heavy topic to be discussing this late at night?”
(B) “Uh no actually most deep conversations happen at odd hours”
(A) “Well the answer to that is personal…”
(B) “You do realize that Ethiopia doesn’t need you, you need Ethiopia…”
- “Yeah…I know.”
Continues packing in silence.
When in the bus on the way to see my family, I thought about what was said for the entire 12 hours. Okay, I lied. I slept for the majority of it but the conversation replayed several times throughout my weekend stay with family. I thought about what my friend meant by the statement, why I agreed so quickly, and why I didn’t pushback. But, agreeing with the statement came naturally.
So, it stuck. It wasn’t until I posed the quote to two other people that I started thinking about how I “should have felt.”
When I mentioned it to another friend, his immediate reaction was tell the person to “bug off.” It was left at that. Which made me think – maybe I should have been “more” offended. Especially, since the original statement was coming from someone who was born and raised in the country that supposedly “did not need me.”
When I mentioned it to my mentor during a bi-weekly call, she gave me every reason as to why that statement was false and she did it through a lens of economic development. (The irony here is that I’m an economic development and policy fellow, but those stats on how the diaspora drive the economy did not occur to me.) After our discussion, I felt empowered. I felt like I had the all facts I needed to shut him down the next time I saw him. There was no way he would be able to tell me Ethiopia does not need me – although, once that wave of empowerment subsided, I felt confused. I went through several waves of emotions and my response to the statement was to come back to my original response. Yes, he is right. Ethiopia doesn’t need me, I need Ethiopia.
I could get angry and I could drop facts about all the good things I am doing through this fellowship that add value to Ethiopia, but I will always need Ethiopia more than it needs me. It hurts to think someone or something you love so much does not need you, but at the end of the day, Ethiopia has given me everything and there is nothing I could ever do to repay her. What I can do is learn from her, set aside my expectations, and allow her to change me.
The Follow – Up
I was in such a rush to catch my bus that I never asked what he meant by Ethiopia doesn’t need me, I need Ethiopia. I just assumed that how I interpreted it was how he meant it. But when I returned, I asked and this is what he had to say…
(A) “By the way I’ve been meaning to ask when you said ‘Ethiopia doesn’t need me…’ – what exactly did you mean?”
(B) “I meant you could learn a lot from your stay here. People may come here with the notion of changing Ethiopia and end up leaving disappointed, not understanding how many ways they’ve changed themselves.”
Having this conversation, as controversial as it was, was exactly what I needed. It cleared up a lot of questions I had about relationship dynamics between locals and diasporas, it made me reevaluate my relationship with Ethiopia, and it confirmed that my purpose in returning to Ethiopia is valid.