Canadians know a thing or two about diversity. After all, one out of five people in Canada is foreign born. We are home to people from more than 200 countries. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, atheists and agnostics alike find the freedom to practice their faith (or not, as the case may be) in peaceful coexistence here. We are a well-travelled nation, each individual trip abroad contributing to an ever expanding national consciousness that allows Canadians to understand other cultures and perspectives, broaden our own, and to celebrate – not simply tolerate – diversity.
That’s what I expected to gain on my journey to Ethiopia – perspective, the kind that can only be gained by fully immersing yourself in other cultures. What I didn’t expect was to be taught a lesson in community and the power of the human touch by the people of Ethiopia.
While Ethiopia’s landscape is wildly diverse, its population is less so. Yes, there are many cultural tribes scattered throughout the country, with widely varying ways of life. There are communities urban, rural and remote. Ethiopia is home to Christians, Muslims, and Rastafari. While never colonized, the country has historically been occupied by Britain and Italy, each leaving their unique cultural mark. For all of that, Ethiopia is a largely homogeneous country. A country that on the whole does not travel beyond its borders, and experiences other people and cultures primarily through tourism, trade, and sport. And the rest of the world could learn a lesson in acceptance from the warm and welcoming people who would have every right to mistrust foreigners.
When I was young, I didn’t want to be different – I longed to blend in, to fit in. As I grew older, I began to appreciate the traits, talents and idiosyncrasies that make me different. I surround myself with people as weird as they are uniquely wonderful. Still, as an introvert, I’m uncomfortable being the centre of attention when I’m not in performance mode.
From the first moment we arrived in Addis Ababa, and throughout our journey across Ethiopia, my white skin, blonde hair, and tattooed arms made me stand out more than I ever have. I received wide-eyed, open-mouthed stares full of wonder, laughing amusement, timid curiosity, bold assessment, and often a liberal dose of male appreciation. In every village we visited, children would run up to me, flashing wide grins and sparkling eyes, reaching out to touch the skin that was so unlike their own. Tiny, calloused fingertips traced the tattoos on my arms – and those who could read English would do so out loud, an unmistakable note of awe in their voices. Some with no English would point to the sun tattoo on my wrist and up at the true sun, nodding knowingly as though they were wise to my secrets. Others shyly or boldly touched my blonde hair, laughing with delight at its foreign tones and texture. Countless hands slipped into mine, squeezing in welcome. I was greeted as ferengi (foreigner) with none of the disdain you might find in other cultures. I was told countless times – from children who expected nothing from me but me – “you are my friend.”
The rock star level of attention I received in Ethiopia would have made me feel self-conscious or smothered anywhere else in the world, but here, I felt only joy – and a human connection I’ve rarely experienced with strangers. Since my return, I’ve been trying to put my finger on why. After much introspection, I’ve concluded that it’s because there was none of the negativity, none of the judgement, that often accompany stares in North America. Only the connection that comes with community in the purest sense of the word. We’ve largely lost our sense of community, particularly in our cities. That’s because people in rural and remote communities need one another. We’ve industrialized and technologized (I’ve decided to make that a verb) that need out of our cities. We walk down crowded streets and squeeze like canned sardines onto public transit, as close to and as far away from our fellow human beings as we can be, making every effort to avoid eye contact. And you know what? We’re missing out.