When I came to Nairobi a few months ago, I became a lot more appreciative of the U.S., even my “boring” suburb of Columbus, OH. I have not taken the following for granted ever since: smooth roads with actual sidewalks, security, and Americans’ comparative ability to look beyond each other’s race and appearance. Nairobi has its own perks, of course: nature, the food, and, not to sound cliche, the emphasis on relaxation or idle moments.
After spending the past half of a week in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, I became much more aware of these perks among others. I marveled at Nairobians’ wider exposure to other races and their much stronger ability to look beyond others’ skin colors. When I came back yesterday, I felt like I was home again.
Xenophobia did not really cross my mind when my friend and I left for Addis at the wee hour of 3 AM. We were excited for Ethiopian food and coffee, an exploration of the highly idiosyncratic Ethiopian Orthodoxy, and some relaxation time. I guess we did not manage our expectations appropriately- they were dashed within the first five hours on Ethiopian soil.
After landing in Addis at 5:30 AM, we quickly cleared customs and headed to Piazza, the portion of the city that was built by the Italians when the Italians were trying to occupy Ethiopia in the late 19th century. We went to St. George’s Armenian Church- the oldest one in Ethiopia- and then St. George’s Ethiopian Orthodoxy Cathedral. It was at the latter that we realized that we were being followed at a distance by three people. We doubled back, took sharp turns, and ran through traffic in order to lose them. Yet no matter what we did, we could not shake them. We also did not see any foreigners and within a sea of Ethiopians, we definitely stood out despite our best effort to act “local” with our headscarves, etc. The three people followed us at a distance for three hours, waiting for us as we shopped for scarves at the stalls, examined books at street corners, and took in the touristy sites. We were so exasperated that we even went to a cop (police is a joke in Ethiopia) who did not speak English. The few Amharic words and phrases we knew definitely did not cover, “three people following us”. At the end, we settled for the office of Ethiopian Airline and hoped that someone there spoke English. Thankfully, someone did and called the cops for us. While we waited for almost 40 minutes for the cops come from their station that was literally two blocks away, the Ethiopian Airline private guards realized that the three people who were following us were loitering outside, waiting for us. They detained them and had a shouting match with them. At that point, we were so tired- we simply wanted to go to back to our hotel- that we just let them handle the three stalkers. The cops, of course, never showed.
This experience definitely put us on the edge. At first, we thought that we were dramatizing the experience since neither one of us had really slept the night before on the dilapidated and turbulence-ridden plane. But after walking up and down the streets of Ethiopia and being harassed left and right, we had enough. While the people we met at the hotel were fantastic and tried to help us, we were slowly losing our faith in Ethiopians and men. Everywhere we went, people yelled, “Japan, China, Korea”, “nihao”, “konichiwa”, “what are you” , “where are you from”, and tried to follow us for a block or two. Children clung onto us and ask for money, and one kid even tried to pickpocket my purse while pretending to sell us trinkets (he unzipped the outer pocket) before my friend, who was walking behind me, caught him in action and scared him away. Men blocked our way so that we had to walk around them, and as we passed them, they shouted sexual innuendos and snickered. That was when we realized that 90% of the people on the streets were men. Almost no women walked by themselves, and if they did, they walked quickly with their heads held down and made no eye contact. After a few hours, half a day, the whole day of being harassed, my nerves began to fray. Public transportation was better, but the entire ride would be endured being stared at and whispered about.
Despite the harassment, out of pride, we were determined to see the city and hit everything on our to-do list. We did hit everything on our to do list, but it came at a cost. I had not realized until I came back to Nairobi, and my friend casually mentioned that now whenever we pass someone on the road, I would immediately straighten my back, tense up, and walk faster. Only three days in Addis, and I was already changing for the worse. My trust in people, especially men, is decreasing.
I did learn an important life lesson in Addis: never take anything for granted. Small things, such as a the ability to walk down the street without harassment, make up the way we perceive life and when they are taken away from us, we suddenly realize that the basic rights we have are not so basic after all. The most fundamental aspects of life become more noticeable, and we are more appreciative of them. There is no happiness/ contentness without hardships.