What I learned this time…

Posted by on May 4, 2012 | 4 comments

In the last 18 mo I have spent over 5 weeks in Ethiopia. I really thought that having spent this time there would have given me a pretty good idea of life in Ethiopia.

I was wrong.

Yes, I saw immense poverty, like I expected.

Yes, I met selfless servants who have given up everything to serve the world’s forgotten people.

Yes, I saw hope through ministries and people who will never cease to amaze me.

But what struck me most, was how clueless I am to the true reality of most Ethiopians.

Although I didn’t mean to, I was living with my head in the sand.

While I have heard it said that Ethiopia (and most of our world’s 3rd world countries) does not have a middle class, but rather a small number of rich, and then  a vast number of poor, I never really understood what this means for the people who live there.

Over my last few trips I have become friends with a sweet man named Getachew. Getachew is married and has a young child whom he adores. Getachew works 7 days/week, 12-15 hours/day, 365 days/year. He has what I would consider a working class job, one that would provide fairly well for his family. If he had this same type of job, working the same number of hours in America,  he would certainly be able to own his own home, car, and maintain a nice American lifestyle. He always has a grin on his face and continually praises God for his unending blessings.

One day,  Getachew asked me to come to his home for a traditional coffee ceremony. Getachew was, for the first time in years, only going to work a 1/2 day. I later found out that this day was the first time his child has ever seen him in the daylight, as everyday he leaves before his child wakes, and he returns late in the evening.

I graciously accepted Getachew’s invitation and agreed to meet him at a central location near his home. As I followed Getachew, I quickly realized we were not headed to a 1 or 2 bedroom apartment as I had expected. Instead we began to enter what reminded me of Korah, the leper colony turned slum that I had visited just days before. The smells and sights were the same, the only thing missing were the lepers, but sickness and poverty were still obvious. Mud walled homes with tattered roofs of plastic, trash or if one was lucky, corrugated tin. Sick, underfed, under-bathed children peaked out of their homes or from behind their mother’s legs. I was stared at, it was obvious a white woman in new flats and a handsome scarf rarely enters this part of town.

The rain began to fall again as we walked through mud and trash, and over rickty “bridges” made out of a few long sticks, placed over a stream of waste and trash, or the all too common bright green pool of “water”. I felt shame as I began to worry about the condition of my new Sole Rebel flats I had just purchased (and although I got them for 1/3 of the online cost, still… they are new…), and Getachew humbly  apologized for how “dirty” it is here.

We eventually arrived at his home; a 10 foot square, mud structure with a metal roof and a lopsided metal door that did not seal shut. I was quickly embarrassed that I had come to their home empty handed. That I was wearing new shoes and a new scarf. That my haircut and highlights probably cost more than his monthly salary.

Despite its humble appearance, it was obvious that this family takes pride in their home. They had tattered pictures of Jesus hanging on the walls, plastic woven fabric hanging on the ceiling and covering the floor. There was a curtain dividing the room, and Getachew proudly slid it over to display his “bedroom.”.. a double sized bed, and what appeared to be a nicely folded stack of their clothing. Next to the curtain was a small wooden bench, on which we sat as we visited and Getachew kindly offered a bed pillow for my back to make it more comfortable.

I could not believe that this is the life that  a man who works nearly 100 hours/week, every week of the year, can afford.

Getachew’s humble wife began to diligently work on her coffee. There is a reason why one is invited to a “coffee ceremony”. Firstly, the floor upon which sat the coffee ceremony items  was covered in the traditional grass clippings that are sure signs of a special guest or holiday celebration. She washed the beans in a blue water basin, as running water obviously doesn’t exist for this family. She then began the process of roasting, and then hand grinding the coffee, which took much work, focus, and time…nearly 45 minutes.

After the coffee was made, she pulled out a tiny bag of corn, which she then began to pop. I casually asked Getachew if they often enjoy popcorn with their coffee, at which he explained that popcorn is reserved for honored guests or special holidays.

Again, so humbled…. and ashamed… How can I possibly be so naive?

I enjoyed visiting with this sweet family for about 90  minutes, during which time he told me that one reason why he had wanted to invite me to his home is because I had shown him “value” as a person and he appreciated that. Such respect and value is rarely shown to him…I melted.

I also learned many “secrets” to their health and happiness, such as how their simple diet of injera (an Ethiopian staple, a mix between a flat bread and a pancake) and water is what keeps them healthy, and that although they could not actually afford a wedding ceremony or legal marriage certificate, they consider themselves husband and wife and are joyfully bound together for life.  Getachew continued to praise his wife and express his love for her, his adoration for his daughter, and his dream for his daughter to have more opportunity than he. He shared about his hope that his daughter will gain an education and even possibly make it to university (which Getachew himself had to drop out of because the university fee of $28 U.S./mo was simply too expensive). The love among this family was radiant.

We ended our time together with me praying over their family and promising to stay in touch.

As Getachew walked me through piles of trash and mud, and over rickety stick “bridges” covering muck and green slime, back to my “pick up spot”, with his daughter in his arms, whispering the Amharic word for “sugar” in her ear through kisses, and a grin on his face, I was humbled to tears.

This is what I learned on this trip… that much to my surprise, if my friends and family were transported, with their education levels and jobs, to Ethiopia (or likely most other 3rd world nations), many of us would be stuck in an endless cycle of poverty too. I always assumed that somehow if I and my family/friends were born in a country like Ethiopia, we would still somehow end up in the upper class, but now I understand that is wrong. I also learned that no matter how many times I “visit” a country, I can never really understand what it means to live there; what the terms “no working” or “middle class” can really mean to a country’s people; how very few Americans, including myself, have a true understanding of what is going on in most of the world and how people are living; how blessed we are in America and how much I LOVE the opportunity she offers; how we must fight to keep America the land of opportunity; and mostly, how blessedness is truly in the eye of the beholder. I will never again complain about my home or my husband working too much. I will never take for granted  running water, sewage systems, garbage collection, our warm beds and safe home, access to health care, free education for our children, or the endless isles at the grocery store. And I will never forget these people.

I thank God for opening my eyes once again, and pray that these insights and experiences can somehow, someday bring glory to Him.


  1. Again, so beautiful. Thanks for sharing and taking the time to process. Maybe time for a book???

  2. Sitting here in tears, feeling so guilty for everything we take for granted. Thank you for sharing your experiences with all of us. I am very humbled.

  3. Beautifully and profoundly written. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Beautiful story. But I even feel bad saying that. What a hard, hard life.

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