By Zewge A. Assefa
When I arrived in Norway August last year, I thought I surrendered to a deadly quietness that I was never used to in Ethiopia. I was not sure how long I could live on my happy memories of lively interactions not just with my friends back home but also nearly with everyone nearby, someone who sat by me in a café or another one in a taxi. My Norwegian professor’s descriptions of his country echoed into my ears transcending the limits of time. He would turn a frown face to display this strange look an average Norwegian would automatically throw in reaction to one’s daring to work out a conversation just by the virtue of sitting on a nearby chair. In what appeared to be a nostalgic confession of his years of life in Ethiopia, this visiting lecturer in Addis Ababa University often tilted his lectures toward appreciations of Ethiopians’ warmth and hospitality despite their poor livelihood. “On my bus trip to Awasa (some 260 km south of the capital, Addis Ababa), I can be sure that, by the time we are in Meki (100 or so km), the person sitting next to me would pay my lunch in Ziway,” he would say, and that I can assure you is often the case.
At least at first sight, I had the impression that nobody seemed to have found it interesting to interact with strangers more than it is important for them to read books or newspapers while sitting together in the subway. Nearly regardless of age, men and women would easily get lost in the ipods whose earphones they would plug into their ears. Some other ladies concentrate on their needlework and never seem to have cared for their immediate human environment. Those needles, I thought, were more effective to maintain distance than to produce sweaters or headscarves, and I was wondering which one was the objective. Just a hobby, some would say. Adding to my frustration was my roommate, a Norwegian himself, who was never a convincing disproof to my quick claims of rejection at least of a man of my color. Just at first contact, he gave me “hey be careful with the bathroom” tips rather soldierly.
However denying the environment appeared to be, I had to willy-nilly find means to cope with the system as someone who comes from a largely traditional society, and this is unthinkable without braving the rain of silence. Of all the information booklets I received from the university I have come to, there is this little brochure which, among other things, provides advice for new comers in Norway to take the initiative to communicate with otherwise reserved Norwegians. To this day, I have always carried this key (the advice, not the physical paper) to open people up and it has worked ninety nine times out of hundred. In so doing, I have come to find Norwegians who, if I was lost in the city, not only gave me a workable direction but also went out of their way to take me there. It was even easier with my other Norwegian flat mates that I didn’t have to take the start. They have embraced me with all my difference and encouraged me to have my voice heard in the kitchen, and I then thought I should also try it in sociopolitical forums. This piece of writing can be taken as the first attempt to respond to that call in me.
In all honesty, I have increasingly felt vindicated here by most people’s judgment more by what one has to deliver than what she looks like (in Ethiopia I would have used ‘he’ as a generic pronoun). Although it sometimes takes a great deal of effort rather undeservedly to make people understand that we are not all what the global media say we are, I witnessed people’s willingness to synchronize their mediated data with what we Africans have to say about ourselves. Classrooms as well as kitchen parties have often exhibited a huge appetite to understand others, at least those I go to where I found more comfort in talking to Norwegians than other nationals.
I do not however mean to underestimate the difficulty for me as an African and in particular as an Ethiopian to give a proper picture of the place I call home. Many people seem to have a thick background reinforced with terrible images of war, famine and overall poverty. For all that I know, this face of reality has been mediated almost in the absence of other faces that do not fit into news because they are not that horrific. So it is not fair to blame the audience for that; after all many Britons born after 1985 are said to associate Ethiopia with the 1985 famine, not even with the less adverse ones we have had after they came into this world. That is not my focus for the moment, but as the rich world needs to explore more about humans and their environs, so much is at stake for the poor to reveal more human features than statistical characterizations which have imprinted lasting stereotypes in the Western society.
Personally, I do not feel rejected. Neither do I feel fully embraced. I still live with the situation where more often than not, people prefer to sit by people of their color type even when I am sitting alone and the others have just a space to crowd another one in. Indeed, some appreciate something I do, not just because it is a smart thing to do but because I do it that way being a black- ‘rather uncharacteristically’. Nevertheless, I come into contact with a lot others who take me as a normal success in those instances.
Somewhere in Europe my friend was told by a passerby that he did not belong there. Of course he knew he did not belong there, and he told the guy that he belongs to God. “No,” said the European. “See how handsome I am and I am God for you. So you don’t belong to me.” At least I expect no Norwegian to be that irrational or I never met one till now, and that is why this friend of mine misses his first semester here before he went to the country where people are not necessarily understanding.
We can isolate people if we elect to a certain degree, thereby choosing who to invite over for coffee, chat with or who we would like to sit by in the subway. That still hurts the isolated, but one can do little to alter the situation. People can identify themselves in the way they feel is fit to them. Speaking of racial differences, however, no one contributed anything to retain their color even if it were made of some ‘quality’ attributes. I therefore believe it is not that smarter to take pride in some trait we have no say what so ever in making it ours.
Save some discrepancies, I am enjoying life with those who understand all that and more and fortunately they are not few. It also feels great to be in a nation that generally lives up to ethical standards emanating from social development, the rule of law and human right values. One thing has not changed in my communication continuum though- I still have to take the initiative and that is not a tough thing to do.