White Women in Ethiopia: The Double Whammy

Jun 13 , 2020
By Kidist Yidnekachew

I recently met up with a non-national friend of mine. Having moved here with her family two decades ago, she is currently living in Addis Abeba with her granddaughter. She is a nice woman in her late 50s.

We talked about the people she has met in Addis Abeba, the places she visited, the foods she has tried and the nannies she has had. She believes most people in Ethiopia are loving and welcoming. But, she stressed, not everyone is. Walking on the streets and travelling on public transportation is not a particularly pleasant experience for her.

On multiple occasions, she was subjected to verbal and sexual harassment by random young men on the streets. Recently, while riding in a minibus taxi that had only two passengers, she was hit on. The driver, after the only other passenger had alighted, started flirting on her. Things got out of hand when he tried to put his hands on her legs and kept insisting they meet again and offered to drop her home. The only reason he let her go was when she told him her son was waiting for her at the next stop.

What happened to chivalry? What happened to being respectful of our elders?

We cannot judge a whole country based on the experiences of a few people, but being a woman and being married to a white person, her experiences were not surprising to me.

I am used to rude remarks whenever I walk with my husband. I have been called an opportunist and much worse. But that was me. I had at least hoped the experience would be somewhat different for non-nationals themselves.

It used to be the case that Ethiopians were known for being welcoming toward those that came from outside our borders. We smiled and waved at them. Some even kissed the ground they walked on, because they assumed they had money. But they were at least respectful in doing that.

The driver that harassed her in the taxi spoke good English. This meant that he had some level of education and exposure to different cultures and attitudes. It seems like he should have known better, how it would feel for a non-national female to be harassed by a guy in an empty minibus.

The prevalent traditional belief is that women are not sexual animals and therefore require the forceful initiative of men to be prodded into expressing it. This is a view that is propagated not just through cultural norms but even movies that attempt to depict men as forceful and active and women as weak and passive.

If anything, women prefer men that respect their desires and recognise that “no” means “no.” Women are mothers, daughters, sisters and wives who deserve respect and should not be taken advantage of or abused.

What is annoying is that to be a non-national makes these things worse. Whenever people see her walking with her granddaughter now, they ask her if she was adopted, since she is half Ethiopian and has darker skin.

"You foreigners take our children and raise them as your own," someone once said to her.

I could see tears in her eyes when she told me that she tried to explain to the person that this was her granddaughter and how it was not her intention to change her culture. I was touched, embarrassed and angry at the same time.

We need a change in our behaviour. We have to be able to put ourselves in each other’s shoes and understand how certain actions can be traumatising. Unless we are able to treat strangers with compassion, especially those from other countries, then we are no better than the insensitive and biased non-nationals we accuse of treating us badly in other countries.

PUBLISHED ON Jun 13,2020 [ VOL 21 , NO 1050]

Kidist Yidnekachew is interested in art, human nature and behaviour. She has studied psychology, journalism and communications and can be reached at (kaymina21@gmail.com)

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