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An Ethiopian woman's musings on Africa, the world and everything in between

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        Saturday, July 14, 2007
        Diaspora bickering at its best
        Don't you have somethings in your culture which are supposed to be the norm and you ask yourself is this really normal? Ethiopian style of "discussion" is like that for me. I am noticing more and more that it's not only politics that makes us want to pull each other's hair out. It can be music (who sounds as if somebody is squeezing his balls and who has a good message in the lyrics), comedy (who's funny and who makes you want to weep), why popcorn replaced kolo during coffee ceremony. Everything is a bloody battle field. Besides, is it my imagination or is it worse between a woman and a man doing the "discussion"?

        I personally can't stand the "Tsk, anchi atawkim" (you don't know anything - although 'anything' is not uttered, you know it's there. Oh it's so there.) And the dismissive way in which it is said is blood-boiling (that may be directly translated from Amharic, but you get my drift). My husband just asked me to add the "uh, uh, uh, uh?" which according to him means "normally I ignore you, but now you may have said something interesting so start all over again." Thank God I don't go through this on regular basis, but the rare occasions I get involved in these nerve-wrecking Ethiopian verbal-showdowns, I am left wondering why can't we beg to differ without tempers flaring and instant animosity brewing?

        Ethiopian farmers using mobile phones was the topic that caused this rant. I was trying to conduct a general conversation about ager bet, homeland, with an Ethiopian man I just met. I kept on telling myself "keep the topics general" because, as I said, I just met this guy. It's too bad, for a nation severely affected by climate, that we don't normally talk about the weather like the Brits do.

        It shouldn't be this nerve-wrecking to meet your fellow country people while you live outside your country. It should be a time to enjoy speaking in your own language, reminisce about the good-old days when we afforded house-maids back at home, (oh, I can "discuss" for three hours on this topic) share funny stories about the first experience on escalators, with automatic glass doors, in those electric trains at airports without conductors suspended above the street, the variety of pet food in grocery stores - my favourite being salmon-flavoured wet cat food....

        The gentleman with whom I am having an issue here was sitting opposite me on one of those huge American leather sofas, where you literally sink in instead of sit on. To avoid sinking, he was sitting on the edge of the sofa leaning against the arm rest for support. He's wearing a black shirt which is tight around the belly. The reshuffling on the sofa to avoid sinking together with the big belly pushing had unbuttoned two of the middle buttons on his shirt. While he's arguing his point how mobile phones are destroying the economy in Ethiopia, I couldn't help wondering at what point he would realize that his buttons were undone and he would be preoccupied with embarrassment and stop whining about farmers "making life hell for city people". No chance in you know where! I gave up wondering when he first scratched and then rubbed his belly (this was right after a huge Ethiopian meal) and continued to suggest that "the government should ration mobile phones so that farmers don't use them to mess with the price of grain".

        I found the whole picture comical - a short stout guy slowly sinking in his gigantic American leather sofa with belly protruding out of his shirt deciding the fate of Ethiopian farmers - from America. That was until he threw the "Tsk, anchi atawkim" at me. Oh no he didn't! I spent three months in remote part of western Ethiopia conducting a research on how farmers view development. I sat in 250 mud huts talking to these farmers and learnt of their concerns about the challenges with agricultural policies, land ownership, access to market, infrastructure (the lack of it) while I was wired up from all the coffee I had to politely drink in each hut. I still have the interview cassettes and my notes if he wants proof. That should count for something. What does he mean I don't know anything?

        Regime after regime, drought after drought and Starbucks after Starbucks, Ethiopian farmers always get the shortest end of the stick. Now they are using mobile phones to check prices in towns and are controlling distribution of their own products. Boo hoo for city people and welcome to capitalism (sorry Mom, I have to draw the line somewhere.)

        I didn't hear my "learned" fellow Ethiopian complaining about the crop bandits, who obviously jack up grain prices by forcibly claiming their share of tax on the grains.

        Lorries arrive from Ethiopia's south and west, which have food surpluses, and leave for the north and east of the country, which is often famished. Illegal traders run a lucrative extortion racket, their bully boys jumping on the lorries as they arrive, threatening the driver and earning themselves $1.50 on every $20 sack of grain. That margin and other market failings add up to 20% to the cost of every sack.

        Even in countries where gangsters and extortion are less common, crop markets rarely work well. Information, crucial to efficient trading, is scanty. But, thanks in part to technology, things are improving. Mobile phones help farmers find out about price discrepancies from which they might benefit. In some cases better market information has encouraged farmers to diversify their crops

        I had to subtly ask the man what type of work he does. Trust me, he's far from joining the World Trade Organization and thank God for that. Imagine him as an advisor on trade in Africa.

        Fortunately, there are people in Ethiopia who get the job done unlike my "learned" acquaintance and I, who are just engaged in diaspora bickering and feeling important about... wind, really.

        Text messaging has already proved a huge hit in established mobile markets like Europe, where teenagers have used the technology to flood the airwaves with abbreviated gossip and chat. But Ethiopia's academics have already set out a much more substantial use for the standard: market and weather reports for the country's often drought-stricken farmers. "Mobile phones are very much cheaper than PCs," said Solomon. "We could get them out to every corner of the country, even to the farmers.
        There you have it, my "learned" acquaintance. "Tsk, rasih atawkim" (you don't know yourself) right back at you.

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