I’m doing a sabbatical in Vienna to try and understand how best tsetse flies can be controlled. Why? They cause Nanga in cattle, and sleeping sickness in humans. Cattle in Africa are used not only for food and milk, but they also provide the labor necessary to grow crops. They are the basis of farming here because they provide the traction the drives the plow. The tsetse fly devastates Africa because it makes these animals sick, and it makes people sick. I came to understand the problem more deeply and establish research collaborations here in Africa to work on the fly.
I’ve learned much more than I was prepared for.
I am struck dumb. As I drive through the streets of Addis Abba that fabric of my self-conception is torn and my whole sense of place in the world is jolted and askew. I knew what poverty was. I’d seen it in other parts of the world, but here it was stunning. I find myself frightened by the shear the number of the poor. I don’t have words for what I’ve felt and experienced here. It was outside what I was prepared to see. As we drive through the city I see poverty everywhere, I see people sitting in tin shacks, or out on the street, or like a man crawling down the street on carved wooden blocks with a carved wooden handle begging. And there are so, so many people. People like me, but whose life experience has been so different from mine that I can’t processes it. I enjoy pursuing questions like ‘What is truth? How do I find it? But here, now, how dare I ask such questions when others can’t even answer the question, ‘Will I eat today?” I see beggars everywhere and I don’t know what to do. Why help this man? When I see rows upon rows of men, women and children begging ahead? What do I do?
Then I went to a security briefing at the UN. The world is being torn apart by conflict. ‘Don’t go here.’, ‘or here’ or ‘here’ or ‘here’ . . . the list of places not to go (mostly on the borders of Ethiopia with Somalia, Sudan, Eritrea. There were so many liberation fronts with the ending ‘LF’ in the title you could almost pick any two letters and you would find a group operating under that name. Tribes fighting tribes, religions fighting religions, countries fighting countries. It was staggering (note to family: I’m not travelling anywhere they said don’t go).
Food prices have increased 50% in the last two months. How can this people bear that! I’m scared because there is a title wave of need that feels like it is about to break the world.
Yet there is hope. An Ethiopian showing me around the city, showed me the way. A beggar came up to him at the window and told a story in Ethiopian. The guide nodded and handed him 10 birr. Not a lot, but enough for a loaf of bread. Just prior to that, we had been standing in the Holies of Holies of an Ethiopian Orthodox Church. My guide had sought a blessing from a robed priest sitting there chatting with another man. The priest laid his hands on his head and blessed him. He gave the beggar the money shortly after. I asked him why. Not as in ‘why bother,’ but I wanted to really, really, understand, why gave? He said, “We must do what we can.” I had to look away because my eyes were genuinely filling with tears. All I had seen prior to this were sights of poverty, images of war, being told about the deep conflicts in the world. But here, here is the hope for Africa. Here was something so encouraging and so important, that may, be just maybe Africa can be healed from the deep, deep instabilities and problems it faces.