August 08, 2020
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Descrambling Africa

A professor here once asked me why Indian women always walked behind their husbands....

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Descrambling Africa

My work takes me to Ethiopia frequently. With my shaven head, dark complexion and the name Abraham, locals assume I am Ethiopian. I have to explain that I can’t speak Amharaic/Tigrinia/Oromifa (they have 90 different languages) because I am Indian and not being a snob. Somehow they find this end­earing—I get their attention, affection, torrents of apology.

India meanwhile continues to debate how criminal its African expats are. I notice African faces on Indian TV screens—looking on squeamishly as journalists, activists and local residents glorify or vilify them. It makes me wonder what the Ethiopians I have met and known think of Indians. But I find it difficult to get Ethiopians to talk candi­dly about this. They are too polite, and avoid unnecessary debates. However, there might be some clues in what they bring up when they talk to Indians.

Gandhi: Of course. There is a Mahatma Gandhi Street in Addis Ababa. Grinning portraits of the Father of our Nation also adorn cafe walls in Shashamane, the spiritual home to all Rastafarians in the world.

Bollywood: I most fondly remember 35-year old Shimelis telling me about watching Mother India 10 times when he was in school, and without subtitles. He could even hum some of the songs or thought he could. He said he liked old Indian movies better since their stories were set in villages, which looked a lot like the ones in Ethiopia.

Indian food: Local acquaintances often offer to take me to Indian restaurants frequented by Indians where the discussion is mostly how relieved they are to finally have some ‘decent food’. And this despite the richness of Ethi­opian cuisine, much of which is vegetarian too.

Democracy: Ethiopia had its first multiparty elections in 1995. The democracy is young, and hardly a model one. The ruling coalition has a poor track record on media freedom, human rights and dealing with dissent. It’s not like India, they say, but we are getting there. I detect gen­uine appreciation for our far-from-perfect democracy.

Indian teachers: Although their numbers have fallen a lot since the 1980s, they still teach at schools in Ethiopia. There are over 500 Indian teachers in Ethiopia’s 20 universities too. Most Ethiopians have had Indian teachers, so there’s tremendous respect for them.

Women in India: The brutal gangrape in Delhi in 2012 was reported and discu­s­sed widely and is now a key part of people’s impression of India: women are not safe, women are subordinate to men. A professor once asked me why Indian women always walked behind their hus­bands. I told him that wasn’t true. He said that’s what he noticed among his Indian colleagues. It is easy to see why this would be disturbing to Ethiopians. Everywhere here, Ethiopian women can be seen out and about, independent of their men. For it’s safe to be out till late and travel alone.

Africa is not Ethiopia: Ethiopians take a lot of pride in their unique languages, religious practices and music. And in being the only country that could resist the European countries’ ‘scramble for Africa’ in the late 19th century. It is equally true that ‘Africa is not Uganda,’ ‘Africa is not Nigeria,’ and so on. Obvious as this may sound, it might be a lesson in geography and cultural sensitivity that many of us Indians sorely need.

(The writer is an international development expert based in the Netherlands); E-mail your columnist: abrahamabhi AT

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