New Millennium: Old Ethiopia in Search of Renewal

Published on 18th September 2007
As a college student in the nineties, I used to volunteer to give a talk to American public schools in North Carolina about Africa with a special focus on Ethiopia.  Most of the talks would be in upper elementary classes where the kids have minimal knowledge about the continent, let alone a specific country.

I would start off my presentations by putting up a big world map on the board and going over the continental basics before I moved on to discussing the specifics of Ethiopia. 

The little knowledge the learners had about Africa was limited to stories of poverty and wars. The questions they asked reflected their own concerns as children.  Once they understood the location of my native country, they wanted to know if the kids in Ethiopia had food, clothes, houses, moms and dads.  

“What about toys?”  They wanted to know.  “Game Boys?  Do they have Game Boys?”  “No,” I explained. “Most parents don’t have the money to buy toys for their kids.”   

I walked a tight rope when I gave these presentations.  I had to somehow convey the truth of poverty while at the same time attempt to show that Ethiopia, as a country, is more than its catastrophic human tragedies.   

I went to these talks armed with pictures, posters, and cultural artifacts that signified daily Ethiopian life.   I always wore a traditional Ethiopian outfit.  I discussed holiday customs and juxtaposed them with American ones for contrast.  In all my presentations, I brought up the unique Ethiopian calendar, explained its Coptic origins, and went on to astound them by giving them my birthday in two completely different sets of numbers.   

I was born on the 12th month of 1973 and the 4th month of 1966. 

Then, I had them convert their year of birth.   

“In your country, I am, like, seven years younger!”  They would exclaim.  The concept of a different time tracking system was hard for them to understand.  It was impossible for them to digest the concept that, regardless of the calendar being used, today is, in fact, today everywhere.   

A student once told me, “Don’t worry Ms. Yemi.  Your country will have everything we have in America seven years from now.  You just have to wait.”  

I smiled knowingly because waiting patiently for better times is a national pastime in Ethiopia.   

On 12th of September 2007, the new millennium arrived at the country’s door step and was welcomed with a glittering landmark celebration in the capital city, Addis Ababa.  Ethiopia has now officially entered the 21st century albeit seven and half years later than much of the rest of the world.  

Currently Ethiopia, the second biggest African country by population, is one of the poorest nations in the world.  While the country has not been plagued with the frequent coups that have affected a lot of other African countries, prolonged civil strife and wars have left its economy in tatters.  According to the UNDP Human Development Report, Ethiopia ranks 170 out of 177 countries.   Average life expectancy is 47.8 years.  Combined primary, secondary and tertiary gross enrolment ratio hovers at 36%.   Forty seven percent of children ages 0-5 are considered underweight due to poor nutrition.   

In other words, most Ethiopians live short hard lives and on average die some 34 years before their counter parts in Japan, the country with the longest life expectancy.   

If only our development lag was a matter of just seven years!

By Yemisrach Kifle

An Ethiopian who is currently residing in Dalian, China. She holds an MA in communication and BA in Business Administration

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