There’s no way I’ll possibly fit, I thought to myself.
It was a cold afternoon, and I was just leaving the orphanage to head back home to the new Cherokee Gives Back house in Bole. I was standing curbside when a minibus taxi pulled up and the driver’s assistant signaled it was going to Mexico Square – my destination. It was late in the day and the minibus was crowded. The only seat that remained was in the back row — with three other people.
An elderly man sitting in that back row was gesturing to the approximate six inches of remaining room on the bench-style seat, and saying something in Amharic that I can only imagine was, “Here, here!”
I sent the taxi driver’s assistant a questioning look but then saw over my right shoulder the black clouds forming to signal the afternoon rainstorm was coming. I looked back at the minibus.
Oh great. Now everyone in the crowded van had joined in. The entire back two rows of the weathered Toyota Hiace van were gesturing towards that six inches of space between an elderly Ethiopian man and woman and their seat neighbors, and joining in the chorus, “Here! Here!” while pointing at what should be my seat.
I took a breath, swung my bookbag around so that I was cradling it across my stomach, and climbed into the van. I muttered my apologies as I positioned myself sideways so that only half of my butt was sitting on the narrow strip of microfiber seat cover.
Just a couple of weeks earlier, I’d moved to Addis Ababa from New York City where ten cubic feet of personal space is considered a constitutional right. We as New Yorkers avoid sitting next to people on public transit and even balk at the thought of smiling at strangers. That empty seat between two people on the subway is considered the norm, and pity the person who breaks this unspoken rule. I’ve seen fights break out in subway cars on hot summer days because, “your shoulder is touching my shoulder” and “can you please move that three story condominium that you call a baby stroller out of my way so I can get on the train?”
But here I was, in Addis. Sandwiched between four people in the backseat of a minivan meant for transporting a family’s 2.5 kids home from soccer practice, not mass transit. I continued to mutter my apologies (“yikirta, yikirta”) as my large bookbag that signals I’m a foreigner kept bumping in to others during the pothole-filled ride. I was forced to elbow the woman sitting next to me as I reached down into my pocket for the 2 crumpled birr that would count as my fare. I noticed the water bottle in the side pocket of my bag starting to leak on the man’s leg next to me. And yet, no one seemed to mind.
That’s the thing about Ethiopia. Everyone wants you to have what they’re having. And this crowded van full of people with seats was no different. They were more than happy to offer up the last “seat” for our journey.
This mindset of “please have what I’m having” was a continual theme during my time in Ethiopia, and in fact, a major part of the culture.
In Ethiopia, personal space is unusual; in fact, it may be nonexistent. Even the way meals are shared between family and friends suggests you eat in a “please have what I’m having” style. A flat piece of injera with multiple sauces (wots) and vegetables is shared between tables of six and seven people, and hand-feeding those you love and respect is common. In America, we feel awkward sharing family-style dinners with strangers. I had a tapas meal with clients once, and it was a nightmare. No one wanted to take the last fig tart, and we all had to swallow our desire to reach for the last two pathetic-looking meatballs on a curved plate. I remember feeling awkward when I went to dinner at a newly-opened West Village restaurant that received New York Mag’s top stars. But it wasn’t the crowd or the restaurant’s reviews that made me feel out of my element. It was the fact that the restaurant’s rectangular tables were set up family-style, and I would be sitting next to total strangers.
“Please have what I’m having” became more obvious each holiday that I celebrated with the children at AHOPE Ethiopia, an orphanage for children and babies living with HIV. For it was on these special days, that the popcorn, Coca-Cola, orange soda and cookies mysteriously appeared. Yet, I was floored at how many of these children who only get these treats on special occasions ran with their party plates (dropping cookies and popcorn along the way) to come share their goodies with me! Me! Their friend and volunteer. Isn’t it slightly ironic that in America we have to remind our kids at birthday parties and holidays to share with those around them?
“Please have what I’m having” was an attitude shared among total strangers the day I got stuck in a rainy season afternoon hail storm. I was on my way to the mall when the skies broke open and let loose quarter-sized balls of hail. I’d made a fatal mistake that day and falsely believed the sunny skies I woke up with meant it wasn’t going to rain later that day. I was wrong, and there I was, umbrella-less, wet and freezing. I turned a corner and found a small suk with an overhang just wide enough that I could stand underneath it and only my toes would get wet. When the family who owned the suk saw me standing there, shivering and cold, they demanded I come inside their home (a mere shanty) and wait out the storm on their sagging sofa in a dirt-floored living room. The love didn’t stop there as they brought me hot coffee and a towel to dry off my hair. Can you imagine letting a perfect stranger (who doesn’t look a thing like you, mind you) into your home, just because of a little rainstorm?
Since my departure from Ethiopia and return to the United States, I’ve tried my best to maintain this policy of “please have what I’m having.” But with looming credit card bills, a brand new job and a security deposit on an apartment, it’s a bit harder when every dollar seems to be worth so much.
But, there’s hope for me. Every time I look back from pictures of my trip, or I see a news story about the beautiful country that is Ethiopia, I stop and ask myself, “Why can’t those people have what I’m having?”