cockroaches, class and creepy men: the beginning of my Ethiopian adventure

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Africa » Ethiopia » Oromia Region » Jimma
June 6th 2012
Published: June 6th 2012
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I am sitting in a hotel room I share with many cockroaches in a tiny hotel in a tiny town of 150,000 called Jimma in Ethiopia. I am here to teach a 3-week course on Qualitative Research Methods at Jimma University’s Department of Public Health. The university is one of the most prestigious and well known in Africa, but it is very resource poor. A colleague and I are being sponsored by the CDC to be here as part of a capacity building initiative linked to another project on HIV prevention. He and I are each teaching a course to a combination of university instructors and master’s students to build their research capacity.

I arrived in Addis Ababa on Friday night and spent the weekend at the Hilton because flights to Jimma only run every 2 days. This is my first time in this country, so I don’t know anyone. We have an office in Addis, but since it was the weekend, the staff was out and not really available to show me around. So I stayed on the hotel grounds adjusting to the time change and preparing for several weeks in Africa.

Sunday afternoon I flew to Jimma. The runway of the local airport is probably the only paved road. There was no terminal, and 3 porters operated the only 3 luggage carts available. My co-instructor from the university picked me up in an off-road vehicle and brought me to my hotel, the Honeyland. The bellboy/security guard/server/translator, named Tesfay, is a dwarf. Poor guy lugged both of my bags, one of which was taller than him and filled with textbooks for the course, up the 2 flights of stairs to my room. He is probably the friendliest person I have met here so far, and he has been looking out for whatever I need.

The water has been off for most of the day every day I have been here so far. The electricity flickers throughout the night, but luckily the hotel has a generator, so it’s never off for very long. I am constantly battling cockroaches (although they are small, they still creep me out), and I sleep under a mosquito net because malaria is a risk. Water and sanitation is a severe problem here, so I pray on a regular basis to avoid intestinal bacteria. I think I had a fully hot shower one day so far. Food is incredibly cheap (I just had a traditional vegetarian Ethiopian lunch and a liter of water for $2.50), but I find myself hungry often because of the lack of protein and the time it takes to prepare meals. The good news is, the weather here is a perfect temperature, which is fortunate since I have no air conditioning, heat, or even a fan.

While day-to-day life is a bit difficult, my first few days as a guest professor have been great. I have a classroom of 25 students who look at me eagerly for the 3 hours while I lecture in the morning. We had to turn several other interested students away because of a lack of space and materials. There are 22 males and 3 females, which is about the ratio I see throughout campus. We brought 10 desktop computers, a printer, a projector, a couple dozen textbooks, audio recorders, and data analysis software. My local co-instructor made sure to keep a copy of everything for himself safely locked in his office. We are in a dusty old classroom with mismatched desks and few lights. I spend the first few hours of the day giving lectures, and the rest of the day they spend on reading assignments and field exercises. The next few days they are conducting actual in-depth interviews and transcribing their recordings and making field notes.

Apparently my appearance the first day was a bit of a shock, as I was told by several students and my co-instructor that they were expecting an old woman professor. “You are young and beautiful!” one of them told me, “We are shocked!” And I’ve noticed a few of them, especially the men, are very shy when talking with me. Ethiopians seem to be on the timid side anyway, especially compared to men from other cultures in which I have worked. But the unfamiliar accent and the hushed voice forces me to ask people to repeat things often several times.

There is nothing to do in Jimma other than work and go to the market to buy whatever you need. Really, if it weren’t for the university, this might be a dead town. It was thriving back in the days of Italian occupation, and it is the birthplace of coffee, so you see little cafes (shacks, really) everywhere. But there really isn’t much to do otherwise.

My first night here I met another American, an anthropologist doing a post-doc at Brown University. He is here for 2 weeks, and we share a lot of the same research interests and challenges in doing international research, so it’s been nice to chat with him. We’ve also gotten into the habit of taking most of our meals together, so I haven’t been nearly as lonely as I thought I would be. I also met 2 of the 6 Tanzanians who are studying here, and they check in with me to see that I am okay on a regular basis. The post-doc knows of 3 undergrads from Emory who are also here, so they have joined us for an end of the day Bedele beer the past couple of nights. And one of my students, who is also on the faculty (although he’s only 24!) has been assigned to be sort of my babysitter. So whenever I need to go somewhere, he shows up in a pickup truck and helps me with whatever I need.

But not all has been happy here. The second day in town, I had a frightening experience with a Saudi Arabian man staying down the hall. Because the walls here are so thin, you can here everything going on. Every time he heard me come out of my room, he would also come out. He spoke almost no English, but he walked up to me and handed me a bottle of perfume the first time. Weird, but sweet I guess. I wasn’t sure what to make of it, especially since he was just making hand motions at me the whole time.

Later that afternoon, again when I came out of my room, he appeared and motioned me towards him. It was clear he wanted to show me something. I stood in his doorway without entering it. But before I knew it, he was pulling me in, locking the door behind me, and kissing my hands and face, saying “beautiful, beautiful” over and over again. I kept saying no and pushing him away, but the more I pushed the more aggressive he got, groping my breasts and ass. I managed to finagle my way out of there before it went any further, but was so freaked out I was shaking. I quickly went downstairs and called my student to come pick me up and texted the American. Between the 2 of them, they explained to the hotel staff what happened.

Later that day, I heard Tesfay confront the guy in his room, telling him they were going to call the police if he made any more trouble (although in reality, the police couldn't be bothered with something like this in Ethiopia). I heard them yelling at each other and a door slam. I switched rooms with the anthropologist so that I wouldn't be on the same level as the guy anymore. Normally I'd move hotels, but we're talking about 3 hotels total in this place, and I'm at the best one, which isn't saying much. Luckily when my colleagues at the university found out the next morning, they came to talk to the hotel manager and found that the creep had packed his bags and left that morning.

Apparently he has a wealthy investor friend living here that he is visiting. He saw me on our flight in and decided he wanted me. Unlike most of the other women he has probably violated, he chose a tough American woman this time that was going to make his life hell, so he got out of dodge. I am nauseous thinking about all of the other women, especially passive Ethiopian women like housekeepers or other hotel staff that probably were not as assertive about saying no out of fear. And I sensed a bit of shock from the staff here by how upset and demanding I was about fixing the situation. They were all very supportive, especially Tesfay who told me he is my bodyguard, but I still feel eyes on me wherever I go.

It has been a long time since I have felt so angry and violated.

Does this make me question my travels or work? Absolutely not. It gets my back up a bit and reminds me I need to be on guard at all times, unfortunately, something men do not even consider thanks to male privilege. But all the more reason for me to be doing work in the developing world, especially on gender issues, and to be teaching courses on gender issues. If a woman like me can be violated so easily, I can only imagine what a woman with no status in such societies experiences on a daily basis.


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