Guest post from Katie Murray (bio below).
From 2010-2012, my life was lived in the rural countryside of Ethiopia. During that tenure, rural friends and family in America often asked me what the people I was living amongst were like. The general assumption seemed to be: certainly they’re nothing like us.
That was the thing though. The people I lived and loved and worked amongst in Ethiopia were eerily similar to the people I had always lived and loved and worked amongst in America. Certainly, there were differences between them. Obvious things such as skin color and language and religion and cuisine. But I was often comforted by the fact that these people half a world away from my people had more in common with me than I, or others, originally dared to realize.
The first and most comforting commonality of my Ethiopian counterparts was that they had the same agrarian mindset as that of the people I had left behind in America. Both were rural people who lived simply if not poorly, independent sometimes to a fault, oftentimes less educated because survival demanded more attention than their studies, and typically very proud of their family and culture even though the rest of the world couldn’t seem to figure out why. Claiming my own “redneck” status and considering myself as one of them (therefore I’m allowed to say it, right?) I sometimes referred to my newfound Ethiopian friends as African rednecks as a way to ensure I offended as many people at one time as possible.
For the most part, both of my worlds were made up of small-town, simple farmers. One group farmed with large machinery and equipment, the other with oxen and steel plows or perhaps even harvesting wheat one handheld sickle slice at a time. But for both, farming was a way of life. Making a living off of the land was the only life they knew. In both locations, the people in the countryside lived a life that was simpler and slower than those who lived in more urban areas. The day to day tasks of survival took longer, but the work felt purer.
One group may have to drive an hour to the nearest Wal-Mart or grocery store, while the other had to walk an hour (or more) to the nearest town market, held only one day per week in each nearby town. Each tended to raise their children to help with the daily chores, more out of necessity than anything else, but help they did. Hard work and responsibility were lessons that began at an early age in both worlds because it would be necessary for each of them for their children to survive in adulthood.
One distinct difference between the two lifestyles was how the animals were kept. In this specific people group in Ethiopia (there are 83 different languages in Ethiopia which means approximately the same number of different people groups so it is necessary to specify this is not a lifestyle characteristic of all Ethiopians), all livestock were kept inside the homes at night. The family stretched out across the floor on one end of the home, while the animals were put in their stalls for the night on the other side of the home. With the home being around mud house, there were certainly no rooms or separation between people and animals. Have you ever slept with a rooster crowing 20 feet from your head? I have. Wonder what cattle do all night? They moo, and munch, and urinate. Loudly. Donkeys too. Horses, sheep, and goats also. Just in case you were wondering. Often people would respond in incredulity when I told them humans and animals shared living quarters in these homes. But like any culture, there was a reason why they did the things they did. Animals in the countryside were susceptible to attack by hyenas (the name of the town I lived in translated into English as “Hyena Town”) and potential theft. Keeping livestock in the same sleeping quarters as the family, prevented both of these occurrences from happening and kept their livestock safe and secure. Certainly, this is not a practice I have any desire to import into the States, but when viewed from this perspective it makes much more sense as to the reasoning in our differences.
Ethiopia also gave me a new appreciation for the seasons of the product. There, we had no spring, summer, fall, or winter. Simply dry season and rainy season. All life and living things revolved around when the rains came and when they didn’t. No irrigation for when the rains didn’t come. It either rained and watered the soil or it didn’t. Although the climate and the daylight hours stayed virtually the same almost all year, the rainy season determined that there was only one growing season. The product was in season and fresh or it was out of season and unavailable. Grain was threshed and winnowed using oxen to tread it and pitchforks to toss it into the air allowing the gusto of the wind to separate the wheat from the chaff. It was then stored and portioned out to last the rest of the year. Products could be purchased at the local market where dozens of entrepreneurial women would travel sometimes for miles to hawk their goods. What was in season would be sold. During dry season, the trek became dusty, the rivers dried up, and the product dwindled to only what could be stored for long lengths of time.
Despite the differences in food production and availability, don’t underestimate the similarity of these close-knit families in both countries. Boy oh boy, do my rural friends stick tightly and proudly to their families, to their land, to their culture, and to their traditions. Ethiopian or American, it doesn’t matter. Let a holiday come upon us and we’re all gathering together to cook the typical food and eat in excess. One eats turkey and gravy with knife and fork to celebrate and the other eats spongy, fermented bread used to scoop up spicy wats or sauces as everyone consumes food off the same plate on the dirt floor in the center of the round mud hut. One ends the meal with pecan pie, the other ends it with freshly-roasted, freshly ground, and now-boiling coffee in a clay jebana or pot over the fire. Sure, the holidays are different and the food is different, but the act of gathering around a table (or sitting on the floor) and eating, laughing, and talking together – perhaps even fighting with each other – occurs in both locations.
So often when we have not left our own world, our own world is the only one we know or can even imagine. Maybe just maybe, when we venture out to others we think are so vastly unlike ourselves, we will find that the differences are not quite as drastic as we first imagined. At the end of the day, we are each human trying to make a life in this world in an effort to continue what those who have come before us have taught us. And for those of us in the agricultural community, we are also each tirelessly working to produce and provide food to feed our families and our communities. Perhaps, we’re not so different after all.