Salambo discovering Ethiopia
I have been relatively silent in the last few weeks, as I felt I didn’t have much to write about. As a matter of fact, I was preoccupied with domestic issues I didn’t think were worth sharing. But, if I want this blog to be an honest account of my life in Addis, I need the share the mundane as well as the more exotic.
We had problems with theft in our house, or more like “items strangely disappearing”. It started with a couple of casual travel bags (not of a great value but very practical when travelling around Ethiopia), then an iPod, followed by a camera and more recently three pairs of hiking boots. We didn’t notice immediately that those items were gone, only when we wanted to use them. I asked our staff several times about it, but they said they didn’t know anything. When talking about it with our friends and colleagues, I realised that it is a common problem here and a common answer. All material goods such as bags, shoes, clothes or electronics are extremely valuable because they are very expensive or cannot be found. I remember laughing at first when I saw that every single cupboard and wardrobe in our house had a lock on the door, now I understand why, and of course, I started locking everything that has a value to me. Difficult to feel at home in those circumstances. On one hand, we are expected to generously give employment while living here, but on the other hand, we have to lock up our possessions, even the most basic one, because of recurrent risk of theft. As one of my readers pointed out, it sounds a bit Marie-Antoinesque, but that is the reality we are confronted with. We are the “rich expats” living very comfortably (with a house and a car), and the people working for us can just about make it on their salary (and foreigners are known to pay their staff twice as much as local employers). Of course I can understand why they may be tempted when they see so many material goods around, but on the human level I need to feel that my home is my shelter. I need to feel that we can relax and not watch and check everything every day. When we mentioned the problem to our Ethiopian landlord, he suggested to have our staff body- searched when they leave the house at the end of the day. Personally, I can’t descend to that level of mistrust, nor do I want to impose such humiliation on people working for me.
Back in our own country, the social gap is not as wide, as most people have access to a house, a car, electronic goods, decent clothes and above all free education, but here the social difference goes beyond. In some ways, we are still in a “masters and servants” kind of situation whereby the masters have power over their “servants”. According to the advice we were given, we will have to confront our staff and ask them to tell us who stole the goods if they want to keep their job. If they don’t say anything, we may have to fire them on the spot (with the three month salary compensation prescribed by the law). The topic of domestic theft generates lively discussions here in Addis. I heard many accounts that they team up and cover for each others, and divide the money from the sale of stolen goods. To try to get to the truth, which we won’t anyway, we’ll have to treat them like school children, such as: “if nobody tells us who did it, you will all be punished,”……..not a position I feel comfortable with, not a situation of social equity and very much a Marie-Antoinette scenario, made worse by the huge cultural difference we have. For us, the whole situation is completely artificial: our own social position in a country and culture that is not ours.
Of course, I can consider myself very lucky because I am living in much better conditions and I don’t have to constantly worry about feeding my family when money runs out before the end of the month. However, where I feel extremely lucky though is to have been born and raised in Europe towards the end of the 20th century, where coming from a very average family, I had an almost free access to the best education. That is pure luck, had I been born here, my life would have been different.