Ethiopian friends and teachers

October 30, 2012 | Breanna, DVM, Canadian Urban Institute, Ethiopia

One of the most enjoyable aspects of being based abroad is the interactions one can have with people from a different culture. Relationships with people illuminate similarities and differences and provide a new perspective on how to live. This is a unique opportunity that is not fully experienced when one is simply a traveler passing through. Particularly, my engagement with Ethiopian peers offers a fascinating understanding of the joys and frustrations that youth face in the country’s capital.

I am interning at Canadian Urban Institute (CUI) with three Ethiopian interns. They are students studying urban planning. The university system in Ethiopia is quite different than Canada, though it is one that I heard is similar to that of other African countries. Students attending public universities do not have a choice as to what they will study. Based on testing in high school, the government assigns them a major and the university that they will attend. Students rank programs they would be interested in, but mostly the students I speak with are assigned their 4th or 5th choice. For the students scoring highest on their tests, the best case scenario is getting your first choice at a university in Addis (which is considered the location with the best schools in the country). Many students end up having to relocate to remote cities around the country to have a chance at a degree in something on their list of choices.

On the one hand, this system is a rational development strategy—the government needs to fuel certain sectors and therefore must ensure that there are enough qualified people educated in that field. It also serves to decentralize education to draw attention to the economies of other cities, since most migration is flowing into Addis. On the other hand, most students are disengaged with what they are studying and do not have the opportunity to follow their initial dreams, which might lead to them being unmotivated in their careers or even changing careers later on. When I discuss this with the interns, they say they grow to take an interest in their degree, but still have a greater passion and curiousity in another subject matter. However, they accept that this will be the path they must take. It is completely different from the luxury we have in Canada where students can continually change their degrees in pursuit of the most satisfying path for them. I wonder though who is better off? In our society, confronted with infinite choices, we often are left feeling dissatisfied and lost. Whereas here, people are content and grateful for the opportunity to have a good job and healthy family.

With my Ethiopian friends it has also been interesting to see the intersection of globalization and tradition. Many are in touch with Western pop culture; the video stores sell Hollywood movies and they download torrents of popular music and TV shows; they wear skinny jeans, own the latest iPhone, and idolize Manchester United. But, they still maintain an allegiance to Ethiopian traditions. They prefer home-cooked injera and doro wot over pizza and burgers; they attend Church and youth group each week and spend most of their time with their families; and though they enjoy brushes with outside gadgets and entertainment, they do not wish to leave Ethiopia or stray from the customs, language, and values that are prized within their families. As a student of globalization, I have been happy to see this strong preservation and have noticed a similar response in other countries. I don’t think becoming more globalized means becoming more alike, it might just mean becoming more aware of one another and sharing some of the marvels produced throughout the world. For me with my Ethiopian friends it means that while we can understand each other, there is still an abundance of new ideas and practices for me to discover.

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