“So here is our little family-tribe going along searching for nourishment, when it suddenly comes across another family-tribe. What a significant movement in the history of the world, what a momentous discovery! The discovery that there are other people in the world! Until then, the members of these primal groups could live in the conviction, as they moved around in the company of 30 to 50 of their kinfolk, that they knew all the people in the world. Then it turned out that they didn’t — that other similar beings, other people, also inhabited the world! But how to behave in the face of such a revelation? What to do? What decision to make?”
For as long as human settlements have existed, walls have been erected around them. And for as long as civilizations have been aware of each other, they have been fascinated, terrified, and revolted by one another. The more different the other culture is, the deeper all of these reactions are. The original yearning to travel beyond one’s borders came not from curiosity and the spirit of discovery, but from the desire to conquer – to acquire land, goods, religious followers, and slaves. Even scientific exploration was mostly belittling to “primitive” or “savage” foreign peoples.
Anthropologist Wade Davis explains the universality of ethnocentrism:
“…[W]e need to remember that all cultures are famously ethnocentric and myopic and focused on their own interpretations of reality. The names that many indigenous people give themselves translate as “The People,” the implication being that everyone else is savage beyond the pale. This is something that is found in cultures throughout the world.”
The ancient Hindus referred to foreigners as mleccha – “dirty ones; barbarians.” An old Chinese belief held that a non-Chinese person was the devil’s spawn, or at best a victim of fate who was unlucky enough to not be born Chinese. The Ancient Greek idiom “πᾶς μὴ Ἕλλην βάρβαρος” (pas mē Hellēn barbaros) meant “whoever is not Greek is a barbarian.”
In the more recent Western world, equality of the Other wasn’t even considered to be a possibility until the late eighteenth century during the Enlightenment, but even that didn’t stop virulent racism and anti-Semitism that reached their respective apexes with slavery and the Holocaust. Even now there is still open hostility towards “job-stealing” foreigners in many backwaters of the West, even in those countries built on immigration (despite the fact that immigrants actually decrease crime and cause economic revitalization), not to mention towards Aboriginals in Canada and Australia, and Muslims and the Roma in Europe.
The Other is often used as a scapegoat for all of society’s ills. As xenophobia expert Professor Robert S. Wistrich writes, “The Other (who is generally assumed to share a different moral and social code) must take the blame and responsibility for everything that goes wrong in “normal” human society.” It is also used as a way to define one’s own national identity, especially when that identity is fragile or artificially constructed. A fairly benign example of this can be seen in Canada. Ask someone what it means to be Canadian, and he or she will often say “It means we’re not American.”
* * *
As a white person in Sub-Saharan Africa, you will often find yourself on the receiving end of one of a number of terms – mzungu is the most common, used in eastern, central, and southern Africa. It’s a term used to mark an outsider; an “Other.” When that Other is, like me, a Westerner, the relationship assumes a schizophrenic love-hate tone. Fascination; jealousy; idolization; suspicion.
I’ve been called yabancı in Turkey, inostranets in Russia, mzungu in Rwanda, and ferenj in Ethiopia. Becoming an Other in the eyes of people who to me are themselves Others is a strange experience indeed. The great Polish foreign correspondent Ryszard Kapuściński, who reported from all over Africa for forty years, expounds on this phenomenon:
“Let us point out that the concept of the Other is usually defined from the white man’s — the European’s — point of view. But today, when I walk through a village in the mountains of Ethiopia, a crowd of children runs after me, pointing at me in merriment and calling out: “Ferenchi! Ferenchi!” — which means “foreigner, other.” This is an example of the dismantling of the hierarchy of the world and its cultures. Others are indeed Others, but for those Others, I am the one who is Other.”
Kapuściński goes on to point out that “the Other is a mirror into which you peer, or in which you are observed, a mirror that unmasks and denudes, which we would prefer to avoid.” We fall into the habit of thinking of ourselves and our own culture as “normal,” especially for Westerners whose culture currently dominates the globe, so what an experience it is when we realize that we are the strange foreigners outside of our own small world.
In Ethiopia, where I currently reside, I’m branded a ferenj. The word is derived from Frank, the ancient Germanic tribe. Ferenj probably originated in the Holy Land during the Crusades in the 12th century, when it more generally meant European. The Spanish and Portuguese, who were strongly influenced by nobles and crusaders from northern France, came to India, Persia, and Ethiopia during the Middle Ages in search of the mythical Christian ruler Prester John (who was never more than a legend), and they too were referred to using this word. Outside of Ethiopia, the word can also be found in Sudan, and derivatives can be found in India, Iran, Malaysia, and Thailand.
Neither mzungu nor ferenj can be simply translated as “foreigner.” A black African in a foreign country in Africa is never labelled with these words. However, a white African is, as are people (usually, though not always) from Asia and the Middle East. Further complicating matters, a black non-African, for example an African American, is not always referred to using these words, but a mixed-race person of partial African descent often is. Perhaps the best translation is simply a non-black person.
What these words do, more than anything else, is dehumanize. They are not said to you so much as at you, the way that one speaks to a dog. You become a two-dimensional characterization. The term is usually not meant to be cruel; it’s simply thoughtless, in that no thought goes into it. If most people sat down and thought about what it must feel like to be in a foreign country thousands of miles from one’s home, loved ones, culture, conveniences, and language, and on top of that to have strangers on the street scream “Hey, white person!!” at them every few minutes, they would probably reconsider. It’s not said to hurt your feelings, but rather because the purveyors of the word don’t take into consideration that you have feelings. They simply don’t think about it, because they’ve likely never had a meaningful conversation with a foreigner (or perhaps haven’t even met one). It is the faultless product of isolation and ignorance.
Though Ethiopians on a one-on-one basis are more often than not warm, dignified, and hospitable, the treatment of foreigners here has often been noted. For instance, the eastern city of Harar used to be infamous for killing or imprisoning outsiders. “The bigoted ruler and barbarous people threatened death to the Infidel who ventured within their walls,” wrote the famous explorer Richard Burton, the first European to travel to the city without being killed or imprisoned, which he managed to do 150 years ago using his title of Haji and his command of Amharic and a plethora of other African languages. He described living “amongst a people who detest foreigners.”
The contemporary irascible travel writer Paul Theroux, who’s lived in two countries and speaks two languages of Sub-Saharan Africa and has travelled in a rugged fashion to virtually every country on the continent, provided a characteristically blunt account of his visit to Harar:
“They disliked the very presence of outsiders, observing the old belief that foreigners make Harar unsafe and unlucky. It was not unusual for a person – usually aged and toothless and wild looking – to rush from a doorway and howl at me. Invariably, when I made eye contact with a Harari I saw distrust and menace, and usually the person seemed to mutter something against me.”
Theroux recounted how white people living in the town reported to him that they had even been spit on by locals. He was, like Burton, nonetheless enthralled by Harar, referring to it as “one of the great destinations in Africa.”
I myself hear the word ferenj on a daily basis in Addis. Local young men, staring like cats, howl it on the street, sometimes with a friendly smile, sometimes with a menacing glare, sometimes with astonishment, but usually with a look of simple amusement. My Ethiopian girlfriend Mahi tries to explain the combination of fascination and lack of understanding: “They look at you to find something new. They want to see how you move, how you talk, how you smile.”
I walk down the street with an open umbrella, failing to notice the rain has stopped, and a passerby laughs and says, “Is it raining, ferenj?” I get into a taxi van where I find a tipsy girl and her friends, and hear the word “ferenj” over and over again, interspersed with hysterical laughter. I hang my arm out of another taxi van one sweltering afternoon and someone pinches it hard, simply to see my reaction. A young street kid shouts “Mista, give money!” I shake my head no. “Fuck you!” he responds, indignant. I walk into a restaurant late one night and a group of well-dressed men who have been drinking and probably speak English burst out laughing simply at the sight of me.
At least I’m fairly certain they’re laughing at me. Perhaps they even hate me. Perhaps everyone here hates me.
These are the thoughts, however irrational, that enter my head. Such conditions instil in one a powerful paranoia, especially when considering past misdeeds by white European foreigners. Kapuściński is once again instructive as he illustrates this paranoia:
“…the issue of skin color suddenly loomed large. In Poland, in Europe, I never thought about it. Here, in Africa, it was becoming the most important determinant of my identity, and for simple people, the sole one. The white man. White, therefore a colonialist, a pillager, an occupier. I subjugated Africa, conquered Tanganyika, put to the sword the entire tribe of the man just now standing before me, the tribe of his ancestors. I made him an orphan. Moreover, a humiliated and powerless orphan. Eternally hungry and sick. Yes, when he looks at me, this is exactly what he must be thinking: the white man, the one who took everything from me, who beat my grandfather on his back, who raped my mother. Here he is before me, let me take a good look at him!”
Perhaps this is why most non-Africans here spend their time almost exclusively with other foreigners or completely Westernized locals, eat at expensive Western-style restaurants, and travel from one gated compound to another in their huge SUVs or private taxis. I am critical of this lifestyle and avoid it as much as possible, but I understand it and I sympathize.
* * *
One day a friendly young girl from a humble background who doesn’t speak English knocks at my door. Rather than speak a language she won’t understand, I try communicating with her using the few words of Amharic I know. She can’t control herself as her whole body convulses with laughter, finally falling to the ground. For her, my inability to speak Amharic is the equivalent of not being able to speak at all. I wasn’t offended, as she didn’t mean an ounce of disrespect, but it was a fascinating experience.
Many cultures define the “Other” as someone who doesn’t speak one’s own language. For instance, the Arabic term ajam refers to non-Arabic speakers, and therefore non-Arabs. The Greek term barbarian is translated as “someone who babbles,” implying that if someone speaks another language, they’re not even really speaking at all. The Aztec had the same notion – anyone who couldn’t speak Nahuatl wasn’t considered a human being.
It’s difficult to wrap our minds around our mother tongue not being understood by others, to imagine hearing ourselves speaking and not understanding the words. What does English sound like to non-English speakers? We’ll simply never know.
This same girl washes our laundry one day, sees some brown dried blood on my sock, and excitedly exclaims to my girlfriend, “You see, I told you white people are different than we are!” not realizing that when anyone’s blood dries it loses its red colour. Another time she declines to walk with me in public for fear her friends will tease her.
There are many negative stereotypes about white people here – they are selfish, only capable of living in luxury, phlegmatic, and their lack of knowledge of local customs often makes them look foolish or rude. Often the complements I receive are roundabout slurs of the ferenj. “You’re different from the other whites…You share…You want to experience everything…Only your skin is white [but not your behaviour].” Having said that, I still devour the compliments with glee, and generally agree with most criticisms of Westerners and the West in general (which has led to a lot of animosity from a lot of white people).
* * *
The calls of ferenj on the streets are tolerable and understandable given the context; they range from slightly charming to a mere nuisance. However, a far uglier form the relationship between Habesha (Ethiopian) and ferenj takes is the virulent hostility towards interethnic romantic relationships, and the resulting street harassment. This comes exclusively from men, usually young men. Locals insist the harassment has nothing to do with race, but it’s a dubious claim. I am told the hostility comes from the fact that Ethiopian women seen with a white man are assumed to be with them for purely financial reasons. This is absurd, since one of the primary functions of marriage across the developing world is economic security, and even actual prostitutes aren’t harangued the way women with white men are (Habesha men with white women are similarly scorned, but usually not publicly). This xenophobia is even harder to understand when considering the fact that even the biblical Moses, himself a ferenj, was married to an Ethiopian woman.
This is an exceedingly uncomfortable subject for most Ethiopians, an incredibly proud and nationalistic people, and even for foreigners wary of being seen as insolent. Sometimes even acknowledging the existence of this phenomenon is seen as being “disrespectful” to the country. I get the strong impression that I’m not supposed to talk about such things, but Mahi, the victim of these assaults, is the girl I love, and I refuse to hold my silence.
The idea that pouring praise and ignoring the negative aspects of a country isn’t respectful – it’s patronizing. There is also a vast difference between insulting a culture and criticizing it, or merely recounting the occurrence of uncomfortable events. I understand the inclination to say only positive things about a country in which you are a guest, but when you live in a country, when you work and pay taxes there, when you spend most of your time studying its language and culture, you earn a right to an opinion. Imagine if a Canadian told an immigrant that they are not permitted to have a critical opinion about the country. I find that immigrants in Canada often have the most insightful criticisms of the country, and I’m glad to hear them.
We are advised by those who have never experienced this phenomenon to simply “ignore” the harassment, but that’s no way to live. It’s easy for me, but not for Mahi. Imagine being openly insulted several times a day by your own people in your own homeland. Turning a blind eye is akin to defeat. Often I’m told that this is part of Ethiopian culture (I would suggest it’s one part of Addis’s culture), and I should therefore “respect it.” But I wonder, if an Ethiopian man’s girlfriend were insulted on the streets of New York or Paris, would he simply hold his tongue and “respect” the local culture?
I’ve become obsessed, as a journalist, a political scientist, and a participant, with finding a coherent explanation for this hostility to interracial couples, especially after people who have travelled all over the continent tell me that it doesn’t happen elsewhere in Africa (I can certainly confirm it never happened in Rwanda).
Some point out that it has far more to do with the virulent misogyny common throughout the country than with xenophobia. Women from all walks of life are regularly harassed on the street, sometimes violently, not to mention in the workplace and at home.
Others insist it’s exclusively the product of uneducated poor people, which is incorrect (it often comes from well-dressed people who speak good English), and a poor excuse – when did education and wealth become prerequisites for empathy and compassion? And in small towns and villages harassment isn’t generally a problem (In Bekoji we were certainly never aware of it). The problem is Addis. When people come from their villages to a big city, they often lose something, a certain rural propriety. Perhaps the hardships of everyday life in Addis – the traffic, corruption, crime, noise, pollution, low wages and high rent – put everyone on edge.
Most of the harassment simply comes in the form of crude snickering. But it goes beyond that on a daily basis (though never regresses into violence; Addis is not a particularly violent city). In fact we’ve hardly gone more than 15 minutes in the streets without some mean-spirited comment.
On a sunny Sunday afternoon in a nice part of Addis a prepubescent boy comes up to Mahi and asks her how much for a fuck. Some men in a restaurant we dine in advise me to keep an eye on my bags while in the presence of a prostitute. A merchant in a market calls Mahi a traitor to her kind for telling me the appropriate price of an item he’s giving me the ludicrous ferenj price for. A wealthy woman advises Mahi that “White men are good for sex, but you need to marry your own kind.” And on and on and on.
The strangest encounter yet came one night after dark in Addis’s Arat Kilo neighbourhood when my girlfriend and I were walking home. A young man, emulating the swaying gait of African American hip hop style learnt from movies and music videos, wearing expensive baggy clothing, and speaking good English in false Ebonics, shouted at my girlfriend, calling her a slut and far worse for being with a white man. How absurd is the space where Westernization and xenophobia collide. It’s gotten to the ludicrous point where I often have to walk 30 paces behind Mahi on the street when she needs a break from the harassment.
To be fair, many foreign men here treat Ethiopia, renowned for its beautiful women, like an amusement park, sleeping with as many (often under-aged) girls as they can get their sweaty hands on. They do things here that they would never try back home. These men establish a negative reputation for all white people. However, this still doesn’t excuse the catcalls Mahi gets. I hold the firm belief that if most people on the street knew the story of how we met, they would be ashamed of their behaviour.
But why Ethiopia? One would think the only country in Sub-Sahara to avoid colonization would be the least resentful of white people, not the most. That’s not to say the country has been free of deleterious encounters with the outside world, though.
For over a millennium, the Axumite kingdom had an isolationist foreign policy and was wary of the world outside its borders, which it experienced in the form of European imperialism and slave-taking Muslim Jihadists. A thousand years ago, the Jewish tribal queen Gudit sacked Aksum and destroyed many Christian symbols. Starting in the late fifteenth century, Muslim invaders began encroaching on the peripheries of the kingdom, by now under the Solomonic dynasty, and the ensuing wars left it devastated. Portuguese Jesuits called in to help fend off the invaders converted Emperor Za-Dingil to Catholicism at the turn of the seventeenth century, and a violent rebellion in response deposed the emperor. After that, virtually no foreigners were allowed into Abyssinia for 130 years. Emperor Tewodros arrested the British consul and other Europeans in the kingdom in 1868 after the British government failed to promptly answer his request for an alliance. In response, a British army invaded and quickly defeated the emperor in battle, after which he shot himself with a pistol given to him by Queen Victoria. Egypt tried to conquer Ethiopia in 1875 and 1876 to secure the headwaters of the Blue Nile, but was defeated by Emperor Yohannes IV.
And then of course, there were the Italians. They invaded in 1890 and established a colony in Eritrea, but were defeated by the legendary Emperor Menelik II at the famous Battle of Adwa in 1896. In October of 1935, they returned. Five hundred thousand Italians equipped with poison gas, tanks, and fighter planes invaded the country while the League of Nations dithered. Six months later Addis was occupied territory, Italian colonists were pouring in, and Fascist Blackshirts were slaughtering Ethiopian civilians by the tens of thousands. Their brutal occupation lasted until 1941, when dogged Ethiopian guerrillas used the Italians’ own captured weapons to defeat them.
* * *
The very idea of an “Ethiopian” is essentially an artificial construct created for political reasons. There are over 80 ethnic groups and 90 languages in the country, and each of them have been profoundly influenced by outsiders. As I’ve written before, anthropologist Ralph Linton speculated that external cultural influences account for as much as 90 percent of any culture’s content.
Ethiopia is no exception. It has influenced and been influenced by the outside world since the legendary Land of Punt (probably in eastern Tigray) started trading with the Ancient Egyptians 4,500 years ago. Arab culture had a profound impact upon Ethiopia (and vice versa). Migrants from southern Arabia who started arriving 3,000 years ago contributed Semitic language, writing, and stone architecture. The very word Abyssinia, from which Habesha is derived, is of Arabic origin (from the Arabic word Habash, the name of one of the first Ethiopian groups the Arabs came in contact with). The first Abyssinians to become Christian did so from the influence of Byzantine traders, and the empire’s decision to officially adopt Christianity in 340 AD was influenced by the Egyptian Coptic Church. A thousand years ago, trade flourished with Arabs, Armenians, and Greeks. Local art historically had Coptic, Byzantium, and Syrian influences. Foreign artists and craftsmen were summoned from places such as Italy and Greece to join the royal court in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Soccer, now in competition with running for the title of Ethiopia’s national sport, was introduced by foreigners in Addis in 1923. Ethiopian music has been heavily influenced by English language rock, jazz, and funk, as well as Japanese and Sudanese music.
Kapuściński outlined three choices that people had when they encountered the Other: “They could choose war, they could build a wall around themselves, or they could enter into dialogue.” The third choice seems the obvious one, but more often than not, it’s overlooked. I usually put the burden of making the third choice firmly on the foreigners, especially when they are educated, worldly Westerners. After all, it is we who have chosen to travel, and to become the Other. Perhaps one must first experience being a foreigner firsthand before one can accept the Other. Only then can we realize that we are all Others.
Please see here for my other writings from Ethiopia.
Please see here for an article written back in 2011 about an Ethiopian woman who married a Western man. In her experience, the harassment didn’t get any better after they got married:
“Zewde is glad that they lived most of their married life outside of Ethiopia because she feels that many people are unable to accept them as a real couple. When they came to Ethiopia on short visits she dreaded taking her husband to social events because of the stares and whispered comments. It was particularly worse when she took him to the countryside to introduce him to her elderly father. Neighbors there, unlike their counterparts in Addis Ababa, did not even bother to hide their comments behind covered mouths. They freely made sport of all that they found strange in her husband’s appearance. Women hid their babies, children ran away at his approach and elderly people shied away from sitting near him.
“I was hurt even if I knew it was no different from the way I had first reacted to him. He had really tried to be accepted and practiced the correct way to address different members of my family for weeks. But they laughed at him when he spoke our language and made him feel ridiculous. I decided never to take him back to the countryside and we’ve never been back.”
And please see here for an essay written in 2014 by an American Peace Corps volunteer, describing what it’s like to be a white woman in Ethiopia:
“I want you to know what it looks like to be a foreigner and a woman, to be a target for unceasing ostracism and contempt…Every other day, at the very least, for the past 21 months, I have been sexually harassed…In our All-Volunteer Survey, over half of our volunteers surveyed reported that they are sexually harassed at least a few times each week. A quarter of all the volunteers surveyed reported they are sexually harassed more than once each day. When these surveys were compared to those throughout the rest of Africa’s Peace Corps posts, Ethiopia ranked First in sexual harassment.”
One of the comments at the bottom, by one ‘S.F.,’ an Ethiopian man, was quite extraordinary:
“I felt the urge to resist and say you are defining “Ethiopian men” based on a small sample of despicable men, who may very well be living in the stone age. Of course, that would be a lie. It wasn’t that long ago that I sat behind the walls of my parents’ house and made cat calls with my friend Mikias. It was a source of entertainment for the both of us. It was an after-school activity. What my friend and I did after school was nothing compared to what my friends who went to another school near Beherawi Theatre did. They would regularly visit the school at the end of the day, which is around 10 Ethiopian Time (4PM), to grope breasts and buttocks of female students. He and his other friends would go in groups of three or more for the very purpose of groping and sexually harassing women.”