On June 22, in a small hotel 50 km from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, as my roommate and I puzzled at the strange vibes that we were getting from the patrons in the lobby, we discovered that our cell phone data, text, and calling were suddenly and inexplicably non-functional. Ethio-telecom, the singular national telecom provider, wasn’t always stellar, but it had been working moments before. With confused hotel staff providing no answers and video of our neighborhood seemingly in mid-riot looping on the Amharic-language news, we contemplated how to reach the few people in the country who knew us.
We soon learned there had been a coup attempt. Several people, including high-ranking government officials, had been killed in Amhara, a region in northern Ethiopia, and in Addis Ababa. Misinformation was everywhere in the days following and a range of different explanations, conspiracies, and denials followed as the investigation progressed and suspected dissidents were arrested. Although the cellular data was never entirely restored while we were in the country, voice calling returned quickly, allowing us to make our way back to Addis. I was eager to connect with my colleagues and to hear the perspectives of Ethiopians on what had just happened. I wanted to know if they shared my apprehension. Although inconvenienced, the prevailing opinion was that the outages were for the greater good. Free speech is important, I was told, but this was a matter of security. I had missed the point.
Arriving in Ethiopia for my summer practicum with the Ethiopian Public Health Institute (EPHI), I fully expected to be off the grid, and even to face a healthy dose of chaos. I was stationed with in the national public health emergency operation center (EOC), supporting a variety of activities including the cholera and the water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) teams. Throughout the summer, the EOC staff worked tirelessly to contend with high numbers of internally displaced persons, cases of cholera and vaccine-derived polio, and the looming threat of Ebola in neighboring countries. I’ve worked in many EOCs and I knew to expect a little madness. Still, in weighing the realities of my own safety and the security of the country in those moments, my prevailing reaction was to fear a government that could and would lock down the communication infrastructure of the country. The progressive new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, had vowed to champion free speech and to rise above precedents set by oppressive government regimes of Ethiopia’s past. I shuddered at the terrible thought that I might be present as a country I was becoming so emotionally invested in was about to backslide all around me.
Following the blackout, staff at EPHI quickly adapted to a world without the web, switching to phone calls to conduct business and keep tabs on activities in the field. Many had faith in the actions of the Prime Minister. Others may have been too swamped in the EOC to take time to worry about being connected. At first, I was disconcerted that they didn’t seem to share my concern. Then, I began to reflect. I could reach my family and friends in the United States with a good old-fashioned phone call and I wouldn’t be making daily Instagram posts about my coffee anyway. My Ethiopian friends in the EOC, hungry to help their nation grow, having lived through harder times, were unafraid. What did I need to hear to believe it?
In my career and as someone who likes to travel, I prize the importance of neutrality. Whether it’s stepping into a meeting room of unfamiliar faces, off a plane and onto unfamiliar soil, or stepping through the doorway of someone’s home for the first time, I strive to understand the context of what I am experiencing, rather than project my own beliefs. I try to separate my opinions from the realities on the ground. In working with EPHI, I took what I believed to be my best practices and sought to adapt my knowledge to serve as a compliment. Witnessing the coup attempt and the telecom shutdown that followed encouraged me to reflect on what its implications meant for the country and what my reactions meant for me. It isn’t tough to live without cell phone data, but the questions that this experience raised stayed with me throughout the remainder of my time in Ethiopia. Is it my place to insert my reality into a context I don’t fully understand if I will be leaving the country? As I adapt my expertise into new contexts, how loudly should I critique the layout of an Ebola Treatment Unit? How many times should I persist if the emergency WASH guidelines aren’t adapted for implementation at all governmental levels?
Ultimately, three months isn’t a long time. It’s not enough to truly understand a country. In spite of seeking to fully experience and absorb everything I could during my time in Ethiopia, I can’t answer these questions with anything but more questions. For me, travel has always been like peering through stained glass: often beautiful, often confusing, occasionally with a deceptively sharp edge. Sometimes the experience is valuable because it is vivid and clear. Sometimes it’s valuable because you see things you know refracted in a colorful new light. My summer in Ethiopia offered me time to step back and view my beliefs, my expertise, and myself in a new way. Sometimes it’s good to unplug.
Alexandra Ellis is a second-year MPH candidate at Columbia Public Health. She received her BA from Boston University in Disaster Mitigation.
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