Tag Archives: work

On a mission in Ethiopia

Never in my life I have been offered as much chewing gum as in Ethiopia. Admittedly, street vendors wanted to sell me other things as well: fake gems, guided tours and colorful baskets the size of a small elephant. But above all, they sold gum.

Some people had a more intricate plan to gain access to my money. Piedro introduced himself to me in Addis Abeba, the country’s capital. Could he please practice his English? So I asked about his age (probably 16, but he’s not sure), his background (a refugee from Eritrea) and his family (he’s an orphan). Then Piedro invited me to a party where everyone would be dressed in folk costumes. I declined politely: invitations of this type are a well-known way to get robbed.

Like me, most westerners visit Ethiopia on behalf of a development organization. They bring financial and human capital to help fight poverty, diminish hunger and improve health. Subsequently, many Ethiopians have come to confuse westerners with a walking dollar sign. This seemed to stand in the way of acquiring what Mark Twain called the “broad, wholesome and charitable views of men and things” that I usually get in a different country. Only with the medical doctors I met for work I could actually talk about matters beyond money like religion, food and relationships.

I was brooding on this when I was boarding my plane back home with 17 young Americans. They turned out to be missionaries who had spent six weeks in a remote part of Ethiopia. Assuming they volunteered for an organization, I asked what kind of development work they had done. Nothing, they replied: their sole aim had been to spread the gospel. When a local man bitten by a snake came to them for help, the only thing they offered him was prayer.

Looking at the munching missionaries, I realized I now knew who buys all that gum in Ethiopia. I also understood my trip had been a success. For most Ethiopians, I might be just another rich westerner but for sixty medical doctors and their patients, my visit had made a difference.

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Work ethics

The website Why work? is a platform for the creation of ‘livable alternatives to wage slavery’. It doesn’t propose sitting around drinking Pina Coladas all day: it’s more about being pro-leisure and against current ideas about what is productive and valuable. As I haven’t had a steady job in the past year, I had the chance to reconsider mainstream opinions about work ethics.

After moving house a year ago, Spouse went back to work and so did I. I published three academic articles and wrote two chapters for a book. I edited a children’s book and wrote another one. I started campaigning for Greenpeace and took part in many actions. When I wasn’t running up and down Geneva’s busiest shopping street dressed as a gorilla to protect the rainforest, I took care of our pets and most of the household – something for which Spouse, with her high-pressure job that takes her abroad half of the year, simply has no time.

Despite my productivity, some friends and family summed up my status quo as “not doing anything”. After all, I did not have a nine-to-five job in an office. “It must be nice being on a break,” someone responded apprehensively after I told about a course in project management I’d taken. People asked me if I wasn’t bored without a job and whether I felt bad “living off my partner”.

The first thing people ask after your name, is what you do. I never noticed until last year. Not to be able to give a simple answer, a job description and a company name, was sometimes uncomfortable – and not just for me. In our work-obsessed culture, a steady job makes up a considerable part of our identity. “You’ve jumped the system,” a friend said. “And that makes people nervous”.

Last week I started a new job. Not because I was bored with my previous activities, but because it seemed like a rare opportunity. “My prayer has been answered,” a family member wrote. Others expressed their happiness that I was no longer “at loose ends”. I have less time now to protect the rainforest but who cares?! I’ve returned to wage slavery.

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