Reflections on my visit to Ethiopia
We live in a globalized world. I live interconnected with other people. And my privileged place as a North American amplifies the effects of my actions. In June 2007, while teaching a group of pastors and church planters at Meserete Kristos College in Ethiopia, I ran head-on into this reality.
Ethiopia faces many significant challenges from poverty, disease, inter-religious conflict, war with its neighbours, and an often corrupt and ineffective government. Learning about these challenges from my students, I was shocked at how our everyday lives as North Americans effect those of ordinary Ethiopians. Let me give you a few examples.
Rising grain prices
I didn’t have a single conversation with any of my 35 students where the rising cost of teff wasn’t mentioned. Ethiopians use teff to make their staple food, injera (a kind of large, sour, pancake). Fueled mainly by demand for ethanol and biodiesel, global grain prices have risen dramatically in the past several years. In the past two years, the price of teff has tripled. This is bad news for the millions of Ethiopians who live in fragile economic situations. Why? Because while food prices have increased, wages have stayed the same.
Most of us in Canada have absorbed the increase in grain and grain-fed products without much notice. But, for my students, who all live on less than $3 per day, many were being forced to choose between paying for teff, rent, or school fees. While we North Americans may think that producing fuel from grain is a good thing because it helps our environment, we also need to count the cost that this strategy has on the poor. The media has become saturated with stories about the need to reduce our carbon emissions. We don’t hear much about how our strategies may force some people deeper into poverty and hunger.
The other thing I faced while teaching was the annoying regularity of class interruptions by the sound of military aircraft taking off and landing at the nearby airforce base. The roaring planes reminded us all that Ethiopia has a large and sophisticated military. Ethiopia has been involved in many bloody conflicts, most notably with Eritrea. With the backing of the U.S., they invaded Somalia and are now mired in a conflict there. Even internally, the present government still uses the military to stomp out opposition to its own policies.In 2006, Ethiopia received a billion and a half dollars in foreign aid. In the same year, Ethiopia spent a third of that on their military.
A few months after returning to Canada, I read a report about Canada and its role as a major exporter of small arms and other military technology. Canada hides the true extent of its military exports by funnelling them through the U.S. I wondered what personal responsibility I bear for not speaking out against the safe haven we’ve created in Canada for arms manufacturers and exporters.
Also, in many places in Ethiopia there is significant inter-religious tension between Orthodox Christians, evangelical Christians, and Muslims. Throughout the country, inter-religious conflict is affecting the health of many communities. From my students, I heard tales of beatings, imprisonments, and families being torn apart.What struck me most of all was that many of my students couldn’t find much in their faith that helped them address these conflicts. Most of them had inherited a strongly conversion-oriented faith, without the important counterbalance of peacemaking and our common humanity. I felt sad that missionaries from the West hadn’t brought a more holistic, peace-oriented message when they first came to Ethiopia.
My last example comes from an experience I had in the town of Debre Zeit. A pastor came to me and asked me to speak in his church about money. I asked him what approach I should take. He told me that he wanted me to teach them how “in North America you are so generous and how that generosity has made you so wealthy and blessed by God.”
It didn’t take me long to realize that the majority of this pastor’s impressions about the church in North America came from prosperity-oriented televangelists and TV preachers. Coming from the lips of a poor rural pastor the message seemed ridiculous. Poverty in Ethiopia won’t be solved by implementing a health and wealth theology. The roots of poverty are much more complicated and much more difficult to pull up. I replied that the reason we North Americans are so materially blessed is that we are greedy, don’t want to share our resources, and live with tons of personal debt.
Returning home, I wondered if I would feel powerless to help with the challenges many Ethiopians face. But, when I consider the interconnectedness of our world, I feel energized. Here’s just a sampling of ways I can make our world a better place. I can start by working to reduce my overall energy consumption, not just my reliance on fossil fuels. I can opt for truly renewable alternatives, like solar and hydro power for home heating, and bikes and buses for transportation. I can opt not to use biodiesel and ethanol-based products, unless they come from non-food sources.
I can also lobby the government to be more transparent in its reporting of Canadian arms exports. I can refuse to invest in companies with ties to arms manufacturing. I can buy mutual funds that use shareholder activism to force companies to reconsider their investment in military equipment manufacturing.
And lastly, I can read my Bible from a global perspective. I can stop and ask, “How does this idea sound to Ethiopian ears?” There’s no doubt that North American theology hasn’t always helped our Ethiopian brothers and sisters. It hasn’t given them the tools to address the inter-religious conflicts people experience. It has led to irrational views on alleviating poverty. With fresh eyes, I can re-examine the Bible and my faith, looking for new insights that help others around the world.
So, the next time we open the newspaper, let’s not immediately throw our hands up and get depressed. Rather, let’s consider how our actions, our political and economic commitments, and our faith can improve the well-being of others in our world.—David Eagle is pastor of Saanich (B.C.) Community Church.
A growing passion for education in Ethiopia
Carl E. Hansen
Although known since biblical times, Ethiopia only really popped onto the world’s radar screen in the 20th century. An awakening giant, she is eager to engage the modern world of economic, political, intellectual, and cultural globalization.
However, she is grossly ill prepared and devoid of many of the essential elements required to make that engagement successful. For example, there are nine million Ethiopian children with no elementary education available to them. And only one in 3,600 Ethiopians graduated from some form of post secondary learning in 2004.
It’s in this context that the Meserete Kristos Church (“Christ is the Foundation Church”) remains steadfast in her vision to expand her theological college into a much larger liberal arts college committed to quality higher education with a Christian Anabaptist perspective. It’s a ministry – a way of serving the larger community and the nation.
Founded as a fledgling Bible Institute in 1994, the Meserete Kristos College grew in rented quarters in Kotebe, Addis Ababa, to become a degree granting theological college with 110 full-time and 42 part-time students in the fall of 2006. Then, in January 2007, it took the giant step of picking up all of its physical assets and moving, “lock, stock, and barrel,” to its new permanent home on the outskirts of Debre Zeit, a town of 100,000.
Graduates are scattered all over Ethiopia giving leadership to the congregations, coordinating 14 out of the church’s 19 regional offices, and teaching in newly formed regional Bible schools. They lead the Orthodox Renewal Movement, reach the unreached in missionary work, translate materials into vernacular languages, teach or preach in radio ministry, and serve in prison ministries. They also lead in peacemaking interventions in bloody ethnic conflict zones and coordinate other para-church organizations.
The Meserete Kristos Church is the largest conference within the Mennonite World Conference with more than 130,000 members. It experienced rapid growth during the Marxist regime of 1974–1991 (especially during the years when the church was forced underground), and continues to report yearly membership increases at a rate of more than 10 percent. The church, located in the Horn of Africa, has its roots in the ministries of Mennonite Central Committee and Eastern Mennonite Missions.