Hope, Change, and What Henry David Thoreau Might Have Gotten Wrong

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by Becky Tsadik

“Things do not change; we change.”

—American writer Henry David Thoreau

Yes, and:

“Nothing changes if nothing changes.” —Courtney C. Stevens, The Lies About Truth

Above, this year’s mantra for the Ethiopian Diaspora Fellowship (EDF) comes courtesy of Thoreau, a 19th-century American author, poet, and historian. But maybe Thoreau was wrong.

This is Africa

I have practiced yoga for a decade, and concede that letting go of control releases tension and restores peace amidst chaos. Paradoxically, there is power in surrender. I had to breathe deeply and remind myself of this my first week in Addis Ababa in January of this year: On my first day of work, I waited 25 minutes to catch a train (there is no official public schedule); I attempted to book a car with RIDE (an Uber-like car service app, but no cars were available); and I called a taxi but was hung up on because I don’t speak Amharic. Frustrated and bewildered, I caught three overcrowded mini-buses and only cried once. Later, I learned of a national petrol shortage; I understood why cars were stalled on the side of the road (and why I couldn’t catch a RIDE that morning). The problem was bigger than me.

I was not in control when a big-bellied stranger approached me on a restaurant patio, mumbled, then picked my sandwich up off my plate and walked away eating it. I am not in control when stuck in a restroom without toilet paper, hand soap, and a working hand dryer. I could complain, but instead, I adapt the popular refrain: chigir yelem (“no problem”), I say now as I pull tissues and soap from my purse.

In this sense, Thoreau was right. I can’t change these situations, so I had to change: I changed my attitude, my expectations, my behavior. We can’t control what happens to us; only our response. Complaining about frequent power outages, poor WiFi, unpaved sidewalks, and undrinkable tap water problems won’t repair them. “This is Africa,” people often shrug in response to these inconveniences.

This is Us

But there is danger in succumbing to the status quo. Subscribing to a belief that the state of the world is completely beyond our control arguably leads to complacency.

Central to EDF’s mission are pillars of leadership, service, and creative storytelling—all in the name of contributing to positive change in Ethiopia. The organization and individual Fellows believe in our ability to effect change in-country, else we wouldn’t be here.

I discovered Stevens’s quote—“nothing changes if nothing changes”—through research at my partner organization, GreenPath Food. As Ethiopia’s first EU Organic-certified fruit, vegetable, and herby company, our company exports products to demanding markets that deliver higher wages to farmers.

Among Ethiopia’s 105 million residents (World Bank, 2017), 12 million are smallholder farmers. Meanwhile, agricultural production makes up 85% of all employment;12 million people suffer from chronic or transitory or acute malnutrition;  households in rural areas survive on less than $.50 USD per day, and annual per capita income is $170 USD (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations).

Recognizing this, GreenPath’s model aims to provide a radical path to prosperity. We work with hundreds of smallholder partner farmers in southern Ethiopia to adopt permaculture-inspired practices, cultivate responsible supply chains, and secure economic stability and healthy soil for generations. And, the social enterprise is growing. The other members of my cohort have also dedicated themselves to impact-oriented with agricultural development and public health access at government and nonprofit organizations in Addis Ababa.

This is Addis

Last month, the 32nd Ordinary Session of the Assembly of the African Union commenced in Ethiopia’s capital. According to the Office of the Prime Minister: PM Abiy Ahmed reiterated the importance of medemer, or “coming together,” as a guiding philosophy for the country’s continued reform; he implored other leaders to adopt the same approach.

Since he assumed office last April, Ahmed and his government have released thousands of political prisoners, ended the national state of emergency, announced forthcoming privatization of state-owned agencies like airlines and telecommunications, and brokered a peace deal with Eritrea, Ethiopia’s neighbor to the north. Half of his cabinet is made up of women, which includes the country’s first female president (and the continent’s only), Sahle-Work Zewde, according to The New York Times (“Ethiopia Appoints Its First Female President,” Ahmed and Freytas-Tamura, Oct. 2018).

More radical changes are on the horizon, as Ethiopian Airlines just announced plans for increased international service, and, in January, launched a new Bole airport expansion project that will allow it to triple its capacity to handle 22 million passengers per year.

We Ethiopians are not passive victims; we are powerful actors armed with education, motivation, and agency. So, while I can see the merit of Thoreau’s quote, I propose an amendment to his idea: “Things do not change; we change (things).”

      A selection of GreenPath’s produce.