Global Empathy

Posted by on Jun 24, 2011 in Ingredients, Micropeacebuilding | 0 comments

As I stood in line at the airport, waiting to check my bags, I couldn’t squelch my nerves. I had chosen to travel to a country I never thought I would visit and knew little about, but there was no turning back now. I was on my way to Ethiopia. My anxiety didn’t diminish as I sat in the back of a dusty van, being chauffeured through the streets of Addis Ababa, and was instructed to remain indifferent to the droves of mothers, children, and severely handicapped people who repeatedly approached me, pleading for anything I could give them. I didn’t speak the language, understand the cultural nuances, and hadn’t ever witnessed such extreme poverty. I was uncomfortable and immediately started to miss my life in Denver, CO.

We traveled from the populated and urban capital city to the northern region of Tigray and the very small, rural town of Edaga Arbi, where one dirt road led in and out, the school we came to assist was a 3 mile hike into the hills, electricity was a luxury, and hot water, or running water at all, was nonexistent. We discovered quickly this town was completely unfamiliar with foreigners. Anytime we left the hotel compound, children would run into their houses yelling, “forengi!!, forengi!!” (foreigner in the language of Tigrinya) and inevitably a crowd would gather and begin to faithfully follow us down the street. Some brave children would approach us, hold our hands, and try to teach us words in Tigrinya, giggling at our attempts to articulate the difficult accent. Teenagers and adults would stare at us curiously as we toured the small town, occasionally taking our pictures with their omnipresent cell phones. Even though I knew the stares and and crowds just emerged from a fierce curiosity, I still couldn’t shake the feeling of annoyance. Walking anywhere was impossible, my personal space was constantly infiltrated, communication was virtually impossible, and it felt as if there was nothing I could do.

Nothing except change my attitude. The moment things shifted for me was when I began to actually learn about the people I had been encountering daily. They immediately stopped being bystanders and started being human beings with their own histories and narratives, different than mine, yet with the same wants and needs creating threads of commonalities. I began to discover our shared humanity.

The woman who led us up and down the hill to the school was now Germanesh, a courageous woman in her 30s whose teenage son had drowned in a well years earlier and daughter who couldn’t go to college because she didn’t pass the necessary exams. Germanesh invited us over to her one-room house to share the little food she had available and we met her baby, who lay sleeping quietly, despite the numerous flies and extreme heat. While we were all strapped up in our waterproof and protective boots, she never wore shoes as she hiked the rocky, dusty terrain. Even when we got stuck in a torrential downpour, she just plowed through the mud, regardless of a thorn being wedged deeply in her foot the entire time time.

The man who came to visit us at our hotel, and we could never understand, became Abraha, a young, award-winning teacher who created a small, local public library using extremely limited resources, giving students a place to study, access to book, and ultimately, the gift of knowledge. We gave him some of the books we couldn’t use for the school library, and on our last day in Edaga Arbi, he brought us a parting gift of freshly baked bread with “thank you” on the top constructed out of strands of dough.

The young girl working at our hotel was named Salam. She was 16 and forced to move from her home in a nearby city because her father had died and her mother couldn’t care for her. She had to work in the hotel instead of attending school, yet curiously spoke some English and was happy to have some female companionship. When I gave her a copy of In Style magazine, her eyes lit up and she was fascinated by all the colorful images and strange material items crowding the pages.

The children who just previously followed us around, began to tell us their names. As we tried to create a new, shared language, we discovered Michael Jackson, 50 Cent, and Tupac are apparently universally comprehensible. Despite our extreme differences, we found something in common, something to build on, and it worked.

I tell you this story because there is a peacebuilding message attached. Building peace requires caring about others, learning their unique narratives, and developing empathy for their situations. Empathy is difficult to understand or feel if you never experience your own version of other people’s narratives, if you never walk a mile – or more – in their proverbial shoes. Empathy requires travel. We need to see the world and visit places we never considered, because then we can begin to comprehend the various worlds that exist beyond our carefully crafted, pleasant lives. Everyone has a story to tell, the question is, do we care enough to ask?



  1. Local Compassion | Critical Peace - [...] previous post Global Empathy describes how travel can develop empathy for others around the world. When it was published,…

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