Diversity and cross-cultural issues in Ethiopia

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In fulfilling its mandate to share the face of America with host countries, the Peace Corps is making special efforts to see that all of America’s richness is reflected in the Volunteer corps. More Americans of color are serving in today’s Peace Corps than at any time in recent years. Differences in race, ethnic background, age, religion, and sexual orientation are expected and welcomed among our Volunteers. Part of the Peace Corps’ mission is to help dispel any notion that Americans are all of one origin or race and to establish that each of us is as thoroughly American as the other despite our many differences.

Our diversity helps us accomplish that goal. In other ways, however, it poses challenges. In Ethiopia, as in other Peace Corps host countries, Volunteers’ behavior, lifestyle, background, and beliefs are judged in a cultural context very different from their own. Certain personal perspectives or characteristics commonly accepted in the United States may be quite uncommon, unacceptable, or even repressed in Ethiopia.

Outside of Ethiopia’s capital, residents of rural communities have had relatively little direct exposure to other cultures, races, religions, and lifestyles. What people view as typical American behavior or norms may be a misconception, such as the belief that all Americans are rich and have blond hair and blue eyes. The people of Ethiopia are justly known for their generous hospitality to foreigners; however, members of the community in which you will live may display a range of reactions to cultural differences that you present.

To ease the transition and adapt to life in Ethiopia, you may need to make some temporary, yet fundamental compromises in how you present yourself as an American and as an individual. For example, female trainees and Volunteers may not be able to exercise the independence available to them in the United States; political discussions need to be handled with great care; and some of your personal beliefs may best remain undisclosed. You will need to develop techniques and personal strategies for coping with these and other limitations. The Peace Corps staff will lead diversity and sensitivity discussions during pre-service training and will be on call to provide support, but the challenge ultimately will be your own.

Overview of Diversity in Ethiopia[edit]

The Peace Corps staff in Ethiopia recognizes the adjustment issues that come with diversity and will endeavor to provide support and guidance. During pre-service training, several sessions will be held to discuss diversity and coping mechanisms. We look forward to having male and female Volunteers from a variety of races, ethnic groups, ages, religions, and sexual orientations, and hope that you will become part of a diverse group of Americans who take pride in supporting one another and demonstrating the richness of American culture.

What Might a Volunteer Face?[edit]

Possible Issues for Female Volunteers[edit]

Peace Corps Volunteers in Ethiopia work mostly in rural areas. Traditional gender roles are very distinct in Ethiopia, especially among the Muslim community. Generally, women are expected to show deference to men and do most of the housework. Sexual harassment (e.g., men making unwanted comments) is common. As a Volunteer, it is important to stand up for your rights and beliefs as a person while still being culturally sensitive. Female Volunteers should expect curiosity from host country friends regarding their marital status and whether they have children, and if not, why.

Possible Issues for Volunteers of Color[edit]

The average rural Ethiopian assumes that all Americans are white (Caucasian). White Volunteers may receive special attention, both positive and negative, including being harassed for money or food, especially in public areas. Some Ethiopians are unaware that there are black Americans, Asians and Latinos, and may not believe, at first, that you are an American.

Volunteers of color in Ethiopia will have unique experiences and encounters with issues relating to their race and ethnicity. However, being called by the wrong race or ethnicity is a common issue. Whereas in the United States Volunteers may have identified themselves as a member of a specific group, they may suddenly find themselves being labeled “white.”

Possible Issues for Senior Volunteers[edit]

The Ethiopian culture has great respect for age. As a senior Volunteer, people may offer to do things for you as a sign of respect. Since the mandatory retirement age is 55, Ethiopians may not fully comprehend why a “retiree” would still be working.

Pre-service training may be physically demanding for older Volunteers. Likewise, language acquisition may also be challenging.

Because most Peace Corps Volunteers are comparatively young, older Volunteers may feel a sense of isolation within the Volunteer community. On the other hand, some older Volunteers serve as mentors and may be sought out by the younger Volunteer community.

Possible Issues for Gay, Lesbian, or Bisexual Volunteers[edit]

Homosexuality is illegal in Ethiopia and is punishable by imprisonment or deportation. Many Ethiopians have beliefs about homosexuality similar to those of many Americans in the 1940s and 1950s. It is important for gay, lesbian, or bisexual Volunteers to know about these conservative attitudes to be able to live and work productively in Ethiopian communities. Past Volunteers in Ethiopia have reported that they could not publicly acknowledge their sexuality for fear of negative repercussions. We suggest that anyone wishing to discuss this subject do so in confidence with a Peace Corps staff member. The medical office can provide confidential counseling and help connect you with the gay and lesbian support group for returned Volunteers.

Possible Religious Issues for Volunteers[edit]

Ethiopia is a highly religious society, both Christian and Muslim. Prayers at public gatherings are common. Generally, you will not observe the separation of church and state in your community activities. People will ask you what denomination you are and might try to convert you to theirs.

Possible Issues for Volunteers With Disabilities[edit]

As part of the medical clearance process, the Peace Corps Office of Medical Services determined that you were physically and emotionally capable, with or without reasonable accommodations, to perform a full tour of Volunteer service in Ethiopia without unreasonable risk of harm to yourself or interruption of service. The Peace Corps/Ethiopia staff will work with disabled Volunteers to make reasonable accommodations for them in training, housing, jobsites, or other areas to enable them to serve safely and effectively. The post complies with the Americans With Disabilities Act to ensure productive Peace Corps service by physically challenged Volunteers.

Ethiopians who are physically challenged are generally not accorded the same human dignity as other Ethiopians. Regardless of the nature of the physical challenge, social services are generally lacking for these Ethiopians. Ethiopia has little infrastructure to accommodate the needs of individuals with physical handicaps, blindness or mobility impairment.

Possible Issues for Married Volunteers[edit]

Given the distinct gender roles within Ethiopian society, especially in the rural areas, Ethiopians will expect married Volunteers to act accordingly. For example, the wife is expected to cook, clean and do laundry so neighbors will ask questions if they see the husband doing chores they consider inappropriate.

See also: Ethiopia