One Friday afternoon in Ethiopia, I went to the overcrowded labyrinthine market with my friend Helen to buy groceries. As I walked up to the welcoming heavy-set lady selling onions, I pointed and said, “rub kilo, I want a quarter kilo please.” My English came as no surprise to her, as we had met the week before and, smiling, she helped me pick out the best ones. As I gathered my onions and spoke to Helen, another shopper stared incredulously and said, “You are Ethiopian. Why are you speaking in English?”
Given my limited Amharic, Helen, who is Ethiopian, explained that I am a Peace Corps Volunteer from America. But this particular shopper would not accept that answer. “Look at your skin color, look at your hair. You are not American. You are Habesha, you are Ethiopian!” “I’m sorry, I am not Ethiopian,” I responded, “I am American.” Irate she began interrogating me about my parents’, my grandparents’, my great-grandparents’, and my ancestors’ origins—while scolding me for denying “my people.”
To be sure, she and I looked very much alike, so much so that she could have easily been mistaken for my older sister, but her insistence on forcing her identity onto me was both irritating and frustrating. Little did I know that this imposition of an Ethiopian identity would be a reoccurring issue. Time and again Ethiopians claimed me as their own, dismissing my American background, and leaving me with an overwhelming need to assert my American identity.
As I quickly gained rapport within my community, however, I realized that Ethiopians’ perception of my race provided me with a unique opportunity and advantage not afforded to most volunteers. Ethiopians are very proud, loyal, and protective of their culture, to the extent that they can be very difficult to befriend. Since Ethiopians generally perceive me as Ethiopian, it was easy for me to make friends when I got to site – a feat most volunteers, males and females alike, find exceptionally difficult. After the first month at site I had an intimate group of friends. We ate together, we had deep conversations together, and we went on weekend getaways together – things most of my peers were not doing.
I hadn’t realized how different my experience was from the majority of my peers’ until my friend Theresa, a white PCV, mentioned it. She said, “How do you get along with the people so well? You have more access and support in your community than most PCVs.” Her comment really struck me for, while I believed that my personality played the most significant role in the friendships I made, Theresa and I share many personality traits…but she wasn’t faring as well. This made me wonder whether my race had finally started working in my favor.
When my Ethiopian friends began letting me deeper into their personal lives by sharing stories about heartbreak, family, and friendships that they wouldn’t normally share with foreigners, I realized that I had been accepted in a way that most foreigners, including PCVs, never are. They often said, “You are different from other foreigners, you are like us, you are our family.” This, however, does not mean my life was without challenges. In fact, being perceived as an Ethiopian woman means being held to the same behavioral standards as Ethiopian women, which can, from a modern American woman’s perspective, be very limiting. Still, it afforded me a level of camaraderie that proved instrumental to my emotional health and to the success of my development projects.
My friends and I started a project called the FLOE Team, which stands for Future Leaders of Ethiopia. The FLOE Team is a group of young Ethiopian role models who work with the community to create workshops, trainings, and other events to address issues that affect Ethiopian youth, such as work culture, unemployment, and lack of recreational facilities. Given Ethiopian perceptions of me, they saw the project as an Ethiopian project and took complete ownership of it. They were so deeply invested that, in a mere three months, we organized two unemployment workshops, a panel discussion on reading and literacy, a book drive, and the reopening of the community library.
Our successes earned us local fame and an interview with South FM Radio. Being a person of color has its many disadvantages, but when it comes to building trust and relationships in nations of color, it can be a great asset. Most of the developing world is of color and host-country nationals tend to be more trusting of those who more closely resemble them. Therefore, given the importance of trust-building to the success of development practice, I encourage more people of color to join us in our efforts to build friendships and eradicate poverty, HIV, and gender inequality in the developing world for, with their help, we could make greater strides towards creating a safer, kinder, and more equal world.
Jaynice Del Rosario wrote this article for Flux, an online forum for those of us encountering adulthood. Jaynice is a Peace Corps Volunteer serving in Ethiopia. The views expressed are her own and do not reflect any position of the U.S. Government or the Peace Corps.