Racism: A tale of two countries

By Kate Mills - Education Worker, Wales

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I was recently lucky enough to travel to Ethiopia with maternal health charity, Midwives@Ethiopia. The charity works in partnership with Ethiopian health professionals working in really challenging conditions to raise standards of care for expectant and new mothers.

I travelled with the charity to run focus groups and gather data around women’s experiences of using their local health centre, but as anti-racism work is my day-to-day, this is never far from my mind. On one drive up to a really rural health centre, I decided to ask our Ethiopian driver about racism in the country. Despite his near-perfect English, M (as he will be cryptically known) had to ask for clarity on the word ‘racism’. I explained it as people holding negative attitudes about or acting differently towards those who had a different skin colour, nationality, religion or culture. Interestingly, he was quite shocked and felt that this did not exist in Ethiopia. I felt awkward, as if I was trying to create a problem that wasn’t there.

I desperately wanted to believe M. And at first glance, he was right. Without fail, every single person we came into contact, from the staff at the pensions (motels) to the women at the health centre, to the children who came to watch when we broke down at the side of the road, were unfailingly kind both to us and those around them. There was a sense of family and community wherever we went. On asking our Ethiopian counterparts how they knew so many people, they replied that they didn’t. It just wasn’t unusual to chat to someone you saw in the street or to share a meal with someone you had just met.

We are led to believe that where there is difference, there will inevitably be conflict. Particularly in the UK, certain media outlets seem to tell us that Christianity and Islam are so different that they cannot peacefully coincide. In Ethiopia, just over 62% of people identify as Christian whilst 33% identify as Muslim. Amongst our group, this did not appear to be any great divider and M stated that he had travelled the entire country as a driver and had never been treated differently as a result of his religion. As a capital city urbanite – an Addis Ababa native - his experiences are likely to be different to those living elsewhere in the country, just as mine were inevitably different to someone living/working full time in the country. If anything, having no religion seemed to be less comfortable for some of our Ethiopian friends to accept. When admitting I had no religion, I was not met with any intolerance, just surprise, with one friend seeming genuinely worried and concerned for me.

However, the sighting of a fleet of red lorries meant I soon had to question whether this seeming lack of racism was just on the surface. The ‘Red Terrorists’, as they are locally known, are central to the narrative many local people are telling around the modern-day Chinese ‘colonisation’ of Ethiopia. China has invested heavily in the infrastructure of the country, with Chinese firms (using their red lorries) building a new light railway and ring road in Addis Ababa, a 6 lane highway, as well as the Ethiopian government having licensed 1,294 Chinese investments in the 2017/8 financial year out of a total of 5,217 investment projects in the country. In many cases, Chinese workers appear to have been brought in to the more senior roles whilst Ethiopian nationals who work for the companies are paid poorly. This has caused resentment as many feel that with projects such as steel works, firms are exploiting the country and sending the profits back to China. As such, attitudes towards Chinese people in general are rather hostile.

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There is also the far from small issue of the ‘IDPs’ – internally displaced persons. Ethiopia currently has around 1,078,000 IDPs with over half of these being displaced as a result of conflict and violence, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. Many of these conflicts are based upon border issues but there has been widespread violence and even some claims of ethnic cleansing against ethnic Somalis in the North of the country (we were based in the south). While this racism appears to be existing in pockets, it takes us back to that key Angela Davis quote ‘In a racist society it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.’ Perhaps acknowledging it exists is the first step.

In my opinion, the situation in the UK is quite different. While (as far as I’m aware!) there are no accusations of ethnic cleansing, racism seems to permeate our everyday lives. Many individuals have either experienced or have a friend who has experienced racism and/or are aware of incidents in wider society - on the football pitch, for example. Yet, it is not a truth universally acknowledged that racism is an issue that we can and should challenge in our daily lives.. Too often,  racism  is seen as  a problem to be dealt with by  those who are subject to it. Maybe then we should take a leaf out of the book of those I met in Ethiopia, to remember our common humanity and strive to change things together.