I woke up and smelled the Bunna a few years ago. Not that I didn’t get a whiff of the elusive aroma now and then, but this time my nostrils could not escape the pungent fumes. Some of you have not only smelled the Bunna, but have had a couple of cups already. Likewise, some of you might be asking, "umm…what Bunna?" For some of you, what I have to say may not be a revelation, but for those of us who haven’t had the benefit of understanding life, or rather understanding ourselves before leaving Ethiopia, it is sometimes a long, tortuous road that leads us to some comprehension.
I’ve been here in Addis for almost ninety days now, after planning to be here for only a brief month. Stuff happens. Interestingly enough, the whole reason for my trip was to decompress and address a distressing and growing dissatisfaction with the life I was leading in the US. After bribing some of my superiors, I took a sabbatical from work, and came in search of some long-overdue mental relief. Although I was certain that my mind-frame was skewed and in dire need of adjustment, it wasn’t till after I arrived in Addis that I realized just how off-balance I was. The contrast blew my mind. The serenity I felt was almost immediate. I rediscovered a long ignored but never forgotten love — the love for my noble country and its sublime people. The enchanting and almost mystical phantoms and whispers of my distant past the memories of which had long since echoed wispily in the recesses of my consciousness came to life once again and engulfed my spirit.
I had left Ethiopia at the tender age of 6 and lived in East Africa for 7 years before coming to the US as a Clearasil-doused 13 year old. My time spent in Africa was truly a life enriching and fulfilling experience, one that has forever contoured my outlook on life. I am convinced that the second leg of my journey to rediscover and reclaim myself would be to visit Tanzania and Kenya once more, to relive the essence of the 2 countries that have so deeply and permanently defined my person and character. I hope to share with you that experience at another time if all goes well. Since arriving in America, however, it seems that I lost all perspective of time and balance and was lured into a veritable rat race. I did all those things that you were "supposed to do," immediately joining the corporate world upon my college graduation, and scurrying up the ladder in the high-speed dot.com world.
Thus, I was prancing at E-Speed when two years ago, a tragedy in my family rocked me at my foundation and brought the semi-oblivion to a grinding halt. Looking back at that surreal time, I remember that I had completely lost interest in life and the mundane day-to-day pursuits, and found myself standing on the slippery slopes of an abyss. Never in my life had I been filled with such cynicism, hopelessness, confusion, bitterness and anger. I was taunted relentlessly and preoccupied with existential thoughts, and questions about the meaning and purpose of life. I saw life more and more as a cruel, pointless, and utterly arbitrary game, and was ultimately oppressed by that reality. I’m sure the people around me at the time can testify that I wasn’t very good company during this dark period.
My difficulty with the tragedy was compounded by the "early-life crisis" I was going through within. This event had coincided with the time in my life that I had virtually sold my soul to a startup company. However, I was forced to press the ‘Pause’ button on the remote control in what was a hectic life on overdrive and think about where the hell I was in my life (and it did seem at the time that my life was being guided by remote). The picture I saw was grim and depressing. I found myself in a situation that more and more people in the West are finding themselves. I asked myself, "What am I really doing?" "What is the purpose of all this?" I was struggling to find some tangible social or philosophical redemption in my existence and my pursuits. Suddenly, that salvation became the most important thing in my life, and I was determined to attain it.
As simply as I can put it, unless you are really aware of things, life in the US has a way of taking over and sucking you into ….drums please….the system. Yes people — Babylon — a man-made complex with a mindless fixation with work, materialism, and "progress;" a relentless capitalism that thrives at the expense of humanity and all things human, leaving in its wake a sea of poor souls, diluted in spirit. Of course I’m being a little dramatic but I don’t think this is far from the truth. I was disoriented with the uneasy feeling that I was living a sort of masquerade in a house of cards. The whole thing just smelled funny and lacked realness. I kicked myself for not seeing it for so long, and for being swept up in the crap. I had never seen American society and popular culture through such austere, black and white lenses before, where almost everything was dictated and valued based, not on its own merit (social, moral, or otherwise), but rather on the merits of the bottom line, stock value, market share, TV ratings, and everything else that made me lose faith in America. I was overwhelmed and repulsed by this frigid, vacuous, myopic obsession. I ached for a more fulfilling personal and spiritual life, and longed to be in a more far-sighted and compassionate environment.
After years of the ritual annual promise to visit Ethiopia (which was ritually broken), I finally visited Ethiopia last year after 14 years in the states and my realization was confirmed and validated. Upon returning to the US, I wondered whether the magic I felt in Ethiopia was just a one time home coming sensation. But when I returned again this year, I found the same magic, and peace in my soul. Things and people were more real here. I was, and continue to be, spellbound by Ethiopia’s haunting spirituality, grace, and beauty — a veritable Zion, a land I believe that is unique on this planet in its antiquity, dignity and profundity. One of the first things I noticed was how people treated and interacted with each other. As a friend who recently returned to live in Addis said to me, "Fiqir alle izih!" I was bathed in the affection of family and friends, with an authenticity and depth of feeling that I have rarely seen in relationships in America. I wondered at the inexhaustible selflessness, sacrifice, patience, and tolerance that I witnessed time and time again, and prayed that I could one day elevate myself to that level. One thought struck me and has stuck with me since — the spiritual wealth and abundance of love in the everyday relationships of people in Ethiopia is precisely what I find missing in a lot of people’s lives in America. In its absence, many people in the US find themselves going to great lengths to fill that gaping void — I’m certain that many of them aren’t even conscious of how strong this force is in their lives. If you observe closely, I think this need explains a lot of the behavior you see rampant in the states.
The focus here in Ethiopia is completely different; people have TIME here - time for family, time for friends, time for a Macchiatto at La Parisienne, time for themselves, and time for the spiritual. One of my best and wisest friends, always said to me "take time to smell the roses, man," with a knowing look in his eyes. In America, there are so many man-made distractions that steer you away and make you lose sight of the small, good things in life.
Oddly enough, during my 3 months away form the states, I also renewed my appreciation for America, regardless of the issues I still have with it. I am in awe once again of how advanced the systems and structures are in America — political, economic, judicial, educational…you name it. I am also reinvigorated by the American passion for knowledge and how its people tirelessly push the boundaries of art, music, self-expression, science, technology, philosophy and every conceivable facet of human thought and understanding. I can’t tell you how much I missed the kaleidoscope of faces and cultures that makes this country a virtual museum of the planet Earth. Lastly, I came to respect even more the trite but true gift of America — the liberties and freedoms that are sanctioned and guaranteed to us, arguably more than in any other corner of the globe. Yes, I know, this theme is overplayed, but you don’t appreciate it until you’ve been away for a while. Of course, Ethiopia and America compliment each other — what I saw missing in one I found abundant and accentuated in the other.
As I sit here preparing to come back to the states, I am beginning to digest the events of the past couple of years, and am getting a much more fulfilling perspective on things. My recent hostility to America and the way of life there has given way to a more compromising outlook. You can blindly fall into the system, or you can maintain a well-balanced circle of sanity and normality. America is what you make it. I realized that my recent predicament was in large part of my own making. Armed with this new attitude, and a renewed love and appreciation for the people in my life, I am prepared to bring that magic into my life in the US, and have another go at it. The difference of course is that in Ethiopia, smelling the roses comes naturally and aesthetically, whereas in the states, you have to go against the grain, swim upstream if you will. The system is not designed for smelling the roses…but it is certainly possible.
When people say everything happens for a reason, it is with good reason that they say it. I doubt that I would have challenged my well-established life views, assumptions, and convictions so fundamentally, sincerely, and relentlessly had it not been for the tragic events that unfolded recently. I view the reversal I’ve made in my life in the past few years as a direct consequence of my family’s loss, and the tumultuous year preceding it. One of the greatest joys that I had was very recent. Several weeks after arriving in Addis, I began to reconcile some of my existential issues following what I can only describe as a series of deeply personal and, dare I say, revealing experiences, and am now making a path back to faith; I am happily resigning myself to the unfathomable wisdom of our maker.