Thursday, March 1, 2012

An Ethiopian In Vanuatu

On my final day in Port Vila, I met a man named Shimalis who came to Vanuatu all the way from his home country, Ethiopia. While he spoke English quite fluently, I found myself needing to pay very close attention because of his thick accent. I was quite surprised to meet someone from East Africa in the South Pacific. It reminded me how much smaller and more interconnected the world has become. He was equally surprised by my knowledge of Ethiopian cuisine, art, architecture, history, and music. It just so happened I had made an eggplant and Shanghai noodles with berbere, an Ethiopian spice mixture. He was very impressed that I knew about this crucial ingredient in Ethiopian cooking. He mashed an avocado and cut a few slices of bread and we ate the avocado with the bread slices, in the traditional Ethiopian fashion. He invited me to come to Ethiopia someday. I told him I would love to visit and have always wanted to visit the ancient Aksum kingdom there. He said that there are currently jobs for foreigners in the main city, Addis Ababa (a city of five million people), that do not require fluency in any Ethiopian languages. The idea of living in any country in Africa sounded quite captivating to me, especially one with as rich a history as Shimalis' country. He told me that he had come to Vanuatu to work on inoculation issues. He said that while there has been some improvement with access to vaccination in Vanuatu, there are still many children who do not receive adequate vaccination. I also inquired about his home country, and he said most regions of Ethiopia have made vast amelioration in vaccinating children, more so than Vanuatu. However, there are still a few poorer regions there where most children are not vaccinated. I told him about the insanity of the anti-inoculation movement in the United States, and how obscene I consider it to oppose vaccination while so many in countries like Vanuatu and Ethiopia are dying of polio, hepatitis, Japanese encephalitis, meningitis, and other diseases that are preventable through vaccines. He was surprised to hear this, and agreed the movement was ridiculous. It was quite lovely to have a political conversation, as I have not found that Ni-Vanuatus have conversations about any major world issues, aside from the death of Osama Bin Laden, which seems to fascinate them. Because Vanuatu has been so isolated from the rest of the world, a political dialogue is a rare gift. I recall asking my previous host family who the prime minister of Vanuatu was, and they needed to ask other villagers to find out. This is not a matter of intelligence. It is a matter of relevance to the everyday lives of people. Politics have very little relevance to the lives of Ni-Vanuatus. They do not keep track of politics because they do not need to, and I have not been able to keep track of them living in my village where there is no access to Internet or television and the only radio stations play string band music and occasional news flashes warning of impending natural disasters. At times, I find it frustrating, wanted to know more about this year's election and other political issues. However, there are other times when I also fail to see the relevance when I live so close to the ocean and everything I need manifests.

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