The Daily Monitor (Addis Ababa)

5 November 2009

Ethiopia: Mind Your Manners, Please

column

The only spontaneous, ostensibly polite gesture that people who are middle-aged and above can expect without fail in the streets of Addis and elsewhere is the word "father". The English word is actually in use more often than not. For women it is "mother." A word most women find odious. Come to think of it, aren't women exempt from even telling their ages?

Many people, both men and women, resent the two words, especially when the words are carelessly thrown at them by those who are hardly younger than themselves. The resentment could arise from two causes: One, because they highlight their ages pointlessly and two, the words carelessly used as they are incongruently at the time and place, are rarely used in the spirit of real respect but as a stigma and out of habit. At worst, the words are uttered as a sort of irony.

It is usually the case that such superficially polite form of address, especially by people whom you don't know makes for a tense ambience, rather than a relaxed one. Heck, let us face it, nobody loves to be considered a codger, and called that in public.

This matter though concerns only a section of the society which is basically in a certain age group and above. Surely there are other manners, or the lack of them that perhaps are everyone's concern. "Good manners" is relative, for sure, but there is no doubt that some manners are crucial enough in helping society lubricate the interactions between its citizens. Ethiopian society, I believe, has no shortage of such manners; it is that they have been fast eroding.

Many times in the past, in this page of The Daily Monitor were written, about the unwarranted and unnecessary behavior on our streets of people; namely jostling against each other sloppily. The difference between now and then is that unfortunately the jostling has been going from bad to worse all along. And that may not the worst part. By far what is more irritating is that the misbehavior is being taken as an acceptable norm of the open streets. Nobody apologizes to you for giving you a sharp elbow, even if that may not have been deliberately done. It is as if all of us have suddenly lost our peripheral vision.

Sometimes I wonder to myself where all the hyped implacable Ethiopian manners have gone. There were times in the past when expatriate friends of Ethiopia had such big appreciations for the country and its customs. So much so that they used to wonder loudly if in the event of a public unrest in Addis, looting would ever take place in the streets of the city, in a manner similar to what was happening in many other cities of Africa? You bet it did. Shegole was a warning example. The 'matatus" in Nairobi used to be, (used to be, mind you) a strange spectacle indeed in the city during the rush hours. People could be seen literally subduing other people to get onto the minibuses. It looked like it was the survival of the fittest. Once inside the buses, pain did not lessen. The minibuses were so crowded; you wondered if people were not standing on each others' toes. Some of us from here used to delude ourselves that people in Addis would never act in such manner. Now we know better.

What this leads us to conclude is that if you thought all the platitudes on Ethiopians possessing more street decorum than the rest should perhaps get it that globalization has come here too, and nice behavior in the streets is the least of its worries.

Is the observance of good behavior the purview of governments? Perhaps not, unless you like to see "Big Brother" breathing over you neck. I believe it rather is the responsibility of parents and schools to do so. Civil societies have a big part to play in this too. The question arises as to who decides the ultimate good behavior for citizens of Addis, for instance? What I am trying to say here is that we don't necessarily have to borrow. What we need to do is preserve the existing ones.

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