9 March 2017

Ethiopia: Features of an Ethical Society - Exclusive With Prof. Andrew Decort


Professor Andrew Decort is a scholar from Chicago. He is now a volunteer and a permanent resident in Ethiopia. While Professor Andrew Decort was delivering a lecture, The Ethiopian Herald had conducted an exclusive interview with him about his scholarly opinions and his mission and life in Ethiopia with a deep focus on ethics and society. A nice reading.

Please tell us first about yourself and how you came to Ethiopia?

I first came to Ethiopia twelve years ago in 2004 as a college student studying European Philosophy and Ancient Civilization. I was very active in serving my local community at that time through mentoring children after their school programmes, and supporting their families. The social activities I engage in gave me a passion for people and service, justice.

When I was in college this passion was highly espoused and one of my mentors suggested to me to come to Ethiopia during summer as a social welfare volunteer so that I could serve children, women, language centres, photography programs and other aid programs for long days. That was a profound experience about Ethiopia. I saw a beautiful contradiction about Ethiopia at that time. I believe Ethiopia is a place of extraordinary beauty, agony and pain. I traveled to the historical place of Lalibella, I was very much interested in ancient languages and ancient architecture. And I was extremely impressed by Lalibella, the architecture and the religious rituals. I am very impressed. That interest then grabbed my attention. Thus I got back to my college and graduated with Awards in 2005. But my interest of serving the public has initiated me to come back brought me back to Ethiopia.

What happened after you came here in Ethiopia?

I have tried to work on street children and HIV positive people on ways of creating employment and job to reintegrate themselves with the society. I have learnt a lot about Ethiopian culture and came to work with organizations that work on education and social service. I try to speak Amharic but I have never studied Amharic. I love people regardless of their economic status and I try to listen and pick up words and then use the words to communicate with people. But I have a long way to learn Amharic. I wanted to know the Fidel (Ethiopian table of letters of Amharic).

I have been told that you are married to an Ethiopian woman, please tell me about that?

I believe that when we live intentionally, everything in our life is sacred and everything has deep value. And I met my wife as a stranger. We did not plan to meet. I was not looking for a girlfriend. She was not looking for a boyfriend. I had been working as editor in an organization which writes reports on the five most violent countries in Africa and many writers were coming to my office.

I was at Kaldis Café shop when I met my wife's sister. And I thought I knew her in/around office. I said Hello to her but she could not recognize me. It was a funny and wired incident to make that mistake. I said sorry and you look familiar to me and with that I have met my wife through that experience. It was this way that I met my wife. We have been dating for three years before we got married. Our relationship is an experience of translation and transformation literally, linguistically, culturally and geographically. When you fall in love deeply, you will find a common understanding with another person who is different from you. She is the best person in my life.

What is your area of specialization, in University of Chicago?

I held my Ph.D. in Ethics from the University of Chicago. As you may know the University of Chicago is a strict university that requires you to specialize in different disciplines rather than one discipline. So my specialization is on the history of Ethics from Philosophical, religious and political perspectives. But I have also specialized in Ethiopian studies.

When I was working on my Ph.D., I thought for a long time how I could be responsible with the education I received and finally I decided to come to Ethiopia. So I established an organization which has three major visions. One is sharing presence. As you know human beings are relational creatures. Something beautiful happens when we recognize the preciousness of other people.

When we are together we need to listen, care for others without considering their limitations. This vision is just to share presence to people through caring, listening and sharing stories and experiences. The second vision of my organization's vision is to promote education. I believe in education. And the foundation of education is thinking critically, dialoguing openly that would take us towards ethical life. I am a teacher, a mentor and I run academic programs to sustain true knowledge that is visionary in helping people. I write online, on Facebook and in other occasions. And my book will see the printer's ink in the United States this year. The third vision of my organization is to bring neighbours' love for the person in need or suffering. I believe that one of the calamities in Ethiopia today is the failure to recognize the core values that are in people around us. People are not problems rather they are incredible resources in the society.

This is to promote that people are not just neighbours living next door. But people are like us, speaking the same language. We need to collaborate, learn, encourage and share and strengthen their incredible talents among each other for the vulnerable parts of the society. I hope I am sharing presence, strengthening education and promoting neighbourhood love in Ethiopia. I think these are the qualities of good people that should be infused into a responsible society. What is meant to be human is to be responsible in a society.

Tell us about an Ethical society?

I think an Ethical society is a society where children, boys, girls, youths and adults are trained to have a sense of responsibility for others. Responsibility means building capability which enables one to respond to people's concerns. I am not alone; I am not truly alive for my benefit and survival. Lives are interrelated and destinies are intertwined. So I think an Ethical society is a society that trains its members to remember that they are responsible for one another. This thinking also includes thinking beyond family or any kind of border in humanity.

I am an American but I am responsible for the diverse people of Ethiopia. I am a man but I am responsible for women. I am a middle aged person but I am responsible for children and the elderly as well. We need to play our role in the society and we need to contribute to the society to enrich the common good. So again I would say that ethical society is the society that trains its people with the vision of responsibility to the commitment of the common good to promote one another's well-being instead of being competitors and combatants in the journey of life.

This is being built through trust, open communication, cooperation, synergy, sustainable partnership, excellence and sense of passion in improving society. An Ethical society is a society that respects people at all levels. It gives due attention to low income generating people as very important contributors to the life that we share. It is a society that gives value to people's understanding of the crucial value of each vocation and roles in contributing to this common good. "We all are serving one another rather than serving ourselves."

What is the easiest way to build or restore an Ethical society?

I think it gets worse before it gets better. To build an Ethical society (ethical citizens) gets worse before it gets better. It gets more painful before it gets more pleasing. It gets harder before it gets easier because we had ingrained habits of dishonesty. This dishonesty leads to secrecy. And secrecy is part of suspicion. And when you combine dishonesty with suspicion, you get a society in which it is harder to work together. So in order to return this pattern, we need heroes, moral exemplars who practice a kind of honesty. None of us are perfect.

Even our best leaders are not. We need to confess our past mistakes even if there are consequences of confessing. But the reality is that no one wants to be embarrassed, lose respect and status by doing this. But what is needed to build an ethical society in a nation is sacrificial leadership, honest communication, acknowledging our failures, extending forgiveness for humble mistakes, serving justice for grave mistakes, celebrating one another's victories. Until we celebrate others victories we cannot live in a healthy manner within the society. So we need to learn to celebrate others' successes when they grow, when their lives are improved rejoicing genuinely when others get ahead of us even on the matter that we wanted to.

What do you think is the most notable ethical issue in Ethiopia today?

When we study ancient civilization of Axum, when we see the inscriptions of Kings like Ezana and others, we find that there is a deep history of seeing leadership as power and privilege rather than responsibility and service. In my opinion as a scholar who studied Ethiopian history and Ethics, leaders must understand leadership as the burden of serving others which must begin from listening to others, understanding what their needs and desires are, being open to their feedback and criticism, being accountable which needs humility and courage as well as partnership. Leaders should be those types of self-forgetful people who are willing to collaborate with those who have different ideas seeing things from a different angle.

I would argue that the most Ethical issue facing Ethiopia today is how leadership is understood. That is, is it a privilege or a responsibility? And the other Ethical issue is how Women are viewed. Many think that this issue has been resolved now. That women and men are viewed and treated equal in Ethiopia. I do not fully believe that personally.

There are things that need to be done to have women voices be heard equally in leadership, election and decision making. We have a long way to go organizing the brilliance and the capability and the insight of our daughters, sisters and friends in society as fully.We need to give general regard for others too. We are all surrounded by people around us. We need to give regard for others.

Empathy towards others is an Ethical issue that should be taken in to account. Failure to dialogue and listening to people with differing view is the other Ethical issue in Ethiopia today. When we dialogue we don't have to do it in a 'War with words manner' but rather to reach into a meeting of minds. And I think Ethiopia is a diverse country and it is one of the younger generation nation in the world.

There is an extra ordinary diversity in Ethiopia. And if we dialogue in a civilized manner, Ethiopia's diversity is an extraordinary wealth and beauty and the people are the true wealth of the nation. We can explore this through dialogue which is the most important sign of maturity. The tensions between the past and the future as well as the reconciliation between individuals and the community are the Ethical issues, resources and tensions to Ethiopia's future.

Professor Thank you for your precious time and scholarly comments on behalf of Herald readers?

It is my pleasure.


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