White Female Bodies in Ethiopia

My Peace Corps colleague and friend Danielle recently posted a blog on harassment in Ethiopia that’s received over 3,500 views (3,500—that’s as many students who went to my college and high school combined!). Danielle has written about the emotional effects of sexual harassment with courage and eloquence. Check it out at http://www.800daysinethiopia.blogspot.com. Thank you, Danielle! The conversation regarding sexual harassment here has caused me to reevaluate my own complex thoughts and feelings on the subject.

The body I was born into 24 years ago happened to be a female one. Over the years this body grew, healed from injury, and maintained stability: it lost teeth, it mended broken bones, and it shed hair under stress. Oh, this body of mine has befriended me through the strangest of places, crouching for hours on plastic jerry cans and sleeping on thin mattresses made of straw. This body has grown curves to support new life, should it come. But it’s also hiked and stretched and ran and danced and it’s even stood silent, like a prayer.

In Ethiopia I’ve learned that my body is me. The same me who loves flowers and writes letters and could talk all through the night also has a body whose feet crack and ovaries menstruate and mouth smiles. In America it was so easy for me to separate myself from my body. Bodies there seem like things you can order from a magazine if you want; choose your hair, pick your waistline, pull your teeth to the perfect little you of your dreams. Got a problem? Just take a pill to skip your period, ease your anxiety, or smooth your skin. The body wants what it wants and the mind, the soul—surely those must exist on different planes.

No! No! Africa told me. No! You are white! You are different from us! The pudge on your arms proves that you’ve never been hungry longer for a day! You have moles on your neck! You get tired after walking for too long! There’s hair on your legs! The body I so long ignored rang the doorbell of my heart and begged a few words.

Thing is, I started to listen. I started to look at my body, sink into myself. I stopped putting on mascara. I let the hair on my head go wild. I started running and as my lungs were burning and heaving I realized I was alive! The body wakened the soul—what a thing. In some ways I became whole.

What I am saying is, this marriage of outward me with inward me has been one of the greatest gifts of living in Ethiopia. Which is ironic, because when the harassers here first looked at me and screamed “SEX,” I took everything Ethiopia’s taught me and I wondered, “where?”

“SEX” had only to do with me being white and me being woman. Nothing to do with my smile, my ponytail, or my pedicured toes. Nothing to do with the way I can make coffee, throw a child in the air, or fight my way onto a crowded bus. Nothing to do with the way I get to know a person, talk to my parents on the phone every Saturday, or think about God. “SEX” was about only one very small part of the outward me, one that speaks nothing of my character. In the logic of these harassers, the ladies who perform sex acts in pornography videos are white, so I must be just like them.

Don’t we all fall into this same trap—to catch a glimpse of someone’s outsides and just assume the rest? Maybe we’ve never seen “white” and only thought “sex,” but have we ever heard the word “Ethiopia,” and only thought “poor”?

What I want to say to these men on the street who look at my body and ignore my soul is this: the outside me matters, but the inside me matters too. I am not a better me when I weigh less or my hair’s washed. I am the strength in the bend of my knees after a long run through the kebele countryside. I am the sweetness of kisses cheek-to-cheek as greeting topples over good greeting on the same streets you walk. I am not sex because I am white, and I am not not sex because I am white. Oh I am a complex thing. We all are. Let’s be good to one another.


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