Collective Identity

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I recently calculated that I’ve spent just under 2 months of my Peace Corps Service on a bus. For those keeping track at home, that is about 8 weeks longer than you would ever want to spend on public transit in Ethiopia. This was time spent looking out the window, time spent answering questions about the United States, and plenty of time overhearing gossip about myself.  2 months of beautiful scenery, near collisions, shy kids with sweaty hands, and market-day rides filled with fermenting grains and goats on the roof. This elongated time aggregates to likely several hours of being airborne, owning a tailbone and kneecaps that will never forgive me, and finally, hopefully, a few moments of clarity.

A few months ago, I interviewed our incredible doctor, Dr. Wuhib, for a piece in our newsletter.  I asked several questions including what his favorite thing about Ethiopian culture was.  While the other questions took no more than a second to answer, Dr. Wuhib took his time with this response. He finally told me, “I have no idea how to say it or what the English equivalent is. It’s our… identity and togetherness.” I asked him if he meant a collective unconscious. He said yes, but more like a collective identity.

Just recently, I came back from a trip to Addis. It was a harrowing journey where I left for the bus station at 10am and arrived 220 miles later in Jimma at midnight. We changed buses three times, I bought two tickets, we waited four hours to even leave the capital city, and the driver stopped several times at friends’ houses along the way.

Progressively the bus, and myself, got a little angrier. At the point where folks in the US would have been threatening a lawsuit and/or a solid groin punch, the energy on the bus instantly changed. We laughed and shared jokes. It was a collective understanding, a white flag of acceptance rather than surrender. I could feel what Dr. Wuhib was talking about, and like him I find it hard to describe.

It was as if everyone subconsciously agreed that nothing could be done, this day was ruined. The only way to possibly salvage this unfortunate reality was a mutual understanding and a community effort to focus on the good. I instantly had new friends, and we all talked into the night, making friends, discussing work, and truly enjoying the beautiful misery of it all.

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