Cris in Ethiopia

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Too Retarded for Shoes

Posted by Cris on August 23, 2007

Growing up in an age of increasing politically corectness, I have grown used to people using roundabout terms for things, such as different-abledness, height challenged, African-American, etc. So its been a bit of a shock to come here, where people dont speak this way because A) they dont have the language skills in English to do so, and arent familiar with the terms, and B) people are overall more blunt and less sensitive.

Take a class lesson on the body and description for example: I explain the terms (short, tall, thin, fat…) and then have the students describe one another. The first guy up is a man named Mulugeta, who is what we would term, in the PC phrasing of our time, “big”. He isnt fat, he is just BIG: tall, muscular, thick, with the accompanying barley-pop belly. So the fist description of Mulugeta is, “He is fat.” Mulugeta, rather than bursting into tears or threatening lawsuits as he may in the USA, just grins and shrugs a bit. The kids I teach are even more blunt: “He is fat, has big ears and a black face.” Or, “She has no hair, small eyes, a big nose, and a big mouth.” Overall its quite refreshing. Why not just say she has a big nose, or that he has big ears? I do still chuckle when they describe eachother with colors though. “You know Tigustu? He is very black.” I always want to reply, “… and that makes you what?” Its even better when they describe the people they find attractive. “I want a girl who is chocolate color.” Looking around the room I say back, “What- milk chocolate? dark chocolate? Vanilla chocolate? What about macchiato colored?” Im not saying there isnt difference in skin color here. There is, ranging from what I’d call cafe-au-lait all the way to blue-black. But chocolate? They all could be described as chocolate.  

The pinnacle of all this un-PC-ness came when Amy and I visited the Brothers for Charity home, which is a home for developmentally-disabled men run by Mother Theresa’s charity. The home shelters people of all shapes and sizes, literally, from polio-stricken balls of legs and arms, to severly mentally disabled men who sit and drool in a corner all day, to guys with one leg who are only a bit delayed mentally (one of which completely annihilated me at ping-pong, despite having to balance on crutches. I couldnt even score points on his no-legged side.) Most of the guys were “living” on the streets before they came, and at the home are provided with beds, food, safety, things to keep them busy if they can handle it, and similarly, basic education ranging from shoe-tying to cabinet building or welding, again depending on what they can handle. The man running the place is an Indian priest who has been doing similar work for around 20 years. He was very nice and showed us their whole impressive opreration, but it was obvious that his years working with these men had scrubbed all the PC terms and euphemisms from his vocabulary. 

As he took us around he introduced us to the men, he always gave us a description, sorta, of their mental abilities. “This boy, he’s been here for 5 years and now only acts a little retarded.” The next one: “This boy is clever- he can keep his shoes on most of the time.” Then, “this one- he’s too retarded for shoes.” We went out on the balcony, and there were a few piles of feces in the corner. “Oh, we’ll have to get someone to clean that up,” he said, “some of these guys have been in the street so long they cant stand using the toilet. They just wont stop shitting on the balcony.”

He was calling things as he saw them, and obviously had nothing to prove and nobody to impress. His is a labour of love and faith, and he certainly isnt in the business to make money.  His way of speaking was shocking at first,  but as with my students ended up being refreshing.


3 Responses to “Too Retarded for Shoes”

  1. Rob said

    Refreshing? Yes. Correct? No. You could call a sumo wrestler “fat” and a Chinese acrobat “anorexic” but both are revered physical traits for their chosen profession. In any language words can be used to praise or wound but across cultures those same words are woefully dissimilar in meaning. I find it interesting that chocolate was chosen, since it has nearly universal appeal as something good, from Cacao of the Andes to Swiss milk chocolate. As you pointed out, it isn’t the color of chocolate that they were associating but the emotional connection to chocolate.

    Your students don’t have the cultural connection to the descriptive words that you are teaching. However, I am sure that there must be similar words in Amharic that have very negative connotations and would cause distress reactions.

    As westerners we have been taught one definition of “civilized” when it comes to the words we use. We pretend not to hear the person urinating in the stall or bathroom next to us because it is something that we don’t talk about publicly. While I agree that political correctness might have gone overboard in the USA, it is ultimately the responsibility of every member of a culture to choose words that convey meaning without negative emotional context.

    But the trick is keeping up with emotional context. The work f*ck to my generation and before was offensive because of it’s sexual context, but in current vernacular, the word has all but lost that context and is considered no worse that “darn” to most under the age of 25.

    As always, your writing about the Ethiopian culture as seen through your personal filter has made me think about our own perceptions and allowed me to pause for a brief time and ponder things that we don’t take time to ponder in our daily lives.

  2. jane said

    It is quite interesting !
    I remember in France when there was the time when we were saying “clochard” (bum) for people living in the streets and “pays sous developpe” for third world countries (literally underdevelopped countries) and one day, people on the news , and teachers and others start using other words and telling us to use those new words for respect:

    “Sans domicile fixe” or to make it short “SDF” – Homeless (literally “without a stationary/fixed/set house”)
    “Pays en voie de developpement” – Countries on the way of developing.

    Well, I love words and to see what we can do with them…
    I remember as a teenager feeling very weird about this. Like I understood the change for respect, etc… but this is so much hypocrisy.

  3. jane said

    je veux des photos!!!!

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