"When it comes to lifestyle, work habits, culture, etc., you are the one that has to change because you will
never change them."
Dave Winter, June 2002
(Dave is a former work colleague from AE and has spent several years living and working
in Africa. This was his advice to me on living in Ethiopia.)
I went to pay my monthly electrical bill last week. When I reached the bill payment office, I took my
place at the end of a slow-moving lineup of about 20 people. My arrival caused a bit of a
stir - hell, walking down the street in Awassa still causes a stir. But after a few minutes of
attention, things settled down.
As Iím standing there, I begin to notice that, while there is a buzz of activity at the head of the
line, my progress at the back is fairly static. "WAIT A MINUTE", I think, "THOSE HOSERS ARE
JUMPING THE QUEUE!". With growing exasperation, I watch people coming and going while
I stand roasting in the sun. Finally, when the next clear example of a queue-jumper presents
itself, I charge out of line and give her a strong tap on the shoulder. She turns around and I realize
that I am about to unleash my righteous indignation on a lady who appears to
be 100 years old. "OH SHIT!", I think, "Iím going to be lynched!". But Iíve come this
far and push on. I give her a scowl and jerk my thumb over my shoulder (I have yet to learn the
Amharic equivalent to "No budding, ya olí bat!"). I then wheel around and stomp back to
my place in line. The biddy noses around the front of the queue, but it would appear that my
lineup compatriots (two of whom are as old as the queue-jumper) have been inspired by my actions
and they close ranks. In defeat, she trudges back to her original place at the back of the line.
The lineup is a buzz again: everyone is laughing and pointing and recounting the story. In fact,
one of the bill payment staff leaves his office to see what the fuss is all about. After the story is
explained to him, he beckons me to the head of the line to pay my bill (read: get rid of the
troublemaker). I vigorously shake my head and stand fast at my place in line - to accept his invitation
would be immensely hypocritical.
A few more minutes pass and the next queue-jumper arrives. This time though, it is a young man of
no older then 25. With the moral high ground clearly on my side, I step out of line, approach the
guy and give him my best "scowl & thumb-over-the-shoulder". He stares at me blankly so I snatch
his electrical bill out of his hand, walk to the back of the line and place his bill on the
ground. I then return to my place in line and wait for the expected confrontation. This queue-jumper
is defeated easily however and quietly takes his place at the back. The lineup, on the other hand, is
no longer simply buzzing, but has reached a full-scale hubbub.
A few more minutes pass and a 12-year-old queue-jumper approaches the head of the line.
"A-HA!!", I think, "A harmless child!! This is the test for my
queue-companions...they have been inspired by my example and will turn the child back!". So I
hold my place and wait for the lineup to shun the boy. Nope. The boy budges into the line, pays
his bill and then struts away - giving me a big smile as he leaves. I have been defeated. The
lineup builds to a low buzz again, this time, no doubt, to exclaim, "That crazy firenj
policeman is scared of small children!"
So after 8 months in Ethiopia, I understand it less than on my first day. Why do people
respect the lineup but also seem unperturbed by those that donít? Is it an aversion to
confrontation or because theyíve simply got nothing better to do anyway? And another thing:
why do people queue at the electricity office but the bus station is a stampede and the post o
ffice is a schmorgashborg of flying elbows?
This experience has forced me to recall Dave Winterís advice. While I may understand it
intellectually, I guess I have yet to fully internalize it. I better soon or I might go nuts.