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To be ‘civilized,’ or not to be ‘civilized’

It was a workshop of sorts. This guy meets a friend and hugs him with some “Where have you been all this time?” To his shock the friend appeared to have encountered some dinosaur. He didn’t respond to the greetings in kind or otherwise. Instead he frowns like he was just told his wife has walked out on him, and snaps,

“Don’t do that again!”

“Don’t do what again?”

“Don’t hug me in public again!”

What! This guy must have lost a couple of screws from upstairs! They have been hugging every time they met for the past decade or so and now he doesn’t like being hugged! Just like that!

“Sorry, what is wrong with it? This isn’t the first time I hugged you.”

“Don’t do that, especially in front of foreigners.”

So, that was the whole idea! There were quite a number of foreigners around.

For some reason the guy doesn’t want to be hugged in their presence. No, he wasn’t worried about being mistaken for being gay or something. The bombshell wasn’t long in coming;

“Hugging in public is uncivilized.”

This couldn’t be happening! However strange and unrecognizable this world has become, this just couldn’t be happening. “This is not the guy I know. He must be some imposter!”

No, he was the same guy. What happened was he recently joined an NGO, after years as a civil servant, and all of a sudden gave himself the license to ‘civilization’ whatever that means.

I remember once scribbling a few thoughts about the ‘creative’ ways we eat local food. Recently, someone raised the issue that some ferenjis find our eating by hand uncivilized. Is that so? What about licking one’s fingers we see in many films! At least we don’t lick our fingers!

I eat my injera and wot by hand and no other way. Never would many go to the extent of using knife and fork to slice through an injera roll, dip it in the wot and take a mouthful. That’s exactly what some do.

The question of being ‘civilized’ or not has been an eternal issue.

I find quit a number of my country folk on the wrong side of the fence when it comes to such things. They find everything we do’ uncivilized.’ You know like ‘civilized’ is shaking hands and ‘uncivilized’ is hugging.

Take the way we greet. In days that are receding fast there were this real affectionate greetings. I mean, the person who greets you asks you not only about your health but that of your family members too; that person even asks you about how your locality was doing. Of course several minutes are squandered. But one thing we seem to have ‘in abundance’ around here is time.

Look, we all would like to be ‘civilized.’ Not because the ferenjis wouldn’t like seeing us hugging but because we have to keep pace with changing things. Someone is saying being civilized is what is in you and nothing else.

Some decades back we were in this Eastern Bloc country on some media tour. There was some twenty or so of us. On our first night we were called for some welcome dinner. The dishes were filled with chicken legs and chicken breasts. Now if we had been on home ground we would just pick one pieces and start shredding it. But this was a ferenji country. Even though they were poor we have to act ‘civilized!’ We weren’t going to have our country laughed at! “Look at those primitive creatures. They are using their hands to eat the chicken!” we weren’t going to allow that to happen. So we pick the knives and forks and tried to slice the meat off the bones. It was a futile effort. For one thing knife and fork weren’t our idea of sending your meal to the extreme corners of one’s belly.

Very much uncomfortable we threw sideways glances. And then one amongst us pointed to a far corner spot. What a revelation! There, a couple of ferenjis had the chicken parts at in the clutch of their ten fingers and they were ripping the meat with relish. It was as if we were a company of soldiers waiting for that order. With up to the second precision all of us lifted the chicken legs and breasts, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Once I remember that in a certain family quite a storm brewed because of the culinary choice of their twenty-something son. It was by accident that his elder sister discovered that he has started eating pork! And she was tipped by her brother’s own friend who felt there was something very wrong with the guy. Pork!  Not only for religious reasons, but the simple fact is eating pork, generates the gasps from many Ethiopians.

“You mean he actually eats pork!”

“Did you hear that she is eating pork? That girl is going to hell, no doubt about that.”

For the religiously devout there is only one place for you if you eat pork, Hell!  I mean this is a society which would ask “What does the dog stand for in hotdog!” It was like asking, “Couldn’t they come up with a better word!” Whether it comes as a suffix or a prefix, 'dog' is the last word most of us would like to associate with food.

Still, things are changing. Quite a number of people see eating pork as sign of joining the ‘civilized’ world. It isn’t that they are impressed by its nutritional qualities; it isn’t that some doctor advised them to “Eat pork at least three times a week.” It is simply that since many foreigners using it must be one thing civilized people are supposed to do! Hmm. Ask me and I have no problem with people eating pork or food items not nicely perceived around here.  But I have to admit that when I sometimes hear the ‘reasons’ for such actions, reasons which have nothing to do with calorie and carbohydrate count, I really feel sad for those guys who are living in a fantasy world. You like pork, then go eat! The only thing is don’t expect anyone to throw a second glance and exclaim; “Finally he/she has joined the civilized world.” 

I have met with many who think eating raw meat is one sign that the ‘ship of civilization’ has left port and we were not on it. The whole idea of connecting culinary or similar choices with being civilized or being left behind is absurd.

I have to go and have a bite or r two. Who knows, it might be that I’ll settle for pork and from this time on you will be dealing with a ‘civilized’ me.


Contributed by Ephrem Endale
Contributed by Ephrem Endale