A great thing about traveling is the people you meet. Not just the people you end up sharing a street, apartment, class, work space with, but also the people you share an aisle with on the train or plane and the insights you garner from them. In this case, on an Ethiopian Airlines flight on topics as varied likeChina-Africa relations and airlines in Africa.
For the most part, I have shared my travel space with nice, interesting people – persons who are either non-hostile or extremely pleasant, with the former occurring just once. On my way back to Ghana for the Christmas holidays – my first in seven years! – I sat next to an elderly Ethiopian man who, for lack of a better description, had eyes that twinkled. He was friendly right from the moment he smiled and asked “19L?” when I tried to put my hand luggage in the overhead cabin. “Yes, that’s me,” I responded, before heading over to the window seat. He explained that he was trying to find an aisle seat since it’s easier to move about considering his age – he seemed to be at least 70 years. I have always preferred the window seats I’ve typically been assigned, and never actually thought about the implications of seating for the elderly or even sick.
The whole while we waited for take off, I felt an urge to ask him what it felt like to be sitting in a national airline. This was my first time traveling with Ethiopian Airlines – and transiting through Addis Ababa – and although the plane was yet to set off, I was already impressed. It made me wonder what it would have felt like to sit on a Ghana Airways flight during its glory days. Would I have felt proud that my country was offering this opportunity from people from all over? I opted for politeness instead and asked nothing of my seat mate. That is, until he started offering suggestions to flight attendants on how best to pack the cabin luggage. He must know a bit or two about flying, I thought to myself. My curiosity returned, and I finally asked my question: “What does it feel like to be flying with your national airline”? I asked? His response in two words: It’s great and I feel proud. That question led to an entire conversation – one of those where you can literally feel pearls of wisdom dropping down into your lap.
Insights from a former Ethiopian Airlines employee
My conversation partner had worked with Ethiopian Airlines for about 30 years in their finance department, and he had watched the airline grow from strength to strength. “In those days, we put the airline first; the airline first and then our individual aspirations. It’s not the same today,” he said. From the way he spoke, it was obvious that he loved what he did, so putting the airline first was not a far cry from putting his own passion first. It made me even more convinced about the importance of doing the thing you love, making it your life’s work. Anyway, the man traveled frequently on Ethiopian Airlines business and once went on a tour “around the world” – basically hitting every continent on our dear planet. Wow, I thought, so cool!
“In those days, we put the airline first; the airline first and then our individual aspirations. It’s not the same today.”
Beyond Ethiopian Airlines, he’d also been contracted by countries like Malawi to help restructure their airlines. “Well, Ghana should have reached out to you as well,” I quipped. “Maybe Ghana Airlines would still exist today.” He turned, looked at me and said, “Sadly, it wouldn’t. Even Malawi Air couldn’t take in what we were trying to teach them.” I was confused. He went on to explain that despite how well-trained he and his colleagues were, their Malawian counterparts couldn’t or rather wouldn’t accept what they had to say or teach. They just weren’t willing to accept pointers from another black man. “You see, sub-Saharan Africa’s experience of colonization is its undoing today. For the average African the ‘white man’ is still supreme. If a fellow African doesn’t look or sound like a white man, chances are, your ideas, suggestions or expertise will not be accepted,” he said. He was right. I’d written about similar some years back in an article I entitled “Psychological Effects of Colonization
“, and I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen this dynamic at play. That said, I believe it is changing, bit by bit, a mind at a time. In order to truly embody regional cooperation though, more needs to be done.
Patriotism & National Identity
How come Ethiopian Airlines was flourishing and recently bought two of the latest Boeing Airlines? Because they were never colonized, my seat mate responded. “We never had to answer to anyone, or to match our standards by someone else’s. We set the rules, the goals, and so we had the flexibility to change course as necessary. It’s okay for us to take risks, to take a chance on ourselves.” Basically, they are real masters of their destiny. Could we say the same for our leaders, governments or business people? Or does the creepy psychological remnant of colonization scare us into submission anytime we dare to try?
Another thing my friend pointed to was the fact that in many African nations, there is no national feeling. True, our social fabric is traditionally based on group allegiances, but in most cases, these group or ethnic allegiances override that of the nation. What makes one an Ethiopian? What makes one a Ghanaian? What identifies us as Africans
? The latest edition of Dust Magazine
talks about the need for country branding and I think the old man hit it right on the head. Without a sense of national identity, it would be hard to brand an African country as one thing or another.
“So, what’s your story?” He asked me. “Where are you headed?” I responded that I was returning home to Accra, Ghana to undertake research for my final capstone project. “That’s great. And afterwards, what do you see yourself doing? Will you be returning to the continent?” Ah, the almighty question. I responded in the affirmative. Ultimately, I see myself living and working in an African country, whether Ghana or elsewhere. My friend seemed satisfied. “That’s good. All of my children live in the U.S. and I still choose to live in Ethiopia. I go to the States to visit them or for medical check ups, but that’s it.”
Not surprisingly, we got to talking about brain drain and the current wave of brain reversal, and that’s when this old man with twinkling eyes made the statement about working in Africa that has stayed with me till today.
“Money in your neighbor’s pocket is money in your pocket. Why would you export that money elsewhere when your own country and economy needs it?”
He was talking economics, yes. But he was also talking the fundamental truth of cause and effect and of the connection between all of us. I might not set out to embark on charity work in Ghana, but the very fact that I am present and engage in business transactions, means that I’m feeding my country’s economy and ultimately helping oil the engines of development. Most policy documents refer to the private sector as the engine of development, and this man put it in very simple terms. To take it a step further, I guess we could say the informal private sector is the engine of development in most African countries.
We eventually got to talking about African development, specifically China and Africa relations. We shared similar sentiments – a skepticism about China’s influence on Africa beyond being a donor or business partner, and most importantly, an uncertainty about whether our leaders and governments can or will act in our respective countries’ best interests. Hearing that the Chinese are swarming African countries is one thing, seeing it for yourself is another. While waiting to board my connecting flight to Accra, I’d thought that a good number of the Chinese in the waiting lounge would board the flights to Lagos and Kenya. Oh how wrong I was. They all ended up on the Accra flight, and as a result, over 50% of the passengers were Chinese, with a smattering of Indians. What’s more, many of these passengers looked to be teenagers or in their early 20s at best.
This is where my concern comes in. For many Chinese, Africa is a gold rush – an opportunity to hit a goldmine in their chosen field and make it. But for most African countries, China’s engagement is helping keep them from hand to mouth livelihoods. Quite unbalanced, wouldn’t you say? Unless our governments put in place the right regulatory frameworks to guide China-Africa relations, we could be setting ourselves up for some serious trouble, while the Chinese can hop onto the next goldmine if the current one proves unprofitable. They are looking out for their interests. The question is, are we?
Anyway, my flight mate eventually found his aisle seat and moved. But for the while that we sat together, I had quite an insightful conversation. Which just goes to prove another thing about traveling: sometimes the real journey is not to a place or location, but inside another person’s mind. So, take a chance, ask questions. You never know what new lands you might encounter.
Written by Jemila Abdulai. Follow her #CirqVoyage on Twitter