By Zera Yacob
Fathi Ghanem made the above phrase immortal after he used it as the title of his novelette about a journalist in Cairo. This plagiarized title perfectly describes how I have been feeling for a while. Yep, I have lost my shadow. The bipolar life I have been living has stretched me Calista Flockart thin. How else can I explain that I could not convince any of my Ethiopian friends to go with me to the Concertante performance tonight? Concertante, an ensemble extraordinaire out of the Juilliard School, played not only Dvorak’s string sextet flawlessly but also hypnotized the audience with Tchaikovsky’s “Souvenir de Florence.” As far as I am concerned the music, exquisite and succulent, can delight even the most unsophisticated palate. If you have one, that is. Ouch!
Am I being unfairly judgmental of my buddies forgetting that not everybody listens to Nine Inch Nails? Or am I, get ready to pick your jaw from the floor, too modern to hang out with them?
What is Modernization?
What, after all, is modernity? Modernity is not humming a movement from Mozart’s symphony while driving to an appointment you are already an hour and half late or dressing in Dolce & Gabbana outfits and Bruno Magli shoes. Modernity is not recycling every piece of newspaper in your house but being pulled over three times in two weeks. And modernity is not “customizing” your dating moves to the genre of races you are dating. It is not peppering your essays with high-octane words or regurgitating classical works to impress your readers.
Modernization, which is easier to define than modernity, is a process that society has to go through to increase its, for lack of better word, productivity. It is the sum total of activities that complement each other that make your life productive, make you more valuable to society and elevates you in the social strata. It is the culling and retention process of the activities that aid the individual to keep abreast with the general dynamics of the society one lives in. An inherent character of modernization is the socio-economic betterment of the individual.
Ethiopia and Modernization
I fail to grasp the logic of scholars that maintain the future growth of Ethiopia lies in exploiting her natural resources. For the past decade or so the demand for industrial raw materials, excluding petroleum, has been fairly stable. Couple that with current trend of efficient utilization of resources with break-through technologies like spintronics and nanotechnology, the raw material-exporting-gets-Ethiopia-out-of-the-doldrums argument will be a hard sell.
Nonetheless, whichever way Ethiopia’s economic growth comes, I will argue that the modernization of the Ethiopian society will depend on how open her economy is. I am not suggesting that unless Ethiopia has perfectly open economy the rays of modernity will not soak her populace. One only has to compare the world market and the U.S. groceries sugar price to realize that even the highly touted U.S. economy is not perfectly open.
In open economy, compensation and competition, the ever potent motivators will push individuals to retain practices that will enable them make more money and lead a better life. Time and efficiency will be of prime competitive advantages. Then and only then will the value of time appreciate in Ethiopia and tardiness will be frowned up on as it is the shortest route to mediocrity. You will not see bureaucrats in Addis piling up work on their desks till they “have time” to work on it. I will bet you a dime for a doughnut that you will not need to shower your Ethiopian dream girl with thousands of platitudes every day for three weeks before you can get her number. And the afflicted Ethiopian men will get over their psychological aberration where the value of the girl they are after is a function of how hard she plays hard-to-get. It will boil down to basic Darwinian selection: the fittest will survive. In an open economy, modernization is fait accompli.
The downside of opening the economy will have its impact but society has to pay the price and is responsible for curbing any devastating damage. A great deal of lessons along this line can be learned from South Korea. Despite having one of the most conformist and xenophobic societies, this Asian country was able to create an ambience that made it a hotbed for investors. Currently, the KOSPI index performance is the envy of the world. And, not surprisingly, the Koreans are now “cool” people.
Modernity and Segmentation of the Ethiopian Diaspora
One may then ask why is that we see a spectrum of modernity in the Ethiopian Diaspora? At the risk of sounding elitist, I will attribute this segmentation to the level of success and the potential of success of each individual. One only needs to look at a successful Ethiopian woman to see the correlation between her success and her ability to get along with the society. The more successful she is, the more culling and retention she has done to place herself in a competitive advantage. This in turn mirrors her ambition, which translates into her potential of success.
This does not mean that your success depends on how fast you can dump your Ethiopian ways before your bozo neighbor can spell disestablishmentarianism. I have seen very successful people straddling the two extreme ends. This obviously takes time and needs lots of compromising. And how far you are willing to stretch yourself is very subjective. But if you can do it the day you landed in your adopted home, my hat is off to you. You must have the most dexterous moves save Harry Houdini’s.
An Armchair Sociologist
Does this theory, if you want to call it that, suggest that a modernized person in the American society is compatible with a modernized individual in the Ethiopian society? Difficult question to answer and I will by no means dabble with it. But I will say this: they will find it easier to work with each other if they have high productivity as their common denominator.
The seemingly mutual exclusiveness of modernity and the Ethiopian society is nothing but a historical reality metamorphosed through time into pseudo universal truth. The transformation of Ethiopians in the Diaspora to synchronize themselves with developed societies is a sure sign of what can happen if we have an economy that allows a respectable amount of competition in Ethiopia. That will be the dawn of the day when I will have my shadow back.
The author, neither an economist nor a sociologist, lives in North Carolina and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.