Africa’s Fight for Equality in Scientific Research

science image wiki

Response to Article: Research: Africa’s fight for equality

Author: Linda Nordling

Date: 05 May 2015

Website link:

Author: Janny Chang

The May 5th Nature article written by Linda Nordling brought the world’s attention to the landmark Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI)-Wellcome Trust Research Programme case and raised a number of serious concerns.

First, it illuminated the impact of colonial legacy, still very much alive on the continent of Africa. This unequal legacy is deeply embedded in collaborations between international agencies and African scientists, who are often relegated to less visible positions. In Academic Cooperation with Africa: Lessons for Partnership in Higher Education, author Dieten Neubert alludes to the unequal power dynamic in North-South relationships. Neubert argues,

“The North tends to dominate the relationship, at least indirectly. Nearly all the funds either for teaching, research or for the support of African universities come form the North, in our case from Germany…In this constellation the African University often ends up in the role of a junior partner. Another inequality may put stress on a partnership. The salaries in Germany and Africa are obviously extremely uneven….The unequal payment is at least a potential threat for trustful cooperation (Neubert, 2008, p. 100).” [1]

Even in areas touting “international collaboration” such as global health science, this colonial legacy reared its ugly head.


In a recent article, medical doctor Tamer M. Fouad reminds us of the startling facts. Africans account for 1.1 percent of the world’s scientific researchers and there are fewer than 5 million students of higher education in sub-Saharan African, a region with more than 1 billion people. Fouad reveals that for many international researchers, “collaboration” has become synonymous with publishing in well-known journals, which are almost exclusively found in Europe and the United States. This opportunistic behavior is often done at the expense of their African counterparts, whose data and samples they use, but fail to give proper credit. [2]

A consistent narrative of inequality between Western and African researchers also emerges in research on science in Africa. For example, a seminal book by anthropologist Johanna Taylor Crane titled Scrambling for Africa: AIDS, Expertise and the Rise of American Global Health Science corroborates this claim. Crane’s ethnography showed that American researchers had dual motivations in doing HIV research in Africa. Their humanitarian motivations were coupled with career opportunism to use African research to advance their own interests. Crane’s conclusion was that the years of burgeoning HIV/AIDS research was not only a time of hope for Africans, with the introduction of ARVs, but also the expansion for opportunities for some companies, doctors and scientific researchers from the West.

Crane’s close study of researchers at a rural clinic in Uganda also yielded some disturbing insights. She noted that many Uganda physicians involved in the research were not included as authors in publications and were often relegated to subordinate position of blood and other sample collectors. Africans in general were disproportionately asked to be test subjects. This is akin to the United States’ reprehensible history of using African Americans as disposable subjects in the Tuskegee syphilis experiment in the 1930s, lasting for 40 years, and other patterns of experimental abuse of Blacks – all in the name of science. [3]

Politics of Citation

A second issue Nordling raised is the culture of “publish and perish” dominating science circles around the world. While sensitizing scientists in the West to collaborate on equal levels with their African counterparts may prevent inequalities, a larger systemic issue of a changing academia must be addressed. This involves the pressure to publish and only in a handful of prestigious journals.

The problems of citation practices and publication exclusivity have significant implications for African researchers. In fact, it has implications for all researchers at the periphery – women, minorities, and immigrants. The implication is that African researchers and those at the periphery are not given a fair chance to be published and recognized for their research. Because scientists are hired and awarded grants and fellowships based on publications in the top journals, African scientists and those at the periphery, with the exception of a super-star few, are less likely to be given a fair shot at establishing an international scientific career. What’s at stake is a true meritocratic system that awards scientists based on the quality and relevance of their research. What’s at stake is potentially life-changing knowledge that gets cast aside and ignored due to structural inequalities of the academic system.

Economic Barriers

This issue also prevents open access journals or African-based mega journals from leveling the playing field. As long as there are only a handful of top “luxury” journals that control access and direct resources to a  small percentage of research, mostly hailing from the West, it will take a long time for open access journals to gain the same level of prestige. In resource-poor countries, where training the next generation of young scientists is undermined by the lack of access to expensive journals, open access journals can make all the difference.

The economic barriers seem to exacerbate the already existing inequalities among researchers in the West and in Africa. However, there are solutions to these problems. They are not overnight fixes, but implemented over time, they can positively transform the situation.

Potential Solutions

One type of solution is offered by the Next Einstein Forum (NEF). The Global Gathering event held every two years is a global forum designed to level the playing field in science. The NEF places African researchers front and center, where they belong. The event will convene 500 of the most outstanding thinkers from Africa and around the world and feature 15 top young scientists from Africa.

The goal is to cultivate the next generation of African scientists and leaders who will be the ones to lead open access journals, mentor African students to pursue science, influence science policy and attitudes on the continent to fight and challenge the residue of the colonial past, conduct research that may win them the next Nobel prize, and create entrepreneurial projects that address the needs of the continent and advance new ways of thinking in frontier science.

To be sure, Nordling warns against overstating the gains made in Africa’s fight for equality. After all, there is much work to do. But one surefire way to make changes is to involve more partners and elicit funding on the part of African governments, individuals, institutions and companies. With more stakeholders on board in any scientific project, it limits the ability of any one group to dominate or exploit the others. Having strong support from African funders and governments also sends the signal to Western counterparts that they cannot disrespect local scientists without grave repercussions.

Making it widely known that they have the backing of strong actors renders the African researchers less vulnerable to being relegated to second-class status. Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, Tanzania, South Africa, and Rwanda are success stories in this regard.

Furthermore, Forbes and other magazines have highlighted the rise of “billionaire philanthropists” in Africa [4]. Now is the time for African tycoons such as Ugandan Ashish Thakkar and Sudanese Mo Ibrahim, among others, to step in and make their voices heard in the international scientific communities. For example, Aliko Dangote, the richest man in Africa and Nigeria’s first billionaire, made an estimated $35 million donations to philanthropic endeavors in 2012. He could launch a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket 583 times and fund an entire Jet Propulsion laboratory in Africa led by African scientists with that amount. 

With a cadre of supportive stakeholders in the scientific community, including commitment from African governments and institutions like NEF and AIMS, stellar scientists like the NEF Fellows, and buy-in from wealthy Africans, international institutions will be forced to shed neocolonialist attitudes and engage in genuinely equitable partnerships. Affected researchers may still have to struggle, as Zambian biochemist Kelly Chibale states in the Nature article, but they will have to struggle far less.


[1]  Dieter Neubert, Academic Cooperation between Germany andd Africa – Challenges and some lessons learnt, in Academic Cooperation with Africa: Lessons for Partnership in Higher Education, eds. Eike W. Schamp, Stefan Schmid, (New Brunswick, Transaction Publishers, 2008), p. 100.

[2] Tamer M. Fouad, Ebola Outbreak Highlights Struggle for Science in Africa and Inequalities in Global Health Research, November 2014,

[3] Denise Grady, White Doctors Black Subjects: Abuse Disguised as Research, Jan. 23, 2007,

[4] Giving Back: The Face of Africa’s New Donors, April 5, 2015,

Channeling Margaret Mead

On one of my favorite anthropologists, Margaret Mead

“Neither a stuffy Germanic professor nor a shy spinster, Mead was a vigorous, attractive, adventurous, and courageous young woman. The ‘girl in the neighborhood’ whom most might have expected to work at the corner store, be a teacher or perhaps attempt to break into the movies, had dared to travel alone to a far corner of the world…Over the next decade, Mead continued to follow the trajectory that had been launched with her study of Samoa. She made a series of trips to the South Pacific, where she conducted fieldwork among the Manus, the Arapesh, the Mundugumor and the Balinese. Her genius lay in exquisitely careful observations and in lively writing, rather than in theoretically sophisticated diquisitions…”

Memory and Habits (Part I) — The Power of Habit


I’m savoring The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg in bits and pieces and made these fascinating discoveries.

1) The basal ganglia is central to recalling patterns and acting on them. It stores habits even while the rest of the brain asleep. The process of how the brain converts a sequence of actions into a routine, also known as “chunking” is what allows us to perform most activities in our everyday life without thinking twice.

2) Dr. Larry Squire, a professor of psychiatry, neurosciences and psychology, studied someone named Eugene who had problems with short term memory but could remember events before 1960 due to the effects of a debilitating disease. What kind of life can one lead if you cannot remember it? What Squire discovered was that “the brain has an amazing ability to find happiness even when the memories of it are gone.”

What implications does this have for Alzheimer’s patients, I wonder.

2) What Squire’s experiments with Eugene showed was that it’s possible to learn and make unconscious choices without remembering anything about the lesson or decision making. Habits are at the root of our behavior and it’s possible to form habits without memory. Once they are lodged within our brains, they influence how we act.

3) “Habits are powerful, but delicate. They can emerge outside our consciousness, or can be deliberately designed. They often occur without our permission, but can be reshaped by fiddling with their parts. They shape our  lives far more than we realize — they are so strong, in fact, that they cause our brains to cling to them at the exclusion of all else, including common sense.”

4) Why are companies such as Procter & Gamble, Microsoft and Google focused on understanding the formation of habits and how they can be changed? Because scientific research shows we rely upon all kinds of cues — visual triggers such as a candy bar or a TV commercial or a certain feeling — to change routines. The picture I’ve posted of a supermodel eating a burger is evidence of the fast food industry capitalizing on the science of habits by using strong visual cues and rewards to create habits that increase consumption of burgers and other fast food. The cues are powerful.

For example, in the case of Eugene, he would go for walks everyday and had to rely on visual cues to find his way back home because he could not depend on short term memory.

In the case of companies — and the examples used in the book were fast food companies — they used visual cues to unconsciously influence people’s habits and make them consume more. Researchers found that everything fro the aesthetics of a fast food chain to what employees say to customers were consistent cues to trigger more consumption. Even the way fries are designed to “melt” the moment they hit your tongue are meant to cause your pleasure centers to light up and compel your brain to lock in that pattern. It’s part of habit formation.

However, different cues and rewards can help us change habits. More to follow on creating new habits…

Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us


What motivates people to do what they do? How can we provide the proper incentives for people to conduct research, to innovate, and to perform their jobs well? These questions became especially relevant during the Advancement of Association for the Advancement of Sciences (AAAS) Annual Meeting in San Jose, California this year. What motivates scientists around the world to conduct their research? For some of the women scientists in developing countries with whom I spoke, any incentive to do research was met with the numerous hurdles they faced, from the lack of funding and available grants to being stigmatized as one of the few women pursuing higher education and science. Yet they continue to pursue scientific research.

How can this be explained?

I’ve been in the academy long enough to know that “loving” one’s research is too simplistic of an explanation. Recent debates about the implication of using this explanation can have a dark side in justifying the existence of an underpaid and exploited labor force in the arts, humanities and social sciences. This kind of justification would not be possible without a strong buy-in from stakeholders that suffering (simply bearing it) is part of the process — whether it’s conducting research, working as a research assistant in a science lab or serving overseas in a longterm mission. The idea that one is not “loving’ the process enough and is therefore to blame for raising questions, concerns and injustices that contribute to the suffering is a consequence of the insidious part of this kind of justification. It’s often hard to distinguish between the fine line of persisting and being resilient and knowing when to make a drastic change or walk away. After all, is it fair to expect people to be intrinsically motivated when extrinsic conditions are to too harsh? Are intrinsic motivations enough to produce innovations like Google and other revolutionizing innovations?

Without getting into the debates about the problem of using “love” or other types of intrinsic motivating factors to discuss labor, I wanted to see what the research in behavioral economics, psychology, management theory and the social sciences says about the topic, and more specifically, what career analyst Daniel Pink concludes, drawing from extensive scientific research, in his book.

Here’s what I found interesting from the book:

1) Extrinsic rewards can help you deliver fast results. However, in the long run, it can actually be detrimental to your desired outcome.

Experiment: Two Swedish economists wanted to see if paying citizens to donate blood would reduce the country’s blood supply. What did they do? The found 153 women interested in donating blood. They divided the women into 3 groups. They told the first group that blood donation was voluntary. Second group would receive about US $7. The third group had two choices: either a 50-kronor payment with an option to donate the amount to a children’s cancer charity. Of the first group, 52% of the women went ahead and donated. In the second group, only 30 percent gave blood. In the third group, rates were about as high as the first group at 53% who opted to donate blood.

It might be counterintuitive, but providing extrinsic rewards in this case of an altruistic act was counterproductive. Of course,  not all extrinsic rewards are equal. Pink notes that in other studies, when donors were given the option of paid time off, this actually increased the number of blood donors.

Some other problems with providing an extrinsic reward as a strong motivating factor include encouraging people to take shortcuts or be corrupt or engage in other types of undesirable behavior.

By the same token, using extrinsic motivating factors to discourage certain types of behavior did not always lead to a desired outcome. In another experiment in Israel at a  daycare center, economists recorded the number of parents who picked up their child late. When a punishment was unleashed on parents who were late, such as a monetary fine, there was actually a steady increase of parents coming late. Existing literature did not account for the possibility of an increase in the behavior being punished.

This discovery extends to individuals who want a short fix, to companies that only invest in short-term goals, and to addicts who hone in on short-term gain. The problem, as Pink concludes, is manifold. It can extinguish intrinsic motivation, diminish performance, crush creativity, crowd out good behavior, encourage short cuts, cheating, unethical behavior, encourage addicts, and foster short-term thinking.

If you are going to offer extrinsic rewards, Pink suggests that you offer it only after the task is complete and in a surprising way. Some of the highest levels of creativity were produced by people who received a reward as a bonus.

If you’re a manager, teacher or anyone looking to elicit desired behavior from a group of people, Pink makes the following  recommendations:

a) Consider nontangible rewards such as praise and positive feedback

b) Provide useful information. While controlling extrinsic motivators can slow down creativity, informational motivators can foster it. Give people meaningful information about their work. I have often found that in my own work, the most valuable feedback was precise and detailed and included positive and constructive advice.

c) Offer a rationale for why the task is necessary.

d) Acknowledge that the task may be boring and show your empathy for others.

e) Allow people to complete the task their own way. Although good work can be produced from micromanaging behavior, I have found through observations and my own experience, that excellent work is the product of an environment conducive to creativity and autonomy. That’s why the Google model works and Silicon Valley is one of the global hubs of innovation. This was not the result of overbearing bosses.

2) Pink breaks down behavior into two groups. It goes back to Meyer Friedman, a cardiologist, who ran an office in San Francisco. Among his heart patients, he distinguished between groups. He found that there were those who had excessive competition drive, aggressiveness and impatience. These people were likely to develop heart disease ore than other patients. He called this behavior Type A. Type B people were less harried by life or hostile when life did not go their way. Friedman and Roseman found that Type B people were just as intelligent, but they wore their ambition differently. Type B people, they found, had a lower risk of heart disease.

In the meantime, a management professor Douglas McGregor at MIT, who earned his degree from Harvard in psychology, began conducting research on faulty assumptions about human behavior. The prevailing view at corporations was that people disliked work and they had to be coerced and punished to do adequate work. He came with a theory about two different approaches to management. In Theory X, one’s managerial technique would produce mediocrity. This was focused on extrinsic rewards. By contrast, Theory Y, which Pink revises as his own and dubs “Type I” is driven by intrinsic desires, which is more concerned with inherent satisfaction of the activity itself.

Pink argues that if we want to strengthen our organizations, we must shift to Type I behavior. Type I’s are driven by freedom, challenge and purpose. Other gains, including extrinsic rewards, are just icing on the cake.

Pink concludes that Type I’s almost always outperform Type X in the long run. Focusing on short term gain is not sustainable in the long run.

On the other hand, Type I’s are in it for the long haul because of their internal desires to control their lives, learn about their world, and accomplishing lasting change.

Here’s the key to fostering more Type I behavior. It is not born, but made.

Just as the next Einstein can only innovate within a conducive environment, greater Type I behavior depends on environments and leadership which encourage this type of behavior.

What are some practical tips to encourage this type of behavior?

I’m especially interested in how to create these conditions at the organizational level.

3a) Create the conditions for greater autonomy.

Great quote: “The idea of management of people rather than management of, say, supply chains is built on certain assumptions about the basic natures of those being managed. It presumes that to take action or move forward…we need a prod….But is that really our fundamental nature? When we enter the world, are we wired to be passive and inert? Or are we wried to be active and engaged?”

Thus, a whole body of literature and research is built around this self-determination theory (SDT) — that autonomy is a basic human need and that people are naturally drawn to it. As Pink writes, mediocrity is expensive and autonomy can be the antidote. Autonomy, whether it hinges on flexible hours or leading projects or being encouraged to give feedback that shape company policy, contribute to greater job satisfaction.

b) Encourage Mastery Mindset

This involves changing the view that intelligence is something that is inborn. Pink writes that in fact, mastering any subject or task involves what Angela Duckworth has popularized as “grit” — the perseverance and passion for long term goals and practice, practice practice. You have to put in effort on days even when you don’t feel like it.

c) Maximize on Purpose

Pink uses the example of TOMS as an organization that operates on this principle. The aims are not to chase profit, which relies on short-term thinking, but on purposeful values. Profit is a catalyst rather than primary objective.

Finally, Pink urges us to follow science. He argues that there is often a mismatch between what science knows and what business does. Scientists, he writes, “offer us a sharper and more accurate account of both human performance and the human condition.” The truths they’ve discovered, that “if-then” rewards are not only ineffective, but detrimental in the long run, need to be taken seriously in the corporate world. Science shows that high performance is the result of the third drive – our intrinsic desire to “direct our own lives, to extend and expand our abilities and to make a contribution.” Humans are designed to be active and engaged. “Repairing the mismatch and bringing our understanding of motivation in the 21st century is more than an essential move for business. It’s an affirmation of our humanity.” 

Year 2015

neil de grasse tyson

Towards the end of last year, I was exhausted. I was teaching a couple of university classes, trying to turn my PhD dissertation into a book, and working 60% percent time for an international nonprofit, while also serving as a Board member for another nonprofit with which I have been involved since 2004.

Although I enjoyed my work, I was relieved when it was time to take a break. I spent time with family, read books for fun (yes, what a novel idea!), and traveled to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and Capetown, South Africa for pleasure and for work.

Since then, 2015 has been relentlessly speeding ahead.

My plate continues to be full. I’ve decided that I need to incorporate more yoga in my life and continue my journey of spiritual and self-help exploration. I thought to myself, what have I been rather passionate about for most of my life and how can I use this passion to provide a service to others?

I’ve always been a kind of junkie for self-improvement and spiritual articles/books. Perhaps due to my training in practical/applied research, I’ve also been a strong proponent of applying theory to everyday life. I want to see if theories in the abstract hold up in concrete settings. In what ways can knowledge make our lives better?

More than ever, as my life gets busier, and my work continues to be meaningful, I crave a deeper knowledge of what makes others tick, what it means to be “vulnerable” a la Brene Brown, and how to make our lives more meaningful a la Viktor Frankl and reflective.

That’s why I want to make 2015 the year in which I explore this topic using this blog by examining, condensing, cogitating (how I love that word!), and applying some of the profound ideas to our modern and fast-paced lives.

Here’s to new beginnings and the understanding of knowledge as they apply to our lives.



Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman — Some Insights


I read parts of this book on the plane today and found it useful to think of all the ways in which humans make bad decisions.

Kahneman discusses the process of decisionmaking as the product of two Systems at work. System 1 relies on intuitive thinking and is more prone to errors, irrationality and laziness. System 2 is slow thinking that is deliberate and controlled.

To be more specific, Kahneman writes explains: “System 1 detect simply relations (“they are all alike”…) and excels at integrating information about one thing, but it does not deal with multiple distinct topics at once, nor is it adept at using purely statistical information.”

In contrast, the functions of “System 2 is to monitor and control thoughts and actions ‘suggested’ by System 1, allowing some to be expressed directly in behavior and suppressing or modifying others.” Self-criticism is also one of the main functions of System 2.

The point is that we have a tendency as humans to make irrational choices and judgements by lazily relying on System 1. High intelligence does not make us immune to biases. Intelligence, he defines, is the ability to reason and the ability to “find relevant material in memory and to deploy attention when needed.” Memory function is a part of System 1, but slow and deliberate fact checking is part of System 2.

Now, it appears that neither System is inferior to the other. In fact, our intuitive areas in System 1 can be just a strong and accurate, given the right conditions — for example, he mentions that being happy loosen the mood on intuitive performance and this had the effect of doubling accuracy. It doesn’t mean that we cannot trust intuition in System 1, but we should be critical. Intuition can be trusted when the answer comes from an environment that is predictable and one has the opportunity to learn those regularities through prolonged practice.

On the other hand, too much exertion on System 2, for example, burdening it with exhaustive, detailed fact-checking may lead to “ego depletion” and lead to irrational choices.

The key to disciplined reasoning is to:

“1) anchor our judgment of the probability of an outcome on a plausible base rate

2) question the diagnosticity of our evidence.”

Whenever possible, in hiring practices or other situations, it is often best to use mathematical formulas and rely on statistical evidence to make human judgments. As a social scientist trained to be skeptical of nearly everything I read or hear about, I agree with the suggestions for more disciplined reasoning.

Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life by James Hollis

These are some of the quotes from this book that resonated with me:

1) “As we have seen, the most important messages of life come from the primary relationships with mother, father and siblings and then, in ever widening circles, the culture as a whole. These messages are internalized and we accede to them, seek to evade them, or unconsciously solicit treatment for them. These messages, or complexes, are splinter mythologies, embodied in daily life as fractal personalities, and to ether they enact the ego’s daily dance. Most of the time the ego is in service to these scripts even when it thinks otherwise….Thus, we marry, go to college, join the army, produce children and careers, and only from tim ego time question why or to what end.”

2) “But the question why continues to be asked in the unconscious.”

3) As Jung reminds, “It is not I who created myself, rather I happen to myself.”

4) “Perhaps the highest achievement of consciousness is not the self-serving reiteration of its own glories, its agenda of regressive reinforcement in the face of the late, intimidating cosmos that is our home, but rather its capacity to acknowledge that it has been called to witness, and to serve, to serve something larger.”

Quite consistent with the ideas of Buddhism, the way to a larger life is to become more conscious. Hollis provides a list of questions to reflect upon and answer.  The questions force us to contemplate the areas in which we are living out of habit, rather than intention. This leads to fear, rigidity and resistance to change. Rather, Hollis asks us to consider:

  • 1) Where has life blessed you?
  • 2) Where are you blocked by fear, stuck, rigid, resistant to change?
  • 3) What is the fear beneath the fear?
  • 4) Where were your parents stuck and where has that manifested in your own life? Are you repeating their lives, their patterns or trying to overcome them by compensation?
  • 5) What ideas, habits, and behavioral patterns are holding you back?
  • 6) Where are you still looking for permission to live your life?

Even if you do not believe in a “soul” or are indifferent towards Jungian or Buddhist thought, these are excellent questions to ponder on. This type of reflection can be the difference between living a deeper and “larger life” and feeling stuck and out of control.

I’m back – 2015


Towards the end of last year, I was exhausted. I was teaching a couple of university classes, trying to turn my PhD dissertation into a book, and working 60% percent time for an international nonprofit, while also serving as a Board member for another nonprofit with which I have been involved since 2004.

Although I enjoyed my work, I was relieved when it was time to take a break. I spent time with family, read books for fun (yes, what a novel idea!), and traveled to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and Capetown, South Africa for pleasure and for work.

Since then, 2015 has been relentlessly speeding ahead.

My plate continues to be full. I’ve decided that I need to incorporate more yoga in my life and continue my journey of spiritual and self-help exploration. I thought to myself, what have I been rather passionate about for most of my life and how can I use this passion to provide a service to others?

I’ve always been a kind of junkie for self-improvement and spiritual articles/books. Perhaps due to my training in practical/applied research, I’ve also been a strong proponent of applying theory to everyday life. I want to see if theories in the abstract hold up in concrete settings. In what ways can knowledge make our lives better?

More than ever, as my life gets busier, and my work continues to be meaningful, I crave a deeper knowledge of what makes others tick, what it means to be “vulnerable” a la Brene Brown, and how to make our lives more meaningful a la Viktor Frankl and reflective.

That’s why I want to make 2015 the year in which I explore this topic using this blog by examining, condensing, cogitating (how I love that word!), and applying some of the profound ideas to our modern and fast-paced lives.

Here’s to new beginnings and the understanding of knowledge as they apply to our lives. I leave you with an inspiring quote from Neil deGrasse Tyson. Enjoy!



Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

It has been a dream of mine to visit Ethiopia. I once taught an African anthropology course, in which three countries were used as case studies to examine the history, politics, cultures and changing landscapes of the continent and Ethiopia, with its rich diversity and ancient recorded history, was one of the countries I used in this course. South Africa was the second country, and Rwanda, the third.

Now, I can say I’ve been to two out of the three countries, and hope to visit Rwanda for the wedding of one of my colleagues later this year.

Ethiopia is one of the two African countries considered to never have been colonized. It was briefly occupied by the Italians in the 1930s, but that was short lived. Italy attempted to invade in the 1890s, but was defeated by the Ethiopians only to attempt a second invasion under the command of Mussolini in the 1930s. The occupation was brief, lasting about five years, and the fact that Ethiopia has always had strong armed forces to fight off foreign invaders is a source of pride for many Ethiopians.

Another source of pride for many Ethiopians is the documented history stemming from 4th century BC. This is evidenced by the sophisticated architecture of ancient kingdoms in the northern part of Ethiopia and the origin story of the ruling elites. The story was that the royalty of Ethiopia descended from the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon from the Old Testament. There are even villages in the Northern areas that are comprised of the descendants of the early Israelites, now most notably called the Ethiopian Jews.

It seems many Ethiopians I talked to saw themselves as quite similar to Muslims and Jews. The Ethiopian Orthodox religion follows the Old Testament closely, even to the point of segregating the sexes when entering the rock churches for service. Men proceed on one side, and women on the other. Ethiopians follow the Grigorian calendar and use a different time system that starts over at dawn and dusk. Another surprise was the architecture of the churches, which seemed to mirror the shape of mosques. Even the chanting in early mornings at the break of dawn in preparation for Ethiopian Christmas in early January reminded me of the Islamic influences of Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania.

Addis Ababa is a bustling, vibrant city with a strong arts, jazz and religious scene. I attended a jazz concert on New Years’ Eve and toured art galleries in the city center. The city is also under heavy construction, including a large light rail built by the Chinese and set to open in 2016, as well as many large buildings throughout the city. This seemed to be welcomed by all the Ethiopians I spoke to, since construction was synonymous with investment and growth for their country.

Unlike in Zambia, where many of my friends who lived in the socialist times under Kaunda expressed a sense of nostalgia for an era of the past, most everyone I spoke to in Ethiopia expressed disdain for the Mengistu communist regime. It was clearly a fascist regime, and many Ethiopians also referred to it as the “socialist” regime – a dark period which stood in contrast to the much-happier, and liberating, capitalist period of modern times. One woman I spoke to said that living in the 70s and 80s was full of suffering; just surviving was a miracle. There were no shops or bitiks now sprinkled throughout the city. Addis was a dry, drab and dark place. Now, she said, she can make her dreams a reality and sees much promise in the future of Addis in the next 20 years.

Having traveled to many African countries, I think what makes Ethiopia unique is the pervasive optimism of the people. Perhaps it is because they emerged from a violent and oppressive period after the deposition of Emperor Halie Salessie and during the Mengistu regime until the early 1990s that any situation pales in comparison to the suffering of that time. Or perhaps their spirituality contributes to a sense of optimism for the future.

Regardless of the reason, they have every reason to be optimistic. After all, they have witnessed tremendous growth in terms of shops opening up for business in Addis, new roads and forms of transport being built, rising prices of flats and houses in the city that remain relatively affordable, and increased investments in businesses by foreigners and the powerful and rich Ethiopian diaspora. The changes they have witnessed have been drastic and quite positive. Although there is still poverty, many of the Ethiopians I befriended emphasized the attainability of their dreams. Especially for the youth, the future seems bright, despite the challenges of unemployment and rising costs in the city.

That’s why many Ethiopians I spoke to were optimistic about the future for themselves and for posterity. I immensely enjoyed visiting Addis, making friends there, and learning so much about the history, the Amharic language, the Orthodox religion, the food, the cultures, the division between the North and South, the UNESCO heritage sites, and so many facets and layers of the country. There is much to learn from Ethiopia and her dignified, refined and generous people.