I was playing bocce with a close friend recently when he told me, “I can’t bring myself to watch any of your videos about Ethiopia.”
Now, I don’t care if my friends watch my videos or read my books; I don’t know much about their jobs and don’t expect them to know much about mine. But the specificity of the comment surprised me, so I asked him why, and he said, “Well, it’s all just so SAD.”
I understand it: It’s difficult to look directly at suffering. And the challenges of our own lives can be so overwhelming that at times it feels like there’s no room left to consider the vast and tangled challenges of absolute poverty. We have to look away. “It’s too much,” my friend said.
But my visit to Ethiopia wasn’t sad—at least not merely so. It was invigorating and encouraging. And sad. And by being unable to look away—at least for a short time—I had the opportunity to listen to extraordinary people who’d brought tremendous positive change to Ethiopia.
The successes of the past twenty years are truly unprecedented in human history: Child mortality in Ethiopia has dropped by two thirds. Agricultural yields are improving. More kids are in school, and more of those kids go on to attend college.
Those are all very encouraging developments, but for narratively oriented people like me, it can be hard to internalize statistics until you see what this change looks like for individuals and families. At the rural health care outposts I visited, women told me about how radically the health care options for their children had improved. It was easier to get vaccines and antibiotics and rehydration solutions. Fewer of their kids were dying of malaria and pneumonia. Better family planning options allowed them to make choices about when to have kids. And while every mother I spoke to had been born at home, almost all of their kids had been born in a health care facility.
Maternal death is still far too common in Ethiopia, and infant mortality is still far too high. Ethiopia is a nation of 90 million people with just seven neonatologists. There are no CT scanners or MRI machines. Most of the people I met walked for miles twice a week to get water. And people die, every day, of easily preventable and treatable illnesses. But Ethiopia is also a nation with a growing middle class and an increasingly educated population (the University of Addis Ababa now has more than 40,000 students).
When we assume that stories about developing world countries will be merely sad, we do ourselves a great disservice, because the truth—as Oscar Wilde put it—is rarely pure and never simple. I emerged from my time in Ethiopia feeling not discouraged but energized. I was energized by people like Bill Gates and Sue Desmond-Hellmann, whose focus and commitment were inspiring. But mostly, I was energized by the parents and students and health workers I met in Ethiopia, who have helped bring radical improvement to their communities. There is, of course, so much still to do. But we shouldn’t look away or feel discouraged. We should get to work.