My new eyes: Our family’s year in Addis

Addis Ayne (I-nee) means “My Addis eyes” (or, generously translated, my view of Addis) and also “my new eyes.” This is a blog about our experiences moving with our children to Addis Ababa for a year. It aspires to be a space to reflect about learning to see the world—the place where we come from, the place where we live now, and all the places that are connected to them—by paying attention to our children’s experiences.

My name is Jennifer Riggan (for anyone who doesn’t know me.) I am a political, educational and socio-cultural anthropologist. As anthropologists, we are trained, through our mentors and professors, extensive reading and practice, to learn and see the world in a particular way. Although there are many definitions of ethnography and types of ethnography, to me it is a disciplined and compassionate research method that values intuition, empathy and emotion, but then uses them scientifically to build hypotheses and rigorously observe, record and look for patterns to develop or alter these hypotheses. In this process we “make the familiar strange” and also make the strange familiar. Anthropology has always been a discipline (albeit at times misguided, colonial, patronizing and problematic) that has tried to understand human society, culture and behavior by studying in places that are unfamiliar. In a globalizing world, anthropology is less about going off to the far flung corners of the world to study “others” who are “different” from us and much more about studying interconnections, interdependencies and inequalities across difference, space and time. However, as anthropologists we seldom explicitly consider how our children and our families shape how we learn to see the world, and yet, any parent knows that you cannot see the world in the same way once you have children. Our children’s observations, experiences, needs, desires and fears deeply shape our own worldview.

This blog is both an attempt to keep in touch with family and friends while we are gone, but also an effort to honestly integrate my children’s experiences into my own as a researcher, professor and wife. We always develop “new eyes” during our travels and our forays into “the field.” Indeed, in a globalizing world where “the field” is everywhere, we can always develop new eyes if we choose to.

For my husband, the children will help him develop new eyes, or a view of Addis, in a very different way. He is an Eritrean who grew up in Addis Ababa and lived there until 1991. One of the reasons we chose Addis as the site of my sabbatical is because of this. And yet, a troubled period of war and political strife, accompanied by rapid and widespread urban development in Addis, mean that the Addis Ababa he grew up with is an echo of the current city. His Addis is largely a memory, but a memory that is occasionally manifest in the layout of streets in the older neighborhoods, in a familiar café or shop, and in the familiar faces of remaining family and friends, some of whom he runs across spontaneously in the old neighborhood (a neighborhood that was recently flattened and its residents relocated in preparation for new construction.)

The city is strange to him, as it is to me, albeit in more familiar ways. Having lived in the US for ten years, he has changed a great deal. As with me, his entire life as a parent has been proscribed by the political economy of raising children in United States, something which we are alternately thankful for and terrified of. But despite this blurring of familiar and strange, this trip is something of a homecoming if a distorted one. Our children’s eyes, their perceptions of space, place, time and relationships we hope will help us see, in new ways, where we are going, where we have come from and all the spaces in between.

 

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