It’s my sixth day in Ethiopia. This is my third visit to the country. I am here as part of the team from the University of South Africa (Unisa) for the Ethiopia Master and PhD Programme. The Programme, which started a while back, is now led by Professor Kitty Dumont. The German woman deserves an award for bringing back life to this project. Sounds like the Programme was only one in name before she was hired. A student just stopped by while I am writing this and told me that the information he had before registering for his PhD in Development Studies was that Unisa Professors were difficult to communicate with. These Ethiopian are so careful and nice. I think what he doesn’t want to tell to another Professor from Unisa is that we are crap.
I wonder why he decided to register with the University in the first place. The truth is the Project is beset by a number of problems, anyone can see. According to Professor Dumont, the 2013 intake of PhD students from Ethiopia is approximately 140. One hundred and forty new PhD students! That is just bloody incredible. And to be informed that some of these students do not have supervisors, even after trying several times to let the respective departments in which they are registered about their lack of supervision, is simply criminal. Students don’t receive regular communication. Basically, they are just kept on the books then aren’t they. How can my university accept students without supervisors?
It doesn’t seem like the University appreciates what an opportunity they have here and is wasting. And that opportunity is, put simply, to make the University great. To shape Africa. Not just to graduate students, but to know when the students leave with their degrees that they will have a philosophy and expertise with the stamp of Unisa. I don’t think the leaders of the University fully appreciate what they can do here.
That said, it is my impression that since Professor Dumont took over the Ethiopia M&D project there is more than mere good feeling towards. There is light and movement. The students are getting the attention they deserve. The attention that they pay for, in fact. They are learning something. The 16 Unisa Professors and 4 Librarians whom Dumont brought here are working hard all day each and every day – and doing some touristy shopping for Ethiopian coffee and scarfs and leather items every available chance too, of course. She can be hard and brusque, but she gets things done. The faculty is giving lectures on research methods, techniques, and other stuff. There has also been a State of the Science lecture – given by one Kopano Ratele on the topic Male Homicide. Every afternoon we have group meetings aimed at assisting students with their topics and strengthening their proposal. It’s exhausting, and totally inspiring. I had forgotten how absorbing it can be to talk to students on a daily basis. And, let me, say some of these students are going to be amazing, all they need is an interested promoter. I have one in mind who is political science call Taye Demissie Beshi. He also doesn’t have a supervisor. But you listen to him for 2 minutes and you know he is a chart-buster.
All this belongs in a report to the University. But I couldn’t contain it no more. What I really wanted to talk about was the beauty of Ethiopian women and why I find it hard to see.
On Sunday sitting on the balcony of Sombara Hotel – I don’t recommend the hotel, it’s bad – and chatting over drinks with the astrophysicist Lerothodi Lapula Leeuw and the social psychologist Dumont, the subject of the beauty of Ethiopian women came up. Professor Leeuw was the original source of the subject of discussion. I guess even physicists are interested in human beauty, not just of the galaxies. They have to look down at some point, don’t they.
Leeuw had mentioned the previous day something about the beauty of Ethiopian women. It was not the first time I had heard such a comment. I did not react immediately. Not because I am uninterested in African women. Quite the contrary. This may be a blog on new African men. But my interest in women, and African women especially, is something else entirely. It is an interest that is, shall I say, at once life-threatening and life-giving. I both love and fear African women. For Christ sake, I owe my life to one. It is from African women I learned to say my name the way it should be said. Even though I get a strange sensation when a French woman says my name, with that oh so emphasis on the first syllable, it is when a Sotho woman says my name that I feel exposed, naked, known. So, the subject of the beauty of African women is one I have an abiding personal interest in, not only a professional one.
While we sat on the balcony I then confessed that I can’t see the famed beauty of the women of this country. I don’t mean they are ugly. In fact, I know that they should be beautiful. They must be beautiful. Their hair. Their colour. Their slim figures – I have not seen many corpulent Ethiopian women. Yet I am unable to experience their beauty, to feel it. And I’m wondering why I cannot readily see what many people seem to readily see. The only answer I can give is that beauty is not something entirely in people’s physicality. It is something we learn to see. As we say, it is in the eye of the beholder, beauty is.
Still, this has intrigued me. Each day I stare at the women. I question myself why I am not getting it, why I am not experiencing the excitement that beauty generates in us. What is it that I am not seeing? What am I looking for? Of course, I realised quite sometime ago that it was through television, movies and advertisement that I learned what a beautiful white woman looks like. It feels natural to think of Marylin Monroe, Katherine Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman, Elizabeth Taylor, or Meg Ryan, Natalie Portman, Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Mena Suvari. But there is nothing natural about it. Like most people, I was taught what white beauty looks like.
The same is true about black beauty. And that I learned it from day one, perhaps even before that. I didn’t have to see on tv or movies. But that Gabrielle Union. Oh, and Sade Adu. And Thandie Newton. See, movies and tv again. But before television there was Christina from Maboloka. And Selina Kgolokoane. And Nkele Kokoropo, when I was sixteen, whom I met for the first time on New Year’s Day in 1986 before I left for university. Amen.