It’s never surprising for a Sudanese to be mistaken for Ethiopian. Anyone who has been around East Africans knows that our features are very similar, so much so that even we can’t tell each other apart sometimes.
It’s happened to me hundreds of times. For the most part, it’s awesome, because through the misunderstanding you can make good friends, and I like being mistaken for a nationality that’s famous for having the prettiest women. The worst part would probably be being Sudanese on a flight to Addis Abeba and everyone thinking your parents failed at raising you because you don’t know how to speak Amharic (which is hilarious, until you realize that no one believes you when you say you’re Sudanese and the whole plane is giving you the side eye).
But in Sudan, this can have different connotations, and they’re not always positive. A large percentage of Ethiopians (and Eritreans), who moved here as refugees or through recruitment agencies, work in the service industry. So when someone thinks you’re Habesha, the implication is usually that you’re ‘the help’, which also wouldn’t be a problem had it not been that our society – like many others across the world – still views the service industry as lesser-than.
(Sidenote: this is why our hospitality industry is in shambles – ironic, considering the Sudanese people are famous for being hospitable and welcoming. But I digress.)
Beyond the mental reflex, this unfortunate association has seeped into the language, with the word ‘maid’ becoming synonymous with ‘Ethiopian’.
Hence the title of this post: *she’s so cute, is she your Ethiopian [maid]?
It was December of 2008. I had just moved back to Sudan and it was my cousin’s wedding, so I was acting as assistant to the bride (a coveted position in Sudanese culture), helping her get through the preparations leading up to her big day(s), keeping her company, and keeping her calm. A lot of people didn’t know who I was, and because my cousin and I don’t look even close to alike, they couldn’t really place me (“Is she family? Is she hired help? Who is she!”). In turn, I didn’t bother to clarify who I was, preferring to concentrate on my duties.
It was the day after the wedding, and I could finally go back home. My mother, the mother of the bride , a random unrelated lady, and my other aunt (mom’s sister) were sitting in a room, talking. My mom’s sister calls me into the room, “Sara, jeebi lay moya 3alaik Allah” (please get me some water). I do as I’m told, come back with a glass of water on a tray, and serve it to my aunt. As I’m about to leave, I hear the lady say,
“7alaata, di 7abashiyatkum?“
I hurry out of the room before the look of disgust spreads to the rest of my face, chased by the sound of my aunt’s unmistakable cackle.
There are several reasons why I was disgusted:
a. The assumption that I *must* be a maid because I brought my aunt a glass of water. My mother’s subsequent suggestion as to why the woman assumed I was the maid: “You’re dark, so you’re obviously not related to us. Also, you’re wearing pants, and your hair is loose and uncovered, so you’re obviously not Sudanese <sarcastic smirk>”.
b. The idea that because I’m darker-skinned than my family, we couldn’t possibly be related. Or the idea that being darker automatically makes me a servant. I was confused – what country are we in, exactly? Since when was there this color-based caste system? Is this new, or was it always there and I just never noticed? (I’m not even going to bother to address the latter part of the explanation)
c. Most disgusting of all, the casual substitution of the word ‘maid’ with ‘7abashiya‘ (Ethiopian woman), as if to say that Ethiopian women’s sole reason for existence was to be maids. Fresh off the boat, I was appalled at the stride in which everyone took this term, and the nonchalance with which it was used in the first place. The linguistic implication of ownership in the term “7abashiyatkum” (your Ethiopian) made my stomach turn. For a while after, I made it a point to tell stories of the Ethiopian girls I went to school with, not only to expand this ludicrously limited view, but also in an attempt to rid myself of the guilt of having been a part of such a situation. The looks of surprise I got at the new perspective I was offering were stroke-inducing.
Khartoum is steadily moving away from homogeneity as the number of Ethiopians (and other nationalities) living in it increases at an awesome for some, alarming for others, rate. There is at least one generation of young Ethiopians who were born and raised in Sudan, and I wonder how we as a society will view this generation, but also how they will view themselves within it. Will they feel at home? Will they be able to find their own paths, or will they be pigeonholed by society’s view of what their parents might be?
We are so cement-set in our view of Ethiopians as maids, rickshaw drivers and restaurant staff that we are unable to see them as anything else. We deal with Ethiopians on a daily basis, and yet we know nothing about them. We have the most intimate of contact with them, and yet we couldn’t be more distant.
And whose fault is that?