Reflections on culture

I sit hand in hand with the wife of the head of department in Hawassa hospital at an Ethiopian culture night – which, for the  uninitiated, consists of a man playing some sort of traditional fiddle, a woman dancing her way around the room insulting each of the patrons in turn through song whilst two tall, lanky boys jump around and vibrate their entire body in a truly incomprehensible fashion. 

But I digress. As I sat there holding the hand of this beautiful young woman and having her husband throw his arm around me each time his excitement and general joie de vivre bubbled over, I couldn’t help reflect on the warmth with which our new friends had embraced us, and the stark differences between our two cultures.

Now don’t get me wrong, my own department back home are a social bunch and if we had visitors we would be sure to take them out one night, maybe two if there was time, and show them a good time. But from the moment we first arrived in our hotel in Hawassa we were met by the three consultants we would work with and we were instantly enveloped in a feeling of belonging to their family. 

We took a long lunch break together every day, where we were shown many traditional dishes and often shared food. In Ethiopia it is the tradition that friends and family eat communally out of one shared dish. Ephrem, one of the consultants, told me he has never eaten from a separate plate to his wife since they were married. In addition we were taken out for dinner each night to local restaurants to sample delicacies from delicious BBQ fish to spicy Kitfo (raw beef mince with goats cheese). We were taken to traditional coffee ceremonies and best of all invited into their homes to spend time with their families and relax. 

But it was not only the quantity of this time that they shared with us that struck me, but rather a specific quality that I find difficult to put into words. It was the sensation that they were not showing guests around their town, but celebrating the arrival of close friends and making the most of us all being able to spend our time together. It came from a place of love and warmth. And this from people who had been perfect strangers to most of us before the trip.

This made me reflect more widely on the differences between this culture in Ethiopia and that in the UK, where I live. In Ethiopia families still live together in close and often extended groups. They make the effort to eat together and many will invite friends and neighbours to join them regularly, often daily. Time is set aside to enjoy not only the food but the company of others. Coffee is also highly respected in Ethiopia and the drinking of it involves a ceremony which some families perform up to three times daily, and this is also a social affair.

Of course modern careers have made inroads in these customs there, just as they have here. Particularly amongst doctors it is common to travel far for university and then again for training positions and for consultant jobs. What is different there though is that much of that communal spirit remains. Whilst our colleagues were far from their own families, they had created their own community in Hawassa. All of the consultants lived closely together in hospital accommodation – largely due to the very high property prices in the country- and many would go home each lunch to eat with their families and would invite any friends that wanted to join them. In the evenings they would gather in a single house to eat, drink coffee and simply relax and enjoy each other’s company.

In many ways these differences are so great, such a completely different outlook and way of life, that it is difficult to make direct comparisons. But a topic that came up time and again between us was the way we treat the elderly in our respective societies. As a group of different healthcare professionals we have all met countless patients who have no family, or have family that has moved away, who can go for days and even weeks without seeing another soul. People whose only human interactions are with their time-pressured carers or strangers serving them in shops. People for whom a hospital admission offers respite from a long and lonely existence. 

For our Ethiopian colleagues this was unthinkable. In their extended family networks the elderly are cherished and respected. They fulfill a purpose by looking after the children in the familial clan to allow the younger ones to work, and they help out with some communal meal preparations or household chores. Even in more ‘modern’ families it is expected when your family members get old they will be brought to live with you, or if this is not possible then with your children or extended relatives. So taboo is it to neglect your elderly that if you do so your entire community will turn against you. Your friends will no longer visit and your family will be shamed. 

Every culture in the world has its upsides, its downsides and its exceptions. But having the opportunity to travel should also allow us the opportunity to learn from other cultures and from the things they do well. The gift of travelling is that we are able to broaden our minds and enhance our experiences. I know there are vast cultural differences that make it difficult to replicate this model exactly back home, but it has certainly caused me to stop and reflect on the largely independent and often isolated model of modern like in the UK, and to try to think of ways I can incorporate the warmth and sense of community I experienced in Ethiopia into my own life. 

I would love to know your thoughts on this emotive topic, and also your experiences of these aspects of family life and community spirit in different cultures around the world. Feel free to reach out via email or comment below to share your experience with us all.