Growing up, I was a finicky eater. In trying to get me to finish dinner my mother reminded me nightly that “there are starving children in Ethiopia.”
The attention granted to the Ethiopian famine in the 1980s by people like my mother and events like Live Aid was a blessing and a curse. A blessing in a sense that it shed light on a humanitarian crisis and inspired international aid. My classmates and I ate rice for lunch to help build empathy (and save our pennies) for children half a world away. On the other hand, the images we were bombarded with ensured that my generation would have a haunting impression of the country – one many of us have yet to modify today.
The knowledge we have about places, people, situations, or things – what psychologists call schemas – influences the way we perceive, organize, and interpret information about the world around us. Once we’ve had an experience, we derive a set of expectations about what that event will be like in the future. Schemas then influence subsequent experience by (1) directing conscious attention to our experience every time they are violated while (2) implicitly noting every time our expectations are met. This ensures that we look for explanations for exceptions, making those exceptions memorable, while still reinforcing the ‘general rule.’
My expectations of Ethiopia were challenged in September when I flew Ethiopian Airways to Kilimanjaro. The in-flight magazine presented a dramatically different picture than the outdated one that was stuck in my head. On its glossy pages, I saw a land of myth, history, natural beauty, and cultural riches. Here was a country that was thriving even as its neighbors in the horn of Africa struggled – once again – through famine.
A month before our spring break I was still at a loss for where to travel. I knew that I wouldn’t stay home but I didn’t want to go far. I also didn’t have the energy or time to figure out somewhere totally new. But as I scanned my mind for possibilities, the glossy pages from Ethiopian airways stood out. And a four hour direct flight to a destination that promised 13 months of sunshine was appealing. But the surprising (and less well ingrained) information from Ethiopian Airlines competed with my long held expectations; I wanted to go, but not having traveled alone in sub-Saharan Africa, I was a bit intimidated. I compromised with myself by booking through a company who arranged hotels, guides, and domestic flights. As it turned out, that was totally unnecessary and somewhat frustrating to my independent (read: control-freakish) nature. Still, having done so allowed me to set aside any uncertainty and simply look forward to a relaxing visit.
And it was an amazing visit. Despite my expectations of brutal conditions, the landscape and weather were beautiful. And I realized that while I had clear expectations of the harshness of life, I had few expectations for the people who presumably lived it. This allowed me to build an impression from the ground up. In fact, people in Ethiopia seem to have an admirable sense of optimism. They were happy and healthy, and I respected their visible work ethic.
But it is still a developing country, home to all of the challenges that the term implies. Walking through town (any town), I was constantly accompanied by children who would ask me relentless questions as they slowly unveiled their own life stories. Inevitably, they would request a school book (that they couldn’t afford), sponsorship (to finish school), or dinner (they were hungry). But they did so in a way I respected – as intuitive psychologists. They slowly built up feelings of empathy and attachment – the request was never immediate nor was it ever for cash. Everything that was requested was in some small way earned; more like an exchange than a handout. More importantly, if I said no, they still smiled, allowed me to take photos, and left me in peace. But the request became something else I learned to expect, and I braced for it any time I heard a small voice say hello and ask me where I was from.
With the exception of a bout of food poisoning from being, perhaps, too un-finicky in my food choices, my experiences in Ethiopia were overwhelmingly positive. I loved the people and their easy smiles, the land and its otherworldly shape, and the dramatic length of the light in the mornings. But schemas, once formed, are slow to change. Even as we consciously and deliberately build a new set of ideas about a person, place, or thing, our unconscious memory store keeps record of the original schema, bolstered by the experiences that supported it – in my case, by children asking for food. The majority of the week, as my stomach slowly recovered from illness, I struggled to eat a fraction of the huge portions of food I was given. When I couldn’t, I immediately felt guilty. All I could think was “you have to finish it, there are starving children in Ethiopia.” Thankfully – in reality and in my mind – that’s becoming more the exception than the rule.