My interest in the relational dynamics flowing from material and social disparity in close social proximity was probably inevitable. (1) As a child of Canadian missionary parents, I spent my formative years in Ethiopia, where I absorbed the values, assumed the entitlements, and confronted the burden of missionary material and social privilege. The boarding school that I attended stood as an unapologetic bastion of Western privilege, with Ethiopians permanently relegated to kitchen, laundry, garden, and custodial roles. At the tinkle of a small bell at the head table, a bare-footed servant would patter in from the kitchen, white apron barely concealing his own threadbare clothes. The school was surrounded by a chain-link fence, intended to keep the entitled in and the unentitled out. Aware that we were members of a privileged superior class, we came to accept, expect, and sometimes demand the obsequious deference shown to us by "them," including adults. In our play and discussion, Ethiopians were subjects of curiosity, sometimes the objects of ridicule, and occasionally admired for their stoicism in the face of poverty and persecution; but they were seldom friends, and even more rarely social peers.
Continuing my education in Canada, it would be fourteen years before I returned to Ethiopia--this time, in 1974, as a missionary myself. My wife and I were assigned to Tigre Province, in the north, where we administered a relief and development team trying to assist survivors of the famine that would soon precipitate the collapse of Ethiopia's ancient monarchy. Highly critical of what I perceived to be the Western mission modus operandi, with its deeply engrained entitlement assumptions, I ensured that each member of the team--an international mix of some sixty-five medical doctors and nurses, hydrologists and water engineers, agriculturalists and mechanics, drivers and cooks, evangelists and interpreters--received an equal share of the financial pot. We worked and lived together both in the field and at the home base. I regret to recall that my not-always-subliminal attitude vis-a-vis fellow missionaries sometimes bordered on the pharisaical (see Luke 18:9-14).
Following the murder in 1975 of Ethiopia's last emperor, the venerable Haile Selassie, there was a noticeable shift in media portrayals of Western foreigners. As the Derg, the military junta, began to move the country from oppressive feudalism to enlightened socialism, the euphoria of its citizens was palpable. For the first time in several millennia, peasant farmers could contemplate the prospect of owning their farms and reaping 100 percent of what they sowed. Absentee landlords were to be a thing of the past. Millions faced the happy prospect of being literate as students poured out of the cities and towns and into the countryside to teach reading, writing, and socialism. Students, in turn, would learn both to respect the peasantry and to do hard manual labor.
Following our stint in northern Ethiopia, we were assigned to Kaffa Province in the south, where coffee is thought to have originated. Here we worked with a number of established congregations within several days' walking distance of our home in Bonga. Our primary assignment was to support the work of evangelists serving under the auspices of the Kale Heywet (Word of Life) denomination. The church, sensing an ideal opportunity for service in the emerging stress on literacy, seconded Christian teachers and their families to assist in congregational and community literacy in the hinterlands of the province. Poverty-stricken local communities were encouraged to construct simple, single-room schools, for which the mission agency would supply corrugated roofing and blackboards, while teachers engaged by the Kale Heywet Church would provide instruction. As the presumably neutral foreigner, residing not far from a small town that boasted both a post office and a telephone, the foreign missionary was to be a liaison between the Kale Heywet Church and the literacy teachers, serving as their communications and financial conduit. …