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Global Empathy

25 October 2011 6 Comments

Ali Mabardi

Ali Mabardi

I didn’t speak the language or understand the cultural nuances, and hadn’t ever witnessed such extreme poverty. I was uncomfortable and immediately started to miss my life in Denver, CO.”


As I stood in line at the airport, waiting to check my bags, I couldn’t squelch my nerves. I had chosen to travel to a country I never thought I would visit and knew little about, but there was no turning back now. I was on my way to Ethiopia. My anxiety didn’t diminish as I sat in the back of a dusty van, being chauffeured through the streets of Addis Ababa, and was instructed to remain indifferent to the droves of mothers, children, and severely handicapped people who repeatedly approached me, pleading for anything I could give them. I didn’t speak the language or understand the cultural nuances, and hadn’t ever witnessed such extreme poverty. I was uncomfortable and immediately started to miss my life in Denver, CO.

We traveled from the populated and urban capital city to the northern region of Tigray and the very small, rural town of Edaga Arbi, where one dirt road led in and out, the school we came to assist was a three-mile hike into the hills, electricity was a luxury, and hot water, or running water at all, was nonexistent. We discovered quickly this town was completely unfamiliar with foreigners. Any time we left the hotel compound, children would run into their houses yelling, “Forengi!!, forengi!!” (foreigner in the language of Tigrinya) and inevitably a crowd would gather and begin to faithfully follow us down the street. Some brave children would approach us, hold our hands, and try to teach us words in Tigrinya, giggling at our attempts to articulate the difficult accent. Teenagers and adults would stare at us curiously as we toured the small town, occasionally taking our pictures with their omnipresent cell phones. Even though I knew the stares and crowds just emerged from a fierce curiosity, I still couldn’t shake the feeling of annoyance. Walking anywhere was impossible, my personal space was constantly infiltrated, communication was virtually impossible, and it felt as if there was nothing I could do.

Nothing except change my attitude. The moment that things shifted for me was when I began to actually learn about the people I had been encountering daily. They immediately stopped being bystanders and started being human beings with their own histories and narratives, different than mine, yet with the same wants and needs creating threads of commonalities. I began to discover our shared humanity.


The woman who led us up and down the hill to the school was now Germanesh, a courageous woman in her 30s whose teenage son had drowned in a well years earlier and whose daughter couldn’t go to college because she didn’t pass the necessary exams. Germanesh invited us over to her one-room house to share the little food she had available and we met her baby, who lay sleeping quietly, despite the numerous flies and extreme heat. While we were all strapped up in our waterproof and protective boots, she hiked the rocky, dusty terrain in bare feet. Even when we got stuck in a torrential downpour, she just plowed through the mud, ignoring a thorn that was wedged deeply in her foot the entire time.

The man who came to visit us at our hotel, and who we could never understand, became Abraha, a young, award-winning teacher who created a small, local public library using extremely limited resources, giving students a place to study, access to books, and ultimately, the gift of knowledge. We gave him some of the books we couldn’t use for the school library, and on our last day in Edaga Arbi he brought us a parting gift of freshly baked bread with “Thank you” on the top constructed out of strands of dough.

The young girl working at our hotel was named Salam. She was 16 and forced to move from her home in a nearby city because her father had died and her mother couldn’t care for her. She had to work in the hotel instead of attending school, yet curiously spoke some English and was happy to have some female companionship. When I gave her a copy of In Style magazine, her eyes lit up and she was fascinated by all the colorful images and strange material items crowding the pages.

Children in Ethiopia

The children who followed us around began to tell us their names. As we tried to create a new, shared language, we discovered Michael Jackson, 50 Cent, and Tupac are apparently universally comprehensible. Despite our extreme differences, we found something in common, something to build on, and it worked.

I tell you this story because there is a peacebuilding message attached. Building peace requires caring about others, learning their unique narratives, and developing empathy for their situations. Empathy is difficult to understand or feel if you never experience your own version of other people’s narratives, if you never walk a mile – or more – in their proverbial shoes. Empathy requires travel. We need to see the world and visit places we never considered, because then we can begin to comprehend the various worlds that exist beyond our carefully crafted, pleasant lives. Everyone has a story to tell. The question is, do we care enough to ask?

This article is reposted from Ali’s blog Critical Peace.

The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Peace X Peace.

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6 Comments to “Global Empathy”
  1. Mary Liepold says:

    This is terrific, Ali! Just one question. You say “Empathy requires travel.” Do you really believe that people who spend all their lives in one place cannot develop the capacity for empathy? My experience suggests there are other ways as well.

  2. tessa rose says:

    Mary I agree that there are other ways to develop a capacity for empathy without travelling – but it’s extremely limited.

    It is only when you begin to travel that you understand how truly limited that capacity is.

    You can share another’s feelings (of sorrow for example) but you cannot identify with them unless you have experienced circumstances similar to theirs.

    What’s worse, when you are experiencing it from a place of comfort you’re even further from a real sense of capacity. To Ali’s point, when in the misdt of extreme poverty she wanted immediately to return home (to her comfy place).

    When you are dropped in the middle of a desperate situation such as extreme poverty. that’s when you come full circle!


    P.S Ali this was an honest and thoughful read! Look forward to seeing more from you!

    • Alicia says:

      Thank you, Tessa! We always love this kind of thoughtful feedback.

      Another question, though. Isn’t it possible to learn empathy from one’s own suffering, and from the suffering of others (both poor and relatively affluent) in one’s home country?

  3. Tshepi says:

    Hey Ali, my eyes welled with tears as I read your story. Moreso because I have experienced what you wrote about I stayed around such people, my own mother is still that woman who travels miles and miles bare feet to go hoe or plough at the fields inthe scorching sun. By the way I am in Africa just at the Southern part of it ( South Africa). I stayed in the deep rural areas of Kwazulu Natal ( you may google it) in the area called Nqutu not far from Bloodriver and Isandlwana where history was made. I have made an huge improvement in my life however I still feel like I will wake up and be back in that life of poverty and lack again :) I have been involved with volunteering projects ( Orphans of HIV/AIDS) helping in alleviation of poverty and improving Education among women and girls in Johannesburg at the Squarter camps ( This where people live in Shacks without toilets ,running water and electricity). Its working but very slow because we need sponsors our own resources sometimes end along the way. I was attracted to this article by the HUMAN spirit and attitude that you have. I can only say be of good cheer, be courageous for in due course you will receive your rewards. aluta continua with Peace mission on earth. I would like hear more from a team of women who are spreading the Peace perhaps I can even host you in my country as well one day or meet one of you who is already here in SA working with you. A great initiative I admirer your courage to go to the country where nothing is familiar and still make a difference. You are one of the greatest people indeed. You are self-less which is scarce characteristic in the country where you come from. I smiled because I could relate when you say people were following you around, its the same thing even I go to my home village because I now drive and m a bit lighter in skin, wear clothes that are not so usual to them, I speak confidently in more than one languages,I understand completely I used to be one of those young girls who would chase after a vehicle following it and admiring whoever that was inside. My dream was one day I will be the one who can touch a white person and speak to that white person in their own language and make jokes and laugh together and guess what I accomplished that and more. So, please continue the great job supporting our continent and others. I am passionate about Africa. My dream now is to be part of the such mission work but I still have to overcome the fear of falling back to poverty. I have never travelled outside South Africa except for Lesotho. That is my next step in life. Thank you fro representing women in such a great manner. Keep touching lives and yours will be touched in a way you never imagined. May God increase your strength , love and provision for your needs. Much love Tshepi

  4. Ali Mabardi says:

    Thank you for all the wonderful comments!! I am SO sorry I haven’t been quick about responding. I guess I underestimate that my writing will elicit commentary sometimes, but I’m here now and am so grateful!

    Mary and Alicia –

    This piece was in no way intended to imply that people can’t develop and nurture empathy if they never get to travel because some people travel all over the world, but still only stay in their comfort zones while others remain in one place, for a variety of reasons, but can feel deeply for other people. I guess what I need to clarify is the type of person and travel matters too. This trip put me WAY out of my comfort zone and threw me into a situation where I was completely the outsider. I was forced to shift my attitude or I would have never realized the enormous benefits I could receive from people living completely different lives than myself. Being too comfortable can be stifling sometimes because then we don’t grow. What this trip did was make me realize that people all over the world basically want the same things for themselves and their families, no matter who they are or what living conditions they were born into. It made me want to make this world a better place, both abroad and in the US. This is what I meant when I named this Global Empathy? Does this answer your questions? Please let me know and I promise I’ll respond this time!

    Tshepi -

    WOW!! I can’t believe I didn’t read this earlier because it made my day!! I loved my experience in Ethiopia and would love to go to South Africa and help there as well. You have accomplished so much more than I ever will and that is incredible for yourself and and an inspiration to women around the world. I truly believe it is people like you who make this world a better place and I know you will make it out of South Africa someday so others can be inspired by you as well. Please let me know how I can help in any way with the work you do. Thank you so much for your comment and I’m so sorry it took me so long to respond.

  5. [...] Global Empathy describes how travel can develop empathy for others around the world. When it was published, I was asked the question, “Do you really believe that people who spend all their lives in one [...]

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