During my travels in East Africa I was fortunate enough to spend time in Addis Ababa, the thriving capital city of Ethiopia. The Rift Valley, which runs up the center of the nation is what many anthropologists believe to be the Cradle of Civilization. It is where Lucy (Austrapenthicus Afarensis), the earliest full humanoid skeleton, was found and is believed to be the area where we evolved into the upright (and upstanding!) people we are today. I spent four vacation days in Ethiopia en route to Rwanda in early May 2008.
Ethiopian Airlines is probably the best airline in Subsaharan Africa, and it is what I flew time and time again while in the continent. The airport in Addis is a modern, fully functional operation rivaling those in the West. Walking through the dark airport terminal after a 10 pm. arrival, I approached the customs officer with the same caution that I had in every other African airport. The man took my passport, looked up at me, and with a big smile said, "Welcome to Your Motherland". I was awestruck.
Growing up in America and around American culture, there is an underlying sense of difference. Whether it is race, culture, creed, social standing, or religion, Americans (and plenty of other nationalities) are very aware of these differences. But in Ethiopia (yes, I realize the generalization) I experienced something new. I was treated like I belonged there. During the four days of that particular vacation I made friends, went on car trips into the countryside, visited churches older than the Vatican (including an amazing Easter service in Axum), and all the while I stopped looking over my shoulder.
When I met locals, they offered to take me to restaurants, pizzerias, to the Palace where Haile Selassie kept his lions, to the National Museum, and to see the bones of Lucy. They didn't expect gratuity, as in most African cities. They were not "paid" friend/tour guides for the week, but real people. We discussed politics, women, the best places to buy a beer, everything. Except for the fact that they were (obviously) very poor, black, Orthodox Christian, whatever. It didn't matter.
They did not have to attend these "culture awareness" clinics that major companies sponsorfor their employees, and they didn't need an "I have a dream" speech. Its true, there are so many differences between the two, and Martin Luther King Jr. turned the direction of America out of a blinding darkness of fear. But nonetheless, in Ethiopia, it was just different. You didn't need to be forced or coerced from any point of view. Everyone was equal, everyone from the same place. Mother Africa.