Notes from Addis: Departure

Elizabeth Habte Wold, "Africa Rising"
Elizabeth Habte Wold, “Africa Rising”

My journey to Ethiopia has come to an end. I look forward to coming back because Africa is rising for me. Not the sentimental Africa that has filled my historical imagination of suspended roots of Yoruba, Fon or Mende, but rather a real Africa, an experienced Africa that surely extends beyond a myopic idea of Africa.  I’ve known this as I’ve been studying the arts of Africa for nearly twenty years and teaching on the complexities and dynamism of the continent for the last four. My concentration has always been on Western and Central Africa and the diaspora, primarily in the areas most involved and affected by the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.

Opening lecture in a series on the Arts of Africa at the Alle School of Fine Arts & Design, January 9, 2013. Photo by David Teng Olsen.
Opening lecture in a series on the Arts of Africa at the Alle School of Fine Arts & Design, January 9, 2013. Photo by David Teng Olsen.

As an art historian who specializes in Art of the African Diaspora, this was an important trip for me. I had so many opportunities to investigate in my lectures, in one-on-one conversations with artists, and in seeing artwork a crucial question: what is AFRICAN art? The complexities of this inquiry extend beyond just claiming that it is work produced on the continent. Truth be told, I’m not sure what my expectations were of art of Ethiopia before I arrived in the country. I hadn’t studied the arts of the horn of Africa extensively. The desire and ability to engage the arts community in Addis Ababa has been a privilege. See: Notes on Addis: Art in the Making and Notes on Addis: Netsa Arts Village.

Alle School of Fine Arts & Design, Addis Ababa University

Elizabeth Habte Wold

Behailu Behazbih

After eating a family Christmas dinner, dancing to traditional music with new friends, smelling the mountain air of Yetebon, and greeting artists from all backgrounds, my view of “Africa”—of Ethiopia—has changed. So, I depart Ethiopia grateful for the opportunity to be its guest as a scholar, as a colleague, as a friend.


I’m thrilled to be returning to my husband and children. For those of you that have followed this journey, you know I was extremely nervous (See “The Grind: Going to Ethiopia (Or Can Parents Have it All?)”). The time away from my family has provided me, yes, a much-needed break from the daily stresses. But, boy, did I miss my husband and children. I return refreshed by the warmth of the Ethiopian sun and the coolness of the temperate nights (snow awaits me in Wellesley). While I’ve shown the prettiest pictures possible, I also witnessed abject poverty and the struggles of developing country that is indeed rapidly developing. I return more determined to treasure the health of my children, the comfort of my home, and the security of both my and my husband’s jobs.

Thank you to our friends and neighbors who continuously keep the Greene Team afloat and my children happier than they would be on their own. The “village” back home came through like champions! Different families pulled through with various play dates, emergency pickups from school, and even a sleepover! I knew we couldn’t get through this period without them.

Of course, as parents, my husband and I have both been able to see that we are capable of more than what we thought we could handle individually and more appreciative of what we can do together. We know, too, that we’d rather not manage this life of ours apart. Thank you, Simeon. You are my hero!

I will write more on Ethiopia in the months to come. I promise a post on the FOOD. In the meantime, when I return home, I’ll have some catching up to do with my family and friends. Classes at Wellesley College begin soon. So, once again, if you don’t hear from me through this venue, its because I’ll be on the grind.

Thank you for allowing me to share my rants, victories, frustrations, and smiles along the way! I took comfort knowing that I was not ever alone here. Until the next adventure…

Good Night and Good Luck, Addis!
Goodbye, Addis!

The Grind: Going to Ethiopia (or Can Parents Have it All?)


I’m leaving on January 1 for Ethiopia to teach at the Alle School of Fine Arts & Design at Addis Ababa University. Exciting? Yes. Nervous? Oh, yes! Why, it’s a fabulous opportunity to meet students and faculty in a gorgeous country. I get to not only teach art history, but also, I suspect, learn so much about the art, culture, and cuisine of the region. I will be there alongside my Wellesley College colleagues, filmmaker and native Ethiopian, Salem Mekuria, and artist David Olsen. I tagged along with Salem to Cuba for nine days, and I managed to have one of the most significant art and cultural experiences of my life (see “Belonging in Cuba“). Dave has been there for two weeks already. He assures me that I will enjoy myself, the people, the art–everything. Bonus: I get two Christmases. Ethiopian Christmas (Ganna) is January 7.

Then, why am I so nervous? I have a family. I’m on the grind

We’ve all heard the African proverb, “it takes a village to raise a child.” I know this more acutely than ever. When both of my children were born, I lived in South Jersey in a cozy suburb with dream-come-true neighbors with children our kids’ ages. I had a separate group of mom-friends whose friendships sustained me with non-stop playdates for our kids and grown-folk nights out when we all needed a break. Since moving to Wellesley College, just off-campus, we’ve established a new village. Faculty and staff members with children, with whom we go on walks, splash around in the kiddie pool, go trick-or-treating, and, most recently, decorate holiday cookies. That’s the village I’m depending on while I’m away.

Christmas cookie decorating with "the village" (December 2012)
Christmas cookie decorating with “the village” (December 2012)

But, let’s be honest. My husband is doing the heavy lifting. He’ll have get them ready and out the door in the morning. He’ll have to juggle picking them up at the end of the day, feeding and bathing before bed, and doing it all over again for not one, not two, but nearly three weeks! So, when I’ve announced to people that I am going to Ethiopia, most people then ask, “and you’re leaving the kids?!” Especially the moms. Some look at me with delight. Others, I can tell, look at me curiously, saying the same thing, “and you’re leaving the kids?!” I’m pretty sure those people, especially moms, are really thinking, “what kind of mother does that with two young children at home?” Or, perhaps what I may be taking for judgement of me is fascination/admiration for my husband. Honestly, neither of us truly knew what this wild ride of a career in academia would bring when we got married after my first year in grad school. I only finished up my degree in January 2010, and we’re both adjusting to my having a “real” career in a new destination (Wellesley College). In the last year alone, I’ve had to leave the kids behind to travel to Washington, DC, Philadelphia, the UK, New York, and Cuba (did I mention I was away for nine days?). That’s in the last year! Great opportunities for me, but a fine dance in communication and compromise for both of us. He’s held down the fort in a way that few fathers could manage for a day or two. I’m grateful. I’m lucky. (Well, really, I chose well).

I want to work. I want a family. I’m a better academic for the lessons learned from having children: patience, time-management, a life beyond the classroom and research. I’m a better parent for having a career: patience, time-management, a life beyond my children. I don’t want to relinquish the accomplishments I’ve made thus far in becoming “Professor Greene” nor do I want my children to feel like they are simply afterthoughts to Mommy’s lectures, articles, and world travel. Frankly, it would be much easier if we had family nearby to help us along the way. Though I’ve had an arsenal of very competent, fun, brilliant Wellesley College students to babysit, last-minute meetings, guest speakers on campus or article deadlines don’t always fit their schedules. There’s nothing like having a grandparent or auntie nearby to help out here and there (for free). Thus, my husband and I are figuring things out on our own for the most part. We negotiate schedules that include early morning and late-night work hours for me, and disruptive kid pick-up times for him. Believe me, it’s taken some creative circus-like juggling to make this trip to Ethiopia happen.

If you haven’t had a chance to read Ann-Marie Slaughter’s article in The Atlantic “Why Women Can’t Have it All” from earlier this year and if you’re a working mom, read it today. She talks frankly about what so many working mothers worry about in the 21st century. More importantly, she warns young people (not just women need to concern themselves with this) about what it will mean to have both a career and a family. Being a working parent is tough. It’s exhausting. It’s beyond frustrating at times. There are occasions when you just have to say enough is enough. Slaughter’s son needed her home. She gave up her career in the State Department in order to return to a more manageable life in academia at Princeton (wow). I have friends who have given up jobs to stay home (including dads) or taken part-time positions in order to better balance family and career. I also have friends who have been able to pursue their careers with full gusto, taking high-powered positions or starting their own businesses that require long hours and commutes. Often, for the latter group, they can afford the extra daycare or have family around to help out. We don’t necessarily have those two privileges. But, I’m still in the early stages of my career. I want (and need) to take advantage of incredible opportunities like this one I’m embarking on.  I’ve been reassured by my mom-friends that everything will go well while I’m away. Intellectually, I know that. I have a competent, loving husband and father. Emotionally, the fact is this will be my longest time away from my kids (gasp). This will be the longest time I’ve been away from my husband  (clutching pearls). I’ve had a hard time sleeping for the last three weeks thinking about my time apart from them. The Newtown shootings made me feel even more desperate to stay close to my kids than ever. But, on January 1st, I leave for Ethiopia.

I had humble beginnings in Newark, New Jersey, but I later went on to boarding school in Connecticut, a year abroad in Barcelona at age 16, and onto a career in the arts (see “I was a poor black kid…”). I want my children to know that the sky really is the limit on what they can become professionally and what it will take to get there. I want them to truly see the world for themselves and not just understand it virtually through books, television, or the Internet. I’m attempting to lead by example. Three weeks in the big scheme of things is not that long (if you’re not my husband). I won’t be able to continue to make big trips for too much longer without them. I hope to have the wisdom to know when it’s no longer feasible. Actually, one of my goals is that as the children get older, we’ll be able to take extended trips together as a family. I agree with Slaughter, women cannot have it all. But, like Slaughter, at this stage in the game, I’ve gotta try!

I expressed to a high school friend, somehow who knows me well, in other words, about my anxieties about leaving the kids. I told her how I was doing this because I wanted to set an example for them about exploring the world, but that I was terrified. Her wonderful response? “Your kids are going to love you for this!” Another good girlfriend, a mom who is also on the grind, remarked, “You will love you for this.” I hope they’re both right.

Here’s how it went:

January 3: “Notes from Addis: Arrival”

January 4: “Notes from Addis: Art in the Making”

January 6: “Notes from Addis: Netsa Art Village”

January 18: “Notes from Addis: Departure”

January 16, 2014: “Notes from Addis: A Look Back”

I was a poor black kid…

I am never ashamed to let someone know up front that I am from Newark, NJ. That wasn’t always the case. From 1987 to 1989, I attended a very supportive, nurturing, forward-thinking junior high school: Link Community School (then known as Project Link). With the support of the principal, Susan Schlesser, Sr. Trudy Dunham, and many other wonderful teachers, many of them Jesuit, I found a loving and encouraging environment in which to thrive. Link was a special place. It fostered in me a raw desire to pursue my wildest dreams. At 13, my wildest dream was to go to boarding school. These were the days of “The Facts of Life.” I would become the real “Tootie.” I pursued this against my mother’s wishes because, frankly, as she saw it, “only white people who don’t love their children send their kids to boarding school.” I secured a four-year scholarship from the Wight Foundation, and off I went! Going to Taft School in Watertown, Connecticut from Newark, New Jersey, was a big leap–socially, economically, and educationally. That’s why I wasn’t always proud to state up front: “I am from Newark, New Jersey.” Why? Because I knew then, as I know now, many people think like Mr. Gene Marks of Forbes magazine: “Oh, she’s a poor black kid.”

So, in the article, “If I was a Poor Black Kid,” Gene Marks, a middle-aged, middle-class white man apparently has all the answers for poor black youth. As a “poor black kid” myself once, I’m confused by his apparent confidence in getting to the heart of the woes of the struggles of black children and education. I get it. Technology is key. But, man, his condescension is scrawled over this article. It’s like he’s learned about black America speeding through Chestnut & Walnut Streets in West Philadelphia. Mr. Marks, it’s just not that simple. To think that you could easily relate to what a poor black kid from West Philly goes through in order to thrive, is preposterous! I challenge you–or one of your children–to spend one week living on 52nd Street, attending school, shopping for groceries, and the rest (and I don’t mean on the periphery of UPenn’s campus). Then, I’d like to see you opine poetically about what you’d do as a poor black kid.

While my family did not have to worry about whether we’d have food on the table or whether we’d go to college (that was not negotiable), we did struggle. My mother, a Shaw University graduate, was often sick and unable to work. My father worked, but struggled with alcoholism. Yep, we spent a couple of years on welfare, too. I was what shrinks call a “parentified child.” Basically, I raised myself, and, at times, I had to raise my parents. Unfortunately, I knew a lot of kids in my shoes. If they weren’t dealing with chronic sicknesses or alcoholism, other issues put undue pressure on them as well. You know the biggies: drugs, crime, and, of course, poverty. Does Mr. Marks really think he understands what it’s like to have your meals at school be the only meals available? Does Mr. Marks get that when you are scared to walk down the street on your way home that reading “Google Scholar” and “Cliff Notes” is not your top priority? Does he really think that just because computers are available at a school or library that every student has access to them? Or that the computers have the most up-to-date software or technical support to help navigate locating and implementing the study tools he suggests? In Philadelphia (a place I’ve lived around for 11 years before moving to Boston), the government has struggled for the last couple of years to keep libraries open, especially during the summer, when children have the most idle time. How, then, are students supposed to “get technical…learn software…and learn how to write code” if their local library branch is closed? Mr. Marks mentions part-time work. Many poor black kids work (when they can find it), not always to secure the latest iPhone or to go to the movies, but rather to keep clothes on their backs or to help out with household bills. Remember, these are often “parentified children” who have a whole lot more on their plates (and minds) than “watch(ing) relevant teachings on Academic Earth, TED and the Khan Academy.”

grad photo 1
With my husband, Simeon, and my daughter after graduation from the University of Delaware with my Ph.D. in Art History in 2009. 

Ok, so, yes, I did the private school thing, as Mr. Marks suggests that black families pursue. Nevertheless, while at Taft, my father lost his job (a fact that few of my white friends knew). Without the financial support of the Wight Foundation, I’m not sure I could have stayed at Taft or study and live abroad my junior year (School Year Abroad, Barcelona, Spain from 1991-1992). I was lucky. I survived boarding school even with limited funds to do much of anything outside of what the school could provide. Getting back and forth to Newark during the breaks was at times a financial hardship ($25-35 each trip). I shared this struggle at school with very few students, except for other poor students of color. How’d I make it? I used Mr. Marks’ formula: Brains. Hard work. Luck. Help from others. Much of my drive came from within, yes. However, I also grew up in a community of women, men, and children who were loved, looked after, and conscious of the need to keep everyone in check. It indeed “took a village.” But, mostly, I was lucky. My brother, an accountant who still lives in Newark, was lucky, too. Though we struggled, we had both of our parents in the home. My parents were educated. We grew up in a safe environment. We had a loving and caring extended family. My mother, despite being sick, was very involved in our education. With any of those factors out of the equation, who knows what would have happened to me and my brother? I could go on, but I have to use all these brains, hard work, luck and help from others to write my Art History next article.

But before I go: I’m married to a black software programmer who taught himself code (as Mr. Marks suggests). He’d tell you about his own rocky road. Again, it’s just not that simple. But, you’d know that if you were a poor black kid.

Update: I teach at the highly competitive Wellesley College now. I guess I did ok for myself.

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