The 46-year-old Portland State University economics professor is spending the current academic year working in Ethiopia at the Ethiopian Development Research Institute on a grant to do research aimed at better understanding people's relationships with the environment and improving Ethiopia's natural-resource policies.
WW caught up with Bluffstone via email to ask how things are going this holiday in the unheated cement-block house he shares with his wife, Marla, their 12-year-old daughter and their 7-year-old son in Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa.
WW: What's surprised you most about the country?
Randy Bluffstone: Ethiopia is a country of surprises! When we speak of Ethiopia we tend to think of poverty, but there is so much more. Ethiopia is the home of coffee, which is named after the Kaffa region. Like Portland, Addis Ababa is a great place to get a cup of espresso. Ethiopia was also the only African country that was never colonized, and perhaps the only one to defeat a major European power. Ethiopia prevented colonization by defeating Italy in the Battle of Adwa in 1896. All of these facts are great sources of pride for many Ethiopians. On a more day-to-day level, I am truly amazed by the low wages. Construction laborers may make as little as 10 birr per day, which is about $1.15, and entry-level government workers earn about $26 per month. Wages are even lower in rural areas. How people manage to scrape by on such incomes—even if they have other sources—is truly amazing.
What do you miss about living in Portland?
I miss most riding my bike to PSU. The streets of Addis Ababa are totally dominated by cars, trucks and buses, and though one sees the occasional intrepid rider, it is really too dangerous to ride a bike in the city. I also could do with some good Mexican and vegetarian food.
In America, Ethiopia is often synonymous with the most severe poverty. What's the worst thing you've seen there?
The incidence of serious diseases that have basically disappeared in other countries—like polio, which can leave people with their limbs at odd angles, crippled and literally crawling on the ground—is extremely disturbing. One also sees many people with leprosy, which causes them to be severely disfigured and in many cases to lose hands and feet.
Is there anything better about living there compared with Portland?
I love living in Portland and look forward to getting back next summer, but it is also nice to step into a new reality for a while and see things from a different perspective. Getting to know Ethiopia and its people and having the chance to work on some of the key environmental-economic issues are what I like best about living in Addis Ababa.
How will you celebrate Thanksgiving when you're so far from home?
We will certainly make a contribution to Project Hope, which provides a variety of services, including meals, to the poor and homeless of Addis Ababa. It is a bit difficult to put together a true Thanksgiving dinner, though. For example, I don't think there is anywhere to buy a turkey. We will probably go out to dinner with some American friends.
Being so far from home, are you thankful for different things this year?
First and foremost, I am thankful my family is able to share this adventure! Being so far away, though, one has to love technology. When I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal 20 years ago, we were basically out of touch with friends, family and news from the U.S. for over two years. For example, when we returned to the U.S. we were amazed that something called ATMs had appeared in U.S. banks. Here in Addis we email daily, and I keep up on all the news via the Internet.
Ethiopia is Africa's second most populous country. An internal Ethiopian Commission of Inquiry report leaked to the media in October confirmed that 193 unarmed demonstrators were killed following 2005 elections that let Meles Zenawi remain the country's prime minister.
To read news about Ethiopia, go to ethiomedia.com or ethiopiadaily.com.