See Something, Say Something?

By Maceda Alemu


How do you define the term active citizen? Based on your definition, would you consider yourself an active citizen? In my opinion, an active citizen is an individual that believes he or she has a responsibility to take on a role in his or her community; active citizens are engaged advocates for themselves, as well as other members or groups in society. They do many ‘things’ to be advocates through activities ranging from volunteering, to recycling, to donating, to voting. In short, active citizens work to improve the lives of others and contribute to social justice in their community by taking action on issues in order to make a positive difference. They question the way things are done to ensure that all members of a community are following practices and supporting systems that foster a fair and inclusive society.

Growing up, I learned a lot about the importance of being an active citizen and comfortably identify as an active citizen of any environment I inhabit.

At home, my parents, Afework and Hanna, were adamant about teaching my sister, Maron and me the golden rule of treating someone the way we, ourselves, would want to be treated.

Afework and Hanna are very much of the traditional Ethiopian collectivist mindset, meaning they constantly remind Maron and me that we are God’s children and have a responsibility to care, help, love, and respect not only one another but any other person we encountered in this world. They have taught us to never assume we knew a person’s story or situation. They have always encouraged us to listen first and act last. Afework and Hanna are admirable in that they not only speak of these principles and beliefs, but they live by them.

All this to say, one day, when I was walking to my home here in Addis Ababa, I encountered a man lying on the sidewalk face down in a pool of his own blood. I was shocked; from the amount of blood I saw, it seemed he had been there for several minutes. I could only imagine how many people had passed by and did nothing. How did this happen? Why did this happen? The first thing I thought to do was find help. But then I had to think of who to ask and how to ask. Unfortunately, I don’t speak Amharic fluently so was hesitant to engage with the victim directly. I had to find someone that could meet me halfway between a little bit of English and a little bit of Amharic. I also didn’t know of any police call center or service in Addis Ababa similar to that of 911. So, I walked to the nearest bank since I know banks always have guards and figured I would likely encounter someone who speaks English there.

Upon arriving at the bank, there were a few guards but they were hesitant to leave their posts. By the grace of God, two safety officers walked past. I explained to them what I saw and asked them, as well as an employee of the bank who felt comfortable speaking English, to accompany me to the man on the sidewalk. When we approached him, a few other people decided to stop and ask what happened. Some people were skeptical of the situation. They claimed the man could be drunk or under the influence of another substance so they didn’t want to engage. But others advocated that he could’ve had epilepsy and fallen down during a seizure. Either way, no one, myself included, knew what transpired – all we knew was he needed help. One person adjusted him so he was sitting up, another person gave him water to clean his face, a couple of people discussed what options might be best for him, and a few others spectated. Another act of God occurred in that a truck of Federal officers drove by. Upon seeing the small gathering of people, the truck pulled over and two officers came over to inquire about what happened.

Eventually, it became a community effort to see what could be done to help this individual and it gave me hope to witness others put their lives on hold for a few minutes to assist someone they didn’t know. The employee of the bank who accompanied the safety officers and me decided that she and I had done our part and we could leave. She said if I wasn’t going to pay for his treatment, take him to the hospital myself or pay for someone else to take him, then there was really nothing more I could do. As we walked back towards the bank she commended me for my kindness and desire to willingly help a stranger in spite of my limited abilities. However, she also warned me that the next time I see something like this happen and want to help, I should exercise a bit more caution. She said that in Addis, things of this nature might not always be as they seem. I don’t think that’s unique to Addis per say but applicable anywhere. Regardless, I understood her concern since there aren’t very established channels or systems to support such vigilantism. Her sentiment was that it’s better not to have my kindness seen as ignorance and or something that could get me into trouble. It was okay to have sympathy and want to help someone she said, but she felt my way of handling it was a bit ill-conceived.

After we parted ways, I was a bit disheartened by her words. Suspicion and skepticism can be traits of our culture and my exchange with her felt like the most basic form of this. Her reaction demonstrated to me the different ways in which she and I processed what happened. She had reservations to act because she didn’t have enough information regarding exactly what happened. Whereas for me, I felt I had a responsibility as a member of the man’s community to act, regardless of what I knew or didn’t know about him. This incident helped me recognize that our respective prior experiences, upbringings, and life perspectives contributed to the differences in our approaches. Don’t get me wrong, I think she had valid concerns. However, for me, doing something is how I feel useful in my community and enact my citizenship.

There is so much to unpack about what happened, but I think the thing I grappled most with is if we believe in active citizenship and we identify as active citizens, how do we engage and share our beliefs with others? As social leaders shouldn’t we encourage people to live by a set of principles? Don’t we want to foster communities where we operate out of a headspace in which we recognize that people might have different beliefs, backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences in this world, but at the end of the day we’re all humans who from time to time will find ourselves in positions where we need the help of others. How do we get people to put their differences or judgments about something aside to see the dignity and humanity in others? How do we encourage people to think beyond themselves and their own needs from time to time, especially in situations we can’t plan for, where our fight or flight responses will require us to either step up and step in to help someone or walk away. Why are we so averse about doing something? Why do we wait for someone else to come along and take care of things? How can we safely and systematically change people’s minds?

I recently listened to a Ted Talk called ‘Want to change the world? Start by being brave enough to care.’ In it, the speaker Cleo Wade shared a simple but incredibly powerful message. She said, “Be good to yourself, be good to others, be good to the earth. The world will say to you, ‘Be a better person.’ Do not be afraid to say yes.” Although it’s easier said than done, I thought her call to action was a good start.

Whenever I try to determine if I should get involved in something, I ask myself the question, is that how I would want to be treated? More often than not, my answer encourages me to do something because I would hope for the same action from others.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Ethiopian Diaspora Fellowship the organization and the leadership.