I returned a few days ago from a trip to Ethiopia that was especially meaningful for me. I had fond memories of Ethiopia because of living and working there forty years ago. When I was invited to go with a team of faculty and students from Taylor University to Project Mercy in Yetebon, Ethiopia for the month of January 2009, I happily accepted.

My purpose in this article is to share some thoughts about health and happiness that have come to mind over the last few days as I have reflected on this trip.

Ethiopia remains a very poor country in terms of material wealth, and it has many major health issues related to poverty. Those issues are similar to ones faced by many developing countries, and I will not explore them now. Instead, I wish to emphasize some of the features of life in rural Ethiopia that may be instructive for us in the West.

One of the things that struck me was the walking done by Ethiopians of all ages, at least in the rural areas. For most, walking is the main, if not the only, way of getting from one place to another. Children may walk several miles a day to get to school. Farmers walk, laborers walk, housewives walk, and elderly people walk. The result is that most Ethiopians are remarkably fit.

My second observation is that the standard Ethiopian diet consists of whole grain foods with vegetable and lentil sauces, along with modest amounts of fruit and meat. Highly processed foods are rare or non-existent in rural homes, so basic eating patterns are healthy for most rural Ethiopians. From a standpoint of nutritional health, Ethiopians do better than most Americans.

My third observation is that in spite of much hardship, most rural Ethiopians seem happy. It’s worth noting that happiness has been the subject of many studies. Results typically show that happiness does not hinge on wealth. In fact, poor indigenous cultures often rank higher in happiness than wealthier ones.

In thinking about why this might be so, and reflecting on our experience in Ethiopia, I realized that when Ethiopians greet one another, they do so with a great deal of affection, deeply validating each others worth. When this is repeated on a daily basis, it has to have a favorable impact on one’s feelings of self-worth. This is certainly a key factor in anyone’s happiness quotient.

Another notable factor was the absence of many distracting influences that are a daily part of our lives in the USA. During three weeks at Project Mercy we saw no television, received no daily newspapers, heard no radios, and saw no movies. Even email and telephone communication with the outside world were very limited. Without these distractions that are so common in the West, we were less stressed, and life was more peaceful.

Before concluding, let me make it clear that I am not painting Ethiopia and its citizens as a Utopian society. Ethiopians who are poor have a hard life, and it is not to be romanticized. If given any opportunity for an easier life, most would take it. That is one reason why education is prized so highly. It is an avenue to a life that most dream of as being more desirable.

Still, there are virtues in the simple agrarian life that tend to be lost in urban settings and in more developed countries, and it is worth highlighting them. I believe it is possible to achieve a balance between the simplicity of rural life that I have described, and the excessive richness of diet and accumulation of things that characterize much of our Western culture. Striking that balance is my personal goal, and a subject worthy of Wellness Explorations.

Be Well!


Author's Bio: 

Ed Dodge grew up as a missionary kid in Angola, Africa. After earning his medical degree from Indiana University in 1962 and his MPH degree from Johns Hopkins in 1967, he became board certified in both general preventive medicine and family practice. Ed has taught and practiced in both Africa and the United States. Through his experiences, he has grown to understand the value of embracing the whole person - body, mind, and spirit.