One of the wonderful things about this visit has been the chance to taste many traditional Ethiopian dishes.   During the season just before Ethiopian Orthodox Christmas many people fast (refraining from eating meat and dairy) which means that there are wonderful vegetarian dishes to try.  Our lunch at a delicious local restaurant included chick peas, lentils, green beans, chopped greens, and ingera, the local flat bread, made of teff, a local grain.

I was amazed at the complex flavors and textures that could be coaxed out of a variety of preparations of lentil and other legumes.  It is hard to understand why this is called fasting, unless you know that Ethiopians love meat, and one traditional favorite is raw beef.

Coming from our Thanksgiving feast last Thursday, to this plentiful traditional meal soon after, I can’t help but think about the close proximity of abundance and want in our world.  While I thought about the hunger and bouts of famine experienced in Ethiopia when I was at my family table, I think about it in a different way, here, at this table.  Closer to the hunger, but also and paradoxically further away,  I am responding no better because of the closeness.

There are so many ways to think about and understand food scarcity in our world:  issues of basic justice,  issues related to land use, technological challenges related to efficient cultivation and storage of food, the challenges of food distrubution,  and the need for food policy and collective action that recognizes that everyone has a right to share in our world’s abundance.

Do I give money to the women and children who tug at my sleeve, tap on the window of our taxi,  putting their hands to their mouths, showing me their hunger?  Does it encourage a behavior that demeans them further, or does it meet a basic need in the absence of any kind of safety net? I don’t know the answer and my responses reflect my confusion.  Donate to an NGO that might help them, support a local student who is working on agricultural development, look at them, look away, pray, have a second helping because it tastes so good.  There is no way to order these actions in a way that hides the double truths of my life.

But I do know one true thing that must be said:  If these same people were able to live their traditions in a healthy and whole way,  and I was the same wandering traveller that I am here now,  they would be offering me a place at their table.  They would smile at me and feed me first, using the same hand gesture to show me how to eat from this world’s common plate.