Chleboun, Benjamin



Name: Ben Chleboun
Location of Study:
Program of Study:



A brief personal bio:

I am fascinated by the relationship between religion, modernization, and economic behavior and how that relationship dictates practical development and economic progress. This passion for the practical application of scholarship drives my research. I am currently working on a project to understand the process of homeownership for recently resettled refugees.

In 2009, I received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Indiana Wesleyan University with a double major in history and religion.During the 2010-2011 academic year, I taught English and literature at a college in Ethiopia. I thoroughly enjoyed teaching and I eagerly anticipate returning to the front of a classroom.

Why this summer language abroad opportunity is important to me:

I am fascinated by the relationship between religion and modernization in Ethiopia. Because of this, I hope to continue relationships with Ethiopians in America and Ethiopia. As with all cross-cultural relationships, speaking a common language will be crucial to pursue my desire to learn about the major cultural shifts in Ethiopia—a sea change in personal technology, the phenomenon of consumerization, and the moral schizophrenia of modernity. The SLA grant allows me to continue learning the Amharic language (lingua franca of Ethiopia) and pursue further research in communities of Ethiopians.

In my research, I focus on religion-centered qualitative methods to interpret change and continuity in religious and nonreligious spaces. For my dissertation I plan to collect data in several protestant religious communities and theological seminaries in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Pentecostal Protestantism is the fastest growing religious community in the country. The adherents of this strand of modern Pentecostalism traverse diverse intercultural ideologies while fostering a distinct Ethiopian charisma. This is an ideal context to study the relationship between modern religious people with the intercultural forces of modernization in the developing world. However, in order to access the relevant data for this research, I need to continue learning the language.

What I hope to achieve as a result of this summer study abroad experience:

I hope to continue pursuing proficiency in the Amharic language and restore relationships with leaders in Protestant religious communities. Continuing to gain proficiency will happen in the formal classroom setting and the Joint Language School, but it will also happen in the informal conversations that I will have with friends and acquaintances. I hope to use this time in Ethiopia to broaden my perspective on the language and the culture in a variety of settings. This means that I will return to the relationships with Ethiopians that I have and pursue relationships with people in new religious and academic communities.

My specific learning goals for language and intercultural learning this summer:

  1. By the end of the summer, I will be able to converse informally with native speakers of Amharic about topics of religion and culture.

  2. By the end of the summer, I will be able to make accent and grammatical mistakes without embarrassment.

  3. By the end of the summer, I will have learned key vocabulary on various Orthodox, Muslim, and Protestant rituals, themes, and practices.

  4. As a secondary goal, by the end of the summer, I will be able read informal writing.

My plan for maximizing my international language learning experience:

I do not expect to have a problem “hitting the ground running.” It’s been two years since I was in Ethiopia, but I still have several friends in Addis (where I will be studying). I intend to stay with these friends during my studies, so I will slide right back into the lives of my Ethiopian and ex-patriot friends. I hope to also meet people at the language school to study with outside of class. My plan for maximizing my language study is to begin classes at the language school, return to friends, and make new friends at the same language level. After getting into a routine, I can pursue relationships outside these two spheres in religious and academic communities.


Reflective Journal Entry 1:

Addis Ababa, like many cities in Africa, is overflowing with diversity and promise. The Ethiopian people are bustling with entrepreneurial spirit coupled with deep pride in being Ethiopian. The city’s name in Amharic (the national language of Ethiopia) means the “new flower.” This represents its long history of promise—with an unfortunate coterminous history of suppression and inequality. Returning to Addis ignites my fascination with the complex culture, this way of life that is unique to Ethiopia.

I feel the long history of this culture everyday. From the morning prayer of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church—blaring over a loudspeaker—to the singularity of the cuisine, the everyday symbols that Ethiopians use to make meaning of their lives reach back over hundreds of years. (All food is eaten on and with Injera, spongy crepe-like bread, which is only native to Ethiopia and Eritrea.) To me, an outsider with some knowledge of the great history of this country, each day is an experience of this history. The mundane symbols and signs of deference turn into something extraordinary.

During this first week, my curiosity allows me to jump back into (I spent two years here previously) the language, Amharic or Amarigna. I’m able to communicate throughout daily life—at cafes, in the minibus, on the street. Where I have difficulty is holding a conversation with someone outside these contexts. I realize this week that I understand what people are telling me, and I can respond with something barely intelligible. But to hold extended conversations, I need to resort to English, Amarigna-English, or the occasional (and comical) hand gesture.

In class, I’m pushed outside my very contextual vocabulary. This has been challenging and really fun. This week I have learned about 20-30 new words each day. This class has also been helpful for usage and pronunciation. I hope I continue to learn at this pace in the next few weeks.

Reflective Journal Entry 2:

If last week was my initial foray into the culture and class, getting reacquainted with life in Addis, this week has been much more about setting on-the-ground goals for the remainder of my time here. I’ve continued to enjoy class, learning new vocabulary, and trying my luck at conversation in the afternoon and evening. This has been good: the contrast of school and everyday conversations with friends. I’ve found that sometimes my instructor gives rules, whereas my friends will tell me the colloquial usage of words or phrases. This is normal, of course, and no surprise. I’m so thankful to have good friends here who are willing to explain these aspects of the language with me. It’s great to get some of the on-the-ground changes of language as they happen. Another reason why being here for language is such a blessing.

This week I’ve been watching the World Cup, sometimes with friends, sometimes alone. I love all things soccer/football, so I’m thoroughly enjoying making this a part of my intercultural experience in Ethiopia. Talking to people about the games is an interesting look into perception of difference and pride. Everyone here is a little disappointed because the African nations have done poorly. This is another reminder of the incredible pride in this country—first, of all things Ethiopian and, second, of all things African. (Sometimes it seems like they think all things Ethiopia is the pinnacle of all things African.) This pride is so deep, but there is critique in this as well. I’ve talked with several people who reflect on the unorganized, individualistic, and sloppy play of the African nations. This, of course, they compare with the organized and purposeful team play of, say, Germany, Brazil, or Italy. This critique is another reminder of the contrast between what is perceived as African and what is perceived as organized and, well, western. This is disappointing, even if the African nations have played badly. (Portugal played awful against Germany, individualist and unorganized, but no one is saying Portuguese culture is behind their loss.) On the other side of pride may be some underlying shame in the state of African politics, economy, and society. These larger societal emotional dynamics, emerging from conversations about football, is fascinating.

Reflective Journal Entry 3:

Ethiopia has a fairly insular culture. In this culture there is a tendency to disguise meaning behind some acceptable front. In sociological terms, this seems to have elements of Erving Goffman’s famous idea of face-work and Thomas Scheff’s theory of human nature as motivated by social bonds. That is, one may retain strong bonds with others in the culture by maintaining rules of hierarchy and convention. And in some sense, there is widespread pride in all things Ethiopian (I mentioned this in the last post). Yet, the appearance of social order and hierarchy is deceiving. In repressive, autocratic, and patrimonial societies any criticism is veiled to maintain bonds despite feelings of critique. In Ethiopia, this means that despite the federal democracy and major economic growth, the culture has no space for open critical discussion of the most meaningful and relevant issues today.

I spoke with one of my Ethiopian friends about where she speaks about change in her society. She said that she used to tweet her thoughts about her people, her government, her society. She used to. I asked why she stopped. She told me that some of her friends were put in prison for a couple months over some controversial tweets that were widely re-tweeted. Really, they were put in prison because they expressed an opposing position on social media? Yes, she said, and it’s just not worth putting anything that could be perceived as dissident when it’s so easy to be followed and put in prison.

As I continue to learn the Amharic language, I see and hear more and more of the political boundaries and repression. Though, the most insidious repression in any society is beneath the surface. It is the backstage work (Goffman) and unidentified shame (Scheff) that really keeps order—from family structure to governmental legitimacy. It’s understandable, really, that this government limits free speech and represses critique. It keeps a very tight order on this country of 90M, 80% of whom live in rural areas, making well below international standards of poverty. But the question is not whether the government is keeping order. The question is whether the structures of authority—from family to government—promote human flourishing and the common good of all people. While this is extremely complex, it seems the only relevant question to ask in this context.

Reflective Journal Entry 4:

I am struck again by the ways that this culture hides meaning in unlikely places. At dinner, some friends were joking about being racist. I asked what that meant for them. They told me that the major ethnic divide in Ethiopia between the Oromo and the Amhara is also one of race. This is interesting to me, because the It’s historically the most prominent internal point of contention here. The Amhara have cultural and political power, and the Oromo want that power. Demographically, the Oromo are the majority, yet they have never had political control. Amhara are from the northern region, primarily orthodox and the historical center of the authority in the country. (I’m learning Amharic, not Oromiffa, which is another reminder of the connection between language and authority.)

Apparently a large fly, the kind that buzzes around the top corner of a room and drives you crazy, can be called, ye’Galla zimb, which literally translates to the “fly of the Galla.” Galla is the forgotten (and now derogatory) Amhara name for those of Oromo ethnic origin. This particular fly is called this, I’m told, because it is big and flies slowly (“dumbly”) around the room and you can never get rid of it. It just stays around no matter how much you try to kill it. This is why it is associated with the Oromo people. The Amhara view the Oromo as big, dumb, and hard to get rid of. My friend (an Oromo) had squashed a large fly, and my other friend told him not to kill his own kind.

The response from the room was to call this girl a racist and then laugh. The laughter, I’m sure, diffused whatever real tension was in the statement. The friend who was Oromo—and squashing his own kind—was obviously not really offended. This brought to life for me the ways that the historical struggle between these two people groups really is racism. The political and cultural struggles are a visceral and real ethnic reality. And although my friends were joking about the fly and not actually making any racial superiority statement, it revealed the hierarchy of authority in this country. There are such deeply held personal beliefs here about all levels of authority: from the government to the family. And although racism takes a very different form here than, say, the U.S., it’s still reflective of the history of repression in Ethiopia.


Reflection on my language learning and intercultural gains:

This summer in Ethiopia was challenging, enlightening, and enjoyable. Every day in school, cafes, and public transportation, through my increased capacity to converse in Amharic, I was incrementally given a window into the lives of Ethiopians. Through this, learning Amharic revealed hidden aspects of a society and culture, often illuminating complexity in what I thought I already knew. In this process of learning a language, I was also challenged to adapt to the context and get out of my comfort zone. I grew in my capacity to make mistakes in conversation. Through this, I was able to expand my vocabulary tenfold. I also met my goal of learning to read and write in the ‘fidel’ (script). From I learned much about the Orthodox andProtestant churches in Addis Ababa.

Overall, the time I spent in Ethiopia this summer was a combination of intellectual enlightenment, cultural expansion, and personal challenges. I’m so grateful for this opportunity.

Reflection on my summer language abroad experience overall:

It’s impossible for privileged white person to visit a country like Ethiopia without changing in some way. It softens one to the faces of global inequality. It can also harden one to the personal impact on that inequality. Although I’ve seen the face of abject poverty and felt my heart harden, it was, again, humbling.

This summer I began to think about my own role in global intellectual inequality. I began to think about teaching in Ethiopia once I complete my studies. Critical thinking is not taught in primary or secondary school in Ethiopia. I believe this has vast implications for social and civic life on all levels — family systems through the practice of governance. So, I have begun to think about teaching in that context.

Intercultural experiences have shaped me as a person and an academic. I believe that everyone considering a career in any academic field to find some way to make an international comparison. And, of course, language is a large part of that process.

How I plan to use my language and intercultural competences in the future:

Amharic is a difficult language to continue using because it is a language specific to Ethiopians (and some Eritreans). The diaspora community in Chicago, however, provides me with a community to keep practicing and learning this incredible language. Last year I formed relationships with several Ethiopian families on the north side of Chicago. I plan to visit those families and pursue other relationships in the Ethiopian community in the Roger’s Park and Edgewater neighborhoods.

In my academic career, I hope to use this language in field work for my dissertation. The religious life of Ethiopia is an important aspect of local politics, culture, and economy. I plan to pursue extended field work opportunities in religious communities, both Orthodox and Protestant, as the primary data for my dissertation. Spending the summer in Ethiopia has only confirmed by deep love for the people of Ethiopia. I hope to continue learning and researching with with the motivation that Ethiopia grows in equality and hope.