Sunday, July 6, 2008

Waking Up in Addis Ababa

I really am a farm kid from rural Minnesota. I rarely think about that when I’m in the United States, but when I wake up, as I did this morning, in a part of the world that until yesterday was only a name on a map, I don’t think as much about where I am as I do about how far I have come.

Where does a longing for adventure come from? Why does the travel bug bite some of us and not others?

As a young boy I remember sitting in the Lutheran church, built in the middle of a cornfield – a central location for all of the neighboring farmers – listening to missionaries talk about exotic places like Madagascar. And I wanted to go there. I didn’t want to convert anyone, even at that age, but I wanted to see a place that sounded so totally different from my world. If the Weekly Reader had a story about Alaska, that would be the next destination of my dreams. Fess Parker playing Daniel Boone on a television show sparked a desire to see Kentucky. John Denver signing Rocky Mountain High had me packing for Colorado.

Although my family didn’t travel often, aside from an occasional week at Sunset Bay Resort in Minnesota’s lake country, or a road trip to the Black Hills of South Dakota, I always suspected there was a travel gene somewhere in my DNA make-up. I mean, my ancestors had left Norway in the 1870s for the U.S. Granted, they were motivated to establish better lives for themselves, but I believe that these distant family members from Scandinavia also woke up in the New World and thought – not so much about where they were – but how far they had come.

There is a possibility that waking up, as I did this morning in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, isn’t really as far from where I came from as one might think. Yes, it was a long trans-Atlantic flight to Amsterdam, followed by another long flight to Khartoum in Sudan, before finally arriving in the capital of Ethiopia 24 hours after leaving the airport in Minneapolis. But long before my family left Norway, about 60,000 years ago, my family probably lived here, in Ethiopia; eventually making a journey from Africa, through Turkey, and the countries of Europe, before settling in what is now Norway, and then embarking for the Americas. At least that is what the National Geographic Genographic Project, based on my DNA, believes is the history of my very extended family.

My family believes that we are 100% Norwegian Americans. My mother’s family immigrated from Jevnaker and my father’s family from Trondheim. This belief hasn’t stopped a recurring discussion within my family that we also may be part American Indian. When I heard about the Genographic Project, I hoped that by submitting a swap of saliva to a lab that we might finally discover whether or not there was more diversity in my family than we previously thought.

Just like waking up for the first time in a part of the world that is totally new triggers more thoughts for me about the past than it does the present; the Genographic Project told me less about where our family is today, than where it came from. Currently, the project only tracks my family to the shores of Norway. What may have happened to my DNA in the New World has yet to be charted by National Geographic. But what my DNA did indicate is that thousands of years ago, where I woke up this morning in Ethiopia is where most of our ancestors woke up every day of their lives. And although I haven’t lived on a farm in rural Minnesota for 40 years, it is farming – more specifically hunger, nutrition, and disease – that brings me here to Addis Ababa.

Sometimes the past, the present, and the future are all the same thing. And perhaps Minnesota, Norway, and Ethiopia are not all that different from each other either.


To learn more about National Geographic’s Genographic Project visit


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