What is the meaning of yema yimechi in Amharic? A Reddit user posted in the /r/relationship_advice subreddit yesterday a story about her friend who, unfortunately, named her child Yema Yimechi. What does that translate to in English, and why did she choose it to name her child?

Yema Yimechi meaning: “beloved” or “imbecile”?

The story, (since removed) told of a woman who spent time in Ethiopia with an outreach program. The impact of the Ethiopians – their “culture and traditions” – had a profound effect on her. She allegedly connected with “the locals” to such an extent that they named her Yema Yimechi. 

Photo via Twitter

This, she understood, meant “beloved one”. She cherished the name. She loved it so much that she named her newborn daughter Yema Yimechi. On the face of it, this may sound like a heartwarming story. However, a revelation about the true meaning of the name adds a sour note.

What does “yemayimechi” really mean?

The poster presumably has a working knowledge of Amharic, the lingua franca for populations residing in major towns and cities in Ethiopia. She goes on to relate how she explained to her friend the true meaning of the phrase. Its true spelling in Amharic, she claims, is የማይመች. 

She transliterates it as a single word: yemayimechi. Its closest equivalent in English, she explains, is “uncomfortable/inconvenient/imbecile”. 

Abyssinica Dictionary gives the following translations: uneasy, cumbersome, inconvenient, last, unfavourable. Another online dictionary includes the word “inhospitable” and “unfavourable to life or growth” among its translations.

There’s more to this story

It is true that the Amharic script transliteration that the poster offers translates directly to the above words. However, Reddit user FunktasticBeast’s comment provides another level of insight. 

African young boy during his Amharic class in very remote school. The bricks that make up the walls of the school are made of clay and straw. There is no light and electricity inside the classroom

Allegedly a fluent speaker of Amharic, the commenter expresses confusion at the Anglicisation of the name. 

Why are they calling her “yemaymech”, an explicitly masculine form of the word? Wouldn’t it be “yematimech”? It’s not even a believable mistake—no native speaker would make this mix up.

They continue: 

Yemaymech is more accurate. I’m honestly a little doubtful that this was written by an actual native speaker, although I could be wrong. Funny story either way, but I have my doubts.

Another user claims that the story was “just a repost from 2009” and concludes, “it’s probably fake”.

The inconvenient truth behind the meaning of yema yimechi

Regardless of the truthfulness of the story, it speaks to an inconvenient truth. As the original poster went on to offer, in a comment: “I think one of the main reasons she is upset is realising that the people she thought she was helping clearly found her to be a nuisance or inconvenience that they had to endure.”

It is painful for anyone to discover that the people they sought to help actually found them discomforting. However, this is exacerbated when the person in question is doing what they deem to be wholesome, charitable work.

What is voluntourism?

Mistaking offence for positive signals is just one issue with the industry. As quoted in National Geographic, Shannon O’Donnell, author of The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook, argues that “some volunteer programs shift jobs from locals to potentially less skilled labour”. Handouts can divert business from local markets. Voluntourism (formed by combining volunteer and tourism) can hurt local economies. 

“You can volunteer at a school in Kenya, but you can also do accounting for an environmental agency in the United Kingdom,” argues Kirsty Henderson, author of The Underground Guide to International Volunteering

While describing the phenomenon of voluntourism as a White-Saviour Industrial Complex may grossly oversimplify the issue, there is value to such critiques. The subject of the Reddit poster’s story suffered a backlash for her naivety: her presumption that her so-called “outreach program” was prosocial blinkered her.

Photo by Cristi Tohatan on Unsplash

Is there a lesson to learn?

Voluntourism has become a dirty word. Stories like this blow wind into the sails of those who seek to discredit the phenomenon. Daniela Papi, founder of volunteering advocacy service Learning Service, argues that “It’s about selling an image of poverty to Westerners and saying that—just by being them, without any responsibility to learn, shift, or qualify—they can ‘help.’”

This analysis applies in a roundabout way to the Reddit story. Those “voluntourists” who assume they are doing holy work “just by being them” can sometimes do more harm than good – whether it be to the community they are working in, or to their own children.

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