Ethiopia’s ‘Odysseuses’, Lapse of Opportunity

Ethiopia has a large diaspora community around the world. It is the same group that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) said that Ethiopia’s arms are open for their return. This is not for nought as some have gone on to achieve great success. The fact that many remain overseas is a missed opportunity for the nation, writes Ambessaw Assegued (

In a small one-bedroom apartment tucked away in the hills of sunny San Francisco, California, an Ethiopian refugee in the Diaspora is making do with driving taxis and attending design classes at a local college. He is Dosho Shifferaw, the inventor of Bowflex, an exercise machine that once was popular.

He spends his spare time tinkering with flexing plastic rods, pulling and winding Pongee cords, glueing together wood dowels, screwing fasteners to metal frames, and hanging curious contraptions of his creations on his apartment walls and doors.

Dosho, like the rest of the first-wave American Diaspora of the 70’s, lives in a state of confusion and deep anxiety. The refugees have all lost fathers, brothers, sisters, uncles, cousins or friends to the machine guns and impenetrable prisons of the Dergue. A new fervour of death and destruction has gripped Ethiopia, and very few among these refugees could really grasp from afar what exactly is going on in the country.

News from Ethiopia is uncommon in those days since Africa hardly registers on the American radar. Dosho, along with others in the tightly-knit circle, do their best to cope with what little they know about the turmoil at home. Although he himself has lost his father to the terror, he gradually adjusts to the tragedy and embarks upon a new life of hanging out with his friends and looking for hardware stores that carry odd rubber bushings and wheel nuts for his inventions.

Dosho and his generation are wearily witnessing as a way of life, civic structures, family homes, farms, enterprises, communities and established institutions are being smashed to smithereens in the upheavals of the revolution. Very gradually, this group of refugees find themselves in the uncoveted state of homelessness and disposition that has no return.

The hopes and aspirations of an entire generation of progressive, modern and capable citizens like Dosho, who yearn to return home and play their parts in building, developing and contributing to the enlightenment of the motherland are put in the suspended animation of the dispossessed.

Like Homer’s Odysseus, the war hero who hankers and toils to journey home, the Ethiopians in the American Diaspora look homeward but resists the siren calls of the mermaids and stays away from Ethiopia.

Like Odysseus, the refugees do not want to abandon their homes and families, but they heed the good advice of the goddess Circe who has warned the hero, “There is a great heap of dead men’s bones lying all around, with the flesh still rotting off them. Therefore, pass these Sirens by, and stop your men’s ears with wax that none of them may hear.”

The Diaspora remains abroad, and many go on to eventually achieve great successes like Dosho. Some become prominent entrepreneurs, first-rate surgeons in top-notch medical centres, senior executives of major civic organizations, academicians in Ivy League schools, important contributors to significant scientific discoveries, and community leaders.

Almost all of these talented, skilled and capable individuals in the Diaspora are destined to live far removed from the affairs of the nation paying but lip service to the mother country. These men and women are now minor players in the development of Ethiopia, with very few having returned from exile with to influence or contribute.

Ethiopia is poorer for having lost the cream of its citizens to the Diaspora, as much as the refugees have lost a beloved country to call home. They have diverged onto a new and separate branch of history that has evolved independently of the motherland. The regrets of the Diaspora, if any, is now mostly confined to the loss of property inheritance, not a country.

People of a nation do not shrink back from their own history because it does not fit into a trend, out of fear, uncertainty, or because it is politically correct to do as such. They forsake their histories and assume new identities when they are expatriated, violently or involuntarily, from their own homes and the dominant narratives of their alliance to a nation are altered.

Humanity is replete with wrongdoings where a small group of cohorts inflict untold sufferings on an entire population. The atrocities of the Dergue are but one recent and glaring example of disruptions of history that occur to a people. Civilizations and nations flourish when events of their histories, however desperate, are kept continuous, marked and celebrated by stories told, by monuments erected, by open discussions, reconciliations, and by unfettered remembrances and celebrations of the milestones.

Today, the history of the Ethiopian modern era is chopped, cut and reassembled to fit into current social, economic or political necessities. It is as if our history has leapfrogged two or three generations that lived between Menelik II and the current epoch. This portion of our history is conveniently neglected, a period when the first university opened, Ethiopian Airlines comes into existence, the first electric hydropower is constructed, and television is introduced.

A patriotic war is also fought and won against Italy, the first printing press is installed, the African Union is established with Addis Abeba as its headquarter, and a new wave of Ethiopians flock to the United States and Europe to gain enlightenment with hopes of returning and developing Ethiopia.

The fact that the progress of the previous era is interrupted by the Dergue is not disputed, but there is an unexplained reason why that piece of history has disappeared from the public arena. It is futile for a nation to attempt to create a new beginning by cutting off one part of its history and trying to clone another one on it.

The thriving radio, television and film cultures in the country are filled, ad nauseum, with soap-opera melodramas, suspect and doubtful life-style advice, and trivial accounts gleaned from unsubstantiated online sources. Meanwhile, there are sporadic and very few programs that document, celebrate or depict our long history.

The story of Dosho and his generation in the Diaspora may be folded into the Ethiopian chronicle and experience. But, like all the other expatriates, the revolution has irrevocably tethered him to America. In his exile, he huddles with his friends, plays the minor scales of Tizita on his flute, and welters in sad reflections of fading memories of bygone days. Meanwhile, he works tirelessly on his inventions until eventually, he succeeds by creating a popular and very successful exercise machine that brings much wealth and fame to him.

Upon his death a few years ago, the small world of his generation in the Diaspora assembles for his funeral at a church in Oakland, California. His eulogies, delivered by people who do not know him, touched upon his exceptional success as an Ethiopian inventor, but not the man. The chap that his friends know and miss is a man of wit, humour, laughter, loyalty, and a true partisan who forever yearns to return and make a difference in Ethiopia.

By Ambessaw Assegued

Published on Apr 21,2018 [ Vol 18 ,No 938]



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