In the Now

Do people make the culture, or is it the other way around?

What it means to be Ethiopian is continuously changing. In light of the many unrests in Ethiopia, I feel I am not alone in querying the meaning of the Ethiopian identity.

It raises the question; who regulates Ethiopian culture?

I often hear people say “but this is not our culture”. When I hear this sentence, I can immediately tell that the person making the argument merely wants to shut down the conversation without giving it time to understand.

We continually refer to tradition as if some safeguard when in truth that “tradition” is an action we do not dare to change. We hide behind the past as if afraid what we have in the present is not enough. There is a reason so many of the TV commercials and Ethiopian brands are always nostalgic for a past most of us were not even around for. It is the same philosophy that Teddy Afro, the most famous Ethiopian pop-singer, has tapped-in to maintain his popularity.

People love to reminisce for it gives them the freedom not to act in the present, in the real moment we are living.

A prominent African-American writer once said, “history is not in the past, it is what you are living right now.”

This sentiment might be hard to believe as we are all ordinary people just making our way through the life we have been handed. But in truth, we have been dealt a hand in life so that what we choose to do what we wish with it.

I am a person, a woman and an Ethiopian woman to boot. Each of these statements paints a picture of who I am as a person. It shows you what could be going on in my life – the positives and the negatives, with just a few words. These statements could give you an understanding of who I am in my community, what my aspirations are and what society would like me to become. But defining me through a narrow lens – which masks who I am and all I aspire to be – take a back seat if you are preoccupied with your own expectations of me.

In a room half full of male students discussing gender-based violence, a young man stood up and indicated how the previous speaker a woman, was dressed up had excited him.

“You wear clothing that is not part of our culture, and you arouse us. How is it our fault that we react?”

This young man was not the first and would not be the last to refer to the Ethiopian culture when asking women to be hushed and sit down. This was not the only man in skinny jeans and a mohawk to try and regulate women’s sense of style or what makes them comfortable. This individual did not even consider that he is taking a right to express himself in the fashion that he deemed appropriate for him but felt he could hide behind the Ethiopian culture to shame a woman who was doing the same.

We cannot pick and choose which traditions we would like to inflict on people while holding ourselves to a different standard. And if we are adamant to look back and honour the traditions of our ancestors, then, why not channel the good traditions that Ethiopians pride themselves in. Our hospitality to newcomers, the respectfulness, kindness, warmth and many other virtuous characters that exemplify Ethiopianism.

I remember when I visited Lalibela for the first time. I stood looking down at the ground in pure amazement. I stood there, and I could not move for I was in awe. The idea that a few people stood on the same ground I was standing on and said, we will dig here, and build churches beneath the ground. Beginning with one scoop, they unearthed the ground to create 11 monolithic churches. This is a testament to humankind’s ingenuity.

And after spending a day of exploring what was impressive architecture and engineering, it made me wonder when it was that we went wrong.

Many Ethiopians tell stories of how enchanting their country is, and indeed, it has a fascinating past. Yet, we must not hide behind it if we ever plan to move forward. We must appreciate what is present while understanding the shortcomings. It is easy to be nostalgic about a past we were not present in. It is harder to live in today and work for a better future.

We can and must find inspiration from the past. From how great Ethiopia used to be. But, we must believe in a future we can shape for the better. We cannot wash our hands off of the world and declare we are free from responsibility. We are responsible to create an inclusive and wholesome Ethiopia for all.

If not us, then who?

By Hanna Haile
Hanna Haile ( is an Ethiopian writer, researcher and social worker who uses her writing to promote social and gender equality, identity and women’s rights. She is one of the organisers of Poetic Saturday at Fendika Cultural Centre where she performs spoken word poetry every first Saturday of the month.

Published on Dec 16,2017 [ Vol 18 ,No 920]



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