This article is a response to an email I received regarding what I wrote two weeks ago. I suggested that unlike most other African countries, Ethiopia has never been colonized. A reader pointed out that, no, Ethiopia, as one of the oldest countries in the world, has actually been colonized several times and that racism doesn’t not only exist in western countries but also in Ethiopia. I don’t refute both counsels, although it was all a matter of perspective.
Is there racism right here in our country?
Of course, there is. We just don’t talk about it, or better yet, never in the open or in the media. It is just too taboo to do so. If I were to insinuate that a certain group looks down on the other within the Ethiopian society, knowing it may be true, it is nonetheless considered a great betrayal to the Ethiopian people.
One of the credos of our society is that we never criticize our way of life. Culture and traditions are considered our heritage, our very own identities. To speak out against them, to suggest we are not perfect, would be to endorse Westernization and to tell our elders how they have been wrong about being Ethiopian. Those that have been outspoken have been an outcast and spurned by friends and relatives.
What is it that makes one so peculiarly Habesha?
Land, creed, race, class or sexual orientation?
Most of the world’s population today has a rather flexible idea of what it means to be a citizen. One’s economic class, creed or race should not determine the nationality of a person.
When America was discovered centuries ago, there were aboriginal peoples and the European colonizers started calling them Red Indians (since considered offensive). The indigenous population, it was said, posed an existentialist threat to Americanism. So, they were systematically, more or less, wiped out, in a manner some today would consider genocidal.
Moving on to creed, can my personally held set of believes bar me from being considered Ethiopian?
It shouldn’t, but Mengestu Haile-Mariam, the architect of the Derge regime, would surely disagree. During his reign, anyone person who showed any type of sympathy for capitalism and admiration for materialism was by default an enemy of the state.
What about sexuality, by which, I mean, should a homosexual be considered an Ethiopian?
Some may agree, and others would surely disagree, but according to the criminal code, the very act is illegal and so very un-Ethiopian for many.
Then, is it the language we speak?
Unlikely – there is no such language called Ethiopian. There is Amharic (our lingua franca), Oromiffa, Tigrigna and many other native languages.
So, what is left?
Land! By law, anyone born within the parameter of this country, or in an Ethiopian embassy, or in an airplane owned by an Ethiopian airline that is flying directly over an ocean, is considered an Ethiopian. A lot of our Diaspora may not agree though they may have American or Canadian, or Brazilian citizenship but they still very much consider themselves Habesha. Add to this, asylum seekers who may have been banned from their countries. Are they any less a member of this country?
What did I mean when I said Ethiopia has never been colonized?
Well, first of all, when we talk about colonization in terms of Africa, we are usually referring to the Scramble for Africa by European superpowers starting from the late 19th century. In that instance, we indeed have escaped colonization.
But what if we went a little further back into history?
Take two of the country’s major religions, Christianity and Islam. None of them originated in Ethiopia but, in a way, invaded it. At the time they were introduced into the country, there was a great resistance to stop them from infiltrating the country. Today though, as one of the most deeply religious countries in the world, Christianity and Islam are to a lot of people a major part of what makes an Ethiopian indeed a true Ethiopian.
Another great source of pride for the Habesha is the diversity of Ethiopians. But where did they all come from?
Again, all thanks to colonization. Every single Ethiopian today is a multifaceted DNA concoction of Semitic and African ancestries, most of them having flooded into this land as immigrants or colonizers. If we were to ask who is the true Ethiopian, whose nationality has never been punctuated by any outsider, any colonizer, that prize would go to an ape whom we now call Lucy, and whose skeleton we hang around in museums.
To me, an Ethiopian, a true Ethiopian, is a person who chooses to be one despite all the flaws that are associated with the designation. An Ethiopian should be someone who cares enough to criticize his society, not one that goes with the status quo. Not one that rides the smooth, mindless waves of nationalism.
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