“Why Ethiopia stayed behind”
While discussing the temperament of Seattleites (kind of cold, kind of distant, kind of keeping to themselves in a way that borders Xenophobia) with a friend last night, I said something that I never knew I’ve formally thought of before. I said “I think the exposure to different cultures has made Seattleites unable to recognize and appreciate cultural diversity in a heart-felt way. If they knew somebody like you, they assume [I guess] they know all they need to know about you, which makes them less curious to [intimidated, chatty, inquisitive] folks in, say, little old Escondido which [true to its name] is hidden to the outside world except for the Mexican immigrants that cross into its borders by hundreds a day and the little black prostitute girls that come from the other end of the country to cater to their “needs”. When I say I’m from Ethiopia, the first response I get is ‘Oh yeah, I love Ethiopian food!’. And I’m like I’m more than my food, asshole”.
Or something to that effect.
That last phrase lingered on my mind long after the subject changed to the pleasant atmosphere in the coffee shop we were sitting. [Where books lined the walls, coffee machines work tirelessly to produce the unique aroma of that bean life in Seattle would have been harder without, where men and women from different walks of life talk and work on their laptops, holding their hip-ness with an easy grace you can't master if you were reincarnated as a manican.] The fact that I’m more than my food and how to get that message across to people I meet and deal with on a regular basis [people who can't recognize the source of my pain or pleasure if it sits on their laps and says "selam" to them] bugged me for a second or two. I wondered how I can make this friend of mine see my country/my culture as an outsider should/would see it. I asked how we, abeshas and abesheets [Ethiopians] appear to the occasional bystander. And in trying to think of an outsider who has seen us, lived among us, and written about us in a way other outsiders can understand, the name Timothy Kalyegria popped into my head.
He is the columnist who wrote the article “Why Ethiopia Stayed Behind”, in a series of dossiers he labeled “The Abyssinian Chronicles”. When the amharic version of his essay on why we stayed behind the rest of Africa first showed up on Addis Admas, back when that newspaper mattered, it showed up under the title “Menaded kalelegachu yihinin tsihuf atanibu”. It’s been a while since this article held the mirror to our faces and made us lash out at the guy holding the mirror. Gone are the days in which the writer was called names starting from “lemma”.. to boundless others on every media an Ethiopian was allowed to write his ill-spelled English on. Which may also be the reason why finding it gave me quite the run around. When I finally located it, I decided I gotta re-post it on my e-shoe box. Because it’s still relevant and useful. And there are those of you who still don’t know it exists.
The Warning Before The Warning
For all of you [abesha/eets] who haven’t come across this article, or heard about it, make sure you read the warning before diving in. It can cause mild to severe irritations and a need to lash out.
Why Ethiopia Stayed Behind – Part 1; by Timothy Kalyegira
INTRODUCTION – CAUTION!
Before I sent this article out for reading and publication, I showed it to an Ethiopian friend in Addis Ababa to have a read through. She cautioned me that, because of its somewhat frank and detailed tone, the article would not go down well with many Ethiopians.
It first stunned her when she first read it. But after discussing it with her for several days, we decided that it might as well come out, since it echoes issues that many Ethiopians are concerned about these days. But I have had to add this cautionary note.
The first is to mention that I have written it with the best of intentions. I have developed an emotional connection with Ethiopia that makes it impossible for me to remain neutral of the country and its people.
On my second visit to Addis Ababa, I was accorded more respect I think I deserved.
I have made many friends in the country and many other Ethiopians abroad. This same respect I have got from the Ethiopian embassy in Kampala, and generally from the Ethiopian citizens resident in Uganda.
I am grateful for all this Ethiopian friendship and I can’t do any less than return it. Or to use the joking word we like to use in Uganda, I will “revenge” for all this friendship from Ethiopians!
However, there are certain things I also have been discussing in several newspapers in Addis Ababa and which I am developing further in this article, as part of my ongoing discussion of Ethiopia with many people in Addis Ababa and elsewhere.
Ethiopians love their country. But they more than even I feel that they there are difficulties in the country that they can no longer ignore. Because I am an outsider, yet in a certain way now also an insider, I have the benefit of neutrality.
I bring with me a point of view that is based on my being a Ugandan, an African, and also one who is interested in the historic African country of Ethiopia.
Yet, as an African who has taken the time to try and understand Ethiopia, I can also talk about things from a more informed standpoint than that of just a tourist spending a few weeks in the country.
I have made a number of observations in the time between February 1 when I first went to Addis Ababa and now, September 2, when I write this note. Of course I still cannot claim to have the total picture of Ethiopia yet.
But, maybe through the eyes of this Ugandan foreigner, Ethiopians might see things that their history, upbringing, life experiences, ethnicity, and the simple fact of being part of the country might have caused them to overlook.
This is why I hope my comments in this article are taken in good faith.
For those who wish to strongly disagree with me, or even to express their disgust and anger at me, please do so. You can think of me as a punching bag at your disposal! Please feel free to punch me as freely and hard as you wish!
My e-mail address is: email@example.com
Uganda is not very different from Ethiopia. At some stage in our history, we were in the same cycle of endless gridlock.
One of the main ways in which Uganda managed to resolve its greatest national problems was that we talked about everything, got angry where we did, argued, agreed, reflected, discussed, and did research. But what mattered was that we laid it all out on the table as it was.
What therefore I hope the readers of this essay keep in mind is that I am writing as a Ugandan, coming from a society where, because of our openness, we have reduced AIDS to a disease as risky as cancer, we have a news media that is even more free than that of the United States, and freedom is now our most distinct national trait.
I might, in this article, say things freely that are still taboo subjects in Ethiopia, without realizing that I am hurting, annoying, or scandalizing many people. If that should happen, I apologize sincerely.
It will always be my pride to see Ethiopia become once again the country of legend that it was hundreds of years ago.
I thank my secret proofreader and reviewer in Addis Ababa for her helpful comments, words of caution, and spell checking. She loves her country and I am grateful she took the time to wrestle with the pain of some of the things, the “hard facts” as she called them, which I mentioned in the first draft of this article, before it could come out.
Have no doubt at all — I will always love Ethiopia and its people. I actually feel more affection for Ethiopians now that when I first visited in February, in spite of some of the uncomfortable issues I will discuss in this article.
WHY ETHIOPIA STAYED BEHIND
And what must be done for the future
By Timothy Kalyegira
Part 1: Impressions of my second visit to Ethiopia
As I had promised, I made my second visit to Ethiopia for three weeks between July 18 and August 7.
I suffered as I have never suffered in all my life because of the cold. Cold bed sheets, cold blanket, cold floor, rain, rain, rain, rain. Whoever came up with this slogan about 13 months of sunshine, should be arrested and put in jail! I am surprised there was no snow on the streets of Addis Ababa!
On a good day, I would experience 13 minutes of sunshine, followed by 13 hours of rain.
But otherwise, I really, truly enjoyed myself in Ethiopia. I am so glad I came to visit once again. Those three weeks in Ethiopia were the longest time I had ever been outside Uganda since I was born. I also got a taste of that Ethiopian hospitality which can at times even suffocate!
Strangers, my friends, government officials, the staff of the National Hotel, all made me feel like a VIP, they treated me like royalty, it was flattering, really nice. I give Ethiopia a 21-gun salute for that unforgettable hospitality.
But also, a red card for the rainy season cold in Addis Ababa! (Oooh, that cold!)
This time on my visit, I had the time to see the inside and out of this historic African country, as close-up as through zoom lenses, unlike the nine days I spent there in February.
Of course, even three weeks is still too short a time to understand everything about a country and its complex history, but I can say I have come close this time to a much more accurate understanding of the dynamics that make Ethiopia.
Comparing Ethiopia with Uganda
When the Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 flight touched down at Entebbe International Airport on the afternoon of Tuesday, August 7, I got off the plane and right away began taking photographs of the airport building.
About five minutes after we landed, the new presidential Gulf stream jet landed and parked about 60 metres to the left of the Ethiopian Airlines aircraft. I also took photos of the presidential jet, although President Yoweri Museveni was not in his plane at the time.
Watching me were the intelligence agents who maintain security at the airport. None of them stopped me from taking photos of the presidential jet, or wondered who I was.
What kept going through my mind on the tarmac at the airport was, “This is freedom! No wonder people always comment on how free Uganda is!”. In Uganda, taking photographs at the airport is as normal as taking photos with your family at home.
When I was in Ethiopia, I kept telling my many Ethiopian friends that Uganda is a much freer country than even America, but not all found it easy to believe me.
This is what one misses most when one —- or at least when I —- am in Addis Ababa. Total freedom. Of course I cannot assume that conditions in Uganda should be exactly the same in all other countries, with their different histories. Each country knows the specific conditions that influence its policies.
But this is the most important difference between Uganda and Ethiopia. Freedom of the most abundant type imaginable can be felt all over Uganda. It is a freedom that goes beyond politics and government. It is freedom of the society. Perhaps it might even be reckless freedom.
When you mention this idea of freedom to Ethiopians, they are quick to point a finger at the government, as the main reason why Ethiopia is not such a free place to live in. But by the time I visited the country again in July, I had already understood that there is more to Ethiopia than the government.
I tried to make my friends see that Ethiopian society in general is not very free and therefore it is not fully accurate to blame the EPLF government exclusively. Not that the government is perfect. But it largely reflects the culture and society.
I would argue that even if Ethiopia had the most democratic government in the world, the society would still not be free, because of traits woven into the culture.
It is, in my opinion, vital to understand and come to terms with this, especially when it comes to how to deal with political differences. Ethiopians could spend decades resorting to armed conflict, only to replace one government with another, with the exact same way of running the country, because of their cultural background.
We cannot simply write articles, hold debates in parliament, and speak about democracy, without asking what conditions in the first place nurture democracy. In Russia, the population has been demanding for more “democracy.” But this same population, on other issues, shows that it is not prepared to tolerate “democracy” in the full sense in which it is understood in the western countries.
I mentioned this point in a long article in June and I confirmed it by my second visit.
If you are attentive, you can feel the tension in Addis Ababa. People are generally not relaxed. Or even if they seem relaxed on the outside, it is not difficult to sense a degree of unease in the air, in their eyes.
Even when you discuss matters that have nothing to do with politics or the government, people often don’t want to be quoted and they are generally hesitant about expressing strong opinions.
It is almost as if people are scared of being controversial, of being known to hold strong views about anything.
One of the proofs of my argument about cultural freedom is drawn from my observation of the Ethiopian community living in Uganda.
These people are exposed to one of the freest countries on earth, Uganda, where anything can be said by anyone, about anyone, on any topic, at any time of day or night, anywhere, be it in a bar, or school, government department, or on the street.
If you want to be racist, foolish, sensible, intelligent, silly, or nice, you are free in Uganda. You are free to write or utter sense or nonsense on radio, television, or the newspapers. You can get away with any opinion on any subject.
But I notice that, even in this free atmosphere in Uganda, most Ethiopians living in Uganda even after several years are more or less exactly like the Ethiopians in Addis Ababa. They are still as reserved, cautious, and private.
An Ethiopian in Kampala, who is a diehard Ethiopian patriot, one evening after I returned from Addis Ababa, freely admitted this to me. He casually observed to me that, even if Ethiopia got another government, the people would continue to be suspicious, particularly of foreigners, and of those foreigners, the White people above all.
I was surprised by his confession, since he is one of those Ethiopians who think Ethiopia is the centre of the universe and that everything about Ethiopia is perfect.
The same sober, reserved and quiet air that I felt so strongly when I would sit in mini buses with Ethiopian passengers in Addis Ababa or Debre Zeit, you feel around most Ethiopians in Uganda.
When I would visit churches in Addis, be it St. Mariam’s up in Entoto or St. Stefanos just opposite National Hotel where I was staying, I would look at people’s faces and feel like saying, “Hey, can’t you smile? This is a church!”
People sit silently in taxis in Addis Ababa, Debre Zeit, and Nazareth, with sad, strained expressions on their faces.
That is why I will never forget the evening I went to Debre Zeit by mini bus. Along the way, the boy who collects the taxi fare asked me in Amharic for my money. I signaled to him that I didn’t understand Amharic but in English I asked how much it was.
He seemed to get stuck over expressing himself in English. A tall, attractive girl, maybe about 24 was seated next to me told me the fare. As I paid the taxi boy, this girl burst out into a long bout of laughter. For about 10 kilometres, she laughed and laughed as the boy looked at her and me sheepishly.
She was laughing at him and saying “You people always think everybody in the world speaks Amharic. You thought everyone who looks like an Ethiopian is an Ethiopian!” She then went on to point out the landscape to me through the mini van’s windows like a typical Ethiopian: “See! So green. Its very nice!”
She kept looking at the taxi boy and laughing, while the other passengers were all seated in silence.
I had never seen an Ethiopian laugh so hard and for so long. She laughed until tears filled her eyes. That amused me. I never forgot it because it was so rare to see this sort of easy, heartfelt laughter in an Ethiopian.
Ethiopians in Addis Ababa complain about the lack of press freedom.
But it is almost impossible to hear an Ethiopian in Uganda pick up a phone and take part in any of the many talk shows on Kampala’s 20 private radio stations. You rarely, if ever see, an Ethiopian write an article expressing any opinion in Ugandan newspapers.
A number of Ethiopian journalists have come and taken diploma courses in Uganda, or visited for brief courses. But despite studying and living in this free environment, I never heard any of them write articles in the Ugandan newspapers, or take part in radio discussion shows as studio guests.
There are many educated Ethiopians in Kampala, but you almost never feel their presence. They live in their private world, socializing mainly with their fellow Ethiopians.
You rarely meet an Ethiopian at a private party hosted by Ugandans or meet Ugandans at Ethiopian parties.
Every time the national newspapers publish picture pages of parties, cocktails, and other social events in Kampala, the people you see having a good time with Ugandans are Americans, British, Canadians, Kenyans, White South Africans, Congolese, Italians, Nigerians, or French. You rarely see Ethiopians at these parties.
I think the greatest surprise that hit me on this longer visit to Ethiopia was the country’s news media. I visited the editorial offices of four private newspapers and the government Walta Information Centre. Some of these newspapers have been publishing my articles sent from Kampala.
Yet when I visited the offices, there was such a reserved, mild atmosphere, it was so surprising. I was introduced to reporters, editors, sales executives, and production people.
I am used to newspapers and radio stations in Uganda where the newsrooms are filled with laughter and humour, heated, loud debates about politics, social life, last weekend’s party, and people, and so much energy.
I had to come to terms with that aspect of Ethiopia, (and something else I will write about later in this article.)
I was puzzled most by the reaction in the newspapers that had published my articles. In my first article, I made a few errors in my assessment of Ethiopian women, thinking they were proud when in fact they are the complete opposite. I had mistaken their reserve and shyness for pride.
I thought at least someone in the newsrooms would say, “Aha, since you are here, let me ask you what you meant by this or that statement in your article!” But I came and went, without hearing my Ethiopian sisters come out and discuss or challenge some of my earlier misconceptions with me.
Later, I began realizing that this was not just limited to the government and private media. All over Addis Ababa’s professional community, in private offices and businesses and government departments, you encounter this mild, reserved, often shy, quiet attitude.
You meet people who hold powerful offices or who ran successful businesses. But they are so humble, it is hard to link the office with its holder.
People sit quietly behind their computers doing their work, speaking in low modest tones and rarely do you hear the laughter, jokes, and debates that tend to fill Ugandan offices.
When I would enter offices and be introduced to women or girls, many would politely rise up from their seats or extend their hands in greeting, then seem to be glad to go back behind their computer screens, which provided a convenient curtain to shield them from eye contact with this Ugandan stranger.
This humility and modesty is something that I, personally, admire a great deal in Ethiopians. I actually admire it even more than the fact that Ethiopia was never colonized. But it is a trait that has its other side.
It makes Ethiopians seem somewhat passive. There are some professions like the airline, hotel, foreign policy, and tourism industries which require a much more outgoing attitude than others.
This is why I feel that Ethiopian society is partly where it is, because of what it is. The various governments past and present might have had their part in holding back the country. But I don’t think you can ignore the impact of the wider society and culture.
A number of Ethiopians admitted to me that the general mildness of the Ethiopians and thus the low-key tone of the news media, is largely cultural.
If what they say is true, then at least it takes us to the first step. We stop regarding our national crisis as primarily political. We come to recognize that the politics of Ethiopia is a reflection of the wider societal current.
It is important for Ethiopians to face up to this reality, if they are to avoid tearing their country apart with all sorts of liberation and guerrilla groups, each one claiming to liberate Ethiopia from a bondage that is, in truth, within the society, no matter which government is in power and however democratic it is.
For example, for three weeks in Addis Ababa, I had to get used to the fact that there are so many places where you cannot take photographs. Even at churches and church museums, of all places!
In Uganda, you enter the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with no one checking you. Almost all government ministries are as free to enter as restaurants.
Not only do you enter Uganda Television and state-owned radio as freely as entering a market, you are even free to take photographs in the TV studios.
Another dominant feature of Ethiopian society is the almost paranoid fear of cameras and being photographed. Just the sight of a camera would cause tension in many people I met.
Freedom, a relaxed atmosphere, and relaxed, playful, easygoing people, is one of the major differences between Uganda and Ethiopia. I would have to add that Ugandans were like that even under the most difficult years of Idi Amin’s regime.
When Ugandans were refugees in Nairobi, Kenya, having fled from Amin’s brutality, they became a favourite in bars. They would buy up crates of beer, invite any Kenyan around who was interested, and have long, cheerful hours of partying.
There are many things Uganda has done right and thus we deserve the freedom and growing economy, and international favouritism that we enjoy.
Our freedom is astonishing, our friendship with foreigners real. It is not by accident that people as diverse as former U.S President Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary were so taken up by Uganda. Or Libya’s controversial leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, who has made two state visits to Uganda this year and is to make a third one next month.
Or the South African singers Yvonne Chaka Chaka and Lucky Dube, who have each visited Uganda for concerts at least three times. Or African hero Nelson Mandela, who visited Uganda twice or thrice. And so many western leaders and diplomats.
For a foreigner to invest in Ethiopia, that investor would need to bring in a minimum of 250,000 dollars.
Uganda is a foreigner’s paradise. As I keep telling my Ethiopian friends, an Ethiopian can come from Addis Ababa with only 3,000 dollars, set up a hair salon in Kampala, and make money. No one will disturb that Ethiopian.
Uganda is the true heartbeat of Africa. When we say Africa is every African’s home, this is not just political talk. You are free to come in from anywhere in Africa and start up a business, however small.
Uganda is like a discotheque — anybody from any country is welcome to dance, as long as you don’t step on other people’s feet.
Most Ethiopians in Uganda think we are crazy because of this open door policy. My opinion is that Uganda is the real character of Africa — open, welcoming of all Africans, and not just to visit, but to take refuge and even set up small, 2,000-dollar businesses.
Maybe God has blessed us with this abundant freedom because we have made His children —- Ethiopians, Russians, Indians, Eritreans, Britons, Chinese, Iranians, French, Americans, Italians, Lebanese, Congolese, Somalis, South Africans, Swedes, Arabs, Swiss, Rwandese, Irish, Canadians, Sudanese, Japanese —- feel truly at home!
Maybe more at home in Uganda than even in their own countries.
Common sense, flexibility
However, while freedom is a major difference between Uganda and Ethiopia, the single biggest difference is in the mentality, the atmosphere of common sense and a flexible attitude toward crucial national matters that is so clearly seen in Ugandans.
Ethiopians take too many things too seriously.
What is most unfortunate is that Ethiopians tend to get worked up and serious for the wrong reasons, yet where energy and determination are required for the right things, Ethiopians seem so mild.
This is the contradiction that puzzles me.
If a country were to invade Ethiopia, thousands of young people would scream in anger and rush to go to the battlefront to “fight for my country.” Few would stop to ask the reasons for the war in the first place, who is involved, and what the consequences will be.
Why Ethiopia Stayed Behind (Part II)
But you ask a young person to roll up his sleeves and give a hand to cleaning up the streets of Addis Ababa, or do some manual work, rather than embarrass the country by begging visitors and tourists, and he will feel insulted about being told to do manual work.
You wonder: if he is willing to take enormous risks like facing artillery fire and land mines on the battlefield for his country, why is he unwilling to work to keep Addis Ababa’s streets clean?
In May 2000, Ethiopia went to war with Eritrea. Many months later, most Ethiopians and Eritreans in Kampala would tell me: “That war was between Meles and Issias. The Ethiopian and Eritrean people have no problem with each other.”
I asked that if this was so, why were so many young people, boys and girls, struggling to go to the war front? “Because they love their country!”, would come the reply.
See a contrasting situation. In June 2000, just a few weeks into the Ethiopian-Eritrean war, Uganda and Rwanda —- which like Ethiopia and Eritrea are neighbours and former close allies in the guerilla struggles —- fought in the Congolese city of Kisangani.
Most Ugandans calmly went about their everyday business, saying, “That is a quarrel between President Museveni and Major General Paul Kagame [leader of Rwanda]. When they are tired of fighting, they will come back and talk.”
No single Ugandan civilian went to the battlefront or volunteered to fight in a conflict that they felt was between two leaders. That’s where we are different.
When the Israeli air force attacked Entebbe airport in that famous commando raid in July 1976, very few Ugandans came forward to volunteer to fight for President Idi Amin. We reasoned that it was he who had provoked the Israelis. And anyway, he was a dictator and deserved that beating.
When Tanzania invaded Uganda after Amin first attacked Tanzania in October 1978, again no Ugandans except for the army and air force bothered to come out to “fight for my country.”
We supported the Tanzanians all the way, until they removed Amin from power.
Even though another country (Israel, Tanzania) invaded Uganda, Ugandans were able to separate their love for their country, from the fact that it was Uganda’s leader who had provoked that country and therefore deserved what he got.
Since most Ethiopians find it hard to separate their emotions from their country, it is easy to lead Ethiopians into expensive and pointless wars and conflicts , when the fight might really be a personal quarrel between Ethiopia’s Colonel Mengistu and Somalia’s President, General Mohammed Siad Barre.
Things that Uganda would laugh off and let pass without any problem, will get Ethiopians so worked up and angry. You can meet a Ugandan and tell them you think Uganda is the greatest country in the world, and they will reply, “Well, thanks.”
Then later you can tell the same Ugandan that you now think that Uganda is the most foolish and backward country in the world. To this, the Ugandan will calmly reply, “What makes you say that?” None of the two statements will cause the Ugandan to get over excited or angry.
While I was in Addis Ababa, a Rwandese living in Europe who had visited Uganda, wrote an article dismissing Uganda as one of the worst countries he has ever seen. He criticized the restaurants, nightclubs, taxis, roads, and the whole country.
The article was one of the most popular that week, I am told. People laughed about it and it was the topic in bars and offices. No matter how much you insult Uganda, you can’t get any one annoyed over that. To begin with, Ugandans spend much of their time laughing at their country’s silly mistakes and confused leaders.
This balanced thinking, this control of one’s emotions cuts across almost every area of Ugandan society, from the leaders to the poorest of the poor.
To me, the admirable love for Ethiopia that almost all Ethiopians feel is also the most frightening thing about Ethiopia, and something I feel is the country’s greatest danger.
It is this trait which, if not checked, will make Ethiopia take 10 steps forward in economic and political progress, only to suddenly plunge back 40 steps into war, ethnic tensions, and factional fighting within whichever government is in power.
Here is the paradox: how can people like Ethiopians, who love their country so much, be the same people who do the country its greatest harm, yet people like Kenyans and Tanzanians, who seem indifferent to their country, have actually helped their countries remain so stable for so long? Could it be that too much patriotism can be more harmful to a country than not caring about one’s country?
Usually when an Ethiopian is not pleased by what you have said about Ethiopia, he gets so angry, and can even stop talking to you over that.
It happened to me in Addis Ababa. I also got a taste of it when some Ethiopians and Eritreans in America and Europe visited my Africa Almanac web site.
They disagreed with some of the content there regarding Ethiopia and Eritrea. This is a website which I launched in December 2000, long before I knew either of these two countries well. Of course I was bound to make a few errors, because as a human being, I did not know enough to get their complex histories correct.
But you should see the e-mail from these Ethiopians and Eritreans! “You are the most stupid man in the world!”, read one.
I wrote back to them calmly asking that, even if they disagreed with what I had written, they did not have to lose their self-control and insult me. Should they not rather have informed me of the facts, instead of blowing up in anger?
Unable to reason this out, they wrote back to me with even more abusive words. I told them that this is the central crisis in their countries, Ethiopia and Eritrea. Before Ethiopians and Eritreans visited my web site, the letters from other Africans were gentlemanly, respectful, rational, and even when they disagreed with what the web site had said; they did so in a reasonable manner.
But as soon as the Ethiopians came in and began giving their comments, suddenly the tone became aggressive and unreasonable.
I reminded them that, even after spending so many years in America, these Ethiopians writing from the United States had still not developed the tolerance of other people’s views that is required for democracy to flourish.
Many of the Ethiopians are in America as political exiles. They blame Prime Minister Meles Zenawi for all the problems in Ethiopia, saying he is crushing and suppressing all views opposed to his.
But I told them that, just from their abusive and angry e-mail to my web site, if they had even 10 percent of the power that Prime Minister Meles has, they would probably have ordered for my arrest or thrown a grenade at my house.
You are late for an appointment or for some reason you can’t make it, and your Ethiopian friend gets so, so angry for a whole day. That is a dangerous national streak and character!
A girl who was staying at the National Hotel asked me to lend her a camera for a trip with some Ethiopian and American friends to Bahr Dar. I told her that I was using mine, but I would ask around for one from my friends. Two days later, after I failed to find one, she said impatiently, “I am going to stop talking to you because you didn’t get me a camera!”
One girl in Kampala invited me to visit her at a time I was so busy. I kept trying to make it to her place but couldn’t somehow find the time. One day when I think her patience was exhausted, she rang me at home and blasted me with the words, “What’s wrong with you!” I tried to explain why I had failed to turn up, but by then, her temper was already in flames.
Yet when I met her that evening, she was calm, and her usual nice self. There are too many examples of this, but I begin to feel frightened by people who’s emotions can so suddenly switch on and off, from cool, sweet, warm, to angry and uncompromising!
(Some of the people I am writing about will read this article and probably laugh, knowing what I am talking about!)
Ethiopians are nice people, really sincere and in my opinion, wonderful people. But there is a demon that flies from nowhere once in a while and plunges them into a state of mind that can only lead to conflict and self-destruction.
I have been telling my Ethiopian friends both in Kampala and Addis that they should not think that what happened to Somalia was different and it can’t happen to them. Most think Ethiopia can’t go to that extreme. But, you never know. That fiery, volatile temperament I see in Ethiopians gets me worried sometimes.
A teenage Ethiopian girl in Kampala put it well to me one day in late May: “Ethiopians are like that. Once they like you, they will like you to death. But once they turn against you, it is finished.” Frightening words!
It is as if stubbornness and intransigence is written into most peoples’ minds — people who find it difficult to think with flexibility, people who struggle to detach themselves from their emotions and think clearly and objectively about Ethiopia.
But then, where did this trait come from? A trait that has kept Ethiopia more or less in a state of war or near war for more than 200 consecutive years or even more? Ethiopians have fought the people who tried to enslave or colonize them. But so too have they, with equal ferocity, fought amongst themselves, and still do to this day.
There is this liberation front, that liberation front, this fighting group, that fighting group.
Where does this tendency come from, which it seems will keep the Horn of Africa, from Somalia, to Eritrea, to Ethiopia, to Sudan, a virtual war zone for the next 30 or more years?
How can people whom I find so sweet, beautiful, loving, modest, sincere, and loyal, at the same time have this other side to them that is like a volcano — dormant most of the time, but once it erupts, it throws destructive fire for several kilometres in its path?
Did the Ethiopian Orthodox Church shape national character?
When I returned to Uganda the first time in February, I was having lunch with an Ethiopian in Kampala. I asked him a question, which popped up in my mind from out of the blue.
I asked him: Why is it that, wherever in the world you find countries where the Orthodox Church is the dominant Christian denomination, there is either full-scale war (Yugoslavia, Serbia), or recent war and tensions (Ethiopia, Eritrea), or serious civil war and trouble with provinces that want to break away (Russia), or have had to have United Nations intervention to prevent war between them (Greece, Cyprus), or some stubbornness that could make war possible at any time (Ukraine)?
Then why is it that, wherever in the world Islam is the dominant religion, there are either suicide bombers (Lebanon), militant militiamen (Algeria, Egypt, Somalia, Iran, Bosnia, Albania, Sudan) or they are generally a trouble spot?
Then worst of all, in the places in the world where Islam and Orthodox Christianity sit side by side in equal percentages among the population, conflict, war, factional fighting, or extreme political tensions are alive and dominant (Ethiopia, Eritrea, Bosnia- Herzegovina, Russia, Chechnya).
Why, in other words, does the Orthodox branch of Christianity influence its followers to become so ultra-nationalistic, and hence so militant that almost every disagreement has to be settled on the battlefront? Where does this militancy in the Horn of Africa come from?
Since I am a Protestant Christian, I will not comment on Islam, where I am no expert. But I will hope that my brothers and sisters of the Ethiopian and other Orthodox Churches in Africa and Europe search their souls over this matter.
I am not saying the Orthodox faith promotes war and war-like tendencies. We too have crazy, uncompromising Protestants and Roman Catholics shooting away at each other in Northern Ireland. In Indonesia and the Philippines, street battles have become the main way of life between Christians and Muslims.
But the dominant pattern of war and internal civil conflict in Orthodox-dominated countries in Africa and Europe is inescapable. I hope I don’t appear to be blaming the Ethiopian Orthodox Church for the country’s political tensions and many past wars. I am only trying to study a pattern and see if it offers explanations.
From the little I know, I can say this: the Orthodox churches have, at the centre of their belief system, the idea that they are national churches.
They are not simply part of the general body of Christ, but they often take on a national character. Thus, you have the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the Greek Orthdox Church, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, and the Russian Orthodox Church.) They bear the names of the nations in which their roots are planted.
They also seem to instill in their followers an extreme loyalty, a spiritual and emotional connection to their country. To an Orthodox, his country is his father-mother, his very being and reason for existence.
People are willing to sacrifice their lives for Ethiopia. Olympic champions give their medals to a church, out of gratitude for their> victories.
That is the patriotism that is so striking in Ethiopia. People revolve their lives around service to their country. It is the same in Russia, Greece, Eritrea, Yugoslavia, Ukraine, Macedonia, and Cyprus.
Even military dictators like Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union and Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, although they were Communist and had no time for religion, were raised in this atmosphere of extreme patriotism and so reflected the influence of the Orthodox Church.
All this patriotism is fine and admirable. As I mentioned in my very first article in February, if only Ugandans had the national spirit that the Ethiopians have, we would be so far ahead of where we are today in economic development. But….it gets to a point where this patriotism can become self- destructive, if it is not controlled. And this is the danger I see facing Ethiopia. If you can’t stop and shout, “Hey, let sanity prevail!”, before you know it, your country could be in flames, such as what we are witnessing in Yugoslavia and what we saw in 1974 between Greece and Cyprus, when the United Nations had to intervene. We need to understand our history. Ethiopians might be putting all their blame on governments as the cause of their national problems, yet the same problems existed even before Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was born. He himself blamed Ethiopia’s problems on the dictator Colonel Mengistu and so went to the bush to start a student guerrilla uprising — only to come to power and I am sure by now, 10 years on, has realized that the problems are so deep, anyone in power in Addis Ababa will be tempted to react exactly as Mengistu did. Pope John Paul II visited Greece and Ukraine within the past two years. For several days before he arrived in Athens, priests and nuns of the Greek Orthodox Church staged demonstrations in the streets, denouncing him and threatening him if he set foot on Greek soil. The same thing happened in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. What these hard-line priests and nuns forgot was that as head of the Vatican, the Pope is a Head of State, not just the head of the Roman Catholic Church. At least in his capacity as a Head of State, he deserves the minimum of a formal diplomatic welcome. When he visited Syria, a predominantly Muslim country, he was warmly received, even though the differences between Islam and Christianity are greater than the divisions between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church.
When your very being, your whole personality is tied with your country and state, when the question of your nationality and ethnicity is the main reason for your existence, it can land you into trouble, because by their nature, governments and states are not always sincere, not always rational, and peaceful.
How can a whole nation tie its deepest emotions with those of the state, ruled as it is by politicians, who are often the most unreliable people of all?
How can you want to die for your country, when the people who lead it are mere mortal humans, with their own political agendas, who use your sentiments to their advantage, even as you suffer? How can people not see these things? This extreme loyalty to one’s country lives in nearly every Ethiopian, particularly those of the Orthodox faith. It might perhaps be one of the explanations for the tendency to be volatile that is so easy to observe in the Ethiopian character.
The illusions of national greatness
In May, the South African pay TV network M-Net held the finals of the M-Net Face of Africa modeling competition. The title for 2001 was won in style —- and really deservingly so — by a dashing and charming girl from Senegal.
Two days later, when I met an Ethiopian girl in Kampala, she was angry. She wanted to write a letter to M-Net in Johannesburg and ask why they did not have an Ethiopian girl among the 24 African finalists.
First, I had to cool her down.
As a typical Ethiopian, she first heated up to 300 degrees centigrade before she had time to think. I had to try and bring her temperature down to the normal human 37 degrees, before we could talk.
As usual, she could not help the typical suspicious Ethiopian way of viewing the world. They are against us, they are out to get us, there is a hidden agenda by the Whites against Ethiopia. Classic Ethiopian mentality.
First, my friend couldn’t think that there was also no Ugandan girl in the Face of Africa finals and yet I wasn’t complaining.
Secondly, if these Whites in South Africa are so discriminating against some Black Africans, how come all the winners of this 200,000- dollar prize have been Black Africans, and not White South Africans?
Then I asked this girl: surely, you know the shyness and reserve of your fellow Ethiopian girls. Can you realistically expect shy, modest, soft-spoken, self-conscious Ethiopians to win international competitions as fierce as these, where the stakes are so high?
Finally, only after I reasoned calmly with my friend and with her temper back to normal, did she admit that, yes, the beautiful and electrifying girl from Senegal had won the title outright. No more argument.
I did not watch the finals that Saturday night, but when I eventually watched parts of it on CNN television the next week, not only did I confirm that the Senegalese girl was indeed the deserving winner, but that this charming girl is going to become one of the most successful models on the world stage very soon. That Senegalese is even better than some of these international models like Naomi Campbell, Tyra Banks, or Cyndi Crawford! I wondered: did my Ethiopian friend first have to get into a heated mood, threaten M-Net, before I could calmly made her see that, if she had thought in a balanced way before getting all heated up, she would have come to the same conclusion as me, that the girl from Senegal deserved to win?
Just multiply this Ethiopian girl’s explode-fi rst-then-think-later typical reaction by 64 million people, and you begin to understand the difficulty involved in governing Ethiopia, even if you were St. Gabriel himself!
However, this Ethiopian attitude did not just come from nowhere.
Apparently, Ethiopians are raised under what seems to outsiders to be brainwashing. They are raised as children to believe that their country is the greatest on earth.
Most Ethiopians genuinely believe that their land is the most fertile, their country is the greenest, their food the ideal and best, their women the most beautiful in the world, their history is richer than that of any other nation, their climate gives them “13 months of sunshine”, their country is mentioned countless times in the Bible, their music is the best on earth, their traditional clothing the finest, and of course, they are the only Black people on earth who successfully beat off colonial rule.
About the general greatness of Ethiopia, there can be no doubt. I have written and agreed many times that this is true. Ethiopia, to me, ranks or should rank among Africa’s top five countries by virtue of its cultural heritage. There is no question about that.
But Ethiopians might also need to take a close, objective look at the rest of the world, and their eyes will be opened to the fact that as great as Ethiopia certainly is, there are many other countries that as just as great or even greater.
As I asked in my recent long article in June, Ethiopia and the fate of Africa , if the country is all that great, it should have been somewhere in the top 10 of the economic table of the world. But even in comparison with the rest of Africa, Ethiopia is among the bottom 10. A painful fact, I know, but better to be bravely faced than pretend the evidence is not there. If the girls are all that beautiful and elegant, why have we never heard of a Miss World from Ethiopia? If the country has produced so many well-educated, talented people, so many scientists, who now live in the “Diaspora” in America, Britain, or Sweden, how come we never hear of an Ethiopian Grammy music award winner, an Ethiopian Pulitzer Prize winner, a Nobel Prize winner, an Academy film award winner? You can’t just say the reason is because the whole world hates Ethiopia.
If the whole world hates Ethiopia, how come that same world, especially the White western world, has given so many Olympic and world championship gold, silver, and bronze medals to Bekila Abebe, Miruts Yifter, Derartu Tulu, Haile Gebreselassie? How come this same “biased” world has not stood in the way of these Ethiopian world- class athletes becoming famous and quite rich?
In other words, it is time for Ethiopia to start seeing things in a broad, balanced way, for its own good. When you are truly great, even the biased, racist White world still takes note of you.
If Ethiopia is lagging behind even most of Africa, the answer could simply be that we might not be as great as we imagine we are. When I came to Addis Ababa last month, I made a point of carrying photographs of parts of Uganda and Tanzania’s island of Zanzibar, as well as Zimbabwe. Many Ethiopians I showed the photos were very surprised by what they saw — the dazzling beauty of Zanzibar, with its coconut trees, white sand, and blue ocean; the breathtaking beauty of the Victoria Falls of Zimbabwe at sunset, and Uganda where the country is green all year round. It opened a few eyes to the illusions of greatness that most Ethiopians are raised to believe. Yes, Ethiopia is beautiful. But so are dozens of other countries like Uganda, the Bahamas, Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania, and the Seychelles.
God’s handiwork is spread all over the earth, not just over Ethiopia.
I also quietly told some of my Ethiopian friends to revise their illusion that only Ethiopian girls are beautiful on the face of this earth. This is because one day they will travel abroad and, surprise, surprise, they will see other girls who will leave them breathless.
This idea of somehow being the most beautiful breed of people on earth seems to me to be a central theme in most Ethiopians’ minds, so I will comment at length on it.
But ask those people who have been to Nairobi, Kenya. Or western Uganda. Or Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania. Go to Zanzibar. Somalia. Mali. The West Indies. The Bahamas and Barbados. Some of the Black Americans and Black British.
Have you seen some of these girls from India who have won the Miss World beauty pageant? Can anyone argue that they did not deserve to win? Even these Whites. The Black beauty we have in Africa is not the only one on earth. Take a look at the 20 year-old American Pop singer, Britney Spears. She is White. But what a beauty she is!
Remember the late Princess Diana? Who can argue about that? Or Marilyn Monroe? Cyndi Crawford? The American Country music singer Faith Hill? There is this American actress Cybil Shepherd. I think she really is a truly beautiful woman.
Have you seen some of these White women who appear on the adverts of the brandy Remy? Or in the fashion magazines Vogue and Cosmopolitan. I think that too is pure beauty.
I even see some of the many White girls, the tourists who walk aimlessly through the streets of Kampala, wearing dirty slippers and dirty T-shirts, with their funny blue eyes and blonde hair. Some of them should be models. True, Ethiopian girls are beautiful. Very beautiful. But so are those from many other African and Caribbean countries. Because Ethiopia has a large population, the abundance of feminine beauty is more noticeable.
That is why I think a visit to another large city like Nairobi would help people in Addis Ababa see things from a broader perspective. What you see might surprise you.
Blacks, Whites, Asians, as far as I am concerned, all have among them very beautiful people. Let us not think that we Africans are the only people God chose to make beautiful!
Then there is that other beauty that they call inner beauty, which at the end of the day is the only beauty that time does not erase.
One of the problems with thinking of yourselves as the most beautiful on earth is that it breeds vanity and surely those who believe in God have some idea about what God thinks of pride.
But more importantly, if you have this adamant idea that your girls are the world’s most beautiful, then it is obvious what it leads to —- SEGREGATION.
Not everyone in any society can be beautiful. If being beautiful is something Ethiopians hold as dear a part of their identity as having not been colonized, then obviously they will become ashamed or uneasy about those people in Ethiopia who are not beautiful.
You then have to start living a lie or keeping up superficial appearances, when your identity is based on vanity, rather than better reasons to be proud, for example being proud that your country is a just society which treats all of its people equally. That is a more sensible thing to be proud of than perishable human beauty.
While I was in Addis Ababa, I saw several Ethiopians who in terms of appearance look identical to the very dark-skinned, Black people of southern Sudan. They speak Amharic and are Ethiopians in every way.
A British girl whom I sat next to on the flight to Addis Ababa in February, told me when she came back to Kampala that the general population in Ethiopia tends to look down upon these dark-skinned Ethiopians. I refused to believe her. But this second time in Addis Ababa, I noticed that these people seemed to be strangers in their own land. They walk through the streets of Addis Ababa as a group, with people staring at them. I did not see a single one of these Ethiopians doing business, owning a shop, or in a position that seemed one of advantage and prosperity. I wondered what they do for a living. What I saw quietly troubled me. But it did not surprise me. When you build a national identity that revolves around the myth of beauty and cultural superiority, rather than on justice and fairness, you inevitably have these uncomfortable situations of unstated discrimination. When I returned to Kampala, I had photographs of the many places I visited in Ethiopia — the nice ECA office buildings, the Sheraton Addis, inside Fasika restaurant with its attractive artwork, Debre Zeit, Nazareth, and the countryside. When an Ethiopian friend of mine saw some photographs of the simple, humble people riding on horse-drawn carts along muddy roads in Debre Zeit, she angrily exclaimed: “Why did you have to take photos of these?” I asked: “But I thought you Ethiopians love your country. Is this not Ethiopia too? Are those poor people in Debre Zeit not Ethiopians also?” To her, Ethiopia is the attractive images you see in Selemta , the in- flight magazine of Ethiopian Airlines — beautiful women, the Hilton and Addis Sheraton hotels, the new ECA conference centre, the great rock-hewn churches in Lalibela, the castles in Gondar, the Blue Nile waterfalls in Bahir Dar, the great Olympic champions. The severe poverty in the small towns like Debre Zeit, which touched my heart so deeply, is something that many urban Ethiopians would rather not talk about. They would rather that the visitor walked through the well-lit corridors of the Sheraton Addis Ababa, and return home with the Sheraton as the total image of Ethiopia.
But then, what happens to some of us ugly people? Should we be sent to prison because we don’t meet beauty standards?
(Come to think of it, maybe I should also launch an Ethiopian guerrilla group and call it the Ugly People’s Liberation Front (UPLF), to fight for the rights of the ugly people!)
I think Ethiopians should start traveling and seeing other countries. Expand your view! See the broader world. Make friends! The days of a closed world called Ethiopia should come to an end. All across Africa, these are your brothers and sisters.
An Ethiopian told me of how he brought his relative by road from Ethiopia through Kenya to Uganda. When they entered Uganda, the young man asked, “Where are we?” His uncle replied that they were now in Uganda. The boy could not believe his eyes! “All along,” the young man said, “we are brought up to believe that Ethiopia was the greenest country around. What is this I am seeing!” What he was seeing was Uganda. Green from January to December. But you rarely hear Ugandans talk about it! Some Ethiopians have told me the same thing. They step outside Ethiopia, carrying all the legends and myths they have been fed on since childhood.
Then they discover that there are other countries with advanced cities, beautiful women, green and fertile land, sophisticated people, and rich histories, and suddenly they are in a crisis.
Many get into a denial mode, stubbornly arguing that Ethiopia is still number one, despite the evidence before their eyes.
When I appeared as a guest on Tefera Ghedamu’s Meet ETV show, I complained about the many Ethiopians who are struggling to leave the country. I feel that Ethiopians — who were never colonized — should set a better than the rest of us Africans, by not flooding America and Europe, as if we don’t have a home.
We end up making the Whites believe even more that they are superior to us. Our floods of people fighting to enter their countries have made the Whites feel more confident that without them and their help, the Black people are nowhere.
But on the other hand, I am sometimes tempted to welcome this new craze about going abroad, which I will address in a later part of this article.
Let these young Ethiopians, who have been raised on a narrow, inward- looking menu of illusions, go abroad, open up to the world, see wider places, see the variety of countries and as a result, develop a more international outlook than the feeling that the world starts and ends with Ethiopia.
Discomfort with other nations
A Ugandan friend of mine in Kampala called Michael attended a workshop in July which several people from several African countries attended. Commenting about the Ethiopians he met at the workshop, he said: “They [Ethiopians] are painful people to be around!”
He said they are tense, not free with other people, generally only free with fellow Ethiopians. I understood what he meant.
An Ethiopian journalist not long ago went to Washington and when she returned to Addis Ababa, she wrote an article on her experience of the Ethiopian community in the United States. Her conclusions were almost identical to those of other people who know Ethiopians elsewhere in the world.
They keep to themselves, find it difficult to mingle with other people, and even if countries where freedom abounds, the Ethiopians still do not become outspoken or take part in the life of these countries.
White South Africa
Since apartheid ended in South Africa, the huge White South African businesses have began spreading all over Africa. I have been observing the White South Africans, who are already starting to dominate business in Uganda. I still can’t believe those people.
These are people who were raised from childhood in a country where racial separation and the tendency to despise Blacks were not just a social norm, but official church and government policy.
Yet if you see the White South Africans in Uganda today, they are among the friendliest people you can meet.
They are so popular, they play Rugby and Cricket with Ugandans, they are always at Ugandan parties mixing and laughing with Ugandans, and even wearing Ugandan traditional dress. Many of these White South Africans date Ugandan men or Ugandan girls.
I have wondered to myself, “Are these the racists that the world portrayed them to be?”. It is so hard to connect apartheid South Africa with the White South Africans living and working in Uganda.
I told my friends in Addis Ababa that if you were to conduct an opinion poll over who they think are more racist, Ethiopians or White South Africans, 70 percent of people anywhere in the world would answer that they think Ethiopians are more racist or at least more socially discriminating.
When the apartheid era in South Africa came to an end, the White South Africans displayed the character which, I think, explains why the are beginning to spread all over Africa and dominate it.
As I have mentioned, the White South Africans quickly threw off their racist policies and began to unite with the rest of Africa. That flexibility of mind still surprises me. At last week’s United Nations racism conference, a large number of White South Africans were part of the crowds on the streets of Durban, South Africa, to demonstrate their opposition to racism.
Whether that gesture is hypocritical or not, at least it demonstrates a pragmatic attitude, considering that the White South Africans were raised to believe in racial separation.
So if Ethiopians say that their isolation and closed country, their culture, and upbringing are largely responsible for their aloofness from the rest of Africa, they should take a look at the White South Africans and see the importance of flexibility, of recognizing the need to come out and mix, and be seen to mix with the rest of Africa.
As noted before, the White South Africans are, today, some of the most popular Africans in Black Africa. Who would have thought that this would ever happen, as recent as just 10 years ago, considering the reputation of White South Africa!
It would be a pity if as time goes on, many people begin to think that the White South Africans, with all their racist background, are bactually more social than the Ethiopians. Something has to be done about this reputation that Ethiopians have around the world.
That impression of being unable to relate with other Africans is one that Ethiopians leave behind them everywhere they go. They give people the impression that they are uncomfortable with and cannot adjust to other people from other nationalities. Of course I who has taken the time to understand Ethiopia, know better than most Ugandans. I know the realness, the sincerity of Ethiopians, the hospitality that they are capable of. But most other people think of Ethiopians that way, as racists, as more racists than even the White people.
This is something Ethiopians should at least be aware of.
You don’t need to persuade me to see how warm Ethiopians are. I already know it well. But it is important to bear in mind the effect the social upbringing of reserve and distance from foreigners has had on Ethiopians.
This reserved character is very easily misunderstood as pride, racism, and looking down on other people. I myself first misunderstood it in the Ethiopian women when I went to Addis Ababa. With time, I came to see how mistaken I had been.
But not all people from other countries have the time or energy to patiently understand that this reserved attitude is not pride; it is just the upbringing.
Ethiopia’s true greatness
Despite this article’s discussion of some of the weaknesses in Ethiopian society, it cannot go forward without mentioning the single greatest strength of Ethiopia. For all the things that Ethiopians say to prove their greatness — being mentioned in the Bible many times, never been colonized, historic buildings in the north of the country, unique alphabet, and so on — I have never heard a single Ethiopian talk about what I think is perhaps the greatest thing about Ethiopia.
It is so strange, because it is the most outstanding thing about Ethiopia. The things Ethiopians say make their country great are not so great or if they are great, are not exclusive to Ethiopia.
Many European countries like England, Spain, France, Belgium, and Austria have very fine castles. They have their fine national costumes. Many African countries have very rich and colourful languages. I personally think the richly harmonized music of the Zulu music in South Africa, and the haunting, sad music of the Fulani people in Senegal and Mali (Mori Kante, Yussour N’Dor, Toure Kunda, Selif Keita) is the most beautiful in Africa.
So Ethiopia’s heritage is as rich as that of many other countries.
In my opinion, the greatest thing about Ethiopia is its strong family ties. In this area, it beats almost all countries in the advanced West and many even in Africa.
Let me explain. I wrote an article in one of the Ugandan newspapers last week comparing the mentality of Ethiopian girls with that of Ugandan girls. I was quite critical of our girls’ mentality.
In Uganda, there is a strange twisted side to our girls’ thinking that I find annoying. It seems that girls in Uganda, especially urban Uganda, are attracted to men or boys who bring out the worst in them. The more “notorious” and “dangerous” a man is, the more the girls find him attractive!
It sounds perverted, but it is true. In the social pages of our national newspapers, there is a constant stream of articles that portray “bad boys”, men who cheat on their wives, or who chase about women, as some sort of heroes. These sorts of men as very popular with most girls, even girls who are well educated.
Many girls in Kampala, when they meet men who treat them well, with respect and courtesy, come away complaining that these “nice guys” are boring! I tried to understand this twisted way of thinking in Ugandan women, until I gave up. And I think the Kenyan girls are like that too. Maybe it comes from watching too many American films showing “bad guys” as heroes.
My most pleasant surprise about Ethiopian society is that this sort of nonsense that you find in Uganda is almost absent.
The more affectionate, respectful, the more caring and loving you are to an Ethiopian girl, the more she will “fall for you”, the more she finds you attractive. That is the way it should be. I have seen this across the whole Ethiopian society.
On that front, Ethiopia gets a gold medal and that is why I say this is Ethiopia’s true greatness, that a society can instill in its children a healthy emotional constitution. Ethiopian children are close to their parents, and Ethiopian girls, I notice, are close to their fathers.
The society in general stresses close family ties, where there is someone always there to care about you, to visit you or ring you up and ask how you are.
In Uganda, even your best friend, someone you were in school since the age of seven, can go for three months without giving you a phone call to find out how you are. In Ethiopian society, hardly a week can go by without your friend in some way making contact with you.
In Kampala, since the year began, most of the phone calls I have received at home, inviting me for a cup of coffee, or asking why I am “lost”, or simply calling to say hello, come from my Ethiopian friends. These are people I met only this year.
Meanwhile, some of my very “best” friends are people who last rang me some eight months ago! That is why at the beginning of this article, I said I was so overwhelmed by the degree of Ethiopian warmth and sincerity while I was in Addis Ababa.
I don’t know about the mental illness statistics in Ethiopia, but I don’t think you can find too many people who have had mental breakdowns and neurosis. Many Ugandans have asked me why I am so in love with Ethiopia and I explain to them this realness, this human warmth and companionship that stretches across Ethiopian society. Ethiopians, I tell them, are capable of being crazy, irrational people especially over matters to do with their country. I am not surprised that the country has had so much political instability. You see it in the people.
But at the same time, when you get close enough and see the people, you discover this realness, this true and heartfelt warmth that many of us in Uganda, and even those advanced western countries simply don’t have.
I have never known why Ethiopians don’t talk enough about this national trait, rather than tell us so much about Emperor Menelik’s famous battles. This close, caring, affectionate side to Ethiopia is far greater than all those battles and wars that Ethiopians are so fond of talking about.
I tried to understand why this is so. Could it be because in Ethiopia there are generally no boarding schools, unlike in most countries in Africa and Europe?
And so children grow up living at home with their parents, maintaining that close bond and companionship well into their teenage years, to university.
But whatever the explanation, this is the undisputed greatest and most beautiful thing about Ethiopia. I wish the tourism brochures, Selemta magazine, and other publications would emphasize it more.
The Ethiopian Airlines in-flight magazine Selemta talks in general, rather vague terms about Ethiopian hospitality. I think they manage to describe only 40 percent of this hospitality. They should ask me to write an article for their next issue. I have seen 80 percent of Ethiopian hospitality. It is impressive.
Actually, it is wrong to describe it as hospitality. It is more than hospitality. It is a realness in people. The word “hospitality” sounds a little commercial and artificial.
So, to the many Ethiopians who have been asking me why I have taken such a sudden liking for their country, THAT IS THE ANSWER! That, more than anything else, is the reason I love Ethiopia and why I am going to love the country more as time goes on. This is why, in the first place, I am engaged in this debate over Ethiopia’s future and why I write these long articles. This realness, this sincerity of affection is what attracts me most about Ethiopia. I am not really interested in the battles of Emperor Menelik II, or the rock churches in Lalibela, or the idea that Ethiopia was never colonized.
It is great that this history was made. But that is hundreds of years ago. I am more impressed by these family values that persist to this day.
In a world where there is so much craziness and mental weirdness, I treasure the simplicity of the Ethiopians. The Tanzanians have it too.
Ethiopians should be proud of this realness and most of all, their girls should thank God that they were raised in such a way as to have straight, emotionally healthy minds, since it is they who pass on the societies’ values to the children. Just ask the people who live in America, who see the twisted, perverted minds of those children. You will wonder why anyone would want to go to America and raise his or her children there.
It hurts me that people as nice and authentic as the Ethiopians should be facing such tough economic times, with most so poor, unhappy with life and not free, when lousy people like us in Uganda are enjoying an exciting and free life, full of laughter and fun all day long.
Entry filed under: Latest Posts. Tags: african writers, Cultural Shock, Ethiopia, ethiopia and poverty, ethiopia and the bible, Ethiopians in America, poor african countries, timothy kalyegra, why ethiopia stayed behind.