Two things happened simultaneously on May 1st, both involving the U.S. State Department and its relation to Ethiopia. Thing one was the State Department’s news program, Voice of America, broadcasting its brief account of Ethiopian security forces firing upon student demonstrations the previous day (April 30) at three universities resulting in 17 dead and many wounded. Thing two was the Secretary of State John Kerry in Ethiopia giving a speech full of praise for Ethiopia’s rapid economic development as well as the U.S.-Ethiopia partnership in addressing the violence against civilians in neighboring Sudan and Somalia. Apparently, Kerry was unaware that the day before, just a two-hour’s drive down the road from where he was speaking, America’s supposed partner, the Ethiopian government, had committed acts of violence against its citizens. In fact, thousands of individuals at universities and in cities across the Oromia region of Ethiopia had been protesting for days, and as the journalist Mohammed Ademo’s article for Think Africa pointed out on Tuesday (August 29), what they were protesting was precisely the consequences of the rapid economic development and foreign direct investment that Kerry praised in his speech — the eviction and displacement of tenant farmers and poor people due to the expansion of the capital city Addis Ababa into the Oromia region.
We might observe a contradiction here within the same State Department. While the State Department’s news program laments an event and clearly points to the root cause, the State Department’s secretary appears ignorant of the event and also strangely unable to discern the causes of ethnic unrest across Africa. An Al Jazeera op-ed responding to Kerry’s speech suggests that the United States fails to see the contradiction in its policy that talks about democracy and human rights but in practice emphasizes security for foreign direct investment (as per the State Department’s own report on such investment in Ethiopia published shortly before Kerry’s visit.) Noticeably, two contradictory ideas are coming out of the State Department simultaneously. What do we make of that contradiction?
Before I answer that question, I might add on to this strange state of affairs by pointing out that Kerry did criticize the Ethiopian government for using repressive tactics against its journalists — the famous Zone 9 bloggers — but what strikes me is that at the very moment that Kerry criticizes the state of journalism in Ethiopia, the mainstream American news outlets such as CNN, National Public Radio, and the NY Times have for a long time neglected to give any serious coverage of the issues within Ethiopia and in fact did not report on the student demonstrations. The only American media mention of the recent student demonstrations and deaths is a very brief Associated Press article that appeared the day after Kerry’s speech (May 2) and that article embarrassingly gets its facts wrong about what happened and why. Such poor journalism is increasingly perceived to be the norm of America’s once celebrated media whose many factual inaccuracies and lack of any genuine will to truth arguably contributed to the Iraq War back in 2003. Curiously, the only news organization in America that did its job (the VOA) is the news organization intended to serve communities outside of America. Moreover, the VOA is part of the very same “department” that Kerry heads. The quality of mainstream American media coverage might seem excusable if it weren’t for the fact that BBC covered these tragic events in Ethiopia reasonably well, first on its radio program immediately after the massacre (May 1st) and then more comprehensively on its website the following day. You can listen to the radio report below:
Since this is a theory blog, I want to advance some philosophical hypotheses that we can draw from the U.S. State Department’s conflicted relationship to this tragedy. We might excuse Kerry for just being diplomatic at a diplomatic event, except that this blind spot seems more pervasive and systemic both in U.S. foreign policy and its coverage by its most respected news outlets, CNN, NY Times, and National Public Radio. Rather, what is happening here is a globalized twenty-first century version of what the theorist Stuart Hall, borrowing from Antonio Gramsci, called the “manufacture of consent” — that process whereby rather than through coercive force, hegemony is achieved through cultural means that slyly convinces individuals of their place in the world order. In this case, the role of Voice of America is to provide peoples all over the world (e.g., in Ethiopia) with access to the sort of “free journalism” (or at least, dissenting journalism) that doesn’t exist in their own country. In many ways, Americans should be genuinely proud that the VOA is what it is — relatively free journalism in over fifty languages that is independent of the organization that funds it and can publish dissenting views. Hence, through the VOA, the American government promises a sort of deferred liberalism (democracy and human rights) that the people within countries like Ethiopia aspire to even though at the same time the actual practice of the American government contributes to the very repressive regime that stifles its own civil society. This is why the American government media (e.g., NPR and VOA) sometimes appears more “free” than the private corporate media which is so beholden to the corporate agenda of its stockholders — ironically the same corporate agenda that the State Department is in some ways also beholden to.
Similarly, one could speculate that the rise of global philanthropists and civic organizations staffed by young graduates of peace-studies programs at American liberal arts colleges present the face of American liberalism that unintentionally undermines the very governments of the peoples they purport to help. This is why such philanthropy and civil society has been suggestively been called by some cultural theorists the “Trojan Horse” of global capitalism just as Christianity was once called the Trojan Horse of European imperialism.
But Gramsci and Hall’s theory of hegemony appears unable to fully account for the pervasive and ubiquitous violence and unrest that we see not only in Ethiopia but all over the world. In fact, ethnic conflict and violent expressions of dissent seem to have become the norm, and so I might suggest we revise their theory to point out a “manufacture of dissent” in which such dissent and perpetual crisis is ironically the unintended consequence of America’s global hegemony. Moreover, such local dissent ironically functions in a way that maintains the hegemony of global financial institutions (as was pointed out in Negri and Hardt’s famous book, Empire). We might find the more recent philosophy of Giorgio Agamben about the “state of exception” somewhat useful to explain this. Agemben focuses on how the normal functioning of law depends on an extra-legal assertion to establish the law. A simple and innocent example of this might be somebody writing on the chalk board in a classroom “Do not write on the chalk board.” The initial violation of the rule establishes the rule, and in this sense the rule’s own violation of itself is internal to the structure of the rule but externalized as its opposite. A more terrifying example of when the state of exception becomes the norm (rather than the exception) would be concentration camps, refugee camps, and “indefinite detention centers” (like that at Guantanamo Bay) in which individuals lived in a non-legal state that is organized by the state itself in the name of preserving law and rights.
In this more global context of foreign direct investment, international human rights organizations, and ethnic groups fighting over increasingly scarce land that is dominated by multinational capital, we have a peculiar state of exception — a new and somewhat strange space between competing jurisdictions and competing senses of sovereignty. One example of this state of exception is the troubled border between an Addis Ababa rapidly developing from foreign direct investment secured by global interests and the Oromia State that supposedly represents (constitutionally) the “people” who live in it. Hence, the local ethnic conflict that Americans may imagine to be “outside” their own democratic system is actually structurally inside it, hence the strange disconnect between the two offices of the U.S. State Department. My point here is not to play the blame game and look for the guilty party that we can then chastise and hold responsible. Rather, my point is (with Agamben) that noticing the structural gaps and impasses endemic to the system may enable the various constituencies to better address each other and work towards more ethical solutions.
There is more to say here, and admittedly, I am afraid my theorizing is a bit hard to follow. I am writing fast in order to participate in the very emotional conversation that has emerged about the issue over the past two days and so I have not yet fully worked out what I want to say. I will try to revisit this topic later when I have more time to reflect and work out what I like and dislike about Agamben’s theory. So I hope my readers will generously comment and help me think through this and figure out a way to express it more clearly.
Almost every week since 2011, American news corporations have reported on the non-violent grassroots democratic movements in Egypt and Tunisia and the violent, U.S.-supported movements in Syria and Libya — the so-called “Arab Spring.” However, almost never reported are the conditions for a viable democracy in Ethiopia, and even in those few reports about Ethiopia such as this one, what remains missing is any account of the religious, ethnic, and ideological complexities of that country and the changing multifaceted history of that region. In other words, what remains missing is precisely the information one might need to really understand what is happening. How do we understand human rights and democracy? I’d like to begin with this photography here taken on Thursday, August 8th that quickly circulated on various forms of social media and eventually was posted on Al Jazeera last night along with some earlier photographs and Twitter feeds.
The picture is of a young man in the capital city of Addis Ababa, confronting Ethiopian police non-violently by kneeling in prayer before them. Some conversation began on Facebook and Twitter about the symbolic meaning of the photo, and what I’d like to suggest to the readers of my blog is that, for many Americans, the way “democracy” in other countries is understood is largely through images such as this one. It is worth thinking about such images because they often take on a symbolic significance that may be emotionally moving but also may obscure many of the political details and actual functioning of democratic social movements.
But before I continue to think about my questions about how we understand the images that come to symbolize democratic ideals and social movements, I should provide some context for the photograph. Last week, as the month of fasting for Ramadan came to a close and the feast-day of Eid al Fitre was celebrated across the world, Muslims in Ethiopia were protesting the government’s closing of some mosques and arrest of Muslim community organizers and journalists. The Ethiopian government’s heavy-handed responses to those protests in various towns across the country and in the capital city of Addis Ababa left many dead and more injured. The government’s position is that these are violent Muslim extremists, but against this view, the Muslim community organizers argue that they represent the moderate form of Islam that has existed in Ethiopia for over a thousand years and that their movement that started in 2011 is non-violent. On Thursday, August 8th, in support of the Muslim protesters, Amnesty International filed this complaint against the Ethiopian government for human rights violations. Muslims make up about one third of the population of Ethiopia, but the state government has been dominated by Orthodox Christians since the incorporation of Muslim territory at the end of the nineteenth century. The entire history is a long one, and considering that the protest movement started about two years ago, I don’t want to dwell on all the details in this blog post; you can read or hear more about the past week’s conflict by following these links to OPride, BBC Africa, Reuters, and a United Nations brief. One frustrating thing is that the place where you won’t hear anything about these events is on the major sources of information in the United States: The New York Times and National Public Radio.
Coincidentally, exactly when this conflict started in the Oromia region of Ethiopia, I was listening to Oromo intellectuals at the Oromo Studies Association conference at Howard University in Washington DC who were engaging in a debate about the complex historical relationship between religious organizations (namely Islam and protestant Christianity), cultural self-determination, and democratic movements. One of my students and I were at that conference to give presentations on a panel about international education, media and film along with OPride‘s editor and the Oromo-language journalist for Voice of America.
So, drawing on what I learned at that conference and what I had already learned before going to it, we can deepen the context for this single photo to go so far as to suggest a context of a thousand year history of political involvement from Turkey, Portugal, England, France, Italy, the United States, and most recently Saudi Arabia, China, and India. The cultural divisions in Ethiopia are not merely religious but also ethnic, and this is complicated because the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, the Oromo, are a mix of Christian, Islam, and older forms of religious practice. Earlier this year, on June 25, Al Jazeera became the first global television news network to focus on these issues in a segment that you can watch here. But there are other factors to consider too, not mentioned on that segment of Al Jazeera. From the 1960s to the early 1990s, both Christian and Islamic religious institutions participated with other organizations in a broad-based revolutionary democratic movements that eventually led to the revolutions in 1974 and 1991, but since the 1990s, new forms of Christianity and Islam have emerged that claim to be fundamentalist but whose funding and ideology seem to come from outside the country. We might consider too that for almost a century Ethiopian law prohibits religious practices (such as burial and marriage) that do not fall under the jurisdiction of sanctioned Christian or Muslim institutions (e.g., the Oromo’s traditional Waaqeffannaa), and these new forms of fundamentalism (not only Christian and Muslim fundamentalisms, but also western neoliberal fundamentalism) appear to be suppressing some of the older forms of ethnic culture that predate the adoption of the world religions, including older forms of ethnic culture that give women some important forms of agency in their communities (e.g., addoyyee and siiqqee.)
So, now that I’ve summarized that context, let’s return to the photo. The non-violent gesture of the man engaging in “salat” (prayer) seems to have stopped the police officers. The image might remind us of other champions of non-violent action such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., who argued for the effectiveness of moral persuasion through non-violent action that exposes the hypocrisy of the ruling regime whose excessive use of force undermines the legitimacy of the state. The action of this man engaging in salat is not passive, but firmly active non-violent practice. However, noticeably, other forms of non-violent protest (e.g., marches and assemblies) did not have the same effect on the police. Two things seem special about this photo: first, that it is an act of prayer and second that it is a solitary individual putting his body at risk. This does two things. First, there is a bias in western media that tends to read Islamic practice and liberal human rights in opposition to each other, and indeed, the Ethiopian government’s rhetoric to the outside world seems to deliberately capitalize on that bias in order to discredit their political opponents. But for Muslim Oromos living in the United States, Australia, and elsewhere, the meaning of this photo would seem to suggest that liberal human rights and Islamic practice can function together. Second, it foregrounds the decision of an individual to put himself at risk for the greater good rather than a group identity or mobilized mob. It creates a hero.
Thinking theoretically, and reflecting on this interesting question about the structural relationship between the practices of Islam and the idea of human rights, might all of this illustrate the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai’s inquiry into the nature of globalization? In his book Modernity at Large, he argues that various ethnoscapes, technoscapes, mediascapes, financescapes, and ideoscapes all play a role in social formations and local cultures — sometimes functioning together, but sometimes functioning in contradiction to each other. These global “scapes” are in tense dialectic with the local (i.e., the actual lived experience and social organization of communities.) My presentation at the Oromo Studies Association conference alluded to Appadurai’s theory to argue that today’s international education is very much enmeshed in these different “scapes.” In the case of the photo that is the subject of this blog, we see the ethnic identity of Oromos, the practice of Islam, the ideology of human rights, and the technologies of social media. The photo might seem to fuse these various “scapes” into a singular image that celebrates a global sense of local freedom.
However, what we do not see in this symbolic image, of course, is the economics, and this includes the distribution of wealth and Ethiopia’s GDP that Jawar Mohammed emphasizes in the interview with Al Jazeera, but also the daily labor of individuals that Dr. Ezekiel Gebissa talks about in his book on coffee and khat production, as well as the speculative labor of financial institutions (what Appadurai calls financescapes), and even more basically the home-making of families. What do we make of this absence? Might it be important for how we read the effectiveness of symbolic images that come to represent such ideologically loaded concepts of freedom and democracy for American consumers of media?
We might compare this image to another one, the famous Tiananmen Square demonstration in 1989 when a single individual stopped military tanks from interrupting a public protest.
In fact, Oromos on social media (e.g., here) have explicitly made the comparison between the recent event in Addis Ababa in 2013 and that event in Beijing in 1989, and it is precisely the making of such comparisons between different movements that is the point of my blog post today, because in the media these images can become filtered through a western ideology of human rights that may not be fully attentive to some of the local cultural practices and understandings of what was happening. For instance, the American and European media all understood the Tiananmen Square demonstration to be a pro-democratic and anti-communist demonstration. What the media failed to appreciate is how communism and democracy are not inherently antithetical, and that one could protest the government for other reasons. In an important book written by one of the leaders of the Tiananmen demonstration, Wang Hui, and published by Harvard University Press in 2006, entitled China’s New Order, it is revealed just how incorrectly the western media understood this event when they filtered it through the global ideoscape of human rights and democracy. Wang Hui outlines the variety of economic and social issues that concerned the Chinese people and the demonstrators, and how all these issues did not neatly fit under a single ideological perspective. Importantly, for many of the demonstrators, instead of protesting communism, what they were actually protesting was the capitalist reforms, opening relations to American and European capital markets, and the “financescapes” being dictated by the government that were causing some forms of economic displacement of peoples (e.g., working conditions) and general uncertainty. In other words, in a sense, the movement was actually in some ways a conservative one, exactly the opposite of what the western media assumed.
So, what lessons do we learn from Arjun Appadurai and Wang Hui’s inquiries into the nature of democratic practice in a globalized world order? What further questions might we raise about this photograph of a man kneeling in prayer before police in riot gear? How might we untangle the tangled relationship between the Islamic practice of salat, the local demands of various religious and ethnic institutions, and the international ideology of human rights and non-violent political practice that the photograph seems to symbolically fuse?
One of Appadurai’s points about using the terms “ethnoscape” and “ideoscape” instead of the more ordinary terms “ethnic group” and “ideology” is that the neologistic “scape” alerts us to the ways that the meaning of ideas changes depending on the contexts. For instance, African American civil rights activists in the 1960s, the U.S. government in the 1980s, and leaders of the democracy movement in Tunisia today might all use the same ideas of freedom, democracy, and human rights but mean slightly different things by them. Gandhi’s practice of non-violence is connected to a Hindu tradition whereas Martin Luther King, Jr.’s is to a Christian one. Scholars of the civil rights movement in America have long expressed frustration about the way Martin Luther King, Jr.’s political message has been watered down in the popular media and high school history textbooks and grafted onto the ideology of American patriotism. Likewise, the Ethiopian government’s branding opposition groups as “terrorists” appropriates the inflammatory rhetoric of U.S. president George W. Bush a decade ago, but does so for its own ends, and when Oromo’s speak of genocide and ethnic cleansing, they are using legal terms formulated by the United Nations in the context of the Jewish Holocaust in ways that may or may not be slightly different from the way a UN legal team might use them. Hence, we are dealing not with ideologies, but with ideoscapes whose very signifying power is supposed to be part of a universal language that everyone in the world can understand but is actually quite local and context specific. Similarly, just as ideas are not pure and stable concepts, ethnicity is not a pure identity based merely on territory or authentic culture, because the lived experience of ethnicity and cultural practices have a dialectical relation to the global transformations and movements of peoples due to financial speculation, colonialism, etc. For instance, a little over a century ago, the Oromo were a rather diffuse ethnicity of many tribes, kingdoms, religious practices, and dialects who were forced to unify as a singular political liberation movement only after their rights and their land were threatened by a newly formed Ethiopian imperial state and global capitalism. Notably, an ethnic group’s right to self-determination is usually argued with terminology borrowed the European enlightenment’s discourse on “rights” but applied to local cultures who may have a different language for talking about such things. During the conference, one Oromo feminist community organizer said she preferred to think of women’s empowerment in terms of “social balance” and traditional Oromo culture rather than in terms of “rights” and western ideas. Hence, the lived experience of “ethnicity” changes depending on context and also depending on the “ethnoscapes” relation to other “scapes.”
And so, in the case of this photo, we might need to think harder about what human rights and non-violent protest really mean in the context of Islamic practices within Ethiopia that are themselves undergoing a transformation due to various global forces such as the competing ideoscapes of religious fundamentalism and liberalism and also such as the ways in which finance capital transforms territory, the use of land, and a community’s access to natural resources such as water.
The death of Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, announced earlier today (August 21, 2012), has precipitated a storm of questioning and speculation about who the next Prime Minister will be and whether there will be a significant shift in the relations of state power. Even before his death was officially made public, his disappearance from view for the past two months prompted many to wonder what was happening behind closed doors. For now, the Deputy Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn has officially assumed responsibilities, as Ethiopia’s Constitution specifies (article 75). According to an ABC report [here], the Council of People’s Representatives will decide sometime this September whether Hailemariam will retain the position for the rest of the term until the 2015 elections. Hailemariam’s position is somewhat weak because he was appointed to this leadership position only two years ago after the 2010 elections and doesn’t seem to have much influence with many important constituencies. Some question whether he can control the military. Obviously, this is a very important moment in Ethiopia’s history considering that Meles has been its Prime Minister since the very first election after the constitution was ratified in 1995 and has actually held de facto power since the Revolution in 1991.
There are numerous lines of inquiry that one can take, but the questions that I would like to focus on are these: (1) What constitutional ambiguities does the Meles’s death expose, if any? (2) What does the American response to Meles’s death tell us not only about U.S.-Ethiopian relations but also about American culture? Indeed, many Oromos in the United States have been wondering why American newspapers and the American government have been so silent on Meles’s disappearance from the political scene for over a month, seemingly waiting for some official announcement (like the one today, [here]). Before I continue discussing this issue, I have to admit that I am no political scientist, and I usually find contemporary Ethiopian politics to be a confusing maze of acronyms. I am writing this blog largely because my past involvement in Ethiopian and Oromo issues has led several of my friends to ask me what I think about this. In answer to that question, probably the best thing I could do is simply refer them to this excellent analysis published by Jawar Mohammad the day before Meles’s death was officially announced. So, read Jawar’s piece for a political analysis. As for myself, what I have to offer as a scholar of literature and language concerns the narratives that people make in order to make sense of what’s going on and the blind spots that those narratives create. The only blind spot in Jawar’s piece is the role of foreign governments in the politics of his homeland, but that is an issue that, lacking concrete evidence, Jawar was perhaps wise to avoid, since one can only theorize about it — and theorize I will do.
Let’s look at the constitutional question first. The official narrative of Ethiopia that the constitution tells is the narrative of a democratic federal state that shares power among various constituencies in various ways. In some ways, the Constitution’s language seems excessive, giving far too much detail about the procedures and duties of each office, as if it has to illustrate its democratic qualities by spelling out each thing governments might do, and yet, at the same time begging the question of why some things are not included on the list. In the midst of this excess, there is at the same time a lot missing. Importantly, there is not much in Ethiopia’s constitution about an official line of succession, except to note that the Deputy Prime Minister represents the Prime Minister in his absence (article 75). Significantly, the Constitution neglects to say how the Deputy Prime Minister is appointed in the first place. The fact of this seemingly absent process may explain why so many of my Oromo friends on Facebook have been speculating for the past month about secret negotiations and politicking behind closed doors. The problem of a line of succession is certainly not unique to Ethiopia. The language in the U.S. Constitution was originally vague about the position of the Vice President and also unclear about who would fill the position if both the president and vice president died or were removed from office. However, in the case of Ethiopia’s constitution, we find a very slippery language throughout. On the one hand, the Constitution emphatically asserts a transparent (article 12) and accountable (article 72) government by elected representatives (called “councils”) of the people. And to be sure, the Prime Minister and his various officials are beholden to the Council of People’s Representatives (article 72 and 77). What is slippery is how much power the Prime Minister is granted by the Constitution, including the power to “supervise” and organize the activity of the councils and the many important positions that are appointed rather than elected (article 74). For instance, it has long been noted that the office of the President is purely ornamental, being merely appointed by the Council of People’s Representatives and having no formal power whatsoever (article 71). Notice that nobody is even considering the President as candidate for any future office; why would they? The office is little more than an empty symbolic gesture. But considering the politically weak position of Deputy Prime Minister Hailemariam, and considering the ambiguity and lack of transparency in how such political appointments are ratified, it seems to me that the issue of the line of succession needs to be revised and amended.
The second question is America’s response and the narrative Americans tell themselves. It would seem that America is just finding out about Meles’s situation today in the New York Times even though people who are invested in Ethiopia’s politics have been wondering about Meles’s health for a long time. Even the British newspaper, The Guardian, wondered about Meles’s apparent disappearance two weeks ago. It would seem that American newspapers held off reporting about Meles until after they received official word from the Ethiopian government. What do we think about American newspapers’ apparent lack of journalistic tenacity? I want to suggest three possible viewpoints. We could simply chalk this up to the general lack of concern Americans have for other countries. We might call this viewpoint the “innocent ignorance” viewpoint. The opposite viewpoint is that the American government was so heavily invested in what was taking place behind the scenes that it actively suppressed all discussion in the mainstream press. We might call this the “paranoid conspiracy” viewpoint. Neither of these viewpoints seem reasonable to me. The first avoids the obvious fact that lots of people were talking about it and the other obvious fact that American newspapers often speculate wildly about the regimes of other countries before receiving official word from the governments of those countries. The second assumes all sorts of unprovable things and forgets the more mundane workings of state institutions (e.g., the constitutional procedures for temporarily transferring power and the state bureaucracy that actually does most of the work, whether or not anyone is actually “leading” it.)
I think the best way to go about thinking of this issue is to compare the Ethiopian situation to similar situations in other countries. Without belaboring the point, we can easily recall the constant speculation (much of it irresponsible) about the health and stability of the leaders of other nations, such as Cuba, North Korea, Iran, Syria, Libya, etc. What do all these nations have in common? Obviously, there is conflict between them and the United States. So, what’s the simple moral of the story here? This is not so clear. One might speculate that the press follows the political interest of the U.S. government, so if the U.S. government is interested in undermining another government, then the press will jump right in and say as many nasty things as it can in order to justify American hostility, meddling, invasion, etc., but if the U.S. government is interested in supporting another government, then the press will hold its tongue and be polite. After all, President Obama today praised Meles and has never acknowledged the many human rights abuses perpetrated by his government, e.g., see [here]. But it’s hard for me to buy into the theory that the press is simply the yapping dog serving American political interests, even if we might clarify that we mean that it serves American corporate interests (i.e., the corporations who pay for the advertising), not that it serves the elected government (i.e., Congress). What seems somewhat more likely to me is that the press makes a careful calculus about what sort of journalism is both profitable and safe. Hence, when we look at the narrative the press tells about Ethiopia, we see that it is significantly different from what President Obama officially says. The press is emphatic about two things: first that Meles was a successful leader who reformed Ethiopia in positive ways and helped transform Ethiopia into a democratic, prosperous nation, and second that he was a ruthless, oppressive autocrat under whose rule democracy floundered and human rights were constantly violated. How Meles could be both those people at the same time is hard to figure out, and so the press has to be very careful about where these two images of Meles come from. It has to appear “fair and balanced” after all, yet all the while revealing very little.
And what I mean by revealing very little is that the press so often seems to avoid actually investigating some of the roots of the issue — not only the constitutional question that I raised, but also the very troubling relationship between American foreign policy and Ethiopian domestic policy that has been going on since the Clinton administration and only seems to get worse. I often find myself wondering if journalists ever go to the library and look stuff up before they start reporting on it. And in this case, what has long troubled me is something the press never talks about, and that is the degree to which the United States supports Ethiopia with money and weapons in exchange for political favors, such as the attack on Somalia in 2006.
However, I want to be clear here. I don’t think either the press or the American government has a clear agenda with regards to Ethiopia. So, when I say that the U.S. is supporting Ethiopia, I’m not saying that this line of support is consistent or unilateral. It is, in fact, symptomatic of many of the classic ideological contradictions that Karl Marx long ago observed in capitalist, colonialist countries who propagate a set of conflicting values. Americans want democracy in Ethiopia, but they also want a secure state friendly to American business interests. Americans want pluralism and tolerance worldwide, but they also ally themselves with some groups against others, in particular against those others who desire a government according to either Islamic or Socialist principles. Americans want economic development in Africa, but not competition from Africa. The point being, what will never be fully addressed in the American media is the full relationship between Ethiopia’s line of succession and America’s very confused sense of itself and its own interests. As James Ferguson’s book Global Shadows: Africa in the Neoliberal World Order demonstrates, it is hard for both Americans and Ethiopians to think beyond the category of the nation-state when we are assigning responsibility for political and economic problems and speculating about possible solutions.
A few days ago, I gave a lecture entitled “Ethiopia in the American Literary Imagination” for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at the University of California at Irvine. OLLI is a nation-wide organization that gives actively intellectual adults access to professors. I don’t think I have ever had a more lively and engaged audience, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. At the end of the talk, several of my audience said they wished I had provided a handout with a recommended reading list. So this blog post will be a better-late-than-never supplement to my talk.
There are a few categories of stuff to read. The first category is the new Ethiopian-American literature, all of which is written either by the immigrants or by the children of immigrants who fled Ethiopia after its revolution in 1974. My favorite works are Dinaw Mengestu’s two novels, The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears (published in 2007) and How to Read the Air (published in 2010). Both received very positive reviews — including my own [click here], which includes hyperlinks to other reviews. I also strongly recommend Nega Mezlekia’s somewhat controversial but also positively reviewed memoir Notes from the Hyena’s Belly, published in 2000. Those are the three I like the most, and they have received the most acclaim, but there are others. Nega Mezlekia has published two novels, The God Who Begat a Jackal (2003) and The Unfortunate Marriage of Azeb Yitades (2006). There are also the novels Beneath the Lions Gaze (2010) by Maaza Mengiste and Riding the Whirlwind (1993) by Bereket Habte Selassie and the memoir Held at a Distance (2007) by Rebecca Haile. In addition, there are several movies by Ethiopian-American directer Haile Gerima.
All of these authors have two things in common: all of them are ethnically Amhara, and all of them focus on the 1974 revolution and its aftermath in their first books. If we consider that the Amhara are only 30% of Ethiopia’s population, the Oromo are 35%, and the other seventy or more ethnic groups (Tigray, Somali, Gurage, Afar, Sidamo, among others) add up to 35%, we ought to raise the question why all the Ethiopian-American literature comes from just the one Amharic ethnic group. And if we consider the diversity of stories and experiences that could be written about, we might also wonder why the 1974 Revolution is the only topic that American and European publishers seem interested in. In addition to asking ourselves why this is the case, we ought to ask what’s being left out or lost?
To correct the situation, several young Oromo and I began a website called Ogina: Oromo Arts in Diaspora, which features creative new work by Oromos in the United States, Canada, and elsewhere around the world. I have also blogged about this topic and about my own travels through Ethiopia extensively [click here].
The second category of reading is about the Oromo people in Ethiopia. Probably the most famous historian is Harold Marcus, and his History of Ethiopia gives an overview of the whole country and is a good place to start. My impression is that both Amhara scholars and Oromo scholars generally respect Marcus’s objectivity. Beyond that, two books that argue for a more multiethnic understanding of Ethiopian history are Greater Ethiopia: The Evolution of a Multiethnic Society by Donald Levine and The Invention of Ethiopia by Bonnie Holcomb and Sisai Ibsaa. Books specifically about Oromo history in Ethiopia include The Oromo of Ethiopia: a History 1570–1860 by Mohammed Hassen and Oromia and Ethiopia: State Formation and Ethnonational Conflict, 1868–2004 by Asafa Jalata. Books on Oromo culture include Oromo Democracy by Asmarom Legesse. For a more economic analysis, an interesting new book is Taking the Place of Food: Khat in Ethiopia by Ezekiel Gebissa, and the documentary Black Gold is an excellent movie about coffee. Most of these books have been reprinted so if the original editions are not in the university library, then the reprints can be ordered through bookstores or the internet. But a quicker way to learn about the Oromo of Ethiopia would be the website Gadaa.com.
So, if the reality of Ethiopia is richly multiethnic, why do Americans continue to have such a singular and incorrect view of that country? This is complicated, but one of the reasons is Ethiopia’s unique place in literary history — from the Bible and classical Greek literature through American literature. Whether you’re reading seventeenth-century Puritans such as Cotton Mather, nineteenth-century poets such as Walt Whitman and Paul Dunbar, twentieth-century novelists such as Richard Wright and Alice Walker, or hip hop artists such as Lauryn Hill and Nas, Ethiopia figures prominently as a symbol of an ancient, religiously Christian black civilization and a symbol of liberation from slavery and oppression. This is especially true in nineteenth-century abolitionist literature such as Frederick Douglass’s newspaper and during the Harlem Renaissance (notably the pageant “Star of Ethiopia” by W.E.B. Du Bois.) If you pick up any college-classroom anthology of American literature (I would recommend the Heath Anthology) or an anthology of African-American Literature, you will see examples of what I’m talking about simply by glancing through the table of contents. The scholars that have already analyzed this history of “Ethiopianism” in African-American literature include Tony Martin, Wilson Jeremiah Moses, John Gruesser, Aric Putnam, and Ivy Wilson, among others.
There are a number of governmental and non-governmental organizations dedicated to encouraging a more progressive and developed media culture. The Ethiopian government has recently built museums and cultural centers that celebrate its multiethnic history. Primary schools in Ethiopia now include instruction in local languages, and national universities now have professors who research ethnic histories. Organizations such as the one I work with — Sandscribe Communications — look ahead to a future of film and television media that celebrates a dynamic and creative cultural pluralism and that addresses difficult issues such as HIV-AIDS, women’s rights, land scarcity, deforestation, climate change, etc.
I am so happy to be writing about the fifth issue of the on-line webzine Ogina: Oromo Arts in Diaspora, released just in time for the new year. This is perhaps its best issue ever, with the widest array of genres (including poetry, short story, film, essay, art, cultural study, book review, and an interview with a film actor) and is the most geographically diverse (including contributors living in Finland, Australia, Canada, United States, and Somaliland.) I think it’s really cool. And of course, for me, as a teacher of cultural theory, it raises some questions about the concepts “culture” and “ethnic identity.” So, what I’d like to do in my blog post today is think about what “Oromo culture” is by looking at four examples: the recent issue of Ogina, an Oromo culture night in Minneapolis last summer, a New Years Eve concert in St. Paul, and the performance of the Vagina Monologues in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia last spring.
But before I get on with that, I want to raise the question of my own position as a theorist and critic, so before I start talking about the webzine and the question of cultural identity, I want to critically reflect on my own cultural identity. Something I have been self-conscious about for a long time is my relationship to the Oromo community and the possibility of my having any role in its liberation struggle. In general, there are a lot of ways to think about an outsider’s relationship to an ethnic community, and I obviously don’t have time to talk about them all here, so I’ll just focus on one conceptual distinction. Back in the 1920s, political theorist Antonio Gramsci made the distinction between the traditional intellectual and the organic intellectual. The traditional intellectual works within the state institutions that serve the interests of the dominant socio-economic class (e.g., universities, bureaucracies, etc.) So far as world cultures is concerned, such traditional intellectuals tend to operate in “area studies” programs (e.g., Asian studies, African studies, Latin American studies, etc.), and their interest in analyzing other cultures is to focus on the what makes those cultures different or unique — to gain an understanding of the “Chinese mind” or the “African character.”
The worst case scenario is that such studies are simply racist, and the knowledge they generate is meant to serve the interests of the politically powerful who desire to economically dominate those “other cultures.” The best case scenario is that such studies genuinely admire the “other” but neglect the history of political and economic relations between cultures. (In other words, it’s obviously silly to study various African cultures today without recognizing the legacy of European colonialism, and it’s actually just as silly to study European cultures without recognizing how they were in turn impacted by the people they colonized — consider how much tea and sugar is a part of “English” culture, when tea came from India and sugar from the Caribbean. Likewise, the Beatles were largely inspired by African-American and Caribbean music.) Hence, one of the funny things about “area studies” programs is that they may have been created to study the “other” but if the scholars are the least bit honest, they usually end up questioning their own scholarly perspective and their own cultural location…. as I am doing now. For example, all scholars of Ethiopia know (or ought to know) about Ethiopia’s strategic importance during the peak of European imperialism in Africa in the late 19th-century and its strategic importance for the United States during the Cold War. And just as the influences of pan-African anti-colonialist political movements and jazz music travelled back and forth across the globe in the 1950s and 60s, so also today do the influences of global and anti-globalization movements and world music (especially hip hop). Even the traditional “area studies” intellectuals themselves travel back and forth, and I sometimes find that I have more to talk about with a fellow scholar from Addis Ababa or Calcutta than I do with the people from the neighborhood where I grew up or even my own family. Culture and identity are funny things.
In contrast to the traditional intellectual, Gramsci theorized the “organic intellectual” which is a scholar rooted in the community he or she studies and serves. Whereas traditional intellectuals falsely believe that they are objective and neutral, even though their work usually serves the project of imperial domination, organic intellectuals see their work as part of a complex network of political and social relations. So, in my own case, I feel that one of my jobs as a cultural critic is not really to study Oromo culture. There are already a number of brilliant Oromo scholars who write about their own culture (e.g., Asmarom Legesse, Gadaa Melbaa, Mohammed Hassen, Mekuria Bulcha, Asafa Jalata, Ezekiel Gebissa, and many others) and some brilliant American scholars who do this work too (e.g., Harold Marcus, Bonnie Holcomb, Peri Klemm, and many others.) Rather, I think of other ways I can be an organic intellectual and use my skills and resources to serve the Oromo community. For instance, instead of analyzing Oromo culture, I analyze how my own American culture has for centuries wrongly understood Ethiopia’s many peoples. Alongside that project is for me to simply act as a relay — assisting in the dissemination of Oromo scholarship, art, and culture. Culture is always a power game, as anyone who works in the Hollywood movie industry knows full well, and so by acting as a “relay” I am in a sense empowering a cultural identity.
But I don’t see my job to simply be a cheerleader on behalf of Oromo culture or a critic of my own American culture. And so, the point of my blog today is to actually serve the Oromo community by thinking critically about its culture…. Hence, this blog post.
I will begin with a very eloquent speech delivered at the Oromo Youth Association’s cultural night last July in Minneapolis, Minnesota by a teenage girl about the meaning behind the traditional dancing always performed at these events.
She explained that they are an expression of cultural memory, political solidarity, and the power of the Oromo ethnic group to survive and resist oppression. They connect the Oromo living in the United States to their family members who still live in Ethiopia as well as with Oromo around the world (many of whom were forced to flee oppressive and dangerous situations in their home country.) And through technologies such as YouTube, they also connect and empower the Oromo living in the United States with each other. It was an impressive speech.
However, when I travelled through Ethiopia last summer, what I noticed is that people tended to drink coca cola and Italian-style espresso more than traditional Ethiopian coffee, that the movie theaters showed Hollywood movies, that the young people prefered the television broadcast from Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (which includes American programs) over the television broadcast by Ethiopian stations, that most young men wore the international young-man’s outfit (blue jeans and untucked button-down shirt), that most women either straightened their hair in European styles or covered their hair in Islamic styles, that the Ethiopian fashion magazines looked almost exactly the same as the fashion magazines I am used to seeing in supermarkets in the United States, and that American hip hop was blasting out of bars, cafés, and nightclubs, one of which was named after the Latin American revolutionary Che Guevara, etc., etc., etc.
In particular, the June 2010 issue of the Ethiopian fashion magazine Zoma had an article about “breaking the silence” about “violence against women” and “genital mutilation” — in particular, a celebration of V-Day 2010 in Addis Ababa with a performance of The Vagina Monologues. Originally composed and performed by Eve Ensler in New York City in 1996, The Vagina Monologues have been quite controversial in the United States, even banned by some universities. And of course, it’s controversial in Ethiopia as well, whose dominant cultural institutions include a repressive and patriarchal Orthodox Christian church. What do we make of its performance in Ethiopia and many other countries around the world?
Of course, I am juxtaposing two very contrasting instances of “culture” to make a point. The Oromo Cultural night in Minneapolis that I attended happened just a few months after the performance of the Vagina Monologues in Addis Ababa. Both of these events could be called “counter-hegemonic” because they assert a political identity against the dominant institutions (the cultural night asserts a minority culture inside the United States that has resisted oppressive state institutions in Ethiopia, and the Vagina Monologues opposes a repressive Ethiopian culture dominated by powerful religious and other institutions.) Obviously, it would be silly to argue that one is a more “authentic” expression of culture than the other. Cultures are dynamic, complex, innovative, and developing.
So, considering these two cultural events, I’d like to make two theoretical points about the nature of culture itself. First, culture is often considered to be an expression of identity (political identity, ethnic identity, etc.), but in my opinion, such an understanding of culture is incomplete because often culture is an expression of fantasy and desire. Also, sometimes a cultural identity is expressed negatively — not who you are, but who you are not. Hence, as novelist Toni Morrison argues in her brilliant book Playing in the Dark, white American culture understands itself against a racist caricature of black people. Likewise, three of the most classic and often read English novels are Thomas More’s Utopia, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, all of which are about non-existent spaces outside of England. And in the case of the Oromo cultural night and the Vagina Monologues, the Oromo in Minnesota look far away to their cultural roots in Ethiopia to express their counter-hegemonic cultural identity while at the same time inside Ethiopia young people look far away in the other direction to articulate their counter-hegemonic cultural identity.
In a sense, this illustrates a point made by Jacque Lacan in his lecture “The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious” that analyzes the relationship between individual selves and language. In one section of that lecture, he thinks about the famous philosophical statement by Rene Descartes: “I think therefore I am.” One of the implications of this universalizing, humanist ideal is that no matter what culture we come from, we are all rational individuals with brains. Lacan’s critique is that we are not actually all that rational most of the time and our brains require language to think with… and language is cultural. So, Lacan then considers another phrase, “I think where I am.” The implication behind this statement is culturally deterministic and suggests that Americans inevitably think American thoughts, Oromos think Oromo thoughts, etc. Lacan dismisses this formulation as well, and instead proposes the very complex phrase, “I think where I am not, therefore I am where I do not think.” The main idea here is that when we think, we use language, symbols, and ideas that are outside of us. We imagine ourselves in other spaces (fantasy novels or the future, e.g., the novels Utopia, Robinson Crusoe, and Gulliver’s Travels), and we understand our identity by exaggerating contrasts with other cultures and by inventing mythological pasts.
The critical point I’m trying to make here about Oromo culture is that it is not simply an expression of cultural identity. It is an expression of desire, anxiety, loss, and language. It is just as much an expression of what is lacked or lost as it is an expression of what is there.
Now for theoretical point number two. Critical of Lacanian psychoanalysis, theorists Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari suggest that culture is not simply about desire, fantasy, and lack. It is also about assemblages, connections, linkages, and productivity. Hence, a cultural night or a magazine like Zoma are sites where connections are made between American, Ethiopian, and Oromo cultural elements. Deleuze and Guattari — and also the Afro-British theorist Paul Gilroy and the Caribbean theorist Edouard Glissant — argue that culture works like a “rhizome” or network. If you remember your high school biology class, you might recall that a rhizome is an underground root structure for some kinds of plants and fungi. When I teach this idea in class I usually talk about mushrooms which typically grow in rings. The mushroom is what we see, and it may look like each mushroom is distinct, each with its own root, but underground they are all connected by a more complex root structure. In other words, there is one amorphous root structure that produces all the individual mushrooms. If we think of this as a metaphor for culture, then each ethnic or national culture is a mushroom, and the complex network of social, economic, and fantasy relations are the rhizome. In other words, we’re all connected in some way underneath. Instead of thinking about culture in terms of roots (each ethnic culture having its own distinct root like a tree), we might think of it in terms of rhizomatic routes – the movement of culture in time and space and its many connections that cross national borders and institutions (the way a mushroom has a myriad of roots connected to other mushrooms.)
So, in conclusion, what I personally believe is admirable about Ogina is that it enacts this rhizomorphic sense of culture. It is a site that brings traditional Oromo cultures (e.g., poetry in the Oromo language about nineteenth-century chiefs and anthropological articles about traditional clothing) together with “modern” activities (e.g., films about “night driving” and interviews with film actors). It includes an article about both traditional and new uses of the plant khat and how the culture around khat use has been affected by globalization. In sum, it projects a desire for Oromo cultural development and its many international connections.
Likewise, also check out this awesome transnational musical New Years Eve celebration sponsored by the International Oromo Youth Association that links up American jazz (Rick DellaRatta) with Oromo pop. And notice the variety of sponsors. It too enacts a beautiful, rhizomatic, and counter-hegemonic sense of culture that theorists such as Paul Gilroy would applaud.
As I mentioned in my first Finfinne Diary about my overall itinerary, one of the goals for my trip was to investigate the possibility of film and media development in Ethiopia. And serendipitously, while I was traveling around the Oromia region, Ethiopia just happened to be hosting its very first international short film festival — Images that Matter — to encourage and develop young talent. The festival included films and filmmakers from all over the world, including Morocco, Australia, Iran, Japan, France, Sudan, China, Brazil, and Kenya, and it was sponsored by a wide variety of organizations including Ethiopia’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism, the French government, the World Bank, Ethiopian Airlines, BGI Ethiopia (a beer distributor), and Addis Ababa University… among many others. The guest of honor was the Somali-born supermodel Waris Dirie, whose autobiography Desert Flower was recently made into a movie that focuses attention on the problem of female circumcision. Luckily for me, extra tickets were being handed out on the street in front of the National Theater one morning, and I just happened to be walking by at that very moment, so I was able to attend several of the sessions and the final award ceremony. I was able to watch most of the short films competing for the East African film competition. This was a wonderful experience, and I almost can’t believe my good luck.
So, the question for this blog is how to go about developing the film and media industry within Ethiopia. This was one of the stated goals of the film festival, and it is also one of the goals of organizations such as Sandscribe Communications, the Blue Nile Film and Television Academy, and the Goethe Institute’s Ethiopian Film Initiative. The two friends who most helped me with my trip — and who spoke with me on the phone almost every day I was there — are both aspiring Oromo film-makers, one living in the United States, one in Ethiopia. So, in a sense, my blog post today is in part a token of thanks to both of them, but it is also a critical inquiry into what is possible as well as into strategies for making that possibility a reality.
Admittedly, although I have published a scholarly article about film and globalization, I knew nothing at all about the movie business in Ethiopia or anywhere in Africa before my trip this summer. So, after I came back to the United States I went to the local university library to check out a few books such as Francois Pfaff’s Focus on African Films (2004) and Nwachukwu Frank Ukadike’s Black African Cinema (1994), and I flipped through old issues of the Journal of Ethiopian Studies, Journal of Oromo Studies, African Studies Review, and Northeast African Studies. I also watched a few movies such as Ousmane Sembene’s classic Black Girl (1966) about colonial racism and Xala (1975) about postcolonial government corruption. (I probably should have done all this before I went on my big trip, but I didn’t have time.) Luckily, just a couple weeks after I returned from Oromia, the new movie Teza, by the Ethiopia-born independent film maker Haile Gerima (which coincidentally included two actors whom I briefly met at Addis Ababa University), was finally screened at an art-house theater in Minneapolis. Significantly, in all my research (which admittedly was far from rigorous or thorough), I found absolutely no scholarly work whatsoever on the film industry in Ethiopia. Instead I found a few interviews with Haile Gerima and Salem Mekuria, but both of them live and work in the United States and in some ways are more African-American than they are Ethiopian. And I believe this absence of scholarly work indicates precisely the problem that my friends want to address: the lack of quality film and media in Ethiopia and the general disinterest among Ethiopian scholars. Moreover, based on my experience at the film festival and my follow-up research, the opportunities for someone to make a feature-length dramatic film in Ethiopia in a language other than Amharic are practically nil. What are my friends and I to do?
Probably the most useful book for my purposes is African Cinema (1992) by Manthia Diawara (along with his earlier article available on-line [here].) Why I say Diawara’s book is most useful is because it comparatively analyzes the history of production, distribution, and consumption in many African countries from the colonial period of the 1930s through the postcolonial 1960s to the 1980s. Some nations (such as Nigeria, Ghana, and Senegal) were successful at fostering a national cinema, but most were not. Although every country is unique, so one can’t simply emulate the kind of profitable multi-ethnic film production happening in Nigeria (or “Nollywood” as it’s called), the various successes and failures provide us with lessons we can learn from. In contrast to Diawara’s book, all of the other books on African film that I found focused either on the genius of individual directors or on the style and content of “good” movies. In my view, focusing on the “author” or on the “work” doesn’t actually go far enough to explain why and how some movies get made and others do not. And for all my students from my “English 243″ class who might still be reading my blog from time to time, this is one of Michel Foucault’s main points in his famous essay “What is an Author?” and in his book The Archaeology of Knowledge. No matter what an individual’s talents, if he or she doesn’t have the right equipment or enough investment of capital, the movie won’t get made. And even if one has equipment and financing, that doesn’t mean one has a labor force with the skills and knowledge necessary to shoot some good pictures, as is evident from the awful stuff made by Ethiopia’s national television station. And even more important than production is distribution, as I will argue in just moment. Please note that my blog on movies in Ethiopia is not going to discuss the subject matter, plots, or style of any movies. Those questions are for individual film-makers to decide, not me. Rather, I am interested in what conditions make possible the successful production and distribution of movies, whatever they may be about.
My argument is basically that we need to pay attention not only to the means of production but also to distribution and consumption. And we need to pay attention to how production, distribution, and consumption affect each other in complex ways. I think my students and colleagues in central Minnesota can sympathize with me on this one. Although there is an enormous megaplex with 18 theaters very close to me, it only shows crap such as the recent A-Team, Knight and Day, Killers, etc. (And yes, in case you are wondering, I actually saw all of those earlier this summer, even though they are crap.) Not only is it almost impossible to see a highly acclaimed movie such as Gerima’s Teza, it’s even difficult to see a movie as popular as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo — despite the fact that that movie is based on the best-selling novel of the past two years. Ironically, I had a similar experience while I was in Ethiopia’s capital city. The same movies that were in the movie theaters in my small city in central Minnesota were also at the very same time in the movie theaters in Finfinne (a.k.a. Addis Ababa). In other words, it was easier to watch the A-Team in Ethiopia than it was to watch Teza.
Why is that? My students often seem to assume it’s simply a matter of popularity, but actually that’s not at all the case. As Diawara shows in his book about African cinema, and as theorists Fredric Jameson, Masao Miyoshi, Barbara Trent, and Paik Nak-chung all argue in the seminal book The Cultures of Globalization, and as anyone who has ever talked to the manager of a theater would know, there are other factors. For instance, even an independent movie theater is obliged to show certain movies by large production companies, even if it doesn’t want to show them or knows they will be unpopular, because they will lose access to a lot of movies they do want to show if they don’t. Sometimes popular movies don’t get much screen time while unpopular movies do.
Diawara narrates case after case across Africa when European-and-American-controlled distribution networks effectively shut down efforts by independent African directors to produce their work. Such neo-colonial European-American interests are able to do this directly by simply denying access to theaters or indirectly by scaring off potential investors. As a result, African filmmakers were often unable to compete with Hollywood romances and Hong Kong kung fu. And even today, it is very difficult to watch African movies in the United States; they are almost never shown in theaters and even the DVDs are not available through the usual commercial channels or public libraries. Ironically, both times I’ve been on a plane to Africa (Kenya last year, Ethiopia this year), I could watch movies made in the United States, France, Japan, and India, but not movies made by anyone from Africa.
Likewise, movies are often financially successful because an audience has been mobilized, whether through advertising or through other means such as universities, churches, or activist organizations. For instance, the case of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is somewhat well known — the first African-American-made, African-American-owned movie in the United States, whose financial success in 1971 surprised everyone. Part of its success is owed to the Black Panthers who mobilized its members to go watch it. If one thinks of the future of quality film in Ethiopia, one will have to figure out how to organize an audience. A city such as Jimma may not have a good theater, but it does have a good university with an auditorium. Smaller towns have churches. And some African governments in the 1970s and 80s sponsored mobile crews that traveled from town to town to promote and show films.
One of the ways that individual nations in Africa attempted to support their nascent film industries in the wake of their independence from colonial rule was to nationalize the industry. In other words, European companies were controlling the content and the distribution, which meant that it was hard for Africans to develop their own skills and take control of the medium and to make movies that criticized European colonial and neo-colonial policies. Governments built training centers, funded movies, and facilitated their distribution. However, nationalization has three problems. First, often nationalization meant government control, and the result was boring propaganda films (and mostly documentaries or news) that supported the government’s narrow political agenda. Second, movies were rarely high on the government’s list of priorities, so the fledgling film industries withered away. Third, if the national government only supported production but didn’t also work effectively to support distribution, the films simply could not compete or even attract investment. Fourth, American and European companies were extremely hostile to any effort by an African nation or African company to control its own production and distribution, and hence the Americans and Europeans would use any means necessary to assert their interests. In other words, the film industry has never been governed by free market forces. To imagine that such is the case is to indulge in pure fantasy. Rather, like all big businesses where a lot is at stake both financially and politically, it has always been about power.
Clearly the subject of cinema in Africa is complex since an entire book has been written about it, but I’d like to finish this post by first talking about two successful policies and then applying the lessons of those policies to the specific case of Ethiopia. One successful policy was Nigeria’s Indigenization Act that enabled private Nigerians with business contracts to take control of film distribution and exhibition. Instead of the kind of direct government control and sponsorship popular in many African countries, this act simply enables private businesses to compete with the more powerful American and European companies. And today, Nigeria is not just the biggest producer of films in Africa but also one of the biggest producers of films in the world, so I think we should take their example seriously. (Admittedly, this is due mostly to Nigeria having one of the biggest populations in the world, not to mention a heck of a lot of oil. Nevertheless, the case of Nigeria is especially useful example to consider while thinking critically about Ethiopia’s situation considering that Nigeria also has a history of ethnic conflict.)
The other successful policy is evident in the film festival I attended. Instead of national governments simply promoting their own films, there is collaboration across national boundaries. This might take the form of a film festival (such as the famous Cannes festival in France or the festival in Addis Ababa), but more significantly it might take the form of a multilateral trade negotiation among several national governments or the form of a transnational business association.
OK… so, this blog post is already quite long, but I’d like to conclude by focusing on the case of Ethiopia. Today, Ethiopia lacks any formal training center for film and media — though one of my contacts at Addis Ababa University said that something was in the works there. Ethiopian media also is controlled by a not-so-democratic government. As a result, the aspiring film makers that I met believed their only option was to be completely independent and do everything themselves. As you might guess from everything I’ve written so far in this blog post and in my other Finfinne Diaries, although I am sympathetic to the feelings that motivate this point of view and this desire for total autonomy, I don’t think it is wise. Instead, I think independent film makers will have to build up the infrastructure of film-making gradually by collaborating both within national boundaries and across them. And when I say infrastructure, I mean not just production but also distribution and consumption. And when I say collaborating, I don’t mean in the political sense, but simply the sharing of equipment, space, knowledge, ideas, labor time, and other resources that goes on all the time among artists struggling to make a go at it.
Also in the case of Ethiopia, one of the obvious issues is the question of ethnic self-determination and governance. Having control of its own media is clearly important for any culture because such media is how identity is expressed, how values are articulated, and how issues are brought to the public mind. For the most part, although some gains have been made by the Oromo and other ethnic groups in Ethiopia since 1992 to have newspapers and other media in their own languages, the mainstream media is still mostly ethnically Amhara. And this was clearly the case at the film festival I attended, though because of the international nature of the event, its primary language was not Amharic but English.
How can such ethnic populations gain access to investment capital and distribution networks in such an environment? Honestly, I do not have the answer to that, but I’d like to offer some highly speculative ideas. Two obvious sources of funding might be the Oromia International Bank and the Oromo Culture Center, soon to be built by the Oromiya Culture and Tourism Bureau — i.e., a government project led by a political party called the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO). What might make the Culture Center a problematic source of funding is that it is directed by a somewhat corrupt political organization that does not have the confidence of the Oromo people whom they are supposed to represent.
For the non-Oromo folks reading this blog, the history of Ethiopia and Oromo politics is long and complex, and even after all the reading I’ve done and all the chatting with various peoples, I still don’t understand the in’s and out’s of it. But basically, ever since the mid-1990s, the political party of the OPDO has been almost completely subordinate to the dictatorial regime of Ethiopia and therefore is neither truly democratic nor truly representative of the Oromo people. From the perspective of the more radical and militant Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), an organization outlawed by the Ethiopian government, the OPDO is simply part of the oppressive state apparatus. But of course the OPDO believes they are more pragmatic than their critics give them credit for, given the reality of the situation. As for the status of the Oromia Bank, I have no idea, except that I doubt it would be in any position to fund a movie perceived to be against the government’s agenda.
In any case, I can understand why an independent Oromo film maker would shy away from the financial support of the OPDO or the bank because not only might their creative vision be hampered, so too would their credibility and hence their potential audience base. However, on the other hand, an effective development of an Oromo media infrastructure will certainly take a long time and require the input of many organizations and individuals. Even independent film makers benefit from the infrastructure of the mainstream built by large corporate interests. For example, obviously few film makers build their own theaters. And to use an analogy, just because your enemy made the weapon (in this case, the movie theater or the film equipment) doesn’t mean you can’t use that weapon against your enemy.
So, what to do? There seems to be an either/or situation here. Either the film-makers collaborate with sources of financial capital that they don’t like or they don’t and instead try to maintain their artistic integrity and/or political purity. But perhaps there is a solution that avoids this either/or. What if independent film makers formed an association across ethnic and national boundaries but independent of political parties and the state? What if artistic collaboration and the building of a vibrant media infrastructure were a multicultural and transnational venture? Could they pool their resources this way so as to avoid the pitfalls of both partisan politics and moneyed interests?
I don’t have much to say in this blog post about my trip to Oromia/Ethiopia. I’m saving up all my mental energy for one final post about film and media in Ethiopia. But in the meantime there are a few more photographs that I’d like to share. The basic theoretical questions I want to raise in this post are about the aesthetics of photography. I’ve never studied this before. I am both an amateur photographer and an amateur theorist of photography. What is a photographic image supposed to communicate and how does it communicate? Is it simply the resonance of the content or is it the juxtaposition of two or more elements in a surprising way? For instance, the juxtaposition of an ancient thing and a modern thing. It seems the image ought to say more than what it says, like a poem. It’s not just what’s in the image, but what that image means. But in addition, there seems to be some aesthetic or formal considerations (framing, balance, etc.) that have nothing to do with meaning… or maybe all aesthetics is about meaning. I don’t know. I try to take photographs that express something new about the way people interact with their world. I want my photographs to provoke you to think about the general structure of society, but I also like photographs to simply look cool. Anyway, I don’t know if I succeed, and usually I don’t. I took over 1,300 photographs, and most of them are crap. Some of the good ones I posted up in my previous two blog posts on Harar and Fentale. Below are some left overs that don’t have any theoretical framework. I just think they are cool looking.
The ECA also has the historic Africa Hall where the African Union first met. This is the front of the old part of the ECA, and I imagined an suspense-thriller movie with lots of spies where a character runs down these steps. I tried to make the ECA look threatening.
I just took this photograph from the car window. I liked the tree in the background over the village in the middleground and the odd landscaping in the foreground. I took a lot of such pictures, and most of them aren’t so good. With this one, I think I got lucky with the composition.
Debre Libanos is a monastery about 65 miles north of Finfinne. People make pilgrimages there. Instead of my photographs just of the buildings or of large crowds of people, I prefer my photographs (above and below) that have a pilgrim’s face in the foreground and the building in the background.
In the country, people make charcoal by burning trees and shrubs under the earth. They sell it on the side of the highway, and then it comes to the towns where people use it for cooking, grilling corn directly on the charcoal. In a small way this contributes to deforestation and greenhouse gases. What I like about the picture above is the relaxed posture of the man. I took the picture as we drove past him, and I’m surprised it turned out so well. The picture below didn’t turn out as well as I’d hoped, but I like the curve of the street over her head and the symmetry of her selling corn and the woman behind her begging for money. I probably walked by these women dozens of times, because it was right near my hotel, across the street from the Bole Medhane Alem cathedral.
Because the streets are so dusty, one always needs a shoeshine. As for the picture below, on the same corner as the picture above, I like the boy in the foreground, whose surprised expression seems to remind us how invasive all my photographing actually is. Behind him, a mixture of so many different kinds of people that you only get in a big city.
Downtown Jimma was so busy and fascinating, but in contrast the university was so peaceful and lovely. For all you coffee lovers, Jimma is where a lot of your coffee comes from. The university also has a small and new Oromo folklore program.
And finally, my apologies for any formatting issues with this post. I’ve had a heck of a time uploading these pictures, and I don’t know what happened.
Following up on my last blog post, with all my photographs of Hararge, this post will have some more photographs from my trip to Oromia. This time I will focus on the day I spent in Fentale with members of the Gudina Tumsa Foundation (GTF) who showed me the work they do with the pastoralist Karayu tribe. I meant to blog about this a week ago, but I kept procrastinating, and I think the reason for my procrastination is that the subject is so important, complicated, and difficult. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say or how to go about saying it, and I wanted to read a book about Gudina Tumsa first. The subject of aid is something I blogged about before [here] after my trip to Kenya last summer, and my title “the ethics of aid” comes from the title of an episode of NPR’s Speaking of Faith in December, 2008, in which the Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina shocked the host of the program by saying that Europe and the United States should stop trying help Africa. No aid was better than misguided aid. Similarly, just a few weeks ago, Newsweek published an article arguing that some forms of humanitarian aid to Ethiopia are actually bad for democracy and human rights. In my opinion, both Wainaina and Newsweek are overstating their case (Wainaina for rhetorical effect, and Newsweek to sell magazines), but they raise valid concerns.
Honestly, I don’t know what to think, and I’m not even sure as I type this what I’m going to say. I guess what would be simplest is for me to first describe what I did in the Fentale district and show some of my photographs. (By the way, you can click on the pictures to make them bigger.) And then I’ll get to the hard questions after that. Please keep in mind that you are getting an abbreviated account of my day in Fentale. It could be a book.
So, as you can see from my photographs below, the Karayu are quite poor, and where they live is hot and dry. In my previous blog post about the ideology behind some kinds of representation, I pointed out that most Americans think of Ethiopians as starving people in the desert who desperately need our help, and I demystified these stereotypes. But Fentale is a different story altogether. Different, and not at all what you might expect, as I’ll try to explain.
The Karayu are an Oromo tribe, and traditionally they are pastorlists and move from place to place with their cattle. They govern themselves through the democratic Gadaa system; their religion traditionally has been Waqeffata, though today many are Muslim and some Christian. For the past half century, their culture and their economy has been severely disrupted by Ethiopia’s economic development, which I discussed earlier in my blog [here] and [here]. The good land is taken by large industrial plantations, and here is the troubling reality that the American media and many American humanitarian organizations often neglect to mention — the poverty in Ethiopia is neither simply a natural disaster caused by drought nor simply the fault of bad governance. It is those things too, but it is also in part a man-made crisis produced by the modern capitalist world system. Take a look at my photograph below. On the left side of the image is a lush and green sugar plantation started by Dutch investors in the 1960s and irrigated by the large Awash river. On the right side is the arid land where the Karayu live. Not only do the Karayu no longer have access to water, but their cattle and goats often have to drink the run-off water from the plantations that contains pesticides and chemical fertilizers.
The stark contrast between the lush, fertile plantation and the almost-desert environment was so painful to look at that it brought tears to my eyes. How could these two environments exist just inches away from each other?
And it gets worse. One of the effects of the land and water scarcity is ethnic conflict, as the various tribes fight with each other for what little remains. The other effect is deforestation. Hence, one of the things many humanitarian organizations try to do in Africa is encourage indigenous groups and local governments to plant trees and invest in more environmentally sustainable social organization. The most famous example is Kenya’s greenbelt movement started by Wangari Maathai who won the Nobel peace prize in 2004. The Gudina Tumsa Foundation also does this, and plus it also works with the Karayu to promote a more residential economy by building permanent homes, constructing facilities for storing grain, and setting aside land for re-forestation. In addition, they teach the basics of microfinance, helping them start up local shops. Such microfinancing goes hand in hand with the empowerment of women, since it’s women who usually run the shops.
Probably one of the most important projects that GTF did is build schools. Even if the Ethiopian government pays the peasants and pastoralists some money when it forces them off their land, the people have trouble adapting to their new circumstances because they lack education. The worst case scenarios are death from starvation or migration to city slums. GTF built the only schools and libraries in the area. In addition, since pastoralists tend to move around a lot, GTF also operates dormitories for the students — and this is especially beneficial for girls who otherwise might never get an education.
There’s a lot more to say about the Karayu culture, the economics of their displacement, and the work of GTF, but you can read more about that elsewhere by following the hyperlinks I’ve included in this blog post. Now I want to return to the question about the ethics of aid.
There are a lot of problems with foreign aid to Africa, but I’ll focus on two. First, sometimes the donors think they know what’s best and build projects that aren’t locally sustainable or useful to the people there. They might build a water pump or a school, but then not train enough staff there to maintain it. This kind of aid tends to emphasize building things, so it employes American engineers and uses American products. Ironically, this kind of aid might be better for the donor’s economy than for the recipient’s economy. Years ago, I made some extra money editing documents for an aid organization, and the shocking discovery I made was that the donor government consciously and deliberately required that much of the funding return to the donor country by using its contractors, technology, and labor. The result is hundreds of defunct projects all over Africa. As Kelly Kraemer wisely argues in her article Solidarity in Action, “good intentions matter, but by themselves are not sufficient to determine whether or not a particular course of action is appropriate.” Instead, she argues, we must be conscious of our own position of privilege and acknowledge that that privileged position is supported by the same socio-economic structures that might oppress or disempower the very group of people we intend to help. This requires that we be willing to learn from the people we aim to help and take the time to gain their trust.
Second, the effects of foreign aid on local politics can be very strange. An organization might accidentally (or sometimes intentionally) promote the interests of one ethnicity or religion at the expense of another. Often the aid given is driven by ideological biases, so for instance work done by various Christian organizations to prevent the spread of HIV-AIDS is limited by the moral prejudices that religion. As Ron Pagnucco and David Cortright rightly argue in their essay Limits to Transnationalism, two of the difficult challenges to the solidarity of a transnational social movement (i.e., a coalition of people across national boundaries) are the ideological differences and the divergent commitments of their national governments. Likewise, although the intentions of the officers whom I met in Ethiopia from the U.S. Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command were certainly noble and good, their work also is meant to promote America’s foreign policy and the interests of Wall Street, which may not always be in the best long-term interests of the people living there. In addition, it’s easier for global organizations and multinational corporations to operate in countries with an authoritarian government. A real, functioning democracy might interrupt such aid projects or investments of capital, because voters and/or local governments might actually oppose them.
I think the advantages of lesser-known organizations such as GTF compared to the more famous, global organizations is that GTF is local and has the trust of the local communities. In the past, the Karayu refused to work with most development and aid organizations because they didn’t trust them. But GTF was started in Oromia by Oromos, and some of its staff members are themselves Karayu from the Fentale district. To put it bluntly, organizations such as GTF are simply better than global organizations. However, at the same time GTF relies on its relationship to communities and organizations around the globe. Most GFT projects are funded by donations from charities in Canada, United States, Japan, Germany, etc. And therein lies the paradox.
And this local-global paradox leads me to Gudina Tumsa’s theology. Gudina Tumsa, by the way, was assassinated by Ethiopia’s Derg regime in 1979, probably because as the Protestant Church’s leading minister, he argued that the role of the church was not to legitimate the ideology of the government but to engage in sincere, productive dialogue and critique. I don’t have time to summarize all of his theology, but I will focus on two main concepts that the GTF (started by two of his daughters) have put into effective practice.
The first is the concept of “integral human development,” which basically argues that the church can not simply worry about the saving of souls and their afterlife. It must also work to better the everyday lives of all people. In this theory, things as different from each other as the environment, women’s empowerment, ethnic-cultural identity, education, religious ethics, spirituality, and the economics of global capitalism are all related. As I hope my blog post has indicated, GFT carefully and deliberately engages all of these aspects together. A local organization will, naturally, be able to do that better than a global organization because it has a more acute and a more holistic understanding of the people it serves.
The second concept is “interdependence.” Gudina Tumsa argued that the protestant church in Ethiopia should not be dependent on the European missionaries because the missionaries didn’t always understand the reality on the ground in Ethiopia. But at the same time, he did not believe in a complete independence because no church could survive the vicissitudes of power politics within a nation state unless it maintained a positive, transnational relationship with people around the world. His theology encouraged an international perspective that I think resembles the international perspective that the socialist postcolonial theorist Timothy Brennen argued for in his essay Cosmopolitanism and Internationalism. Brennen demystifies the cosmopolitan ideologies of universality that underpins claims to global solidarity. Such claims are often made by Catholic, Protestant, and Muslim leaders. Instead, the international perspective (formulated centuries ago in Immanuel Kant’s essay on world peace) recognizes the necessary role of independent nation states and the divergent political and economic needs of local communities. In an internationalist theology, rather than a globalist theology, the important and useful differences remain in clear view so that the church in Ethiopia is not problematically an expression of European ideologies instead of an expression of the people on whose behalf it advocates. Hence, Gudina Tumsa’s concept of “interdependence” recognizes not only the integrity and autonomy of local communities but also their relationship to the world community.
One point of this blog post (if it isn’t clear already) has been to answer the challenge about the ethics of aid posed by Wainaina and Newsweek, and my answer has been to demonstrate why donating money to small organizations like GTF might be better than donating money to large, ideologically driven organizations. My reasoning behind this view is based on GTF’s integrity, its roots in the local community, and its successful track record and long term goals. I suspect, however, that two challenges remain for GTF. First, GTF’s need to attract the interest of charitable organizations worldwide might lead them in directions that they might not actually want to go. This is always a problem as there are always many constituencies involved within Ethiopia who have divergent interests, and at the same time, local Ethiopian organizations such as GTF must appeal to the hearts and minds of foreign charities who may have little understanding of the reality of the situation. Second, it is also true that GTF has its own missionary agenda and its own prejudices. No organization is immune from them. And in the case of Fantale, although GTF is widely respected among the Karayu community, I think it will lose that respect if it too aggressively pushes its Christianity onto a community whose members mostly subscribe to Islam or Waqeffata. What GTF has done well is work with the communities by helping them achieve their own goals while at the same time fostering “critical engagement” and open dialogue that lead to positive social transformation.
Yes, this blog post will have what you all really want from me — not my endless theoretical babble about Oromia/Ethiopia, but some of my own photographs of the trip!!!
After I gave my presentation at Addis Ababa University about how American literature represents Ethiopia, one of the students raised his hand and asked me why American news media represented Ethiopians as starving people living in a desert. It’s an important question, and indeed, many of my American friends with whom I have talked about my trip seem to assume that Ethiopia is a desert and “beastly hot” (that’s a direct quote, so please notice the odd choice of words), etc., etc., etc. Meanwhile, the day before I left for Oromia (as my friends and I prefer to call the region I visited), random people such as the teller at my bank and the driver of my taxi to the airport all seemed to assume I was going to Ethiopia to do missionary work. Can you imagine someone asking me if I was going to Switzerland to do missionary work? Where do these assumptions and inaccurate preconceptions come from?
The Addis Ababa University student was clearly correct to ask why American media represents his country that way, considering that while I was there, it rained almost every afternoon in Addis Ababa, and the temperature was usually about 60 or 70 degrees. Ethiopia has the fifth fastest growing economy in the world right now, according to the Economist Magazine (as I discussed at length in Finfinne Diary 3), and Addis Ababa University and Jimma University both have lovely campuses that don’t look much different from college campuses in the United States or Europe. The mountains and valleys near Harar and around the city of Jimma have the greenest, most beautiful farmland I have ever seen in my life. And speaking as a young man whose hormones still sometimes problematically affect his brain, I must confess that few things in this world are more beautiful than a group of young Muslim Oromo women on market day, walking to town down a winding mountain highway, arm in arm, decked out in their brilliantly colorful sarongs and matching headscarves, and chatting away, while behind them one can see a lush, idyllic expanse of corn, tef, chickpeas, pasture… perhaps some khat and/or coffee… whatever. I wish I had a good photograph of that scene up close, but I was far too embarrassed to ask my driver to stop the car for such a purpose.
Another confession: I am writing this blog post because I am unhappy with my previous Finfinne Diary 4 about khat. I’m unhappy because by focusing on the khat trade in Harar, I might be giving the wrong impression of the whole city and its environs. So, in this post I want to talk about the problems of “representation” and also include some of my own photographs. So far, none of my blog posts have included my own pictures, since it’s easier to insert stuff I found on the internet.
Problems of representation: as many postcolonial theorists have pointed out — most famously Edward Said in his book Orientalism — the way Europeans and Americans have represented Africa, the Middle East, and Asia have always been ideological. Such representations tend to repeat stereotypes, and most readers of my blog have probably read Binyavanga Wainaina’s hilarious satire of such stereotypes in his essay “How to Write about Africa.” Such stereotypes often serve the political interests of the European and American empires because they seem to legitimate colonial and neocolonial agendas by exaggerating the difference between cultures. In other words, they represent the “West” as civilized, rational, and humane, etc., and the “East” and “Africa” as undeveloped, irrational, and beastly (or just “beastly hot”). In effect, such representations in the mainstream media and in political rhetoric are used to justify imperialism as a “civilizing mission.”
So, for instance, in answer to the student’s question, I could easily answer with a question of my own, “when did all those images of Ethiopia appear?” Did we see them in the 1960s when Ethiopia was the United States’s number one ally in Africa (even though there was a famine then too)? No, we did not. Do we see them much today? No, we do not. The answer is that we saw their proliferation in the 1980s. I’m sure you can all remember those Sally Struthers advertisements that were constantly on TV. They are now mocked by the show South Park, but they were taken very seriously back then. So, what was happening in the 1980s?…. Hmmm, I wonder…. Of course! Ethiopia had switched is allegiance from the United States to the Soviet Union. Did Sally Struthers ever explain that actually just down the road from all the starving Ethiopians were large, irrigated, sugarcane plantations set up by Dutch corporations in the early 1960s? No, of course not. (Please stay tuned for more on the subject of such plantations in future blog posts.) Was Sally Struthers intentionally serving American foreign policy interests in her advertisements or was she telling a lie? No, I don’t think she was doing either of those things — the famine was very real. But one always ought to question which images are selected by the corporate media (or by me in my blog) for consumption by the unwary American viewing public and the meaning that the media attaches to them.
And likewise, I think one can easily write an essay, using Edward Said’s theory, criticizing recent popular media about the khat trade — especially the creative non-fiction piece “High in Hell” published in Esquire, which is so offensively racist that it really does distort and misrepresent the people and places he talks about. In my own blogs, I hope you notice, I have tried to not do this. I have tried to raise questions, draw attention to competing theories about situations, indicating the effects of a global economy on local cultures, etc. And I try to present a balanced picture of Ethiopia — its universities, large apartment complexes, office buildings, and globalized agriculture as well as the mud and thatch homes, the khat markets, and the “living museum” of Harar’s old town, etc. And most important of all — the universal ordinariness of everyday life that we all share no matter where we live, even if one happens to live in a “living museum” so carefully preserved as such by the local government for both tourists and residents. But still, I am afraid that, even though my blog on khat was not as offensive or as stupid as Esquire magazine’s, it did magnify one element of Ethiopia’s character at the expense of other elements. (And, of course, my hormone-induced, bucolic musings about the women walking down the road are also problematic, aren’t they?)
So, the goal of this blog is to offer a correction… and also (my third confession of the day) to show off a few of my best photographs, which I’m a little proud of. I wish I could show you more, since I took hundreds. The few I selected for this blog post barely hint at the diversity and beauty of the city of Harar and the hundreds of miles of farmland in the mountainous highlands of the Hararge region — not to mention the cosmopolitan city Dire Dawa, about 35 miles from Harar.
As I mentioned in my first Finfinne Diary about my trip to Ethiopia, I was quite surprised by the size of the khat trade (a.k.a., qat or chat), but as someone commented there, I probably should not have been since American newspapers and magazines have been blabbering about it for years. For instance, I could have read about the popularity of this narcotic plant in Esquire, The Christian Science Monitor, Time Magazine, and The Village Voice. When I travelled to Harar, I was expecting khat to be around, but dang! — I soon discovered that it was not simply around… it was everywhere; men and women carried bunches of it to and fro in their arms the way a young lover might carry a dozen long-stem roses to his date on Valentines Day, and huge piles of it were on the side of the road.
After walking around the fascinating, historic “old town” of Harar all morning, learning as much as I could about the “living museum” (as the town calls itself), I randomly met a couple guys (one American, one Ethiopian) who worked for the U.S. Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Command while eating lunch in a restaurant, and they explained to me that the cities of Harar, Dire Dawa, and Jijiga export not just truck-loads but even plane-loads of khat daily to Djibouti, Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere. To get yourself a mental picture, think about how many trucks deliver cases of beer to stores and restaurants in the United States, and you’ve got an idea of the khat market.
My observations got me to thinking that somebody really ought to write a book about the culture and economy of this mild narcotic, since books about the cultural histories of sugar, coffee, tea, tobacco, etc., have had so much success. I first got interested in such cultural histories of cash crops when I was a graduate student and have since published articles on eighteenth-century poetry about sugar and tobacco; in my view, the groundbreaking Sweetness and Power by Sidney Mintz is certainly the standard by which all books about commodities should be judged. Anyway, after I returned to the United States, I went on Amazon.com to see what I could see, thinking all the while to myself that somebody (not me) really ought to write a book about khat. And lo and behold, I discovered several such books have already been written, so I ordered Khat in Ethiopia by Ezekial Gebissa published just a few months ago. I don’t know when I’ll actually get around to reading this book, but in the meantime, I’m going to entertain a few speculative theoretical answers to the question I asked the two guys in that restaurant in Harar.
My question was this: why has the khat market and use of khat has grown so quickly and so intensely in the past twenty years? And the three different answers I discussed with the two guys in the restaurant reflects — I will suggest — three different theoretical biases.
But before I get to these theoretical speculations, I think I should first explain what khat is in case you don’t already know. If you want the lengthy chemical and medical explanation, check out the World Health Organization’s analysis, but if you want the simple summary, it’s basically a green leaf that grows prolifically in the same climate where coffee grows (i.e., high altitudes of subtropical regions). When chewed, it produces a euphoric effect that is both stimulating and calming, and the result is often a bunch of people spending a whole afternoon together either chatting or in quiet introspection, feeling good. The next morning, users typically feel tired, depressed, and even disoriented, so they want to chew more khat, and hence one can become psychologically dependent, but there is no evidence yet of chemical addiction. It is legal in Ethiopia and most countries around the Red Sea, where it is consumed daily by much of the population, but is illegal in the U.S. and Europe. According to a BBC article from 2002, the Ethiopian government makes millions of dollars off the export duties, even though their official policy is to do nothing about it — that is, nothing to promote it, and nothing to deter it… just sit back and collect the tax revenue.
I learned a lot of this information from the two guys during lunch, and you may be wondering why these two — who work for the U.S. Army — know so much, but both of them had college degrees in economics. The American used to be a Wall Street stock broker until 9/11/2001 changed the way he felt about the world. Now, he works for the army reserves in a section that promote economic development (more about this to come in a later blog post), and the Ethiopian fellow with him worked full time for the U.S. Army as a translator/advisor/go-between.
Anyway, the three of us debated the cause of the khat market’s rapid growth. The American believed it was natural market forces; khat grows easily and can be harvested every month in contrast to coffee which is more labor intensive and is only harvested once per year. As a result, the cultivation and trade of khat was displacing the cultivation and trade of coffee. His argument made sense to me on one level, but his naturalistic view didn’t explain the historical change that occurred in the 1990s. It seemed to assume that supply and demand were simply universal factors.
In response, I proposed my own crackpot theory that the growth of the khat market was actually an effect of the growth of the coffee market because farmers could make use of the same economic networks. As the coffee trade intensified, so too could the khat trade alongside it, especially since farmers could grow both in the same place. My theory was the opposite of the American Army guy’s because I suggested that khat did not displace coffee; rather, the intensification and expansion of the trading network would lead to the intensification and expansion of both. More begets more.
We were at an impasse, and since neither of us really knew what we were talking about, we called over his Ethiopian friend to settle our dispute. He disagreed with me and pointed out that the khat trading networks were different from the coffee networks. He had good evidence to support his view, considering that the two commodities were not exported to the same places. He told me that there was even a specific Ethiopian airline that specialized in exporting khat. In answer to my question as to what changed in the 1990s, it was the liberalization of capital after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1990, the end of the Cold War, and the subsequent overthrow of Ethiopia’s Derg regime in 1991. (The early 1990s is often considered by globalization theorists as the moment when “globalization” became the hegemonic socio-economic form leading to the establishment of the World Trade Organization in 1995.) Hence, it suddenly became much easier for an entrepreneur to find investors and amass enough capital to buy trucks and airplanes for the khat trade. In other words, one might sarcastically remark, thanks to the free market we have a lot more old men getting stoned all afternoon. But what the heck? The Ethiopian government gets millions of dollars in tax revenue from all the exported khat, which it is (theoretically) able to invest in stuff such as roads, schools, and other nifty development projects, so shouldn’t we all be happy? (Obviously, this is a rhetorical question; see my Finfinne Diaries 3 about development.)
The Ethiopian guy’s explanation of the cause of market growth made a lot of sense to me, but still I wasn’t completely satisfied. I would also speculate that the deregulation of the coffee market in 1992 had an effect because it led not only to a growth in Ethiopia’s global market in general but also specifically to decreased coffee prices. As Oxfam has argued [here] and as the documentary movie Black Gold has shown, this deregulation was wonderful for the multinational coffee corporations, but was devastating to the poor coffee farmer. It’s no wonder they began to turn to khat to supplement their income. In addition, although I had to concede to my lunch-time interlocutors that the export network for khat was different from coffee’s, it is also clear that the same farmers were growing both, and those farmers’s access to the global market began with coffee. The khat trade was using the same roads, airports, vehicles, systems of patronage and security, and knowledge technologies that were developed by the government to facilitate the trade in other commodities.
So, what this conversation illustrates is three theoretical perspectives: my network theory which assumes that markets are socially constructed, the American’s supply and demand theory which assumes that markets are natural, and the Ethiopian’s theory that agrees with the IMF’s efforts to liberalize of capital markets. I suspect that all three of us are each partially right.
Meanwhile, what might be an unfortunate side-effect of the growth of the lucrative khat market is not a decrease in the coffee market as the American suggested, but a decrease in the supply of basic food. While the prices of coffee and khat have decreased as their distribution and consumption have increased, the price of food has increased, suggesting to me that either there isn’t enough production to meet demand or that overall inflation due to economic growth is affecting food prices. I find it a curious coincidence that khat is popular as an appetite suppressant at the same time that food prices are going up.
And while all this is happening in the many town markets that I travelled through, writers and scholars are publishing books, magazine articles, short stories, and songs about the immorality of khat and its terrible effect on the minds and souls of African men and women. The conversation about khat today, by the way, is very similar to the conversation about tobacco in the 17th and early 18th centuries which debated whether tobacco was a corrupting vice and bad for the integrity of the nation or a social lubricant that encouraged economic growth. Last week, a Ugandan friend of mine who was doing some research in Somalia forwarded me a funny short story (not yet published) that a young Somali had written about khat hallucinations. So, in a few years, maybe I’ll be able to do some literary criticism about khat just like I did about tobacco and sugar.