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.
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.
Finfinne Diaries 3: Construction and Inflation — How to Demystify Ethiopia’s So-Called Economic Development?
What impressed me most during my brief 16 days in Ethiopia was the amount of construction. I have never in my life seen so many building projects going on all at once. Concrete and scaffolding were everywhere in Ethiopia’s capital city Addis Ababa and in the other cities that I visited — Jimma, Adama, Dire Dawa, and Harar. In Addis’s new suburban sprawl, I drove through almost a whole mile of recently completed but still empty apartment complexes only to discover yet another mile of halfway built complexes further down the road (a road which was also under construction.) And in Harar, I saw a lone Chinese engineer directing a group of Ethiopian laborers in the laying of phone cable, and at my hotel I talked with another engineer from Nepal who worked for a Japanese company that did land surveillance. I took a lot of photographs to document what I saw, but this morning I found a couple of YouTube clips [here] and [here] that have the exact same stuff I was taking pictures of. The development models in these two clips resemble models I saw on billboards and inside the lobby of the Hilton Hotel.
This morning I did a little more research on this subject and read the websites for important civil society organizations — the Ethiopian Business Development Services Network and the Construction Contractors Association of Ethiopia – which detail the challenges that they believe the construction industry faces, such as government regulations, lack of resources (e.g., oil and steel), and lack of skilled labor. I also discovered a group called ICDCONGlobal that conveniently lists weblinks to brief articles on the amazing array of new construction projects currently going on in Ethiopia so that you can see them all [here]. And I actually recognize some of those projects, which I can remember driving past.
The intensity of this development is a mystery to all the people with whom I spoke – who wonder how so much construction is happening while their economy is still in bad shape. Where is the money coming from, and what is it all for? And in light of the recent global recession triggered by the bursting of America’s housing bubble, I am very worried what might happen if Ethiopia’s economy crashes. (Though, I should note that unlike the United States whose economy is truly based on land speculation, in Ethiopia all land is technically owned by the government — first under a feudal system and then under a communist system — and is simply leased to private individuals through a complicated bureaucracy, which I had a chance to briefly witness when my friend had to renew his lease. So, it would be a big mistake to draw simple analogies between America’s housing market and Ethiopia’s recent development.)
But in addition to all the construction, what those YouTube clips and websites don’t show are other things that I saw – things such as an enormous ”Eastern Industrial Zone” with signs in Chinese letters about twenty miles outside Addis; a billboard with plans for a huge Oromo Culture Center complex right in the middle of Addis; a now completely defunct railroad; a bustling dry port for trucks carrying the standardized containers of global trade; an equally bustling and large khat trade; a bunch of young Japanese white-collar workers having lunch in an upscale restaurant and who could speak Amharic but not English (I talked to them in my limited Japanese); miles and miles of villages of small huts made of the traditional mud and thatch; miles and miles of farms still ploughed with traditional oxen right next to modern industrial farms and right next to miles of industrial-scale greenhouses for the global flower market, etc., etc., etc.
Do you see what I’m getting at? Every day I was struck by the proximity of traditional local economies and global capitalism to each other. The relationship between these two phenomenon was in no way clear to me, since as I mentioned in my blog [here] a few months ago, global capitalism and foreign investment have had both positive effects and negative effects. How do we make sense of all these disparate facts? It was clear to me that foreign investment was producing some good things, but it was also clear to me that some manifestations of global capitalism are little more than government-sanctioned theft. And as this recent article argues and as this YouTube clip shows, some of the big development projects cause tremendous environmental damage and displace thousands of people. One has to wonder about the wisdom of many of the projects, some of which are promoted by far-away business interests without much input from local constituencies.
Meanwhile, the two biggest complaints I heard from various people I talked to (whether they were Amhara, Tigray, Oromo, or whatever) were (1) fears that the Chinese were going to move in and take over, and (2) fears about inflation and the devaluation of Ethiopia’s currency, the birr. The first complaint is largely irrational, and such racist expressions of fear that single out China (rather than any of the many other countries that invest in Ethiopia or the presence of the U.S. military) is in my view simply a paranoid reaction to the real problems of inflation. It should be obvious that some foreign investment has improved the quality of life for many in Ethiopia. To put what I’m saying here in theory-teacher-blog terms, the fear of the Chinese is a psychological symptom that displaces the hard-to-conceptualize vicissitudes of globalization onto the easy-to-conceptualize-but-false metaphors of racial identity. And hence I worry about propaganda in the form of political speeches and TV dramas that would encourage such paranoia.
In contrast to the first complaint, the second complaint is very rational, considering that the exchange rate between the Ethiopian birr and the U.S. dollar has been gradually devalued each year since the mid-1990s from 2 to 14, and consequently the prices of basic food staples such as grains and beans (notably the culturally important tef and shiro) have increased dramatically. When it becomes so difficult for the poor to afford food, it’s clear that something is seriously wrong. Economists have long recognized this problem and sought answers; last month, the IMF’s doctrinaire recommendations were, not surprisingly, to promote the private banking sector, reduce tariffs, and liberalize currency exchange, etc., etc., etc., which is the IMF formula for everything and for all problems, no matter what country they are in or what the circumstances are – a rather simplistic formula that the Nobel-prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz criticizes in his book Globalization and Its Discontents and journalist Naomi Klein criticizes in her books No Logo and The Shock Doctrine and in her husband’s movie The Take. It is a formula that some might even suggest would make the problem worse, not better, and instead of helping the average Ethiopian would help the interests of the American, European, and Asian businesses.
But this is a matter of economic debate, and as I always tell my students in my various classes on cultural theory, globalization, and eighteenth-century mercantilist culture, I am not an economist, so they shouldn’t expect answers to basic economic questions. Rather, what they can expect is for Theory with a capital “T” to do three other things: to pose important questions that IMF economists generally do not deal with but perhaps should, to point out the often unseen connections between a cultural phenomenon and an economic one, and to reveal the often irrational or unjust economic decisions and policies that are a result not simply of economic doctrine but of the messy wrangling among various public and private interests whose articulation is always filtered through cultural symbols.
With all that in mind, now is the moment in this blog where I piss off all my friends…. Breathe in… breathe out.
OK, you’ve breathed and taken a short break, so here it goes. What is obvious to everyone (no matter what their political or economic position) is that sometimes development projects don’t actually lead to real development. The big ideas of Ethiopian bureaucrats, private corporations, the American or Chinese empires, and/or well-meaning charities and other non-government organizations (NGOs) are often misguided or corrupt. However, I don’t think it’s worthwhile to lay all the blame on the corruption of the government… or on the ruthless greed of the corporations… or on the so-called evil empires (whoever they may be)… or on the ignorance of many NGOs… especially since more often than not development projects are enacted through a complex partnership among all of these sectors of society. Considering that such partnerships and collaborations are the norm, let’s forget about the “free trade” mythology, since that’s clearly irrelevant to the reality on the ground. And let’s also move beyond the 1960s version of postcolonial theory which leads us to blame all things on the legacy of Europe’s racist imperialism or on conspiracies led by evil Darth-Vader-like American imperialists such as Dick Cheney. And clearly, with all these various factors in mind, we can’t seriously continue to lay all the blame at the feet of Ethiopia’s infamously corrupt and dictatorial Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi. And let’s please also stop whining about the inability of our world-community leaders (whether they are democratically elected or self appointed, e.g., Barack Obama, the Oromo Liberation Front, the board of the Oromia International Bank… whoever) to simply solve such complex problems for us, since that clearly has nothing to do with anything. (Nothing is more tiresome than listening to the same finger-wagging, moralistic bullshit year after year by old and embittered Oromo expatriates about the failure of their ethnic community’s leaders — speeches full of empty slogans about unity and freedom, blah, blah, blah.)
Instead, we ought to identify real problems and work towards real solutions. One problem – as the civil society activist Kumi Naidoo has smartly argued [here] – is the lack of transparency in how decisions get made and the lack of accountability to local civil society organizations (CSOs). In addition to Naidoo’s argument about transparency and accountability, I also agree with the arguments of many NGOs and activists for the importance of access to various cultural resources (such as schools) and the means of empowerment. In my opinion, these are useful things to think about. In contrast, I think vacuous pronouncements about cultural unity by ethnic nationalists don’t always lead to real forms of empowerment or to real access to cultural resources for the poor. Likewise, vacuous pronouncements about free trade by the IMF do little to promote real transparency or accountability. In other words, it does us no good to pretend that unicorns exist.
Now, all of that said, I must acknowledge that the arguments of ethnic nationalists do carry some important weight, considering that the chauvinist government of Ethiopia has for over a century systematically redistributed much wealth from the hands of one ethnic group into the hands of another ethnic group. For instance, as we were driving down the main street of the town of Metahara (a town in a largely Oromo region), one of my new friends pointed out to me that almost every hotel and restaurant was owned by Tigray and Amhara rather than by Oromo — most likely due to the ethnic prejudice and corruption rampant in Ethiopia’s land tenure system. And it was pointed out to me that inside the city of Jimma the main language is Amharic and the main religion Orthodox Christianity, but outside the city the main language is Oromifa and the main religions Islam and Protestant Christianity. But arguments about ethnic unity will not solve the corruption problem and might instead just replace one corrupt government with another. Nor do slogans about cultural unity and freedom necessarily lead to the building of schools or the engendering of local civil society. And such slogans most definitely do not give us the tools to think through the challenges of governance in a world whose dominant economic form is global capitalism. Such slogans are, after all, the manner in which a culture mystifies the real relations of production and daily life.
And likewise, I must also acknowledge that the IMF has a good point that the Ethiopian government’s rigid control of land and its obstruction of capital flows not only impedes economic growth but also encourages the kind of corruption that leads to badly conceived development projects. However, because the IMF measures the quality of life in terms of the stock market and GDP, it is painfully tolerant of economic exploitation and the growth of slums, and its economists are often willfully ignorant of the economic, environmental, and cultural effects of global trade on local communities who struggle to adjust. This is why the work of ethnic nationalist to recuperate their local cultures is not anachronistic to modern capitalism as the IMF economists wrongly believe, but rather such cultural work is an essential feature of globalization. To put it another way, it is never good for the economy in the long run when the traditional culture that binds a community together rapidly disintegrates or when its drinking water is polluted and other essential features of daily life destroyed; hence, leadership by ethnic nationalists can be important to the local economy in that they maintain a sense of community. Moreover, such local cultures are often able to build local civil society whose unique knowledge and skills might be crucial to the successful implementation of any development project. And beyond the notion of economic development narrowly conceived, local cultures can suggest viable alternatives and real solutions to problems that IMF economists and Ethiopian bureaucrats are too arrogant to recognize.
So, what to do? I have no answers today, but stay tuned for future blog posts.
As I mentioned a few days ago in my blog post [here] about my itinerary in Ethiopia, I visited quite a few museums: the National Museum, Ethnological Museum, Addis Ababa Museum, Red Terror Museum, Jimma Museum, Harar Museum, and Arthur Rimbaud Museum as well as a traditional Harari home and the Asni art gallery. That’s a lot of museums, and unfortunately I didn’t take very good notes. Nevertheless, as I moved from one museum to another (sometimes three in one day), I began to notice some key differences between them, and I began to consider a couple of very old questions: what are museums for and how ought they be organized? And I say they are old questions because quite a few scholars have published books attempting answers… such as this, this, and this… though I must admit that I have not read any of them.
But I did notice a few things. I’ll start with the National Museum and the Ethnological Museum, since they are almost right next to each other, and, significantly, they tell very different stories about Ethiopia. The National Museum has three floors; the first floor focuses on prehistoric times and includes animal skeletons and the famous skeleton of the oldest human, nicknamed “Lucy” by Americans and ”Dinkenesh” by Ethiopians (which is Amharic for “wonderful”); half of the second floor is devoted to ancient archaeological relics such as old tools and ornaments, and the other half is devoted to symbols of the Ethiopian empire of the 19th century, mainly the paraphernalia of its emperors; the third floor focuses on modern Ethiopia, especially the communist paintings of the 1970s celebrating peasant labor and the postsocialist, postmodern artwork of the 1990s mourning the brutalities of the communist regime and the fragmented national consciousness. Thus, as one moves from the first floor to the third floor, one moves forward in time, and the organization of material suggests a patriotic story of national unity and progress, from the prehistoric Lucy to the symbols of empire to postmodernist painting. And of course, by doing so, it projects Ethiopia’s contemporary political boundaries back in time, making the nation seem older and more continuous than it ever really was. There is nothing unique about Ethiopia’s national museum, as this is the project of most national museums all around the world.
In contrast, the Ethnological museum is more multicultural, and thus reflects the direction of scholarship at Addis Ababa University since the mid-1990s (as well as the direction of scholarship in the United States and Europe), attending to different regions and cultures. The museum includes artifacts that illustrate the different rituals, musical instruments, tools, and clothing of the various ethnic groups. (Ethiopia has over 70 different ethnic groups, so for the sake of simplicity and space the museum had to combine many of them.) But there are two organizing principles at work in this museum – not only the ethnic one, but also the narrative of a human being from birth to death. As one walks through the museum, one walks through a universal human narrative of development from childhood, to marriage, to basic village economics, to religious ceremony, to war, etc. Thus, the museum shows both difference and sameness — cultural differences are ordered according to universal sense of what it means to be human…. Except that all of the artifacts are primitive, and none of them modern. The museum seems to suggest that beneath all the cultural differences is universal humanity, but I couldn’t help but think that its essentialist sense of human-ness was actually quite alien to the experience of anyone growing up in the early 21st century.
To analyze these two museums, one might say that the National Museum is ideologically nationalist and modernist and that the Ethnological Museum is multiculturalist. But thinking critically, I began to wonder why there couldn’t be a museum that was both multicultural and modern. There seems to be something rather wrong about both museums, one asserting a nationalism that is blind to cultural difference and the other asserting an essentialist humanism that is blind to history. Instead, can we imagine a museum that would show how cultures are changed by historical forces that aren’t always progressive and might involve disparities in relations of power?
A completely different museum, the Jimma Museum, focused entirely on the stuff that was owned by Jimma’s last king, Abba Jiffar II, who ruled from 1878 to 1932. This would seem to be the most unsophisticated museum of the bunch, as its goal seemed to be nothing more than to celebrate a ruler. Moreover, it seemed to celebrate him without admitting some uncomfortable truths, such as the fact that he acquired much of his wealth from the slave trade. However, in another sense, because it focuses on the stuff owned by Jimma’s most important person, it actually does do exactly what the National and Ethnological museums do not do — it simultaneously indicates the plurality of cultures AND historical change. Jimma was an important peripheral city for a complex economic network that extended from Europe to India. What one experiences as one walks through the museum and its cases full of artifacts from all over the world is a rather uncanny sense of cultural hybridity. The museum is in a sense a testimony to one king’s struggle to survive during the height of European imperialism and the rapid growth of the modern capitalist world system.
Now, a funny thing happened in Harar’s museum, which is basically one large room, whose walls show the history of the city and whose center has tables full of ethnological artifacts. First, the tour guide took me around the walls of the room, teaching me about Harar’s history, and then we looked at the tables in the center of the room. In a sense, this museum combines the ethnological with the historical, but the overall effect is a little strange. Each table in the center is devoted to a different ethnic group (Oromo, Gurage, Somali, and Harari), thus celebrating Harar’s multicultural past and the possibility of peaceful coexistence. But I noticed two ironies. First, most of the artifacts on the different tables were pretty much the same, which suggests to me that a thousand years of intermixture makes the cultural differences between the ethnic groups almost negligible; it was difficult to understand why separate tables were necessary and why materials were not organized in a different way. (I wondered whether anyone would notice if I switched some of the artifacts.) Second, I observed that there was no table for Amhara or Tigray artifacts. I asked why that was, and the guide simply shrugged. (Now, for those of you who don’t know Ethiopian history, it was the Orthodox Christian Amhara and Tigray kings who, in the late 19th century, conquered the territory now known as Ethiopia and created the modern state with European technological support, i.e., guns.) So, the joke that I then made to the museum tour guide – which elicited a nervous laugh – was that the table of Amhara cultural artifacts was not in the center of the room because it was part of the ”history” wall. And then I pointed to a section of the wall that had a rack of modern rifles and machine guns from one of the early 20th-century battles, and I joked, ”oh, there’s the table of Amhara and Tigray cultural artifacts.” My snide comment was meant to draw attention to the strange dichotomy suggested by the museum’s organization that ethnic culture (Oromo, Somali, Harari, Gurage) is somehow not historical in contrast to the politically dominate culture (Amhara and Tigray) which is able to be a historical culture (i.e., a modern culture) only by means of its acquisition of more technologically advanced weapons. (Indeed, the Oromo peasants’ word for their Amhara ”landlord” is “gun-holder.”)
How we remember the past has important implications for the future of how we organize our lives together. Since the 1990s, Ethiopia has reorganized its state in a way that now recognizes its many ethnic groups in the wake of two regimes (Haile Selassie’s empire from 1916 to 1974 and Mengisu’s Derg from 1974 to 1991) that actively and often violently sought to repress the cultural achievements of those ethnic groups. Arguably, the current regime under Meles is just as repressive as the previous two, but there is a difference. Unlike the previous two regimes, it seems to me that the current regime allows for cultural differences and cultural achievements to be expressed, but of course it makes this allowance so long as no real political or economic consequences follow from that expression. After all, there are now Oromo cultural centers everywhere in Ethiopia, elementary schools now teach in the ethnic language of each region, some universities now have an Oromo folklore department, and there is an Oromia Bank and the “Finfinne Branch” of the National Bank… but the masses of people in Ethiopia (whatever their ethnicity or culture may be) seem to have little say in matters such as environmental regulations, the organization of land, foreign policy, etc.
In my opinion, the possibility for real alternatives remains marginalized or concealed from view in the museums that I visited. For instance, the Addis Ababa Museum carefully documents the development of the city from a small Oromo town to a military camp to a modern city, but it includes very little about the culture of the local people before the Abyssinian emperor Menelik II moved his military camp there at the end of the 19th century, and it includes hardly a mention of King Iyasu, who ruled from 1913 to 1916. Most of the Ethiopians whom I met characterize Iyasu as an alcoholic womanizer or as a closet Muslim, but in fact he tried to reorganize an Ethiopian state that would be both multicultural and opposed to European imperialism, and he was only 21 years old when he was deposed. More importantly, he was deposed by a politically powerful Orthodox Christian elite who preferred to ally itself with Europe’s imperial desire to exploit labor and resources and oppress the other ethnic groups. The Addis Ababa Museum noticeably puts his portrait in the shadows behind other artifacts as if in embarrassment, and most of the Ethiopians I talked to incorrectly repeat the propaganda, believing that Lij Iyasu’s overthrow was a result of his personal ethics rather than his political decisions. In other words, the average person on the street in Ethiopia seems to have no public memory of Iyasu’ idealistic, egalitarian, anti-colonial agenda and no sense of why European governments would support the coup d’etat that put Ras Tefari in power.
And all of this has important implications for Ethiopia’s newest museum that opened just a few months ago devoted to remembering the Red Terror. The “Red Terror” is the name for when Mengistu’s Derg regime went on a brutal witch hunt for anyone opposed to his administration. Thousands were tortured and murdered. Next to the museum’s front door is a placard with the slogan, “Never Ever Again.” The museum begins by documenting events shortly before the Revolution with magazines and leaflets containing revolutionary arguments against Haile Selassie’s oppressive monarchy. Such documents attest to the revolution’s admirable revolutionary goals, but the museum shows how the revolution soon devolved into an oppressive, terrorist regime. The museum includes more than 700 photographs of the victims, including women and children; it includes the technologies of torture, a map of the secret detention centers, coffins full of unknown bodies, pits full of bones, and some works of art made by survivors; and it even includes a duplicating machine that was destroyed by Mengistu’s regime because it would have published arguments against him. The Red Terror museum reminded me of the Hiroshima museum in Japan and the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C.
I think such museums are very important, but I do have a concern about them that is more than merely theoretical. As a site of public memory, the Red Terror Museum seeks to document an act of evil with the explicit goal that Ethiopia never does it again. However, how different was Mengistu’s regime from the regimes before and after it? After all, emperor Haile Selassie ordered jet fighter planes to drop bombs on his own people in the 1960s, a fact that I never saw mentioned in any of Ethiopia’s museums. And some human rights organizations claim that the current Prime Minister Meles has arrested, tortured, and murdered political opponents. And was Mengistu simply evil? To say so doesn’t really explain the complexity of the situation, and it certainly doesn’t explain why so many people in Ethiopia would have supported Mengistu at the time. My concern here is that by demonizing one person, such a representation ignores important truths and creates an alibi — an alibi that allows Ethiopians (and also Americans and Europeans) to imagine that they themselves never supported the evil Mengistu and wouldn’t support such a man today… even though they did… and they do… and we do.
At the end of my presentation on the Harlem Renaissance at Addis Ababa University, the students and I discussed the role of art, literature, and representation. I told them that all of recent novels published in the United States about Ethiopia focus on the Red Terror and that, although I certainly recognize the importance of that subject, it bothered me that American literature couldn’t think of anything else to say about Ethiopia. They told me that, likewise, much of Ethiopia’s own recent literature did the same thing – and that it often did so by simply representing Mengistu as a monster. The students and I agreed that art ought to do something better if it is to help us (the public) work through the paradoxes and problems we face in the globalized capitalist world in which we live. In many ways, the organization of a museum is like a work of art as it seeks to encourage people to reflect on their identity and the atrocities of their history so that the phrase “never ever again” is not merely an empty slogan.
I just got back from a 16-day long trip to the Oromia region of Ethiopia, which was absolutely wonderful thanks to the many people who helped me. You may remember last summer when I wrote a series of Tokyo Diaries and Nairobi Diaries about my travels to Japan and Kenya, and so this summer I’d like to begin a new series called the Finfinne Diaries. The name “Finfinne” is the Oromo name for the small town that the Abyssinian king Menelik II transformed into his base of operations for his imperial conquest and rule in the late 19th century – a base that eventually became modern-day Ethiopia’s capital city, Addis Ababa.
My trip had a variety of goals and therefore a diverse itinerary. My goals included: (1) meeting with the friends of my friends and with their organizations; (2) investigating the possibility of film and media development, (3) making connections with a couple of universities; (4) giving a scholarly presentation; and of course (5) seeing and learning more about the country. Although I had already read a lot of histories of Ethiopia and of the Oromo people, and although I have made some good friends within the Oromo community here in the United States, I have always felt as though I don’t fully understand what’s going on. I have even had a gut feeling that the way expatriated Oromos living in the U.S. feel about their homeland might differ from how Oromos still living there feel. The reality on the ground or in the midst of things is usually more complex, convoluted, diverse, and divergent than it seems from far away, so I tried to go there without any expectations. (Of course, it is impossible to not have any expectations, but I tried not to.) And I have to admit that my trip raised even more questions… and it answered none… which from my perspective is a good thing; it’s better not to think one has the answer when one really doesn’t… and I don’t.
In this initial post, I’ll simply give an overview of the whole itinerary, and then I’ll list some of the specific questions I plan to address in future entries of my Finfinne Diaries. My later postings ought to stand on their own as independent posts, but I hope this first entry will help you see how they all connect and why I am thinking about the things I am thinking about.
But before I do this, a few prefatory remarks. First, I should say that I am most grateful to all the friends, both in the U.S. and in Ethiopia, who helped me while I was there. While some of my itinerary was planned out ahead of time, most of it emerged out of my interaction with these blessed individuals. In addition, I am also of course grateful for the financial support from my employer, who shall never be named in my blog. Second, I should note that I was visiting Ethiopia shortly after a controversial national election, an event that was troubling enough (as you can read about by clicking your mouse here, here, here, here, and here) to cause the U.S. State Department to issue a travel warning. Of course, I was also there during World Cup Soccer, which was on televisions everywhere I went in Ethiopia. Third, I figured I should include a little map. This is the most easily available map of the country on-line, but it is also an old, slightly outdated map, so although it might serve to orient those of you unfamiliar with Ethiopian geography, I will also attempt to disorient you from its schematic.
Saturday, June 5: my flight arrived very late at night, but happily I was met at the airport and brought to a small and friendly hotel, The Grand Guest House, in the upscale Bole area of Addis Ababa/Finfinne.
Monday, June 7: visited the headquarters of the Gudina Tumsa Foundation, a local NGO that works with communities displaced by industrial and agricultural development.
Tuesday, June 8: in the morning visited the site for the yet-to-be-built Sandscribe Communications school (for which I am an advisory board member), about half an hour’s drive from Addis, and in the afternoon met with a professor at Addis Ababa University to discuss my presentation the following week.
Wednesday, June 9: travelled to Jimma, about 200 miles southwest of Addis, and was met at the airport by professors of Jimma University. Jimma is most famous for two things: one, this is prime coffee country, and I have never before in my life seen a countryside more beautifully green; and two, this was the last kingdom to remain independent before being formally incorporated into the Ethiopian empire in 1933.
Thursday, June 10: continued hanging out with professors of history, Oromo folklore, and literature as I explored the university, the city’s museum, and downtown Jimma. (Unfortunately, I was not able to get to the late 19th-century palace of Abba Jiffar, about five miles outside of the city, because of road construction. Also, the rainy season had begun.)
Friday, June 11: my return flight to Addis.
Saturday, June 12: back in Addis, spent the morning in the Bole area’s ritzy shopping malls not far from my hotel with a friend’s children (ages 6, 9, and 12 if I remember correctly), and otherwise relaxed.
Sunday, June 13: visited by car the Orthodox Christian church and monastery in Debre Libanos, about 60 miles north of Addis.
Monday, June 14: since one of my new friends in Addis had some work to do in Jijiga with his crew, I hitched a ride with them as far as Harar. This 325 mile road trip took all day long and traversed quite a diverse geography — through the large city of Nazret (now called Adama), into the hot and dry Rift Valley, past the Awash National Park, over the lush Chercher mountains, and across fertile valleys, finally arriving at Harar, where we were treated to a late dinner in the home of our driver’s fiancé.
Tuesday, June 15: at Harar’s museum, I hired a tour guide to take me around the ancient Islamic old town of Harar, and had random encounters with the U.S. military and another American literature professor. I also explored a bit of the more modern “new town.”
Wednesday, June 16: I took a shuttle van to the city of Dire Dawa (only about 35 miles from Harar, but a completely different environment) and caught a flight back to Addis.
Thursday, June 17: explored Addis on my own, including visits to the brand new Red Terror Museum, the somewhat older Addis Ababa Museum, the now defunct train station, and the hip, postmodern Asni Art gallery. By chance, when I walked past the National Theater, I was informed of the international short film festival being held there that week. This was the first such festival ever to be held in Ethiopia, and the chance to attend some of the screenings was quite fortuitous considering that one of my goals for this trip was precisely the same as the goal of this festival — the possibility of film and media development in Ethiopia.
Friday, June 18: I visited the famous Africa Hall inside the Economic Commission of Africa (ECA) in the morning, attended some more of the film festival in the afternoon, and then moved from my inexpensive hotel to the famously luxurious Addis Ababa Hilton hotel. I wanted to pamper myself for just one night as I finished preparing my presentation for the next morning. Also, I needed to use the Hilton’s business center to print out some handouts.
Saturday, June 19: gave my presentation on the symbolic meaning of “Ethiopia” for Harlem Renaissance theater to about 15 undergraduates majoring in theater and a couple of professors at the beautiful campus of Addis Ababa University. Including the Q&A, this lasted almost two hours, and so I was pretty impressed that students showed up even though final exams were still going on. When we originally planned this presentation, we expected final exams to be over by then, but because of some post-election conflicts among university students, some of the exam schedule had been moved back. After a short afternoon nap back at the Grand Guest House hotel, I went to attend the final awards ceremony for the film festival (and while there ran into one of the students who was at my presentation!)
Sunday, June 20: was taken by one of the employees at the Grand Guest House to a couple of the famous Orthodox churches in Addis. Since my hotel was so small and cozy, I got to know its employees pretty well and had spend a lot of time chatting with them while they let me use the hotel’s computer to check my e-mail. Later in the day, I met with a professor of wood and forestry from Adama University.
Monday, June 21: visited the Gudina Tumsa Foundation’s various projects in Fentale among the pastoralist Karayu tribe. Fentale is a somewhat arid district near the Awash National Park about halfway between Adama (a.k.a. Nazret) and Harar. GTF built the first elementary and high school in that district as well as a library, dormitories for girls, etc., and also helped organize some microfinancing that enabled Karayu men and women set up various local shops, grain and feed stores, etc.
Tuesday, June 22: did some last-minute shopping and meeting with people before my long flight back to the United States.
So, that was my trip. Now, to disorient you from the above map and point out what I did not do in Ethiopia. Most tourists travelling to Ethopia either visit the medieval Orthodox Church sites in the northern Amhara and Tigray regions around Bahir Dar, Gonder, and Axum, or they visit the exotic Omo tribes and jungles in the southeastern Gambela region and Southern Nations region. The north and the south are what Ethiopia is most famous for, but instead I focused on Oromia (for obvious reasons if you’ve been reading my blog), which is the largest, most populous, and most agriculturally rich region. Please take a look at this map which shows the ethnically organized political boundaries of Ethiopia’s new federal system established in 1994.
In sum, my trip was so packed full of such a wide variety of experiences that I haven’t really figured out what I want to say about it yet, and I am still a bit jet lagged. Moreover, this is a “theory” blog, so I will of course limit myself to questions of a theoretical bent. But I have a few ideas that I’ll sketch out for you now. First, since I visited quite a few museums, I’d like to raise the question of how one organizes a museum. Second, one of the things that was most unexpected for me was the incredible amount of construction and development going on, much of which is apparently financed from abroad (e.g., China, Japan, Saudi Arabia, India, Germany, United States, etc.); I’ve blogged on this before [here], and now that I have more information I have more questions to raise about it. Third, alongside the issue of development, I am interested in the causes of the rapid growth of the qat market (also spelled chat or khat) over the past twenty years, because the prevalence of this narcotic plant surprised me. Fourth, I’d like to revisit a topic that I explored during my trip to Kenya last year — the ethics of aid. Fifth and perhaps most fundamentally, considering the diversity of people I encountered on my trip, I’d like to think seriously about the film festival that I attended by raising questions about national identity, ethnic identity, and the challenges of unity and diversity in the context of globalization.