Theory Teacher's Blog

Finfinne Diaries 1: Itinerary and (Dis)Orientation

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.

Sunday, June 6: went for a short jog around the neighborhood, and then was taken to lunch and visited the National Museum and the Ethnological Museum.

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.

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June 27, 2010 - Posted by | Oromia

3 Comments »

  1. Julie made us examine the thought process that goes into making museums when we were in Ireland — I’ll be interested to hear your take on the museums and other ‘archival’ sites you visited on your trip! It sounds like you thoroughly enjoyed yourself, Steve!

    Comment by Megan G. | June 27, 2010 | Reply

  2. Totally want to hear more about this trip, especially your take on the ethics of aid (esp. since Foreign Policy just made Ethiopia’s “president” one of the 20 worst dictators still in power…) but I have to ask: the prevalence of khat surprised you? check this out: http://www.esquire.com/features/travel/ESQ0906KHAT_182?click=main_sr

    Courtney

    Comment by aminetenz | June 29, 2010 | Reply

  3. […] 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 […]

    Pingback by Test Content | OromoIndex Newswire | July 12, 2010 | Reply


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