Theory Teacher's Blog

Finfinne Diaries 5: Representing Harar, Characterizing Ethiopia

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!!!  

me at Addis Ababa University, June 2010

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?  

valley in highlands 180 km from Harar

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.  

3 women walking to town

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.  

my favorite photo from the whole trip: girls in Harar's "old town" playing

market day in a small town in highlands

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.” 

meat market in Harar's "old town" -- not open that day

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.  

downtown Harar (or "new town") -- quite modern, eh?


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?)  

boy playing video games in traditional, centuries-old house in the "living museum" of Harar's old town

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.

girl and camel in "old town" Harar


boys and girls after school


Chinese engineer and phone cable outside old-town Harar

small, medieval mosque with satellite dish in Harar's old town


July 10, 2010 - Posted by | media, Oromia

1 Comment »

  1. Absolute love these photos. Especially the girls and the video game pic! 🙂

    Comment by ashley | July 17, 2010 | Reply

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