In the heart of Ethiopia is the most historically successful city for African unity, human consciousness and development – Addis Ababa.
During the rule of Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, the Organization of African Unity (OAU) was formed in May 25, 1963, Addis Ababa. The formation gathered over thirty African nations with the aim to influence decolonization of Africa, and when Selassie declared that “May this convention of union last 1000 years,” a charter was established to improve the member states across Africa. Fifty-four years later, Ethiopia has become the podium of African unity with the adoption of the African Union (AU), an international body meant to reinforce and safeguard the continent and its people. But, how much is Ethiopia the podium, and how much is it the voice of this aspired unity?
Africa has undergone momentous structural changes that have influenced the identity and mindsets of the people on the continent. At the essence of identity are cultures, beliefs, religions, values, traditions, practices, attitudes, and goals which influence the ways in which people engage within them with one another and within their nations and the continent at large.
We decode the culture of three different individuals born and living in Ethiopia to encode and transmit what it means to them through their symbolic experiences.
Meti Shewaye Yilma – “Global consciousness comes through travel.”
Meti Shewaye Yilma is a self-appointed ambassador of Ethiopia, a media and communications professional, a traveller, and a mother. She is also the President-Elect of the Association of Women in Boldness (AWB). Yilma has a TV show titled Let’s Go with Meti, which provides tips and tricks on how to travel like a local and create globally conscious travellers.
“What I mean by globally conscious travelling is, unless we travel or read or meet people from other places, then we are very closed off and our consciousness level towards other cultures, towards other ideologies, and other societies is very shallow. So, what I’m trying to do is not take them where tourists are going, or what they would find on tourist sites or the usual tourist books. What I am trying to show them is how the locals live or what the locals do, or what that place incorporates, just more than the pictures and the posters,” Yilma said.
As a strong Pan-Africanist, Yilma has declared her strong beliefs towards the growth and development of the country. “One thing I love about Ethiopia is we are very grounded people, we know who we are; we not only know who we are, but we really respect where we come from, and we respect what is being given to us, what is being passed onto us, by our elders and our ancestors,” she said.
Notwithstanding the badly reflective light that may come against Ethiopia every once and again, Yilma feels strong of responsibility towards the preservation of Ethiopia’s historical relevance into everyday life in order to chart for a better future.
“Because when it comes to history, so many Africans look up to us and that – we shouldn’t take it lightly. We have the AU here that we shouldn’t take lightly. We also have this responsibility as Africans to bring us together to be part of the key players in keeping Africa and bringing Africa as united,” she declared. Yilma explained how the concept of national responsibility was coined to her after her visits to a few African countries, “Because the moment I tell them I am from Ethiopia, they say ‘Whoa! We know this and this about Ethiopia… We know the Battle of Adwa, you kicked the Italians out! And the flags’, they go on. But, when you see over twenty African flags, based on the green, yellow, and red, that is the Ethiopian flag, because they were looking up to the independence of Ethiopia, and they took those colours as inspiration to make their flags,” Yilma detailed.
Inspiration, although drawn, can only be depicted in different ways relative to how expressive people are. And, as the flags were formed is also how cultures and beliefs come to form. To the detriment of this beautiful enlightenment, there can come some traumatic realities as inspiration can brew conflict, which, as history has shown, can give way to wars and genocides and extinctions.
Ethiopia is borne to over eighty ethnolinguistic people living together as one nation. Due to the heterogeneous nature of the people, there have been outlooks of separateness and conflict amongst the people, political dominion through ethnicity and oppression of minority cultures.
“I am a product of a collection of cultures; I don’t belong to any specific culture. When it comes to religion, when it comes to tribal background, when it comes to socio economic class, I am a product of so many mixtures; I do not want to be levelled as just one or two,” said Yilma, explaining that people in Ethiopia are mixed, and this becomes more prevalent when you go to the city in Addis Ababa. “We have to understand that we all are different. Individually, communally, nationally, continentally, we are all different, and we must accept that. I accept that. I understand that and I embrace it,” she prescribed.
At the reach of the ladder where engagements are had and inspirations are sought, there are the ordinary people who strive to live together regardless of the laws provisioned for them. Yilma relies on these people to bring about unity on the continent. “Yes, there are politicians to do the macro work; the economy, the politics, but I believe integration and unity would come on a grassroots level between all individual nations to have the United States of Africa that we all aspire to have, or most of us,” Yilma stated.
Woldegiorgis Ghebrehiwot – “Rural development is absent.”
“I have mixed feelings, although there are many good things which are motivating about Ethiopia, when they fail to materialise then they disappoint the people’s livelihoods,” said Woldegiorgis Ghebrehiwot.
Ghebrehiwot was born and raised in the rural areas of Ethiopia. His mother, brother, and sister still live on the farm he grew up on. His family grows and farms ingredients for Injera (the authentic Ethiopian staple food) such as sorghum and wheat. Although they have more than six crops on their farm, Ghebrehiwot said they do not make profits or any sales from their farmlands’ produce.
“We farm just for survival, just for the family to live,” he said, explaining that for the last ten to twenty years, there has always been talk about agriculture development in the country, but the majority of the people just work for survival to sustain their lives but see no growth.
For the last few decades, Ethiopia has seen extensive expansion in urbanisation and infrastructure development. This has mostly infiltrated into the city centre of Addis Ababa. Ghebrehiwot explained how even with rapid urbanisation, buildings are delayed and some incomplete and damaged due to the inefficiency of bureaucracy, shipping logistical restraints, and the influx of imported-only goods, which contributes to the low supply for local manufacturers and suppliers who evidently go out of business. The pool is also affected by the fluctuating market and the shortage of foreign currency or foreign direct investment (FDI).
Driving around Addis Ababa, the streets are outlined with grey walls with bare windows and colourful shower caps.
“Contractors have to wait six to nine months while constructing buildings to order their products and import them into the country, then another more months to get the products into the country, due to shipping line that is too long,” he said, explaining that the clearance bureaucracy in the sea and dry ports take too much time. “That is why many buildings will be covered with plastic sails to protect them over that long period of time against rains and exposure to the sun and other extreme weather wear and tear. They know it might be a while till the building is complete,” explained Ghebrehiwot.
As this would seem an opportunity for local suppliers to make large profits, Ghebrehiwot disagrees. According to him, there is an attitude of quality against local suppliers. “I don’t think that they are not quality, but there is something associated with this thing that ‘foreign is good’, and I don’t like that because they think that importing things or imported things are good,” he explained.
The city is the hub for many international organisations visiting the AU, it is the scope of urbanisation and development, and due to this, Ghebrehiwot argues that the rural community is neglected.
“There’s been a shift from rural to urban, and that is not a bad thing, but it shouldn’t be at a cost of rural people. Thousands of people are coming to Addis every day and they are looking for jobs and investments, but what about the rural areas?”
In addition to the infrastructural and economic deprivation upon the rural community, Ghebrehiwot adds that the absence of education and informative tools to provide for social human development. This has motivated Ghebrehiwot to be the voice of the voiceless.
“I want to have my own newspaper in rural areas. I just want to relocate myself to the rural areas because in Ethiopia we don’t have media that address rural issues.
While 70% of our population lives in the rural areas, no one talks about the market for the rural people. No one talks about natural resource management. No one talks about fertilisers, how to modernise their agriculture, how to fight the bad cultural practices in the rural areas,” he sounded.
Ghebrehiwot is a graduate of Bahir Dar University, where he obtained his Bachelor of Arts Degree. He also attended Media, Culture & Society at the Polish Academy of Science, accredited by the Lancaster University in the United Kingdom, where he is due to complete his thesis paper that is built on his drive for rural developmental media.
“There are publications that are urban-orientated that do not talk about the rural areas. For example, the ruling party newspapers, they penetrate sometimes to the rural areas or they just distribute to them, but they are just about ideology, telling them to pour this much but not why, it gives them orders.
If I have a newspaper that is for our rural people, it may also advance this fight illiteracy, and people will read. At least the daughters of the farmers go to school so they can share the newspaper with their family and alleviate the illiteracy,” he said, drawing on the family dynamics of illiteracy.
“I don’t think someone who does not read well is literate. And the people rely only on the radio to get information but that is not enough.”
In the worst occurrence of the domino effect, the scores of the young people from the rural areas are too low. According to Ghebrehiwot, of those who fail their national exams, many are from rural areas. “They fail because they work most of the time, that’s obvious, but there is no quality education for them,” he said, explaining that their institutions are a last resort even to the educators.
“There is also not enough libraries and no electricity, so they cannot study in the evenings, and so I thought newspapers can complement the reading habit and advance them,” he said, in hopes.
“I want to see our institutions become strong, and the government deliver. I believe it can even rid of the toxic relationships amongst people attacking others’ ethnic groups. And, without improving the livelihood of rural people, I don’t think we can bring the desired level of development and diversity,” he related.
Ghebrehiwot emphasised that people must know the power they carry in unity. “Everyone points at government, but they don’t know that they are government. They are a part of the government, but the mentality of the people is that government is far out of reach, and they just wait for instructions. The centralisation is there on paper but not in practice, and I can make it happen through media as part of empowering the community,” he sealed.
Gezahagne Tamiru – “Community development for our futures.”
Community development curator, Gezahagne Tamiru, is trying to eradicate the conflicts which occur amongst the different cultures in Ethiopia. As a community programme producer at Jimma University in a programme based on development, he advances content representatives of all cultures of society.
“When you come across the cultures, there are some that are interested in being more dominant than others. So, in the radio programme, we try to balance and represent every cultural group. We keep the right of the majority and the minority and conduct them in the same manner in all aspects of culture, such as language, arts, dances, festivities and all,” states Tamiru.
Tamiru is motivated by human development as a democratic principle. He says, “Society is the one thing we need to address for peace and stability and to have developed. The democratic system must be practically demonstrated in the country. But, there must also be tolerance; minorities and majorities have to respect and accept one another. There must also be a fairly elected leadership, as provided in the spirit of Pan-Africanism that was passed through the AU, and those factors will contribute to human development.”
The radio journalist added how crucial this objective is, not only for the current nationals, but for future generations who are going to frame the country and the world at large. He said, “At the top of everything, there needs to be sustainability or else we are killing our future generations, and I hope to improve and contribute to this through the community development that we do in the radio programme. It is important to keep life; if children are dying at the age of five, who is going to grow the future?”
In achieving human development, Tamiru believes it is crucial for people to know their culture. “I think a person must know his own culture and language and tradition because our forefathers have already put a good basement for us. We know that the Africans are always different culture-orientated people, and it makes us distinct that when you go to Europe you can say you are an African,” explains Tamiru. He states that historical heritage is important to shape future generations and how they influence the world. “If you lose your identity, you will be in crisis,” states Tamiru.
Tamiru shared a story of an Ethiopian who came back from America after thirty years who could not identify with anyone because he did not know his own identity. “That’s when he went to the remote rural areas to find his forefathers and manifested himself as to who he is, because society was giving him so much pressure to know himself.” Relaying that story, Tamiru was emphasising the need to know oneself.
“In terms of identity, it’s a major question for people in our country,” he added.
Towards growth, he said, “People are finding out more and more about cultures that lived in Ethiopia and more and more are being explored and manifested, especially during festivities and tourist attractions. It is very important to know where you are from.”