An Ethiopian walking on eggshells. By Yilma Bekele
No question I have to be careful writing this column. That is why I choose the title. Some of us are quick to take offense or assume holier than thou attitude when it comes to the subject I am gingerly trying to confront. I decided to approach the issue head on and let the chips fall where they may.
It all started after reading my friend Dr. Fikre Tolosa’s article regarding the Oromo question in our homeland. I was impressed and empowered by his lucid analysis. His grasp of our ancient history is second to none and his piece on the current situation was a showcase of his vast knowledge. The response to his presentation did not fit the gravity of the subject matter he so carefully laid out. To say I was disappointed is an understatement. I expected a mature and open discussion so we can have clarity and help us see the problem that has confounded our people for quite a long time. There is nothing like looking at an old problem with a fresher perspective equipped with new knowledge and experience gained from learning and observing.
Thus with my disappointment for those that claim to speak for the oppressed and down trodden I left the subject matter behind and moved on to other things. But that nagging feeling of searching for an opportunity to put the matter into some perspective stayed with me.
I was making my breakfast one early morning when I heard Public Radio discussing the anniversary of the assassination of Medgar Evers and the Mississippi of 1963. I was mesmerized by the story. For those that are not familiar with the history of America and its race relations I will do my best to give you a snapshot of the period.
The 1960 USA was a different country from what we see today. The two races white and black might as well have been living on different planets. They claim the north was a little different whatever that means but in the south USA being black was not a small matter. The State of Mississippi was ground zero for racism in its ugliest form. It was not de facto apartheid but it was definitely de facto segregation. The two races kept separate neighborhoods, separate schools and separate existence.
Medgar Evans, a veteran of World War II who fought for his country, a college graduate and a civil right campaigner applied to the University of Mississippi law school and his application was rejected due to his race. This was 1954. Mr. Evans continued his work in the civil rights movement by helping organize boycotts and setting up chapters of NAACP (National Alliance for the Advancement of Colored People) in his home state.
Some white folks in Mississippi did not appreciate the likes of Medgar Evans that were trying to upset the norm. Separate and unequal was their philosophy. Thus on June 12, 1963 a white fellow that took the distorted view to heart shot and killed Medgar Evans thinking that his act will stop the march of history. Here is the lyric to a beautiful song by Bob Dylan trying to make sense of this tragedy.
A bullet from the back of a bush took Medgar Evers’ blood
A finger fired the trigger to his name
A handle hid out in the dark
A hand set the spark
Two eyes took the aim
Behind a man’s brain
But he can’t be blamed
He’s only a pawn in their game.
How true, the hapless individual with no name was just a ‘pawn in their game’. I felt a strong sense of attachment and empathy to Medgar Evans. He was not a complainer. He was an activist. Despite the danger to himself and his family Medgar worked to right what he felt was wrong. That was the story being told on the radio the morning as I was making my breakfast.
You see they were not discussing how awful it was to be a black person in Mississippi in 1963 but rather how things have changed due to heroes like Medgar. There was lynching, separate bathrooms, designated water fountains, unequal schools and a whole bunch of grievances to talk about but what was the point of dwelling on the negatives when one can construct on the positive? Slavery was an ugly period with the consequences still lingering until today. There is no denying that when you look at the America of 2013. But in that radio program they choose to take a positive approach. Remember the past but look what has been achieved in such a short time and build on that was the message.
And I thought here are a people brought with chains to serve, systematically dehumanized due to the color of their skin, psychologically whipped and untold atrocity visited on them but are triumphatically celebrating their endurance with hope and I was humbled. I was filled with a new sense of my ability to overcome and thrive. The sacrifice of Medgar Evans in Mississippi gave perspective to the suffering of my people in Ethiopia and the possibility of one day celebrating such a bright future in my ancient land. I thought of Professor Asrat that suffered for my freedom, I remembered Assefa Maru that was gunned in broad daylight for his resolve not to bow down, I stay up nights thinking of my brother Eskinder and Andulalem, Bekele, Wubeshet, my sister Reyot and many others enduring pain on my behalf. I dare not complain because it is a lot better to work harder so their sacrifice is not in vain.
My education did not end there. A few days later the same Public Radio brought out the story of race relations in the state of Alabama. This was another dramatic story with a positive twist. It took place in June of 1963 and the setting was another place of higher education. The person being interviewed is the daughter of the then Governor of the state and she was only a 13 years old girl at the time when the tragic drama took place. On that fateful day her father stood in front of the University of Alabama to block a black person from registering. The confrontation between the state and the federal government was a made for a picture moment. George Wallace the Governor lost but he made his point when he vainly declared ‘segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever.’
Peggy Wallace the daughter is one of those rare human beings that are able to emerge from such a tumultuous period with integrity. Her father redefined himself in the later part of his life but what struck me most was her statement ‘I am a Wallace but I am different.’ In the radio interview she said ‘It has taken me a lifetime to step out from the shadow of the schoolhouse door….I decided I wanted to leave a legacy for my children … one of change. If you have the courage to find your own voice, you can make change. I wanted Burns and Leigh (her children) to know that their mother found her voice and had the courage to stand for change. That she wanted change. That she did change.’
The two stories lifted the feeling of hopelessness and the heavy burden I feel when I think of my homeland. It is good to know that individual action could galvanize a whole nation to stop and pay attention. Medgar Evans sacrifices on behalf what is right and George Wallace’s defiance against what is just made people realize change is necessary. The nation was confronted with the reality that evil things were happening and no one is free when others are oppressed.
My happy thoughts were jarred when I listened to a Voice of America interview with an individual presenting himself as an Ethiopian historian. Ato Gebrekidan Desta is other things but definitely not a historian. Listening to his bombastic analysis it is easy to tell that his whole purpose was to settle a score not to enlighten or find a meaning in a scholarly manner. It looks like he first arrived at a certain conclusion and went about looking for incidents to fit his theory. He reminded me of our Woyane leaders that never miss a chance to condemn the Derg while at the same time working hard to emulate and surpass the atrocity they so much hated and supposedly fought to get rid of.
Our friend Ato Gebrekidan passionately puts down early Ethiopian history and the leaders in his vain attempt to build the resume of Atse Yohanes. He dismisses all historians as tools of other Ethiopian kings while blindly forging ahead to construct his own reality regarding his favorite king Atse Yohanes. I was appalled when Ato Gebrekidan dismissed all previous historians as nothing but tools of the old regime. Such worthy intellectuals as Belaten Geta Hiruy Welde Selassie, Dr. Sergew Hable Selassie, Bahru Zewde, Richard Pankhurst, Donald Levine, Harold Marcus and other giants were all considered unworthy of respect.
I have not read or come across a historian worthy of his profession that has disparaged or dismissed the contributions of Atse Yohanes and the part he has contributed to enrich our ancient history. On the other hand there is no need to belittle and vilify others so as to put him high on a pedestal. Ato Gebrekidan speaks more like a hired cadre with a mission not like a professional, a teacher and seeker of the truth.
I am grateful to VOA for inviting Dr. Shumet Sishagne to give us a better perspective on how to look at history and how to talk in a civilized manner with the goal being to teach but not preach. Dr. Shumet, God bless him is a perfect example of what it means to be an expert on a subject. In a calm and reserved manner he was able to give us perspective on how we view our past and how we interpret the event that took place to establish what we call home today.
Whether we like or not, whether we approve or not there is a country called Ethiopia and there are over eighty million souls that are physically and politically recognized by the international community to be residents of that defined space. While countries still are waging wars to conquer and increase their physical size we in Ethiopia have actively been engaging in dismantling the big to create mini kingdoms. The first causality is Eritrea and thanks to the largesse of the TPLF party today for the first time in our history our country does not have access to the sea. Although the TPLF party’s main agenda was to create another enclave for obvious and other reasons it did not materialize. Unfortunately there are still a few that keep insisting on resetting the clock back to the last century to the time when we each tribe or ethnic group was isolated from their neighbors and ruled by a despot, a warlord or hereditary king.
That was the response to Dr. Fikre’s article which I mentioned at the beginning of this piece. Some were vividly remembering what happened during the period of nation building and presenting it as a crime. Fortified with imagination fueled with hate it looks like they want to settle a dispute which took place may be over a hundred years ago right now and today. Their emotional outburst confounds most that have a difficult time relating to a part of history that is old, outdated or not in the radar of the average person that has moved on to other things in life. It is sad to see some that supposedly have tasted enlightenment with college degrees to prove it and tasked with the burden of higher expectations by their people sink low and peddle ethnic politics for fleeting ego massage.
No one can turn back the march of time. The responsibility with the generations to come is learn from history so what was done wrong would be righted and educate themselves and their children to avoid future mishaps. The example I gave regarding Mississippi and Alabama are perfect examples where the responsible action of using the law and open discussion have resulted bringing about a just and fair system. The job is not done yet but looking at the foundation laid it is easy to predict that whatever comes next would be positive and a plus.
If such approach can overcome the hurt and hate that engulfed the black American population that was bought and sold as a commodity, held separate and systematically kept ignorant surely in our country where the different ethnic groups have intermarried, worship together and have so much in common the chances of building an all-inclusive society is not a fools dream. There is no need to go around looking for proof when all we got to do is look deep at our own linage and see the rainbow nature of our family tree.
It is easy to hate. It is a lazy persons approach to explain difficult situations with hysteria and moronic one lines. Giving a smart and reserved response requires knowledge and common sense. Some choose to cater to the lowest denominator among us and hurl insults or question a person’s character and integrity when confronted with the truth.
Dr. Fikre’s questions have not been answered yet. Those that advocate separation and going it their way have not made their case why such action will result in a better situation for the people they are trying to liberate. They have not explained the many important but grave issues of dealing with millions of people that will be caught in the middle. This article is not enough neither would it try to point out the many consequences of such drastic measures advocated by some but any discussion should address all issues that come with acts of national divorce. On the other hand the proven and successful means employed by the US, South Africa among others should be looked at closely to solve a national problem that needs to be dealt with delicately.
I also believe while not belittling the national question to me at this moment in time the number one question confronting our country is the issue of Democracy and respect for Human Right. Solving those two important questions would naturally resolve the issue of equality. Respect for individual right will translate to respect for right of nationalities. I believe our time and effort is better spent on getting rid of the Woyane group that is the cause of all problems and the source of disharmony among the children of Ethiopia. I urge you to please read the articles and video this piece is based on. The links are at the bottom.