Mohammed Girma, For Addis Standard
Addis Abeba, September 04/2018 – In the last few days, Abiy Ahmed, the Ethiopian Prime Minister, did two things that are remarkable – which, I fear, could disappear into the speed and vastness of his reform effort. Firstly, the Prime Minister, along with the Addis Abeba deputy mayors, Takele Uma and Dagmawit Moges, visited Emahoy Adugna Guta, a frail old lady who is living in a leaking shanty house, not very far from his office. Emahoy was not expecting a visitor; certainly not someone from the highest office in the land. But, they walked in – totally unannounced. Not surprisingly, it took PM Abiy some convincing to help Emahoy Adugna believe that the person talking to her is the Ethiopian Prime Minister. Her immediate reaction was, “Wait, why did you do this? I could have died of a heart attack”. In a typical Ethiopian fashion, she shared her meal with all of them, and PM Abiy called her “my neighbor”. He then initiated the rebuilding of her house, and the youth in the area followed suit.
Secondly, he invited young kids from a very poor background to his office and provided them with school materials for the new school year. The kids might run out of those materials in a few months. However, he offered something that would stay with them for the rest of their life: a very candid story of his own upbringing. “In your age”, he said, “my life was not very different from yours”. “I was brought up in a poor family”, he continued, “so, I didn’t get clothes whenever I want, or even schooling material whenever I needed”. He told the students that he had to walk each day very far because there is no school in the village he was living. “However”, he reminded them, “I had a strong conviction that I could overcome those challenges. Such a conviction, coupled with hard work, has got me where I am today”.
As I said elsewhere, Abiy came to the Ethiopian political scene as an educator-in-chief. He brought a relatively abstract social concept of “medemer” – what could now be considered as an Ethiopian philosophy of togetherness – to Ethiopian political discourse. The two acts can be seen as concrete translations of his philosophy – the togetherness that bridged age and social class. These practical examples matter, especially to those young minds.
Anger and inspiration
Abiy’s candid story reminds me of my own struggles as a kid who was brought up in a very poor village in Southern Ethiopia. Life in this village was cyclic. Things, including seasons and social behavior, flow in a predictable rhythm. As children of subsistent farmers, we were bound to repeat the same pattern of life. Education was the only thing that could disrupt the predictable flow of life. Therefore, education, for me and my peers, was a form of rebellion – rebellion to find our unique individuality. We saw it as a way of ensuring we exist as individuals. We wanted to exist without subscribing to cultural practices imposed on us, without reciting our seven forefathers to find our place in the community (a usual practice in my culture) and without succumbing to religious categories shoved down our throat before we’re able to ask the question of “what?” and “why?”. Education, therefore, was a liberating, but a risky venture. However, we needed an inspiration. Then, we found Watumo – the first college graduate (to my knowledge) from the area. I have never met him to this day. He was like a mythical figure. We were told that he has joined the elites in Addis Abeba, a place we could only hope to see one day.
Then, we had Mengistu Hailemariam at the helm of power. I was too young to fully appreciate the political complexity of the time; but my memory of Mengistu as a kid was that he was an angry person. One of the dramatic demonstrations of his anger is a sight where he throws a bottle full of red substance at the famous Mesqel Square to symbolize the blood shade of his enemies. As an angry leader, he set an example. Anger, therefore, permeated the social fabric of the nation. Anger became a culture.
The culture of anger threatened the aspiration of myself and my peers in myriads of ways; but suffice to mention just a few. Firstly, like the Prime Minister, we used to walk to school for two hours (four hours back and forth) a day – all the way from Hagge to Bobicho. No shoes for our feet. No lunch box. Worse, when we were late for flag hoisting ceremony in the morning, we knew an angry head teacher with a stick in hand is waiting for us. We will join the class tired but also physically and mentally bruised. The contagion of anger also affected teachers in the class. I remember being flogged by my mathematics teacher because I gave him a wrong answer. Since that day, I harbored fear and resentment towards the teacher as well as the subject. I reconciled with my former teacher later on when we met each other on a different platform; but my hostility towards mathematics is still there.
Senior students also found glamorous side to anger. It was taken as a means of getting attention, and a tool of exercising dominion over the juniors. Nuramo was a senior student from our village. He was a bulky and muscular figure. Our parents entrusted him with the responsibility to look after us, especially when we leave for school before dawn, and when we return home after dusk. Yes, he did protect us from external attacks (i.e. wild animals and boys from other villages), but he often subscribed to anger to solicit unconditional obedience from us. He had an abysmal Amharic language skill, I remember, but none of us dared to correct him. In fact, at times, we had to repeat the same mistaken grammar because we feared that he might take our relatively correct Amharic as a critique.
Even with these multi-layered challenges, the story of one individual inspired some of us to escape the cycle and find our individuality.
Ethiopia has seen enough anger – anger that consumed generations, and laid talents to a waste. The TPLF-dominated regime of EPRDF did not change this culture in the past 27 years; it only added tribal flavor to it. Far from perfect, Abiy has proven that he is a human in every sense of the word. He had his moments of slip-ups, and there will be more. However, in him, Ethiopia has seen signs of grace and generosity that sustained the country despite political malaise. His personal story is an example of discipline and hard work. We can debate his political ideology and the trajectories of his policies. Equally important, however, are the values he has brought to Ethiopian politics. In the moments of national fragility, Ethiopia needs the value of showing solidarity with the weakest and strangers. In times of despair, struggling kids need an inspiring storyteller who would say with candor, “I have been where you are; but I made it to the top”. True national restoration requires more than the right political ideology and fitting policies. It also demands being intentional about transforming the value system. AS
Editor’s Note: Mohammed Girma has a background in social and political philosophy with a special focus on religious nationalism. Girma is the author of Understanding Religion and Social Change in Ethiopia (Palgrave Macmillan 2012); co-editor of Christian Citizenship in the Middle East: Divided Allegiance or Dual Belonging (JKP, 2017), and the editor of The Healing of Memories: African Christian Response to Politically Induced Trauma (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018). He tweets at @girma_mohammed