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Why What’s Happening in Ethiopia Matters to Everyone Now

(No, this is not a pitch to send money, food aid nor to join a celebrity sing-along)

People going about their days in Addis Ababa’s Piazza neighbourhood, April 2016 (photo by: Lorraine Smith)

You might have picked up fragments of troubling news coming out of Ethiopia recently. Perhaps you saw the crossed arms of Olympic silver medalist Feyisa Lilesa in the men’s marathon and his gesture of solidarity with protesters back home. Maybe you heard about a slew of people (52 is the “official” count) dying in a stampede at a religious ceremony.

But with news about global hotspots like Syria and Iraq crowding the wires, along with whatever other local dramas are playing out near you, from the “Trumpkin” and pipeline protests, to extreme weather warnings along our journey to climate catastrophe, who has time to tune into another foreign country and make sense of what’s going on there?

Well, we need to make the time, for at least two reasons. First, despite current headlines, Ethiopia has a lot to tell us about what it looks like for people of huge diversity to thrive together — something Syria, Iraq and frankly the whole world could use a refresher course on right about now.

Secondly, if we don’t make the time and effort to pay attention, it will be easy to miss an epic tragedy playing out, making it even harder to stop it before it’s too late. And then we’ll wring our hands at the atrocities and wonder why we didn’t pay attention sooner.

It will be easy to miss because part of this mess includes a newly declared state of emergency in Ethiopia where among other unhelpful actions such as sweeping arrests and shooting unarmed protestors, the government has basically switched off the internet.

No Facebook. No Twitter. No WhatsApp. Very limited email and internet. Just imagine that for a moment.

In other words, if we don’t make a concerted effort to find out what’s happening, serious human rights abuses in Ethiopia will continue unchecked and virtually unnoticed, doing a huge injustice to the country’s richly diverse and deserving population of 90 million people. Worse: it is entirely avoidable, as this country has already proven that it is more than capable of living increasingly well and in relative harmony, facts that placed it high on the list of developing nations to expect exciting things from in the years ahead. Ethiopia was proving this until just recently, that is, when the worst elements of its history seem poised to repeat themselves with a vengeance.

So why does all this matter to you again? Let’s dig further into the global lessons the country offers, and into our collective opportunity — or more accurately, our obligation — to pay attention.

For starters we owe our very humanity to this amazing East African land — literally. The very first humans came into existence in the land we now call Ethiopia.

It’s our birthplace. Yours, mine, everyone’s. That in and of itself makes Ethiopia unique and worth caring about.

In case that’s not enough, it’s also coffee’s birthplace. That’s right: we owe our gratitude for this energizing elixir which people around the world enjoy in staggering numbers to Kaldi, the observant Ethiopian goatherd (circa 800 AD) who recognized the friskiness of a few browsing goats when they nibbled the cherries of a particular bush. If you’ve ever enjoyed coffee in Ethiopia you’ll know that it’s a profound experience far beyond the jolt ahead of the day’s labours. And if you haven’t, well, you should add it to your bucket list as it’s more than worth the journey.

In order to have that opportunity it will be important to make sure the country doesn’t descend into the kind of unacceptable humanitarian disaster that it experienced in earlier epochs of violent oppression — or even worse. We don’t have to look too far to know that worse is possible during this current phase of humanity.

Humanity’s birthplace and the origin of coffee. These may seem like mere “fun facts,” but in truth they are markers of Ethiopia’s fundamental offering to humanity.

People with deeper political and historical savvy than I can offer greater insights (say, the news outlet Addis Standard or journalists Dawit Ayele or Tesfalem Waldyes) but my experience as a writer and researcher who’s spent a bit of time in Ethiopia has revealed that this country is an awe-inspiring, heart-gripping place with multiple cultural heritages living together in ways other regions can only dream of.

CAPTION Enjoying a coffee near Debark, Ethiopia (photo by: Lorraine Smith)

True, some of this peaceful coexistence can seem downright peculiar to an outsider, such as the uniquely Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity which calls for at least 180 days of fasting each year (and up to 250 days if you are in a special church group) during which you can eat a lot, just not anything derived from animals. The country is vegan heaven as ample “fasting” meals are available everywhere all the time. Yet trying to keep track of those days of fasting as an outsider is challenging because they map to a uniquely Ethiopian calendar that is seven years apart from the one I grew up observing in Canada. The Ethiopian clock begins at sunrise each day so time is told in a unique way, too. But no matter—the relatively peculiar is distinctly beautiful when it works so inspiringly, communally, and humanely together. And so it truly does in this, our collective ancestral home.

If the rest of the world understood the extraordinary level of diversity Ethiopia has managed to not just live with, but to take into its heart as part of what makes it great, we would make it a global lesson in the art of the possible.

Now, however, for reasons complex and downright dastardly, things are taking a dark turn, and all of Ethiopia’s goodness risks being cast aside. It doesn’t have to be so.

As a teen during the 1980s when the myth of Ethiopia’s devastating famine being caused by drought created a watershed moment in humanitarian fundraising even as it inadvertently fueled a vicious regime — the real cause of starvation — I would like to think we’re more grown up and smarter than that now.

We can insist on knowing the truth. We can tell the truth that we know. We can do something about it. And we can do this for and with Ethiopia.

Ethiopia’s flag includes a blue medallion representing peace and a yellow star standing for diversity and unity. This emblem was added after the defeat of the Derg regime in 1996 (which was 1989 by the Ethiopian calendar). (iPad sketch by Lorraine Smith)

We don’t need to fundraise and send bags of food aid. We need to listen with care; put our ears to the ground; discover ways to hear the oppressed and amplify their stories. We need to genuinely and with determination seek to understand what is happening to whom, even though it’s challenging as real news is barely making it out of the country. We need to call on leaders — in Ethiopia and elsewhere — to respect Ethiopians’ basic human rights, to cease absurd and hurtful policies that forcefully shut down open discussion. We need to call out oppression for what it is (weakness) and have the integrity to replace it with the kind of strength that brings peace and allows diversity.

To paraphrase the beloved Michelle Obama: since the current powers that be in Addis Ababa are going low, we need to go high. And in the translated words of Ethiopia’s own megastar, Teddy Afro, who himself has been awfully quiet on Facebook these days:

I can see the world through you With love’s furnace with a light Now my eyes can see, now my eyes can see Now my eyes can see, now my eyes can see

We can all love. And that love casts a light. Let’s make sure we see.

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This piece first appeared as a Medium article in October 2016.

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