The Tigray War and Our Collective Moral Failure.

“A culture that does not grasp the vital interplay between morality and power… which fails to understand that the measure of a civilization is its compassion… condemns itself to death.” Chris Hedges

One chilly summer evening, by what I can only recall to be a random chance, I found myself at a party at the Hilton Hotel in Addis Ababa. I had recently graduated from college and was enjoying a summer in my hometown. Unemployed yet very much enthusiastic, I had joined a group of well-dressed, well-educated, and impressively self-assured individuals who were inclined to say things like “where are you based?” instead of “where do you live?” or tell you passionately about the importance of giving back to their country as they provide a detailed account on how they happen to be doing so at the moment.

While I felt a little out of place being surrounded by mostly ambitious and well-accomplished people, I had no problems mingling with ease. You will be surprised where properly articulated English sentences and the right pair of tasteful high-heels can get you in life. Throughout the evening I met and conversed with many individuals, some of whom frequently grace us with their presence on our national newspapers and TV channels today. I met and chatted with a handsome young banker (not of your local variety), the type of man my mother wants me to bring home for dinner. He told me about his job which involves extensive international travel & frequent run-ins with important men I only know of in the media. “There is no reason Ethiopia can’t be the next China!” he had said excitedly, explaining how state led capitalism was the answer to our nation’s economic ills. I listened attentively to his invigorating talk with the occasional water sipping, making a mental note to myself to frequently glance through the pages of The Financial Times to further ease such conversations. Thankfully, my ignorance of the international financial world did not show, since after some minutes of having met me, he started calling over his friends to make introductions. “Come meet this brilliant young woman,” he had said to his friends, whose hands’ I shook politely. In case you are wondering, be assured this statement is not related to any objective assessment of talent or cleverness I may possess. It is simply that when one is in such a room, it is assumed that the fellow he or she will interact with is very much like who he assumes himself to be. So, of course, such rooms are crowded with the “brilliants,” the “trailblazers,” the “change makers,” and the “jegnits” of Addis. 

I also talked with a fellow jegnit who had gone back to school after a stint at Oxfam and was now doing her PhD dissertation on the societal perception of domestic violence on women in Addis Ababa. I listened and encouraged her passions full-heartedly, not forgetting to remind her of her brilliance before our conversation came to a close. I met another older woman who headed one of the big International NGOs’ East Africa offices, who was also kind enough to give me some advice on networking, including some names and phone numbers I should reach out to in the field. She narrated how she came from humble backgrounds to be a success and assured me I had all it takes to be an asset for my country. 

By the end of that evening, while tired from all the talking, smiling and polite nodding, my enthusiasm had not waned. It was clear much was required to join the who is who of the Addis professional elite. It was not too clear to me if I had what it took to reach the ranks and do what they call giving back. Most of the people in the room were smart; they had solid credentials to prove it, they were financially successful; talks of weddings at white sands beach resorts had already started to become a norm; they were assumably cosmopolitan; their language skills and agreement on the dullness of London’s weather hinted at it. Could I really join their rank? I was not too certain. My failure to take home to my mother even the banker who thought her daughter “so brilliant” forced me to not answer in the affirmative. 

Politics is discussed little in such settings, if at all. Globally, at the time Ethiopia was being hailed as a growth miracle, being made the poster child for the Africa Rising narrative. During those years Ethiopia was achieving double digit GDP growth, making people like my new banker friend confidently predict that the nation was destined to become the China of Africa. While everyone in the room was aware that our nation was one of the poorest in the world, they held a strong conviction that our luck was finally turning, and the trajectory now was toward the light. Through their work in civil societies, NGOs, and IFIs, these educated and forward-thinking Ethiopians would help bring Ethiopia into the 21st Century. Ethiopia offered what every young, ambitious and educated person wanted; an opportunity to achieve both prosperity and purpose, and to do so with class, style, and easy access to high end whisky & wine of one’s liking. I was lucky to be amid such a crowd, I had thought.

To be sure, my evening with the vivacious and seemingly cosmopolitan crowd of Addis Ababa paints only a fraction of the full Ethiopian picture of the time. The success stories and the enthusiasm of that evening leaves out a much darker and unconformable side. Being in that room, you would not know that as we sipped on our drinks & complimented each other on our outfits we were doing so in one of the most politically repressive nations in Africa. The 2010 Ethiopian election results reported EPRDF, the then ruling party headed by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, as having won almost a hundred percent of the votes. Journalists and human rights activists were constantly being persecuted, thrown in jails or exiled from the country. Torture of prisoners was commonplace. There was no doubt the government was ruling with an iron fist. But this iron fist was justified by the self-presumed movers and shakers of Addis as unfortunate but necessary. Many agreed that a nation cannot hope to achieve its democratic aspirations until it untangles itself from the stronger chains of poverty.

It has been a decade since that chilly evening in Addis. Several realities have changed since. Ethiopia is no longer led by the EPRDF but by the Prosperity Party, power having been consolidated under the young evangelical & populist Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed (a child of EPRDF himself). Ethiopia has abandoned pursuing a state led economic policy, instead following neoliberal economic policies led by the IMF and World Bank. The relatively secure nation that had managed to attract high levels of FDIs into the nation is now ripe with ethnic conflicts. Most devastatingly, the African Rising narrative headlines, as questionable as some of them were, have been replaced most recently by headlines of a war of biblical proportion – involving rapes, massacres, and famine – in Tigray.

Interestingly, the friends I met that evening and in many other similar get-togethers in Addis, still hold the conviction – while witnessing historical levels of human agony & devastation – that Ethiopia is still moving forward, the future even brighter. Their memory of the past has changed drastically. Now they remember those long-gone days as dark and oppressive, and the former regime as backward. The injustices they had dismissed as unavoidable for economic growth, is now viewed as the epitome of cruelty. “We finally have a modern leader who’ll take Ethiopia into the 21st century,” a “non-political” friend who, as I remember it, was quite satisfied with the nation’s former state, said to me.  

The Addis Ababa urban elite have swarmed towards the Prime Minister like bees to honey and he has certainly welcomed the embrace. The Prime Minister, for his part, has rewarded this enthusiasm for the change and prosperity he offers. More than any other time in recent history, he has welcomed into the central government a high number of urban technocrats with minimal allegiance to any specific political ideology. In the first few months of Abiy Ahmed’s premiership, I too had welcomed this change, viewing it as a sign the regime was attempting to open spaces for those who were competent, but not necessarily party loyalists. I was highly mistaken. Months into Abiy’s administration, while many still held hopes of building a genuine political arena representing all people, for those paying close attention it became clear that the Prime Minister was using these urban elites mainly as a front, a way to legitimize his regime as a liberal, democratic and modern one while he solidified his personal power in the most basic authoritarian of ways. Modern being roughly defined as cognac sipping at the Hyatt, walks at Entoto Park, spa days, fancy suits, a degree or two, and some foreign contacts in international institutions. Not too surprising, given complications and nuance rarely leave enough mental space for the “positive mindset” required to achieve prosperity of the Prime Minister’s variety .

As a thank you for the rewards of status and various privileges that come with power, the urban elite for their part have shown their gratitude unflinchingly. Some have gone from cheering Abiy as a true reformer, empathizing deeply with the unimaginable challenges he has inherited (an arguably harmless stance, albeit at times idiotic) all the way to supporting, denying and justifying systemic rape, massacres and an almost total destruction that has taken place in the war on Tigray (a painful failure the consequences of which we will no doubt reap). 

To be fair to these urban elites whose need for comfort, money and status has always been evident to the non-naïve, even human rights activists who were once celebrated for remaining neither blind nor indifferent to the abuses of the former regime, stand today alongside a Prime Minister who has openly attempted to downplay war crimes, including systemic rape of women. Today those who used to profess and stand up for ideals such as freedom, justice, and peace remain either mute or are complicit in the face of killings, rape, ethnic profiling, ethnic cleansing, harassment, imprisonment and abuse of their fellow citizens. The same individuals who preached about the inherent dignity and inalienable rights of all individuals are seen sermonizing about the difficulty and complexity of running a diverse nation such as Ethiopia. They are seen arguing openly, for a nation to prevail it might, after all, be unfortunately unavoidable – even necessary – that some groups of humans pay with their very lives. Today we are forced to assume what we thought was a fight for justice, was only a fight for power. 

Ethiopian academics and intellectuals have not been any less disillusioning. These individuals, including those working & residing safely in various universities around the world have freed themselves from the basic responsibility a decent society puts upon its intellectuals – to pursue and speak truths. Intellectuals are in a unique and privileged position to expose the lies and deception of the powerful given they can do so with minimal risk of loss of livelihood, imprisonment or physical harm (real fears the average person has). Having spent years in study and training, they have the analytical tools at their disposal to help us differentiate fact from fiction, to help us remove the veil of deceit created by government propaganda. But what our intellectuals have chosen to do is be loyal to their ideological convictions instead of truths. They have chosen to cheer as the Prime Minister declared, “there were no civilian deaths” while engaged in a war, to celebrate as free and democratic an election with virtually zero genuine competition, and to excuse and explain away systemic rape and massacres as unfortunate consequences of war. They sing the songs of liberalism, democracy and morality in the Western classrooms within which they teach in the mornings, to only sit in front of their computers later that evening solemnly spieling to their Ethiopian audience about law and order, Ethiopian exceptionalism and the unforgivable sins of their disfavored groups. If I were not alive to witness it all as it is taking place, I would have certainly dismissed it as cynically written bad fiction.

There is something particularly pernicious about Ethiopia’s current state of affairs. Not only do elite groups of all stripes – technocrats, intellectuals, human rights activists, religious leaders, media – legitimize the actions of such a repressive government through an almost sadistic level of active support, but they do so with an added air of moral superiority. They have managed to sell to the public that a war that has mainly devastated innocent men, women & children is done in the pursuit for justice, to rid us of a special kind of evil that exists only over-there, never with us. Not only are we being told that death & destruction are a necessary evil, but that it is being done for our own good, for the good of Ethiopia. We, for our part, have chosen to believe it. 

I do not know how this war, ignited for the sake of power consolidation, will end or how we will manage to move forward as a nation. Our elites want us to believe that this is only the darkness the nation is experiencing before a great dawn. This is simply false (the Prime Minister’s unexpected military defeat and the possible continuation of inter-ethnic war in the region has proved this). There is no darkness that is being experienced by a tangible entity we collectively label as “Ethiopia” that either feels pain or anguish. The darkness is being experienced by individual humans; mothers who are burying their young sons, fathers who are forced to dry the tears of their raped daughters, families who watch as everything they have worked so hard to build destruct in front of their eyes. And even if it were true – if there will in fact be a great dawn after such chaos – which part of our collective consciousness is willing to accept a prosperity that comes at the price of innocent blood spilt and the tears of anguish shed by those we once called our people? 

If there is ever hope of a dawn, I know we will never reach it if we remain on our current path ripe with lies, deception, and denials. The powerful will do all they can to remain on this current path knowing full well they will cease to exist otherwise. But you and I have a choice. We do not need any special type of knowledge to know that all other humans feel pain as deeply as we do, that every life is worthy of love and protection, that we all have a right to life and the freedom to do what we choose with it, even those we consider our enemy. There are no complexities that need to be untangled before we confidently say “no” to the dehumanization of our people, no deep thought required to take no part in injustice and no accreditation necessary to speak basic truths to corrupt power. I may not be able to state with full certainty that with truth, love and compassion, we can change the world, but I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt our rejection of them will guarantee us hell. 

Living under the Mercy of Identitarian Elites.

By: Goytom Teklu and Rihana Nesrudin.

          After yet another flash point, in another wave of state violence, riots and ethno-communal conflicts, Ethiopians have lost hundreds of lives (by official government accounts). Thousands more have suffered various levels of injuries to their bodies and minds by both state security apparatus and a violent mob. Many have lost their homes, businesses and places of worship. Internet shutdowns, banning of government opposing media networks and arrests of various well-known opposition figures have followed the violence. There is a serious tension of conflict and war between the federal government and regional states, as well as between regional states. If we were not witnessing everything unfold in front of our eyes, it would have been easy to dismiss all this as a nightmare we will soon wake up from.

           It is imperative we assess the factors that have led us to where we are now. One such factor which needs to be properly analyzed is the role contemporary elites play in shaping the ideals and notions both people in power and the masses uphold. Are our contemporary elites helping the nation move forward to achieve a better life for the people they all claim to love or have they been embarrassing colossal failures, who should be held partly responsible for the current state we find ourselves in? 

        A century or so ago, before our current ruling political elites – from the Prime Minister to regional presidents to talking heads of various enclave political and media elites with bad hairlines, a shrill voice that makes Gigi Kiya & Yoni magna sound like the Dalai Lama, and access to some sort of doctorate or post graduate degree – took national stage, a steady stream of Ethiopians left their country to study abroad. During the reign of Emperor Menilik, a number of bright young men (some dumb and old were likely in the mix) traveled around the world to study with the king’s personal encouragement. These young men left their country, studied and came back equipped with knowledge and skills from America and Europe, and laid the foundations for the political philosophy of the country. These intellectuals, while critical of the government they served, wrote important and pioneering entries on political economy, literature, and social issues.

            The influence of these early reformists endured in various ways for decades to come; Emperor Haile Selassie, during his second stint, rebuilt his administration with support of these intellectuals. Their influence further endured to greatly shape the ‘revolutionary’ intellectuals of the 1960s and 1970s, the young men and women who changed the face of the country forever. The radicalized students of the 60s, characterized by the ascendancy of a marxism-leninism ideology and consistent demonstrations, broached key questions and issues that have remained in people’s consciousness for the following 50 years. The questions of class, land ownership, education rights, women’s rights and the “national question” were brought to the forefront of the political movement. When EPRDF, led by Tigrai ethno-nationalists, took power it continued to attempt to address these same questions, most notably it  attempted to address the “national question” (at least in codifying it into the constitution). 

          The “educated few” who became “elites” over a century ago and the revolutionaries of the 60s have greatly shaped the ideologies and major national questions our society and government are grappling with today. But the contemporary highly “educated few” that influence public opinion and power today, are noticeably less political than the previous generation (also not really few). And those that are in the political arena are very much siloed along identitarian lines (mainly ethnic ones). On Average, today’s elites haven’t shown the “progressive” tendencies their predecessors showed. They are less likely to be found dissecting the real issues the majority of our people face and, more likely to be found giving justifications or a pseudo-intellectual cover to some tribal, authoritarian political project, with a cherry picked history or advocating for heinous Chicago school neo-liberal economic “reforms.” 

Contemporary identitarian “elites:”

        It is hard to decipher the role of contemporary elites in Ethiopian politics. Sometimes one can’t help but wonder if it would make a difference whether Ethiopian politics isn’t better off being led by local dureyes rather than the current PhD holders whose only end goal seems to be power – for power’s own sake. At least our dureyes know how to engage in a healthy dose of self deprecation, comprehend concessions when settling fights, have a sense of communitarianism and don’t leave you wanting to shoot yourself due to their torturous level of banality. In one form or another, it seems most only want to be the kings of their tribes or lords of their own tiny skull-sized kingdoms. It isn’t very difficult to demonstrate this point. Note the recent unfortunate nightmare we find ourselves in and the interactions taking place between Ethiopianists and ethno-nationalist on social media and elsewhere. The predictability of their response to current political events leaves one wondering if they have reconsidered their take on much of the issues they opine on since their enthusiastic university freshman days. 

           For instance, the (usually Western educated) modern Oromo-nationalist argues, supposedly on behalf of his people, against the oppression of the Oromo looking at history almost exclusively within a colonial framework. He equates “Neftegna” with “whiteness” and talks about decolonizing supremacist feudal views and attempts to fight “systemic oppression” that’s stifling his people. The average Ethiopianist, whose chauvinism he finds difficult to conceal, instead of arguing against the premise of such arguably weak and lazy characterization of Ethiopian history, will scream (mind numbingly predictably) “inferiority complex,” “hate” or “extremist” and walks away feeling morally superior, having won nothing but a long tedious race to the bottom.   

            The Slovenian Marxist Philosopher and a noted street food decimator Slavoj Zizek’s slightly revised quote about a jealous husband’s need of a cheating wife, taken from the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s work, “Four Discourses,” demonstrates our current elites quite well. Zizek writes; “recall Lacan’s outrageous statement that even if what a jealous husband claims about his wife, that she sleeps around with other men is true, his jealousy is still pathological.” 

           Along the same lines one could say that some of the claims made by the “Ethiopianists” and “ethno-nationalists” about each other is true. For instance, the accusations of chauvinism, cherry picked history, irrational love of monarch’s history by ethno-nationalists levied towards Ethiopian nationalist (Amhara nationalists) has some merit. The accusation levied by (Ethiopian nationalists) that Oromo and Tigray nationalist as being narrow nationalists or harboring secessionist tendencies has some merit as well. But their hysteria about each other is still pathological because it represses the true reason why an ethno-nationalist of a Tigrai, Oromo etc. needs an Ethiopian nationalist (or Amhara nationalist) as enemy to sustain his ideological position. 

           The same way a jealous husband uses his unfaithful wife as an excuse for his own failures either in sexual or other ways, the ethno-nationalists need the group of elites they call “Neftegna” or “Derg remnants” (who probably deserve those labelings in some cases) in order to maintain his status as a defender of his “own people,” protecting them from a second coming of Derg or Minilik. The “Ethiopianist” or “Amhara nationalist,” for his part, also needs these “backward nativists” “secessionists” and “traitorous ‘bandawoch’” who are working day and night to destroy the romantic myths and idea of a harmoniously functioning cultural order of the nation that his ancestors built and want to return to. Without these enemies to yammer about and rile up the base, maybe one would be forced to examine how he participates in the strengthening of his ethno-nationalist opponents by acting exactly as his opponent portrays him to be to his base. The same applies for the other types of ethno-nationalists who are reinforcing their “opponents.” 

         In an alternative universe, an “Ethiopianist” who is interested in the project of building a robust nation tackles its’ existential problems head-on collectively, instead of yelling consistently at his enemies or moaning endlessly about a star on a flag (or any other identitarian BS). He pauses long enough to attempt to articulate why an Ethiopia with a dialed down ethno-nationalism is preferable to an ethnically siloed one will be beneficial to each individual and all groups, in a way that recognizes the complexity of history, culture and biases of different nations or groups. When he critiques ethno-centrism, he does so in an empathic and nonjudgemental way that recognizes and understands that countless ordinary folks grew up with their ethnicities as the center of who they are and still have that inclination. Ethiopianism is preached in a language and way of engagement that is understandable and palatable to the audience it is addressing, instead of a declaration of an almost all out culture war, that itself is ironically ethnocentrically essentialist. He entertains the possibility that maybe a destroyed statue of a historical figure he adores in London doesn’t necessarily mean a destroyed Ethiopia, that there are bigger fish to fry. He remembers that it is sort of an established fact that at this point in time monarchies in general suck and being an apologist for it in 2020 is a bit weird. He of course, also, wakes up to the reality that cultural wars waged by waving a tri-colored flag, worshiping Teddy Afro and shrieking “one-Ethiopia!” can only take him so far and is never helpful for anyone advocating a non ethno-centric approach for the country.

            In this same alternative universe, the other type of ethno-nationalist, well for one, has stopped being an ethno-nationalist (it is supposed to be a different universe). But at least, for his part, he accepts that the former elites of his tribe also engaged in killings and oppressions and that they benefited substantially from the formation of modern Ethiopia. He acknowledges that the historical trauma he claims his people faced wasn’t exclusive to his people but was faced by the overwhelming majority of his countrymen/women. He has the wisdom to realize that his outrage will produce multiplicatively more results if it was less towards “a Neftegna” or a fellow PhD across his computer screen who seems to be talking down at him, and more towards the overflowing of the literal shit in streets and villages. Those who argue that ethno-centrism is not the end goal but a necessary tactical concession to address historical mistakes and existing limitations in society, do the impossible task of articulating how exactly they will achieve a common socio-economic union through an ethnocentrism that’s generally a mess. Alas, this is not the universe we currently occupy. 

        For all their bloviating about how much they love whatever region or country they claim to represent or fight for, none of these elites ever, with few exceptions, show their wrath on issues they should righteously be angry about such as the IMF-WB prescribed economic “reforms” that the government is implementing. Privatization of state owned enterprises, liberalizing currency exchange rate etc… which will create exchange rate volatility, imported inflation, macro instability, cronyism, corruption, huge debt pressure, sizable macro imbalances, static export, and increasing inequality that mostly lands its impact on the poorest segment of the population, is almost completely ignored by our elites. Maybe the disregard of these issues is not too surprising given to address them, one is require to care enough to spend some brain power on global and local economic and political systems and study how those systems interact and affect society. Maybe, it’s also because elites won’t necessarily be affected much by these reforms given the class positions they occupy. By simply looking at their actions and rhetoric, it is not unreasonable to conclude that the goal of most of our elites, ultimately, is to hold power and bring themselves and their circle to the ruling class using a large number of frustrated youth and whatever flavor of identitarian/nationalist agenda.

            It is not easy to get out of the predicaments of the identitarian authoritarianism hell we are in. Many of the same questions that were raised in the 60s, which have been attempted to be answered in the decades that followed, still need to be answered in a meaningful manner today. One way Ethiopia can answer these questions – a way never brought up by our current elites given it requires resolve and some brain cells –  is building a ground-up non-essentialist political project that is cognizant of historical baggages and challenges on the ground powered by multi-ethnic movements directly involving the masses. With all its serious drawbacks and mistakes, the movement of the 60s has at least shown us, it is possible to construct a multi-ethnic mass movement. 

          Of course the fact of the matter is that we do not have the popularly based, institutionalized, mass political movement that is multi-ethnic and independently powerful enough to force political concessions. We need to realize any kind of progress or the strive for a better Ethiopia can’t be constructed or achieved overnight. Such a movement can’t be spurred by symbolic flag humping events, fleecing diaspora for tribal media enterprises or sobbing on Facebook Live. It can only be constructed by linking large numbers of Ethiopian workers, farmers, students, the surplus population, the urban poor around a political agenda that speaks directly to their demands and aspirations. This, like all organizing is meticulous, laborious, challenging and sadly that may even be something that requires great personal sacrifice. And there is no assurance of a final victory, let alone short-term success. But, to quote Adolph Reed, “there are no alternatives other than fraud, pretense or certain failure.”  

Of Class and Addis.

43289ac62ce583bc3e6f407cd37fcffeAhun yerso tera dersual, she says with a genuine smile looking in my direction.

Eshi, eshi …” I quicken my steps afraid they’ll cancel the appointment unless I do exactly as I’m told. My dear childhood friend had informed me it took her some serious sweet-talking, softly hinted promises and ye’emeye mariam intervention to make this appointment happen in such short notice. 

My friend, who’s an advocate of avocado face-masks, perfect looking toenails and 60 birr macchiatos drove me to the location herself. “Minem atasebi, betam gobezoch nachew, teru yinkebakebushal,” she says, since the condition of my hair and nails is what keeps me awake at night. After parking her perfectly air conditioned car, which has miraculously managed to stay dust free under the Addis sun and abuara, she gets out and heads towards a mid-sized modern styled building which looks like it was designed by a newly minted millionaire whose idea of luxury is gulping down a 4000 birr bottle of whiskey along with the soul of a 20 year old girl on Thursday nights. My friend leads us into the building, walking with so much ease and confidence I wonder for a second if she has some shares in the establishment. 

“Hi yene konjo,” she says to an oval faced receptionist with an almost-fashion-model look who has been disappointed one too many times by the “industry” and is now forced to smile at women who spend the same amount on 60 minute massages that she earns in a month. Afer yiblu. 

“Hi, tena yistelegn,” the receptionist smiles at us politely. 

“Dagi, Dagi yetale?” my friend quickly inquires. 

Before she has a chance to continue her sentence, Dagi has already arrived, “hi, enkuan dehna metachu!” he almost yells and gives my friend a hug. Dagi is a good looking young man who you can tell feels like he is too good even for this establishment. The kind of man who watches Senselet on Youtube to prepare himself for his inevitable departure to his true home. But based on his smile and general enthusiasm, he seemed to be tolerating his current existence, which included flattering upper class women and overexaggerating the mundane, well.  

After some kisses and pleasantries are exchanged. My friend says, “Dagiye, esua nat guadegnaye, n’gereh neber aydel? beka full service endet’setuat new yemifelegew.” She says with a hint of both authority and sweetness in her voice. 

“Wow, echin konjo keyet yizeshelegn metash?” Dagi shakes my hand and then pulls me in for a kiss on both cheeks. 

“Selam selam” I stuttered with an awkward smile, uncertain of my role in the conversation. 

My friend is what you might call a total-boss and both Dagi and I understood this fact. Which is why he quickly turns his face back to her to ask how she likes her recently dyed hair. It is clear she is the real customer and I, the temporary friend. “Dagiye, atayegnim model asmeselehegn,” she pushes her hair to the side, go-back style. They both laugh. 

After conveying detailed instructions about what it is that I need – a Moroccan bath, a deep tissue massage, hair treatment, hair straightening, a manicure, a pedicure and a constant eshuru’ru throughout the many hours this will take – my friend bids us all adieu and leaves. 

Dagi takes me down golden, swirling flight of stairs that seem to lead straight to heaven, if heaven was down a staircase. Soft music is playing in the background – the kind they play in movie-heaven. We leave behind the natural light that lit the upper section of the building and enter into a space where dimmed and elegant lights have given it a kind of ambiance where you feel, not just relaxed but somehow automatically important. I almost start wondering for a second where the slaves were to carry me down these golden stairs.

Dagi hands me white towels, slippers and two bottles of cold water. 

“Hode, beka libseshin awelalki’na relax adregi. Aster meta tewesdeshalech.” 

“Eshi, eshi Dagi,” I oblige.

Dagi rushes away to cater to the next customer and leaves me be. 

I sit on one side of a big, elegant, semi-circle sofa that can fit 15 fashion models or 10 wives of state ministers. As I sit, I politely smile at two noticeably beautiful women sitting and chatting on the opposite side of the sofa drinking avocado juice, the fruit that apparently nurtures your whole body to not only prep you for a nice date but for the coming of the messiah himself. They continue their conversation without giving me much notice, which was good and well by me since I was about to carry out Dagi’s instructions and strip.  

After having slipped into the towel that barely covered my thighs, I sit on the couch and keep an eye out for Aster. It didn’t take long for Aster to come get me. “Ye’erso tera dersual” she says with a genuine and charming smile looking in my direction. It looks like I’m an erso while in skimpy towels. 

Aster, I came to later find out, was a thirty something year-old mother of two, who has been trained as a masseuse and who enjoys her job, even if she has recently been struggling with varicose veins and a greedy old landlord who seems to be adamant on making her family homeless through incremental monthly price increases. I automatically liked Aster: she had a no-nonsense attitude, was good at her job and could crack a good joke while rubbing you down with overpriced goo and butter.

We walk into the room where I’d spend an hour being scrubbed with what looks like Kaldi’s goat poo, followed by a lavender scented soup-rub to wash off said poo – three rounds. Thankfully, to then be finished off with a lathering session with oil that smelled so divine, you’d think it should have been exclusively reserved for Etege Tayitu herself. Maybe heaven really is down a flight of stairs. 

It didn’t take Aster and I too long to become intimate. There really isn’t much reservation left between two people after one has responded to the other with an obedient eshi, as the other instructs them to take off their underwear to ease the process of body rubbing. After the second round of Kaldi’s goat poo rub, Aster was no longer calling me antu and was comfortably passing on gossip about her other customers. 

The two women who were on the sofa earlier, she tells me, have rich boyfriends who lavish them with love and presents, including trips to Paris, Dubai and Thailand. One of them had brought Aster a beautiful silk top during one of her trips – “yesua bale’ma siwedat, besmea’b” she tells me “gen bale’tidar new alu. Bale siltan sayhon aykerem – be’tilik mekina new yemitmetaw… endet teru lij nat meselesh.” She also tells me about the professional women – mostly UN, ECA and other various NGO employees – who have their weekly massage schedules and never miss their appointments – “enesu keld ayakum, beza lay arif tip yadergalu. Gen cheb’et yalu nachew… yetemare sew neger…” She giggles. 

Asters and I cover topics ranging from massage parlors that provide happy endings to her worry about the rising cost of living in the city to a personalized weekly regimen for my hair that she finds worryingly dry. I listened attentively, especially to the hair treatment recommendation – a dry scalp and hair is a serious matter. As soon as she finishes slathering Etege Taitu’s oil all over my now baby-soft skin, she takes me to the massage room and spends the following 30 minutes cracking my bones and tearing apart my muscles along with my first world problems – total relaxation. I thought, this must be the state of mind our policy makers must be in when they pass policies – free of all discernable thought.

By the time I land at Dagi’s chair for hair straightening – after having gone through a wash and blow-dry for my hair, a pedicure and  manicure for my nails and 2 cups of double macchiato for my soul – I am surprisingly ready for his enthusiastic chatter. I was right, Dagi loves his job. He starts me off with a scalp massage describing the science behind why it was so essential. He demands he trim my hair to get rid of my split ends and then insists I allow him to pick a hairstyle for me, which I graciously grant. By the time I am finished, I have transformed from a tired and average diaspora into a macchiato-sipping, 200 birr avocado-toast munching, designer heels-wearing Addisababian who’d prefer you don’t look directly at her. Where are my slaves!?

As they say all good things must come to an end and it was finally time for me to ascend to the space of natural lights and unsuccessful models. I walk to the register to ask for my bill, which I anticipate is enough to install a decent toilet in the valleys of Birginet. The receptionist informs me that my friend has already covered all my expenses and that I am free to go. This leaves me with plenty of money to pretend to be a mini-millionaire with the free mental space to agonize about the state of her toenails. I tip everyone generously. 

As I step outside back into the Addis sun onto the bustling street filled with weyalas yelling, elderly mothers carrying overweight shopping bags and 10 year olds selling tissue paper and gum, I couldn’t help but be perplexed and saddened by the nature of my beloved city. How have we come to accept such a state of affairs, where we’re able to design artificial heavens for a few while we consistently fail to design basic dignified survival for the millions?… If heaven does exist, I certainly hope its stairway is neither golden nor exclusive. 

I quicken my steps and decide to hail down a lada taxi, old school style.

“Hode, wede Piassa tiyedaleh?”


Sips of Coffee and Pain.




Here is another day that I have to survive, I thought, as I pushed the gabi off my legs and left the bed. 

A deep breath… I whisper. That should help ease the tension in my shoulders…

Coffee, coffee, coffee. Yes, coffee.

It can be tiring – this life – can’t it? The tiring could, maybe, even be bearable, if only we could find meaning in our pain. But sometimes the ridiculousness of existence becomes the only thing that’s clear enough to understand. Sometimes the meaning you were working to articulate disappears like a mirage when you’re just about to grab it. The utter absurdity of it all… you plan so impeccably well, you work hard, you do the right thing… yet still wake up some mornings with that hollow emptiness that eats at your soul. Every “right thing” you’ve done hasn’t filled the void. It hasn’t clarified the 3:00am confusions, cured your hidden longings or calmed your anxieties…

A deep breath… coffee cup in hand, I open the door to the backyard… A sudden cold fall breeze hits my face. I could feel goosebumps all over my body, all at once… Oh God, when did it become fall?

Oh the pain, the anxiety, the absurdity… but then, there’s this perfect fall breeze that so gently kisses your neck, whispering to you – you are alive! It wakes you up with a kind of authority you unknowingly crave. It wakes you up to the ease within the struggle… 

Like that first sip of coffee soothing your throat along with your pain… with every sip, your body relaxing, expanding, preparing you to take on your day. As your lips touch the cup, you remember kisses exist. Sweet, long, tender kisses that send shivers down your spine, even this breeze can never manage to do… Then you remember the first time he touched you and seeing yourself melt like the butter your mother sinks into the hot shiro she so brilliantly makes. You blush. 

Thoughts bring up more thoughts…

There were the long cold kiremt Sundays, where you laid around lazily with your gabi, coffee and some buna kurse, where not much mattered but the bliss of presence.

That doro wot you can’t stop eating, with snot coming out of your nose because your aunt decided the measure of a true habesha is their tolerance of good ol berbere..

There’s Aster Awake’s voice telling you Ayzoh in the exact moment you needed to hear it most.

There was that time you laid down next to a woman, caressed the soft skin between her thighs along with her soul… hiding within her embrace, baring your whole soul to her – the weak, the beautiful, the ugly – and felt rebirthed.

…And language exists. Letters, words, sentences… forget the wisdom, knowledge and lessons that they have carried to us. Think – you read me and I can read you. We exist, not so separate.

Oh and then there’s love. You have felt it – deeply. You’ve looked at another human and your heart made you leap to hold them. To just be – with them. You have felt their pain as if it was your very own, you have delighted in their joy. You can love… with no logic, reason or explanation… You are capable of loving, possessing the very key that opens the gates out of hell… 

There’s poetry – words so perfectly intertwined speaking to your spirit and allowing your spirit to speak to the universe…  

There’s laughter… You have laughed … tears running down your cheeks, stomach curled, snorts and all. You have laughed at others, at yourself, at life itself… you are capable of laughter even in the abyss. 

So am I. 

I finish my coffee and walk back in. The existential panic will have to wait for another day. Today, I am alive – fully. 


Within the absurdity, there lays so much beauty to be found in the small things – a sip, a touch, a smile…

” I have finally concluded, maybe that’s what life is mostly about: there’s a lot of despair, but also the odd moment of beauty, where time is no longer the same. It’s as if those strains of music created a sort of interlude in time, something suspended, an elsewhere that had come to us, an always within never. Yes, that’s it, an always within never.” – Muriel Barbery. 

So if I were to say a little prayer for you and me this morning for the upcoming New Year, it would be… if what you’re anticipating is joy, may you be given the wisdom to savor every moment. If it’s anguish your heart is preparing itself for, may your heart awaken to the tenacity that it possesses. If you’re anticipating success, may you be given humility and if it is failures that you dread, may you reap lessons from it. But most of all, I pray that you rid yourself of anticipation itself. I pray that you live life fully today, given tomorrow is abstract, full of both good and bad possibilities. I pray that you stop cooperating with uncertainty. Today is the only thing you own – certainly – so live it. I will too. 

Melkam Addis Amet.


Ethiopian Feminism: Revisited

“He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion…” John Stuart Mill


One of the most common critiques I received when I wrote Ethiopian Feminism, A critique was that my line of argument was a tired and common one i.e. arguing that feminism “ke’egna ba’hil ena haymanot wuchi new.” Some viewed it as a rather weak defense tactic used by Ethiopians unable to accept new ideas that might challenge their thinking. So I want to address this particular idea in this piece. Are those of us who are wary of accepting feminism as it’s currently being practiced- in Ethiopia and outside it- simply unreasonably too attached to traditional and religious ways of thinking? Are we being unreasonably resistant to a new idea that could potentially transform our entire society simply because we’re unfamiliar and lack an in-depth understanding of the ideology? Let us explore.


First, I feel it important to highlight and clarify some things. I do not in any way want to converse with a straw-man version of the movement basing my arguments simply against the loudest and extreme voices. I also do not believe that feminism should be condemned or destroyed in any way, this risks disregarding the positive role that feminists can, in fact, play in a society that can benefit much from the movement, such as increasing educational, political and economic opportunities for women who had traditionally been deprived of it, and potentially ridding our society from sexist and limiting attitudes towards women. Within the Ethiopian context, there are many real fights that need to continue to take place: female genital cutting, rape, gender-based violence, to name just a few specific ones. All of us, in our varied capacities, need to fight to make sure that girls are given the same opportunities as boys in all fields and are provided the secure space to do so. It has been my personal experience, that once you open up opportunities for women and you remove major barriers out of their way, they are more than capable of achieving the seemingly impossible.

I believe the overwhelming majority of individuals, traditionalist and religious ones including, support these ideas. The problem arises when we start looking at the specifics of some matters within the movement. From engaging in various conversations with others, witnessing the online bickering and spats and some hours of digging into the research, I’ve attempted to pinpoint the main differences between those who espouse to mainstream feminist thought and those who do not. I believe the divide stems from a number of premises that today’s feminist theory functions under, which are not necessarily accepted by the wider Ethiopian society. I’ll attempt to focus on one such premise: the patriarchy.

The patriarchy is a central concept in feminist theories. “Dismantling the patriarchy” is usually stated as a central goal in today’s feminist movements. The patriarchy is literally defined as the “rule of the father.” This, I believe, to be a historically accurate description of our societies. Historically, generally speaking, women were responsible for raising children and maintaining the home while men were tasked with going out to make a living, thus engaging in the social and political sphere. Because women were limited to their homes they lacked autonomy and authority in the public sphere. For instance, women’s capabilities to own property, to vote or have access to positions of political power were minimal at best. In some cases, women were even unable to control their daily activities and movements without a husband’s consent. This system left many women vulnerable, especially to potentially abusive men. All this is true. But today, under the feminist lens, the definition of the patriarchy has been expanded to mean beyond the simple “rule of the father” to mean a *the systemic bias* of a larger system dominated by men working actively against women. Meaning, when looking at history (and some current societies), rather than stating, “some men oppressed women” it is now considered that the oppression came from the underlying bias of a patriarchal society that actively chooses to oppress women. And here is where I believe the water get muddy and where the big divide exists.

Most people that have not been taught this idea, I’ve noticed, simply do not believe it. They do not recognize the patriarchy to be an all-encompassing evil that systematically oppressed all women. There are a number of questions that arise when one thinks of the patriarchy in such a manner. One rather simple one, and a question very much worth considering is why would men choose to systematically oppress women including their wives, mothers, sisters and daughters, for the sake of holding power? What do men gain from such oppression? To give an example, it is argued that one way our traditions and religions, as dictated by men, have oppressed women is through preventing them from things such as expressing their sexuality, upholding virginity as an unnecessary ideal or encouraging marriage for women while not doing so for men to the same extent. This reality is viewed as a manifestation of the oppression of women perpetuated by our traditions and religions. This I believe to be too simplistic of an analysis.

Consider this: the birth control pill was not invented until 1960. It did not start to be used in Ethiopia until many years later. In 1990 the prevalence of contraceptive use stood at a mere 2%. Meaning, until this point in history, sexual intercourse that lasts a minute could result in pregnancy, a historically life and death situation for women. Even today only 34% of Ethiopian women of reproductive age have access to contraceptives, meaning a single sexual intercourse, can initiate unimaginable consequences specifically for the woman and the unborn child. So, looking at it from this angle, promoting marriage, celebrating virginity and limiting sexual liberation was societies collective attempt at protecting women, children and the community at large. Men, on the other hand, were not tasked by nature with the bearing and initial nurturing of children, thus affording them fewer restrictions. Nevertheless, it is worth remembering, the type of men that our traditional and religious societies choose to celebrate are the family men who carry the responsibility of their families, communities, and nations, not those who exercised their sexual liberation. It is worth mentioning here, this is not an argument against the utility of sexual liberation, given modern technological advances that argument can be had on a different day, this is to highlight the utility traditions and religions provided to deal with the rather harsh and arguably unfair realities of existence.

I believe it is because most Ethiopians see the nation’s history from such a standpoint that, while they acknowledge that our systems have patriarchal structures, even at times oppressive ones, they fail to see that the underlying basis of that structure to be one of oppression of women by men. I share in this view. When I look at our society, what I see is a social structure that was built by fallible individuals based on basic religious ethos to deal with the challenges of existing in a poverty-stricken land that had no mercy to men, women and children. This, of course, is in no way an attempt to draw some idealized version of history where women and men were “equal” (whatever equal means). This was not and is still not the case. Men’s ability to engage in the public sphere, while women were limited to the private sphere, coupled with their lack of biological obligations of childbearing and rearing, had given them an economic, educational and political advantage that women were unable to access. But prioritizing a narrative of men as oppressors and women perpetual victims is simply not only to fail to look at the full picture but to also, possibly unintentionally, paint women as weak objects without any agency.

So, while it is possible to argue that women are dealt with a unique set of sufferings throughout history and up to this day, it is difficult to reasonably put that at the feet of all men or a system that purposefully and systematically oppressed women for the sake of power. I think of all the men we’ve sent to war to die for our nation, and the wives and children who carried their set of responsibilities on the home-front, I think of the men that take on all the dangerous jobs – the electricians, construction workers, miners – who leave their homes for days on end to provide for their families, I think of the men being humiliated daily by poverty, unable to provide for their families yet wake up the next day to fight yet again… It’s when I think of such realities that the phrase – the oppressive patriarchy – gets choked in my throat.

From my vantage point, I find it extremely difficult to view the world with all its complications and decide that the majority of an individual’s or a group’s major sufferings is a result of one cause – in this case – the patriarchy. I always try to be wary of a single-cause explanation for complicated problems. For me, today’s Western-styled feminism, the way I’ve understood it so far, seems to offer essentially one explanation to the complicated problem of existing as a woman in this world, making it difficult to accept, without due diligence, the solution it brings forth to solve these problems; especially those that are presented with the simple premise that men are oppressors and women, victims. We need to appreciate the complexities of the challenges women face and be open and willing to have conversations, even difficult ones, so that we’ll achieve what I believe we all want, a just society for both men and women. We need to acknowledge that religious and traditional teachings that have served civilizations across the globe for thousands of years might still offer explanations and solutions to human challenges, even to our seemingly ‘woke’ 21st-century ones.

As stated at the beginning of the article, this piece is not an attempt to dismiss the work that Ethiopian feminists attempt to do, far from it. This is my attempt at diversifying the conversation, to possibly add some nuance to a dialogue that seems to be dominated by mainstream feminists who are, at times, too certain that their perspectives of our societies and their prescribed solutions to Ethiopian women’s problems are the only ones worth considering. This is my attempt at highlighting the fact that those who have disagreements with some aspect of the movement may actually *not* be uneducated, ill-intentioned, nurturers of “fragile masculinity,” “guardians of the patriarchy” –  ignorant to even know that they’re being oppressed, thus “complicit in their own oppression,” or out of touch – as some have suggested. Such accusations, I find to be dangerous, intellectually disrespectful and damaging to the very cause feminism stands for. One who is standing on the side of reason and logic has no need to demean or insult. In fact, what he/she will have is the courage to engage in difficult conversations, opening him/herself up to have his/her beliefs questioned, even ripped apart, knowing the end result will be having a respectable firm ground to stand on. These conversations matter because ideas matter. Ideas we hold shape who we are as individuals, communities and nations. So, if we hope to build strong individuals, communities and nations, we need to discuss these ideas with integrity, humility and courage. The way I see it, that’s the only way we’ll be able to move forward with relative success and minimal suffering for all.


Of Tailored Suits and Life:

I used to have a certain kind of distaste for men in perfectly tailored suits. The well positioned cufflinks, the perfectly angled tie, the shiny shoes. All of it.  Whenever I’d be around such men, I’d notice myself changing. I stiffen up. If I happen to be out having coffee with one of them, I start saying things like, “may I be excused, I need to use the lavatory to powder my nose” and “what pleasant weather.” I, all of a sudden, become  a character from Mad Men. I may even occasionally stop to notice and check if I’m playing my newly appointed part well, that of the sophisticated modern gal. I’d manage it, maybe for 30 minutes. After which point, I’d have to bid adieu.

I could never really articulate why I felt this way. Was I intimidated by well dressed and competent men? (Why would I assume they were competent?) Did I somehow feel inferior in their presence? Why so much prejudice? I mean, I, myself, have worn suits. I might have even enjoyed doing it a time or two. 


In early 2018, I vowed to fully embrace authenticity, to become more honest with myself and those around me. This meant, I needed to first acknowledge that I do a lot of bullshitting on the daily – much less than average it turned out – but a lot of bullshitting nonetheless. And something funny happens when you decide to completely stop bullshitting, you start seeing how much of it happens around you all the time – the pretense, the white lies, the lies through omission… It’s everywhere. But, Interestingly enough, being hyper aware of this reality didn’t make me disheartened or judgmental of others or myself in any way. It somehow made me more understanding, even compassionate, dare I say.

You see, there’s a certain level of delusion that one must possess in order to go through life reasonably intact. A certain level of forgetfulness is of paramount importance. You sprinkle in denial, then you’ve achieved success. We’ve turned bullshitting ourselves and others daily, into an art… “I don’t need a man” you think, as your heart bleeds dreaming of his touch. “I’ve done my best” you say, as you click “next” on the episode. “How selfish could she be?” you mutter, as you see past her questioning gaze… The thing is these small and “insignificant” lies serve a purpose. They free us from potential failure, from responsibility, from facing the Goliath within our souls. These lies are also relatively easy  and seemingly inconsequential – never have I been struck by lightening for sweeping my shit under the rug or burying my head under the sand. But of course the repercussions remain: the nagging anxiety, the resentment, the un-articulated anger… these things will slowly and continuously chip at your soul – one word, one gesture, one act at a time, someday render you completely and utterly lost.

Then. Then, there are the ideas we’ve collectively constructed: the identities, cultures and ideologies we so fervently hold on to. These ideas, we so desperately need to give our lives meaning and significance. These ideas inform us, quite subtly, of who we are, what we should value, what we should achieve. I mean, who am I, if not the strong independent woman I, so perfectly, picture in my mind? If not the athlete I fancy myself to be? Have I really lived well at all If I haven’t ticked every box – the money, the career, the house, the car, the husband, and the 2.5 kids? Do I even really matter lest others know of my name and speak often of my worth? … Weirdly enough, these ideas, I respect. These ideas have helped us build families, communities and nations. They have provided us structure, security and purpose. These ideas are what get us out of bed each morning, drive us to achieve the impossible and keep us hopeful in our quest to achieve that ever illusory thing called happiness. But, – there’s always a but, – how *real* are they really?

… I do not know.

Some days I wonder if what we’ve done is construct a beautiful, awe inspiring, lie. Some days I think of how we’ve somehow ended up in this world having never provided consent and will leave it as such. But, now that we’re already here, with a perplexing innate need to remain here – and to do so with some level of sanity – what choice do we have but to delude, forget and deny? How else could we face the reality we were born into? “The real world is simply too terrible to admit” writes Ernest Becker, “it tells man that he is a small trembling animal who will someday decay and die…” What other choice did we have but to construct this alternative reality, a reason for our existence, a thing to get us through the day and back? Becker continues, “Culture changes all of this, makes man seem important, vital to the universe. Immortal in some ways…” 


Thus, my distaste of tailored suits. It was never really the men, the men I found beautiful, even alluring. It was the lie the suit represented that I wanted to run away from. The suit brought up in my head what Soren Kierkegaard termed the “automatic cultural man” a man confined by culture, a slave to it. Concerning himself of only achieving the goals which were designed by the constructed world, constantly hiding within it… because stepping out, risks too much. It risks anxiety and depression, even insanity. It’s only the courageous that look outside the construct *knowing* there’s something deeper, more *real*, out there. Trusting their gut that *this* can’t be all there is. And I, so desperately, wanted to be of the courageous… I wanted to be of those who found true freedom while existing within this limited world, even thriving in it. I wanted to be of those who prioritized Truth over security. I, so desperately, wanted to be of those rare, beautiful and delightful spirits who walk to the beat of their own souls and not the chant of the masses. 

How I wish.


The Personal Vs The Political.

It’s 2018 and the world is ending.

As I turn on the evening news, scroll through my social media feeds or visit my local bookstore, politics is all I see. Ten years ago, this would have left me thrilled and invigorated. Today it leaves me a wee bit excited, a lot more cautious and a tad bit tired.

On the excited days, I think to myself – this world needs to change, we need to implement democracy, rights need to be respected, justice needs to be upheld, poverty needs to be eliminated, we need to overcome, I need to help usher in change!

On the more cautious days I remind myself, I don’t even do my dishes properly.

On the tired days, I drink coffee.

Political engagement is our civic duty. As the saying goes, the penalty for not participating in politics is being doomed to be ruled by fools. But in today’s world where everything seems to have become political, where we’ve all divided up into various tribes fighting for the rights of *our* group, believing the source of our discontents to be *them* and *the system,* it might be time for some reassessments, an attempt to draw a line between the personal and the political. To draw the line not necessarily to separate the two, but to fully grasp the idea that the actions and thoughts that take place in our private spaces are what will bring about the change we seek. In other words, I’m more likely to affect the world positively if I do my dishes properly, promptly and gracefully than I am screaming through twitter, pointing out your idiocy. Allow me to explain.

Political engagement today has moved beyond making our voices heard through our polling stations. Now we feel obligated to become “agents of social change,” activists in our own right. Because we live in the 21st century with access to technology that allows us to reach potentially millions of people (or 2 friends at minimum), our computers have become our podiums from which we pronounce our convictions and denounce injustice and all things we deem ill in society. Our voices get louder with every ‘like’ and attitudes stauncher with every comment. All of it feels so real, so consequential. And it might be, who knows. But there’s a little part in the back of my brain that nags incessantly, calling it all much of it bullshit.

As someone who loves politics and engaging discussions, my fingers are having a hard time putting these paragraphs together. Because, in the spectrum of political engagement, from running for office to a being an apathetic viewer, I might come off as leaning towards the apathetic viewer, which is quite unfortunate, if I may say so myself. But I have my reasons. Political discussions have almost completely ceased to be informative or productive. We’ve turned what is supposed to be a discussion to reach some sort of consensus of ideas, into a sports match where the point is to defeat our opponent at any cost. We no longer simply disagree with the ideas of our opponents, we question their moral standing, their humanity. Just the other day, there was news about a certain individual with a certain political view that was given a high position in the current Ethiopian government administration. The response to the news, from some, wasn’t about how they disagreed with the decision because of some policy this person supported, that would be too easy apparently. It was a direct attack on the man himself. He was not only viewed as wrong or ill informed on his opinions and beliefs, but as deeply immoral, almost evil.

We have simply ceased to engage, we rage. We are so caught up in our superiority, of both intellect and morality, that all we do is preach and lecture. We speak not in an attempt to articulate an idea so that it will help us move forward in finding some sort of truth, but merely to hear our own voices. We listen not in the hopes of learning something new or broadening our perspectives, but to weaponize words and attack. What most of us seek is not answers or truth, we’re seeking information to reinforce our formerly held ideas. We have an agenda to pursue and anything that doesn’t fit into our narrative is discarded as biased and flawed. We’ve rid ourselves of nuance and paint the world as black and white. Someone is either good or evil, privileged or victim, with us or against us. We think, If only our political party won, if only our side held power, if only they listened to us, if only they weren’t corrupt, then we’d be free and prosper, then we could finally rest. We, so confidently, place ourselves on the side of David fighting Goliath, unaware we might be Goliath himself.

Our political engagement has become an exercise in futility. It’s like we’re running on a treadmill all day and thinking we’re reaching our destination. We ain’t.

Thus, the utility of washing your dishes – properly, promptly and with grace.


I must have been 14 at the time, I was at the main gate of Black Lion Hospital, Addis Abeba, with my uncle (a second father to me) waiting to enter the facility. Unfortunately for us, we had arrived outside of visiting hours, so the hospital guard would not let us enter. Being familiar with the policies of the hospital (both formal and inform), I simply looked at my uncle waiting for him to follow the informal policy and slip the guard 5 birr (the going rate at the time) so he’d let us in. To my utter shock and disappointment, my uncle simply informed me that we shall wait (in the burning Addis sun) until it was time to legally enter the facility. My attempts at arguments (it was only 5 birr!) did not work. There would be no bribing that day, not from him anyways.

This incident has been etched into my memory more deeply than anything else I can imagine. I’ve told the story countless times as a kid to demonstrate how *crazy* he was and laugh. I tell it now to demonstrate that it is only through the integrity and humility of the individual that societies flourish. My uncle stood up for his principles when it seemingly did not matter much. For him, It mattered not that the system was already corrupt, that no one would really know and praise him for his actions or that in the grand scheme of things, his actions were single clean drops in a diluted ocean. What mattered was simple: do the right thing – every single, clean drop counts because that is what makes up the ocean. After that day, every time I paid trivial bribes to guards, every time I told my white lies, every time I weaseled my way through projects giving the bare minimum, I thought of him and felt a little shame – every time.

We rage against the corruption that’s so rampant in government, while everyday we pay off the police to get out of a ticket. We seethe about the lies that we’re being fed by the media, but on a daily basis we ‘white-lie’ to our friends and family to avoid confrontation and criticism. We complain of the sub-par work of every government institution, but we can’t even keep our sinks clean. If we are to believe that our personal lives are microcosms of our wider society (which it is), how exactly have we carried our personal responsibilities? If our inner thoughts and private actions were to be broadcast-ed on the 8 O’clock news, how exactly would we feel? Would we really be out here calling out every perceived wrong or would we cower in shame of our ignorance and arrogance?

“Indeed, Allah will not change the condition of a people, until they change what is in themselves.” (Quran, 13:11)

This is not an argument against political engagement, it’s not even an argument against seemingly silly online spats (even those can have value if done the right way) – it’s through engaging with one another, however uncomfortable, that we can move forward in our thinking and actions. What this is, is an argument against self righteousness, willful blindness to our flaws and arrogance of the worse kind – the kind that makes us feel that *we* have all the answers – if only *they* would just open their minds, if only *they* were not so ignorant, if only *they* were on the side of good, then we could surely usher in our utopia.

It’s 2018 and the world is doing alright. It can even do better, if only we can wash our dishes right – properly, promptly and with grace.

This is how you make a friend.


“Good friends, good books, and a sleepy conscience: this is the ideal life.”
Mark Twain

Have you ever wondered why you find some people interesting and are drawn towards them while you find others a bit too “normal” and ordinary? Or wondered why you form and remain in friendships with individuals who are inconveniently placed in a faraway land, while you neglect to initiate a conversation or a friendship with someone you share an office, a classroom, or a city with? I was contemplating this idea this morning, so I attempted to come up with a list of tangible skills interesting people have (if it is in fact a skill we can learn and adapt into our lives) to help us all have interesting and lively lives. I tried to think of all the individuals I’ve had the pleasure and fortune to meet and break bread with, some of whom I now consider friends. I also thought of all the times I avoided coffee dates with fancy PhDs and “professionals” but loved sitting down with seemingly average individuals who share zero of all my modern sensibilities. What is it about some individuals that draws and intrigues us? I’ve managed to come up with a list of four skills including a few ending thoughts.

What interesting people do:

They project a sense of authenticity: When interesting people talk, it is them talking. They’re not there with an agenda (a conscious or an unconscious one). They’re not there trying to show you how woke, smart, successful, rich, virtues, kind and oh-just-fabulous they are. If they are any of these things, you’ll naturally see it without much effort. If they choose to tell you about themselves, they’ll not be telling you about some idealized version of who they imagine themselves to be. They are attuned to who they are, including their flaws, their uncertainties, and humanness and they will choose to share it. This authenticity you’ll find yourself loving, this authenticity you’ll automatically want to emulate.

They know how to listen: These individuals are not egomaniacs that are in love with their own thoughts, ideas and lives. They value what the other person has to say and take their time to listen – actively. They’re aware that whoever they’re talking to may know something that they don’t, so they listen attentively. They also don’t fidget constantly or check their phones incessantly. They comfortably maintain eye contact and let you know they are there – with you.

They hold no assumptions about you: Forming assumptions about other people before we’ve gotten to know them is a natural, almost instinctive, human behavior. This can be very limiting when we’re trying to form relationships. As Thomas Cooley said, “I am not who you think I am; I am not who I think I am; I am who I think you think I am.” If you notice your thinking process often enough, you’ll learn that when you’re talking to other people, part of what you do is act and talk with the goal of confirming an assumption you think they have about you. Interesting people minimize the assumptions they have about you and give you the freedom to be yourself, whoever that self is. Whether someone is rich or poor, “educated” or not, black or white, male or female, a coffee lover or a tasteless dimwit, it matters not to them. They give people a chance to be themselves and not cage them in boxes of stereotypes.

They don’t talk much about trivial things: Interesting people don’t talk for too long about the weather or the inconvenience of their daily commute or the brand of shoes they’re wearing. They may raise such topics to initiate a conversation and make another person comfortable, but you won’t find them analyzing the quality of the leather of your shoes an hour after you meet them. They do small-talk-with-a-purpose, then move on. When I say they don’t talk about trivial things, I don’t mean that what they do talk about are things that are deemed “important” or intellectual in any way. One does not need to be able to discuss big ideas about politics, economics, philosophy, psychology… to be interesting (of course such knowledge definitely helps). What they are is asteway (deep reflectors?) of things they already know about, be it about themselves or the world and are willing and able to openly share it with you.

So there you go, I’ve just solved all your friendship problems. While this is not an exhaustive list, gaining at least three of the four listed skills will at least make this gal be willing to sit down and sip coffee with you.

Given I’m also a practical gal who attempts to recognize reality for what it is, I want to remind you of a few realities. While we can all try to learn these skills and potentially achieve them, there are some things that may not be teachable. Some individuals are born with a kind of confidence in themselves that you can’t help but be captivated by every word they utter, and so much charm that all you want to do is please them. Some have a kind of smile that you can’t help but stare at and the kind of eyes that seems to see deep, right, through you. Some manage to have a sense of humor that make you laugh and giggle like a 12-year-old girl and a warmth that makes you feel at home. These things you can not learn… Some, you may even feel, you’ve known in another dimension of existence, in a far away world where your souls knew and cared for each other… These are the types of people we all love, the types we all want to be, the types that make us feel less alone, more alive. The types that if your good fortune brings to your path, you’d be well advised not to let go.

Ethiopian Feminism, A Critique

Part 1

Attempting to provide counter arguments against any idea of mainstream feminism, let alone an actual critique, quickly gets one labeled as ignorant and intellectually backward. So to avoid such knee jerk reactions, I’ll start by stating that I strongly believe in the equality of the sexes and in the necessity of providing equal opportunities for both men and women. My professional life revolves around improving the knowledge and health outcomes of vulnerable women. I’ve spent years in liberal institutions living among women who live and breathe women’s rights and I have lived it right there next to them.

In this article I want to address Ethiopian feminism in particular. Social media, that place where we all ‘speak,’ vent, and scream for thousands to hear, is where I started learning more about feminism as it is practiced in Addis Ababa. I constantly hear about how tough “feministing in Addis” can be. Living in such a “sexist society,” it seems, is taking its toll on the women trying to get their message of equality out there to the community that needs to hear and understand it the most. One source of the frustration revolves around the misunderstanding of the term feminism itself. I read somewhere coming from a particularly frustrated woman, “Do you believe in the equality of men and women? Then you are a FEMINIST!” underlying the fact that everyone should embrace feminism instead of hating, or worse, ignoring it. While I understood the frustration, my reaction was – “well… not quite.” This is my attempt to try to work/think through the why of this matter.

I grew up in Addis in a family where women’s issues was constantly a point of discussion – the lack of educational, economic and political opportunities for women were abysmal, to say the least and we were acutely aware. While we were never told to go out there and save our fellow women, there was an understanding that the minimum thing expected from us, girls, was to at least save ourselves and stand on our own two feet. Generally, it was understood that economics was the key – poverty was choking our whole nation to death, and it seemed to be choking women in particularly harsh ways. ‘Ay ye Ethiopia set’ my uncle used to say, ‘sentun chela?’

While these issues and their discussions still persist today, there seems to be a slight shift in focus. Maybe it’s not a shift, maybe it’s a broadening of the idea of women’s rights itself. I’m not quite sure. What I’m sure of, and what has been the source of slight frustration for me, is the change in vocabulary, thus discussion and focus around women’s rights. I see real issues being wrestled with, discussed and addressed constantly (real issues broadly being defined here as creating educational, economic and political opportunities for women who have been deprived of it). But at the same time, some ideas from western feminism have seeped into this same discourse without the necessary depth of analysis that is required when attempting to take and implant an idea from one particular society to another. This is the source of my concern, this is what leaves me fearful. If the discourse doesn’t change to fit our particular society, feminism in Addis will start to be viewed as not only out of touch but potentially dangerous.

To help us navigate through this discussion, I want to quickly glance through some ideas of western feminism. Western-feminism, in the US particularly, began with what is called ‘first-wave feminism,’ where the movement focused on attaining equal political and legal rights for women. Female suffrage was its principal goal (American women were granted the right to vote in 1920). In the early 1960s, what is termed as ‘second wave feminism’ began, going beyond achieving political emancipation and concerning itself with the economic and social rights of women. Increasing number of women were joining the workforce and rejecting traditional gender roles both in their homes and workplace. This was also a time when the sexual revolution of the 1960s took place, marking a time that involved a rejection of traditional sexual norms. Today’s western feminism charges even further and attempts to question and redefine ideas and words that are viewed as limiting to women. For example, gender roles (viewed as a social construct i.e. our ideas of gender are not biological but socially influenced), femininity, masculinity, sexuality, and male privilege (the thinking that men are benefiting from a patriarchal system that is victimizing and harming women) are some of the ideas that are constantly at the center of dialogue among feminists.

Western feminism has greatly influenced the way women’s rights, thus feminism, is practiced in the rest of the world, including Ethiopia. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Ideas travel. If that wasn’t the case, it would have been only the Athenians practicing democracy today. Nevertheless, it is a necessity that we exhaust – through deep study, reflection and dialogue, which ideas are well grounded, thus worth inheriting, and which are weak, thus in need of disregard. We should not and cannot accept an idea simply because it’s part of a general ideology we are attracted to. There is no need for Ethiopian feminism to fully align with western feminism, we can take what works within our societies and make sure we leave behind what doesn’t.  

It’s no secret that Ethiopia is a socially conservative nation with deep religious and cultural beliefs dictating daily living. Some of our traditions have been dangerous and harmful, and we’ve collectively agreed and have worked/are still working towards eliminating them. Female genital mutilation, abduction or telefa and rape being good examples. The women rights activists I watched growing up took on these issues head on, fought to change laws and policies, organized to increase educational opportunities for girls and provided them that rare sweet opportunity of choice. They attempted to create economic opportunities so that women can work outside of their homes to contribute to their families’ income, increasing the general well-being of families. These goals, most logical men and women, religious/traditional or otherwise, could get behind, since the argument for protecting and bettering the wellbeing of the family, thus the community, is relatively an easy one to make.

Today in Addis Ababa, the dialogue seems to have broadened. Now, relatively recent concepts of western feminism such as male privilege and mansplaining (men condescendingly explaining to women about something they have incomplete knowledge of, assuming they know better) have started to be discussed alongside issues of rape and women’s lack of educational opportunities. The lack of women in high positions of power and the trampling of the proverbial glass ceiling is discussed with a higher fervor than one might expect given the fact that it’s a handful of middle and upper class women that are facing this issue. Now, feminists view the world exclusively through the ‘feminist lens’ to such an extent that at times we forget that everything in society is not about power structures between the seemingly privileged (men) and the victim (women).

Prioritizing the discussion of male privilege, for example, in a nation where men have their own set of sufferings – abhorrent levels of unemployment, poverty, literacy, and life expectancy – is akin to discussing the down side of munching on Kitfo with a beggar on the street. It’s a potentially useful information, but you have to keep in mind she/he’s currently more focused on finding some kolo to tame the grumbling stomach. When discussing male privilege, if we’re thinking about matters such as, why it’s only women who do the cooking and child rearing and not men and why it’s men who have “better” careers (legitimate concerns), then maybe we’d first want to reflect on why we imagine there to be an inherent good in working outside of the home and an inherent bad in cooking in the kitchen. Before starting to accuse men with an opinion as mansplainers, maybe we should stop to consider that the identity of her womanhood is not the first thing a man sees when talking to a woman.

While we may believe that some of our cultures or religions have held women back in various ways, we still may want to recognize that not all things religious or traditional are negative. We may want to recognize that there are wisdoms in these teachings (which at times have been backed by strong historical and scientific evidence) that modern educated liberals have not fully grasped or refuse to accept. Mainstream feminism, as it’s practiced in the west today, has moved so much to the left of the political spectrum that, while 85% of American women believe in women’s rights, only 18% identify as feminists. Feminism is not the simple idea that men and women are equal. This might have been the definition in 1920, it is not the definition today. Feminism is an ideology with a history and a belief system that, at times, directly contradicts with the basic cultural and religious value systems that have served and benefited our societies for millennia. If we hope to better the circumstances of Ethiopian women and girls that are currently trapped by poverty and lack of opportunity, we’d need to carefully listen to the heartbeat of own nation, not the remnant heartbeat of others.

Tena Yistelegn.

On Love.


 “If there’s any kind of magic in this world it must be in the attempt of understanding someone sharing something. I know, it’s almost impossible to succeed but who cares really? The answer must be in the attempt.” Celine, Before Sunrise


It was as if someone was squeezing my gut and refused to let go. I felt nauseous and weak. The feeling was especially painful at night, as most pains are. It was the daunting realization that I may never see this person again. I wondered if this was love. The love they sing and make movies about. The love I was told to find if I had any hopes of ever being fulfilled, complete.

Countless times, I’ve attempted to define romantic love. How do we meet strangers and soon find ourselves enthralled by their existence, depending on them as if they were the very air we breathe? Why do we crave the entwining of our minds, bodies and souls with one another? Is such kind of romantic love real or even necessary? Have Disney, Hollywood, and Jane Austen duped us into believing the unreal as something to dream about and strive for?

Such love is the “love of the adolescent.” As adults we tend to dismiss it as unreal and unnecessary, especially once we have made a public declaration transforming our love-based relationship into a marriage, breathing commitment into it. We now have more important things to think about; 8-hour workdays have to be lived through, bills have to be paid, and the Joneses have to be kept up with. Once we decide that kids are a necessity then of course, the kids have to be fed, clothed and sheltered. Hours of our days are sacrificed screaming and instructing these small creatures to brush their teeth, to finish their vegetables, to practice their reading and to, for the last time, GO TO SLEEP! The everyday mundane existence of the adult mind doesn’t have the luxury of fantasizing  about intangible ideas of love and fulfillment of the soul. At least, not until you’re dozing off to sleep tired from your long day and wondering if this is all there is. Luckily, these moments are few and far between, since, of course, you have to focus and plan to wake up the next day and adult all over again.

But even without the weight of adult existence, the intensity of the adolescent love seems to wither with time. The man who had once declared to worship the very ground his angel walked on, now looks at her with a certain kind of disdain, he can’t fathom that his once beloved beauty is this overbearing and nagging woman who seems to be overly concerned about his choice of attire and the cleanliness of the toilet seat. The woman who had once looked at her lover and marveled at her lucky stars for delivering such a brilliant and caring man into her existence is baffled with the careless, somewhat un-affectionate man looking back at her across the dinner table. What happened?!

So, in a way we know that the adolescent love doesn’t necessarily translate into adult love, it dissipates. Our inability, for some of us at least, to believe in such love and our haste to dismiss it as mere infatuation lays in this very nature of the adolescent love – its inability to last. If it passes, was it ever real?


Yes. Yes, it was and is real. (Please excuse me while my logical, younger self goes and vomits).

Ok, I’m back.

The adolescent love, whether experienced at 15 or 50, is real, practical and mind-mindbogglingly fantastic. Its transient nature should never be seen as a reason to disbelief in the realness and beauty of it. Things do not need to last for us to label them real. Picturesque sunsets last mere minutes, beautiful movies – just hours, houseflies – weeks, all four seasons – months, and our bodies’ – just years. These things do not need to remain permanent for us to be awed by them or to be convinced of their realness.

The adolescent love is awe inspiring; two separate beings immersed in bliss together – mind, body and soul, giving both a rare chance to experience the “eternal now.” When they are together, they cease to think about the past with all its regrets or the future with all its anxieties. They are just there, indifferent to the world outside, experiencing a kind of peace that comes when one no longer feels that natural nagging of loneliness.

So yes, the adolescent love is real and beautiful and if you’ve been fortunate enough to experience it, count yourself very lucky.

But, (you have to have known a but was coming), while such love is real, it would be amiss for me to not reflect on a slightly deeper level as to why it dissipates. It dissipates because, as weak and fallible humans, we expect too much out of our relationships. We demand the love and our beloved to provide more than they can bear. We tend to deify our lovers; we want them to be our heroes and saviors, we want them to complete us. We forget that they are mere humans that can neither save us or themselves. As Ernest Becker said, “no human relationship can bear the burden of Godhood.” So, once their humanness becomes too apparent, that infatuation subsides, they, all of a sudden, become too real and we find ourselves awake to a “reality” we never signed up for.


This is why adult love is necessary. This love understands reality with all its hardships. It accepts commitments and sacrifices. It recognizes the humanness of the lover and yet attempts to stick around continuing to be compassionate and understanding. The adult love also requires a kind of vulnerability that the ego finds unbearable. When we decide to love someone in such a manner we’re open to seeing the worse of who they are and still be willing to stick around and continue to love them, without judgment. We have to put an immense amount of faith in them as well. That, once they see our worse side – as we all have that side – once they see our weakness, our ugly flaws, smelled our morning breathe, they will look at us not in dismay, but will see our full humanness in our failings and, maybe, potentially, unimaginably even love us more for it. The adult love is complicated and is not for the faint of heart, which is why half the time it fails.


Thus, while adolescent love is beautiful and real, we still have to be willing to also adultify it at some point. As much as we want to remain with our hearts in the clouds, we live in a temporary world that’s constantly and harshly reminding us of its transient nature at every corner. We need not be dismayed by our practical lives that don’t necessarily involve love poems or red roses. We need to be grounded enough to understand that even mundane everyday realities of our lives serve their own purpose, can even be viewed as sacred for the simple fact that we are alive to experience them.

But if your lucky stars align and you get a chance to experience the adolescent love, I hope you indulge, swim and dance in it – not all people are so fortunate. Just make sure you take it for what it is. Nothing more. Nothing less. The magic is not in its ability to last forever; it’s in your ability to live fully in the moment, connected.

Tena Yistelegn.