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.

Ethiopia’s Ethnic-Federalism: The chickens are coming home to roost.



“If we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity.” – John F. kennedy


If you’re following news from Ethiopia or scrolling down any of your social media feeds, you know that various uprisings resulting from political and economic dissatisfactions are taking place mainly in the Amhara and Oromia regions of Ethiopia. If you’re well versed on the political and economic history of Ethiopia, this piece will only serve as a quick evening read, but if you’re confused as to what’s going on or are more likely to skip any news regarding Ethiopian politics because it just confuses you, then this will serve as a helpful, and hopefully fun, read about our political history (or at least provide enough info to make you sound smart next time you’re at a party making small talk about the topic).

Ethiopia and our Ethnicities.

Ethiopia is one of the most ethnically diverse nations in the world, with about 80 ethnic groups calling it home. Here is the breakdown:

Oromo – 34.4%

Amhara – 27%

Somali – 6.2%

Tigray – 6.1%

Sidama – 4%

Gurage – 2.5%

Others – 19.8%

(2007 Census)

As you might imagine, governing a nation with such diverse groups of people can be quite challenging. How does a nation accommodate and address the cultural, political and economic needs of a people that may not necessarily see things eye to eye, especially when those people have had complicated relationships with one another? This is a question that has been tackled for decades in Ethiopia and it was a key question that needed to be addressed in 1991 when the current ruling party (Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) headed by the Tigrayan People Liberation Front (TPLF)) came into power after ousting the socialist Derg regime.

Historically, federalism is used as a system of governance in nations with vast and diverse people. In such nations, power is shared between a central government and regional governments. Federalism is used as a way to keep a nation united under one flag, while at the same time upholding democracy for all groups of people. Thus, the idea that federalism would/should be implemented in Ethiopia was a no-brainer. The surprise came when it was decided that Ethiopia would function under ethnic-based federalism. This decision, in my opinion, is akin to buying a newly renovated house with ‘termite issues’ you neglected to address. It looks great and functional on the outside, but it’s only a matter of time before it all comes slowly crashing down.

According to the 1995 constitution, the nation was to be divided into 9 regional states or kililoch based on ethnic territoriality. The constitution highlighted the equality of nations and nationalities, for example by giving all states a right to use their language. Member states were entitled to adopt their own constitution, flags and anthems. More importantly if the need/want arises, all states were given the right to secede. Centralized rule under a single ethnic group was viewed as the source of abuse and discrimination, thus federalism was to deliver us justice and prosperity.

Why Ethnic Federalism?

We need to do a little history-101 if we want to understand the ‘why’ of the matter. Ethiopia is a multi ethnic nation (a fact worth repeating to highlight the complexity and challenge of the situation), with one group having always dominated the other. Historically the Amhara ethnic group has enjoyed the privileges that come with power. You do not really need to open history books to be aware of the political, economic and cultural power this group has enjoyed over centuries of our history. For example, the simple fact that I’m multi-ethnic, but only speak Amharic fluently (I’m not Amhara, no doubt I have the blood somewhere in me) and wear ‘hager libs’ (notice the term itself) to represent Ethiopia and identify doro wet as the traditional Ethiopian meal (which no doubt should be hulbet meregh btw!) says enough about the cultural hegemony the Amhara ethnic group has enjoyed in our nation.

As you might imagine, for one group to dominate, there needs to be others to dominate over, thus come all the lands and people that have been ruled over by the Amharas. For centuries, various ethnic groups have felt ostracized and abused by the powers that be. Most obviously the Oromo (the most populous ethnic group of the nation) have been a people that have felt marginalized economically, culturally and politically. Other ethnic groups have felt similarly over the years, including the Tigrayans and much of the people of the South. Remember, when a community’s culture and language is disregarded, it very much robes them of respect and dignity, which are basic human rights. When that identity is not recognized, there is a good chance their political rights will also not be recognized. Thus, it should not be surprising that various ethnic based resentments exist in our history and persist to this day.

So, it was to resolve such grievances and address the lack of human rights that ethnic federalism was set up by the EPRDF. When the 1995 constitution was being drafted, the idea was that ethnic groups would be given the right to rule themselves, thus no longer feel marginalized or abused. If this sounds pretty fair and square to you, get ready to have your bubble blown. The problem with all of this is that while it sounds logical in theory, it almost never works in reality. I won’t bore with examples of nations that demonstrate why (if interested, Google Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia…). While ethnic federalism has the potential to protect the rights of all, it also has the potential to make people start to strongly identify with their specific ethnicity more than the identity of the collective (for example feeling more Gurage or Oromo than Ethiopian), easily creating an ‘us’ and a ‘them.’ There are many who argue that TPLF purposefully used this system of governance to divide and rule the nation while holding on to the real power. Looking at events today, this theory may have some merit, but I’m not one to delve into guessing of intentions, so I’ll leave that for you to decide.

But, here we are today, 2016, and grievances are ripe as ever. While our constitution says that all ethnic groups are equal under the eyes of the law, reality seems to point to the opposite direction. The current regime, dominated by TPLF, is constantly being accused of human rights abuses, preferential treatment of its own people and stifling any dissent that may arise. What is taking place today is almost a natural progression of what happens when a people are made to claim their ethnicities as the core of who they are. If a goverment prioritizes a people’s ethnicity as their main identity, it should not come as a surprise when the people use that same identity to organize themselves and fight for what they believe in. When a people feel discriminated and abused because of their ethnic identity, it is natural for them to hold on to that identity when they attempt to regain what they perceive to be their constitutionally given rights and self respect.

Decades old ethnic based grievances coupled with crippling poverty of the masses are a dangerous combination for any nation to face. The staggering income inequality that currently exists will most likely worsen the situation. I do not have the insight or knowledge to predict what the future holds for our nation but I hope we all learn to have productive conversations, based on facts and some compassion, about these issues so that we can move forward and hopefully contribute to the prosperity of our nation.

Tena Yistelegn.

Addis – First Impressions.

This is the first of, hopefully, many articles that will be posted on the this blog from other contributing writers. The following piece was written by Feker Tadesse, a former DC resident, IV league’r, habesha gal who currently works as a consultant in our beloved city, Addis Abeba, thus making her our new “correspondent” from Addis. Enjoy.



By Feker Tadesse.


It’s been about a month and a half since I took the plunge and moved back home, to the confusion and chagrin of most people around me. I say most because there were equally supportive friends and family who saw this move as an exciting adventure. I shouldn’t paint myself as a hero since it remains to be seen whether I made a good or yeseytan joro aysmana, a bad decision.

The oddest thing about this move was that it was largely a practical decision, and not an emotional one as many would assume. I studied development and it just didn’t make sense to do it from a metropolitan city thousands of miles away from where all the action was happening. Having said that, there is a certain level of satisfaction about doing what I do here in Ethiopia. As one friend wrote, part of the reward is about ‘giving back to the place that made you who you are.’

Where should I begin about dear Addis? There is both an energetic and suffocating feel to the city. You see the youth involved in exciting projects or constantly hustling to get involved in some. Suffocating because there are just a LOT of people in the city. The icing on the cake is construction of roads happening all over the city, making it impossible for both pedestrians and drivers to safely navigate the city’s streets. Traffic has become a nightmare given that major roads have been closed due to a railway construction that is hoped to be unveiled in three years. In retrospect, I could have worked a little bit more on my timing.

I perhaps look at things a little more clearly, more critically and to some, I’m sure, I’ll sound annoyingly judgmental about our ways. Jarring comments about homosexuality being a sin and the utter disgust people express when speaking about Betty (wholeheartedly agree with this post HERE by the way), remind me about how conservative our society is or at least, pretends to be. Or getting berated by a family friend for suggesting her daughter look into PhD programs after undergrad. ‘Timirtu lay focus sitareg gizewa yihedal.’ Huh? Times like these is when I realize how removed I feel from the society.

Of course, there are moments when I feel like I’ve never stepped foot outside of home, such as the comfort I feel when I spend my Sunday mornings sipping coffee begabi tetekliye, chatting with my parents about the latest gossip, tv humming in the background, the room enveloped by the heavenly smoke that emanates from the Itan. I am reminded of the constant anxiousness I felt in the states and there is a certain level of peace I already feel. A taxi driver in DC once told a friend and myself that immigrants will always feel schizophrenic about their identities, much like Zadie Smith, in White Teeth, describes one of her characters, a second generation Pakistani residing in London, “ … stood schizophrenic, one foot in Bengal and one foot in Wellsden.” Perhaps I will always feel that way but it has ceased to bother me anymore. I don’t quite know how to explain it but I feel surrounded with love, which for now, more than makes up for all the line cutting, random power outages and abuse you suffer from random strangers. I just came back from lunch with colleagues where a stalker insulted a colleague, calling her ‘yenech ashker’ because she dared confront him about his stalkish qualities. Times like these I wish I had continued with my Taekwondo class so that I can karate chop anyone who dared speak to me like that. Ah well, what’re you gonna do?

Our city as always is a site of contrasts. For every drastic story you hear about someone getting laid off and struggling to make ends meet, in the next breath, you hear about destination weddings in Mauritius. It boggles my mind how such dramatically opposite lifestyles could exist side by side. And of course there’s the guilt you can’t help but feel, that comes and goes like those shooting pains you experience once in a while. They’re not so serious that you should seek professional help but nevertheless add a certain level of discomfort to your life. In the States, I never felt guilty for wishing to drive my favorite car (a fancy BMW, preferably a convertible on days when I feel like letting my hair down, ‘tsegurishin go back iyalsh’ as my uncle once described.) Here, I feel guilty for even coveting one because the difference is just so … striking. Living in the US, you can comfortably wish for the American dream complete with your 2.5 kids and a two garage, 5 bedroom house because for the most part (although that is debatable now more so than ever), you know that if anyone works hard, that life is attainable by all. Nothing special about you to make you flinch or think twice about it. No such formula here I’m afraid. Yes there are stories of the self-made man and woman who weathered all odds to make that dream come true, but these stories are few and far in between. There is also, of course, the urban poverty that makes you cringe every time you leave one of the many posh restaurants in Addis after having paid an average of 100-150 Br for lunch. Given time, the homeless blur and seem to blend in with the construction sites of Addis until you notice them no more. A friend was telling me that you need to give a homeless person at least 1.25Br, which is the price for a piece of bread nowadays. I wonder if our legash hands have kept up with the inflation …

All is not so grim, obviously. It IS home after all and Addis has a certain flavor that is uniquely comic. The other day, I was having dinner with a group of friends or rather, we had ordered and we were anxiously waiting for the food to arrive. Our wiater comes back after oh about 40 minutes, cocks his head so and announces, with a pitiful look on his face, ‘Yikirta, pasta alkual!’ To which we all burst out laughing, shocking even him in our reaction. Only in Addis eh? Or the time when a colleague went to her favorite breakfast joint and asked for ‘enkulal firfir’ to which the waiter adamantly stated that under no circumstances was he going to serve ‘firfir’ but she could have the ‘enkulal sandwhich’ instead. She had to call the chef and demand that if they had the eggs, why can’t he just ‘meferfer’ them?! The chef reluctantly acquiesced. The nerve! Or the time when a particularly witty weyala, having witnessed a couple kissing on bole road, shouted ‘diaspora mechem tegboal zendiro’.

I oscillate between feeling like a complete fraud, purporting to help the poor while enjoying the sort of lifestyle I lead in Addis and feeling useful and good about what I do. It’s like what E.B. White said, “If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”

Makes it hard indeed!

Holier than thou.


I recently heard about Betty, the contestant on Big Brother Africa. I have never watched the show and I didn’t know we even had an Ethiopian contestant on it. I’m not even sure what the show is about, but what I do know is that Betty, our Ethiopian gal had sex with a fellow contestant while the camera was rolling. I watched the clip, but most importantly I read the comments made by my fellow Habeshas.

Asedabi,” “asafari,” “ehe ye’ethiopiawi sera aydelem,” “bahelachenen gedel ketetechew,” the impassioned  comments went on and on. I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about the whole situation. Of course my initial reaction, given I’m what you might call a typical Habesha with a bit of a conservative inclination on some matters, was that of embarrassment. Why would anyone do this knowing they were on camera? But then, I couldn’t help but think about how we, Habeshas, have become such hypocrites. Were we so outraged about her actions or that her actions were caught on camera? Because if it is her actions that is enraging us, then i call bullshit.

I don’t know how the people of the previous generation acted or conducted themselves. They might have been the chewa, sew akbari, egzihabeheren feri individuals that we were told to emulate growing up. But let me tell you, the men and women of my generation, may fantasize to be these things, but we are far from it. I’m only speaking here from personal experience, so feel free to correct me if you feel I’m mistaken, or if your experience has led you to a different conclusion.

Sex in our community has become nothing more than a simple source of physical pleasure. The things that are normally and traditionally attached to it – love, intimacy, commitment are rarely found within it. For instance, if you’re a guy living in Addis with some cash to spare, and you’re looking for a “good time,” that’s exactly what you’ll get. In fact you probably don’t have to do much to look for it. The  ladies in our modern age, it seems, put out easy. Today’s city dwelling women are not the women of your granny’s generation – meshkormem doesn’t work today. You don’t even have to see the nightlife in Addis to witness this, walking down Bole road shall suffice.

This is not only in regards to the single men and women out there. Some marriages have become a way to simply conform with “our tradition” because after the wedding, life sure enough, goes on. I’ll sadly say, I know more marriages that are dealing with the issue of infidelity, then those that are dealing with “communication issues” or whatever other issue we tell others we’re having.  The idea of weshema, a term I viewed to be ‘old,’ used only in writing, is so common now,even newly built condominiums are making some profit from the practice. The interesting part is no one seems to be shocked by this. In some circles it’s almost a source of laughter and amusement.

So why all the outrage? Do we really believe that this girl is not a true reflection of her community? Does she not represent the modern urban dweller of Ethiopia? Or are we pissed that she dared to do it in the open, going against the natural Ethiopian love of keeping everything a secret, behind closed doors?

Please keep in mind I’m not making any moral judgement here on people who view sex to be a casual form of entertainment, it definitely can be that – to each his own. But let’s not mefogager, let’s get rid of  this holier than thou mentality. Let us not be so quick to condemn, when we know in our heart of hearts we’re not as chewa, as egziabeheren feri as emaye wanted us to be. Whether it’s all The Sex and the City episodes us modern ladies watched, or the new-found money that seems to be in the pockets of the upper/middle-class or the liberal diaspora with their “liberated” selves, whatever the reason – let us at least acknowledge, we ain’t all that holy.

Tena Yistelegn.