The Diaspora community’s Oromo quandary

Monday March 28th 2016

By Zecharias Zelalem.

A couple of months back, an article I had written on the Oromo protests elicited some negative responses from several personal acquaintances, among them, an Ethiopian community leader of a city in Western Canada. Despite knowing me well enough personally to judge whether I would dare speak on contentious topics using rhetoric he considers off limits to “patriots,” he let me know he was “shocked” and “appalled” with my statements before blocking me on Facebook.

A couple of days ago, this individual unblocked me on Facebook and approached me with what appeared to be a change of heart. He apologized and first went into detail about what a great person he believed I was, and that he had been reading everything I had written despite us being no longer connected via Facebook. Flattering to say the least.

He then went on about the issues in his city. He told me that the Ethiopian community in his city was divided politically, and that the Oromos of his city had recently managed to register an organisation in their own name after years of threatening to do so. He stated that events and gatherings organised by the community of which he is at the helm of are rarely if ever graced by the presence of Oromos.

He told me that he wanted to make things different. He said he was willing to go out of his way to create dialogue and avoid seeing different communities organisations spring up in the names of several Ethiopian ethnic groups. He then told me that I was invited to mediate at a planned “forum for Ethiopians” where he would invite representatives of different Ethiopian communities to gather and discuss how to iron out their differences and reunite as a single strong community. He said he planned to create a model for cities like Toronto and Vancouver which have also seen their Oromo populations rarely participate in community actions taken under the name of their respective Ethiopian communities. He was looking to set a date and told me he would fly me out from the Canadian east coast to the Prairies if I believed in his project.

I thanked him for his kind words and appreciated his desire to create dialogue and understanding among the various Ethiopians and their incredibly difficult to reconcile ideologies and beliefs. There are too many Ethiopian community leaders today who would scoff at the idea of compromising on century old ideals that they have set in stone. I wasn’t sure if this man had planned on making any ground shaking moves for the sake of his city’s community, but the fact that he realized that there was a need for some sort of change can be taken as a positive.

I declined his invite on the grounds that my school and work schedule would probably never permit me to fly out to the west for any sustained period of time. I also had some advice to give that I hoped would indulge him into some self reflection.

When it comes to the Oromo communities in the diaspora, there isn’t really a need for any meeting or gathering. Before inviting runaway children back into a home, one must analyse the situation, starting from the home and the living circumstances of those dwelling in the home. Unlike what some may believe, there is no heartfelt hatred of people. Once here in Canada, faced with the issues and the toiling that Ethiopian immigrants go to upon arrival here, Ethiopians of any ethnicity are more than willing to accept help and moral support from people that are culturally and linguistically closer to them, and who would be more so than fellow countrymen and countrywomen?

Knowing this, Ethiopian communities across North America have to realize that the only thing needed to unite more of our peoples would be to reformat the way they present themselves. Most of our communities in North America have written in their constitutions that they are non profit organisations free from partisan politics. But we rarely abide by this clause.

To an outsider, a community event may be a beautiful, colourful multicultural gathering of Ethiopians.

But to Ethiopians, it is obvious that the events are coordinated in tandem with poorly veiled political leanings, leanings that tend to lie towards traditional Ethiopian nationalism of the sixties and seventies. A nationalism that never encompassed the needs of the traditionally oppressed of our country, who happen to be the majority in the land. A nationalism that turned the entire country against its institutions. The flags, the rhetoric, the invited socialites and personalities, the rhetoric in the speeches, are all as such that an Ethiopian who doesn’t believe in these virtues or doesn’t necessarily pledge any real allegiance to these symbols may feel like an outsider. Let me emphasize what I mean by “the personalities.” Allowing politically charged individuals the honour of giving opening speeches at events is a slap to the face of those who may disagree with the individual. But on only oh too many occasions have exiled politicans espousing their version of Ethiopianism at the expense of personal backgrounds been given the red carpet treatment and a full endorsement of what are mainly dated political views. And knowing our cultural lack of tolerance for diverse views, people left disillusioned would rather just distance themselves for fear of giving their opposing stance away and facing virtual excommunication and condemnation by the more hardcore believers of the community’s unwritten open secret political leanings.

 

The problem isn’t with the people. The problem is with community leaders believing that for the community to unite, the people have to change. These leaders believe that the people are the problem. On several occasions when I have gotten the occasion to ask Ethiopian community leaders why they have failed to truly harness the sort of unity they always preach about, they will almost always speak of the people being led astray by beliefs or “agents,” either “Woyane” or “Jawar.” They’ll declare that their communities have been “infiltrated” by people spreading the poisonous propaganda of these agents and that only way of undoing the damage of these “agents” would be to wage an information campaign against them. Unfortunately, such campaigns tend to result in the opposite happening, more people isolated and more people turned away. You can’t sincerely hope that people will abandon what they believe in!

So what to do?

I explained to my friend that gathering a bunch of feuding individuals of various political beliefs usually ends in arguments and physical confrontation. Such gatherings are nice but unnecessary. The first step forward would be taking measures to make the community appear apolitical and much more welcoming for people who don’t believe in mainstream nationalism. In order to ensure this, the community has a responsibility to ensure that open minded, tolerant people who are less prone to anger and aren’t hardcore ideologues of any ideology are given the prominent leadership roles. They’ll ensure that gatherings won’t always be so politically charged and fiery. Their should also be community leaders speaking languages other than Amharic to ensure smooth communication and make an organisation be Ethiopian not only in name, but in the demographic making of its servants as well. It will make it appear like a community for all, and not just for those matching the century old stereotypical description of “Ethiopian.”

 

Simply put, community leaders of cities in North America need to resolve their issues by taking a good look at the log in their eyes before lamenting the specks in the eyes of the people they are supposed to be serving. There is no reason why people wouldn’t want to affiliate themselves with an organisation dedicated to serving all. We live in a foreign land, we’re faced with learning new languages, getting accustomed to a new climate, racism, hidden discriminatory practices, living away from family, homesickness and many more. It’s a complete 180 degree change from the life we’ve known and it’s a struggle. Our people are more than willing to accept help from people we can relate to and who are dedicated to making the transition a little smoother. Oromo, Amhara, Somali, Tigrayan, Anyuak or otherwise.

But if the community leaders of North America bring to these foreign lands the same mentality and thinking of the small minded dictators that have turned their native Ethiopia into the synonym of poverty, we will continue to see our community organisations turn into tools of division which will in turn lead to more and more of our kin creating organisations that they feel would legitimately represent them. One can’t blame them either.

Yesterday, I had the unpleasant experience of once again being blocked on Facebook. This was after my community leader friend let me know I was a “disgrace” for my “criticizing” his desire to bring all Ethiopians around a table in discussion. He also let me know that he would no longer read anything I wrote.

He is the embodiment of everything wrong with Ethiopian community leaders in North America today. Close minded and quick to rush to judgment, upon his hearing something he found unpleasing, he wiped out our line of communication. This is the man who wants to bring Oromos back to his “Ethiopian” fold.

It is for the sake of Ethiopia that we must mend our ways. One cannot bring change without changing himself. Refusal to change one’s self is an affront at others because its an open statement that the problem lies not with one’s self, but with everyone else. And with that kind of thinking, no one is going to join in on your chorus of “one love.”

 

No matter how beautiful and colourful your choir is.

May the real Ethiopian community leaders please stand up!

Long live Ethiopia.

 

My name is Zecharias Zelalem.

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4 thoughts on “The Diaspora community’s Oromo quandary

  1. I like you honest and pragmatic view time to stand with those who are fighting injustice ,for those who just sit an preach about old fold ”ethiopia andnet” if you are not stand with those who are dying today make sure you are not welcomed to trade by their name for your wo political purposes. you are the future young zare berta

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  2. I like your thoughtful and objective observation but I disagree with your solution and it may be wishful thinking. We have a new diaspora mentality that may be too screwed up. One can hope fully educated and intellectually confident person would have no hesitation to sit down with any person and discuss about any subject. One may disagree with the other but must respect their point of view and agree to disagree and separate without calling names and try to settle the issue with a fight. You can see this problem with even non political social gathering such as churches and sport organizations. It seems there is a total colapse of a sense of trust and respect. Sadly we have become pathetic and hopeless. When one can’t explain one’s point of view clearly, it becomes easier to throw rocks.

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  3. Good points and supportive I personally like it. I have always liked talking straight and not with riddles and parabolic meanings, as such I will once more state my points as short, as straight and as clear as possible! We live in a country where the Amharas have dominated for so long. The Amharas still think that colonized Oromia belongs to them, they still think they have the upper hand in all. They still think language is only Amharic, they still think a flag is only that of with colors of green yellow and red, they still think what they say should become a rule and law. They still think communities should and MUST bear the name “Ethiopia” with the Ethiopian flag as prerequisites… The Oromos on the other hand were never sociopolitically free as to be allowed to claim their rights and express their feelings and speak up for it and decide accordingly, they were slaves of the system with no rights at all, marginalized and disregarded, people of a second class. Yet the Oromos today and despite of all their past history, the only they want is Mutual Respect, and not to be touched and provoked. All the Amharas all these years, been given all privileges made them think they are the boss in Ethiopia and no one else,and have turned themselves also to be haters of all the rest ethnic groups who dare to talk about their rights. One of these ethnic groups unfortunately for them happen to be the Oromos! So if the Amharas started thinking that no one else have rights in Ethiopia but them, I would say it is time they think to move back to Gondar and Gojam and leave the rest of Ethiopia’s ethnic groups decide for themselves the way they want to leave in future.

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  4. Zecharias is one of few people we have today who have clearly seen the problem we failed to notice for several decades. The reason we as a country fail to unite in practical sense is still millions including the educated in the diaspora maintain century old mentality of accepting the domination of one language, one culture and one religion as the virtues that sustain the unity of Ethiopia. Even after living in the west for decades and observing how diversity of culture is appreciated at least in principle in the communities they live in, some still daydream about re-building of the ancient Ethiopia. They fail to grasp the aspiration and the need for freedom of self expression of the new generation, for example, Oromos in their language & culture and their interest in finding out the histrory of their ancestors from their parents. I am glad people like you are coming forward to point out what millions are failing to see. You might be blocked by some from their facebook, but a great number of the new generation want you as a friend on their facebook and in their real lives, including me. Please keep writing and don’t forget you are among very few who have been able to raise such important issue with great clarity.

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