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.