[Image: Preparing for departure to Addis Ababa from Turkey]
Andrea Alvord is a student in the University of Bradford’s African Peace and Conflict Studies Master’s programme. She is a native of Zimbabwe and a naturalised US citizen. She graduated from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee with a B.A. in English and was commissioned as an officer in the US Navy, where she served for eleven years prior to returning to the world of academia.
In the weeks of class meetings leading up to our departure for Ethiopia, the students and leaders of the African Study Visit discussed how Ethiopia is or is not the exception in Africa. The country is unique in both its history and current ethnic-federal government structure. Europeans never colonized Ethiopia, although not for lack of effort. The Ethiopian Army defeated the Italians in the Battle of Adwa in 1896, a point of immense national Ethiopian (and pan-African) pride. The Italians returned for five years during World War II and reminders of their occupation are found across the country from supermarket shelves flush with pasta, to the merkato (famous as the largest market on the continent), Addis Ababa’s piazzas, and the incongruous sight of a coffee shop quality espresso machine in a tiny tin shack on a dirt path next to Lake Hawassa. One of my Italian classmates who was not part of the study visit had referred to Ethiopia as “our colony” and I hastily corrected (or should I say, educated) him!
His comment proved salient as the question of “who’s history?” repeated throughout the trip. If we were speaking of Ethiopian history in general, did it include the lowland groups that Emperor Menelik the First had brought into the territory during the great expansion and who now make up most of the country’s 70 plus (the number varies depending on the source) “nations, nationalities, and peoples”, or did it privilege the Ethiopian highlanders? Did the highlanders, in effect, colonize the lowlanders? Contemporarily, we also wondered how ethnic-federalism was working. Is the system creating more opportunities for conflict or is it bringing peace? When almost all African countries have seemed to embrace Samora Machel’s motto that “for the nation to live, the tribe must die,” the Ethiopians have turned it upside down, prioritizing their “ethnic” differences over their Ethiopian-ness.
While only there for two weeks, we met and spoke with a wide variety of people: from government ministers, to civil society leaders, political opposition candidates, regional council members, federal police, street vendors, journalists, researchers, NGO workers, and our indispensable student liaisons from Addis Ababa University’s Institute for Peace and Security Studies who provided us with exceptional and intimate insight to our many, many questions. It is not a robust survey, but everyone we spoke with seemed to favor the ethnic-federal structure, although many commented that it “works better on paper.” The older generation emphasized that they had not been allowed to speak their home languages under the communist Derg regime and they praised the current system and the efforts of the EPRDF (Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front) government to honor the country’s many diverse cultures.
Ethiopia is a fascinating country and though similar in certain aspects considered typical of Africa, it is indeed an exception on the continent. This study visit was only the start of a process of peeling back the country’s complex layers. In this short space, I cannot even touch on Ethiopia’s policies as a developmental state; its history of political repression; civil society legislation; the fact that several Ethiopians referred to it as “the capital of Africa”; it is the home of the Rastafarians; and perhaps what we found most surprising and remarkable – that Addis Ababa has an amazing collection (thousands plus) of classic VW Beetles that we saw driving all over the city! Ultimately, the trip left us with more questions than it answered and different questions than we had going into it! From beginning to end, the study visit was a remarkable experience and I must thank Sara Njeri (now Doctor Njeri!) for her dedicated work in setting up and managing logistics (especially her diplomacy with the bus driver!) and Dr. David Harris for shepherding this little flock of students as we applied classroom theories to the real world. Namasiganalen! (Thank you all!)
[Image: ASV group visiting Hawassa at the Rift Valley where they met with the Regional Administration]