“We exist between the anxiety of the unknown future and the nostalgia of the familiar past,” Aida said. “We bear the burden of our duality.”
She is among the artists in “Afriques Capitales,” which is on view from March 29 to May 28 in Paris, before it travels to Lille, near the French border with Belgium. The show — a subset of the “100 percent Afriques” festival — is a sampler of the continent’s contemporary artists, from Akinbode Akinbiyi to Hassan Hajjaj to William Kentridge. The works are exhibited within the iron-and-glass cultural center in the Parc de la Villette — once the site of a slaughterhouse — and outside, in the park itself.
Aida was born in in Ethiopia in 1974, but her mother soon took them out of the country after the ouster of Emperor Haile Selassie. They moved often in search of a better place to live to provide a good education for Aida. At 18 years of age, Aida moved to the US to study film at Howard University and, later, worked at The Washington Post. She moved to Addis Ababa a decade ago – fulfilling a wish of her mother’s – and led the biennial Addis Foto Fest in 2010. She is currently the managing director at Developing and Educating Society Through Art for Africa, which fosters cultural partnerships.
“It took me a long time to understand that culture is soft power,” she said. “Looking at activities in my city, the same issues that we deal with here echo across the continent, and at times across the world.”
Her past has influenced her current artistic process. “Most of my studio work is based on the daily experiences that I have documented through my journalistic work,” she said.
The prevalence of decorative body painting in her images — stark whites, vibrant reds, azure blues, monochromes sometimes delicately dotted with black — are rooted in Ethiopian tradition and custom. Against a backdrop of globalization, this waning tradition is revived and celebrated as a form of a contemporary self-expression. Her models, which include local fashion designers and make-up artists, provide a canvas for what she wants to express, but remain open-minded participants in the process. “I am often drawn to not just the beauty but also the imperfections of this life,” she said.
Her choice of materials also has an important role in her work. Some of her photos are printed on archival rag paper. Within the frame, she features folds of beautiful fabric or woven baskets — like in her image “City Life” — integrating local craftsmanship into her visual palette. “In a sense, I have added certain codes,” she said, in order to “provoke the familiarity within a contemporary context for an Ethiopian audience, while for the foreign audience, it evokes curiosity.”
Even though such a system has, for the good part, been done away with, Tibebeselassie Tigabu writes in this issue of The Reporter that traces of it could still be detected.
The popular culture of urban life made traditional drinks such as tej (honey mead) to be exclusively limited to holidays, weddings, or some other special events.
This sentiment might not be shared by the daily drinkers of tej in neighborhoods such as Shiro Meda and 5 Kilo. If one happens to drop by these tej houses (mead joints), one understands this is a communion space for men, both working and unemployed.
Their loud voices, slurred speeches, the clacking birle (decanter) and the obscurity of the space defy the concept of the origin of tej that historically symbolized social status.
It is only the phrase, “Tej ye chewa metet new,” (Tej is a drink reserved only for the noble,) is kept in the mind of many without any contest. But what does this phrase mean?
Various writings actually attest to the veracity of the saying. In his book, “A Social History of Ethiopia”, Richard Pankhurst writes, “None except the nobility and the highest chiefs and warriors were privileged to drink tej,”
Ordinary people, including women, farmers, even merchants and other segments of the society, were not allowed to drink tej.
A former EPRP (Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party) member now a businessperson Woldesenbet Belete tells the exclusivity of tej. According to Woldesenbet, in the land tenure system, there are those who had rist – land ownership right that is inherited, inalienable, and inviolable.
The other major form of tenure was gult, an ownership right granted by the monarch or from provincial rulers who were empowered to make land grants. These gult (right to collect tribute) owners exacted labor services or demanded payment in kind from peasants. Such tributes in kind came in the form of fattened sheep, goats and the like, as well as grains and honey, the latter dubbed by Woldesenbet as gundo mar.
In one compelling story told by Woldesenbet, one peasant decided to consume the honey he produced and made tej with it. This news of a farmer daring to consume “honey” caused such a stir that it got reported to the provincial governor. The issue did not stop there and then; and it went all the way to the highest authority of the land – Emperor Yohannes IV.
After listening to the issue, Emperor Yohannes IV asked whom the honey belonged to. The governor replied that it belonged to the farmer. The then emperor ruled out the exclusivity of tej, and from that time on tej became a drink to any commoner who wants to consume it. This democratizing edict, however, did not bring to an end the hierarchical class system or oppression thereof.
According to Woldesenbet, the feudal aristocracy was given huge tracts of land and complete freedom to exploit the peasantry, particularly through the enormous private land-holding system in the southern parts of the country. In some areas, the landlords took as much as three-quarters of their tenants' harvest in cash or kind, through a complex system of taxes and tribute. In addition to that, tenants were also saddled with obligations to provide free labor for the property owner’s benefit.
During that time, the society was highly stratified. John Markakis, a prominent political scientist who was in the country during part of Emperor Haileselassie’s reign reminisces: “The society was highly ranked and too hierarchical. Everyone knew how to behave with other people if one was, for example, a balabat or tilk sew (members of the nobility). There was an understanding on how to even wear the shemma (traditional shawl) when they talk to them. It was like going to the Middle Age, but it was working as a state.”
Woldesenbet said that one had to yield way when a balabat passes, bow to them, or wash their feet and be at their disposal. The feudal lords wielded both economic and political power, justified solely through their lineage of “blue blood”. “They did not consider the peasant, who belonged to a lower class, as a human being. Peasants were considered and treated as an inferior. Even their body did not belong to the peasants. It existed to maximize the property of the landlords,” Woldesenbet said.
According to Woldesenbet, there was an irreconcilable difference among classes, and further mentioned the existence of slavery in the northern parts of Ethiopia. “The slaves were treated more brutally than the peasants. There are even stories of slaves being buried alive with their deceased masters,” noted Woldesenbet.
Woldesenbet believes that revolution is a never-ending process in which the remnants of feudalism did not vanish with the dismantling of the system; but rather continues until now. The contradiction between the technocrats within the feudal ruling class and the students brought a “class struggle” in an articulated form. The student movement and later the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party used Marx’s definition of class.
Marx sought to define a class as embedded in productive relations rather than social status. Marx distinguishes one class from another based on two criteria, viz., ownership of the means of production and control of the labor of others.
He defines modern society as having three distinct classes. The first is the capitalist or bourgeoisie, who own the means of production and purchase the labor of others. The second class is workers or proletariat who do not own any means of production or the ability to purchase the labor of others. The revolution of 1974 in Ethiopia did not stop in articulating class relationships; it rather tried to dismantle the various class hierarchies.
When the Derg took power in 1974, with its Marxist-Leninist ideology backed by the student movement, its priority was to eradicate this “feudal” class of “landlords” by one of the most radical agricultural reforms ever undertaken: “land to the tiller.” Land thus became public property. Nevertheless, the state maintained a sort of crown right over its administration, beginning with granting use rights to peasants over a parcel of land roughly proportional to the size of their family.
When the incumbent regime came to power in 1991, it did not touch the 1974 agrarian reform. The thread running through history remained unbroken- land rights continued rather it became an instrument to define relations of power between the state and smallholders and their communities.
However, many criticize the two regimes’ "land policy" which reduced peasants into tenants or another form of "feudalism." Especially with this regime, the leasing of vast land to foreign investors is highly criticized as a form of "feudalism". This might show the relationship between the ruling class and the peasants in a bigger picture. After all these class struggles, some of the things seem to be unchanged. Still, most of the songs, films and literature highlight the rudimentary definition of the class relationship of poor versus rich. Traces of feudalism can still be detected in the daily lives of urban dwellers where some, like domestic servants, are treated not with kid gloves.
One of those places is among house cleaners, guards, construction workers and other segments of society that are engaged in manual labor.
Alem Gebre, 14, a babysitter from the Sheno area, joined a certain household two years ago to serve as a babysitter. In addition to babysitting, she also runs errands, washes dishes and helps in washing clothes of the family.
Tsige Moges, her employer, is a very religious woman, but does not show her piety when it comes to Alem. Alem is not allowed to sit on the couch or use utensils of the family; rather some utensils are especially reserved for her. “She is a maid and she has to know her place,” Tsige declared.
Alem actually knows her place in society; does not speak in a raised voice, or play with neighborhood children. It is not only Alem but many maids are also treated badly, punished physically and are not given daily breaks.
The Reporter approached Tsige to ask if it was ok for maids to have intimate relationship with other people or a hypothetical scenario with her son. Her response was preceded by a loud laughter: "I do not think it is ok in my house. I do not care if they do it in other places," Tsige said, and went on: "I want my son to get married to a daughter of honorable parents."
According to Marx, property relations determine class and not income, or status and this seems to work in the current class structure. There are people who escaped poverty and made it to a higher income bracket. Nevertheless, within the current class relationship, people still expect their background to be a passport for membership in the "honorable group”.
The dismantling of the class system might not sound important; but people still use it to create artificial hierarchies among each other, for marriage, for honor, among other things. Many still bow to people who are considered “honorable”. Various institutions work in their favor; for instance, media outlets seem to be concerned about their lifestyle, business, and what not. Within the current social class system, being affluent is a determinant of joining the higher class and one can become a shaper of the economic and political situation of the country.
With the dismantling of the feudal system, during this regime, there is a creation of a new class of the rich, which Yeraswork Admassie, a sociologist at Addis Ababa University, called nouveau riche (newly rich). This group of people replaced familial inheritance.
Ethiopia has built an astronomical observatory, taking the first step towards creating a fully-fledged national space agency. With this, Ethiopia joins a handful of other African nations, including Nigeria, South Africa, and Egypt, that have their own space programs, and the government hopes the move will boost the local agriculture and communication industries, writes Wagaye Berhanu.
Ethiopia’s fledgling space science program has been beset by perception problems among some members of the public. “We are not into deep-space science, probing for signs of life on Mars, or for the presence of precious minerals on asteroids, etc.,” Alemiye Mamo, the acting director of the Public and International Relations Directorate with the Entoto Observatory and Research Center (EORC), said. In an exclusive interview he gave to The Reporter the previous Wednesday, Alemiye noted that creating awareness of the community in the field of space science and technology is one of the strategic goals of EORC.
Speaking to perception problems on space science and technology development in Ethiopia, the acting director said some people would go so far as suggesting that the country’s meager resources be better directed towards such crucial programs as food security. There are still others keen on comparing funds earmarked for the space program with those for other sectors of the economy, he noted, and added that science is a sine qua non for economic development of a country, and space science is an integral part of that. In fact, one of the rationales for the launching of Ethiopia’s space program, according to a March 2016 publication by EORC is “…to maximize the application of space-driven technologies for sustainable development to alleviate poverty and ignorance. Space science and technology-driven products can be used for modernization of agriculture, enhance food security and early warning, disaster management, …”
Alemiye said that even though it had been written off as being overly ambitious at its inception, Ethiopia’s nascent space program had registered quite a few achievements. Among these were the hosting of regional and international exhibitions and workshops in the past and, along that line, he mentioned two upcoming space science-related events to be held in Ethiopia.
According to information posted on EORC’S website, the first one is the 39th International School for Young Astronomers (ISYA) 2017 slated to take place in Addis Ababa between May 8 and 19, 2017. Jointly organized by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters (NASL) and local partners, close to 40 college students are expected to attend the two-week-long series of lectures on astronomy and astrophysics.
The other is the Fourth Middle East and Africa Regional IAU Meeting (MEARIM IV) that will be held from May 22 to 25, 2017 with the theme, “Exploring Our Universe for the Benefit of Humankind”. MEARIM is convened triennially, and the purpose of the Addis Ababa meeting would be to bring stakeholders together, “and openly discuss their experiences, existing and future challenges, and opportunities of astronomy in driving socio-economic development of the region, inspiring young professionals… promote R&D in astronomy to benefit humankind,” according to a booklet prepared for the occasion. Some 400 participants are going to attend the conference organized by the East Africa Regional Office of Astronomy for Development (ROAD), and local partners, viz., EORC and the Ethiopian Space Science and Technology Institute (ESSTI).
It has indeed come a long way. According to acting director Alemiye, it all started as a pastime by a group of amateur space enthusiasts who used to get together at Jan Meda (a large meadow in the vicinity of 6 Kilo) to do telescope-aided observation of the nocturnal sky. In 2004, they agreed to set up the Ethiopian Space Science Society (ESSS), the pioneering body in the field of space science in Ethiopia, with members drawn from government agencies as well as academic and business interests.
In January 2013, EORC was officially established as an independent research and training center owned and run by ESST as well as 33 universities, one of them a private one. Fully financed by Sheikh Mohammed Hussein Al-Amoudi, twin one-meter diameter state-of-the-art telescopes were installed in December 2014 at Entoto, the site of its observatory atop the escarpment on the northern outskirts of Addis Ababa. Works are also under way to install a second telescope facility at Lalibela, Alemiye said.
With the launching of the Entoto Observatory (the first one of its kind in east Africa), Ethiopia has joined the family of African nations actively engaged in aerospace science. An article which appeared on the CNN website on December 12, 2013, under the heading, “Africa’s super telescopes ‘will inspire science boom’,” has the following to say about Africa’s space endeavor:
“While South Africa boasts the best resources on the continent, …observatories of all shapes and sizes are scattered all over Africa…in Burkina Faso, Namibia, Nigeria,
Egypt to name a few. Other countries are focusing on training the next generation of astronomers, with the University of Nairobi in Kenya, for example, offering an undergraduate course in astrophysics….”
Himself a PhD candidate in astronomy and astrophysics with the hope of pursuing a career in observational astronomy, Alemiye noted that lack of local expertise in the field was one of the challenges at the outset, and developing the necessary capacity as well as conducting research in the field of space science is among the core missions of EORC. Along this line, Alemiye pointed out that following development and validation of curricula, EORC had started offering post-graduate degrees in various space science-related fields of study to Ethiopian students (representing well over 90 percent of the student body) as well as those drawn from the east Africa region.
Accordingly, there are 43 PhD candidates pursuing studies in astronomy and astrophysics; space science; remote sensing; and geodesy, the acting director said, and added that two students in astronomy and astrophysics as well as four students in remote sensing fields of study had already graduated from EORC’s MSc program. He also noted that as the only institution in the region with a one-meter diameter telescope, EORC serves as a center of excellence in astronomy and astrophysics, and also in space science research in east Africa.
Underscoring the fact that building regional, continental and international partnerships is one of EORC’s missions, Alemiye said that scientists engaged in astronomy and astrophysics, and drawn from Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda had set up the East African Astronomical Research Network. Exchange of students is going on in that spirit of partnership, and one student each from Uganda and Rwanda are pursuing PhD studies at EORC while an Ethiopian recently completed her studies in Uganda. On the other hand, while every effort is made to recruit its faculty locally, EORC is still heavily dependent on an expatriate teaching staff, with professors coming from institutions in Asia, Europe and the U.S., the acting director noted.
Alemiye said that many institutions are (interested in) collaborating with EORC, and scientific bodies in South Korea, the U.S. (EORC/NASA exchange of visits are worth noting here), France, Russia and China were just some of the entities that ties have already been forged with.
As promoting space science is one of its core missions, EORC has been offering educational outreach and community services. In this regard, acting director Alemiye said over 9,000 visitors had already attended site tours at the Entoto Observatory. One of the desired outcomes of the tours is to inspire young children and students, and help them develop a passion for science in general, and space science in particular. Alemiye further noted that tours are currently organized during weekdays, with plans for expanding the program to weekends as well as during nighttime. (Information on tours is available on EORC’s website: www.eo.org.et.)
By way of listing more of the achievements registered so far by EORC, Alemiye cited 59 students currently pursuing post-graduate studies in various disciplines related to space science as well as 30 research papers published in noted academic journals. There is also a satellite program, with plans to launch one as a medium-term goal. Under the heading “Ongoing Projects,” the March 2016 publication specifically mentions the satellite project: “…to develop a launch-ready satellite with remote sensing capability. The plan is to develop satellite infrastructure in Ethiopia by Ethiopians through learning-by-doing approach to address the most pressing socio-economic and environmental issues….”
Big hair don’t care - the untangled millennials of Addis
Getting “good haircut” often means transforming one’s hair style to a “conventional” and “presentable” one. But, for the millennials of Addis, it is far more than simple grooming. Having the conventional haircut has been perceived as a way to be more acceptable to certain relatives, as well as to the wider community. However, to some members of the youth, it is more than that – it is political, writes Gouled Ahmed.
Black hair is political. One need not search in the nooks and crannies of history to find instances in which it has been the focal point of immense social and political scrutiny. Thirteen-year-old, Zulaikha Patel’s stance against the Pretoria Girls High School in August 2016 is one such example. After being continually disciplined and humiliated over her supposedly “unkempt” hair: an afro, she triggered a viral online revolution leading a silent protest against her school’s “racist hair policy”. Seven year old Rashaad Hunter’s suspension in February 2017 from his elementary school over his new haircut was a great source of controversy in his tight-knit Alabama town of Bessemer, and showcased yet another example of the highly politicized nature of black hair. The young honor roll student was sent to the principal’s office and suspended because the school did not “like” the design in his haircut. Though these accounts may be dismissed, and seen by many as isolated incidents, they showcase a growing trend in the institutional policing of black hair and black bodies, internationally. Many assume that these situations are merely limited to individuals residing in nations predominantly governed by people of European descent. This, however, is not the case, as is evidenced by the manner in which black hair is also tightly policed within many, if not most black African nations, including Ethiopia.
In Addis, hair, especially men’s hair can be a contentious topic. Many Ethiopian men are persuaded to eschew growing out their natural hair in favor of shorter, more “clean-cut” styles. Afros, mohawks, fades, and dreadlocks are rarely depicted on local television, and other media outlets, rendering individuals who adorn these dos publicly as social pariahs. The young men who wear their hair naturally in these gravity-defying styles are not solely faced with the societal stigmas that their aesthetics evoke, but are also heavily impeded professionally and economically by the manner in which mainstream society views them. They are often readily shunned from office spaces, even if they are highly qualified for the jobs they seek, and are also more likely to be suspended and expelled from schools if they refuse to conform to the institutions’ respectability politics.
Melaku Getahun is someone who is all too familiar with the repercussions his hair has had on his professional growth. Melaku is 27 and a musician, a career he’s wanted to pursue since the age of five when he first saw the music video to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” in his family’s house in Dire Dawa. He says “I’d never seen anything like it, he was dancing like he didn’t have bones, like he was on air, like he could fly. His voice was like nothing I’d heard before. I was hooked.” Melaku also marvels over how much he envied Michael Jackson’s hair at the time and how it was so “different” when compared to the conservative aesthetics he was so accustomed to seeing while growing up. Just like his hero, the late Michael Jackson, Melaku’s story is one likely to entertain anyone fortunate enough to hear it.
He was a model student growing up, always finishing in the top ten spots in all his classes, until the age of twelve when his family relocated to Addis because his father had been offered a new job here. “After we moved to Addis I wanted to try new things, it was a bigger city, nobody knew me here, so I grew my hair out to become an Afro,” he says. According to Melaku his teachers did not take too kindly to this rebellious act and he was asked several times to cut his hair, but he kept refusing until one day at the age of 16 he was asked not to come back. Melaku did not know how to tell his family the news so he took to the streets of Addis to become a shoe-shiner to earn money to pay for classes at the Yared School of Music. “For months I saved all the money I made, waking up early and going to bed late cleaning peoples’ shoes. By then my hair was very big and I was very noticeable while walking through the streets. People would often call me duriye (a term loosely translating to vagabond). But I did not let their negativity dissuade me from staying true to myself.”
Melaku is now a graduate of the prestigious Yared School of Music, is extremely well versed in playing numerous instruments, and is a highly skilled vocalist, transporting those who hear him into worlds they’ve seen only in their dreams. He has traveled internationally for music workshops where he teaches traditional Ethiopian instruments to people from all over the world. Melaku’s life is a success story, despite all the barriers that society placed on him in their attempt to make him conform. He says that he would not trade his experience for anything, and that he is extremely heartened by the increasing number of Ethiopian youth growing out their hair in Addis. “Our hair is our culture. Men in the Afar tribe have been growing out their hair into Asdagos and Daytas since the beginning of time. Men from the Karrayyu tribe cover their traditional afro hairstyles, (known as Gunfura), with butter and even our royalty like Atse (emperor) Tewodros was renowned for his distinctive cornrow hairstyle. We should honor our traditions and not shun young boys who want to grow their hair,” he says.
Samuel Bekele of Abenezer Hair and Beauty Studio located in Holy City Center has been a men’s hair stylist for the past seven years, and according to him the number of young boys between the ages of 15-20, who end up on his seat, are increasingly requesting to have their cut in styles that are “non-conventional”. “Oftentimes my clients are very young or older, and come from wealthier more conservative backgrounds so I cut their hair in more respectable, clean cut styles” Samuel says. However, in recent years, the young boys between the ages of 8-13 ask him to put designs in their hair. Similarly the number of requests for fades has also increased. “Children nowadays have access to all forms of technology, they know everything. A lot of children want their hair to look like their favorite football players. They want all sorts of designs in their hair and since they go to expensive international schools nobody will say anything to them about their hair styles, but the children who don’t go to these schools can’t have these kinds of styles because their schools won’t allow it,” he says. In stating this Samuel raises the heavily pertinent question of class, which plays a major role in the division of Ethiopian society. “You see a lot of diaspora who return to Ethiopia with dreadlocks and big afros, as well as other styles. Although people stare at them, they don't get the same amount of backlash as the less affluent youth who grow out their hair," he says.
Michael Zewde or Mickey as he prefers to be called is one such example. Born and raised in San Diego, California, Mickey’s shoulder length dreadlocks are his pride and joy. “It took me five years to grow out my hair, it took a lot of time and energy and I had to be extremely meticulous about maintaining them," he says. According to Mickey, he chose to grow out his hair for both political and cultural reasons. He states that the practice of African men opting for shorter more clean-cut hair is not solely an aesthetic preference but rather a colonial practice that emerged when Europeans decided to colonize the African continent. "Boys in colonial schools were told to shave their hair and keep it short, by their European colonial instructors. By doing this they attempted to, and later managed to erase the boys' traditional upbringings. By labeling the black natives as primitive and backwards and themselves as enlightened and modern they managed to psychologically convert entire generations of African youth. Although Ethiopia was never colonized, it shares borders with nations that were, therefore these harmful ideas permeated our borders through osmosis entering and sharping our collective psyches" he surmises.Read more