1. Selam Zenab

Selam Zenab / Hello Rain
5.6.16 / Sunday, June 5, 2016

The rain is coming down in big, torrential bursts, followed by a temporary recess with a bit of sunshine, until the boom of thunder signals the next big downpour. This back-and-forth between storm and sunshine has been the pattern all afternoon, and it’s the first heavy rain I’ve seen since I arrived in Addis Ababa five days ago; it’s a welcome relief for thirsty crops and a country hoping that a continued drought doesn’t take hold in what should be the beginning of the rainy season. Our visit to an urban agriculture women’s self-help group (located in Debrazeit, within the Oromia region) on Friday morning offered a sprinkling of rain, and even that small amount was met with applause and exaltations from the mothers who feed their households and also make an income from what they grow.

Besides the real need for rain throughout Ethiopia, today’s storm also offers an accompaniment to reflect on what I’ve been observing and processing thus far. Sneha and I were the last two from our IFP group (The New School’s International Field Program) to arrive in Addis; we shared the same flights, leaving on Memorial Day from NYC, with a layover in Frankfurt, Germany, then Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and arriving in Addis Ababa without any issues on Tuesday night. Arriving at night and then heading right to bed once we got to our new home (located in the Haya Hulett neighborhood, which means “22”) allowed us to avoid any jetlag woes. Sleeping through the night + no need for naps all week = winning!

Our group orientation began Wednesday morning (and continued through Saturday night) and included visits to museums, religious and cultural centers, local NGOs like the Center for Human Rights, as well as livelihood initiatives, like the aforementioned women’s self-help group focusing on urban agriculture. I gotta say, I was quite impressed at the schedule and structure of our group orientation; big up to Yosef Akalu, our local IFP coordinator, and Mark Johnson, our New School IFP coordinator for their joint efforts in planning and facilitating this introduction to Addis.

Ethiopia is referred to as, “the cradle of humanity,” with its history going back to the world’s oldest human fossils ever found. Lucy aka Dinknesh (which means “you are amazing” in Amharic) was discovered in 1974 in Ethiopia, and we got to see her skeleton at the National Museum. Lucy is well-loved throughout Ethiopia, so much so that the women’s soccer team is nicknamed Lucy in her honor.

1974 was a significant year for Ethiopia; beyond finding Lucy’s remains, the country was facing extreme political upheaval. The university students were at the forefront of protests against Emperor Haile Selassie’s monarchy, and they were successful in overthrowing his government, but there was no clear leader/political party to then step-in to leadership (similar to many of the situations from the Arab Spring); this “political vacuum” led to the military, “The Derg,” taking power. The Derg’s leaders were almost entirely illiterate/uneducated, and they largely ruled through violence, force, and fear tactics. Between 1975 and 1987, the Derg imprisoned, tortured, and executed tens of thousands of its opponents without trial. The Red Terror Martyrs Memorial Museum, aptly located adjacent to Meskel Square, holds the memories and stories of those who were a part of the organized resistance, often through “underground” writing/printing clandestine publications in opposition to this regime. Here, we were able to build upon what we read about in our Spring IFP-Ethiopia Lab, learning more about what is referred to as the “Red Terror,” Ethiopia’s genocide/holocaust; this was one of the more sobering experiences from our orientation. Our guide at this museum spoke passionately about his experience as one of the survivors from this era. I’m holding this experience in tandem with both historical and contemporary situations where particular groups are subjected to repression, intimidation, and violence at the hands of governments and/or ruling groups. Like many other genocide memorials throughout the world, the monument in front of the museum states, “Never Ever Again.” We all know there are too many contemporary examples, all throughout the world, where this type of history is still repeating itself. May we learn another way, from both the martyrs and the survivors.

Visiting Menelik’s Palace (located on Mount Entoto, the highest peak in Addis) was a rich experience because it’s not only a historical site, but it continues to be an important pilgrimage for Orthodox Christians in Ethiopia (St. Maryam’s Church is located at the top of the hill). While many make this pilgrimage to seek healing from HIV, the Orthodox Church made an important statement in recent years that antiretroviral drugs were still an essential part of daily HIV treatment. This acknowledgment has led to less stigmatization for HIV+ communities and has dispelled misnomers about utilizing medicine as a person of faith — truly significant for the Church to lead in this way. After we toured the space, our museum guide invited us into a room connected to the church where youth were practicing their songs for Sunday’s services. They were playing traditional drums and organized into different groups with older youth leading the younger ones; I felt like I was back in Greeley (my hometown in Colorado) listening to the same kind of music (drums + singing) from my Eritrean Orthodox students. I’m really looking forward to attending an Orthodox service at St. Maryam’s Church later this summer.

We shared yitafetal (delicious) meals all throughout orientation, definitely some of the best Ethiopian food I’ve had in my life – more robust flavors/spices compared to many Ethiopian restaurants in the US. I was a big fan of the vegan buffet at Ethiopia’s first hotel, established in 1898 by Empress Taitu (wife of Menelik II). One of my favorite food items here, which will come to no surprise to my family and friends, is called “senig.” It’s a raw jalapeno, stuffed with sautéed tomatoes, onions, and spices. Konjono! (“beautiful!” / like using “schön” auf Deutsch).

In Debrezeit, we also visited an urban agriculture demonstration and training site. There were multiple gardening techniques highlighted, and I especially dug the compost-based approach, referred to as a “Faith Garden” — trusting that seemingly useless, discarded pieces will create an environment where new life can flourish and grow. I love this concept, and I love being able to connect these urban gardens to my own academic focus on the role of urban gardening for resettled refugees, asylees, and immigrants in the US. While in the Oromia region, we took a break at Kuriftu, a resort area where I got to lay in the sun and read: my ideal summertime jam. The climate at Kuriftu was that perfect, dry heat (warmer than Addis, more like a Colorado summer), which I’m attributing to the country’s hilly elevation. There’s a beautiful lake at Kuriftu where we may return for some kayaking later this summer. We drove through the Rift Valley en route to Debrazeit and Kuriftu, admiring the rolling, green hills and stunning views at every direction.

I’d venture to guess that one of the orientation highlights from everyone in our group was the dinner and dancing at Yod Abyssinia Cultural Center. I’ve been to these type of places in other countries (highlighting the traditional food, drink, music, and dancing, largely catering to tourists), but I’m not kidding when I say this was THE BEST I’ve ever seen; the combination of traditional and contemporary live music, seriously legit singers, and multiple dance groups (I’m telling you: fire!) all highlighted multiple cultures and different ethnic groups from the Horn of Africa. Apparently one of the male vocalists is a very famous Ethiopian singer, and I am almost positive I’ve seen him in music videos that some of my Habesha students have shown me; I need to figure out his name to confirm this though. This will also come as no great surprise to my family and friends, but I was one of the ferenj (“foreigners”) who ended up on the stage: offering my best shoulders and a bit of shimmying. Luckily, my students in “El Teatro” (a multilingual, multicultural theater/dance group with Colorado high school students) taught me well, with many hours logged in rehearsing moves to Somali and Tigrinya music. Once everyone in our IFP group had enough tej (honey wine – SO good!) in their system, we joined our new friends and local partners in an Amharic/Amareena song, making a circle on the stage and then dance-exiting together. Yes, we were that group.

Through exhibits at Addis Ababa University’s Ethnographic Museum (formerly known as Haile Selassie Museum), which explores the ethnic, cultural, and religious diversity of Ethiopia, we were able to relate many of our previous conversations, readings, and lessons from this past semester to the artifacts/information presented here. It is especially significant for me to connect with the experiences, cultures, and overall context of many of my students and their families (in Colorado) who came to the US from East Africa. The museum exhibits, cultural dances at Yod Abyssinia, and field visits in Oromia made me wish I was sharing this space/experience with some of my Eritrean, Oromo, Somali, and Somali-Bantu students; they are the reason I wanted to participate in an IFP in this region of the world. So, if any of my former students are reading this blog, I’m sending you LOTS of love from Addis! 🙂 You’re regularly at the forefront of my mind here, and I hope I do you proud in my daily interactions as a ferenj seeking to embrace the Addis-life this summer. Plenty more blogging to come, but likely, not always this long of a post — thanks for reading if you’ve made it this far.

Breaking from writing, I’m absorbed in watching the rain gather into puddles in the courtyard below my bedroom; the balcony that leads to my door provides a great lookout-point to watch the rain fall over the Haya Hulett neighborhood. The sprinkling of rain in Debrazeit was described as a gift and a blessing from the women in the self-help group whose name means, “better outcome, out of struggle.” And I’m hoping that today’s downpour is not an anomaly this week, but that it continues to fall in Addis, refreshing the land — bringing a welcomed gift throughout the summer.