Monday, August 19, 2013

Still the Ignorant Ferenji

So, yesterday was my last day in Addis Ababa.  These past two months have flown by; I have learned more than I thought possible and been inspired in so many ways by the people I have met.  I will miss Ethiopia:  the people, the work, the sights and sounds, and of course the food and coffee!  My experiences here have been varied, some good and some bad.  All of them have been informative and valuable in their own way.   Each has made me reflect on what I value, rethink my opinions of certain issues, and expand my understanding of complex societal and cultural dynamics. 

One of the most valuable, and exciting, experiences happened last Thursday.  For Ethiopians, it was the end of Ramadan:  Eid Al-Fitr.  I had scheduled an interview at Siddartha Development Organization for that morning, not knowing the significance of the date.  The manager later told me that it would be a national holiday.  I asked him if people would be at the office, he said yes; I asked him if it would be an inconvenience for the staff or for the interviewees for Mikiyas (IOFA’s translator) and me to come in the morning, he said no.  So, I confirmed the time and wrote the interview on my calendar. 

The night before the interviews, I had dinner with a friend who mentioned that there might be protests on Eid Al-Fitr.  I asked when and where they would be, knowing that I would have to plan my journey to avoid those areas.  He said that the activity would be mainly at the Stadium, where the Addis Ababa Muslims would go in the morning to worship.  No problem, I thought, I don’t have to pass by the stadium on my way to Siddartha Development.  Just to make sure though, I told Mikiyas that if things were bad in the morning we would cancel the interviews. 

This might be a good time to give you, the readers, some background on the political/religious discontent in Ethiopia.  A couple of years ago, Islamist extremists put the word out that they were targeting Ethiopia, Kenya, and Nigeria to expand their influence in East Africa.  This, understandably, put the Ethiopian government on edge.  The political climate here has been stable for the past 8 years, but it could change.  Sure enough, some more radical imams began to speak out against the government and stir up discontent among some of the Muslim population.  The government tried to repress these radicals, but couldn’t do so without tightening restrictions on all Muslims.  This, of course, has frustrated the entire Ethiopian Muslim population.  Last year, there began to be protests during Ramadan, culminating in a large protest on Eid Al-Fitr that turned violent.  This Ramadan, there were protests every Friday in some Addis mosques and in many of the regional Ethiopian areas.  About a week before Eid Al-Fitr, calls came for a mass protest for the end of Ramadan.  This was general knowledge for Ethiopians, but not for the ferenji tourists. 

So, on Thursday morning I left my guest house to find that the road was closed—there were no line taxis (public transportation) running.  This wasn’t too surprising since my guest house is located just North of a mosque, and there were quite a few people on their way home.  Everyone was chatting, nothing was alarming.  I decided to walk up to Mexico Square (a major taxi hub) to catch a line taxi North.  As I approached the square, the crowds became thicker, and I soon realized there were no line taxis in the square.  Then I heard shouts and saw a huge crowd filing down the main road.  It seemed that if I could get across the road, I would be able to make my way to the National Theater/Ambassador area, in which is located a fair number of international hotels.  I could hire a private taxi and still get to the interviews on time. 

Some of the protestors around the Ambassador area
I squeezed through the crowd in Mexico square and made my way towards the National Theater.  I soon came to another major road with another large group of marchers.  An elderly gentleman with two young boys pulled me to the side of the street against a building.  “Better to wait here until they pass,” he told me.  I was watching the marchers and wondering how long it would take before I could get to the hotel, when something stirred the crowd and they began to stampede.  I pressed myself against the wall to make as much room for them as possible.  I then saw what had happened—the police had arrived.  The police had their clubs out and were holding riot shields.  That’s when things went bad.  The protestors started throwing rocks, large ones, at the police, who were standing near to me.  I ran to a small book kiosk where some other women were huddled.  The police began chasing down the men and beating them.  The men were fleeing every direction, but still throwing rocks and shouting back. 

The owners of the book kiosk, to whom I am forever indebted, pulled the women and me into the small shop, turned off the lights, and barred the windows.  We sat in the dark, hearing the commotion outside and waiting for everything to die down.  I pulled out my phone and texted a few of my friends my location and what was happening.  After about half an hour, the owners opened the kiosk windows and let us out.  The street was littered with debris, but was otherwise eerily silent.  I hurried to Ethiopia hotel (maybe .25 km away) and sat in the café until the roads opened, then took a private taxi back to my guesthouse.  I thank my lucky stars that I didn’t see the worst of the protests, which took place in the Merkato. 

So what do I take away from this experience?  First, I now have a deep appreciation for the political stability of my home country, which makes it possible for us to enjoy the freedoms enshrined in our constitution.  It has also made me deepened my understanding of foreign governments that I, as an American, by criticize for being repressive.  It’s easy for me to level such criticism in a country that’s secure, where political leaders do not have to worry about being overthrown by radical extremists, where our neighboring countries are also relatively stable.  I’m not saying that I agree with the Ethiopian government’s crackdown on religious and journalistic freedom, but I do understand, and can even empathize with, their motives.  And even though I can become a little frustrated with many Ethiopians’ views of Muslim dissenters (which can be interpreted as unsympathetic and condescending) and their general disinterest in politics, I also know why ths kind of attitude prevails.  In case you have forgotten (or never heard), Ethiopia experienced an extremely oppressive communist regime, a tragic famine, and political upheaval within the past 25 years.  Can we blame the Ethiopian majority for preferring a strong (and stable) government  How does one protect a people’s rights to freedom of speech and worship and also maintain a stable government in a (relatively) insecure region?  On the other hand, can we blame Muslim protestors for claiming their own religious freedom and trying to expose the government’s repressive means of silencing their voices?  There are no easy answers. 

Some of the Eid Al-Fitr protestors

Unwittingly being caught in the middle of a protest is one of those experiences that can often come upon world travelers.  In fact, many people I know who have lived and worked abroad have similar stories.  In some ways it’s become a source of pride and legitimacy—one can claim to be “enlightened” or an “expert” because he/she has been in the middle of a REAL riot.  But this attitude is just part of the ignorant neoliberal attitudes that Westerners have towards the two-thirds world.  I had absolutely no business being out and about that day, if I had had any sense I would have realized that my local contacts were trying to warn me to stay inside.  If I had been smart, I would have turned around and headed back to my guest house when I first saw the agitated crowds in Mexico square.  But I didn’t.  To be completely honest, a small part of me wanted to witness the march, to get the full “Ethiopian experience.”  I counted on my racial/ethnic identity to protect me, exploiting it as a means to be a kind of voyeur—to see and experience the excitement political unrest, perhaps at the expense of others.  In this way, I am just as guilty as the “tribal tourists” I was repulsed by in India.  As a Westerner, I have to consciously and continuously reflect on how my presence stirs the waters, where I do and don’t belong, where I should and should not go.  Only then can I respectfully experience this vast, diverse, and infinitely complex world.   

Note:  I did not take the pictures on this blog, I pulled them from Aljazeera, which republished twitter photos of the protests.  

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