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The Problem of Modernity

by : Hama Tuma

“Give a dog a bad name and hang it,” says the proverb. In AmariNa, too, there is a saying that comes to mind “Libeluat yefeleguatn qoq jigra yiluatal.” The saying assumes that qoq is not edible or kosher. Be that as it may, when the Seleda Editors asked me to try my hand at writing something on modernism in the Ethiopian context, I was perplexed at various levels. Were they indirectly having a private laugh at my previous attempts to go modern by writing short stories and poems in English? yalTereTere temeneTere. And as a self-respecting Ethiopian, I had to look for evil (and hidden) motives first before coming to the easier conclusion. In any case, in the end I had to grapple with modernism itself.

Defining subjects gives you a handle on them. Mind you, this does not mean that the gratuitous labeling of people and their views helps a discussion go along smoothly or productively. Experience advises us to be wary of such tendencies, and yet we have to define modernism. SOS to Foucault? Derrida? “Missionizing” -- that dubious campaign to make us wear clothes, adopt the white man’s religion and customs, etc. -- suggested, albeit implicitly sometimes, that our culture and customs, language and even religions were not modern at all. We had to adapt. The more alienated and hyphenated we became, the more modern we were supposed to be. Years ago, Gedamu Abrha and Solomon Deressa wrote on the Hyphenated Ethiopian. Even the big hen was a “ferenj doro”. In this respect, modernism required a certain degree of self-denial and alienation. Yet, "washing the Bible" is not a sign of knowledge or siliTanE.

To begin with, the real “awaqi” and “zemenawi” spoke English – which came with an assumption of class and, by consequence, sophistication. Snobbism for sure, but there it was. You claimed to enjoy and, better still, understand the abstract paintings of a Gebre Kirstos Desta; while “tzta” or “zerafEwwa” left you ambivalent, Beethoven or Verdi moved you to your core.

Modernism, you could say.

Modernism and being civilized have at times seemed to be one and the same, at least to Ethiopians. yalseleTene, fara, balager and the all-encompassing hualaqer have all encapsulated the notion that one is not modern if one sticks to one’s own customs and feels proud of one's identity. In West Africa they define an intellectual as modern by saying he got his education “at the foot of the white man” and can tell the number of berries on trees just by looking at them. We have a continent of Tenquayotch, marabout and much gri-gri, but we still are awed by the trappings of what the West says symbolizes civilization or modernity. In this case then, the modern Ethiopian is inevitably a caricature of the original, someone in limbo between his own identity and that of the “modern,” an aspiration to change colour and even one’s maninnet, though few Ethiopians would be caught admitting that they want to do that.

There is an apparent contradiction in the declared desire of the Ethiopian to rest himself, proud of his identity, and the ongoing and relentless search for a different identity in the realm of the quasi-ferenji. The world changes as do people, or as Heraclitus observed, it is impossible to step into the same river twice. Yet every motion and change does not automatically engender something or some situation that is better than the previous. Thus, one’s heritage is not necessarily backward, and what is deemed modern is not invariably “better.”


Silver candelabras and coloured candles, uniformed waiters graciously serving Beluga caviar and paté, well-to-do Ethiopians dining out at the Sheraton. Is this being modern? That more people go for “steak tartar” (Kitfo on the Seine, or Kitfo à la française) than for shrimp suggests something, but I leave it for all of you to venture your own analysis. Five mobile phones on the table, a ring and all five owners pick up their respective phone. Five hellos. Is this a sign of modernism?

Haimanot Alemu presenting a cultural program on TV (tailored much along the line of Bernard Pivot’s famous series “Bouillon de Culture”) discussing books with their authors and critics on primetime television (unheard of in America where primetime TV is reserved for sitcoms, violence or sex) could very well be unimaginable, and thus modern in a country where the literacy rate is still very low. Someone in the region said once that those who eat spaghetti are more modern than those who eat Injera which, if true, makes millions of Ethiopians automatically non-modern. Yet the “monotonous” food most of us eat has captivated at least the French, who crowd the Ethiopian restaurants in Paris.

Someone told me that nowadays it is not modern to drive one’s own children to school in Addis Abeba. The modern ones send the kids along with chauffeurs and do their utmost to avoid knowing mundane details pertaining to their day-to-day existence. It is so boooring! Of course, I am talking of the wealthy elite, Sandford School and all that. There is somehow the assumption that being modern and being poor are as compatible as the proverbial amat ina mrat. The modern Ethiopian is defined by purging the Ethiopian out of himself or herself.

There are a few anomalies who have resorted to a sort of “back to the roots” kind of modernity. They project an Ethio-centrist kind of attitude by claiming to shun everything modern (the TV is out - ETV is boring so there is not much sacrifice there anyway) though they use automobiles, the fridge and what have you. I have read somewhere of some afro-centrists who use antibiotics claiming it was discovered in Ethiopia in the 14th century.

These Ethio-centrists claim modern is traditional (they show this by the expensive Ethiopian furniture in their posh living rooms, for example) but they also beg the question coming from a bizarre land that does not define itself properly. Those who equate modern with ferenj and, therefore, reject it in toto with the questionable attempt to resort to “our own” and to “our tradition” (the claim to prefer their own “qrs enna weg”), find themselves in a quandary about how to defend various “kifu limadoch” (child beating, early marriages, genital mutilation, etc.). Those who drink areqE will always find an occasion/an excuse for it. They consume TirE siga like a carnivorous un-modernized Ethiopian, but you will not find them swallowing irEt in the place of the Stanoxyl imported from abroad. There is hypocrisy hanging in the air.

The modern Ethiopian drives the modern car and does not ride the mule. She may not have her lips done like the Surmi, but she will have it pierced. The traditional Ethiopian male wore earrings if he killed a lion while the modern one, who would get the shakes at the sound of a bullet, wears not one but two or more rings in his ear without even killing as much as a fly, as Mengistu Haile-Mariam told us not to. The modern Ethiopian will still cling to his “mann yawqal” and consult the horoscopes even if he does not wear the ktab. The witch doctors have also changed with the times and have gone modern. They use computers to gaze at and decipher the stars, they can deal with modern problems of stress, AIDS and alienation, and some of the more enterprising ones even give you a dose of the shiguT kinin (tetracycline) ground together with dried leaves.

Times have changed, and yet some still claim that the Ethiopian has found it difficult to be modern (can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots?). Why? They are still late for appointments. “The early bird catches the worm,” it is said. Ethiopians sympathize with the worm and conclude that the early bird does not eat the worm that is not early. We are a people that has been forced over the years to endure the unbearable, so what is wrong if we want to avoid being the early worm? The modern man as a whole is a jumble of stress and confusion, and if the Ethiopian fails to follow him along, I for one say he is being really modern, rising up to the challenge of the times.

Modernism can also be another name for Traz neTeq cosmopolitanism. Take this article itself, which aspires to be deep and chatty by clashing English and Amharic phrases and sayings, and trying to rise above the pedestrian by eulogizing the school of “how to say nothing in a 100 words”. We have yet to pay a word tax; thus we are loose, free and even irresponsible with what we say and write. “moN’na wereqet yeyazewn ayleqim,” said our more wary and cautious ancestors.

Nowadays, memories are shorter than the attention span of an Alzheimer victim. The claim to sophistication without the necessary cultural foundation and enlightened outlook makes the attempt to project oneself as modern quite fake. And in the end the picture comes back full circle: not much has changed. The modern Ethiopian is the same old Ethiopian minus the neTela enna tenefanef. The doubts, prejudices, habits and outlooks of the past still prevail. The modern Ethiopian will be at the front seat of a serious witch-hunt or inquisition against the different. The modern clothes and posturing do not reflect “modern” views. The café and piazza “modern” is the home and bedroom reactionary. The modern Ethiopian, I daresay, will burn heretics given the chance, but will do so using modern petrol or kerosene instead of firewood. Protect the trees please, be modern.

So what else is new? Every generation was and is modern for its time. It does not mean much. Look at how some modern Ethiopians use the computer and Internet - to resurrect alubalta and mystification. Like the Kalashnikov for the age-old vendetta, not the spear, not even the dimotfor or the Mauser. The main feature has not changed; the apparatus, however, has. We have the same heart and brains but wear Armani suits instead of the ije Tebab. Maybe we should look for modernity in valorizing our identity, self-respect and the cherished and positive heritage of all humanity. A tall order for sure but ke ahiya bal yeferes wishima yishalal. Yet another old proverb for a modern situation - it is vague enough to be of use. yallewn yewerewere feri ayibalim.

I rest my case.

Hama Tuma is the author of "The Case of the Socialist Witchdoctor and Other Stories His current novel, "African Absurdities: Politically Incorrect Articles" is published by First Publish .
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