SELEDA Ethiopia
Art work by Assegid Gessesse
December 13 2019
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Hamsa Lomi

How... Here?

"So, How did you get here?"
Better known under its other title: The Ignorance I Have to Put Up With
by: Bogale Bandafta

I try and squeeze into a small circle of strangers and be part of a conversation I'm sure you college people know what I'm talking about that awkward moment where you're just standing there, staring into oblivion while pretending to be active in the conversation, when you know damn well that nobody is paying any attention to you. And that, my friends, is where the plight begins. Coming from a society that endorses politeness and reserved quietness, how the hell do ferenjies honestly expect me to come up to them randomly, introduce myself, and start a superficial conversation on how the weather's been? After much thought (and conversations that failed miserable), I managed to muster up enough energy to try this "meeting new people" thing. I said to myself, "Robel, next person who passes by, you're starting a conversation with! ... It doesn't matter if it's an Oriental two-footer who requires you to know Chinese to understand his English" And so I did ... with these two girls who looked overly excited.

They smile.
Inem beteraye ign alkwa.
Girl 1: Hi, I'm *****
Girl 2: My name's ******
Me: Robel. (Shook hands ... and damn it, what's with the abnormal fixation with firm handshakes, anyway? Do they take it upon themselves to shamelessly cut all circulation to my hand?)
1: Where are you from?
Me: Ethiopia. You?
2: Wow. Ethiopia? (Notice they didn't get past the "Ethiopia" to answer the "You?" part)
Me: Yeah, Ethiopia.
1: How did you get here?
Me: (to myself: how did I get here? What, I'm not supposed to be here? Hmm, let's see, I swam across the Atlantic before Arab slave ships picked me up and brought me over here ... wey mekera!) [Aloud] Same way y'all got here.
1: That is soooo coooool. How come you speak English so well?
Me (Frustrated): Well, see, I never really spoke English until I came to the States three weeks ago. So every time I went shopping with friends and family at malls, I made sure I listened to people's conversations at the check out registers. So I caught on from there.
2: Are you serious? Wow, you must be a genius. Only three weeks? That's impressive.
Me: Yeah I didn't think I could do it either. My father you know, the King of Ethiopia yeah, he told me that learning English was essential for me to survive over here...

And on that note, I just turned around and left.

Naturally, the whole dialogue can be quite a topic for laughs. Hell, it cracks me up every time I remember it. However, if you've ever been confronted by this kind of yemayhon aynet DiDibina, you understand my frustration. What kind of ignorance is this? You try and strike up a decent conversation, and all they seem to be curious about is how famine in Ethiopia affects the elephants in South Africa (which, of course, is the capital city of whole damn continent). Let's not even forget how much it hurts when you ride camels across Ethiopia in search of oases so that you can bring water back to your 22 other siblings. And the best one: "I have a friend from Africa. His name is John. I think he's Nigerian. Do you know him?" And don't get me started on why people think that Kwanzaa is an African holiday and automatically assume I've been celebrating it all my life.

If I seem frustrated and on the verge of a breakdown, I think the causes are justified, really. How I put up with so much nonsense and ignorance and endless, superficial conversations, I have no idea. It's bad enough that school and work are nerve wrecking, now I have to deal with tolerating a flagrant lack of common sense? Bedembara beQlo QaCHil teCHemiro...

I'm sure almost every one of the young Ethiopian college students has encountered this kind of situation at least once. So what's so special about this story? Other than the fact that my stock options with SELEDA solely rely on the quality of this article? Well, not much is new or extraordinary. Maybe my reaction is a bit over-the-top, given that ignorance and racial/ethnic stereotyping are part of society like white on rice. Ignorance is here to stay whether we like it or not (however pessimistic that may sound). How much of it we are willing to have and tolerate, on the other hand, is purely up to us. Sure, it might be funny when someone not so well versed in Ethiopian cuisine confuses gobbling down Tire kitfo with a- piece- of- bone- thru- your- nose cannibalism. However, what I don't find funny is fostering this ignorance. Surely, you can't expect people to know much about Ethiopia when almost all Ethiopians exist within their own 18th-Street look-alike microcosms. Excuse me if I seem feisty, but I've met people who've been here for more than a decade and hardly speak 4th grade level English, people who've driven for years and still avoid highways, people who require (require? Yes, require.) an Ethiopian environment to foster their intellectual, spiritual, and emotional growth.

I am in no way trying to condescend Ethiopian communities in the Diaspora. In reality, there is nothing that comforts my nostalgia more than chats in Ethiocentric chat rooms or occasional Chobe regeTa at Ethiopian spots in the heart of DC. What I'm trying to say is, instead of blaming the constant image of Ethiopia as an impoverished desert inhabited by people that weigh no more than 60 pounds on the media, the least you could do is prove otherwise. And, in all honesty, there is no way one can prove otherwise when living forever in a comfortable microcosm where your contact to everything else is cable TV and the local radio station. For the number of Ethiopians that are part of the Diaspora, the foreign host nation seems to know so little about us. Shame, ain't it? I think so.

So in short: dare to go farther. Dare to talk to that mekeregna ferenj about what Ethiopia is and what it's NOT. Dare to exploit all resources, because there are plenty available. Dare to do something positive (www.esai.org). Dare to be daring.

Epilogue:
So you're done?
Yeah, finally.
Did you make a point?
I'd like to think so.
Too idealistic, don't you think?
Well, hell, someone's gotta be. "Don't you think?"
Stop mocking me.
Stop questioning my ideals or motives.
They're bound to be questioned and misunderstood by some.
I know there's always that unfortunate risk, huh?
Yeah, sort of like going to metsedadat without checking for toilet paper. Chances are, there's some, but then again
Okay, colorful analogy, but I get the hint.
Well, good going man. I hope people take your stuff the right way, and not just as nonsensical ramblings of a frustrated neurotic.
I hope so too. Thanks a lot, nefsu.
Anytime.

 

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