Or, it can be called a timely call to end the hypocrisy over child soldiers. I know my position would draw some fire even from close quarters who had been dealing with the issue of child soldiers. But, let the abscess be pricked and opened-- young boys and girls should take part in wars especially in those wars that can possibly render their lives better. In other words, if they are old enough to die they should be considered old enough to kill.
The hue and cry over the use of children in wars, that is to generally refer to those who are under 15, is currently made against those in the so called developing countries while some have even gone as far as arguing (mostly without basis ) that African traditional society called for the use of children as warriors . Imagine a child carrying (let alone throwing) a spear! Actually, the use of children in wars was very much practiced in the West. Tsar Nicholas I recruited by force Jewish children (called "cantonists") as young as eight years old. In the battle of Waterloo , children were used and many died--they were called "powder monkeys" and carried gun powder and other military items. In the First World War Baden Powell used minors as scouts and later modelled the Boy Scout movement after them. Many 13 year olds enlisted in the British Army to escape the numbing life as chimney sweepers, workers in the coal mines or in the dreary British industry. In the American Civil War, many children were used by both sides and bugler John Cook, who was 15, was among those decorated by the Army. The same happened in the Second World War--- Hitler had his Hitler Youths and young Jewish boys fought in the Warsaw Ghetto and in the resistance against Nazism. Children were incarcerated and sometimes even killed by orders of courts. In 1642 Thomas Graunger of Plymouth was executed for a crime he committed when he was 16. In present day Iran , minors are hanged by the ayatollahs and the Mollahs of Afghanistan were also ruthless. Nowadays, many in America rile against the "lunacy of lenience" and want minors severely punished and many (it must be said mostly blacks and Latinos) are actually executed for crimes they allegedly committed as juveniles. In the face of vindictive States, the child is always a victim.
Children die, children get killed. If you are old enough to be killed why are you young enough not to kill? There is no logic to it. Modern society commits crimes against children. The sanctimonious reference to children losing their innocence in war is empty talk. Victimized at an early age, many of the world's children are old enough before they reach puberty. They are victims of abuse of all sorts before they even reach puberty as the Vatican can adequately inform us. Early marriages are common in many countries. Children are labourers starting from an early age. Thousands of them are street children exposed to all kinds of suffering and abuses, the pain of which the constant sniffling of petrol and glue cannot sufficiently cover up. Of the 2 million deaths every year from dehydration and diarrhoea 95% of the victims are children under 5. Thousands of children die daily from preventable diseases and poverty. All over the world, at least 750 million people are malnourished and the majority are children as is the case now in the famine stricken Ethiopia where a heartless tyrant does take good care of his own three children. We can continue with the grim statistics of Europe and America spending 17 billion dollars on pets while the spending of 9 billion dollars for safe water and 13 billion for basic health and nutrition could save millions of lives, and effective investment in education and fair trade practices could lift 300 million people out of poverty by 2015. After all, life expectancy in most parts of the world is at 40 while it is 80 years in the West. So, what life are we really talking about?
The argument in favour of letting children take part in wars is not only derived from the need to have them fight for their own well being like the Jewish children of the Warsaw Ghetto or like the children of Soweto who fought against Apartheid (how many school children were killed by the racists!) There are other arguments too. Children who become soldiers can be far away from their parents. Many a Western expert has told us that parents in the Third World are uneducated and resort to beatings and mistreatment of children. This is not entirely false by the way and thus children can escape early marriages, brutal beatings and onerous work (especially in rural families) by going off to war. For once, they will be at the other end of the gun or the ones dealing the punishment like the child soldiers of Sierra Leone chopping off hands and arms. The other basic argument is that children have no life, no future to speak of. If they survive to reach puberty, they would still face horrible conditions and odds, starvation, abuse, sleeping on the streets, and can also be shot by trigger happy policemen from Rio to Addis Ababa . So why not go to war and have a fair chance of survival or die trying? Not all children can be adopted by a Madonna or a Jolie. Mercenary as they are, our rulers cannot sell all the children to foreigners. Their blood thirsty, vampire nature demands that they keep the majority for their own savage oppression. On another level, if children do not go war what will all these Save the Children and Protect Children from Violence groups do? Thousands of employed Western youths would be out of work. Do imagine this in the present times of recession. Are African children expected to compound the economic problems facing Barack Obama, a kin, just because he has become American? If no children do the dying in different war fronts where will the charity business be?
Victor Hugo wrote: "the deepest misery, an opportunity for obscenity". The system is obscene; it is responsible for the existence of the child soldiers. All the Bill Gates' and Sarkhozy talk about creative or responsible capitalism is, as they say, hogwash. It is a world where the pets matter more than the child. It is a system that needs "powder monkeys", children to exploit, children to be blown up. Soweto and Intifada showed the result of the injustice. In Ethiopia , thousands of minors were killed by the previous regime and the present one came to power by using child soldiers, both male and female. The road to power and riches is built over young and frail corpses. The obscenity of the system is such that innocent children are exposed to death every second (2000 children are infected by AIDS every day) and millions are already AIDS orphans. Omar Khadr, a Canadian citizen, is 15 but considered old enough to suffer Guantanamo . Old enough for the pain? Old enough to inflict it too. That is how we see the hypocrisy over child soldiers. In Sierra Leone , the government also used child soldiers and chopped off hands and heads of its enemies. Children were not spared this way or that. The movements using children, from Renamo of Mozambique to the Lord's Resistance Army of Joseph Kony have found out that it pays--Renamo shares power and Kony is being prepared for that. Who cares for children when children killers come to power?
Not that stories recounted by "we were child soldiers"("as told to someone" from the West in most cases) sound true. One Eritrean woman whose tale has been made into a film wrote of carrying an AK-47 at the age of six in rebel ranks and those who have little inking of the size of a six year old female child's hands and arms and the weight of a full fledged Russian or Bulgarian Kalashnikov did believe her. Sierra Leone and Southern Sudanese "child soldiers" have also come out with tales that made them stare down ferocious lions where no lion roamed. No matter, the story, as Blair would have said, has to be "sexed up". The Western media and the NGOs need that. This said, the tragedy of the situation is not to be taken lightly. Ethiopians who do know much about dying say: "may God make my death nice and beautiful"; rather than (to) die in cold streets hungry and diseased it may be better to die with guns blazing and the staccato of machine gun fire accompanying their last breaths. I will not pretend to know the feelings of child soldiers in the face of death--I am no Bernard Henry Levy, the French media man, who wrote in detail about Daniel Pearl's last thoughts before being killed by fanatics. Yet, I do know that the life our children live under the brutal systems is no life at all. Who am I to tell them not to be soldiers? After all, the civilized West worships its armed forces and soldiers. The obscene part of it all is that children are exposed to suffering and death in the first place and not that they die lying under stinking bridges or shot by criminal policemen in a dilapidated City or in a fire fight. Death is death and the child soldier is but a victim of the obscene system imposed on us by greedy child killers who will never admit to their crime.
The Problem of Modernity
“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 Kitfoà 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.
SO WHAT IF OBAMA WINS?
Imamu Amiri Baraka called hope a delicate suffering while someone else called it tomorrow's veneer over today's disappointment. No question that Ethiopia 's suffering millions need hope, but then the same Ethiopians say he who lives on hope dies with desire. Very realistic you would say but it won't be correct all the way. Ethiopians, or at least her so called intellectuals, are complicated.
I hear that Ethio-Americans are alive with expectations of an Obama victory. One intellectual who has yet to fathom the evil mind of Meles Zenawi and the complicated situation in Ethiopia has vowed to address all Ethiopians on the spirit and message of Barack Obama. Another promised an Obama victory will give Ethiopians the tools and moral equipment to defeat their enemy-- the same regime of Meles that is being backed by America because it is a foot soldier in Washington 's so called war on terror in the Horn of Africa . Hope springs eternal said someone else, hope the poor man's bread. I am the first one to admit that years of close contact with Ethiopian and African politics has made my cynicism strong. To be fair, of course, I would prefer defining cynicism as sentimentalism on guard, guarded optimism. This requires no prophetic ability but just observing experience and facts. Decades of US foreign policy towards Ethiopia and the region has been cynical, cruel and often mistaken and against the interests of the people. US and Ethiopian interests have hardly ever been synonymous.
I remember many Ethio-Americans hoping for a better understanding from America when the Clinton fellow got elected. It was not long before his wife Hilary flew to Asmara , the capital of Eritrea , to praise Isaias Afewerki as a democrat. Clinton himself went on to lable Meles, Isaias, Yoweri Museveni and Isaias as new breed of democratic leaders for Africa . The Clinton administration backed the repressive Meles regime and aggravated the plight of millions of Ethiopians. Let me say right here that this has not much to do with the American people who are as generous as any other and have helped Ethiopians in their time of need but official America is another thing altogether. True believers of Obama would argue that he is different from Clinton and would chart a better deal for people suffering under dictatorships. Aside from being a song we have hears so many times before and taking into account that our fate should not be handed over to any foreign power or leader it is obvious that Obama is first and foremost an American. He may have had a Kenyan father but as the Kenyans themselves say in Swahili Mweri mwega umenyaagwo na ngetho ( the good millet is known at harvest time). Come January, President Obama will first and foremost fulfil the plans and priorities of the US of America . Clinton or Bush these priorities have not changed much in terms of Africa and are unlikely to change under Obama. The ethnic chauvinist Tigrean regime has served America well and will continue to be a pliant stooge in the coming years. Obama may be black but this would have no weight at all in determining his policy towards Ethiopia and Africa . The rogues and barracudas like Cheney and Rice may be out of power--a good sight to behold-- though the replacements may not warm our hearts in Africa . To let the cynicism ride its dark horse, for those who want more problems and chaos for America it is true that McCain is the right choice. One can hope his adventures into Iran , Syria , more obdurate policies in the Middle East and elsewhere. But we cannot wish the American people that much pain while wanting our own to disappear.
A realistic appraisal of the weight of Africa in American politics is called for. Take the Congo where more than 4 million people died and American and British companies after minerals are behind the bloody militias. Who has cared enough to raise a voice in defence of the Congolese people? Ask Kofi Anan for one. Ethiopians suffer under one of the most repressive regimes in Africa --does Washington care? Are they not more interested in the mercenary role of the regime? Obama may be black but American foreign policy is, so to speak, white. White in the sense that it has no heart for the suffering peoples of Africa . Those who are experts at discerning the internal political and economic situation in the USA may adequately explain how Obama would be an improvement on Bush or McCain but I will bet all the dollars that I do not have that for Africa Obama will be more of the same, demagogy to the contrary notwithstanding. The American comedian Woody Allen said reality is the leading cause of stress for those in touch with it. Yet, stress or not, we have to be realistic (without quotations) and much as it is historic and pleasant to see Obama in the White House his presence there would not change much for Ethiopia and Africa. No choice but to fight for our own liberation relying on ourselves and knowing full well that this may pit us against you know.
OF FAMINE AND NUMBERS AND POLITICAL COMEDY
Contrary to the image many westerners have of Ethiopia , the land of Ethiopia is fertile, the people very industrious and, alas, the system always rotten. The recurrent famine is not mainly because the land is infertile or the peasants lazy. That said I am the first to admit that Ethiopians are too polite and even bend backwards and suffer a lot just to please others.
Back in 1973, Ethiopians found out that a famine hidden by the old Emperor solicited the interest of foreigners who flocked to the land to give help and succour as they said. Ten years and one later, Ethiopians again staged a big famine to give employment of hundreds of foreign youngsters. Can you imagine the fame of Bob Geldof without the famine in Ethiopia ? Live Aid, We Are the World, Doctors without Borders, Oxfam, and many others cut their tooth in the Ethiopian famine. Millions of dollars, pounds and yen flowed. Foreign intelligence agencies got good cover to fund rebels against the pro- Soviet regime. Actors and actresses got the limelight and front page cover as they looked sad and shed tears holding famine stricken children. There were too many Jonathan Dimblebys this time around and everyone was happy except the one million plus Ethiopians who perished. Some ignorant people actually thought Ethiopians starved because Ethiopia is a drought stricken land or a desert and we had to explain to them that Ethiopians were just trying to help by giving the chance to others to gain money and employment because of them. To die for others is noble, no?
Actually, the praise should go to the various regimes that Ethiopians had to endure. They were the ones who made the famine, hid it to make it popular and opened the gates for the foreigners to play the sympathy and aid role. The first one, the retrograde regime of Emperor Haile Sellasie, tried to hide the famine in Tigrai and Wello, tried to keep the starved out of the capital city, spent millions of dollars on an imperial bash to celebrate the Emperor's 80th birthday. The protest led to his downfall. His regime was replaced by dour and cruel military officers who lovingly called their Red Terror carnage /more than 200,000 killed/ as the Red Performance and went on to ruin the economy and to spend millions as they celebrated the birth of their "vanguard party" as millions starved all over the country. The regime had a quota system that appropriated most of the peasants' produce, thousands of peasants were forcefully inducted into the government militia, agriculture was messed up through and through in a failed attempt to imitate a failed Soviet cooperative experience and famine was quickly there for the calling. Foreign NGOs, singers, actors, charlatans descended on Ethiopia , the pro Soviet regime was exposed, his replacements funded and the stage set for the new puppets to take over. As obliging regimes go, the military dictatorship was a good example of a regime that produces famine to give employment to foreign youngsters and old self-declared do- gooders. The new regime, new only because it is different but just as bad, was not expected to cede the credit to the fallen regime. The need for a famine was pressing. Any decent repressive Ethiopian regime cannot forego a famine. It is part of the deal, a dose of terror and one or two huge famines. With the World Bank in the background this time telling us the economy is booming, congratulations to the tin pot dictator. What famine?
Emperor Haile Sellasie was not funny unless his attempt to look imperial was taken as such. Mengistu killed funny. Meles Zenawi is not a comedian but a street smart con man with the chutzpah/ we call it dirkina in Addis Ababa / of someone who has drained out all drop of "yilugnta" in his vein. Yet, he is unwittingly a comedian of sorts. He started out with a surplus of promises and told the people that they will all eat three times a day. One can argue in his favor by saying that he never did specify what the people will eat three times a day. Bread or their dreams? Anyway, right after this promise and his unabashed claim that Ethiopia would be exporting maize to Kenya ; the shaming report came out revealing that millions were threatened by food shortage and famine. Meles Zenawi did not try to hide or procrastinate but came out boldly to condemn the West for ignoring his "earlier pleas" for help. It was as if he was saying: who can blame me if I had already told the West and they did nothing? Those who assumed that a government of a country had the primary responsibility to care for its people were thus smitten speechless. Guilt-ridden, the foreigners rushed to help and also to help themselves. This time around we are in the second phase of war and famine, a combination that gave the chance to Washington and London to bring Meles to power. But, Meles is now a Bush stooge, invading Somalia to fulfil the war plans of Washington ; and he will not face a West sponsored insurgency using the famine as a cover. Still, the NGOs cried foul and revealed that six million Ethiopians are facing famine. The regime turned true to form and denied that it is committing atrocities and human rights violations and that that many people are starving. Just four million and half are starving said Meles putting to shame the liars who wanted to shame him. And Meles has put out new laws against the unchecked activities of foreign NGOs as he wants only his own NGOs to reap the profits from the disaster.
Meles Zenawi also said the eating habits of Ethiopians should change. To learn not eat at all as it is becoming a reality these days? Maybe Meles wants to tell the Ethiopians not to eat meat though a kilo of meat costs 70 Birr and most Ethiopians earn 30 Birr a month. An unelected Prime Minister is turning into an untrained dietitician or consumer advisor? Meles says Ethiopians eat too much injera. Very funny. A quintal of teff (needed to make injera) costs 1250 Birr and a quintal of maize costs 850 Birr. Is Meles suggesting Ethiopians should diversify and eat pasta, rice, wheat? Where are these to be found? Those in the know are aware that the rulers of Ethiopia have changed their eating habits. Aside from Khat, they consume imported Beluga caviar, escargot, smoked sturgeon, lobster, smoked salmon and porcini mushrooms. And, of course, raw meat. Who but the ruling class in Ethiopia can afford meat at 70 Birr a kilo? In any case, the Meles regime has come out on top, organizing not only carnage and war but two famines in a short period interval to go along with it. It has, alas, copied the practice of the fallen regime and is blocking some agencies from going to famine stricken and terror beaten areas like the Ogaden. Will this deprive foreign youngsters of employment? Will it deny Angelina Jolie and others from having their pictures taken with starved children and maimed adults? As the World Bank hails Meles Zenawi and admires the economic progress of the famine stricken country the "Derek", cruel and heartless, regime is waiting for congratulations for only having 4 million people starving and not six million as is alleged by some ill intentioned quarters. Given Meles Zenawi's concern for proper eating habits and the fear of obesity coming into Ethiopia along with the US Marines and American bad buffet, the famine is perhaps God sent. It will of course require an explanation as to why the majority thin Ethiopians need to lose extra weight but most Ethiopians are sure that Meles will come up with the right answer. After all, didn't he send troops to invade Somalia and then claim no invasion took place--"our soldiers just crossed the border"? Is that an invasion! Museveni and Kagame were on safari in Eastern Congo , go learn.
Meles Zenawi is street smart and deceitful. He did not proclaim the colour of his terror against the people unlike the colonel who dubbed his Red and broke bottles filled with red ink vowing to wipe off his opponents. This has given the chance for the apologists of Meles to claim that he does kill people but not as many as Mengistu did. Who is counting? Six million? No, only 4 million. The debate now turns not on why the famine came in the first place (in a country of economic boom) but on the numbers. Isn't that clever? No doubt, Meles will try to benefit from the famine whatever the numbers. The question is will he try to eat alone (as is his wish) or will he share with foreigners? As for the majority of thin, badly fed and unfed poor Ethiopians, they are once again glad to be the victims and to help so many hyenas feast over their sorrow and suffering. Aren't we Ethiopians to be envied?
THE AFRICAN WRITER AND THE POLITICS OF LIBERATION
It is perhaps proper to start out with a quotation from Thomas Jefferson from his "Notes on the State of Virginia" (1874) in which he wrote: "Never yet could I find that a black man had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration, never saw even an elementary trait of painting or sculpture." He was echoing the prevailing conception of the black people as ignorant, as people with nothing worthwhile to say or contribute. Ali Mazrui did reply to such false assertions in the 8 th volume of the General History of Africa (pp 579-580) by stating that "....black Ethiopians were writing poetry before Jefferson 's ancestors in the British Isles were taught the Latin alphabet by Romans." Sadly enough, in our own century, a black American called Keith Richburg, a correspondent in Africa for the Washington Post from 1991-1994, wrote a book called "Out of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa", a book hailed by the Establishment as a "great work of reportage", in which he despairs of Africa through adjective filled pages and concludes "thank God my nameless ancestors brought across the oceans in chains and leg irons made it out alive. Thank God I am an American." George Bush, who would appreciate such feelings, has also pitched in or rather butted in by reducing Africa to a "nation with a lot of diseases."
Thank God I am an African. This disparaged continent of ours may have shared a similar past (subjugation under colonialism with just two exceptions, Ethiopia and Liberia ) but it is not homogeneous in culture, language or psychological make up. We are witnessing at present the failure of the so- called modern African nation state as inherited from colonialism and the emergence of ethnicity as opposed to any notion of nationality. It is proper then to primarily deal with the literature we are going to talk about. The African writer is a varied lot with different influences and historical reference points. Much as we cherish the pan African concept, the writings of the Nigerians Chinua Achebe and Ben Okri is different from that of Ngugi in Kenya, Tsegaye Gebre Medhin in Ethiopia or Dambudzo Marechera in Zimbabwe. It may not be possible, in other words, to talk of African literature in the singular and we are inevitably compelled to refer to African literatures in the context of different languages, cultures, history, within the reality of an Africa that is not yet a nation but a "bazaar" as Ali Mazrui described it.
Hence, our reference to the African Writer is more functional, an attempt to indulge in a generality to address the common concern with liberation and the role of the writer, the African. It is not a deliberate choice to gloss over the particularities and differences. The shared colonial experience for one was not the same in each and every country, French and British colonialism had their differences as were their impact on their subjects. That said I shall proceed to deal with the main theme, as is, that is The African Writer and the Politics of Liberation.
Some writers and historians refer to an African pre colonial Golden Age but I am amongst those inclined to conclude that pre- colonial Africa was no idyllic utopia. Yet, it is not possible to deny that colonialism wrecked Africa and was/is mainly responsible for the pitiful state it finds itself in at the present time. In the colonial period, the aim of liberation confronted the colonial reality, that someone described as "the vilest scramble for loot, and as South African writer Lewis Nkosi put it during this phase, that is to say during the struggle against colonialism, the writers "attempted to capture in their pamphlets, poems, novels and plays, the revolutionary impulse of which they are inalienably a part." The evils of colonialism have been documented by a number of writers including Walter Rodney (who wrote How Europe Underdeveloped Africa and described colonialism as "a one armed bandit") and Amadou Hampat E B', who was older than Senghor and Birago Diop, and who wrote the classic L'Etrange Destin de Wangrin" and the autobiographical "Amkoullel". On the evils of the slave trade that preceded this period we can cite also the earliest account by Ottobah Cuogano who wrote "thoughts and sentiments on the evil and wicked traffic of the slavery and commerce of the human species, humbly submitted to the inhabitants of Great Britain, (London, Hall &Mr. Philips,1787).
The colonial period and the struggle that was waged for liberation were reflected in the works of the writers of that period. They were themselves products of the system, an elite battered by the colonial education system or as the Ugandan poet Okot P'Bitek put it (in Song of Lawino, Song of Ocol), they were men " whose manhood was finished in the classrooms, their testicles were smashed with big books". The alienation of the elite by colonial education has been captured by Charles Mungoshi's Waiting for the Rain, by Mongo Beti's Mission to Kala, by Ferdinand Oyono's The Old Man and the Medal, by Marechera's House of Hunger,by Achebe,Ngugi and many others. In the political field, the late Amilcar cabral has written National Liberation and Struggle.
For Cabral, culture was based on the socio-economic realities of the given country, on the level of development of what he termed "productive forces". This class conscious view of the question has been echoed by Ngugi wa Thiongo (in Homecoming, Heinemann, 1972) when he defined literature as something that does not develop in a vacuum but "..is given impetus, shape, direction and even an area of concern by the social, political and economic forces in a a particular society." Ngugi goes on to assert "that the relationship between creative literature and these other forces cannot be ignored, especially in Africa, where modern literature has grown against the gory background of European imperialism and its changing manifestations: slavery, colonialism and neo-colonialism." Achebe. Cabral, Ngugi and the others were of course part of the elite and products of the education labeled "modern", actually western, even missionary and colonial. Colonialism did destroy indigenous cultures but at the same time it needed, to practice what Mahmoud Mamdani called (in Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism,Princeton Univ. Press,1996,p.49) "decentralized despotism", a "mode of incorporation "of the colonized into "the arena of colonial power". That is to say rule through "the native authority" and the local chiefs, a rule from a distance falsely presented by colonialism as "respect for customary law or native institutions".
Achebe and others had a field time ridiculing the native authority and the local chief working under and for colonialism. The writers of the time took it upon themselves to denounce the colonial system-- the emphasis was more on race and identity, the African pre colonial reality seen in exclusive bright and positive light. The writers' task was to recover the lost identity and sovereignty and this necessitated a strike at the colonial system and its supports (religion and the missionaries, the educational system, etc..). The classic book of the time, Achebe's Things Fall Apart, had little to say about the class nature of the problems as opposed to the essays of Cabral and Semebene Ousmane (in Man Is Culture) in which national liberation and even the very act of culture is equated with armed struggle. It is perhaps symptomatic of the times that were, to my knowledge no female writers.
The writers who took to task the evils of colonialism through their novels, plays and poems ( Senghor, Camara Laye, Achebe, Peter Abraham, Eskia Mphahlele etc..) resorted to the heritage of African "Orature" or oral literature to give form and style to their books. They did write for the elite like them, the ones who could read and understand the language (be it French or English) but they did try to ''do many unexpected things to the language" and to make it serve their purpose. The earliest English novel at that time, in 1952, was Amos Tutola's internationally acclaimed The Palm Wine Drinkard that relied on oral literature and folk tales even though Nigerian critics denounce it as a work that panders to the prejudiced and exotic vision of the Europeans and as one written in semi literate English. There were very few works in the African languages at least to my knowledge. The writer's audience was restricted- it was European or the local modern and educated elite, the same class like the writers themselves. The millions referred to as the masses were away from it all and reached later on only through the armed anti colonial struggle, via the political pamphlet and the agit-prop activities of the struggling nationalist organizations.
With formal independence and the replacement of the foreign chief by the local one, the role and focus of the African writer also changed. The writer became more a critique than a teacher. There was disillusionment that affected the writers who had hope that with independence Africa would enter a new era. This, as we know, was not to be. Even nationalist leaders like Nkrumah and Sekou Toure were authoritarian, Ben Bella was replaced by the dour and sour Boumedienne, Lumumba was murdered as were many nationalist leaders ranging from Moumie to Cabral to Mondlane and so forth. The post- colonial period (which continued colonialism in a new form) put to test the earliest idealized conception of Africa and its past. Achebe's A Man of the People and Armah's The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born are the typical novels of this period of disillusion in the new African "bourgeoisie" denounced by Frantz Fanon (in Black Skin, White Masks) as "brothel keepers for Europe" who are not "engaged in production, nor in invention, nor building, nor labor; it is completely canalized into activities of the intermediary type. Its innermost vocation seems to be to keep in the running and be part of the racket". The struggle for liberation, that is to say for full emancipation, had failed.
This was time for the writers, in the words of Lewis Nkosi, "to register not only the pains and joys of national rebirth, but (to) begin to constitute an important source of critical consciousness for the nation." If Achebe and Armah failed to grasp the importance of class contradictions and if many writers preferred to plead with the rulers and to espouse what many had called a "liberal humanist" world view, the reality of neo colonialism was bound to and did push many authors to view the question of liberation in class terms. The African writer started to understand the class basis of the material conflict. The Native President and ruling elite was now denounced as an "imperialist puppet", "brothel keeper", "comprador" and, in general, as part of the problem. The writer of the post independence period is best characterized by Ngugi's Petals of Blood and Devil on the Cross, Sembene Ousmane's God's Bits of Wood, Xala, The Last of the Empire, Ethiopia's Shale Sellasie' s Firebrands, and to an extent by Malian writer Yambo Oulologuem's Le Devoir de Violence or Bound to Violence, and also by Mungoshi's Waiting for the Rain. These and other writers not only castigated the ruling elite but also tried to have a class struggle view of the existing problems, they tried to address the "masses" or the peasantry, they pointed to a direction of revolutionary or radical change. They called for Revolution.
The period also saw the portrayal of women as exploited in the various novels (Houseboy, Devil on the Cross, etc..). Perhaps one of the very few male writers who write about women is Somalia 's Nureddin Farah who also denounced the Siad Barre dictatorship in his many novels. Women writers also emerged and one good example is Buchi Emecheta, who has not only written on themes of Women Liberation but is reportedly one of the rare breeds of African writers who support themselves through writing books. As one reviewer put it Emecheta wrote of women's life stories "to draw attention to the inegalitarian gender and class relations that cut across racial and geographical boundaries". There were also Bessie Head and Flora Nwapa.
It was also during this period that the neo- colonial State showed its repressive fangs. Censorship and repression went hand in hand. The writers were thrown into prisons, tortured even and also forced into exile with all its travails and difficulties. Expectedly, the fundamental question of language and audience also reared its head. If liberation meant the emancipation of the vast majority, how can the writer continue to write in a language the majority of people failed to understand? The oral part of course, songs and the like, directly addressed itself and was accessible to the vast majority. Can the same be said of books written in English or French? Senghor insists that he wrote for the Senegalese people primarily though he wrote in a sophisticated French that made him a member of the snobbish and elitist Academie Francaise. He said my people "know that a Kora is not a harp, just as a balafon is not a piano. Moreover, it is by appealing to French-speaking Africans that we will best appeal to the French and, beyond the seas and frontiers, to other people". Ngugi and others certainly disagreed and forcefully called for writing in one's own mother tongue on the basis of a conviction that language and Empire are fused and that the use by African writers of the English language to write books, for example, should be categorized as Euro- African literature and not as African literature. The jury is still out on the controversial debate but the focus on the "people or the masses" is justified since the aim of the writer to reach as many people as possible and the role of the writer should be viewed within the exigencies of socialist realism (not Zhdanov –type Stalinist "socialist realism"), not only to denounce but to question the system and life as a whole beyond the slogans and rhetoric. In Ethiopia , where most books are written in the Amharic language and other local languages, the issue of a few writers like me also writing in English has not been controversial though major Ethiopian writers like Laureate Tsegaye Gebre Medhin (who has written in English) and the late Mengistu Lemma support the views of Ngugi. My own latest book in English, African Absurdities, will not be read by the millions of Ethiopian s who do not speak English but then again my Amharic book Kedada Chereka has not been read by all those who do not read Amharic. Yet, it seems proper to me to cite Ngugi who wrote:
"African writer of the 80s has no choice but to join the people's struggle for survival. In that situation, he will have to confront the languages spoken by the people in whose service he has put his pen. Such a writer will have to rediscover the real language of the struggle in the actions and speeches of his people, learn from their great optimism and faith in the capacity of human beings to remake their world and renew themselves. He must be part of the song of the people."
The writer should of course be part of the song of the people, should be the songwriter even and should sing along with the people. The writer should be aligned with people no matter the cost. Yet, the problems confronting the African writer should not be ignored as we strive to emphasize his or her contribution to liberation. Language problem raises the problem of audience. Translation from one African language into another is almost non existent (no one has translated Ngugi's Petals of Blood into Amharic while the novels of Jeffrey Archer and Daniel Steele, fro example, have been translated), there are few publishing houses (in Ethiopia, for example, the State owns the main publishing house), Africans cannot afford to buy books, many of them are illiterate anyway. The radio is the better medium to pass the message across but in most countries too there is censorship and the radio or the media is under State control. African writer Jean Roger Essomba (in his "Of Recognition article) takes the bull by the horn and poses the question as follows:
"The African writer's recognition by Africans and the rest of the world is still to often solely related to his/her overseas reputation. Which, in other words, means that to be recognized in Africa , you first of all need to be plebiscited by Paris , London or New York . This approbation will come all the more easily if the writer chooses to live in the West and/or is published by a major Western publishing house. One is thus, in most cases, forced to leave."
Essomba is trying here to give one more reasons to why African writers are in exile aside from political repression. Many African writers, including myself, have not been able to find a publisher other than our own "ghettos"—say Heinemann books in London / New York and L'Harmattan in Paris/France. I am not trying to minimize or denigrate the role of these publishing houses, no, but the fact remains that they are already categorized and tagged as "Third world" or "African" and have limited space, sales or capacity. At present Heinemann's African Writer's Series has been stopped as the company has been taken over by Harcourt books which has told us authors that it has no interest in our works. Some honest editors of mainstream publishing houses continue to tell us bluntly that African stories with strange names do not sell well and advice us to inject a foreign (of course white) hero into the stories. There African writers who have made it, to sue a common saying, but many are marginalzed and in the wilderness.
Essombo clearly indicates the problems and dilemma posed by the situation. He wrote:
" This situation is not free from the risks of perversion as the writer ultimately finds him/herself in a situation where the publishers, critics, prize-givers, media and the target readership, all the people who are determinant in the launching of a work, are foreigners. In this context, isn't the African writer, to a certain extent, forced to adapt his/her discourse to smooth of the rough edges, to avoid shocking those likely to publish his/her work and who are afraid of mirrors, to reassure those who want to read but who tremble at the thought of meeting their bad consciences at the turn of the page?"
The price to pay to get published and recognition is indeed very high. Many writers in exile cannot be published in their own countries, their books, when published abroad, are often banned back home. The regime in Addis for example is about to decree a press law that is aimed at banning Ethiopian newspapers and magazines published abroad so long as they carry critical articles. The African writer is bound to confront many more obstacles and impediments as he/she seeks to get published. The so- called New World order and globalization do not augur well. The post colonial- period has come to an end, the world is presently under the domination of one super power and the African renaissance that was prophesized has turned an illusion. Evidently, Africa cannot ignore the implications of globalization and all of us must realize that, nostalgia aside, we cannot go , even if we wished to, back to the imagined idyllic pre colonial times. As Africa enters the new century, more fragmented, fragile, and more vulnerable, the African writer must confront the complexities persevering as writers in touch with the common people, in touch with the present without losing sight of the fact that the seeds of tomorrow are in today.
the failure of the nation-state and the assault of ethnicity on the unity aspirations of Africa force us to re-question facile theories and conclusions. Colonialism itself laid the mines against successful democratization. The politics of liberation should reject the imported paradigms and seek beyond the errors of the ruling elites the structural problems. Democracy and the aspiration for it must be put on African pedestals and in this context the writer must dig deep into Africa 's oral and written literature and culture in order to play the prominent role in informing, criticizing and mobilizing the people for change. It is necessary to put in a word of caution at this juncture. The writer can and should play a role in Africa's quest for liberation and in ending the crisis that grips the continent but this role should neither be minimized (by severing the writer from his/her social role) or exaggerated (by imagining the African writer as the one to change the reality). A Swahili proverb says: "words are silver, answers are gold". The African writer should strive to provide some gold to the people who are yearning to be citizens with full rights and opportunities in their own countries, in their own continent.