Monday, August 27, 2007

Not Just the Tour of ‘Lucy’, but the Name ‘Lucy’ itself is Outrageous

By Mogus Degoyae Mochena

While the uproar against the ‘Lucy’ tour of North America is still in the air, I felt I should share my feelings and thoughts I have been harboring about the name – Lucy – for quite some time.

In 1967, the Beetles, one of the greatest rock bands in history, had a hit song – Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. Here are the words of the song that have nothing to do with anthropology, or the Hadar region of Afar, or the Ethiopian culture at large:

Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds

Picture yourself in a boat on a river,
With tangerine trees and marmalade skies
Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly,
A girl with kaleidoscope eyes.
Cellophane flowers of yellow and green,
Towering over your head.
Look for the girl with the sun in her eyes,
And she's gone.
Lucy in the sky with diamonds.
Follow her down to a bridge by a fountain
Where rocking horse people eat marshmellow pies,
Everyone smiles as you drift past the flowers,
That grow so incredibly high.
Newspaper taxis appear on the shore,
Waiting to take you away.
Climb in the back with your head in the clouds,
And you're gone.
Lucy in the sky with diamonds,
Picture yourself on a train in a station,
With plasticine porters with looking glass ties,
Suddenly someone is there at the turnstyle,
The girl with the kaleidoscope eyes.

Apparently the paleo-anthropologist Donald Johanson and colleagues, who discovered, by all accounts, the greatest skeletal remains of anthropology, a hommind that is 3.18 million years old, had a good reason to celebrate; to party in a tent after they had succeeded in assembling the fossil pieces into a skeletal form. Who wouldn’t after such a historic scientific discovery!! So the story goes that the Beetles’ song ‘Lucy in the sky with Diamonds’ was playing as they were celebrating. Voila! They were feeling very Beetles-happy. And they named the skeleton of the three and a half feet female Lucy.

One can’t help but feel awed when watching the video1 footage of the discovery of ‘Lucy’ at Hadar, as Johanson’s four wheel drive descends into the scorching, desolate valley and as Johansen describes how he first came across a couple of fossils that looked suspiciously different, went back to US to study them, and came back to Hadar with his graduate student and was scouring the grounds for more fossils. It always amazes me to observe archeologists or anthropologists, meticulously and methodically sifting through dirt and debris with uttermost care, peeling away at layers after layers with their tiny brushes and gadgets, or wandering some remote, inhospitable place in search of some fossils millions of years old. Such is a scholarly pursuit of highest caliber to uncover the past or link us to our ancestors. Johansen’s work truly falls in such a category and is one of those singular finds that renders meaning to the tireless efforts of scientists engrossed in the quest for knowledge. Nonetheless, the naming of this great find leaves much to be desired. I am not an anthropologist, but I feel there must be a better naming procedure than the trivial, nonchalant manner in which this was done.

In addition, there is the issue of cultural insensitivity. Unfortunately, this naming reminds me of the Hollywood movie, the African Queen of 1951, although the ‘Lucy’ case is somewhat the reverse. Supposedly, the African Queen is considered one of the classic adventure movies of Hollywood. If one believes at first blush what the name suggests, one would go into a movie theatre expecting to watch an African queen who is African. Surprise! The African Queen is none other than Katherine Hepburn, the great, brunette white actress. And Hepburn is no African remotely, and yet the movie producers had to whiten their movie with white audience in mind – a complete disregard for a true African image even if it is an artistic work. The audacity of Westerners anointing a non-African a queen, bestowing such an honor to someone who is not African is a supercilious act of cultural insensitivity.

Scientists have a standard way of doing their scientific work. If they don’t follow the norm, they are ostracized. The scientific aspect of ‘Lucy’s’ discovery is superb and the professionalism is very inspiring. It is in the cultural aspect that Johanson fails miserably. It seems Johanson was bitten by the Hollywood bug of cultural insensitivity when he gave the name ‘Lucy’. It is ironic that such a world - renowned physical anthropologist could benefit from a lesson or two from the likes of Margaret Mead, the cultural anthropologist. And Ethiopians, for they part, must demand a remedy for the transgression - an Ethiopian name!!


Sunday, August 26, 2007

The First and the Last Ethiopian Millennium

By Fikru Helebo

Before I go on to my rant I would like to wish all those Ethiopians and friends of Ethiopia who will celebrate the Ethiopian millennium a happy millennium Ethiopian New Year! If you can read Amharic, I also would like to encourage you to read this part satirical and seriously polemical
piece on the Ethiopian millennium by Mitiku Adisu (though I have differences with his take on emperors Yohannes IV, Minilik II and Haile Selassie I in his concluding remarks). Mitiku pretty much says all that needs to be said about the Ethiopian millennium and I guarantee that you will laugh your heart out!

In a little over two weeks time Ethiopians all over the world (except for some like me) will celebrate
the first and the last Ethiopian millennium. Yes, this is the first millennium which is uniquely Ethiopian and, hopefully, if it is left up to people like me, it will be the last uniquely Ethiopian millennium. I am of the opinion that the current calendar should be discarded in favor of the Gregorian calendar which serves as the de facto world calendar. The current Ethiopian calendar is not really Ethiopian in its origins anyway. According to this web site, the Ethiopian calendar is based on the Coptic calendar, which in turn is based on the old Egyptian and Julian calendars.

So, why stick to a calendar that is not Ethiopian in its origins and one which creates unnecessary separation of Ethiopians from the world at large? Besides there are many things that Ethiopians have adopted from the rest of the world for the better. Take, for example, our use of the Arabic numerals (actually Indian numerals) in favor of our own numerals which are used on Ethiopian calendars, like the screen shot for the current month from the Ethiopica Calendar which I posted above.

I am not sure when Ethiopians adopted the use of Arabic numerals, but I am glad we adopted them. The fact that we borrowed Arabic numerals did not bring about the death of our numerals. Ethiopian numerals have not disappeared
as evidenced by their continued use in the Bible as well as calendars. The fate of the Ethiopian calendar will also be the same if it is discarded in favor of the Gregorian one: it will not die! The Ethiopian and Eritrean churches will continue to use it, obviously, and this fact alone will ensure that the Ethiopian calendar will survive well into the future if its official use comes to an end as I think it should.

I will not celebrate the Ethiopian millennium because, with the exceptions of the building of the monolithic churches of Lalibela in the 12th and 13th centuries and the Adwa victory over the Italians in the 19th century, there isn't much to celebrate about Ethiopian history of the last millennium. I have no problem with Ethiopians celebrating the Ethiopian millennium, but I am very much turned off by the boisterous atmosphere which surrounds the celebrations, an atmosphere which Mitiku's article captures vividly. In my view, this millennium occasion should have been celebrated in a low key manner in which Ethiopians took the time to reflect on many of our shortcomings!

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Local History of Ethiopia

Here is an interesting web site that serves as a repository of the local history of Ethiopia. Bernhard Lindahl compiled it and here is his description of what the web site is about:
The concept of this work is to make extracts from printed external sources and to sort them geographically and chronologically. It concerns environment and events in the countryside of Ethiopia mainly from the early 1800s and onwards. The special effort is to shed light on places which are seldom mentioned in print and to make searchable the contents of various published sources.
I like the web site's search feature a lot. For example, when I searched for 'Wolayta' one of the search result pages I got contained an entry for Girmame Neway, a man who knew what was wrong with Ethiopia and tried to do something about it:
Girmame Neway was appointed as governor of Welamo sub-province in the late 1950s. He was well received there because he had a famous forefather, Dejazmach Girmame, who had negotiated with the chiefs prior to Menileks re-occupation of the area.
Girmame led the people to build roads and bridges and schools. After he had been governor for just over six months he is said to have produced som E$ 30,000 for a school. He surprised everyone by announcing that the money came from bribes which he had accepted and put aside for the school project.
Governor Girmame organised the people into their own watch committees when they complained of the dishonesty and brutality of 'Amhara' police. He distributed undeveloped land to the landless. The landowners complained of this and of Girmame's settling squatters from their land, leaving them with no labour supply. D. Levine in Africa Today, May 1961, states that a wealthy landowner named Desta Fisseha managed to arrange Girmame's transfer through the customary channels of Palace intrigue. Girmame was recalled and posted to Jijiga. Together with his brother he became the leader of the failed coup in December 1960.
[R Greenfield, Ethiopia, London 1965 p 371]
Typed in 'Alula' and here is one of the entries I found:
HET86c Mannawe, about 25 km south of Abiy Adi. 13/39 [n]
Ras Alula (1847-1897) was born in this small village. It is not confirmed that his year of birth really was 1847. His father was the farmer Engda Qubi with wife Garada who was daughter of Nagid, a local notable from the neighbouring village of Baga. A few old people in Mannawe remembered these names when they were interviewed by Haggai Ehrlich in February 1972.
Alula once told an Italian journalist that his father and grandfather had been soldiers. He was educated in the local church school by the Memhir Welde-Giyorgis and "being an aggressive and dominating youngster, he soon became the leader of the children".
"When his Tigrean patron became Emperor Yohannes IV, the young Alula was translated from the provincial to the national scene -- Alula's excellent military services in fighting external enemies and consolidating the emperor's supremacy in Ethiopia established him as a king's man." History remembers particularly Ras Alula's time as administrator of Mereb Mellash = the future Eritrea.

One of the search results for 'Hadiya' returned the following entry:
"The Muslims of Hadiya who earlier had suffered at the hands of the Oromo, no longer had any desire for war with the Christians. The attitude was expressed by the action of Azé's soldiers, who refused to fight with Sarsa Dengel. Only the malasay, the Muslim force from Harar, fought. Deserted by their fellow Muslims and outnumbered by Sarsa Dengel's men, they were easily crushed. Aze reconciled himself to the king, who was magnanimous in return. The king left Aze in his office, but stripped him of real power. Takla Giyorgis was made the commander of the provincial soldiers." [Mohammed 1994 p 33]
Thanks to Bernhard Lindahl, you may be pleasantly surprised to find historical information about the local area that you come from within present day Ethiopia. Just peruse around and satisfy your intellectual curiosity.

Friday, August 10, 2007

The better of the “Devil’s Alternative” is the right choice

By Ephrem Madebo

In the last two years, so many of us have repeatedly compared CUDP leaders to Nelson Mandela, arguably the best visionary leader of our time. Well, sometimes our emotion rules over our intellect and we do so many things that don’t give sense. Nelson Mandela is the wisest leader of this era and a living symbol of black excellence. To be honest, the only similarity between Mandela and the CUDP leaders is that both went to jail for crimes committed by their respective governments. In anything else, they are different. To a person who skimmed his article, Dr. Solomon Terfa’s recent commentary on ethiomedia seems to be comparing the CUDP leadership to Nelson Mandela.

I may be wrong, but Dr. Solomon’s inciting and incisive critique on the Shemagles is a what-if-analysis that implied what the CUDP leaders and the Shemagles should have done in the recent Shemagles brokered negotiation. As Dr. Solomon himself admitted, his article is hypothetical, i.e., there could be many imaginary answers as to what Mandela would have done if he was in the shoes of the CUDP leaders. Hypothetical scenarios or questions can be speculated in so many different ways, but it is very difficult to conclusively state them as reliable statements of truth. Let me use Dr. Solomon’s own words: “This hypothetical-scenario is an exercise that is routinely done in political science and international relation courses”. This is a correctly stated statement, and I have no second thought, but I just want readers to realize that even political scientists or seasoned political analysts would take a highly polarized stand on what Nelson Mandela would have done had he been in the shoes of the CUDP leaders.

Based on the then objective condition of South Africa and the organizational strength of the ANC party, in the 1970/80s’, Mandela made the right choice when he rejected Peter Botha’s offer of nominal freedom. It was a wise and matured decision in the South Africa of the 1970/80s’. Well, what would have Mandela done in the Ethiopia of 2007? This is a genuine, but hypothetical, a compelling, but speculative question. So why be consumed with a question that doesn’t serve our cause or purpose? Why can’t we deal with a practical question that sheds light in our path? My argument is intuitive and simple. It is very difficult to answer the “what would” Mandela has done question because we can’t read Mandelas’s mind, even if we think we can, there are significant domestic and international differences between South Africa of the 1970s and today’s Ethiopia.

“The what" should question is an opinion inclined question that can be answered by observing objective conditions on the ground and making “a what-if-analysis”. We can answer such questions in so many different ways without worrying for the risk of being wrong. “The what” would question could also be answered in many ways, but every answer has a higher risk of being wrong. In the latter case, we are answering a question by reading Mandela’ mind [which is difficult, or impossible], where as in the former case, we’re doing nothing other than expressing our opinion on how Mandela should have dealt with the issue. Opinions may be poor, so-so, or good, but they are neither wrong nor right on events whose outcome is yet to be decided.

When N. Mandela was arrested in 1963, his ANC Party was 51 years old, with a long time history of struggle in its pocket and many veteran leaders in its power structure [O.Tambo, T.Mbeki, J.Zuma, Ramaphosa, and Maharai]. Mandela enjoyed un-paralleled international support when he was in jail, while the CUDP leaders were forgotten by the international community until the day they were found guilty. In November 2005, when Meles arrested the CUDP leaders, CUDP was not even one year old. Yes, almost all of the CUDP leaders were true intellectuals, but their combined political experience was not at the level of ANC. Mandela’s incarceration might have appeased proponents of the apartheid regime, but it did not slow down the struggle of black South Africans for freedom and equality.

In the contrary, in the summer of 2005, the reckless action of Meles Zenawi dimmed the hope of democracy in Ethiopia. In late Fall of the same year, when the entire CUDP leaders were arrested, the fragile pro-democracy movement became paralyzed and went in to a coma state. Given the time & space difference, and such diametrically opposed economic, social and political conditions, it would absolutely be unrealistic to demand the CUDP leaders to behave the same way Mandela behaved when he was offered a deal by the apartheid regime. There was ANC before Mandela, but there was no CUDP before Professor Mesfin, Dr. Berhanu, Dr. Yackob, Dr.Hailu, Brtukuan, Muluneh Eyoel etc.

Evidently, hypothetical scenarios or questions are good because they give rise to a realistic question. So instead of speculating on what Mandela would have done, I think it would be wise to take Mandela out of the picture and consider a slightly different, but very relevant question. How differently should the CUDP leaders have acted and still secure their release? A critically analysis of this question will augment our subjective judgment and enable us to make informed decision. Otherwise, our judgments and decisions will be subjective reflecting our own ambition. The CUDP leaders could have dealt with the negotiation in many different ways, but as far as the Ethiopian people are concerned, there were only two out comes. Get out of jail, or stay in jail. This by no means is an issue of good, or bad; it is the matter of being right, or wrong.

In a pro-basket ball game, a last second call against a one point leading home team is usually considered a bad call even if the foul was committed, but it is the right call. Definitely, the referees understand the call silences more than 20k cheering home fans, but should they be emotional and not make the call? If they do, it is good for the home team and the supportive crowd, but doing so is not only wrong; it is also bad for the game of basketball. The referees have two options: 1) Make the call and do the right thing for the game of basketball. 2) Ignore the foul and appear to be good for the home team. I will leave the judgment and interpretation of the example to the reader. In the light of this example, let’s consider the following three important conditions: 1) Our country finds itself in a decisive time where the important task of keeping her unity and territorial integrity is left to those who vow to fight alongside her enemies. 2) We have elected leaders in jail and a partially aborted popular movement in coma. 3) The fourth parliamentary election is coming in less than three years time.

As to me, if the benefit largely out weights the cost, I will happily incur the political cost of any decision that stops the disintegration of my country. Here is what Abraham Lincoln said on unity: “If I could save the Union without freeing any slaves, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it, and if I could do it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that" If Lincoln was that determined to save the Union at the cost of a continued misery of black people, what is our empirical, moral, or historical foundation to demand how & why the CUDP leaders secured their freedom? Why can’t the elected leaders of Ethiopia do what they think is right to stop the bleeding of their country? To begin with, the crucial question is- Why are they in jail? Not how they were released!

The two years of relative silence and frustration in the opposition camp has clearly demonstrated how bad the popular movement missed the CUDP leaders. So when a condition that re-unites long separated “lovers” is created, what should be the right choice? Stay behind bars for the rest of their life, or come out of jail at a cost and energize the otherwise dormant opposition politics? Save the unity of the swiftly disintegrating Ethiopia, or stay in jail with no hope of passing the Ethiopia they inherited to the next generation? Lead the opposition for the next election in 2010, or sit in Kaliti/Kerchele and guarantee Meles Zenawi and his gang secure an easy fourth term? Social cost-benefit analysis is a good thing to consider here, but I will rather skip it to protect the innocent.

Once again Dr. Solomon said: “Let us recall that Mandela was in the dungeon of apartheid for over twenty five years. I should point out that prison did not deter the leaders of ANC from discharging their historic responsibility” (emphasis added by me). This is an absolutely true statement, but in the Ethiopian case, the prison not only deterred the free CUDP leaders, but it also created multiple Kinjit factions that crippled the popular movement. All in all, the Mandela-ANC experience and historical setting is totally different from the recent experience of CUDP leaders. Therefore, shouldn’t Mandela-ANC and CUDP be viewed independently? While the Mandela-CUDP comparative analysis is an absolutely right task to consider, imposing Mandela’s action on the CUDP leaders is an out-and-out denial of reality. Remember, too much analysis is paralysis! Currently, we all are eagerly expecting to have a town-hall meeting with the CUDP leaders, and here are some possible discussion questions: What is your plan to re-vitalize the struggle? Why did you listen to the Shimagles and bend to the will of Meles? What different things will you do in the next election? Why did you sign a document that makes you look like guilty? What do you do to create a strong political alliance? The CUDP leaders shall definitely entertain all of the above questions, but in the face of the current political crisis of our country, and the tight schedule of the leaders; some of the above questions are inconsequential to all of us individually, and to our country at large.

Obviously, the release of the CUDP leaders by itself does not give us hope for the future; however, their freedom is a vitally necessary factor to resuscitate the chocked hope of our people. The political discourse of the last fifty years did not take us anywhere because we dwelt too much in the past. Let’s change our course and give more emphasis to the future. The Ethiopian farmers, artisans, and working people want to hear our vision for the new millennium. Let’s be intelligent and brave enough to face the Ethiopian people with a vision, and ask their cooperation for its realization. If we can’t prove we’re good enough, let’s quietly leave the forum for the brave, the good, and the able people.