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Treading a line

15 Aug 2020

Sarah Bushra

Mekbib Tadesse Emperor Menelik IIPhotographer: Mekbib Tadesse

On June 30, the second day after protests broke out in Addis Ababa, and following the assassination of the Oromo people’s cultural icon and musician, Hacaaluu Hundeessaa, the streets in 4 kilo – a government district where Parliament, the Prime Minister’s office, and the Palace seats are located – were quiet and still. A stark contrast to the day before. Occasional voices broke out, echoing between low rise buildings and across the relatively wide-set street before falling onto our ears: “they are coming, they are coming.” A warning call, to which the sparse occupants of the street responded by readying themselves, brandishing sticks of all varieties, alert and equipped to ward off the belligerent youth from advancing towards the city center.

Oromo is the largest ethnic group and historically marginalized community in Ethiopia. In 2016, a youth movement emerged by the name Qero, meaning “young unmarried men,” to claim political power and overthrow the hegemonic cultural and social structure. In the recent protests, the Amhara ethnic group were the intended targets of stone pelting, violent killings, and the burning and bashing of businesses, for being Neftegna. This word literally translates to “riflemen,” but has recently became synonymous to “colonizer,” referencing Ethiopia’s long-standing Imperial rule – spanning over ten centuries, with predominantly North Ethiopian Emperors (Amhara and Tigray) governing a system which favored them as landowners. When the protests began on June 29, a morning after artist, Hacaaluu Hundessaa was murdered, the Oromo youth headed to the Ghiorgis Roundabout in Addis Ababa, to topple over the statue of Emperor Menelik II – depicted gracefully riding a horse, a symbol of oppression for the Oromo resistance.  As novice beneficiaries of the freedom of expression (or its illusions), as a community, many Ethiopians still stutter when trying to exercise it.  Mistaking their newly found liberty for supremacy, most of those who have found a platform to voice their criticism – either on social media or on public forums – have veered to a language of hate. This new mode of communication has morphed the meanings of words that were previously harmless attributes of ethnic identities, to triggers of emotional and physical turmoil.

It was particularly difficult for me, a millennial with no vested interest in politics, to reflect on the recent unrests taking place all over Ethiopia. Primarily because I had insulated myself from Ethiopian political discourse, falsely assuming its ethnic-based linings were somebody else’s concern. Politics here refers to governance, and the racket among parties as they contest for ruling power.  Having grown up in an environment where such politics is discussed in hushed tones (if ever), I had neither the language nor the insight to comb through the nuances that led to the current turn of events. But when hurled into the conflict, unsuspecting and without pretext, I couldn’t escape its confrontational reality. Following the consequences of the pandemic, I immersed myself in the online world, embracing the changes openly and with vigilance. On the 29th of June, when the network connectivity stopped working, I imagined I had simply run out of my package and went to the nearest telecom office to top-up my card. On my way there, a friend called to warn me to stay at home upon rumors of protests breaking out, incited by the murder of Hacaalluu. A lot of people in my network also had their first warning call from a family member or a friend. These types of oral stories becomes the only source of information when the government shuts down the internet for three weeks. Someone who knows someone, who has a friend living in Shashemene, says his neighbor’s house was burnt down. There is something mythical about the way these kinds of stories circulate, with a tint of otherworldliness that at times comforts, and other times, terrifies. Mass media coverage during the time of the protest was no exception to the theatrics of mysticism. Radios and TVs chimed with an endless instrumental tune, with the latter accompanied by images of Hacaaluu superimposed with a picture of a burning candle.

Keguro Macharia, a Kenyan literary scholar, tweets about the benefits of myths in times of collective duress. Referring particularly to the pandemic and the power of myths to alleviate the pressure from a lack of economic means within certain communities, where factually incorrect narratives circulate, he exemplifies this claim with: “ ‘black tea helps against the virus,’ might help cope with a reduced capacity to buy milk…” Ethiopian Prime Minister, Dr. Abiy Ahmed, seems to think along the same lines when addressing the public on the day of Haccaaluu Hundeesaa’s assassination, citing the popular myth of “Sene ena Segno” – that Mondays in the month of June (Sené, the tenth month in Ethiopian Calendar), are prone to host unfortunate incidents.  Perhaps implying it’s not particularly the moral decadence of society that resulted in the death of 239 people, and the loss of billions in birr, but rather, an unescapable fate set up within this popular myth.

Nguigi wa Thing’o writes in his introduction to Hama Tuma’s The Case of the Socialist Witch-Doctor and Other Stories saying: “Ethiopia is the land of myths.” He admires the stories in the following pages (which were all set during Ethiopia’s Red Terror period) for their particular poignancy – propped as vignettes, unassuming of the mist in which they exist – simply framing their peculiar reality in minute details. The most wide-spread accounts of protests were unencumbered by context or the burden of proof, leaving it up to the audience to interpret and arrive at the underlining meaning.

As I tried to grapple my way for a sound strand of narrative within this haze, I remembered Konjit Seyoum and her practice of reading a line. She’s simultaneously an artist and artisan – weaving stories that unravel from the multiverse of her lived experiences, as the movement of her hands materialize a thin white line from a nebulous cloud of cotton. It is this line that delineates the embodied from the performed identity. This line which borders the surge of young men who flood the streets, between those of us on the sidelines pacing in agitation, wavering between clemency and anger. It is this thin, intricate line that separates the myths from the facts, the tales from historical accounts.

I finally found a friend to accompany me to the telecom, still unaware that it was in fact the government who had shut down the internet. We walked up the streets and suddenly came face to face with the stampede of wide-eyed young men, holding heavy-duty sticks, unmistakably handled as weapons. In a traditional dance of the Oromo people, the men sport a sturdy stick, much in the same way as the men in front of us did. I remembered the dancer standing next to me: as he once struggled to learn this dance, teeth clenched, sweat beads trickling, launching the stick up and down to the rhythm of a heavy staccato breathing.

Filmed by Sarah Bushra
Dancer: Dawit Seto
Location: Fekat Circus
August 2020
Addis Ababa

Sarah Bushra is a multi-disciplinary artist based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, working primarily with a hybrid of text and images.
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