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Michael Moszczynski's Weblog
The land is the blood 07.II.2009 07:16
Travelling in Ethiopia, you will never cease to be reminded of the country's cultural diversity - '85 languages,' anyone who speaks even a bit of English will tell you, 'more than 90 ethnic groups.' Underlying this, however, is a preoccupation with heritage that's quite prominent in both Africa and the Middle East, a belief that a person's ancestors an define him in a way that is quite at odds with modern Western individualism. I hae mentioned before my Turkish friend Omer from Cairo, who would never be Egyptian despite his family's having lived there for generation; they always marry within the community, and so the blood is kept both pure and separate from the society in which they live, never to be accepted by it. One people learn that I was born in Poland, and that my parents are Polish, I'm never really Canadian to them - my heritage precludes it. Although I've felt this feeling many times before - harrassed by children in Shiraz, I was told, 'they're Afghans, of course' - it had never been put into such sharp focus as it has in the Sudan and Ethiopia.

Since the mid-nineties, Ethiopia has been divided into regions based on ethnicity; there is a region for the Amhara, who have traditionally ruled and whose language is the country's official one, despite not being the most numerous; there is a region for the Oromo, who are the most numerous ethnic group but have never held power; there is a region for the 'Southern Tribal Peoples,' a catch-all for the largely animist or Protestant tribes of southern Ethiopia and who now perform roughly the same role as zoo animals would for passing tourists; and so on for the Tigray, the Afar, the Somali, etc. Of course, the words 'Africa' and 'tribalism' are so closely associated in our minds that there hardly seems need to prove the point, but Ethiopia has delineated tribal divisions so openly that it can't be ignored, and although it offends my liberal Western instincts, I can't decide whether it really is a good policy or not, regional identity being quite strong in the population - though the national unity posters in celebration of the Ethiopian Millennium, proclaiming the brotherhood of all tribes, remind me strongly of China's attempts to proclaim the glory of Tibet (the Autonomous Region) and the artificial creation that is Qinghai province.

In Ethiopia, though, the ethnic identity often mixes with history; the emperors have traditionally been Amhara, as were the communist dissidents who would take Haile Selassie, King of Kings, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, imprisno, and kill him, and who would become the monstrous Derg regime which held Ethopia in an iron grip for two decades. They were in turn overthrown by those who make up the current, less (though not un-) oppressive government - but these men were not Amhara, but Tigrayan, and had their roots in the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front, which ends in the two words so common when reading about political change in Africa. Travelling through the Tigray region after having spent a week and a half in the Amhara one, one can't help but notice that the lights were a bit brighter, the roads smoother, and the power outages rarer, as though, for some unknown reason, a little bit more government funding came to these parts than others. Ethiopians I've talked to seem to be ambivalent about their government - some proclaim that there is no freedom and no work, which is true, but others say Ethiopia is making progress, and are extremely proud that the African Union summit is currently being held here. I couldn't help but notice, though, that the complaints I heard came in the Amhara and Oromo regions - never in the Tigray.

Human identity, though, defines itself most often in terms of whom it excludes and the Habesha, as the Ethiopians call themselves, Amhara and Tigray alike, consider themselves superior to other sub-Saharan Africans, even as they feel a kinship with them. 'The only imperial power in Black Africa,' the information pamphlet on Aksum proudly proclaims, so presumably the rulers of Songhay and Zimbabwe were merely glorified chieftains. Ge'ez, the Ethiopians' native script, is often cited as the only native African writing system, when it is in fact adapted from the Sabaean of Arabia. When you ask Ethiopians what distinguishes their country in Africa, the most common answer is an abstract, spoken as though capitalised - 'Culture' or 'Civilisation.' Moreover, Ethiopia was the only place left uncolonised during the 19th-century 'Scramble for Africa,' a fact of which Ethiopians are extremely proud - despite several years of occupation by Mussolini which have left a simultaneous hatred and reverence for the occupiers' culture typical of post-colonial countries, which is why the country is full of piazzas and macchiatos, and an old man on the street greeted me with buongiorno, as he must have seen his parents do to foreigners when he was young.

Identity works in concentric circles, radiating out from the self into more diffuse and inclusive self-designations until it becomes all-inclusive and therefore meaningless, as light radiates out into the black vaccuum of space until there is nothing in the emptiness to illuminate. First, we identify with our family, then with our ethnicity or clan, then with our country, then with our civilisation (in the Huntingtonian sense), and only then, potentially, with all of humanity, though this is rare if not wholly non-existent. You can see this in the way we stereotype people locally - people from Mississauga are boring suburbanites, people from Queen West are pretentious dicks, etc. - and group unfamiliar people into larger groups - all Muslims are violent. This is because our identity as, say, an Annex resident is defined against other neighbourhoods, and ours as a Westerner against the other worlds that we instictively perceive as homogenous - in fact, we reduce our own civilisation to a kind of homogeneity when we assert our identity as part of it, as I did when I referred to my 'liberal Western instincts' a few paragraphs ago. In Ethiopia, both riven by and united despite divisions into regions and sub-regions and clans, the nature of identity is easily visible. When I was involved in a dispute with several of the 'guides' over their payment, they tried to make me angry, and they thought they had an infallible strategy - 'I thought Canadians were good people,' they said, 'but I see they are greedy, just like Americans.' They simply could not imagine that an insult on my country would not be deeply personal - especially drawing in the country against which Canadians define themselves, showing a bit of astuteness on their part - because a similar comment about Ethiopians would have been very insulting, which is why I took care to contrast their behaviour to others' I'd met. They assume that this instinct prevails in all people - to defend their identity groups in the face of others, and to take generalisations about them as statements about themselves. This is, of course, patriotism, exactly the same kind displayed in so many political speeches, from the United States to Iraq to North Korea, a feeling taken for granted as a virtue by people all over the world.

In my opinion, however, patriotism is one of the worst things in existence. It is the adaptation of tribalism to the age of the city-state, and like its mother philosophy it comes down to this: that when two lives are weighed in the balance, the scale is tipped by considerations of geography. It is the belief that a place is superior simply because you were born there - proved to be my grandmother with her constant assertions that Polish yoghurts and meats are much better than Western ones, and by a policeman in Poland who told my father to 'go back to Canada and your plastic ham!' on being given an Ontario driver's license. It's easy to understand why patriotism exists from an evolutionary perspective - in social animals, gene survive most often with groups as well as with individuals, and groups which helped one another against other groups were more thus more likely to survive. Such behaviour reaches its apotheosis among certain tribes of Papua New Guinea, who kill anyone they encounter unless he is a recognised member of their in-group, but the modern manifestations of this are everywhere. I'm far from free of them myself - I still feel a strong pride whenever Toronto achieves something or is in the news, and I feel the classic tribal feeling when watching the Leafs or TFC, because sports is, of course, war transposed onto the more civilised plane of the ice rink or the football pitch. Nevertheless, I would never work to the detriment of other human beings simply because they did not share my ethnicity, and I am now travelling in a land where this is not just common but assumed as inevitable - as it probably is the world over.

It is certainly the case in the United States, where the prominence of 'American interests,' and the President's serving of them, is taken as a given. This is particularly interesting considering the excitement Barack Obama has inspired among Africans - I've eaten at the Obama Restaurant in Bahir Dar and used the internet at the Obama Business Centre in Mekelle, and Kenya declared the day of his inauguration a national holiday. There are 'Yes We Can' t-shirts everywhere here, bilingual in English and Amharic, and every Ethiopian to whom I've spoken on the subject thinks he's 'a good man' who will definitely be 'good for Africa.' Why? Because he's African - he has African blood. The fact that Obama himself identifies as African-American with a heavy emphasis on the latter does not enter their calculations: he will help Africans more than others because he shares their blood more than others', just as the prime minister, Meles Zenawi, in trying to raise Ethiopia raises Tigray just a little bit more. This is human nature, instinctual and irrevocable, and I have no doubt that even if Barack Obama is a great president he will be a huge disappointment for Africa.

Ultimately, the jins, the Arabic word for tribe, remains one of the primary units of self-identity in Africa, though it is not as bad in Ethiopia as in some places whose 'national identity' exists only in the football stadium. That is why people here have such trouble comprehending the nature of my dual citizenships - they cannot believe that I could betray my blood so wholly and serve that of another nation; I don't serve Canada in any meaningful sense, of course, but that's another issue. Similarly, a nationalist Russian I met in a Beirut hostel insisted on talking to me in his native language, straining my grasp of it to the breaking point, asserting that Westerners, though they acted like my friends, could never really be because they did not have Slavic blood like he and I did. The notion of bloodlines, of fate and nature determined by birthright is inescapable here, and there is quite a strong undercurrent of it even among the secular humanists of the Western world. I hope such a feeling might lessen as the march of civilisation, if it exists, moves forward, but I fear that the survival instincts honed by evolution in the African savannah and beyond, will be insuperable.

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Et

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