You are not the only person reading this. In all likelihood there are representatives of the US and Ethiopian governments reading this blog. I do not think this out of a false sense of importance or from paranoia, but because I have been told as much. My understanding of Peace Corps, like other such ‘soft’ diplomacy organizations, and the Ethiopian government leads me to believe that what I have been told is most likely true. I am not able to write some of things that I would like to write for exactly this reason. Instead, I will simply tell you stories, wholly objectively and dispassionately and leave it to you to draw your own conclusions. I have no opinions about the situations that I would like to draw your attention to. I simply find them “edifying.”
There are some events that are considered to be too small, too inaccessible or too hidden to make it to the world news. For these events I will supply some first person narratives, but please keep in mind that I am just your humble narrator and do not have any emotional or pragmatic attachment to the story. They are just stories devoid of emotion and significance; words on a computer screen. If you happen to feel sadness, indignation, or confusion then you have only yourself to blame. I have included some material from Keith Richburg’s book on Africa, Out of America, to bring in an outside perspective on certain issues… since I have no thoughts of my own.
“It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way. I really did come here with an open mind, wanting to love the place, love the people. I would love to end this journey on a high note, to see hope amid the chaos. I’d love to talk about the smiles of the African people, their generosity and perseverance, their love of life, their music and dance, their respect for elders, their sense of family and community. I could point out the seeds of democracy, the formation of a ‘civil society,’ the emergence of an urban middle class, the establishment of independent institutions, and the rule of law. I wish I could end my story this way, but it would all be a lie.” Out of America by Keith Richburg page 226.
We had to attend a Peace Corps training in Addis Abeba several months after we moved to our site. To reward us for our work, and to break up the monotony of the training, Peace Corps offered to take our training group to a production of The Vagina Monologues. I would normally not be interested in the show, but I was intrigued to see the show performed by Ethiopian women. The day before we were supposed to go, however, we heard that the cast of the show was imprisoned and the show was permanently banned. This was my first real taste of the poorly-wielded power the government has and the damage it inflicts. The government had taken offense at a scene involving lesbians and cracked down on the production. This is one reason why I am such an adamant supporter of equal rights for same-sex couples. In some parts of the world, including most of Africa, homosexuals are in constant fear of being harassed, imprisoned or even killed. Despite shows of male-on-male affection that would make even a drag queen in the U.S. blush, homosexuality is illegal in Ethiopia. Many gay people here are either considered crazy, diseased or evil. Thanks fundamentalist missionaries, keep up the good work…
As environmental volunteers, some of our intended duties are to distribute information about fuel-efficient wood stoves and to promote their adoption and use. Claire and I had both worked at the Fort-Collins based Trees, Water and People which does excellent work with such stoves. We were very excited to work on fuel-efficient stove programs and felt well-equipped for such work. We even met with the Administrator of the United States EPA while she was touring Africa to promote fuel-efficient stove use. I was selected to present some intended Peace Corps stove projects to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson at an event in Addis Ababa. Claire and I left the event feeling excited, proud and very ready to promote efficient stoves in the Simien area. But our excitement quickly became bogged down in the reality of being a foreigner without funding trying to work in Ethiopia. We met with local agricultural extension workers and stove makers to promote fuel-efficient stove designs. It was quickly clear that the current stove design was too expensive for many people to afford and was not well-suited to the cultural idiosyncrasies of the Ethiopian highlands. We found a more appropriate stove design that was being promoted by the German development agency GIZ. After numerous phone calls over several weeks and meeting with a GIZ representative in the nearby city of Gondar, we had an agreement with GIZ to come to our town and provide a week-long stove training. Local farmers would be trained on gathering construction materials, building the stoves and marketing the stoves in the surrounding area. The farmers would be paid to attend the trainings and would be given start-up capital to develop an association of stove manufacturers. All of this funding would be provided by GIZ and all the local government needed to do was identify farmers to be involved and to gather the initial construction materials, which GIZ would have reimbursed them for. Instead, the local government demanded a letter from GIZ stating what exactly the training was for and implying that GIZ would pay the local administration an unspecified amount of money to hold the training. After several weeks of trying to facilitate between the local government and GIZ, we eventually gave up. GIZ was understandably not interested in going out of their way to provide a highly-beneficial and free training if the local government was going to make demands and question its intentions.
After discussing the situation with people around town it became apparent that these difficulties were not uncommon. The local government has often charged an ‘altruism tax’ on organizations or even groups of tourists who wanted to donate to a particular project or cause in the area. Several tourists once expressed an interest to build a well for a community that lived in the buffer zone of the national park. They had been trekking in the park and were disturbed by the sight of little girls traveling miles over mountainous terrain to bring water to their families. When they brought their proposal to a local government administrator he told the tourists that the well would cost over three times the actual amount. Since wells are not cheap to begin with, the tourists balked at the inflated price and were unable to pay. The well was never built and the girls are still hailing water. The person who told me about the well wrung his hands through his close-cropped hair as he spoke and told me that he would likely be arrested if I repeated the story in public. I have no opinions…
“I do not hate Africa or the Africans. What I hate is the senseless brutality, the waste of human life. I hate the unfairness, the injustice, the way repressive systems strip decent people of their dignity… Perhaps more than that, I hate this maddening propensity of Africans to wallow in their own suffering, to simply roll over when kicked, and to express unswerving faith that some outside force, some divine intervention, will bring deliverance from their misery.” Out of America, pages 232, 233.
The Importance of education
As you may know, Claire and I worked with a local group of teachers and parents to expand and renovate an existing primary school library and to have desks built for 600 students. Previously, the library was rarely used by students and almost never used by teachers. The classrooms all have mud floors and the inadequate seating meant that many of the students had to stand, sit on the mud or try to cram as many students as possible on the few seats available. With the hard work of the teachers, a VAST grant from Peace Corps and some generous donations from friends and family, we were able to make a huge impact on the small school. Thank you very much to anyone who donated to our project fund. The school threw an over-the-top thank you ceremony for Claire and me and Peace Corps in general. A local government representative came to the ceremony to personally thank us for our hard work and to present us with gifts that the school had bought for us. Even though he came an hour late, he gave a lengthy speech on the importance of education for Ethiopia’s development and promised money to the school to help renovate some of the classrooms.
Weeks before any of this happened, the Federal Ethiopian government agreed on a pay increase for teachers nationwide. Local teachers currently get paid between 1200 and 1800 birr a month depending on education and experience. At the current exchange rate this is between $70 and $100 USD per month. This is nearly impossible to support a family on. The local government, however, refused to honor the pay increase shortly after the thank-you ceremony. Teachers from the school we work with, as well as teachers from other nearby schools, went on strike to demand for the higher pay they had been told they would receive. The man that shook our hands at the ceremony and gave his homily on the importance of education signed the order to have the teachers imprisoned and caned.
Teachers that had dedicated their personal time, energy and even money to improve their school were rewarded by being beaten and humiliated. They were released with the knowledge that if they went on strike again they would likely be tried as “terrorists” and possibly executed. The people that we worked with to improve the school were beaten, but still I have no personal feelings about this or any opinion whatsoever about what happened…
The Waldeba monastery has been a pilgrimage site for well over a thousand years and is one of the holiest monasteries in the Ethiopian Orthodox faith. Jesus, Mary and Joseph supposedly visited the monastery. It is located in the Adi Arkay County just north of Debark County. It is very close as the crow flies, but is at least a 12 hour walk from Adiarkay town, which is again several hours by bus from Debark town. Earlier this year, the government seized a sizable portion of the land used by the monastery. Since all land in Ethiopia is owned by the state, such wanton expressions of eminent domain are not uncommon. If the government can use the land that you are living on, they have every right to take it from you at any point. In this particular case, the monastery was located on prime sugarcane growing lands and the government plowed over the area to put in a sugarcane factory and plantation. The ousted individuals can expect “adequate compensation” according to the law, but debates over what is considered adequate are often over how many times a boot should be applied to a claimant’s ribs. Many people are blaming this year’s extended dry season on the government’s actions at the monastery and dozens of devout pilgrims have flocked to the monastery in defense of the church there. Government forces have been overly generous in assisting these petitioners with their desires for martyrdom. Second-hand accounts add that when federal police forces stormed the monastery, over 60,000 birr worth of cash, gold and personal belongings were stolen from the resident monks and church coffers.
Things are not hopeless, but I am without hope. It is this almost imperceptible and utterly pedantic distinction that has kept me here thus far. I recently read a book by Christian author Max Lucado about making a difference in other people’s lives. He actually includes several examples of situations in Ethiopia where people made a difference in other peoples’ lives. Most of these were part of World Vision projects. In one sentence Lucado declares that, “Poverty is not the lack of charity, but the lack of justice.” And then goes on to glorify the actions of charitable acts of organizations and individuals. There are no discussions of justice or helping people achieve it. The book is page after page of charity. Lucado talks about looking at people instead of just looking through them, but then completely ignores his own advice. People have to work for their own justice; it cannot be gifted to them. One can, and should, help people achieve justice to escape poverty. However, pardon the cliché; one cannot carry their crosses for them. Too often in Ethiopia, well-intentioned people behave charitably and end up giving people gold-gilded nails to crucify themselves with. It may be prettier, but it is still a broken man bleeding out on a broken tree.
Charity counts for nothing until justice is served. Lucado tells a heartfelt story about a man who needs an ox in order to plow his field in order to sustain his agricultural livelihood. What Lucado does not mention, and may not even know, is that the farmer does not even own the land that he is working and had to swear fealty to the current Ethiopian ruling party to be allowed on it. He was likely given the land after it was taken away from someone else. Lucado does not mention that the shallow depth of Ethiopian plows create an almost impermeable hardpan just inches under the soil, which not only reduces crop yield, but also increases the likelihood of soil erosion. Lucado just sees a poor man without an ox. What a simple solution; just give the man an ox. Justice served and poverty averted. Bullsh… right, I almost forgot I did not have an opinion.
In order to function, international aid organizations are expected to ignore the elephant in the room; even as it eats peanuts right out of their hands. The first step to dealing with the elephant is an obvious one; stop letting it eat your peanuts! But for these organizations, to accomplish any work at all they must eventually ignore the farcical anti-corruption posters, banners and fact-sheets plastered throughout government offices. They force themselves to be optimistic. Often their own survival as institutions is at stake because they must present a happy face to their donors in order to keep receiving funds. By necessity, the first goal of many organizations is not to actually bring about some positive change in the world, but to persuade people that they already are.
“Is there a solution, then, for Africa’s predicament? It’s the questions I’m most often asked. It’s in our nature, I suppose, to want to be optimists, to want to think that problems have solutions, that even Africa might somehow, in its own time, be ‘fixed.’ But this strange place defies even the staunchest of optimists; it drains you of hope, and believe me, I know. I’d like to say I have some magic solution, the untested remedy for the continent’s myriad ills. But the problem in Africa is that just about everything has already been tried.” Out of America, page 238.
Free at last…
I wrote the post above months ago, but was literally too afraid to post it. Despite my intentional tongue-in-cheek proclamations of objectivity, I did not feel comfortable posting what I wrote. I did not want Peace Corps to administratively separate me (i.e. fire me) for writing it and I did not want any reprisals from the Ethiopian government. Both were distinct possibilities. It is only after leaving the country that I feel comfortable posting this; even now I do so with a nagging feeling of paranoia. Because I no longer have to pretend to not have an opinion I will tell you the straight truth. The Ethiopian government is not a democracy. The Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia – having ‘Democratic’ and ‘Republic’ in the official name of the country are absurd misrepresentations of a regime that can be called repressive at best and evil at the worst. You may ask me if the events above are true and I can tell you with absolute certainty that they are. I have seen the bruises, mental and physical, and talked for hours with people on both sides. Your money may be used to imprison, control and belittle the people you are trying to help. If you support an organization that works in Ethiopia please write to them to express your concern about how funds are directed into the country and where the organization stands in regards to the current ruling party. The late Ethiopian Prime Minister (i.e. dictator) Meles Zenawi was an eloquent snake and not much more. He claimed that Ethiopia’s economy is growing at an astounding 11%, but some of this is attributed to forcing indigenous people off their land and selling it to powerful foreign interests, mostly Chinese. And honestly, 11% of not much is still – you guessed it – not much. It is a step in the right direction, but only a baby step.
Human Rights Watch has questioned the Ethiopian government numerous times and published several reports on their findings. The current government operates under the ideology it calls “Revolutionary Democracy.” The name means total bullshit, but Meles was very clear about the intended result: “When Revolutionary Democracy permeates the entire society, individuals will start to think alike and all persons will cease having their own independent outlook. In this order, individual thinking becomes simply part of collective thinking because the individual will not be in a position to reflect on concepts that have not been proscribed by Revolutionary Democracy.” These are Meles’s own words as quoted in the Human Rights Watch report. If this concept sounds familiar it may because it is almost verbatim from George Orwell’s dystopian 1984. It is Big Brother’s ultimate plan to control the thoughts of its citizenry to the point that any dissentious thought cannot even be born in the first place. People cannot oppose the government because they cannot think to oppose the government.
Whether better or worse, the current regime is constantly being compared to the previous militarist regime of the Derg. An Ethiopian friend of mine expressed it the best way I can think how when I asked her what she thought. She walked up to me, formed her hand into a pistol, placed it against my forehead and pulled the imaginary trigger. The imaginary hammer of her thumb struck the imaginary bullet in her palm and sent it burrowing into my very real brain. “This is what the Derg regime was like,” she said. She then stepped behind me, formed her hand into the same gun and pulled the trigger. “Tafauhu, yihun inji idegina motah,” she said. “I disappeared, however you still died.” The message was simple: The Derg stepped up and put a bullet in your head, you saw it coming, but the current party shoots you in the back. Despite the ubiquitous propaganda, Meles Zenawi could not win the war of the minds and I know this because he had already lost. It is just a question of when the ruling party, the Ethiopian people and the international community realize it.
The month-long mourning session that followed Meles’s death was real enough for many, but the result of weeks of propaganda saturation for many more. It is still unclear whether the newly appointed Prime Minister will hide human rights violations behind claims of economic success and cultural progressiveness like his predecessor did, or if the ruling party will finally decide that it is time for Ethiopia to be truly democratic. I honestly don’t know which is more likely and I am anxious to see how it plays out in the next five years.
However, that is only my opinion.