Ethiopian Diaspora: Both Inside and Outside

How global connectivity changes a nation’s story of itself.

The last five years of Ethiopian politics and modern history have shown how much global connectivity has transformed the relationship between the diaspora and the home country. The two-year mounting political conflict that began in 2016 and led to the installment of current prime minister Abiy Ahmed was fueled by Ethiopian diaspora, and they were not only complicit, but arguably, the primary actors in organized protests and political movements. Oromo, the regional group in Ethiopia that was at the forefront of political dissent, had a ubiquitous internet presence and heavily involved diaspora — including many young people. There was a Snapchat handle shared by Oromo-American college students, Facebook groups, and countless influencers that daily encouraged continued resistance. Jawar Mohammed, the Oromo Media Network’s founder, was particularly active on Twitter and recognized as a key voice in Ethiopian politics from 2015 onwards. Yet, he lives in Minneapolis. As Ethiopia moves on from that chapter, there are no signs of diaspora involvement disappearing.

This year, Ethiopian Airlines led an International Coffee Event that was partly in companion to International Coffee Day, created by the International Coffee Organization headquartered in England. This event was a conference meant to boost tourism and economic activity in Ethiopia’s coffee producing regions. It would also, unbeknownst to me, thrust my own family in the middle of the news and activism that I had previously watched from the sidelines.

While Oromos condemned the Tigray and Amara regions for a long history of subjugating their people, Kafa, ironically, has a long history of being subjugated by Oromia. Though ancient history is always murky, it has long been an accepted fact in Ethiopia that the original home of coffee is Kafa, a region in the SNNPR province. Because Kafa is a relatively small region and predominantly rural, its history is not widely known outside of Ethiopia, and neither is the idea that coffee was first discovered in Kafa, whose name is the very root of the word “coffee” in almost all languages. Kafa itself has seen little profit from the global trade of coffee, but other regions of Ethiopia, including Oromia, developed many coffee processing operations.

On the website for the coffee event held by Ethiopian Airlines, some pages stated that coffee was first discovered in the Oromo region and that the original home of coffee is the city Jimma. This was a clever subversion, because Jimma is a city in Oromia that used to be part of the kingdom of Kafa, and was later taken by Oromia.

For the first time in all the past 2–5 years of political unrest, Kafa people protested throughout the region. Several days of demonstrations occurred, demanding that the International Coffee Event language be changed, and a tour of Jimma (as the hometown of coffee) canceled. It also surfaced some old wounds. In Bonga, there is a coffee museum that has forever been promised expansion, publicity, and renovation, which shows that the Ethiopian government did once accept that coffee was originally from the Kafa region. The lack of investment in the museum and other tourism opportunities, which could have economically bolstered Kafa, was another pain point that protestors brought out in front of authorities.

Fortunately, the protesting was effective and successful. While there was no apology, the tour of Jimma was canceled, and the responsible committee admitted that a “mistake” was made.

In the background of the Kafa protests, the key diaspora voice speaking and coordinating with Kafa people was my own father. Suddenly I was attached to the cause by association, flooded with Facebook friend requests and viewing statements posted in both English and Amharic. Though my perspective obviously has a bias, I saw how much my father changed and shaped the Kafa protests from a distance, advocating for a civil and peaceful resistance, condemning any acts of violence. I contemplated what could have happened if, instead, violence or extremism had been encouraged — through a medium as seemingly harmless as Facebook posts.

If there is anything I have learned from Ethiopia’s periods of political unrest, it is that while history can be complex, what matters is really the story that a nation tells itself. There is a great irony in Oromos complaining of a history of subjugation, yet themselves having a history of subjugating others. I do not raise the subjugation of the Kafa region to further add to the fire of division, but simply to note how some parts of history get precedence over others, even in the story that Oromia tells itself. Furthermore, some stories actually should (or else, inevitably will) get precedence over others, and a nation must decide which of its stories is the most important to be able to have a cohesive identity. If these new narratives start to fracture Ethiopia’s previous story — a story of unity, a story of the only uncolonized African nation — then it threatens Ethiopia’s existence. The nation must figure out how to balance righting past conflicts between groups while also remaining united enough to avoid self-destruction.

What story will all these different contributors — young people protesting, government officials, diaspora influencers — create to reframe the national narrative?

We wait patiently to see what Ethiopia’s 2020 elections might bring.

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A lesson learned:

I originally submitted this piece to one of my favorite publications, Africa Is A Country. After no response for over a week, indicating this piece was not accepted, I re-read my article and saw exactly why. I caught some embarrassing typos, the ending is weak, the voice is kind of weird — an attempt to have this seem less biased/personal and more of a “journalism” style.

I realized that after years of first-person blogging, I have not developed skills in the types of content that I want to create more, or that I myself read. While rejection is never pleasant, it’s always an opportunity for growth. I’ll be “practicing” this and a few more pieces like this one on my Medium blog for a while before I submit anything again.

The biggest loss is actually that an important, lesser-known story lost the chance of broader recognition or interest. If I can write better, maybe I can resurface those types of stories, and bring them out into the light of global recognition. This is the real power of writing, and a skill I want to hone and develop, even if it isn’t my “day job”, so to speak.

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