If a Tree Falls in East Africa

Do English-speakers hear it?

Selam G.
7 min readJul 4, 2022

In a day and age where everything seems Google-able, still a large swath of information remains completely off the grid. Much of that “missing” information is about ethnic minorities. I don’t mean to say today whether this is a good or a bad thing, simply that this is currently true. The internet is not a neutral zone sanitized of human influence. It’s just a digital representation of humanity, with all the issues (classism, racism, geopolitics etc.) associated with it. Or, in truth, it doesn’t even represent all of humanity, just the people with the resources to shape it.

My father is from a village called Warwara, in Kaffa, Ethiopia. Every few years we made our pilgrimage there to my grandmothers house. As a seven year old I would bounce through the door barefoot carrying a jug of water from the river, and aunties would beg me to wear shoes, and my father would just laugh and encourage me to get a taste of his own upbringing. On clear nights you can see the milky way galaxy like God pulled a paintbrush across the sky, because there is so little light pollution. In the rainy season, a thick fog settles in and obscures your vision, so that you seem to be in the center of a cloud, a mist of bird sounds and chirping insects, as you walk through the forest to collect the family cattle.

Yet, no widely available online record of such a place exists.

For all anyone knows, I could be making up this place, nested in highlands, reached only by foot or horse. My 97 year old grandmother still rides a horse to the doctor. Even other Ethiopians are surprised when I explain some of the cultural norms of the Kaffa region and ethnic group, for example, how the doro wot is not as spicy and actually much more of a stew than the typical wot consistency, and we pour the broth into sini and drink it. Not to mention the fact that coffee with butter and/or salt is common, which is also true for other groups like Gurage, but many of my diaspora friends were amazed (some appalled) to learn this.

Sometimes I used to feel like I was in those children’s stories where a protagonist passes through a portal — perhaps a wardrobe, or some cave in the forest — and lands in a different world that no one else has ever seen or would believe. The modern world is small but in some ways it’s still very large and unknowable, with these corners that are not so influenced by the machines of capitalism and cultural hegemony. I don’t know if it would help if Warwara were on Google Maps, or if I’m actually glad that these things aren’t folded in to the enormous corporate data machines. Diaspora from Kaffa (the larger region) are rare and hard to find, though simultaneously my dad seems to know all of them. Perhaps it’s more that Kaffa diaspora my age seem particularly rare. In fact, on the rare occasions I have met other minority diaspora, especially from the South, I feel an interesting kinship with them, simply because the double-minority status is something I feel they understand.

This dawned on me some time in college, the idea of a double minority — I am a racial and ethnic minority in the United States, but also my Ethiopian side is a minority ethnic group. I am a minority even within the Ethiopian diaspora. Class is also at play — the least represented diaspora are those from the most rural, typically least resourced, places. Summed up, few of my other diaspora friends have ever ridden a horse.

I want to emphasize that this is not inherently a bad feeling. I am always excited to meet other Ethiopians regardless of their particular ethnic group — particularly in the horrible and tragic conflict we are in now, I feel emphasizing that sense of unity is important. I love to celebrate and share my unique cultural traits with them, and of all people, I know my friends in the Ethiopian diaspora would be my biggest advocates for better, more specific representation of our diverse culture.

What this really makes me wonder about is how exactly to give voice to people in a globalized world that so often glosses over these finer points of culture, these unique differences within a country, within a region — and in some cases renders them completely invisible. One of the very few times that Kaffa people actually took to the streets and protested was because the government tried to claim that coffee was not discovered there, despite promising a coffee museum and tourism funding in Bonga several years prior based on this fact. People take advantage of this invisibility, despite the fact that Kaffa people are still about 1.5–2 million in population.

And why should everyone, not just other ethnic minorities or double-minorities, care about this?

Let’s zoom out. The entire Ethiopian conflict is at best widely misreported and misunderstood, and at worst, confusion is being used as cover for gross human rights violations. Online extremism and misinformation flourishes. Kaffa people are a much smaller minority in Ethiopia, but no ethnic group in Ethiopia is a majority (the largest are still just 1/4th-1/3rd of the total population). On the global stage, all the Ethiopian ethnic groups are blurred together by media, all are often misrepresented. I am certain that could happen in any other ethnically diverse country — and no country is as homogenous as the majority group wants to believe.

Zooming out even further, I always tell my other African friends that Ethiopia is the second most populous African country, with 115 million people, and has one of the most populous African diaspora groups. Almost everyone is always surprised by this, because of this odd invisibility that I’m still trying to define.

I think a large part of it is language. Ethiopians do not speak English as widely as countries that were former colonies. You even see this in pop culture and music — Afrobeats became a global sensation in part because many of the lyrics are in English, but primarily non-English genres like Zulu/Xhosa Amapiano or Swahili Bongo Flava and Gengeton have yet to truly break out onto the mainstream (This despite all the efforts of Diamond Platnumz, who is getting close or arguably there, but partly by including more English lyrics or collaborating with English-speaking artists and media)

What would it look like if more ethnic minorities could create spaces for themselves that represented them well? How do we preserve our languages? How do we balance maintaining minority cultures with regional, national, and the continental and pan-African unity that we need? How would we disseminate this information to the world?

A student at Addis Ababa Science & Tech University made an online dictionary for Kistanigna, another minority language.

What would government policy related to this look like? What would international or regional bloc (e.g. African Union, ECOWAS) policy for this look like?

What does “development” really mean? Does it have to mean that we are sanitized of culture, and that all parents who complain — about small but growing numbers of young people not knowing Kinyaranda or who don’t speak much Amharic, or, most commonly, that only old people speak their ethnic languages — has to continue to be right?

Of course I will never say to a struggling farmer that some abstract cultural maintenance should come before economic prosperity. But why must we choose between these, when some people never have to? I think about the European Union, where it’s very common to speak more than one language, and where culture feels at least a little more preserved or specifically maintained by governments and institutions, and the Union still empowers its member states as a collective entity. Who knows, I don’t at all mean to point to a Western institution as a model, it’s just one of the few examples (given there’s only so many such unions in the world) and of course they still have a myriad of problems. Perhaps we will come up with a better solution, a more uniquely African or, in my case, uniquely Ethiopian solution.

I don’t have a solution today of course and it will take many smart people besides me to create one. But it starts by asking the question. This question isn’t often asked, typically muted by the other very important conversations about technology and infrastructure. Yet it’s still important; it gets to the soul of who we are. I hope to do my part, by being a person rooted in my several cultures, who tries hard despite obstacles (like the lack of formal resources to learn Kaffa No’no or even Amharic).

To be someone who can hold and celebrate uniqueness with one hand, embracing unity and cooperation with the other. To dare to believe, despite all the issues with even the most basic measures of progress in my countries, cultures, and continent, that we can still ask for something more.