My wife Maya and I just returned from a three-day trip to the Wollega district of Ethiopia, a few hundred kilometers straight west of the capital city. Now that I’m back in Addis Ababa/Finfinne and have a bit of time to spend at an internet café, this blog post will be devoted to that trip. Unfortunately, unlike last week when I blogged three times while staying at the Bole Ambassador hotel, this week I haven’t been able to blog much or even check e-mail because I don’t have access to the internet. The official college business part of my trip ended Saturday morning when we met with the Gudina Tumsa Foundation — about which I have already written at length on my other blog [here] after my last visit to Ethiopia in 2010 — and there we saw the Sandscribe Communications office. After that brief visit, Maya and I moved from the hotel to the house of a relative, and on Sunday, we spent the day at a family gathering, stuffing ourselves with doro wat, kitfo, anchote, rafu, and other stews on top of the budeena (a.k.a., injira, the traditional Ethiopian pancake-like bread), and catching up with relatives of Maya’s whom neither of us had ever met before. Luckily, during this family gathering we were able to recruit someone to join us on our trip, Juwar, born and raised in Addis but has lived in Maryland, not far from Maya’s family.
So, early Monday morning, just as the sun began to rise, the five of us set out for Wollega. Our group was me, Maya, Maya’s youngest aunt Lensa, our new friend Juwar, and our trusty driver and all-around righteous dude Tesfa. I’m afraid the trip had a mix of different purposes, a little mixing of business, pleasure, and family, so there isn’t much coherence, and it may not seem like it has much to do with film and media at first, but bear with me, and hopefully you’ll see. And when I say “see,” you’ll have to rely on my descriptions and theorizations, because I haven’t had time to process all the photos and transfer them to a USB jump-drive to bring to the internet cafe where I am now.
For those of you who don’t know Ethiopia’s geography, the drive into Wollega is extraordinarily beautiful. The elevation is between 7000 and 8000 feet (which is about 2000 to 3000 feet higher than the Appalachian mountains in America.) One goes up and down mountains and valleys, crosses over small rivers, and drives past what essentially is hundreds of kilometers of farmland. Even during the dry cold season after the crops have already been harvested (i.e., now in December), it is still lush, and when one looks down from the mountain onto the valley spread out below, it looks like a patchwork of different colors with fields of a variety of crops such as tef (the nutritious grain used to make budeena), corn, chickpeas, and pasture for cattle. We drove past groves of mango, banana, avocado, papaya, and other trees such as the tall and straight poplar tree, and small towns of small houses made of mud or clay walls and either thatch or corrugated tin roofs. Juwar remarked that it reminded him of the Shire from J.R.R. Tokien’s novels The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Our ultimate destination was the coffee farm owned by Maya’s grandfather in the town of Bodji, and upon arrival at their stately home, we compared it to Eden. The home itself almost feels like a nineteenth-century American farm with a well for water, a woodshed out back, a beautiful garden, and a patio where we all rested after our journey and had coffee and a dish called irridibu, which is freshly made budeena basted with spiced butter. Nothing tastes better than fresh, home-made bread out in the country. We also noted the ironic juxtaposition of essentially old, traditional forms of life and the new forms. Throughout the region, one sees mud huts with satellite dishes, people driving carts pulled by donkeys while talking on their cell phones, streams of children walking miles to a school where they study an academic curriculum that comes from who-knows-where, and young boys herding cattle down a major highway recently build by the Chinese government. Indeed, this road had only been completed a couples months before we arrived, which made our trip significantly easier and faster, for otherwise we would have needed an SUV to manage tedious unpaved roads. Such a mixture of old and new, local and foreign, is precisely the sort of paradox of globalization that I taught last spring in a special course that utilized various internet technologies to connect American and Ethiopian students.
Our first destination on Monday was the city of Nekemte, where after driving for many hours across gorgeous landscape, I met with the president of Wollega University, a new regional state university created just six years ago. The school is rapidly expanding as part of the federal government’s commitment to regional development and national integration. My guess is that the Chinese investment in the roads helps somewhat, but I also notice that the Ministry of Education seems to deliberately send students to campuses in other regions, which I assume is intended to contribute to national integration. Wollega University also recruits faculty from other countries, especially India, for medical sciences and information science & technology. They also have exchange programs with schools in Italy, Netherlands, and Norway, and they are in the midst of talks with the U.S. embassy about possible connections with American schools since they want American faculty to participate in their English language and literature program. At the same time, they are creating a folklore department to study local cultures and have plans for fostering local arts and media (including film.) Of course, media and folklore go together, since the documentation of folklore is essentially oral and visual, i.e., documentary film. I could not help but notice that the work of so-called “development” and “globalization” always seems to be followed by a renewed interest in preserving local culture, and I think this paradox needs to be theorized more deeply by Ethiopian scholars, government officials, artists, and film-makers. The key word that I’ve been hearing for the past week and a half is “development,” but the problem that I also see with the “development” ideology is that it is as much ideological as it is practical, sometimes blind to the very economic opportunities it is supposedly meant to foster as well as to the cultural dynamics that should be obvious, but aren’t.
After this short visit of an hour, I then visited the Mekane Yesus church compound in Nekemte, where Maya and I met with Fenan, the country coordinator for Resources for the Enrichment of African Lives (REAL) – the organization that we had briefly met in Addis last week and that our documentarian Jennifer had briefly filmed. REAL’s mission is to help teenage girls who have lost their parents so that they can go to college and become leaders. Fenan was once one of the students herself and now mentors others. That was Monday, and we had been up since 5:00 a.m., driven 325 km, and met with two organizations, so I was ready for a couple beers and some shekla (a delicious food which is basically spicy meat served in stoneware pot in which it is still being cooked by coals underneath.)
The next day (Tuesday) was to be devoted to family. We woke up very early for our long trip ahead, but soon after we woke up, the electricity went out in the whole neighborhood, and we found ourselves in pitch darkness, so Maya had to shower by the light of her cell phone. We then drove to the small city of Gimbi where we had breakfast, and then continued on to the country town of Bodji. I have already described how beautiful this terrain is and the lovely house of Maya’s family. After some visiting with relatives, we drove a couple miles to where the coffee farm is and hiked around the tef field and coffee plants. Next, we visited the Bodji Deremedji primary and secondary school that Juwar’s grandfather had built, and Juwar talked to administrators about his grandfather’s legacy. Coincidentally, Maya’s mother, uncles, and aunts had all attended that school, and so for Lensa it was a bit of a walk down memory lane. We then drove back to Gimbi and relaxed at the hotel, where unfortunately Maya caught a bug in her stomach resulting in necessary religious devotions to the porcelain god. Wednesday morning, we woke up bright and early, drove to Nekemte where we had breakfast. I had chechebsa, which is made from a fried doughy bread called keeta mixed with the spiced butter, along with scrambled eggs and honey. In some ways, Ethiopia really is the land of milk and honey. In other ways, it is a land of staggering poverty. In a society whose culture is essentially based on farming, those who have no land will struggle to survive. The question of land is central, I believe. For the five of us travelers, it was painful to see some of our own relatives unable to make ends meet at the same time that other relatives appear quite prosperous. After breakfast, we went to the Wollega Museum where I learned that the Oromo culture in Wollega values farming and land and that, traditionally, skilled professionals such as blacksmiths were somewhat isolated from the rest of the community. This cultural bias has changed since the People’s Revolution in 1974 that began to democratize the country, but I wonder if it persists in some less visible ways. I also learned that there is significant diversity in Wollega, both Christians and Muslims, and not just Oromos, but also communities that have migrated from the very environmentally different Gambella region as well as the Jebelawi community from Assosa. Now that the southern Sudan is so rife with conflict, I wonder how many people from there might migrate to Wollega in the near future.
On our return home (on what is Christmas day in Europe and America, but just an ordinary day here in Ethiopia where Christmas occurs on January 7), we again drove past miles and miles of beautiful farmland as well as miles of miles of poverty. On the roadside, either squatting or standing, but always looking for the car around the bend, people sold coal, avocados, pumpkins, lumber, sugar cane, corn, beautifully carved wood utensils, and even dirt (for the walls of homes.) Women walked carrying bundles of firewood on their backs or gallons of water – “hewers of wood and drawers of water” — the classic biblical formula for the hard labor of women and servants (a biblical formula brilliantly discussed in its eighteenth-century transatlantic context in Rediker and Linebaugh’s awesome work of history, Many-Headed Hydra.) As we got closer to Addis, we also drove past miles of industrial-scale greenhouses cultivating flowers and other things for export. We also experienced the “traffic-cop” phenomenon that I had seen in the locally produced movie just last week. Traffic cops will frequently post themselves in the road and stop vehicles in hopes of taking bribes. Since I was the only white non-Ethiopian in the car, our driver insisted that I sit in the front seat with him since the traffic-cops were more likely to let us go if they saw me there. We dubbed this the “Ferenji pass” (ferenji being the word for foreigner), so essentially my official “job” in the car was “being white.” On the 432 km journey back from Gimbi to Addis, we were stopped ten times (five in the Wollega district, five in the Shoa district, in case anyone wants to keep score), and usually we were just waved on (the ferenji pass), but twice we were searched (once in Wollega, once in Shoa), and one cop hinted that the presence of a ferenji meant the driver could afford the bribe. We never paid a cent. I decided to make a drinking game out of this, since Juwar had procured some home-made arak liquor in Nekemte, and he and I took a swig after every encounter.
As I reflected on all of these local-global paradoxes, I wondered how the economy and culture of Wollega might soon change since the road has been completed (two months ago, just in time for my trip.) For instance, would the new highway and new presence of universities bring industrialization to the region? Since I noticed that some of the children were confused about the difference between “ferenji” (the word for European) and “China” (the word for all Asians), would they start learning Chinese in Wollega? Would the khat trade (which I have written about [here]) expand now that it could be exported more quickly, as it did in other regions after highways were completed there? I wondered what my Ethiopian students would have to teach me about this in the days and years to come. What movies might they make to dramatize this complexity?