National Heritage

Published by Ayele Gelan on

A few years ago I travelled to Cape Town to attend an academic conference.  I reserved a couple of days for sightseeing at the end of that event. It would be silly to leave the place without climbing Table Mountains or short of traveling to Cape Point, which is located at a stone throw away from both the Indian and the Atlantic Oceans.

I went to the receptionist at my hotel to book a place with one of the tour operators.  The receptionist told me the following day was a national holiday. She promised she would look into it, if there would be any operator who would still go out.  “What national holiday is tomorrow?” I asked.  I heard her say, “it is a ‘bra’ day!”.  I was a bit taken aback, “Bra as a national holiday?” I muttered to myself, quietly. 

I thought it was something to do with romance, perhaps Valentine’s Day, South African style.  But I ruled that out that possibility, because South Africans would be unlikely to elevate the status of Valentine to a National Holiday.

I was tempted to inquire for further information, by asking the receptionist something like “but why do you celebrate bra as a national holiday?” However, I refrained from doing so for I felt awkward to engage with a woman in an extended discussion about bra matters. Anyway, I thanked for her cooperation and left the place, still wondering about bra as a national holiday.

Fortunately, the receptionist phoned and told me that she booked a place for me with a tour operator who would pick me from the hotel early morning the following day. 

Soon after he collected tourists from different hotels and filled his minibus, the tour guide headed towards Cape Point. I was happy that he broke the ice by telling us that day was a national holiday and explaining what that holiday was all about!

Until he spelt it for us at one point, I was still hearing him saying Bra, but apparently, it was Braai, an Afrikaan word for Barbeque.  I was sitting nearer to the tour guide, so I confessed to him that ‘I thought I heard him say bra and hence assumed the holiday had something to do with Valentine’. He did not only giggle about it himself, but he picked the microphone and announced the story to everyone in the minibus, they laughed.

National Braai Day is  celebrated on 24 September. It is also referred to as Heritage Day. South Africans celebrate it “remembering the cultural heritage of the many cultures that make up the population of South Africa…. On this day, South Africans are encouraged to celebrate their culture and the diversity of their beliefs and traditions, in the wider context of a nation that belongs to all its people.”

I was captivated by the smart choice of South Africans. I could not stop thinking about it for the rest of my stay in Cape Town. Now and then that holiday kept coming to my mind ever since.  I saw the beauty of South Africans choice. They picked something as neutral as a barbeque day and used it as a unifying symbol of national heritage. After all no one would object to a day in a year when family members, relatives and neighbours come together, and have fun and relax around a barbeque. Perhaps that is a starting point to identify more and more elements of communalities among communities in a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic nation like South Africa.

I was attracted to Braai Day for a reason; it’s implication for my own country.  What can Ethiopian’s learn from South Africa’s clever choice?  Does Ethiopia have a national heritage day that equally excite every member of communities up and down the country?

I can imagine these questions being interpreted in so many different ways by members of different communities in Ethiopia.  Some would not even fathom the very idea of Ethiopia being compared to South Africa.

We may think Ethiopians are much less diverse and divided than South Africans are.  I agree with that viewpoint but only to a limited extent. If we are fixated on colour, we tend to exaggerate their diversity and underestimate ours. 

One thing is clear, South Africans may have greater diversity at the moment but they are doing something towards minimizing sources of their differences by, for example, creating at least one shared national heritage day.  A good start,  this signals that the chance of them sticking together would improve over time. 

On the contrary, Ethiopians may not currently have worrying extents of divergence but certainly communities are drifting apart at alarming rates.  If the current trend continues, then we may reach a point at which we would meet South Africans on the road, travelling in opposite directions. 

Consensus on shared national heritage is one concrete example that serves as an indicator of national harmony and tolerance.  There is no scarcity of national holidays in Ethiopia but I am talking about those type of national heritages that excite every Ethiopian more or less to the same extent. 

Let’s face it, we have none to celebrate together, but plenty national heritages for each community, separately.  I can hear some loudly protesting, what about at least inqutatash!? Then I hasten to remind you that there aren’t tens of millions of Ethiopians who would relate to or moved by the story of Nigist Saba’s visit to King Solomon. 

Ethiopian history has been such that we have tended to celebrate national heritage days in a way that was framed by some groups, who wanted others to dance to their tunes. For instance, Ethiopians fought battles shoulder to shoulder against external forces, notably at Adwa. However, Ethiopian history has been written in certain ways, that the contribution of each community to the war effort has never been felt to be fairly reflected in the “establishment” version of the country’s history. 

For instance, no student of Ethiopian history would able to tell us the family name of Fitewurari Gebeyehu, the most celebrated hero of the battle of Adwa.  Oromos have always bitterly protested this omission. The omission was a complete no-brainer; it happened simply because that name was Gurmu, an Oromo name! No wonder then if Oromos have historically celebrated Adwa victory day with a subdued mood, harbouring hard feelings.

Oromos have fought that war using their own war cries, Geerarsa, which was not given any room to be reflected during celebration of national Adwa remembrance day. Hence, Adwa remained a national heritage day which was deprived of its potential to excite all sections of Ethiopia’s communities to an equal extent.

Palace scholars have framed national heritages so insensitively in utterly biased ways to reflect largely a version of history favoured by the ruling class, who happened to be Amhara.  The latter have often resented the reservation of Oromos and other communities, accusing them if not being enthusiastic “Ethiopianists” like them.

Then again, however, something extraordinary happened during the 2019 Adwa victory day celebration in Addis Ababa.  This time Oromo horsemen wearing Oromo national costumes turned up in large numbers at Mesqel Square to celebrate Adwa. The fact that Oromo horsemen came in such numbers was fitting in that Oromo cavalry was a major factor at Adwa victory. Perhaps Oromo cavalry has been sorely missed in a series of annual events that lasted over a century. 

While Mesqel Square is the usual venue for big national events such as Adwa, it was bizarre that Amharas chose to retreat to a separate venue, to avoid seeing Oromos celebrating in their own style, and this time reflecting their culture at the event. Amharas occupied Minilik Square some distance away from the usual venue.  The separation of communities into different sub cities in Addis Ababa to celebrate the same national heritage is a clear sign of communities drifting apart at a scary pace. 

The latest separation during the celebration of the 2019 Adwa victory day is just one in a series of worrying trends that communities have progressively running out of anything tangible as a shared national heritage.  It has been a while since Ethiopians have stopped subscribing to one federal flag. There are at least two versions of Ethiopia’s federal flags, one official and the other, well, semi-official.

In the past, advocacy for community cohesion among Ethiopians has been reduced to a couple of “sweet” phrases: the “we are intermarried, we are related” mantra!  This line has been repeated so often that it does not seem to be taken seriously by any one group.  It is time to get real and serious. No doubt Ethiopians have been intermarried but surely they sound to be in an unhappy marriage, and something is got to be done about this family troubles!

For starters, Ethiopians should learn to be tactful, exercise mutual respect. Infantile behaviours on social media seem to have eroded whatever mutual respect existed among communities in the past. 

We should acknowledge the fact that one groups hero may be a villain in the eye of other groups.

 Let’s stop preaching others to celebrate heroes who do not belong to them. We can continue to quietly celebrate heroes within sub-groups, but we should refrain from forcing it upon others.  

Anyone who relentlessly try to impose one’s own heritage upon others is not doing any favours to Ethiopia’s unity. Doing so is an utterly selfish behaviour. Building community cohesion in Ethiopia would begin with swallowing this bitter pill. It should be alright to have separate heroes and still cherish other shared cultural heritages, promote and elevated them to national heritage status.

Although I have harboured a thought on national heritage of Ethiopia ever since I bumped into Braai Day, I was prompted to write this piece by PM Abiy’s call for Addis residents to participate in a one day city cleaning campaign with hashtag #EveryDayWeCleanEthiopia.

Given the divisive campaigns Addis residents have been subjected to over the previous few months, PM Abiy’s call for cleaning the city was not only timely, but it was also a healing process that brought neighbours from different community groups to come out together, clean their city, work for a common good and then engage in friendly conversation in the meantime. 

I have no doubt that what PM Abiy had in mind was more than just physically removing bits and pieces of rubbish. I imagine he wanted to create an occasion which would give residents a respite from barrages of social media led acrimonious and damaging inter-community tit for tat exchanges.  There are compelling reasons to extend this to other forms of cleaning campaign, that of awakening the silent majority to route hard core extremists out of their midst.

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