Only God who understands Ethiopia!

Dr. Abiy’s Ethiopia: Recent Scholarship but the Mystery and Enigma still remain.

I start with small anecdote.In some remote area of Ethiopia around Dembidollo, a UN policy expert was trying to impress upon the community the need for evidence-based interventions.  “You need to know right information, accurate statistics, history, and behavior patterns.” One elder asked through an interpreter: “And why should we know all these?”  The UN expert said: “Once you have all this accurate data and information, then you will plan better for your projects.”  Then the elder pushed further: “Why should we plan better for our projects?”  The UN expert said: “with better planning and good projects like better farming methods, and water supply, you will have increased food production and better income.”  The elder further asked: “But why should we increase food production and increase our income?” The UN expert replied: “Then you will be able to educate your children, have good health, and live a happy life without much difficulties.” The elder replied: “My son, what you have just said about good health and a happy life, is what we have been enjoying all our life since centuries ago. So we do not need your statistics, data, planning for projects, and your so-called better farming methods.”


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The short anecdote on knowledge is warning not to exaggerate the role of research and the conventional models of planning that policy makers usually peddle around.  Having said that, we still have to grapple with the issue of scholarship on Ethiopia to be able to discern what Dr. Abiy will have to wrestle with during his term as Prime Minister of Ethiopia.  Fortunately, scholars still have great intellectual appetite for Ethiopian studies.  It needs to be stated at the outset that Ethiopia has always posed serious methodological hurdles as an entity for scholarly investigation.  Research is not done in a political and economic vacuum—there is such a thing as the political economy of knowledge production.  After all, whose knowledge and whose methodology?


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With the rise in mass protests across Ethiopia, that eventually gave rise to the shift in power dynamics, the EPRDF itself admitted that there were mistakes in governance and democratic participation.  With this admission, the suggestion was that there should be more inclusive participation—widening the political space.  Political prisoners were released and some of the most critical independent journalists who had been imprisoned such as Nege (on terrorism charges), were released.  One famous political scientist turned politician Dr. Merera Gudina, who had been arrested after his trip from Europe, was also released from prison.  In a situation where political and economic spaces are tightly controlled, do not expect free flow of ideas and knowledge guided by objective and rigorous research.  Intellectual and academic freedom require political and economic freedom.  The most obvious challenge that researchers face in a highly controlled state systems is the limited access to internet and current literature.  Dr. Abiy being an intellectual and scholar in his own right, it is hoped that he will be more at home with press freedom and frank intellectual exchange.  This will be another litmus test of his commitment to opening political space.


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Scholarly interest in Ethiopia is not something new.  Apart from Egypt, Ethiopia ranks no. 1 in terms of scholarship on ancient African societies.  When scholars speak about African studies, they exclude Ethiopia and create a separate category of Ethiopian Studies, given the unique history and geographical location.  The controversy and polemics on this categorization will not detain us.  Philosophers and theologians have also tried to do scientific research on Ethiopian manuscripts hidden in ancient monasteries that date to the medieval period.  Due to the fact that these manuscripts are written in an ancient language known as Ge’ez, it is exceedingly difficult to unravel the hidden mysteries in these manuscripts.  Some scholars have even traced Ethiopian philosophy to the modern period of Rene Descartes.  The much studied Ethiopian philosopher Zara Yacob occupies a special place in knowledge production.  Surprisingly, it was a Canadian Jesuit philosopher Prof. Claude Sumner who popularized Ethiopian philosophy and wrote several volumes about it. He studied both Zara Yacob’s philosophy and also Oromo wisdom literature as expressed in proverbs and folk tales. The type of philosophy found in proverbs and folk tales is what some call ethno or sage philosophy.  Another Jesuit researcher Van de Loo studied Guji customs and proverbs.  A close look at these studies reveals how all the research so far done on Ethiopia is just a scratch on the surface.  Ethiopia is not just layers of time but also layers of truth that one keeps unearthing with time.  A question is usually posed: “how long does it take to understand Ethiopia for a research?” The answer goes like this: “One year to understand the language Amharic (and there are other over 80 languages); two years to understand the culture; three years to understand the economy; four years to understand politics; five years to understand religion; and eternity to understand the whole country and its people!” Then the conclusion is that it is only God who understands Ethiopia.  This makes it exciting since there is always something hidden to learn.


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As way back as the 17th Century a famous Jesuit by the name of Pedro Paez (1564-1622) dared to write a comprehensive history of Ethiopia in two massive volumes covering anthropology, botany, geography, religion, politics, culture and even theology. This history has been recently translated into English for the first time.  With this scholarly publication, some of the myths and legends about Ethiopia have been laid to rest, and a foundation for further inquiry has been laid.  The main reason why Ethiopia has been a great source of fascination among scholars and international relations experts is its strategic location close to the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, and in a very strategic geopolitical location known as the Horn of Africa.  As early as the 16th and 17th Centuries, European imperial powers, explorers and missionaries were busy figuring out the legend of priestly and royal King Prester John.  The deeper motive for fascination with Prester John was the challenging advance and expansion of Islam in the backdrop of Christian crusades.  Not surprisingly, the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) got entangled in the dramatic quest of Prester John, and used this intriguing phenomenon to strategically explore possibilities of consolidating the Christian faith in Ethiopia.  St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits took a personal interest in the question of Prester John, and dispatched some of his most talented Jesuits to Ethiopia in the 16th and 17th Century.  By that time, Ethiopia had become a theater of complex geopolitical rivalry and theological debates on the nature of Christ—whether he was both human and divine.


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Jesuits who were working closely with the kings of the time, naturally found themselves in the middle of these protracted debates.  Because of intimate interaction with the Ethiopian rulers and elites of the time, Jesuits contributed immensely to the intellectual and cultural production of medieval Ethiopia. The journeys of Jesuits in Ethiopia, especially Fathers Antonio Fernadez, Almeida, martyrdom of Fathers Francisco Machado and Bernado Pereira, their interaction with Kings of the time, are meticulously documented in Almeida’s History, Book,s VII-VIII.

What is paradoxical about Ethiopia’s medieval era is the exposure to the then imperial powers of the time such as Portugal, Spain and the Papacy, and at the same time Ethiopia being sheltered from the rest of Africa.  The well documented correspondences between Ethiopian Kings and Popes of the time suggest a great deal of interaction between Ethiopia and Europe.  Some papal legates commonly known as Nuncios were being sent from the Vatican to Ethiopia.  One wonders why the vibrant Christian faith that flourished in Ethiopia since the Acts of the Apostles did not spread to the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa.


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The challenge that all Christian missionaries who come to Ethiopia have to grapple with is what role they have to play in a country that has had a vibrant Christian life since the 4th Century when King Ezana officially declared Ethiopia a Christian country.  Confronted by such a challenge, some expatriate missionaries settle for provision of social services and try to steer away from trying to make converts. But still this does not solve the issue since not all parts of Ethiopia have been evangelized.  Quite a bit of studies have been made on missionary strategies in Ethiopia, with special focus on the role of Jesuits. Just to demonstrate how Ethiopia has been of great interest for the then Christendom of the 16th Century, St. Ignatius of Loyola wrote three documents between 1553 and 1556, instructing Jesuits on how to go about their missionary work in Ethiopia. In 1553, St. Ignatius wrote a letter to King King João III (1521–1557), that contains instructions on who among Jesuits should be sent for the mission in Ethiopia, and especially, who should be appointed the Patriarch, as well as succession procedure.  This first document is called Information for His Highness on the people of our Company who seem to be suitable for the kingdoms of Prester John.


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St. Ignatius of Loyola

The second document was written in 1554–Instructions which may help to bring the kingdoms of Prester John into union with the Catholic faith and Church—following the decision to appoint João Nunes Barreto (1520–1568) to become Patriarch of Ethiopia.  Given the complicated history and traditions of Ethiopia that outsiders could not easily understand, some of the instructions and recommendations in this document led to some serious misunderstandings between Jesuits and the Orthodox Christians of Ethiopia.  The third and final document that was written in 1556–Summary of things necessary for Ethiopia—was more of practical procedures for Jesuits who were sent to Emperor Galawdéwos’ (1540–1559).   St. Ignatius of Loyola who was a man of details and a strategist, spelt out how Jesuits were to relate with the local clergy and also how bishops were to be consecrated in Ethiopia.


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João Nunes Barreto

Even though Ethiopia of the global middle ages is largely the Ethiopia of Kings and imperial European rivalry and missionary adventures, it is still being studied by historians up to today.  Since most of the writings of this period were written in Latin, Portuguese, Italian and Spanish, the English speaking world looks at the recent English translations and works in English with a fresh look.   Among the leading scholars of Ethiopian studies, Professor Richard Pankhurst occupies pride of place.  He has written scholarly works on Ethiopia’s economic history, towns, medicine, education, slave trade, trade, and culture. Paul B. Henze took bold step to write Ethiopian history form the remote past to the modern time addressing issues such as the rise and fall of Aksum, Zagwe and Solomonic dynasties, architecture, painting, handcrafts, and Ethiopia’s interaction with the Near East, Arabia, and the Indian Ocean.  In all these interactions, what is commendable is Ethiopia’s resilience and keeping her culture and beliefs intact to a great extent.  Matteo Salvadore, Assistant Professor of History at American University of Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, recently published an excellent work that can be considered the best intellectual history of Ethiopia during the middle ages. Salvadore writing in 2017, digs deep into Italian and Portuguese sources to unravel Ethiopian and European relations between 1402 and 1555. A close look at both religious and political motives of the time, reveals how Europe influenced and was influenced by Ethiopia in equal measure.  Sites of mutual influence were, royal palaces, monasteries, markets around the Red Sea, Mediterranean Sea, Indian Ocean, Lisbon, Jerusalem, Venice and Goa.  Important to recall that Portugal intervened in support of the Christian monarchy in the Ethiopian Adali War.


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Of course it is a mistake to assume that European encounter with Ethiopia took place only in the Northern Highlands and around palaces of Kings, or that Ethiopia is one monolithic culture, as some people wrongly assume. Far from it.  A social and cultural historical analysis reveals the contrary.  For instance from 1846 until 1880, Massaja, a Capuchin missionary served as Vicar Apostolic among the Oromo of East Africa for over three decades.  It is during this period that the Italian interest in Ethiopia got consolidated.  The issues that Cardinal Massaja struggled with such as Muslim-Christian relations and Orthodox-Catholic relations, are still of great concern in Ethiopia even today.  In those days, prominent missionaries played both political and diplomatic roles.  Another missionary who played a similar role in the Apostolic Vicariate of Abyssinia is Giustino de Jacobis. Bishop Daniel Comboni played a similar role in Sudan. On the role of priest in Ethiopia during between 1830 and 1868, Donald Crummey has done an impressive study, focusing on:  political interaction; the central role of missionaries in the genesis of modern Afro-European relations; Ethiopian leaders dealings with representatives of a foreign society; missionary strategies; attitudes towards the Ethiopian Orthodox Church;  and identification of Christianity with European culture.


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In the 20th Century, scholars started to expand discourse on Ethiopia to include other ethnic communities in an attempt to comprehend the evolution of a complex multiethnic society and polity we call Ethiopia.  A few illustrations will suffice.  Budge E. A. W., explored the history of Ethiopia from Nubian and Abyssinian perspectives. Donald Levine, once a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, tried to synthesize the Ethiopian multiethnic reality, by exploring the semitic civilization, differentiation of peoples and cultures, Amhara, Oromo and Tigrean legacies, and emerged with Greater Ethiopia project. William A. Shack studied kinship, local organization, family, marriage, clanship and ritual, and religious organization of the Gurage. Picking up from where William A. Shack stopped, Daniel Teferra took the study of the Gurage a step further and developed what can be called an “indigenous African economic philosophy” by studying Gurage entrepreneurship. Teferra’s conclusion is that the a peaceful and cooperative work ethic that includes frugality.  As a result they are one of the most enterprising people in Ethiopia.  To paraphrase Max Weber, one can posit a thesis: Gurage ethic and the spirit of capitalism! If there is such a thing as Africapitalism (a fusion of African values of solidarity, hard work and sharing with capitalist spirit of competition, saving and free enterprise), then the Gurage would be its best manifestation.


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Influenced by post-modernism and subaltern analysis, some scholars have tried to expose the scholarship of erasure where some marginalized minority communities have been neglected from mainstream Ethiopian studies.  This is what Dena Freeman and Alula Pankhusrt, in their edited work, Peripheral People, The Excluded Minorities of Ethiopia, written in 2003, tried to do.  So who are these excluded minorities? It is the Southern Ethiopia craftworkers and hunters, blacksmiths, potters, tanners, woodworkers, and weavers.  Not only is their contribution to the economy of the country not recognized, they are also considered as less human, outcastes, and they are even considered and feared as purveyors of evil and supernatural powers.  They are marginalized socially, economically and politically. These excluded and marginalized groups are spread across Ethiopia and live among the major ethnic communities: The North-East: Gurage, Yem, Kambata; North-West: Kafa, Shekacho, Dawro; The South-West: Malo, Oyda; The Centre-South: Gamo, Wolaita; The South-East: Sidama, Konso; Urban or Semi-Urban Areas: Shashemene and Woliso.  Politics of exclusion and marginalization can very easily move from minorities and subtly cross over to majorities, as long as the logic of domination and marginalization is the operative mode.


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Dr. Abiy Ahmed’s Ethiopia: Anatomy of an African Enigmatic Polity – Pt.2

By Odomaro Mubangizi


Author: Admin

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