By Yilma Bekele
I was proud. I was walking tall. I was happy to see my friend. That day the usual two minutes greetings took forever. I was in a hurry to share the source of my joy and pride. If only I knew how wrong I was. I announced that I was on my way back from a celebration. She asked what about. And I was proud to say the commemoration of the battle of Adwa. You know where the African beat a European power, that Adwa, I said.
She just looked at me. She sighed ‘I see’ and was unmoved by my news. Well I was surprised. That is not the response I expected. I thought she might not be aware of the significance of the Victory at Adwa. There was no question that she must have heard of Adwa. I doubt there is an Ethiopian that is not familiar with the battle of Adwa and its significance in our history. I felt I should enlighten her. Give her a piece of my mind, scold her a little for not paying attention to her history and explain the glorious battle at Adwa.
She hushed me. She looked at me with pity and mocked me with her cruel laugh. She said ‘I know all about Adwa, my question to you is what business have you got celebrating other people’s accomplishment?’ What a curious turn of events I found my self in? I did not understand her statement. ‘What is that supposed to mean?’ I shouted. ‘Aren’t the Adwa heroes my ancestors? I have every right to celebrate their victory! What you talking about?’ I retorted.
Well she said ‘I am not against celebration as such but wouldn’t you say Adwa deserves more than speeches and a dinner? To me that is not commemorating the true meaning of Adwa.’ She went on ‘my dear brother our ancestors fought against injustice and refused to submit. When all those around them were falling one after another they stood tall and said No! Those that wanted to subjugate them were stronger but that did not deter our ancestors from doing what was just and right. They knew it was not about wining or losing but rather doing what is necessary. They knew there was a possibility of defeat but the certainty of being a slave was worse than dying.’
She was not done with me. She asked ‘what have you done lately to continue the spirit of Adwa? What makes you think you deserve to mention our bare feet heroes and heroines? Just because you are dressed in your Shemma and carrying the green yellow and red somehow makes you an Ethiopian in the same league as our brave parents? I am sorry to point out to you my dear brother the only thing you got in common with them is your holiday cloth and the flag, fake! Imposter!’ she screamed. I was deflated. I was unmasked. We were both quiet. Myself due to shame and her due to anger.
She was relentless. She continued ‘let me tell you who should commemorate Adwa. Abuna Petros that is who. He internalized the lesson of Adwa. He practiced the spirit of Adwa. He accompanied the King and his army to Maichew. He witnessed the bravery of his people. Upon his return from that slaughter by the invading army Abuna Petros resolved never to rest until the fascist army is driven out of our motherland. This is what he told his fascist interrogators when asked to comply with the order to submit:
“The cry of my country men who died due to your nerve-gas and terror machinery will never allow my conscious to accept your ultimatum. How can I see my God if I give a blind eye to such a crime.”
Our country has produced a lot of Abuna Petroses. We don’t have to go far to find brave Ethiopians that have been imbued with that rare gift of selflessness and courage in the face of overwhelming odds. Tilahune Gizaw of Haile Sellasie University is one. He chose to stand with the majority of his people instead of the few who held power. Assefa Maru of Ethiopian Teachers Association is our modern Adwa. Dr Asrat Woldeyes will never be forgotten by his people for the strength of his resolve and his stubborn refusal to give in to his tormentors. How could I not mention our present day sunshine, our precious leader, Judge /Chairman Bertukan Mideksa. She has been in Woyane prison for four hundred thirty three days, four hours and forty-two minutes as we talk. Her crime is emulating Abuna Petros and saying no to injustice.’
‘You know what’ my dear sister continued ‘the freedom marchers of Selma, Alabama have every right to commemorate Adwa. On March 7th. 1965 six hundred brave souls decided to march from Selma to Montgomery Alabama in support of the ‘voting rights act.’ They were attacked with clubs and tear gas by Alabama State police and returned back. They tried again on March 9th and they were repelled back. On the third try on March 21st. they made it to Montgomery. It was a 54 miles (87KM) journey and it took five days. That is the spirit of Adwa. Relentless, fearless, righteous and proud. Six hundred people of Selma believed in their cause and changed history. Tell me my brother what did you learn from the festivities?’
I was tongue-tied. I am finding out that I was devoid of personal responsibility. I was using the bravery of my ancestors to hide my cowardice. I am always the first to crow about the three thousand years history of my people and the fierce independent spirit interwoven in my DNA. I wave the Ethiopian flag every chance I get. I have the flag hanging from the rear view mirror in my car, a bumper sticker for all following me to see and another one in my home. I eat Injera every day of the week and consume Starbucks coffee from Yirga Chefe. I listen to Teddy Afro and watch Shemsu and Meskerem on You tube. I thought I was a good Ethiopian. My sister was confusing the hell out of me. I shouted ‘what do you want from me?’ ‘Why are you doing this to me?’ I pleaded.
‘Honesty my brother’ she said. ‘Let us stop playing games. Let us all stop pretending. It is shameful to stand in other peoples shadow and take credit for their action. It is time you take a good look at yourself. It is time you grow up my brother. I have been watching you and I don’t like what I see. I notice that you and your friends are always in the forefront to celebrate other peoples struggle and victory. That is not fair to those that sacrificed. Mentioning Adwa, quoting MLK or honouring Nelson Mandela is not a substitute for following their foot steps.’
She was on fire. She was furious. ‘Tell me’ she said ‘ I have heard that someone took it upon himself to organize a ‘sister city’ agreement between your town and Bahir Dar and considering that the people of Bahir Dar have no say in how their city is run how come you haven’t done something about it? How come you allow individuals to make decision on your behalf? You live in a democratic system where you can demand accountability and transparency in the decision making process. Why are you quiet when your right is being trampled on? Oh I see so many of your friends are upset; they are seething with anger but behind closed doors. You see Abuna Petros was angry but not in hiding. The citizens of Selma were angry but not in secret. What I would like to see is your two faces merging into one. The brave Ethiopian and the subservient Ethiopian should meet in Adwa. The pretender and the honest should have an honest conversation in that murky brain of yours. I wish you luck my spineless brother!’
She left me shell shocked. She left me to contemplate my humiliation. Thus I sat down and decided to have that conversation she mentioned with myself. What I found out is not something to write about. I thought of the little more than five hundred cadres bullying 80 million people and compared that to the six hundred Selmans. I imagined Abuna Petros alone standing in front of the firing squad defiant to the end. I remembered Dr. Asrat looking at death but serene and UN afraid. The picture of Ras Abebe Aregay relentless harassment of the fascist forces played in my head. The bravery of Abraham Deboch and Moges Asgedom tickled my brain. Oh god what has become of me? Why am I self-destructive? Where did I get this idea that I can outsource the struggle for freedom?