The Diaspora as a teacher

By Yilma Bekele

There are a lot of Ethiopians outside of their homeland. I have not seen a reliable statistics to tell us the real number, but there is no hiding from the fact that we have become a Nation that looks to outside to solve many of our pressing needs. Coffee, hides and lately cereals have been touted as the main export of our country since time immemorial. I have a feeling that is not correct anymore. Today human beings are the chief export of our country.

Like any commodity there are several ways people are exported. Coffee is exported raw or washed, classified into different grades or packaged various ways. It is the same with people. Some have higher education while a few are illiterate. The fortunate fly out while others walk or swim. Then there are those young so-called orphans sold out to the highest bidder.

Is the export of people good or bad? At first glance the natural reaction is to say there is nothing good about uprooting people from their natural habitat. It robs society of its precious resources. Missing the young and energetic is not a small matter to society. They are the future building blocks. There is also the problem of ‘brain drain’. Those that are blessed with that illusive and much wanted ‘fertile brain’ are always the first plucked by the rich West.

When it comes to our country export of people is a double-edged sword. It robs us of the services of our educated experts while at the same time the income they generate outside is returned back as remittances. The Diaspora has become the premier generator of wealth. Without remittances from the Diaspora our country would be more destitute if such thing is at all possible.

Why is the Diaspora so resourceful and so committed to helping its homeland is a good question? That is what I want to explore in this piece. That we are a special people is not an idle question. It is true and verifiable. Go to any big city all over the planet and you will see what I mean. There is an Ethiopian enclave wherever you go. We create a country inside a country. That is due to factors rooted in our history. We are suspicious of outsiders and it has been inoculated in us that we are the best. Whether true or not is not the issue. That we believe it is a fact is reflected in our behavior. We make sure we live in close proximity; we dine on Injera and wot day in and day out while pretending we can’t stand each other is part of our psychological makeup.

We are new at this game of outside migration. Before the fall of the Emperor the number of Ethiopians outside of their homeland was not significant at all. Higher education was the main reason for leaving the homeland. The vast majority returned home. The emergence of the Derg opened the floodgates. The TPLF minority junta made it into a business. It does not show any sign of slowing down. My question is it possible to make the Diaspora experience into a teachable experience?

I believe so. The Diaspora experience is a rich lesson that can be transferred into a positive asset to help our country and people. The vast majority leave their country empty handed with a one-way ticket out. It is definitely a frightening experience not knowing what lies ahead around the corner. Our lesson in independent living starts the first day away from home. By now it is clear that we are resourceful people and no amount of hurdle is a hindrance to the Abesha spirit residing in our DNA.

Do you ever wonder why we are so successful as immigrants but can qualify as a poster child for dysfunctional behavior when at home? I am not hating but it is difficult to escape that fact of life. We shine like a neon light as a Diaspora anywhere on planet Earth. No question about that.

The most crucial thing we learn is how to prioritize our needs. The first thing we secure is food and shelter. Be it a refugee center, a Red Cross-camp or the bare floor of a cousins apartment any place is acceptable until the next day. It usually takes a few days to get our orientation back and absorb knowledge from the early settlers. Then, we are up and running.

Our existence as the Diaspora is a varied as our Ethiopia. There is no profession we are not familiar with. It all depends on age, level of education, sex, and pure whim. One thing for sure is that we learn fast to be masters of our universe. As I said we choose many roads but we maintain certain things in common. We learn to value privacy. We learn fast that Independent living is not free. Some work, a few work and go to school while others concentrate on education. There is nothing like free choice.

We find out about budgeting and what it means to live within your means. The rent or mortgage has to be paid, utility cannot be skipped, insurance is a must and grocery is not an option. We learn how to plan to buy a house, a car or take a vacation. It is hard work but the reward is beyond imagination. There is nothing like standing on your own. We don’t stop there. The moment we feel secure we move heaven and earth to help each other. Brothers, sisters long lost relatives and even neighbors line up asking for a hand. Abeshas are generous people.

Do you see my problem here? How come the same resourceful people that roam the planet and succeed beyond expectations stink to high heaven in that real estate called Ethiopia? Is it possible those thousands of years of isolated living high up on our mountains have fortified our individualism? Do we function better alone rather than in-group setting? Is that why we are good at distance running but never succeed in soccer? Individually we excel whether in education, sports or business but put us in a venture that requires cooperation and working together and you know we are inviting trouble.

The life as a Diaspora is proof that we are up to the task when challenged and survival depends on ingenuity, clear-cut goals and personal rewards for job well done. That is what we can teach our people. As a Diaspora we have learned dreams and reality are two different animals. We deal with facts. Here are the lessons that I think we can share with our people.

· Life is about setting priority.
· We secure food and shelter first.
· We learn how to live within our means.
· We decide between education, work or both and don’t look back.
· We learn respect for others so they respect us back.
· We celebrate diversity and learn how to coexist with others.
· We learn not to shift responsibility or play the blame game.
· We discover how being an Ethiopian is a big deal and observe how much it is ingrained into us.
· We learn not to insult, demean or hate others.
· We learn the value of success and the meaning of sharing.

Don’t they all look so simple and easy? Apparently that is not the case. Our country is a perfect example of how to learn from negative experience. Don’t you wish our leaders had gone thru this growing process? They will learn to secure food and shelter first. They will not rent a house for five hundred dollars and install a thousand dollars security system. They will not buy an SUV while a little Toyota is what their budget allows. They will not marginalize a section of their population instead of inviting all to live under one big tent. They will learn how to save for a rainy day instead of scrambling to plug the leak as it pours. Most important of all they will learn not to look down at others because of some perceived inadequacy. They will learn to value and respect others not based their lineage, education, wealth or power but simply because they are human beings like us. When we start from that premise everything fits in place.

At a time when millions of our Somali brothers and sisters are facing hell on earth, millions of Ethiopians are surviving with less than one hundred calories a day don’t you think it is about time we reevaluate our current dysfunctional behavior? There is nothing wrong at reassessing our philosophy and outlook on life. It is never too late to change. We can start by being nice to each other, by listening to each other and looking at situations in a positive manner. This game of cultivating hate and magnifying differences is a dead end street. The lessons we are learning as a Diaspora has made us a better Ethiopian and decent human being. We never choose to settle away from our precious home but the experience has only enriched us and made us into a more tolerant and well-rounded person. Although we miss our home and people we have managed to contribute the lions share of helping our country.

Now if only those in charge will use the billions we send home to prioritize and spend the bounty in a meaningful manner. Now if only they will allocate resources to feed, shelter and educate our people in a rational manner. Now if only they spend our remittances on agriculture, technology and sustainable development. Now if only they will learn to respect us, bring us together and involve us in our affairs. The bottom line is we are not responsible for the behaviors of others but surely we can start by changing our selves and showing others how much cooperation is much superior than celebrating conflict. Remember Ezana, Tewodros, Abba Jifar, Tona, Ali Mirah, Worawo, Ginocho and other honorable ancestors are looking down at us, what do we tell them?