By Jonas Clinton
Ever since I was a 9 year old kid in Calgary, Alberta in 1984, Ethiopia has held something special in my heart.
My connection to Ethiopia began in earnest when I saw disturbing images of destitute and famine victims before my eyes on cold Canadian winter. I cried for days and became depressed. I asked myself how humans can die before our own eyes so fast especially when the problem seems man-made. I quickly convinced my school to fundraise money and my parents donated generously to charity organizations.
Little did I know how Ethiopia would shape my professional life later on. Because of what I saw on TV then, I studied international development in university and worked for years, mostly in Asian countries, with Non-Governmental organizations. However, Ethiopia was my first love. I have wanted to visit Ethiopia for such a long time embrace the unique cultural and historical facts of the country.
The Ethiopians I would meet later in life would always tell me about the proud history of the country being the only non-colonized country in Africa. I was impressed. I loved Ethiopian food, the coffee was amazing and my visit to Toronto almost always included frequent visits to Ethiopian restaurants all over the multicultural city. My non-Ethiopian friends would always complain about my fascination to such a “poor and miserable country”: – they would say.
I would repeat what my Ethiopian friends would tell me and tell them what we see on TV in just propaganda to raise money for charity organizations.
Three weeks ago, I went to visit Ethiopia for a month with my young kids. I remember looking outside my plane as we approached Bole International Airport and observing all green lands all over the country. How can this country starve?
As our flight landed and we exited the plane, we were met Ethiopian returnees from Saudi Arabia. These Ethiopians seemed sad and confused – how could they be miserable and scared about returning “home” from the brutality in the Arab world. Perhaps, they know what I don’t after all it was my first visit to the East African nation.
After a long lineup to get a single visa – we exited Bole. Soon I would learn everything in Ethiopia is linked to bureaucratic mess unless you are privileged to be Chinese or white like me. There were constructions everywhere and it was hard to walk freely as beggars would surround you in no time. And then there are the federal police who seem to follow and observe you where ever you go. I would even see familiar faces following me where ever I go.
It bothered me that I did not have to line up to get to government buildings and even shopping malls. That was strictly for the black faces of Ethiopia the guards would often tell me in their broken English. What happened to being a proud non colonized country?
Washrooms are a luxury placed in shinny buildings for patrons only. There are no public washrooms and the Ethiopian parliament is debating how much to charge for urination in a public arena. According to the government, only 15% of Ethiopians have access to washrooms out of a near 90 million population. How silly is that when the government neglected to build any public washrooms to begin with. Then again – in Ethiopia looking down on the poor is normal. I hope the powerful Ethiopians realize that social safety net for the poor is the hallmark of how one measures the advancement of such a country.
The middle class Ethiopians I would meet would tell me about how the government was perfect and would try to somehow impress me with their expensive jewelry and buildings they have built. They offer me expensive imported drinks such as Jake Daniel’s Blue Label Whisky when ever I visit them in their mansions while I was looking forward to trying local drinks. Ethiopia’s middle class are mostly made up of people with very little education gained from a long distance institution in India and work in the many NGO’s.
When the discussion turns to Ethiopian politics, they would tell me there is no opposition in Ethiopia with the exception of one representative out of 447 in Ethiopia’s House of Commons. For them, the opposition belongs in prison as they are against the state. Imagine putting Justin Trudeau in prison in Canada only because the government does not like what he says about them. I wonder if I could meet the only opposition member but I am warned that the government might not like that and I might pay a high price for it. In a shantytown that is Addis Ababa, anything is possible.
The streets of Addis are literally full of young prostitutes mirroring the poverty that exists in the country. It seems nobody wants to talk about them as well. Is this the Ethiopia that I observed from a distance and that Ethiopians have been telling me about?
I felt sad and confused.
I cut short of my visit and decided to fly out of Addis early by the government owned – Ethiopian Airlines. The Airlines is average by any international standard yet Ethiopians are very proud of its success. The success of the airlines is open to discussion as its numbers and financial reporting in never audited independently.
A day before I left Ethiopia, an Ethiopian airlines plane was diverted by its co-pilot, Hailemedhin Abera Tegegn. The allegation is that he took control of the plane while the main pilot was in the washroom and instead of flying it to its original destination, he flew it to Geneva. Upon arriving in Switzerland, he asked for asylum. Instead, he was arrested and now faces a possible prison of 20 years.
Ethiopia quickly asked for his return claiming he has mental issues. That was retracted as criticism mounted why such a person was flying a plane. His sister attempted to explain however her Facebook account was hijacked by the government and as she opened yet another account to explain her brother’s misgivings, she was imprisoned instead.
According to his aunt based in the United States, Abera, comes from a well to do prosperous middle class family with strict academic discipline and a job he seemed to enjoy. However, he had mysteriously lost a beloved uncle in recent weeks who was politically and eloquently against the government. In Ethiopia – where public demonstration or opposition to the government is seen as treason, he was a surpassed voice of millions not able to speak freely – an almost prisoner citizen.
According to the family – he wanted to show the world the horrible situation in Ethiopia for Ethiopians. Beyond the dotted minor advancement of constructions, mansions and restaurants – Ethiopia’s advancement has very little regards to human rights and security. He felt he was a victim of it all even as he was passed over promotions at work because he was an Amhara and saw his Tigre colleagues prosper.
I saw what he and everyday Ethiopians experience and I wondered why Ethiopians were not speaking out. For Abera – perhaps his alleged action is a desperate attempt to tell the world that something is indeed wrong with Ethiopia’s selective advancement.
Jonas Clinton lives in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.