20 June 2009

Flight from Ethiopia by Afric McGlinchey

Tesfay Jidibi (not his real name) is a refugee from Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. A quiet-spoken, light-skinned, gentle man, he was imprisoned in his own country because his father was Eritrean, and he was accused of being a spy during the war with that country. When he escaped to Ireland, he was granted refugee status, and his wife was granted permission, under the family reunification programme, to join him. They are now waiting for their two children to follow. When we met, he was accompanied by his wife, who does not speak English at all.

I was born and brought up in the capital city, Addis Abbaba, in the central part of Ethiopia. It is not a modern city, but it’s big. My father was a businessman. I had three brothers and four sisters. My mother was at home. After school, I did mechanical engineering at university. My father and mother have both died now.

I met Eshetu (not her real name) about 12 years ago. We were neighbours. She was also born in Addis Abba. She has four sisters, one brother. Her father was a driver.

It is tradition to ask the parents for permission to marry first. If they allow it, then you can get married. We come from the same tribe. We are both Eritrean. Our fathers, both of them, are Eritrean. So her father was happy for her to marry me.

Eshetu was a student in high school when we met. We went out for about six months when we got married. We had a small registry wedding. We just collected our friends and went. Now we have two children, Leron and Yortons (not their real names) aged 10 and 12. I am 33 now. Eshetu is 39.

We were Orthodox Christian, but now we’ve converted to Jehovah’s Witnesses. After my mother died, somebody came to my house, and they witnessed for me. So we became Jehovah Witnesses.

What was life like in Ethiopia?

Well, there was a lot of war. The rulers were not good. They are bad. A lot of people are dying. There are a lot of clashes with the ruling parties. Like last week, many people died between police and the opposition. The prime minister wasn’t elected. He came from the bush, and overthrew the government. I can say now that everyone is against this government. He uses the divide and rule system. Now actually it’s not a tribal conflict. People don’t want to be divided. They want to be united. There are so many different tribes in the country, but the rulers represent only one tribe. So everything, the big jobs, everything is only for his tribe. That is why there is so much opposition.

For me, I’ve got a problem with the existing government. As I’ve told you, the leader represents one tribe, called Tigreans. So for my wife and I, being Eritrean on one side, it’s a problem. I don’t know if you know this, but they deported all Eritreans from Ethiopia in 1998/9. There was a mass deportation. I was actually imprisoned. They said I was spying for the Eritrean government. I was in jail for three years. They were very bad to me. There was a lot of torture. No food. I stayed in the darkness, solitary confinement. There were a lot of problems.

I used to have my own business, actually. First I was working in a government office. At one time my government bought machinery from Germany, so I went there to buy them. Also to India.

When this government came, they removed us from these posts, so I tried to build my own business. Then my business was taken by the government. They came to my working place and arrested me for spying, saying I was putting the country in danger.

As soon as they arrested me, they closed our residence, and also threatened Eshetu with arrest. So she went into hiding. She gave the children to relatives. She went to a family friend. They have a hotel. For me I had friends who waited for me. They paid a lot of money. They know that I’m not allowed to stay in the country. So that’s how you find me here.

I didn’t know where I was going. Only the man who brought me knew.

Did you know anything about Ireland?

I had heard about Ireland. In fact, Ireland is one of the countries that help us in our country. You have Catholic nuns and priests from Ireland who help us in Ethiopia. So I arrived in Dublin, and the man showed me the place where I should go. I went to register as an asylum seeker. They asked me why I came here, and who brought me here, and what happened to me in my country. Now I have refugee status. It took about two years. Eshetu has been here now for five months. She can’t speak too much English yet.

What cultural differences have you noticed here?

Ireland is nice. But for Eshetu, there are many things to adapt to. She says, starting from the way they dress here, it’s different. In Ethiopia, they dress like this, the western way, but do not expose the skin. It is good in our culture to be modest. You know, in the cities, it’s the same as here. But we have our traditional clothes too, which are long. So in many places, people don’t like to be exposed. Also the way they take care of their children is different. In Ethiopia, the mothers carry them on their backs. Here, mothers put them in prams.

We gather together in our houses. Some people have very good houses. But in most cases, the common people have houses made with mud. Some are round, some square. In the city, the houses are square. In the country, they are round. The roof, in the country, they are using grass or corrugated tin.

Also, in our country, we eat outside.

We have grain, which I haven’t seen in other parts of the world. Not maize. We have seen many grains here, but not our grain. It’s called teff. You cannot find it in any other part of the world. Teff is like flour. You grind it to a flour. You mix it with water, leave it for a few days, then after that you bake. So, it’s like chapatti. We also usually eat a lot of meat, milk, potatoes, spaghetti, pasta. So these things are the same.

But we don’t have many supermarkets, except maybe in the centre of the city. Otherwise we have a lot of open markets.

Also socially, it’s different. In Africa, the way people live is so different. In our place, at least once a day, your neighbours gather together for tea, or coffee. If a newcomer becomes a neighbour, you invite him in, introduce yourself. But here, you always lock your home. Otherwise people here are fine, they’re ok.

But the system is everyone here is rushing, working, then when they come back home they have things to do, homework. So there’s no time for other people. We have some Ethiopian friends, not in Cork but in Tralee. Sometimes we go there to see them, or they come here.

What is the language you speak?

Amharic. We don’t use the English alphabet. We have our own.

Do you miss Ethiopia?

I miss my country very much. I had a very happy life in my country until the bad time came. You can’t enjoy Europe like you can enjoy your own country. The natural weather, natural places.

Was there a problem with droughts?

Droughts are a big problem. You know, one time we were called the breadbasket of Africa. Even now, if you go to Ethiopia, out of all of Africa, it ‘s the place where you can live cheaply. If you have €100 for a month, it’s a medium class salary, for a family with two children. So it’s a very cheap place to live. Actually, I will tell you one thing. When this trouble with the drought came, for us who are living in the city, we don’t know what is happening. I only heard about that when I go outside my country. So this place of drought is in the northern place, very far from the centre. The people in the centre and south are enjoying food while the north are starving. So maybe it is one or two provinces where people are starving. It’s not everywhere, only a very limited place. Out of 14 provinces, only two provinces were affected, where a lot of people died.

People associate Ethiopia with starvation and drought and conflicts. What would you like others to know about your country?

There are so many big things people should know about Ethiopia, besides drought. Archaeologists found the remains of the first man, in Ethiopia*. We also have a lot of monuments, which were built in the 12th century. They are very beautiful. Former kings built them. Ethiopia used to be a kingdom in former times. King Solomon ruled that kingdom. You find it written about in the bible.

Do you have any traditional rituals?

Our people are mostly Orthodox Christians. So according to that religion you have to be circumcised when you are a baby, soon after you are born. But, nowadays especially, girls are not circumcised. Before, they were.

I ask Eshetu, via Tesfay, if she is circumcised. She says, ‘I don’t know.’ She says they don’t talk about such things, that they do it when you are a baby. So you can’t remember. She is shocked that I asked such a question, so I refrain from asking if their daughters are circumcised, out of respect.

Do you feel you will settle here?

I want to make my life here, because it is Ireland who gave us permission to stay. And we are safe here. The way the people are, is good. Also we are really happy that the government accepted us. When I came here, I contacted a friend, who found Eshetu for me. For three years, she didn’t know where I was. But she could come here under the family reunification programme. The children are still there. Now we are trying to process the application for them.

There were a lot of inconveniences for Eshetu to come here. She had to be careful. I wanted her to come here safely, not to get into trouble. I wanted to get her here first. Once she arrived safely, then we could start preparing for the children to come.

I am stateless now. I don’t know Eritrea. My father was from there, and that’s why the government said I am Eritrean. But it means nothing to me. My mother is Ethiopian.

(Eshetu leans forward and whispers to Tesfay.)

Eshetu is reminding me that our calendar is different. We are maybe eight years behind you. It’s like the Jewish year, maybe. Or the Russian. I don’t know. Even the days are different.

If a good government comes to Ethiopia, maybe we’ll go back. But otherwise it’s good to be here.

Have you experienced any racism here?

Eshetu says some people are good, some are not. She has had some problems. She doesn’t want to mention it here, but she has experienced some bad things with men. They ask here where she is from and when she says Ethiopia, they say, ‘very poor, oh, very poor.’ So for a newcomer like her, it’s a bit shocking. Because from our culture and our tradition, we don’t approach people that way. We never say anything about whether they are poor or rich.

Sometimes I hear racist things, but for me I don’t feel it, because I’ve seen many things. Sometimes, some people say, ’why don’t you go back to your own country?’ That’s happened two, three, four times.’ But I don’t feel it. It’s everywhere in the world.

For me, what I find difficult is the weather. The weather is very hard.

We have our own place now. We have Irish friends. Regarding people, they are good in my place.

Now I’m studying. I’ve had a problem getting a job. They like my experience, but they don’t accept my qualifications. So I need to get Irish qualifications.

What is your dream for the future?

To live safely.

*In 1974, an almost complete hominid skeleton was discovered by Donald Johansen in Hagar, in the Anakin region of Northern Ethiopia. The skeleton, named Lucy after the song ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’, turned out to be 3.5 million years old.


Formerly known as Abyssinia, Ethiopia is the oldest independent country in Africa. It has a cultural, historical and linguistic identity quite distinct from that of the rest of Africa, largely because it has spent long periods of its history in virtual isolation. Unique among African countries, the ancient Ethiopian monarchy maintained its freedom from colonial rule, with the exception of the 1936-41 Italian occupation, during World War II.

In 1974 a military junta, the Derg, deposed Emperor Haile Selassie (who had ruled since 1930) and established a socialist state. Torn by bloody coups, uprisings, wide-scale drought, and massive refugee problems, the regime was finally toppled in 1991 by a coalition of rebel forces, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). A constitution was adopted in 1994 and Ethiopia's first multiparty elections were held in 1995.

Ethiopia’s entire coastline along the Red Sea was lost with the de jure independence of Eritrea on 24 May 1993. Ethiopia’s landlocked state has obliged the country to use the ports of Assab and Massawa in Eritrea and the port of Djibouti. Following the secession of Eritrea, Ethiopian naval facilities remained in Eritrean possession.

A two and a half year border war with Eritrea ended with a peace treaty on 12 December 2000. Eritrea and Ethiopia agreed to abide by the 2002 Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission's (EEBC) delimitation decision, but despite international intervention, mutual animosities, accusations and armed posturing prevail, preventing demarcation; Ethiopia refuses to withdraw to the delimited boundary until technical errors made by the EEBC that ignored "human geography" are addressed.

Ethiopia's poverty-stricken economy is based on agriculture, accounting for half of GDP, 60% of exports, and 80% of total employment. Three major crops are believed to have originated in Ethiopia: coffee, grain sorghum, and castor bean.

The war with Eritrea from 1998 to 2000 and recurrent drought have rocked the economy, in particular its crucial coffee production. In November 2001, Ethiopia qualified for debt relief from the Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative. Under Ethiopia's land tenure system, the government owns all land and provides long-term leases to the tenants; the system continues to hamper growth in the industrial sector, as entrepreneurs are unable to use land as collateral for loans.

The central highlands are volcanic, forming a dramatic landscape bisected by the rift Valley. There are four major river systems, one being the Blue Nile. Far from being an endless desert, as the west perceives it to be, the southern and western highlands of Ethiopia boast extensive forests

The tribal breakdown is as follows: Oromo 40%, Amhara and Tigre 32%, Sidamo 9%, Shankella 6%, Somali 6%, Afar 4%, Gurage 2%, other 1%.

Ethiopia is the third most populated country in Africa, exceeded only by Egypt and Nigeria, with a population of between 50 and 60 million. Around seventy languages are spoken, the most predominant one being Amharic. Others include Tigrinya, Oromigna, Guaragigna, Somali, Arabic, and other local languages. English is the major foreign language taught in schools.

There are 132,000 refugees from Eritrea as a result of the border war with Eritrea from 1998-2000 and ethnic clashes in Gambela. 93,032 Sudanese and 23,578 Somalian refugees have also been recorded.

Sources: BBC World, CIA Factbook, and World Almanac

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Flight from Ethiopia was written by Afric McGlinchey.

Copyright Afric McGlinchey 2009.

Afric McGlinchey was born in Ireland, but as her father was a nomadic adventure-seeker, she was dragged, along with the rest of her family, to Zambia at the age of five.

There, she discovered light, colour and space which led to her own adventures, both artistically and in the bush. She put pen to paper at the age of ten, writing her first play.

Later, she moved to Zimbabwe and revelled in the liberation of the eighties, which brought so many changes to the country. She began writing poetry, and studied journalism at Rhodes University in South Africa before going on to the University of Cape Town to do an honours degree in English.

All this exposure to the written word led to her becoming a journalist, editor, copywriter and teacher over time. Afric has also produced three works of non-fiction, and has just completed her first novel. Publishers may form an orderly queue right here...

She has also lived in Paris, London and Spain, and random jobs have included EFL teaching, selling her photographs in the market, busking, selling encyclopedias and working as a waitress. For a while she was married, had kids, and lived on a farm in Hwedza, writing to stave off impending insanity. She now lives in Ireland with her son. Her daughter has returned to Zimbabwe.

Through Ireland’s Revolving Door records the stories of immigrants who have moved to Ireland over the last decade, and those who are now leaving as a result of the recession. Some chapters can be read on her blogspot, Comings & Goings -Through Ireland's Revolving Door.


StoryTime said...

Welcome to StoryTime Afric! it is plain to see that the book Through Ireland's Revolving Door will be fascinating, packed as it is with the likes of this brave, bold and yet so humble tale of refugee life. For these are the real stories that must be told and understood, if we are as a global community going to see ways forward for postive change.

Sarudzai Mubvakure said...

This is a fact filled account that removes the world's stereotypical association of Ethiopia with poverty.

I have a typical interest in the Derg, their deposition of Haile Selassie and the subsequent rule of Mengistu. My research on the Queen of Ethiopia was quite interesting to me. Perfect material to put a fictional spin on !

Thanks for this.

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