Tag Archives: Ethiopia

Happy New Years Eritrea and Ethiopia

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Oh let the celebrations begin!

Eritrean and Ethiopian New Years is one of the biggest celebrated festivities in both in the Horn of Africa and the diaspora.

The Eritrean and Ethiopian calendar is derived from that of ancient Egypt, but is unique to both these countries. The seven- to eight-year gap between the East African and Western calendars results from differing methods of calculating the date of the Annunciation.

In 2010, during my four month graduate research visit to Addis Ababa, I was able to end my trip with a unique celebration that I’ve never experienced before in Africa. After dealing with three months of heavy rain, I was excited to finally see the season coming to an end as the sun slowly started to come out. Seeing the flowers blossom all over and fields changing into bright green brought excipient to me.

My cousins told me the season of change is a period when the old blesses the young and the young hope for new prospects, which New Years brings about.

As a vegetarian I didn’t eat any of the meat, but I enjoyed observing the daylong celebrations. I started my early morning by watching my cousins slaughter the animals, followed by preparing a special lunch, which consists of mainly Injera and wot.

As the adults spent their morning preparing the food and drinks, children also got involved and shoed their own way of celebrating. The boys prepared hand pointed pictures and gave it out to neighbors and relatives through out the community. Little girls gathered together singing in groups as they dressed in their beautiful white habesha dresses.

It was amazing to not only witness, but also be apart of a celebration that brought people together through God, art, food and love. So as Eritrean, Ethiopian and the diaspora are getting ready to embark and celebrate another year of blessings, I will be celebrating a cup of bunn (coffee) and wishing my people all the best.

Melkam Hadish Amet!

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Ethiopia Prime Minister Meles Dies at 57

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After fighting a undisclosed illness Ethiopia Prime Minster Meles Zenawi died at hospital in Brussels Monday. “Prime Minister Zenawi suddenly passed away last night. Meles was recovering in a hospital overseas for the past two months, but died of a sudden infection at 11:40,” stated Ethiopian TV.

Although Ethiopia is at a mourning stage, leaders around the world continue to remember PM Meles in a positive way. According to BBC News Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia stated:

“Meles Zenawi was an economic transformer, he was a strong intellectual leader for the continent. In our regional meetings he stood out because of his intellect and his ability to respond and to lead dialogue on matters relating to African development. He will be missed in all of our meetings and all of our endeavour.

I don’t have fears [over the transition] because I believe there are many other leaders in Ethiopia who will get the support of regional leaders to make the transformation that is necessary, moving towards an open society.”

Meles has been in power since ousting Mengistu Haile Mariam’s military junta in 1991.With over 20 years of political involvement with Ethiopia, Meles has brought peace and prostpority to a reigon who has not known nothing but turmoil. I hope his legacy continues to forward not only the nation, but Africa as a whole.


It Takes A Village To Raise A Family

I just signed the following petition addressed to: U.S. immigration. A few weeks ago a close friend of mine lost her aunt to cancer and what’s even sad is her eight year old cousin Matthew and his twin brothers no longer have a mother.

According to the petition “their mother died of brain cancer last month. Their dad, Tewelde, is struggling to take care of the three boys now that his wife is gone. He needs help. His sister, Hirut, a widow who lives and owns property in Addis Ababa, wants to come to Dallas to support her brother and nephews.

Tewelde emigrated from Eritrea to the U.S. and became a citizen in 1998. He was a conscientious objector in the war between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Imprisoned and tortured for refusing to join the army, he sought and was granted political asylum in the U.S. Tewelde met and married his wife in the U.S., and their children were born U.S. citizens. Grieving and overwhelmed, Tewelde cannot work full time and also take care of his family. He cannot afford child care. A mechanic in Eritrea, Tewelde worked as taxi driver in Dallas until his wife got sick. He has to work long days, seven days a week to make a living wage. But he sold his car when his wife got sick. If he works only part time, he cannot cover the expenses for a leased taxi.

A homeowner, Tewelde’s savings have dwindled, and he and his boys currently make ends meet through a collection taken up by the Dallas Eritrean community. Unable to drive a taxi, Tewelde has been volunteering at his church, the Eritrean Orthodox Church, helping with repairs and teaching the Eritrean language to children. But Tewelde must return to full time work soon, or he and his boys likely will lose their home. He cannot return to work unless he has his sister’s help to take care of Matthew and his brothers each afternoon and evening.
The U.S. embassy in Ethiopia, where Hirut lives, has refused to grant her an expedited humanitarian visa, because they consider her application to be a request for routine tourist travel. They insist that Hirut go through a year-long process to receive an I-31 traveling document. Requested Congressional assistance has not produced any tangible results to date.”

Please sign this petition to ask the U.S. Immigration Visa Center and the U.S. Embassy in Ethiopia to allow Hirut Woldehiwot Teklegiorges to travel to the U.S. on an expedited humanitarian visa for a period of one year to lend support to her brother and nephews.


Africa: Women Filmmakers Tell Their Stories

Drum roll please …. here it is! My friend Genet Lakew  and I worked on a project reflecting African women filmmakers on behalf of allAfrica. Blow is the story and you can also check it out  at allAfrica.com.

Documentary filmmaking holds a special place in the history of African women’s cinema. In 1972, Senegalese filmmaker Safi Faye became the first sub-Saharan African woman to make a commercially distributed feature film when she directed “Kaddu Beykat”. The film, a mixture of fiction and documentary, depicts the economic problems suffered by Senegalese village farmers because of agriculture policies that Faye says rely on an outdated, colonial system of groundnut monoculture. Faye would go on to direct several documentaries often focused on rural life in her native Senegal.

African women who have taken documentary filmmaking to new levels come from across the continent and handle a wide range of topics. The films show an Africa that is not often seen, according to Beti Ellerson, director of the Center for the Study and Research of African Women in Cinema. Ellerson, who teaches courses in African studies, visual culture and women studies in the Washington, DC, area, is also the producer of a 2002 documentary, “Sisters of the Screen: African Women in the Cinema.”

Much has changed since Faye’s early Senegalese films. The emergence of the Internet, social media and crowd-funding platforms such as Kickstarter now offer a new generation of African women documentary filmmakers the tools to realize their visions. To learn of the challenges and opportunities facing African women filmmakers, AllAfrica’s Genet Lakew and Rahwa Meharena asked three women - Salem MekuriaRahel Zegeye and Sosena Solomon - to share their stories. They represent two generations of Ethiopian documentary filmmaking.

Salem Mekuria - The Challenge of Funding

When I left Ethiopia some 40 years ago to attend college in the United States, I had every intention of going back. But plans changed and I stayed to build a film career and family.

Despite my love for science, neither the science department nor the faculty at Haile Selassie I University, now Addis Ababa University, were ready to accept women in the field. It was a very difficult place to be. I was considered an anomaly, along with other female students. An exciting scholarship to study in the U.S. presented itself to me and I jumped at it.

Although I arrived at the height of the civil rights movement, I had no historical knowledge of the African American experience. But I find one of the motivations for me to make films is curiosity. Exploring African American subjects was my way of acknowledging the struggles of this community, which paved the way for opportunities for me in this country. I got a chance to work at a television station in California. From there, I moved to Boston in 1981 to work at WGBH television, a member station of the Public Broadcasting Service.

My first film was “Our Place in the Sun,” a 30-minute documentary that looked into the history of African Americans on Martha’s Vineyard Island off the coast of Massachusetts. Over time, I started shifting my focus to explore Ethiopian history, people and places because there are fewer people of African descent telling African stories. Films like “Sidet: Forced Exile,” “Deluge” or “Ye Wonz Maibel,” “IMAGinING Tobia,” “Ruptures: A Many Sided Story,” and “Square Stories” were all made in this spirit.

I am no exception to the perennial challenge independent filmmakers face: money. Efforts to raise funds are particularly harsh on Africans who make films on African subjects. I wish we could educate our people to want to be interested in investing in these films. If we do not succeed in doing that, then I have no idea where the future of funding is.

Before 1993, I did not plan to go into teaching but it’s very difficult to make a living as an independent filmmaker. My teaching position at Wellesley College gives me the flexibility to take a couple of months off every year, which I often use to travel to Ethiopia.

I’ve been lucky enough to earn various fellowships and grants to conduct research, fund my films, and provide exposure for my work. The Fulbright Scholar Award allowed me to spend a year in Ethiopia researching historical women leaders, which I’m hoping to make into a screenplay. I shot “IMAGinING Tobia” as a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University.

Partly as a response to financial limitations, I began using triptych video installations, which use three different screens to show a film, designed to give the audience an interactive viewing experience. I also no longer use dialogue in my films, meaning the people in them don’t talk so I’m mostly presenting my stories in images.

Distribution is not any easier. Two of my films are at Women Make Films, a nonprofit organization that distributes independent films made by and about women. But I primarily self-distribute my films when people, schools and international organizations request them. Museums and galleries, and festivals are great ways to showcase and promote my work. Most recently, “Deluge” and “Square Stories” were shown at Film Africa 2011 in London.

At the present moment, I’m writing grant proposals in hopes of securing funding for a new project about a Nigerian human rights lawyer and women who are dealing with Sharia law in northern Nigeria. If I succeed in getting the money, it will be the first single channel documentary I will make in 14 years.

Rahel Zegeye - Fantasy Versus Reality

Ten years ago, my plan was to jet off to Beirut in search of domestic work without telling my family. My military veteran father was unemployed and our family had to pinch whatever pennies we had. Besides, there were limited opportunities to continue my education after high school, especially without high grades and test scores.

Unfortunately, they found out about my secret mission two days before I was to leave Addis Ababa. My father was especially upset because of the negative reports he heard about girls who went off to work in Arab countries.

Like thousands of African, Sri Lankan, Indian and Filipino women, I saw Beirut as a place to improve my economic outlook. But I was met with a reality much starker than my dreams. With this opportunity also came reports of verbal, physical and sexual abuse as well as withheld payments, excessive work hours, and confinement to the employer’s house.

I experienced some of this mistreatment during my early years [in Beirut]. Four days after my arrival, I was on the balcony of the home where I was assigned to work, brushing my hair. I saw an Ethiopian woman on the top floor who looked down and warned me to be careful. As she said, there came a day when I feared for my life in that house. The woman I was working for was very strict and made work difficult for me.

Fortunately, the agents who made my arrangements moved me to another house. My second employer seemed much nicer. I found myself in a better situation and tolerated the new challenges I faced. I kept working, telling myself that this house was better than the last. That’s mainly because I had no other choice. Life was hard but I could not do much to change it.

After six years of silent obedience, I could not take it anymore. There came a day when my employer refused me food and water for 13 days. I finally decided to leave and asked her to give me the money she owed me. She refused to pay me the two months worth salary she had withheld from me and kept all of my clothes.

I found myself on the move again. I was lucky enough to find a third employer who is kind and compassionate. I haven’t budged from his home since, working for a man of mixed Lebanese and Armenian descent. He’s good-natured and supportive of my ambitious goals of filmmaking. Now I’ve found a bit of freedom.

This new environment allowed me to begin documenting the stories of less fortunate Ethiopian domestic workers. Five years go I made a film, “Beirut,” which chronicles the lives of a group of women. It is a personal look into their social interactions and aspirations outside of work. I set out to show the reality of their lives, which sometimes include prostitution, drinking and smoking.

I used the money I saved from four years of working to fund the film. I paid two cameramen U.S.$200 each to film once a week on Sunday afternoons, my day off. The actors are all domestic workers themselves who portray the real stories of women I’ve encountered over the years. “Beirut” took a total of two years to make and had to be edited down from four hours to about an hour and a half.

My aim is to advise prospective domestic workers in Ethiopia to learn from my own experience and the experience of many women like me. There are many problems they could find themselves in after arriving. It is important for them to understand the potential dangers that come with the job. This is the spirit of the film.

I would not recommend for young girls to come to the Middle East to wash dishes and clean homes. It is dead end labor that leaves no room for personal advancement. In the 10 years that I’ve been here, my place in Lebanese society hasn’t changed much. I make a mere $250 a month. People still hurl insults at me as I walk down the street. I don’t enjoy the same rights and privileges as the natives or the freedom to pursue business opportunities. But this reality is not broadcast in the romanticized brochures young women in Ethiopia read, desperate to go abroad for work.

I’ve reached a roadblock in the distribution efforts for “Beirut” since the Ethiopian embassy [in Beirut] denied final approval of the film. But I’m working on drumming up support, such as from the wife of famed Ethiopian runner Haile Gebrselassie. I am determined to show the film in Ethiopia, where it really counts.

Sosena Solomon - Making Merkato

I panicked when my internship supervisor at WHUT television in Washington, DC, handed me a video camera to make a mini documentary about the city’s robust Ethiopian population, specifically the small business owners along U Street’s unofficial “Little Ethiopia” strip. How could I, a mere high school student at the time, bear the burden of accurately capturing the essence of this community? It seemed too great a task so I backed out of the project.

Now, two film degrees later, I know that storytelling through film is my path. My latest documentary, “Merkato,” was born out of an idea to possibly use it as my thesis film at the School of Visual Arts in New York, where I studied social documentary film. Before my first trip in December 2008 to visit my dad, I had never been to Ethiopia.

I fell in love with Merkato during that first trip home. Situated in Addis Ababa, it is the largest open-air market in Africa where thousands of merchants set up shop to sell all types of goods, from sugar and spices to clothing and electronics. I saw Merkato as a microcosm of the country’s society and culture, an exciting way to get a taste of many different things. I felt inspired to document the energy of the place before parts of it disappeared at the hands of big development projects that threaten the space.

On a personal level, I love that Merkato represents a piece of my own history. Although I was born in Nairobi, Kenya, and grew up in the U.S., I’ve always identified as Ethiopian. It’s where my parents are from and what I grew up knowing. Even if I was not physically there, the culture was never too far away from me.

From the very beginning, I knew that I did not want “Merkato” to have a political tone, one that criticizes the changes that are inevitably coming or urges viewers to “Save Merkato.” Instead, I sought to make portraits of the people who live and work in Merkato, to capture their personal journeys.

I set out to tell these stories with my DSLR camera and a small crew that consisted of my supportive mom, a driver, a bodyguard and a translator to facilitate the interviews. I was ready to get the reel going but was instantly met with a reality check. The people I talked to at Minalesh Tera, a section of the market that focuses on recycling plastics, initially gave me very surface responses and reactions. I had to prove myself to them. It was almost like Merkato will push you out just to see if you’re going to come back. I had to show up everyday for four months to get them to open up to me.

Of all the people I interviewed, the stories of four individuals and a set of brothers made it into the final film. I felt a genuine connection with Hawa, Ashenafi, Wurro, Gedion, Abde and Abdella. They are a diverse group who represent universal struggles and dreams.

Ashenafi is the young boy who spends his summers collecting plastic to recycle and resell. With that seemingly simple summer job, he is able to support himself and his family through his entrepreneurial spirit. Wurro is the 19-year-old who represents the hardcore rebel type, with big dreams to get out of Merkato. She’s a tough woman who constantly has to protect herself from the male-dominated section of the market. Abde and Abdella are the welding brothers who provide the comic relief in the story. Like many siblings, they have a sort of rivalry going on but still work together despite their differences. Hawa is my 92-year-old hero who posses a strong work ethic and determination. Finally, Gedion, or Mr. Merkato, is my bodyguard turned film character. I’m glad I had the chance to capture him in front of the camera at the last minute.

To address the expensive toll of filmmaking, I decided to pursue community fundraising for “Merkato” because I felt that this was everybody’s story. Using Kickstarter, a crowd-funding website, 224 backers pitched in to help me raise $14,710, about $2,000 above my posted goal. That was a great start but I’m still seeking official sponsorships, donations through PayPal, and hosting events to raise money and promote the accompanying photo book.

The greatest gift I can give to the people I spent months with is a screening of the film in Merkato. I look forward to the priceless moment when they see the piece they created and feel empowered by knowing that their story is important and others do care to see and hear it.


Black America’s Ties to Africa

My colleague Genet and I had the opportunity to interview founder and CEO of the Constituency for Africa, Melvin Foote on behalf of AllAfrica.com. Founded in 1990, CFA is a an organization of Africanists who came together to build American support for Africa. The D.C. based group has a pan-African focus and seeks to educate African Americans about Africa and strengthen the bonds between the two communities. Here is a snippet of CFA’s mission statement:

For almost two decades, CFA has worked to educate Americans about the critical challenges affecting Africa, and to encourage a strong public and private partnership to address issues of concern to the continent.

Foote has had a fascinating career throughout the continent but especially in the Horn of Africa. He was a Peace Corps volunteer in Eritrea and Ethiopia in the early ’70s, during the time of the Ethiopian revolution. He has also done work in Somalia and Sudan, as well as 26 or so other countries in Africa. Read about the man and his unique experience from our interview with him, conducted on Tuesday, November 1.

Rahwa: Give us a background of CFA is and what it does.

Foote: I had spent many years with Africare in Ethiopia, Somalia. So I came back and was asked to head up a new effort to educate Americans about Africa and I was brought back from Somalia to do that. And so over the course of some years, it grew into a network. The work that I was doing at Africare grew into a need to network. What I saw was a lot of people cared about Africa because back then they would say nobody cares about Africa, there’s no constituency to support Africa. And so my job was to build a constituency. And so I went about my job. What I found out was that there was a lot of individuals who knew about Africa, some of them were political, some of them were development people, some were missionary, some were African immigrant, some were foreign service officers, former ambassadors but they were not connected. So my job was one of not so much building a new, something new as it was connecting the existing so TransAfrica, African American Institute, all of these organizations were working on Africa but they didn’t work together. They saw each other as competitors so Africare didn’t talk to TransAfrica and TransAfrica didn’t talk to AAI and ADF wouldn’t talk to. So they were all like tribalism. That’s what it was, it was like tribalism. And so I tried to say okay, let me build a link between all of these people and we didn’t go to the top people, to the C. Payne Lucas’s and the Randall Robinsons because those guys were ego set in their way, they were warlords. And so I said okay, that ain’t gonna work. If I told Randall Robinson go talk to C. Payne, never, never, never. And so I went to next level down to the operational people, the person who was responsible for education programs, public relations and building, the CFA was built with these people. My boss then was C. Payne Lucas at Africare and he used to call us little people, he said you little people, you know because we weren’t the presidents.

Foote transitions into his Peace Corps experience…

They took me up to my site by car, it was an Ethiopian guy who drove me by Land Rover and we went through Wollo and Tigre and all these people were starving and famine and begging on the road. And I said what is this? And so nobody really explained to me but then I got to Asmara on, it was on New Year’s Day, Ethiopian New Year’s Day in ’73 I think it was. And so I’m laying up in my hotel on the main piazza and all of the sudden it was like 3 o’clock in the middle of the afternoon, I’m hearing all of this noise, pow pow boom boom. And so I’m thinking like Fourth of July, I’m thinking fireworks. So I put on my clothes to go down and look at the festivities. And one woman said oh no, you can’t go out there and so I went back up in my room and I saw tanks in the street were in the streets. That was my introduction to Asmara. So there was a firefight then all of sudden things got quite. So that’s how I got to know about the war, that’s how I got to know about the famine. And so I stayed one year in Asmara and finally they moved me out because of the insurgency and there was military, the Ethiopian troops were everywhere, on every corner, troops. I’m just thinking they were police, I didn’t know the difference. But the insurgency was going on so they moved me to Harar. I spent my second year in Harar and then I stayed the third year at the American school, teaching at the American school in Addis.

Genet: So when you went in, last time you told us you had a Tarzan image of Africa so by the time your service was over, what kind of experiences did you walk away with?

Foote: I learned a lot. I mean, one of the things I learned, we did our language training in Awassa and there was about 35 of us, who were, who were a part of the group and there was only two Blacks. And so the teachers, the Ethiopian teachers, after the classes would take me and the other Black guy up to, out to lunch and we would go up in the hills and just all kinds of things. And they embraced us. And then everyday we had to walk to school, which was about a half a mile and all the little kids in the village would run over to us, selam ferenji, you know, selam ferenji. And then they would want to shake your hand and all that kind of thing, dirty hands, these are rural kids.They would walk right past me to grab one of the White’s hands and one of the White guys told me, oh they don’t like Black Americans over here. I was kind of hurt by that. And so I just kept watching and then I noticed after a period of time, all the Whites were getting tired of these little kids chasing them. They could not even go to the bathroom without drawing a big crowd. Then I finally realized that they looked at me and said, he speaks a little funny but he’s one of us, he’s African. And so there was nothing for them to run up to me, for what, he’s just another African but they would run up to the Whites.

I learned a lot, it was a total learning experience, everything that you did was learning. This was during the revolution so the time of zemecha, the killing of those government officials, the Derg, all that. The rise of Mengistu, the, Haile Selassie’s demise, his passing, I was there for all of that. Then the creeping revolution.

Rahwa: Did that make a huge impact into you wanting to connect both African Americans and Africa?

Foote: Well, I wrote an article for Ebony magazine while I was in Asmara and it was basically a smart article talking about don’t crawl under, the Peace Corp’s logo at that time, their theme was don’t crawl under a rock, be involved, don’t crawl under a rock. So I wrote a little piece to African Americans saying wow, it’s great over here, don’t crawl under a rock, Peace Corps. And I knew that my people here were uneducated, undereducated or mis-educated about Africa and for many reasons. I mean, people who are doing business in Africa don’t want African Americans to know what’s going on, they want you to stay away so they can go and corrupt the dictator and get the oil and diamonds. And then most African Americans always have cared about Africa, it goes back to when we came here as slaves. Even the slaves were trying to reach back to Africa. But the African Methodist Church came from the Methodist Church, but they wouldn’t allow Blacks to be in the Methodist Church so they formed their own church. They called it the African Methodist Church because they wanted to relate to Africa. There’s all kinds of indications where African Americans, even as slaves, wanted to reach back home. But over time they didn’t know what home was. And even to this day, a lot of, they have an imaginary vision about what home is, what Africa is. I see some of these guys with dashikis on and if you ask them anything about Africa, they really don’t know. They cling to it. And so our job is to raise awareness and we’ve done a lot of work in that area and we’ve been very good at that, actually. We’ve done a lot of work in raising the visibility of Africa and raising awareness.

This is a screenshot of Foote’s letter to Ebony Magazine in its March 1974 issue. Thanks Google Books.

Genet: For African Americans today who may not feel a connection to Africa, they may not see Africa as being home and they really don’t feel a sense of responsibility to care about Africa or get involved in African affairs, what would you say to them? Why is it important for them to care and for them to get involved?

Foote: Well, there are many reasons and I will say this, I would say over the last 10 years or so, that’s changed dramatically. It changed for many reasons, most African Americans are much better informed, some of it has been because of media coverage, some of it has been because of AllAfrica.com, some of it has been because of these town meetings we’ve been doing, also just starting to talk to people. So there’s a growing awareness about Africa. And so I think, for me, it’s important for African Americans because here we are, the wealthiest Blacks in the world, here. But we’re dropping out of school, we’re throwing away food, we’re throwing away opportunities, don’t want that job, obesity is a big problem. And we think that we’re downtrodden, we think that we’re the victim, when we’re the wealthiest Blacks anywhere in the world. But we measure ourselves against White Americans, not against Africans or Brazilians or Caribbeans or other Blacks. We don’t know how good we got it. You could go to prison in this country and get three meals a day, food, water, TV and that’s if you’re in prison, you know what I’m saying? And so these kids around here are killing each other over some tennis shoes and a jacket, because they don’t appreciate, they don’t know who they are and what they are. So part of this is for us to become stronger, we need to reconnect to Africa and African people in a real kind of way. It will make us stronger, you know. And we think that if we can help strengthen the African countries and make them vibrant and dynamic, that makes our position here stronger. It’s just like Obama being the president. Say what you want to say, it makes Black people stronger, to show that hey we can do something because we’ve been told all this time since slavery that we can’t do anything. You can’t be anything, you can’t be the mayor, you can’t be the head of a corporation. So that’s how I feel about it and so I think that going forward, we need to be stronger and we also need to be doing business with our people. We ought to be the ones who are doing business with Africa, bringing investors to Africa, helping build infrastructure.

So part of this is a healing process. You gotta look back at slavery, you gotta look back at colonialism because those things don’t end overnight. They don’t end overnight, we’re still going to be dealing with all this stuff 100 years from now. But we can make some progress on it and I think what we try to do in our work is to make progress, position ourselves to make progress.

Genet: You’ve traveled and worked in over 30 African countries. Can you pick maybe three African countries where you’ve worked for a significant amount of time and talk about what you did there.

Foote: Well, I worked in Ethiopia. I worked in Somalia for three years. I worked in Sudan I was heavily involved in, I was heavily involved in East Africa.

Genet: Would you say that’s your area of expertise, East Africa?

Foote: Well, it has gotten broader. I mean, I know a lot about Nigeria, I know a lot about Senegal, I know a lot about Mali, I know enough about Southern Africa. I really know the continent pretty well. But there was a time when I didn’t want to do anything in Nigeria, I was too scared of Nigeria. But now I had a really great experience with Nigeria and it’s not like Lagos is not the whole country. There is, you go out in the rural parts of Nigeria and the most wonderful people you ever want to meet are out there. But I worked heavily on the Horn of Africa, I worked on, I was part of a former Peace Corps delegation that did shuttle diplomacy between Asmara and Addis during the war, we were trying to stop the war. And so we were going to Asmara, going to Addis, talking to Meles and Isaias and all these guys, pushing them towards a path of peace and we couldn’t fly directly so we had to fly through Yemen, to get to, between the countries.

During, when Badme became a flash point. Yea, we were going through, we were doing shuttle diplomacy. And so we were credited with helping set the basis for the peace agreement. And then I took a, I was part of a U.S. White House delegation that promoted the trade, the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act so we were on Air Force Two flying to all of these countries but we were in Addis, which was one of the stops, the foreign minister from Eritrea came down and really persuaded us to come to Asmara so we shipped the plane, flew up to Asmara, made them happy. So I’ve been involved in a lot of high-level dealings with the countries and that was kind of unique. When I went with the delegation, there was five of us and the one guy now is a member of Congress, John Garrett Mindy.But out of the five, I was the only Black, and all five were kind of high level, and it was kind of interesting how they, some say that Ethiopians are, they look at Whites more valuable than the Blacks. Say what you want to say but I know that whole time they were looking at me like oh he must be carrying the bags, and I’m the one who worked on Africa everyday. It’s kind of interesting. In Asmara, the reception, because my view was that Asmara had a war culture, they were stuck in this mold of warmonger. They’d just come out of a 30-year war and so if I step on your shoes, you’re ready to get the gun, as opposed to excuse me. And so I made a comment or something like the fact that something must be made to promote peace, reconciliation among the Eritreans. They took that as oh, he’s choosing sides and I became the bad guy and they wrote me up in the paper and all that kind of thing.

Rahwa: Not to get off subject but have you heard about the government officials and journalists who got arrested by Isaias Afwerki back in 2000 and how basically there are human rights issues going on with that?

Foote: Well, what happened was, I think what happened in Eritrea, I was there also for the referendum on independence, I was one of the monitors, I was a monitor there. And I think what happened was, the country became independent, it was wide jubilation. I think they were 99 percent in favor of separation and so it was non-issue really, it was going to happen. But they didn’t develop democratic institutions. And at the time, Isaias is not a bad guy. If he decided that he wanted everybody to sweep the streets, everybody would do that, which was good because you could get everybody moving in the same direction. But I think they failed to build democratic institutions, that was the tragedy. I mean, he’s still the president and nobody else can be the president. They would’ve been a lot better if they could’ve figured out some way to allow for political parties, build, become a true democracy. They had a chance but they haven’t. And a lot of the problems that they have are tied to that. Not bad people but lacking democratic institutions. And then the pressure, they became us against the world. Us against the United States. What kind of battle is that? Us against the Ethiopians, us against this, us against that, we, that common where we all work together became something else.

Genet: Can you talk briefly about your work in Somalia and Sudan?

Foote: For Somalia, I was doing a lot of refugee assistance and this was the war between Ethiopia and, I think that in the Horn of Africa, environment has played a lot of impact in terms of pushing people to war. It was competition for water, for grazing land and the way those borders were drawn. In the case of Somalia, the way the borders were drawn, the past they were all nomadic people, they would make this circle. So once they became militarized on the border, you couldn’t go across that border and so you went back and so you overgrazed, you overgrazed and it created sand issues and a big part of the problem. Call it global warming, call it what you want to.Then you had the Russians on one side, the Americans on the other side so we were running a proxy war in the Horn of Africa that ended up pitting the people against each other. They gave you a communist ideology and then they had to flip flop where Ethiopia went Marxist so Somalia, the Russians left Somalia, went to Ethiopia and America left Ethiopia and went to Somalia. These people, it’s going to take them a long time to get straight because of that stuff. You don’t hear much talk about that. And then Jimmy Carter’s administration bashed this new government, the Derg on human rights abuses and so forth. Now, I was there, I thought that some of the, the tactics that the Derg did in the early stages were great. I mean, you had a monarchy –

Genet: What tactics did you think were great?

Foote: Well, I mean, I thought that, okay, the way the country was structured around a monarchy and the monarchy had, well you had the royal family living like kings and the lion gets steaks and all this kind of thing and then the masses of the people, the peasants, especially outside of Addis, what did they get? They got nothing, the Oromo. So the country was in a, then when the government took over, they were like we’ve gotta do better than this, this is a country for all the people. And they tried to implement programs and policies that would buttress and benefit all the people but military guys tend to, they’re not political scientists so eventually when things got rough, what did they do? Rather than maintain political discourse, they brought the guns out and a lot of the Red Terror and all that kind of stuff came from military. Then they nationalized houses, if you have two houses, you had a big house on Bole Road and you had a small house, you only can keep one. So you’re seeing the revolution coming on, are you going to move into the big house? No, you’re going to keep the small house and you were renting the big house out to the Americans in the corner. Well, now you only can have one so whatever happened to those big houses? The military guys moved in. But the U.S. government put so much pressure on the Derg, on Mengistu that it created tension and they were already paranoid and that’s when a lot of the stuff happened because, you don’t hear that story.


The Last Cut

Okay ladies, be prepared to cross your legs &  clench those muscles because no matter how you look at it, there is no way I can sugar-coat ‘Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting.’

In 2010, I went to Ethiopia to write, film, and produce a documentary addressing the perceptions of female genital mutilation as my thesis project. I also had a chance to partner up with international and local non-government orginzation (NGOs) on their grassroots initiatives which focused on  harmful traditional practices. As I stated before, my journey to Ethiopia reinforced in me an intense realization that there is urgent work to be done.

Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) is practiced in 28 countries across sub-Saharan Africa from Sudan and Somalia in the east, to most of the countries in West Africa. It is also concentrated along the Nile valley from Egypt in the north to Eritrea, Ethiopia, Uganda and Kenya in the south.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines female genital mutilation/cutting as comprising “all procedures involving partial or total removal of the female external genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs whether for cultural or other non-therapeutic reasons.”

During my time in Ethiopia, I learned that the procedures of FGM/C varies, depending on the type of FGM/C, the age of the girl, and the experiences of the person who is doing the circumcision, who I found to be in many cases an old woman. When I interviewed a local Awasa woman who practiced FGM/C on girls for over 40 years she explained:

“After I am done cutting the girl, I often try to pour egg yold or alcohol to stop the bleeding so that the healing can start. I tune-out the cries and screams that always happen when I am cutting the girl because for me, I cut girls to make an income for my family. “

Although I can sit here and go over more graphic details of my varies interviews and the different types of FGM/C, I  want to discus the purpose of the practice and bring attention that FGM still occurs in African countries.

The Concord Times  posted an article yesterday discussing campaign strategies in Sierra Leone linking to FGM.

According to sources, some politicians are presently expending huge resources to promote Female Genital Mutilation FGM in different parts of the country as a campaign strategy to win the hearts of electorates ahead of the upcoming 2012 Presidential and Parliamentary Elections.

Whilst doing this, these politicians spread hate messages against anti-FGM activists. They work in close collaboration with people in the society who support the practice of FGM to harass and intimidate those who talk ill about the society.

Even though these unfortunate events are still happening, it’s important that we pass the knowledge we learn and educate one another. Other then curiosity, what brought my attention and research on FGM/C was the Orchid Project, an NGO that focuses on ending FGM/C; and EGLDAM, a local Addis Ababa NGO decided to educating and ending FGM/C within Ethiopia.

From  my research and trip I learned other harmful traditional practices that were happening throughout Africa including: early marriage and dowry; nutritional taboos and practices related to child delivery; breast ironing; and son preference and tradition.  These are more topics and discussions I plan to cover in the near future.


World Food Day

For some individuals like myself food is the center of the world whether it’s experimenting and creating mouth-watering dishes or collecting my weekly livingsocial deals and going out-to-eat with friends. However, for others food presents a daily struggle of simply gathering enough money to purchase something for their family to eat knowing  that tomorrow holds the same challenge.

During my visit to Ethiopia last fall, food was one of the main topics for discussion when speaking to locals about how they lived their lives.  Of all the stories, the one that struck me most was that of a sixty-year-old woman who circumcised little girls for a living to support her children and grandchildren. My heart grew heavier listening to every detail, I knew that her story -the story of desperate hunger- was one I needed to pass on.

My journey to Ethiopia reinforced in me an intense realization that there is urgent work to be done there and as human beings we must try to uplift and offer help when help is needed.

The United Nations stated the famine in East Africa is reported to be the “worst humanitarian disaster in the World,” and if we continue to ignore the cries for help from our brothers and sisters, I am convinced that we stand a good chance of losing Africa altogether. I challenge anyone who says otherwise to go with an open mind to the regions that I went to in Ethiopia and see and experience what I experienced.

As I sit on my couch a year later, I can’t help but to wonder how those same people are doing now and if they are included in the statistics I see on the news, in magazines and on commercial ads.  So tonight I am dedicating my Sunday dinner to farmers and the locals I met in Ethiopia.

Here is a clip of Desmond Tutu message on World Food Day.


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