Feb 17, 2021 Editorial
Kaieteur News – The land of Ethiopia continues to enjoy a mythical place in the Guyanese/Caribbean imagination. From Bob Marley to Buju Banton, the homeland of Emperor Haile Selassie, has been presented as a sort of Zion, one to which people of Afro-Caribbean and a much broader Rastafarian heritage could someday return. As Buju laments in his song, ‘Til I’m Laid to Rest’:
“Work 7 to 7 but I’m still penniless,
All the food upon my table Massa God bless,
Holler for the needy and shelter less,
Ethiopia awaits all prince and princess.”
Marley, would for his part, in his anthem ‘War,’ immortalizes Selassie’s seminal 1936 speech to the League of Nations. While his poetic ‘Until…’ mantra is well-known, the Emperor covered in far more prosaic but still as powerful terms, the dire humanitarian crisis that was facing his country in the wake of Italian aggression:
“I pray to Almighty God that He may spare nations the terrible sufferings that have just been inflicted on my people, and of which the chiefs who accompany me here have been the horrified witnesses. It is my duty to inform the Governments assembled in Geneva, responsible as they are for the lives of millions of men, women and children, of the deadly peril, which threatens them, by describing to them the fate, which has been suffered by Ethiopia. It is not only upon warriors that the Italian Government has made war. It has above all attacked populations far removed from hostilities, in order to terrorize and exterminate them.”
The thing is, the Ethiopia of the Rastafarian imagination has not existed, if it ever truly did, for a very long time. After World War II, Ethiopia more or less vanished from global sight for decades under Selassie’s rule, even as his own personal mythos flourished via the spread of Rastafarian philosophy and the global popularity of the Reggae aesthetic. The more obscure the reality of Ethiopia under his rule, which lasted until his death in 1974, the more powerful the mythical Ethiopia grew in the global imagination, that is, until the unprecedented famine of the mid-1980s. This is despite even after a decade-long war of Independence waged (and won) by Eritrea and the post-Selassie revolution and military take over.
The famine of the 1980s replaced the image of the regal Haile Selassie in his full imperial traditional wear with a photograph a starving four-year-old girl, Birhan Woldu, already wrapped in a funeral shroud by her father, dying from starvation. That photograph would be used to galvanize international aid to Ethiopia, saving hundreds of thousands of children like Birhan (and adults as well) from starvation. Birhan, whose journey had started in her home province of Tigray, would go on to recover, a symbol of hope of what was possible with the right international humanitarian focus in a troubled part of the world.
Today, however, Tigray – once devastated by famine – is now increasingly being devastated by war, a war that has struggled to compete for global notice in the time of pestilence, the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic downturn that has accompanied it.
An Al-Jazeera report, published yesterday, on the conflict that has been waging between the Ethiopian government and an armed insurrection group called The Tigray Liberation Front since November of last year, sums up both how dire the conflict itself is, and the dangerous turn it has taken with the government attacking the free press seeking to cover the conflict:
“The government-imposed lockdown of the northern region and communications blackout affecting the internet, mobile phones and landlines has made access and assessment for aid agencies dealing with the unfolding humanitarian crisis extremely difficult. It has also made it next to impossible for media seeking entry to investigate artillery attacks on populated areas, deliberate targeting and massacres of civilians, extrajudicial killings, widespread looting and rape, including by suspected Eritrean soldiers.”
Almost a hundred years after Selassie’s speech to the United Nations, and forty years after the great famine, the great nation of the imagination, Ethiopia, is once again under dire threat as the conflict in Tigray – just three months old – is threatening to spiral out of control, and this at the worst possible time, one in which not only is there an unprecedented global pandemic, but in which the sort of economic resources that were marshalled in the 1980s will not be possible now. In his song, Buju laments that there is no peace in the West and that “Only Ethiopia protect me from the cold.” That is the Ethiopia of myth – the reality is that Ethiopia might very well need all the protection from the West that it can get.
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