Remarks of Donald Levine on receiving an award from SEED (Society of Ethiopians Established in the Diaspora)
የተከበድራቹወዳጆቼ: ዛሬእናንተጋርለመገናኘትበመብቃቴዐደልኛነኝ። ታላክክብርናደስታምይሰማኛል።— yes, it brings me much honor and pleasure to be with you today. What an honor to receive this special Award! And what pleasure, to reunite with old friends and share some thoughts with this congenial group of Diaspora Ethiopians.
The thoughts I want to share include three obvious but important claims: 1) the United States of America stands as a special home for immigrants;
2) the Ethiopian Diaspora is an exceptional immigrant community; and 3) Ethiopian civilization remains a remarkable part of world history, which deserves to be studied and transmitted to Ethiopian generations at home and abroad. Concluding, I’ll comment on ways my life has related to Ethiopia’s vicissitudes over the past six decades.
To begin with, America; I salute you as fellow Americans. This land is truly remarkable. Despite our horrific destruction of Native American populations,sordid centuries of slavery, the dysfunctions of our political process andobscene economic inequalities, the United States remains a country ruled by law and a place where the oppressed of the world continue to find freedom and hope.
Your generation found a situation unlike that of my grandparents’ generation. A century ago, when immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe peaked, Americans embraced the “melting pot” idea. This metaphor depicted the U.S. as a crucible in which ethnic groups fused to form a new, American culture. Immigrants had not only to learn English, but also to adopt English names and acquire the habits of those already here. Shamed over their Old World ways, second-and third-generation Italians, Irish, and Poles grew up with little knowledge of their cultural identities; “making it” in America meant giving up characteristics that made them seem “foreign.”Today, multiculturalism is in style and ethnic diversity is celebrated. This attitude favors the image of a “salad bowl,” in which, unlike the melting pot, each piece retains its distinctive form and flavor. Being truly American now, we can happily say, means actively retaining familiar customs of your home country.
In this environment, Ethiopians arriving since the Derg period have created one of the most remarkable of all our immigrant communities. Whether starting as accomplished professionals or as taxi drivers, you have worked really hard. You became acclaimed physicians, business leaders, renowned scholars, university officers, and prize-winning novelists. You put down roots and raised an industrious generation of young people. You created churches, sports clubs, restaurants, Ethiopianist publishing houses and periodicals, and institutions like the Center for Ethiopian Arts and Culture. You established communal self-help groups–as in my own city, the Ethiopian Community Association of Chicago, which celebrated its 30th anniversary earlier this month. Withal,you remembered the needs of your homeland, sending funds and moral support. For that, I applaud you all. ከልቤኣደነቃቹእልሁ!
The Ethiopian Diaspora community is special, moreover, because of the heritage you have to preserve. Ethiopia’s distinctive role in world history is known far too little, among Ethiopians themselves not to mention the rest of the world. For starters: Ethiopia was the only African country to have withstood the Scramble for Africa by European colonialists and, at the Battle of Adwa, the first non-white country to defeat a European invader.
Indeed, Adwa has long stood in my mind as a potent symbol of Ethiopia’s distinctiveness. Those who would deny Ethiopia’s long existence as a multiethnic society must be embarrassed by the Adwa experience. If the empire consisted of nothing but a congeries of separate tribal and regional groups, how then account for the courageous collaboration of 100,000 troops from dozens of ethnic groups from all parts of the country? How then explain the spirited national patriotism of such diverse leaders as Rases Alula, Mengesha, and Sibhat of Tigray, Dejazmatch Bahta of Akale Guzae, Wag Shum Guangul of Lasta, Ras Mikael of Wallo, Negus Takla- Haymanot of Gojjam, Ras Gobena and Dejazmatch Balcha of the Mecha Oromo, Ras Wele of the Yejju Oromo, Fitawrari Tekla of Wollega, Ras Makonnen of Harar, as well as Ras Gebeyehu (who died fighting at Adwa) and Ras Abate of Shoa–sustained, please note, by massive material support to the war effort by theentire population, from north to south?
Ethiopia’s heritage includes so many notable cultural achievements. Beyond the well-known monuments at Aksum, Lalibela, Gondar, and Harar, consider the trilingual inscriptions of the Agazi kings; the Gumi Gayo of the Oromo, a unique system of democratic governance; diverse musical traditions, including the polyphonic system of the Dorze (Gaamoo), unique in Africa; the treasure of Ge’ez manuscripts; the brilliant artistry of illuminated manuscripts and healing scrolls; and such memorable episodes as the creation of Ethiopia’s musical system by Yared; protection of Mohammed’s early followers at Nejaash; the development of a center of Islamic learning at Harar; the unique liturgy of the Beta-Israeli people; the passion of Ethiopian martyrs such as Kidus Istafanos, Reverend Gudina Tumsa, and Abuna Petros; down to a treasure of musical, choreographic, artistic, and literary productions of the present.
And now, a few words about my ownrelation to Ethiopia and Ethiopians.As a comparative sociologist concerned with ways to manage the conflicts inherent in the processes of building a modern nation, over the years my work has focused on two large questions. First, the conflict between traditional institutions and the quest for modernization–the central theme of Wax and Gold, which urged Ethiopians to pursue modernization in a measured manner, without subscribing to ideologies that imagined that progress could come only by slaughtering perceived enemies of progress and destroying old institutions. The other concerned conflicts among ethnic groupings as an inherent feature of nation-building–the “gold” theme of Greater Ethiopia, which sought to head off the rise of combative particularisms by noting elements that made all Ethiopians part of a common society. In the wake of the huge costs of giving in to combative options, I can only continue to promote awareness of non-violent alternatives among those who will create Ethiopia’s future.
So now, you cannot expect LibenGebreEtiyopiya to talk without offering some mikir. (Mekerayiqr, mikiryebejal.) If asked to comment on just one issue regarding Ethiopia’s nation-building today, I would observe how crucial it isto bridge North and South. To this end, I wouldpromote awareness among Oromos of the huge and essential part they have played over the past few centuries in the formation of the modern Ethiopian nation, and promote awareness among the Northern peoples of the remarkable and invaluable aspects of traditional Oromo culture and how it can help Ethiopia improve her institutions of democratic self-governance.
And now that I think of it: how about this as a challenge to Diasporan (as well as homeland) Ethiopians? Why do you not take advantage of the resources you have in this country to say what must be said without fear of reprisal? I challenge you to initiate two efforts. One is for a number of Ethiopians, mostly from the north, to prepare documents that manifest understanding and appreciation of the many exemplary features of Oromo culture, and that acknowledge the hurtful wrongs inflicted upon many peoples of the South in the wake of Ethiopia’s imperial expansion since the time of Menilek? The other is for a number of Ethiopians, mostly Oromo, to prepare documents that manifest understanding of the contributions of the Ethiopian state of the past few centuries–in which Oromo played crucial roles–and that acknowledge the hurtful wrongs inflicted upon other Ethiopian peoples of the North, East, West, and South in the course of their expansions from the 16th to the 19th century. Perhaps both initiatives could be developed in something like an international center to promote mutual understanding among the peoples of Ethiopia.
And beyond the Oromo and the Northern peoples, please do not forget those peoples of the Far South, the East, and the West, many of whom are among the most devoted exponents of Etiopiyawinet. Friends, I take the liberty of challenging you in this way: it is too late to indulge in the old patterns of resentment and hurt feelings; there is no Ethiopian who does not count him/herself as ye-tewege(wounded); it is time to move on.
On the personal front, let me mention the debt I owe to wonderful Ethiopian friends. And time and again, I feel grateful to so many Ethiopians of all walks of life and regions, who have moved me with exemplary expressions of respect and thoughtfulness; have cheered me with enormous wit and humor; who have inspired me with extraordinary manifestations of courage; and who have amazed me for the ability to remain cheerful under adversity. I am grateful for the openness and confidence shown me, often under conditions of life that have often been starkly oppressive. Friends, the award I receive today is not just for me, it is for us all.Galatoma! Ameseginatchualhu.
Postscript. I close with a thought that looks ahead to Ethiopia’s role in a globalized era. As we all know, more and more of our life transpires in the domain of electronic communication. We live in our heads and find orientation in the domain of the Cloud. While producing many benefits, this lifestyle moves us away from our earthly moorings. We lose a sense of being grounded. This decreases the balance and stability in our physical and our emotional states. It diminishes our levels of energy and spiritual strength. The internet generation is heading toward a critical disjunction between Cloud and Gaia, the earth beneath us.
Ethiopia’s contributions today may well include a sense of connectedness with the earth. Consider the words of Atse Tewodros, who reportedly told servants accompanying Europeans to wipe off their boots so that they did not take Ethiopian soil with them: “Far more valuable than any riches is a piece of Ethiopian earth.” Consider of the many sites in Ethiopia that are considered spiritual centers. Much of this reflects the fact that Ethiopia is an agrarian civilization. Nearly everyone in this room can go back three or even two generations to find someone who lives in the agarbet. A restored connection to the land is imperative for all of us. At least, let it inspire a renewed dedication to protecting Ethiopia’s beautiful lakes, reforesting her lands, and taking frequent visits to natural areas where the union of earth and heaven, body, mind, and spirit can be experienced. For awareness of this connection, as for so much else, I take the occasion here to express my unlimited appreciation and gratitude to Ethiopia and the generations of her people.