The Nile belongs to Ethiopia too (Maaza Mengiste)
The increasing tensions with Egypt over the proposed dam reveal how fundamental the river is to both nations’ identity
By Maaza Mengiste
(The Guardian) – Tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia have grown at an alarming rate since Addis Ababa announced its plans to construct the Grand Renaissance dam across part of the Nile. The project will divert the flow of the river and give Ethiopia greater access.
Egypt claims the dam could lower the river’s level in a country that is mainly desert, and reduce cultivated farmland. President Mohamed Morsi has called the river “God’s gift to Egypt”, and the country’s politicians claim the reduced water flow could prove catastrophic. An Ethiopian government spokesman, Getachew Reda, says none of Egypt’s worries are scientifically based, and that “some of them border on … fortune-telling”.
As the debate continues, I am reminded of an encounter between my mother and an Egyptian man one afternoon in New York. My mother was visiting from Addis Ababa and we decided to go to a pizzeria. One customer, an Egyptian, recognised us as Ethiopians. After brief introductions, he made a passing comment about the age-old conflict between our countries over the Nile. My mother calmly stated there was no conflict: the Nile was ours. The man was not amused. What followed degenerated into verbal sparring that ricocheted between “historic right”, ancient civilisations and colonial-era treaties. Finally, my mother, frustrated, claimed full ownership of the river – and he did the same. It wouldn’t have ended if the pizza hadn’t arrived.
The Nile, at 6,700km, is the longest river in the world. It begins in Ethiopia and ends in Egypt. It moves counter to what one might expect, flowing upwards on the map. This, as much as anything, reflects the river’s mythological dimensions. It defies logic, its identity is as much a product of poetry as politics. Homer, in The Odyssey, called the body of water “Aegyptus, the heaven-fed river”. The name alone gave Egypt symbolic rights, and bestowed religious qualities upon the water. Despite the fact that 85% of the Nile originates in Ethiopia, we still associate the river with Cleopatra and King Tut, with pyramids and the sphinx, with sophisticated belief systems and advanced scientific knowledge. The Nile is a metaphor for Egypt. It is a geographic location as much as it is shorthand for one of the most innovative moments in world history. In popular imagination, it is as far removed from poverty as one can get. It is the opposite of devastation and privation. Read More