by Alpha Abebe
When Kenenisa Bekele, Tirunesh Dibaba, and Dejen Gebremeskel take their marks at this year’s Olympics, and that start gun goes off, it is more than their personal careers on the line. Millions of people in Ethiopia and the diaspora will hold their breath, bite their nails, yell at their TV screens, and (hopefully) cheer in jubilation in heroic displays of nationalism. The Olympics has a way of creating patriots overnight, even drawing in the most apathetic and cynical of the lot. For a few days every four years, the nation feels like less of an ‘imaginary community’ as Benedict Anderson so famously argues, and more of something very real, visceral and tangible. But what will people (and I) be cheering for above and beyond the incredible athleticism and dedication of these Ethiopian athletes? If (ahem…when) the Ethiopian flag is raised above the Olympic podium, what will those colours represent to the world?
I struggle to think of another country whose historical global image is as diverse and contradictory as Ethiopia’s.
This is meant as a statement, not necessarily a critique. Besides, all countries are dynamic, heterogeneous social and political constructions…right? So any effort to represent a country as something more stable and coherent than it is involves some level of fantasy, fiction and often subversion. But national images, however constructed and confused as they are, do matter. They matter in public diplomacy, they matter for tourism revenues, and they matter to individual identities. Unlike pop-stars and retail companies, countries cannot simply hire consultants and marketing firms to whip up a compelling global brand. As regimes rise and fall, geopolitical interests shift, economies grow and collapse, and culture does what it does – evolves – new layers and dimensions are added to Ethiopia’s self and global image. This generally evokes one of two responses – creative adaptation and innovation, or desperate attempts to hold on to things past. However, if there was ever a case to find the middle ground, it is with Ethiopia. It is a country with such a rich (albeit contested) history that is worth commemorating. Yet, social, political and economic conditions are rapidly changing the country’s landscape, as well as its position within the world.
Coming to grips with what Ethiopia represents in the 21st Century must involve a willingness to engage with the inevitable tensions between the past and the present, the personal and political, and the local and international. To an archeologist Ethiopia is the cradle of humanity; to a historian it is the home of ancient civilizations; to an anthropologist it boasts incredible cultural and linguistic diversity; and, to a theologian it is part of a greater divine plan. Ethiopia is credited as having one of the earliest indigenous ‘nation-states’ in Africa, and it has managed to evade protracted colonial rule. However, Ethiopia is as renowned for its legendary past as it is notorious for its contemporary challenges. The 1984-5 famine produced powerful imagery and discourses that have shaped the popular, academic and political imagination of Africa as a whole. Western representations of Ethiopia, popularized by news coverage, high profile concerts, and NGO child sponsorship schemes have had particular staying power in narrowing public representations of Ethiopia. Political revolutions, repressive regimes, and poor economic conditions have generated multiple flows of forced and voluntary migrations throughout the world. Yet, as the home of the African Union, hotspot for Asian investment, and current U.S. ally in the ‘war on terror’, the country remains of strategic global importance today.
So what does Ethiopia represent? The minute you begin answering this question you begin to get it wrong. No doubt, some will still try. I, for one, am less ambitious. However, every four years I put all the ambiguity, analysis and critique aside for a few precious moments of unadulterated national pride. Do allow me this one indiscretion Benedict Anderson.
All the best to all of Ethiopia’s athletes competing in London’s 2012 Olympics!