Author Archives: alphaabebe

Refugee Boy – A Review

Refugee BoyBy Alpha Abebe

As I stood in line ready to enter the Oxford Playhouse, I overheard the conversation between the staff person collecting tickets and a father and daughter who stood before me in the line. She warned the father that she was advising all guests with children that the play included strong language and difficult situations. Undeterred by the warning, the man smiled politely, lovingly put his hand on the shoulder of his adolescent daughter and proudly proclaimed, “That’s alright, she read the book. And she’s lived in Africa before, she’s seen real refugees”.

Refugee Boy is a theatre production based on the teen novel written by Benjamin Zephaniah and adapted for the stage by Lemn Sissay. The story follows Alem Kelo, a fourteen-year-old boy of Ethiopian and Eritrean descent who is seeking asylum in England. Before coming to England, Alem and his parents were forced to move between Ethiopia and Eritrea as the border war intensified and identity politics devolved into increasing violence. After managing to find a way to travel to the UK, Alem’s parents decide to leave him to be cared for by the British state as they continued their peacebuilding efforts in East Africa, and with the hopes that they would be reunited some day. After a difficult time in a children’s group home, Alem is eventually placed with a foster family, where much of the story then unfolds.

Anyone familiar with the work of Lemn Sissay will notice his fingerprints through the rhythm and poetics of the characters’ dialogue. I have admittedly not read Benjamin Zephaniah’s original novel, but I imagine much of the grit and humour in the play can be attributed to Lemn’s adaptation. Lemn Sissay is a British poet and author of Ethiopian and Eritrean descent. Much like the play’s protagonist, Lemn grew up in the British foster care system after he was given up by his birth parents. I am certain that Lemn had a compendium of memories to draw from as he helped to tell the story of a young boy coming of age in a state of flux, uncertainty, and adversity.

“Your country don’t want you, nobody wants you. Refugee boy. Say it! Refugee boy!”

“DON’T CALL ME REFUGEE BOY! MY NAME IS ALEM!”

This scene happens early in the play, as Alem tries to fight off a bully at the children’s home he is initially placed in. Ultimately his is pinned down, runs out of options, and is coerced into saying it. I am a refugee boy, he says in defeat. Moments later, in a dream-like vignette, Alem recites: “Ask me who I am again. Ask me where I’m from”. It is this tension between Alem-the-person and Alem-the-refugee that gripped me the most throughout the play. Alem fights vehemently to assert his individuality – refusing to abbreviate his name, preserving the memory of his homeland, and proclaiming his appreciation for Charles Dickens. He is however simultaneously thrust into the legal political bureaucracy that is the refugee adjudication system, where he must fight to be recognized as a refugee in order to earn his safety and freedom.

My mind drifted back to the father and daughter at the entrance to the theatre. “She’s seen real refugees.” In the moment, I was instinctively put off by what I’m sure was meant as an innocuous and reassuring comment by the father. But at the end of the play, I was also struck by the irony of the fact that Alem spent so much effort trying to resist the homogeneity and objectification that so often accompanies the label ‘refugee’, yet it was exactly the ‘refugee experience’ that we came to the theatre to see.

The Horn of Africa is a diverse region whose history has been punctuated by years of protracted conflict and rapid social and political change. While ‘refugee’ serves as a useful analytical and legal term to refer to the millions who have had to flea their homes, Alem reminds us that each of these refugees are people with individual stories, ambitions, challenges, and lives.

The aristocrat who travelled to the US for university then decided to file for asylum status after the monarchy was overthrown. The young man from Eritrea full of hopes and dreams who boards a crowded boat destined for the Mediterranean seas. The young Somali girl sitting in a classroom in the same Kenyan refugee camp where she was born. These are all ‘real refugees’ in the strict sense of the term, but I imagine they’d all have very different stories to tell if we had tickets to see a play based on their lives.

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Filed under Diasporas, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia

Politicking about Ethiopian Cuisine with The Simpsons

By Alpha Abebe

Screenshot taken from video. Copyright: FOX Inc.

Screenshot taken from video. Copyright: FOX Inc.

As a child of the 80s and 90s growing up in North America, I was rather accustomed to hearing about Ethiopian conflict and famine on the news. However, one afternoon while my mother was watching The Young and the Restless in the living room, something caught my ear. A character casually suggested that the couple head to an Ethiopian restaurant for dinner. My adolescent mind was blown. How did the writers hear about Ethiopian food?! And who among them had the gumption to actually try it? Oh, and I sure hope they didn’t see the kitfo! Hitherto, I had only known Western and Ethiopian social spaces to exist separately, and the notion that the two could overlap truly fascinated me.

On November 13, 2011 an episode of The Simpsons aired, entitled “The Food Wife“. It featured a 3.5-minute segment where the family wearily stumble upon a Little Ethiopia enclave, but eventually find that they thoroughly enjoy the tastes and textures of Ethiopian cuisine. As foolishly entertaining as the show can be, The Simpsons is both a repository and icon of American pop culture and often provides great analyses on issues of contemporary global importance through satire. There’s much to learn from that two dimension dysfunctional family.

The following lines are taken from the opening scene of the segment, where Marge is horrified when her car breaks down in a dark and seedy part of town.

Bart: “Um, mom. Where are we?

Marge: “Nowhere scary” [as she hurriedly locks the car doors].

And later on in the segment when the family runs into some other non-Ethiopian characters at the restaurant:

Marge: “So did all of your cars break down?
Lisa: “Mom! They’re here on purpose. They’re foodies.

I presume that images of the neighbourhood were inspired by Los Angeles’ Little Ethiopia strip, however the details mirror similar establishments found in other metropolitan cities across North America. Fairfax Avenue/Olympic Boulevard in Los Angeles, the U Street corridor in Washington, D.C., and Danforth/Greenwood in Toronto. These are all small but vibrant enclaves, lined with Ethiopian restaurants, convenience stores and clubs. Continue reading

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Filed under Diasporas, Ethiopia, Film review

Ethiopia: A country suspended in time?

By Alpha Abebe

Image Copyright: Alpha Abebe

In development studies, it’s become rather stale to critique Walt Rostow – the grandfather of neoliberal ideology – and his 1960 book The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto. We’ve seemingly moved past the tempting notion that a country’s health can be measured along a linear path of economic growth. And it should go without saying that it is no longer useful or appropriate to talk about societies as “backward and traditional”. And the concept of ‘modernity’ –the idea that certain countries somehow exist outside of time and are waiting to catch up with the rest – is ironically outdated itself. However, one has to wonder whether mainstream representations of Africa have moved far enough away from these stubborn tropes.

I was left wondering this very thing after reading Mary Harper’s recent piece for BBC News Africa: Ethiopia’s ‘cupcake divide’ in Addis Ababa. From the title and content of the article, one gets the impression that the author was dumbfounded to stumble upon traces of 21st century existence in the middle of Africa. Her article is framed as a commentary on the rapid industrialization in Addis Ababa, juxtapositioned against the country’s chronic poverty and political uncertainty. However, this story is buried beneath a rather colourful depiction of Addis Ababa, a city apparently suspended between two centuries and trying to decide which to settle in:

“… Every time I go to Addis Ababa, more tall, sparkling buildings take me by surprise and confuse my bearings.

Continue reading

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What does Ethiopia represent in the 21st Century?

Ethiopia’s flag bearer Yanet Seyoum holds the national flag as she leads the contingent in the athletes parade during the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games. Photo courtesy of Reuters.

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. Continue reading

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Filed under Addis Ababa, Diasporas, Ethiopia, Nationalism