Tag Archives: africa

‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’…and other dumb questions

bob-geldof

Image courtesy of Reuters

It’s been 30 years since this ridiculous excuse for a song was released. What have we learned in that time? Apparently nothing. Sometimes, if I’m in a particularly forgiving mood, I can come to a place where I understand the social and political context that would make someone in 1984 believe that releasing this song could be anything more than criminal noise pollution. But it’s really hard to forgive when you’re never allowed to forget! Every year I am thrown into an existential fit when I find myself in a car or shopping centre and this song begins to play. As the nausea sets in, I look around and wonder…is anyone else listening to this? Can you hear what they are saying? Is the DJ a robot? Is this real life?!

There’s a world outside your window, and it’s a world of dread and fear Well tonight thank God it’s them instead of you And there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmastime Oh where nothing ever grows, no rain or rivers glow Do they know it’s Christmastime at all?

This song, the context that produced it, and its legacy since then is an incredibly rich case study of all that is wrong with Western-led humanitarian discourse and practice. It all began with the famed BBC broadcast of Ethiopia’s famine on October 24, 1984, which reached an audience of over 470 million people worldwide. The broadcast included Michael Buerk reporting that it was “the closest thing to hell on earth”, a statement which was then complemented by Mohamed Amin’s graphic images of dead children and desolate land. The broadcast inspired a number of global fundraisers including Live Aid, which gave birth to the recording Do they Know It’s Christmas? And raise funds they did – millions of dollars in fact. But to what end and at what cost?

Famine is a horrible thing, and the conditions that allowed it to occur and exacerbate in Ethiopia included a deadly mixture of unfavourable climate conditions in the North, political wilful blindness, and a complicated game of diplomatic chess. However, media and pop culture representations of the famine depicted the food crisis as a biblical plague swept over a nation that didn’t see it coming and hadn’t a darn clue of what to do about it. The result was not public political awareness, but rather, a unanimous sense of dumbfounded shock and horror. As it turned out, there was a lot to be gained from masking the complexity of the issue and playing on the consciences of the Western middle class masses. ‘All you have to do is buy this record’, ‘all you have to give is a dollar a day’, ‘just text SAVE to 5050’. It is a tantalizingly simple solution to what is constructed as a hopeless but simple problem.

Live Aid gave birth to a form of populist humanitarian response that continues to raise millions of dollars worldwide. The reckless abandon that often ignites these campaigns is usually a guarantee that both the messaging and funds will be handled irresponsibly. Much has been said, and said again about the effects Western media representations have had in dehumanizing people from the African continent and shaping problematic foreign and domestic policies. Yet here we are, in November of 2014, just days after Bob Geldof excitedly announced that he will be remaking his horrible song with a new band of bright eyed pop stars – but this time in response to the Ebola outbreak. ‘Buy the song. Stop the virus. It’s just that easy.

music-band-aid-30-logo

Now some will quip, isn’t it better to do something rather than nothing? No. That mentality has, and will always remain, more to do about our need to feel good about ourselves than our desire to affect positive change. Social action is important, and North-to-South solidarity is possible, but only when our concern is matched with a commitment to stay informed and act responsibly. There are groups and individuals on the continent with ideas, solutions and opinions that deserve to be heard, but that will require the likes of Bob Geldof and company to pipe down.

Every year, over 600,000 people die from heart disease in the United States, costing the nation over $108.9 billion annually. The main causes include diabetes, obesity, and poor diet, which are indicative of social, political and economic issues indigenous to the U.S. There are a number of organizations, initiatives and campaigns established to raise awareness and funds for heart disease, however none of them have seemed to require the offensive, parochial and sensationalized tactics used for African issues. Imagine that.

Bob Geldof’s BandAid30 might just be another ill-informed and well-intentioned initiative (if you look at it under really really flattering lighting), or perhaps a publicity stunt with a healthy dose of self-righteousness. However suspect, the motivations of these artists are simply not the issue at hand. Thoughtless media representations will continue to wreak havoc on Africa long after Ebola has subsided, just as they continue to do so thirty years after the famine. Thankfully, it is no longer 1984, and technological advances have created a number of global platforms for counter-representations from the Continent to stand upon. Unfortunately, there is still a fundamental power imbalance that means that these alternative – and far more relevant – perspectives will have to struggle to be heard.

So BandAid30…clear the airspace, pause, listen, then respond – or please don’t respond at all.

Alpha Abebe

@alphaabebe

2 Comments

Filed under Development, Ethiopia

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

2 Comments

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

3 Comments

Filed under Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

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

2 Comments

Filed under Addis Ababa, Diasporas, Ethiopia, Nationalism