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