Dust, dust, and more dust……..
I had returned (feeling quite like the prodigal son) to my grandfather’s ranch in southern Ethiopia after almost 25 years, filled with trepidation over the inevitable wave of emotion that would no doubt wash over me. After all, this was a place that held a very prominent position in my childhood psyche. Located about one hour’s drive from Addis, and occupying a huge expanse of land between Nazareth and Sodere, this ranch was a constant and endless source of adventure and mystery to me and my siblings in our youth. It was the one place where we were left to our own devices, without any significant supervision or control. I fondly recall my summers there as quite carefree and unstructured, with an absolute, self-imposed carte blanche to do, say, eat, drink, and destroy as I pleased (within reason, of course). Mind you, this was a thriving, mechanized working farm, occupying over 150 gashas (approximately 6000 hectares), and producing various food staples year-round. This constant swirl of production, however, was a mere backdrop to our eventful summers, as we viewed the activity on the property as something which we became involved in as we pleased, and only to supplement the various other activities which occupied our days. This was the Ethiopia of my youth, and I would not have traded it for the world.
Ah, those were good days…….
And then, it all came to an abrupt end…..
After all of the effort, the sweat, the frustration, and the constant struggles with Nature, all that was left was dust as far as the eyes could see…. the absolute antithesis of what I had expected to encounter. The farm, the ranch house, the orchards, the stables had all been decimated, and a small penitentiary had been erected in their place. Extremely disillusioning, and yet, a fitting metaphor to describe what had happened to the nation as a whole during that chaotic period.
As a boy barely in his teens, my somewhat structured and idyllic world was turned into chaos….. that which was, wasn’t; that which existed, disappeared. An overall sense of uncertainty and panic pervaded, and initially seemed especially compounded in families with situations similar to mine. What had seemed to be an orderly and predictable existence was catapulted into a dark chasm filled with uncertainty. Economic status and/or political privilege defined whether one was an Ethiopian or persona non grata, whether one traveled freely or not, whether one had access to Legal redress, whether one was an object of political persecution….. Any association with the ancien regime was seen as an instant justification to persecute at will, with no regard for justice, evidence, practicality, or humanity.
And yet, the human will is strong….
I survived that dark period. I joined the masses in the exodus from Ethiopia, and became part of the ever-growing Diaspora, resolved that I would never set foot in my birth country again. All that I had lost, all that I had been deprived of, all that I had experienced made me resolute in the conviction that I was never to return to that place which had caused me so much pain. I was content to believe that I could choose to deny my birthplace, my heritage, my history … my very existence, and delude myself into thinking that I would be content to live as another immigrant statistic in the gracious country that offered me refuge.
With age, however, comes maturity and wisdom…
I came to understand the advice given me by a friend regarding our similar situation. He was convinced (and tried to convince me) that no one (be it government, organization, or entity) had the right or the power to take away from you what is rightfully yours. He argued that to continue to feel as if one was disengaged or disenfranchised was actually acquiescence to the demands of the very same ones who had forced this situation on you. He argued that to become alienated from the very thing that defined oneself was actually admitting defeat. I was not convinced by his weighty arguments at first, and continued to view the world through pained and tinted glasses. The situation remained so until the prospect of going back home for a very personal and obligatory event presented itself, and I was forced to reevaluate my decision never to return.
With wisdom comes the fortitude to accept the irrefutable…
I did return then, and in fact have spent many months back home since then. Each subsequent trip has forced me to realize that I am from a place where I am "one of many," and not a minority; where I can go for hours (if not days) hearing nothing but a native tongue (my native tongue); where I need not be pressed by the artificial, self-imposed sense of immediacy and urgency that defines my existence in my adopted abode; and, that there is something absolutely therapeutic to the prospect of waking up to the sound of a rooster crowing and the smell of eucalyptus leaves burning.
I have come to accept the fact that one must learn to differentiate between individuals and groups, and between groups and entire nations. I have also accepted the fact that I should feel wronged by people (definitely), by groups (absolutely), but not by an entire country (impractical at best, futile at worst).
After all, I (like many) am American by choice and circumstance, but Ethiopian by birth. I would have as much success changing that fact as I would of changing the color of my skin (Michael Jackson notwithstanding). I have therefore arrived at the best conclusion possible…..
……I accept the irrefutable fact and revel in it.