[the_ad_group id=”107″]

One Nation of Sisters and Brothers

© Photo by: Christiaan Triebert

About a year and half ago, there was a debate relating to ethnicity and shared national identity based on Prof Fikre Tolossa’s book titled የኦሮሞና የአማራ እውነተኛው የዘር ምንጭ (‘True Ethnic Origin of the Oromos and the Amharas’), which claims that Amharas and Oromos share a common origin and the term ‘Ethiopia’ itself was derived from ‘Ethiops’, who were descendants of one common origin, rather than originating with the ancient Greeks. The debate was very heated and emotionally charged. It is still a live issue. In this brief article, I would like to share my thoughts, for what they are worth, in relation to shared national identity and contribute to the continuing debate. My thesis is very simple: Ethiopia is one and all Ethiopians are sisters and brothers. But to arrive at this deceptively simple proposition, one should accept that Ethiopia as a nation is a political construct and being Ethiopian is a state of mind. Ethiopia as a nation-state was created from different people groups through promotion of ideals that were believed to unite these groups and help transcend differences without necessarily dissolving distinct identities and their expressions. This resulted in what we now refer to as shared national identity under a nation-state called Ethiopia. This important construction was achieved over many generations and reinforced by the overarching narrative of Ethiopianness.

Very often, this narrative goes back to references to Aithiopis in Homeric poetic legends and Herodotus’ writings. The Greek Bible also uses Aithiopis, while the Hebrew Bible uses Cush, where Ethiopia represents the end of the earth in the extreme south. But nominal expressions of Cush or Aithiopis do not represent the status of Ethiopia as we know it today. What the Old Testament refers to as Cush could include Nubia and the Arabian peninsula. The classical writers’ use of Aithiopis, instead of Cush, may not necessarily negate this. For the Greeks, Aithiopis is ‘a far-off country of a black race who lived by the fountains of the sun’ and Ethiopians were most un-Greek in appearance because they were ‘black and smitten by the sun’. We cannot be absolutely certain as to how the Greeks came up with this name and these expressions. But we know that names are coined to a people-group on the basis of their geographical location, their religious persuasion, their social roots or even their skin colour. It is possible that the ancient Greeks came up with the name Aithiopis because of the skin colour of the ancient Ethiopians. Whatever the case, how many of the people groups in today’s Ethiopia this name represented from the time of Homer to the Roman period, we simply don’t know.

But the Greeks portrayed ancient Ethiopia (Aithiopis) as a respectable state with a well-organised and courageous army. They also portrayed ancient Ethiopians as freedom and justice-loving people. The portrayal of Ethiopians by the Jewish historian Josephus, in his Jewish Antiquities, is also fascinating. He claims that Ethiopia was prominent as an independent state of considerable military power; a beautiful princess of Ethiopia called Tharbis was married to Moses; and the admirable and wise Queen of Sheba became Queen of Egypt and Ethiopia. Josephus’ story of the Queen of Sheba, in particular, has undergone extensive Arabian and other elaborations. It was further elaborated in a unique manner in the 14th century Ethiopia in a document called Kebra Nagast. According to these elaborations, Yemenis, Egyptians, Ethiopians etc could claim that the Queen of Sheba was their Queen.

Then, which territories did Aithiopis or Sheba represent? I don’t think we can say that it represented only the present political and geographical Ethiopia. Yes, ancient Ethiopia was much larger than the current one but absolute certainty is not possible about its territorial boundaries. I have met a Kenyan who argued that ancient Ethiopia included some parts of Kenya. Some in Sudan, Yemen, Somalia, Djibouti and Egypt could claim the same. From all this, we cannot know with any degree of certainty as to how much of the land and which groups of people of the present Ethiopia were part of that ancient Cush, Sheba or Aithiopis.

What we can safely claim, however, is that a nation-state called Ethiopia was created and recreated, defined and redefined. Those who have studied Ethiopia’s historical journey as a nation-state will understand that even when Aksum was a powerful kingdom, disparate kingdoms under chiefs and sultans were in existence. They will also understand that those disparate kingdoms became reluctant subjects to the Christian Kingdom in the north. Then from the 16th to late 19th centuries, the process of state formation was set in motion but that process was severely tested due to successive devastating battles by different groups with political, religious, economic and expansionist goals. What we understand from all this is that the goal of creating and recreating, defining and redefining Ethiopia – as we know her today – was politically and economically motivated. Therefore, one may not be wrong in concluding that the creation of Ethiopia was achieved predominantly through bloody battles, political manipulations, religious coercion and imposition of certain ideals. This is not unique to Ethiopia. It was the case in Germany, United Kingdom, United States of America etc. Ethiopia’s context may be unique but the ways in which Ethiopia was created and recreated as a nation-state would not be dissimilar from many other nation-states in the world. We have moved from disparate kingdoms – whose vassals were loosely connected to the Suzerain – to T’eqlay Gizats under Emperor, then to Kifle Hegers under President, and now to Kilels under Prime Minister. Goodness knows what kind of administrative arrangements the next generation will come up with. All this shows that the concept of ‘nation-state’ is not a fixed one.

A nation-state called Ethiopia was created and recreated, defined and redefined

Prof Kwame Anthony Appiah in his BBC 4 Reith Lectures 2016 – titled Mistaken Identities (with special reference to Creed, Country, Colour and Culture) – argued that the idea of national sovereignty has ‘an incoherence at heart’ and that a nation is defined and redefined and political unity is never underwritten by some ‘pre-existing national commonality’. I agree with Appiah. Ethiopia’s singular nationhood is dependent not on pre-existing national commonality but on previously disparate people groups with their own autonomous or semi-autonomous territories accepting ideals believed to transcend differences without dissolving certain particularities; associating themselves with shared historical and cultural values and aspirations; developing national consciousness; and committing themselves to a shared national identity under a shared narrative of Ethiopianness.

Ethiopia’s singular nationhood is dependent not on pre-existing national commonality but on previously disparate people groups with their own autonomous or semi-autonomous territories

Ethiopianness is a unifying state of mind developed by people of different ethnic groups, cultural backgrounds and religious persuasions. It is a mental disposition shaped by ‘history’ and ‘traditions’ of Ethiopia. It is something that is so deeply embedded in the societal psyche that it becomes almost unconscious. It is an inner passion for and emotional bond with the country. We describe this as love for Ethiopia. Through music, arts, sport and national anthem, this passion is rekindled and commitment to the uniting symbols is renewed. The whole thing can at times border on the irrational and can even be dangerous if it is not kept in check through rational reasoning. One cannot explain it comprehensively but it is a reality.

In Britain, a concert called BBC Proms is organised every year. It takes place in the Royal Albert Hall in central London. In the final night of the Proms, one of the final songs refers to Britain or England as the Land of Hope and Glory. Another one is the well-known Rule Britannia. Many young people would wrap themselves with the British flag and sing these songs with incredible enthusiasm and tears in their eyes. The reference in the songs is to the colonial Britain, about which they are often embarrassed, and is of no relevance to the Britain they know and live in today, but it still seems to emotionally charge and strengthen their sense of Britishness and their love for Britain. This feeling is not always explicable but it is there for good or ill.

Similarly, Ethiopianness is something abstract, mentally constructed and emotionally strengthened. It is a unifying narrative that is shared by more than eighty people groups who have happened or chosen to live on a piece of land and share God-given resources together. These groups also voluntarily share common values, common cultural heritage and expressions, and uniting symbols. Through this, the vast majority of them have come to recognise and love this country called Ethiopia. Shared narrative has resulted in shared identity, so they have become – to use a metaphor – children of the same parent. That is, they have become sisters and brothers. Like all sisters and brothers, of course, they engage in sibling rivalry (sometimes in a rather unhealthy and deadly manner). But they could still love that Ethiopia with her symbolic motherhood. What they actually love is not only that geographically determined land of beauty and serenity or that incorporeal political construct. What they love, more than anything else, are those women and men whose lives and historical destinies are tied up with that of a country called Ethiopia.

Ethiopianness is something abstract, mentally constructed and emotionally strengthened.

It is, therefore, unhelpful (or even futile) to attempt to prove that certain people groups in Ethiopia (to the exclusion of others) have a shared origin and identity. Such a narrative is not only unhelpful, but it is also dangerous as it could potentially destroy both the unity of diverse people groups and the diversity of united people groups, who have organised themselves under one nation-state. As George Santanaya said, ‘those who don’t learn from history are condemned to repeat it’. We should not seek to rerun history. Ethiopia has experienced countless tragic misfortunes for the last two millennia. We should learn from those misfortunes but we should not repeat them for the sake of our mental correctness or ideological success. While recognising our diversity in a healthy manner, we should all declare in unison that Ethiopia is one and all Ethiopians are sisters and brothers!

Desta Heliso (Dr.)

Dr Desta Heliso studied at London School of Theology and King’s College London, UK. He has worked at the Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology (EGST) since 2003, serving as lecturer, Dean of Studies and Director. Having finished his term as Director on 31 December 2015, he has returned to teaching and research at EGST. He also coordinates the new PhD programme at EGST that is jointly run with VU University Amsterdam (Vrije Universteit Amsterdam) and leads the establishment process of the Centre for Ancient Christianity and Ethiopian Studies at EGST. His areas of academic interest are Pauline Studies (particularly Romans), Jewish Literature of the Second Temple Period and Christology. In addition to his role at EGST, Desta is interested in issues relating to the role of Christianity in shaping public policy and societal moral progress. He is involved in various activities within the Ethiopian Kale Heywet Church. He is also the current Chair of the Association for Christian Theological Education in Africa (ACTEA).

Share this article:

What Would Onesimus Nesib (Abba Gamachis) Plead Ethiopians about Eritrea?

In this article Naol Befekadu asks: “In light of today’s religious freedom in Ethiopia, which was obviously unthinkable during the time of Onesimos, and in light of present-day Eritrea’s persecution of Christianity and other minorities, and the migration of Eritreans to Ethiopia and neighborhood countries, I would love to imagine how would Onesimos Nesib, Abba Gamachis would respond?”

ተጨማሪ ያንብቡ

Add comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Hintset’s latest news and articles of the week to encourage, challenge, and inform you.