Elleni Centime Zeleke
Rahel first met the young, 11-year old boy, on December 21, 2006. That was the day after the war in Somalia was declared. It was a beautiful day in the mountains, the rainy season was complete, yellow flowers still dotted the sides of valleys. You could feel all of human history in the thin air.
That evening a development worker who was driving his pick-up truck on the road between Adigrat and Mekelle, in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia, killed an animal that was part of a herd of draughting cattle. The cattle were being watched over by the 11-year boy who was also herding the other animals of his village. The men of the village had gathered by the side of the road where the cattle had been run over. Rahel could see in their faces that in an instant the accumulated wealth of multiple generations of farmers had been lost. The blood of cattle coursed along the roadside but the driver of the pick-up truck was unconcerned. He had left some money for the kid and moved on. He believed that the inputs of a generation of ancestors could be exchanged for a commodity to be bought on the market: a motor might be substituted for an animal. But that’s not how things worked on a plot of land 2500 metres above sea level in Tigray. How could the boy return home? What shame would he face? What role could the young boy play in the community now that he had failed at the task assigned to him?
The occupation of Somalia lasted for three years or was it ten? Maybe the occupation is ongoing? Rahel is unsure. In 2006, Rahel was told that the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia invited the Ethiopian troops, that the fight was against the Islamic court system then being set up in Somalia. Rahel was meant to understand that the court system was operated by terrorists, that the war was not against the people of Somalia, that there was an imminent threat of Somalia being used as a proxy for larger regional conflicts, evil forces had to be vanquished.
What Rahel does know is that until the Ethiopian government waged war against the residents of Tigray in November of 2020, the African Union peacekeeping mission in Mogadishu was historically staffed by Ethiopian troops. They say peace is an extension of the way life is organized during war or is it the other way around? Is war an extension of the way life has already been organized for peace?
When did war begin for the residents of Mogadishu? When will war end for the residents of Tigray?
Rahel had come to Mekelle in December 2006 to see another boy, a much older one, called Ezana, who had recently relocated from Addis Ababa to work for the French NGO, Doctors Without Borders. Ezana’s work had something to do with HIV education and outreach. During Rahel’s stay in Mekelle, Ezana would take her to meetings. One memorable gathering was at the conference hall of the Sharia Council of Tigray. She recalls the meeting because the discussion was dominated by a woman with a cross tattooed on her forehead. Throughout the Horn of Africa, women and men would historically adopt different religious affiliations according to the vagaries of war, famine and fate. What was not possible was to be without affiliation. Communities knew how to assimilate difference; individuals would know how to survive changing circumstances.
Ezana had grown up in Addis Ababa where he had attended the Black Lion High School. The school was so named after the patriotic rebel group that fought the Italian colonial army in the 1930s. Was this what tied Ezana to Addis? The Ethiopian wars against the Italians were primarily fought in Tigray. Eventually, the generals in those wars, who came from all over the Horn of Africa, would turn Addis Ababa from a sparsely settled area into a military encampment and then into a capital city. Was it the movement of these people that allowed Ezana to make a claim on Addis Ababa?
In 2006, these were not questions Rahel knew how to ask.
Rahel had grown up in the Kazanchis neighbourhood of Addis Ababa, well known for its bars with concrete floors covered in fresh cut grass and some version of electro-funk on the stereo. Back then, what tied Ezana and Rahel together was that they had a mutual childhood friend who used to take them drinking in the taverns of Addis Ababa. During the Christmas season of 2006 Rahel wanted to find out if the laughter she had shared with Ezana over spirits amounted to a bond stronger than alcohol. This is why Rahel followed Ezana from Addis Ababa to Mekelle. She wanted to know what other affiliations they might share.
Before setting out for her trip to Tigray, Rahel’s mother called to express disappointment in her daughter. To visit Tigray was to visit the enemy. Rahel’s mother described the ways the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (which was part of the ruling coalition then in power in Ethiopia) had dismantled buildings and resources and taken them from Addis to Mekelle. When Rahel arrived in Mekelle she expected to see roads paved with the gold that had been stolen from Addis Ababa. What she saw instead was just another dusty town that looked exactly like Addis Ababa once did before investors tried to reconstruct that city into a poor imitation of Dubai.
In Mekelle, animals and humans still mixed freely. It was possible to sit on a stoop, eat ful, drink tea, and watch the morning light curve the day.
Watching the day, Rahel did wonder why the ful was so good. Fava beans are not indigenous to the Tigray region and ful is a dish one might associate with lower Egypt rather than the rooftop of the Nile river. But when you are a displaced person in Tigray you might also follow the Tekeze river across the border into Sudan and then the Nile into Egypt. The Tekeze river is a major tributary of the Nile river. During the cold war, there was also a civil war between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the central government in Ethiopia. That war lasted 17 years. The Nile river flows south to north but in return recipes for ful have flowed north to south as the refugees returned home from Sudan.
The light in Mekelle also reminded Rahel of other migrant destinations in the Horn of Africa; for example, Sana’a in Yemen. These are urban settlements built into the side of mountain escarpments. Cities in the sky. Travellers in these cities have heart attacks from the thin air and the limited oxygen supply. When a person is addressed, he or she is meant to demonstrate reticence in their expression and feeling. This is how Rahel spent her days with Ezana.
After laughter was finished sunlight filtered through the space that remained. When the friends parted ways lattice like patterns remained on the ground.
Independent farmers are notoriously difficult to corral into a national economy. Mekelle like Sana’a and Addis Ababa is surrounded by smallholder agriculture. The farmers in Sana’a all grow qat, a mild narcotic, for local and market consumption. But in Tigray and in the regions surrounding Addis Ababa the land is used to cultivate grains and pulses that are consumed by those growing the food. Farmers will also sometimes grow cash crops like qat or coffee alongside food items meant for immediate consumption.
Smallholder farmers feed the city when they eke out a surplus beyond feeding their families.
Rahel’s mother was filled with a false sense of what the world had taken from her. The fact is hardly anyone is rich in the Horn of Africa. The commodities that circulate through markets and middle men hardly ever generate the kinds of profits that could be stolen or hoarded for the benefit of one group. Where there is money to be made it is in collecting rents from NGO’s and other commercial and non-commercial development agencies. Nonetheless, the city does exert coercive pressures on the farmer. The city sells the farmer fertilizer and coordinates the price for coffee and qat, sesame and grains. The farmer accrues a debt during the growing season but when the harvest season arrives, he sells his surplus produce as fast as possible in order to pay off his obligations to a middle man. Does the farmer know the best time to sell his grain? Who profits when the farmer sells his produce too cheaply just so he can return home before the sun sets on the other side of the mountain ridge?
When Rahel returned to Addis Ababa, she wanted to ask her mother these questions. She wanted to tell her mother that the ful in Mekelle was delicious. It was an experience worth savouring. She didn’t say these things to her. She wasn’t allowed to.
The day after the war in Somalia was announced in December 2006, Ezana took Rahel to Adigrat, which is a town close to the border with Eritrea. Rahel and Ezana stood on a mountain cliff in Adigrat while he showed her the edge of another country. Rahel once had distant relatives in that other country. They have forgotten each other. Rahel wanted to go to Adigrat to remember those affiliations too. When she stood on the mountain cliff, she felt like things could be different; that one day she might meet those lost relatives and they would embrace.
Nurrudin Farah has said that what is at war in the Horn of Africa are “the generic and the specific as concepts”. Ethiopia is a generic term for a wide variety of different people, it’s an expansive term, inclusive, while Somali is specific. You are either Somali or you are not. Later, Farah also writes that “wars are rivers that burn.” Once war resumed between the TPLF and the central government in 2020 it was hard to know who counted as an Ethiopian or an Eritrean or even a Somali, what was generic and what was specific to a place? The capaciousness of ethnic and national categories shrinks and expands at the convenience of power. As shifts are made bodies pay the price. In 2020 the women of Adigrat paid the price when they were taken from their homes and brutally raped. The troops who committed these acts were part of the coalition of forces put together by the central government in Ethiopia. These included Eritrean troops who crossed the same border Rahel wistfully leaned into in 2006.
Rahel doesn’t know what the 2020-21 war is meant to achieve. Someone told her that Ethiopian unity was under threat, but was that a generic Ethiopia or a specific Ethiopia? Rahel was told that the TPLF needed to be disbanded because it acted as an intransigent force, creating a lawless federal system. Is federalism a generic or specific concept?
Between 1991 and 2019 the TPLF ruled Ethiopia with a coalition of partners through an organization called the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). Many of the same people who worked inside of that government and who once spoke on behalf of the EPRDF now speak against the EPRDF regime as if they were not a part of it. Brother has turned against brother, and women are paying the price.
When Rahel and Ezana left Adrigrat on the evening of December 21, 2006, they went to a waterfall where the local kids were bathing in fresh water. Later, as the sun set and they drove towards Mekelle they saw even more young boys herding animals in the valley below the highway. The highway from Adigrat to Mekelle was smooth and new. It has made travel between scattered urban centres more accessible; it has connected farmers to markets, it has allowed farmers to better coordinate information and fetch better prices. The highway was part of the infrastructure projects EPRDF was well known for. The highway also makes speeding in a mechanized vehicle easy and desirable. Was this also part of the war between the generic and the specific in the Horn of Africa?
The way that Rahel tells the story, a few years after the accident, shame drove the young boy to journey along the Tekeze river, towards the Mediterranean or the Red Sea. She does not know if the boy survived the crossing. But if he did, she wonders how many languages he now speaks and what he thinks about when he hears about the war against his sisters in Adigrat.
Who then is the enemy in her mother’s imagination?
Elleni Centime Zeleke is Assistant Professor of African Studies in the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies at Columbia University. Thanks to Arash Davari, Ulele Burnham, and Emily Raboteau for reading the many incarnations of this story and for providing editorial guidance along the way.