Everyday racism in Ethiopia
(written in 1993)
The headquarters of the former ‘Organisation for African Unity’, OAU, Since re-christened AU for African Union, is situated in the far northeastern corner of Africa, in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa - of all places. But that is not the main reason why time and again African leaders and diplomats have been calling for a transfer of the the headquarters to some other place…
It may sound strange, but that reason is simply racism, with a capital R. Yes, racism in the middle of Africa. Or so at least among that nation of ethnic group which for the last 120 years and until 1991 virtually owned political power in the country: the Amharas. Regarding themselves as the true Ethiopians or brown ones, they also keep maintaining that "this is not Africa", that they are Semites or Kushites and not black Africans, or something better, so to speak.
Now if you keep that for yourself, to compensate for whatever complex you might otherwise be suffering from, it wouldn't really matter. In realy life, however, it does matter. The least inconvenience, so to speak is the one suffered in the capitalAddis Ababa by dark-skinned, thick-nosed and -lipped black Africans, on whom the average Ethiopian Amhara likes to look down upon. Now these gentlemen spend most of their time in offices or conferences. Their wives, however, are much worse off, since they have to go out almost daily into the streets and markets to do their shopping, where they are made to feel that they are different. Most of the time by gestures, but very often too in words and remarks which come straight from the vocabulary of racism. The most defamatory word which can be heard quite regularly describing black Africans is 'shankilla', which translated into common English simply means "SLAVE... and which just reminds us that until the fifties emperor Haile Selassie and his feudal companions used to have slaves at their courts. Slaves there are no more, yet the term is still being used. And if that isn't then as a brown Ethiopian friend of mine toldme, another hardly less derogatory word is commonly being used. He told me how he overheard one of those carefully chosen, always light-complexioned Ethiopian Airlines stewardesses speaking loudly about black African passengers on the plane as "Those things".
These being so even after 17 years of so-called "socialist internationalism" under Col. Mengistu it looks like the new regime under Meles Zenawi has some hard educating of its peoples to do. Especially so when even Amahara commoners cook ladies, Netsanet. One day she really asked me :
“Why do you always invite those blacks?”
Now, you must know that ‘those blacks’ were indeed two very good friends: one was ambassadore Segun Olusola, Nigeria’s ambassador to Ethiopia and the OAU, a good friend since the early sixties. And the other was Luis d’Almeida, the Angolan ambassador, and also a friend, since the days when we both worked in the Africa Service of Radio Deutsche Welle in Cologne, Germany.
And by the way. That Lady Netsanet was almost as black as the two ‘Execellencies’!!!