Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Burji history

In the beginning, the Burji lived at Liban.

Liban was located in what is now southeast Ethiopia, near the meeting of the Ethiopian, Kenyan and Somali borders.

In some tellings, Liban is located further north, in the homeland of the Amhara. If you need to get on the good side of the most privileged ethnic group in the country, it's helpful to have a common origin to point to. The Burji are a very small ethnic group, so they have to be "practical," "flexible," (Kellner) and "versatile" (Amborn) in the details of where they came from.

The Burji shared their ancestral land with the Konso and the Borana, until an argument drove the Burji out and to their present homeland on the slopes of the Amaro Mountains just southeast of Lake Chamo. The Burji have lived here for around 400 years.

The Burji became expert farmers, famous for their agricultural skills. This made them different from the majority of the peoples in the region (e.g. the Borana), who were herders.

At the end of the 19th century, the army of the Ethiopian Empire pushed south, subjugating the indigenous people and setting up a system of compulsory labor called gabbar. Huge numbers of people took their animals and fled to British Kenya. For the next thirty-five years, the herders moved back and forth across the border, avoiding now the Ethiopian neftenya, now the British tax collectors. Whole villages would vanish overnight from one country and appear in the other.

But the Burji were farmers, not herders, so they couldn't move around. Being practical people, they accepted Ethiopian rule. Under the gabbar system, they were partitioned out to work for the northern settlers. Their crops were drained by the north.

Then the Burji began to leave. Not back and forth across the border like the herders, but permanently moving southward into Kenya, reaching Marsabet, Nairobi and even Mombassa. Many of the Kenyan Burji became successful traders and businesspeople.

Back in Ethiopia, the Italians invaded from Italian Somaliland in 1935. The Ethiopian army fought the Italians all over the south for the next four years. The Italians were brutal, using poison gas against civilians. For many Burji though, the Italians were actually an improvement, since they abolished the gabbar system.

By 1940, the British had joined the fight against the Italians. In 1941 Emperor Haile Selassie returned to the throne from his exile in England. Now the Burji were punished for supporting the Italians. More fled to Kenya.

We are now within living memory, and I am not comfortable feeling my way through events that I may get wrong. I will fast forward through the overthrow of Haile Selassie, the murderous Derg, famine, and war to the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), currently in power. The current constitution has organized Ethiopia under a model of ethnic federalism. The country is divided into regions, zones, and woredas based on ethnicity. Burji is a special woreda (meaning it is not part of any zone) within the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples Region (SNNPR). In theory, the model of ethnic federalism means that each ethnic group enjoys a large degree of autonomy. In practice, there are at least two problems. One, there is disagreement about where boundaries were drawn. Many Burji, for example, live in the area around Hagere Mariam, but that area is now part of the Guji zone in the Oromia region.

Two, dividing the country among ethnic groups brings differences to the forefront and exacerbates inter-ethnic conflicts. The Burji have been involved in at least two conflicts in the last decade. One was with the Guji, over shared resources in the Hagere Mariam area. The other is a current conflict with the Borana that began in northern Kenya and has now spilled over into southern Ethiopia (Burji woreda, where we are going, is not involved in the current conflict).

I'm looking forward to going to Burji and learning more about its history.

Resources to read about Burji:

- Amborn, H. (2009). Burji: Versatile by Tradition.  In Schlee, G.  & Watson, E. (Eds.) Changing identifications and alliances in north-east Africa.
- Boru, A. (2004). Burji recognition in the Kenya constitution. Cultural Survival Quarterly.
- Debelo, A.R. (2012). Emerging ethnic identities and inter-ethnic conflict: The Guji-Burji conflict in south Ethiopia. Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism.
- Fresh Clashes Erupt in Moyale between the Borana and the Burji. (2014, February 17).
- Hundreds Displaced Following Moyale Clashes. (2013, December 6).
- Kellner, A.  (2006). The Burjis' Liban tradition: An example of a practical interest in the past. Proceedings of the XVth International Conference of Ethiopian Studies.
- Kellner, A. (2006). The significance of the oral traditions of the Burji for perceiving and shaping their inter-ethnic relations. In Schlee, G.  & Watson, E. (Eds.) Changing Identifications and Alliances in North-East Africa.
- Mahmoud, H.A. (2009). Breaking barriers: the construction of a new Burji identity through livestock trade in northern Kenya.  Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology Working Papers.
- Oba, G.  (2013). Nomads in the shadows of empires.
- Wolasa, T. (2010). Introduction. Yaayo Burji Dictionary.

Friday, March 21, 2014

New answers

This blog post isn't going to be relevant to a whole lot of people, but when you realize you've gotten something wrong for several years, you feel like writing a blog post about it.

Here is a quick quiz about Ethiopia:

1. How long has the country of Ethiopia existed?
2. Was Ethiopia ever a colony?
3. What language is spoken in Ethiopia?
4. What do traditional Ethiopian clothes look like?
5. What are some important sights in Ethiopia? 

Here are the quick answers, as might be given by our adoption agency, by a cursory Google search, by many Ethiopian Americans, by me during the last few years.

1. How long has the country of Ethiopia existed?
The country of Ethiopia is one of the oldest in the world. The fabled Ethiopian Queen of Sheba, who had a son with King Solomon, lived in the 10th century BC. Homer and Herodotus wrote about Ethiopia in the 8th and 5th centuries BC. 

2. Was Ethiopia ever a colony?
No. During the Scramble for Africa, the Ethiopians defeated the Italians at the Battle of Adwa in 1896. Ethiopia is the only African country to have never been a colony.

3. What language is spoken in Ethiopia?
The main language is Amharic. It's a Semitic language that uses an alphabet called fidel.

4. What do traditional Ethiopian clothes look like?
The traditional clothing is the shamma, which is a long white cotton cloth, often with embroidered edges. A heavier version, more like a blanket, is called a gabbi. Women cover their heads with a gauzy ne'tela. 

5. What are some important sights in Ethiopia?  
The stelae at Axum, the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, the castles of Gondar, Bahir Dar, Lake Tana and the Blue Nile. 

But for my children, none of these answers are correct. 

My children are from the south of Ethiopia, not from the center or the north. And that's a whole different history and culture.

I realized this over a year ago (See Whose culture is it anyway?) but until recently I hadn't tried to find the answers that would apply to my kids. Busy learning how to be a family and all. Only now, with our trip to Burjii coming up, am I finally doing some research.

So here is my first attempt at new answers.

1. How long has the country of Ethiopia existed?
The country of Ethiopia, with its current borders that include the south, has existed since the end of the 19th century/beginning of the 20th century.

I just read Nomads in the Shadows of Empires. One of the most interesting parts was about how the Ethiopian empire and British Kenya drew the frontier line between the two countries. Something I had never thought about before.

2. Was Ethiopia ever a colony?
Yes. The states of what is now southern Ethiopia were invaded and colonized by the army of Emperor Menelik. The Amhara neftenya (soldier-settlers) enforced a system called gabbar among the indigenous population, which was something very close to slavery. Some would say southern Ethiopia is still colonized.

3. What language is spoken in Ethiopia?
Of the approximately 85 languages in Ethiopia, the most widely spoken first language is Oromiffa. It is a Cushitic language related to Somali, Sidamo and Burjii. Cushitic languages use the Latin alphabet, not fidel. Other language groups in Ethiopia are Semitic, Omotic and Nilo-Saharan. Amharic is the most widely spoken second language due to the Amhara conquest and the resulting (now-past) language policies.

4. What do traditional Ethiopian clothes look like?
Each ethnic group has its own traditional clothes. Traditional Burjii clothes are made from a bright blue woven cloth. The shamma, gabbi and ne'tela are traditional Amhara clothing.
5. What are some important sights in Ethiopia?  
The sights listed above are all in the north. Most of the southern Ethiopian sights listed in tourist guides fall into the categories of wildlife (Ne'chisar National Park, Yabelo Wildlife Sanctuary) or anthropological (lower Omo valley). I am sure there are historic sites that are important to the people of southern Ethiopia, including sites marking their struggles against the Ethiopian empire and against the Italians. But I don't know what they are yet.

Final thoughts:

History is written by the victors.

Ethiopia ≠ Amhara

"It is time to move beyond... 'empathy with the victors' and tell the story of the vanquished, the poor, those who can't 'write,' those who have no 'Book' in their name.  - Teshale Tibebu, The Making of Modern Ethiopia

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Open Int'l Adoption in Haiti (link to blog)

I was glad to read this and am looking forward to the next two parts:

An excerpt:
I think it is our job as people of love to uplift the marginalized and to be more than fair. If we are honest we know that we hold the power. We (adoptive parents) have the passports and the money and the ability to be connected and jet around the world. With great power comes great responsibility. We made a decision many years back that no matter how intimidated we might be by entering into an open adoption relationship, it was the correct thing to do and a way we could tip the scales of injustice back the other way... 

...If you are considering a reunion in the immediate or distant future, let me assure you, sitting in an awkward situation speaking choppy language to folks that you don't really know how to relate to never killed anyone.

And the whole post here:

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Advice about planning a trip back

I have gotten a lot of advice from many different sources about our upcoming trip to Ethiopia, so unfortunately I cannot properly credit these. But the two most useful pieces of advice so far have been:

1 - Find a guide / interpreter from the same ethnic group as your child.

The more I learn about the history and culture of the Burjii, the more I realize how important this is. The Burjii are a very small ethnic group who have been scattered across countries, languages and religions. Despite their differences, the overriding commonality is that they are Burjii, and they seemingly will do anything to help one of their own. There is a level of trust there that I think would not be afforded to an outsider.

2 - Just going counts as a success.

We may want to learn more about our children's history, grow their identity, feel more connected to their family, bridge some cultural barriers... but if none of these things happen, it is OK. If we can just physically get ourselves to their homeland, that counts as succeeding... This is the advice I come back to every day. It is a wisdom that keeps me sane and grateful for the amazing opportunity we have.

Friday, March 14, 2014

We interrupt this snow...

At one point in late February I looked at the calendar and realized that between snow days and holidays the kids had only been in school for six days the entire month. No wonder we were all so grouchy. Then the first week of March we went to south Florida.

We flew into Fort Lauderdale and the first two nights we stayed on a boat in this marina.

We swam at the marina pool.
 We went to this beach.

Then we drove to the Everglades. We rented bikes at Shark Valley.

We looked at alligators and birds.

The next day we went to Sanibel Island. We collected shells and visited the wildlife refuge.
After two nights we drove back through the Everglades, stopping to take an afternoon canoe ride through the mangroves.

We spent the last two nights near Key Largo. We visited a coral reef. We swam. We saw a goliath grouper, sting rays, and dolphins. We had Key lime pie on a dock.
On the last day we kayaked around a state park in Miami before heading back to the Fort Lauderdale airport.

The trip was just what we all had needed. The moment we hit that 75 degree sunshine, everyone's mood skyrocketed. There was a little anxiety from the kids  - chirps, squeaks, whistles and screeches from one, even more nonstop jibber-jabber from the other - but not enough to stop them from having a great time. The pouting, complaining and yelling that had been going on all of February almost completely stopped. But the biggest difference in mood was with ME. The last few weeks I had been - how do I put this nicely - an impatient, sarcastic &#%@, but in Florida I was back to being the patient and compassionate mother that I want to be all winter long.

Now we're back in Pennsylvania. It's cold, but the good moods remain. Crocuses and tulips are starting to come up in our yard. Soon it will be spring.

One more look at that water before I go.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Update on preparations

We leave for Ethiopia in about five weeks. Here is the update on our preparations:

- Ethiopian visas: Fed Ex should deliver tomorrow.

- UAE visas: The UAE consulate says we don't need them. All my Saudi and Kuwaiti students who have flown through the UAE agree.

- Shots and other vaccinations: Mostly done for A. He gets one more shot later this month and we'll fill his prescriptions right before we go. My vaccinations are still good from the last trip, and I still have some unexpired prescriptions.

- Accommodation in Addis Ababa: We are staying at a guest house near the university. Many guesthouses are in the Bole area and I remember there being many ferenji in the area and as a result, many aggressive peddlers. The university area is much quieter, while giving easy access to restaurants, shopping and museums.

- Driver to take us south
- Interpreter
This is where things get a little vaguer. My new Burjii friend in Colorado has asked his brother in Ethiopia to drive and interpret for us. He is 100% sure his brother can do it. I have exchanged some brief messages with the brother, who says he is ready for anything. So while my American side is screaming out for dates, times, names, places, prices and reservations, I am trying to breathe and relax and trust that we are in good hands. I have lived or spent time in eight different African countries. I know that it is not only culturally appropriate to start a journey relying heavily on faith, it is also more realistic. Sure, everyone can promise me that a specific car will deliver me to a specific hotel at a specific time on a specific day for a specific price, but why make a promise that will probably be broken? Better for me to trust that these are good, kind people who are looking out for my child because he is Burjii, and somehow, insha'Allah, it will all work out.

- Accommodation in the south: Rumor has it there is a hotel in Hagere Mariam, near the edge of Burjii.

- Tell family we are coming: Done, both through Colorado's brother and an Amharic-speaking friend on our end.

- Try to prepare family with realistic expectations (A no longer speaks Burjii etc.): This was good advice, but I don't think it's going to happen.

- Photo albums for family
- Videos of D to show family
- Gifts/donations
I will work on these when we return from Florida.

- Prepare A emotionally: We are talking about our trip a lot, but I don't think he understands the reality of it yet. He gets sad when a Burjii person tries to speak Burjii to him and he doesn't understand.

- Prepare D for our absence: Often D gets so stuck on what he doesn't have that he can't appreciate what he has. We told him we are going to Florida and he mostly wanted to know why we aren't going to California. The trip to Ethiopia has been different. I don't know why my child has chosen this moment to focus on the positive, but I am so grateful he has. My mother will come down while we are gone and he is unequivocally excited to have yiayia all to himself.

- One last preparation that I hadn't planned on: Colorado is teaching me some words in Burjii!

I am so excited about our trip!!!