Saturday, April 16, 2016

To go or not to go

We've spent the last few months trying to figure out if we should go to Ethiopia this summer. It has been 2 years since A went back, 4 years for D. They need to go, visit their relatives, remember their roots. I fantasize about taking the summer off and taking both boys on a longer trip, touring historical sites, visiting national parks, and just hanging out and experiencing life there for a while.

But Ethiopia has been experiencing the worst drought in 50 years. Crops have failed. Millions of people are in need of food aid. Hundreds of thousands of children are experiencing malnutrition. More recently, in some parts of the country, torrential rains have hit the drought-hardened earth, causing flash floods and killing people without lingering long enough to provide farmers with any relief. We have donated to Save the Children, and there are many other organizations, large and small, working to help. Please donate. In terms of our trip, even though Burji is still doing OK, I can't help thinking that a devastating drought isn't the best time for tourism.

Just as worrying, since last November there have been widespread protests against the Ethiopian government, and the government's response has not been peaceful nor restrained. Some background - in the 1990's the government redrew state boundaries along ethnic lines. There's the Oromia Region for the Oromo people, the Tigray Region for the Tigray people, etc. The idea was to grant each region self-determination. Ownership of land, though, was reserved for the federal government. Last year the government, which is dominated by the Amhara and Tigray, decided to expand Addis Abeba, the capital, which is its own state, into Oromo land. Since land ownership is vested in the federal government, they could confiscate or claim land from Oromo farmers. The Oromo actually constitute the majority ethnic group, but do not have proportionate power. The Oromo protested the plan. The government cracked down on protesters. The protests continued. Eventually the government backed off the Addis Abeba plan, but by then all the seething anger at systematic ethnic discrimination had erupted. Protests have continued and expanded. The government continues to crack down with violence and media blackouts. Hundreds of Oromo people have died. There are multiple reports of universities burned and police firing indiscriminately into crowds.

For a while we thought that, no matter how bad it was, we could still get to Burji while avoiding the affected areas. Oromia is huge - east, west, and south of Addis Abeba. Burji is about three-fourths of the way to the Kenyan border, west of the southern part of Oromia. If we flew to Arba Min'ch and drove to Burji from the west, we wouldn't have to set foot in Oromia.

Everything except the lower southwest quarter of the map is Oromia, but if we flew from Addis Abeba to Arba Min'ch and drove to Burji (at the pin) from the west, we would avoid Oromia.
But then the protests spread to Konso, which is directly west of Burji. To get to Burji from Arba Min'ch, you have to pass through Konso. There is no other road. The situation in Konso is different, but related to that of Oromia. Konso is much smaller and is part of the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People's Region, the "everyone-else" region of Ethiopia. Up until last year, like Burji, Amaro, and some other small ethnic groups, Konso was a "special woreda," an area with a fair degree of autonomy. Last year the government merged these "special woredas" into a single zone, and created a new seat of government in a middle-of-nowhere place called Segen. Last month people in Konso began protesting. The government reacted, someone fired shots, and three people died. Driving from Arba Min'ch to Burji through Konso may not be safe anymore.

At this point, you might be wondering, Why are you even considering this? Well, there are a lot of reasons:
  1. Ethiopia is a huge country. There are many perfectly peaceful places. As widespread as the unrest has been, most of it has been far from Burji. Imagine if there had been a lot of violence around New York and Philadelphia and a much smaller incident in Washington DC. Would that stop you from going through DC to reach a peaceful Richmond, Virginia?
  2. We have an obligation to our children to go. We made a promise that we would stay connected to Ethiopia. More than just keeping our promise, we need to stay connected so that they can grow up understanding who they are, where they came from, and how the two parts of their lives fit together. Waiting until next summer feels too long; it would be three years away for A and five away for D, more than half his life. It feels very important that we go now.
  3. We have no guarantee that things will get better. If the protests, exacerbated by the drought, get worse, I can easily imagine things getting much worse and staying that way for years. 
  4. We have a specific person we need to visit.
  5. We're getting contradictory information and advice and we know that we don't have the full picture. One person from Burji told us to come and another told us to stay away. Social media sources we follow contradict each other. There is a media blackout in many parts of the country, so we simply don't have enough information.
We might still fly to Arba Min'ch and then have the people we want to see come to us. They would also have to travel through Konso, but unlike us, they wouldn't attract attention. Of course, I wouldn't want them to do it unless I were 100% sure it was safe. If that plan works, I can see Arba Min'ch being a comfortable place to spend a week or two...

So that's where we are right now.

1 comment:

  1. Kyra and family,
    Greetings from the sunny San Diego. I am so excited to learn about your upcoming visit to Burji land. I am impressed with the outline you prepared addressing safety issues on the ground. By the way, I too am planning to travel this year hope fully in couple of months.
    The following are my thoughts about issues you raised.
    1. Yes, you should be concerned about the safety of your family and avoid areas that are not safe. Having said that from what I am hearing traveling in Ethiopia and in particular region you are interested is safe. If you need I can give you contact in Soyama for updates.
    2. The purpose of your visit is to allow your boys to visit the land of their ancestors and reconnect with their extended family members at their place of residence. With the hope their memory will be filled with the good times spent kicking score balls with friends, visual impact of seeing the homes, family members, and animals, etc. In my opinion, visiting with their family (father, etc) away in a city such as Arba Minch will not be as powerful nor result in lasting memory as visiting their village.
    3. If you are not comfortable with the safety issue please postpone your travel.