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Ethiopia Yene Fiker: Between Culture and Identity

It seems that I am perhaps attempting to do two things that are at odds with one another. See, not too long ago, I used to be as tribal as they come without really knowing it. My affinity for “my own” was such a part of my identity that I saw the virtues of justice and love through the prism of “my people”. But then, life took a twist and I plunged from upper-middle class comfort to the abyss of indigence and displacement. Once a refugee who sought shelter in America as my family and I fled Ethiopia; the irony of life, I once again became a refugee in America. But in hardship there are bountiful blessings for it was through the fires of dispossession, loneliness, and tear strewn pavements that I found a purpose that I desperately was seeking when I was swimming in the excesses of corporate America.

It was the brutal reality of homelessness and destitution that removed the scales of tribal thinking from my eyes. Too many people in this world want to live a life of perpetual happiness, yet if one ponders, life without pains and struggles is a pain onto itself. Our character is discovered not during the moments of serenity but during the times of severity and turmoil. I could write books of how I became a sojourner, what Ethiopians call Sedet, and ended up in Greenville South Carolina out of all the places. I once called home shrubs in the back of Earl Street Baptist Church, occasionally slept in a cemetery, and sought shelter from a late night winter drizzle under a parked semi-trailer. I could discuss the endless travails I faced but this article is not about misfortune but about the blessings that are found during the most trying circumstances.

The blessing I found were plenty; the embrace I felt as love became my blanket that kept me warm where once friends and close ones were offering me cold shoulders. The mind bending gratefulness I felt when a legion of angels gave kindness without me once asking for it. The angels I speak of did not have halos and wings; these angels were strangers that God sent into my life and embraced me with profound love in ways that are currently cajoling teardrops onto the keyboard as I type these words. Whatever doubt I once harbored about God evaporated into thin air; though my faith at times still waivers, the endless times the most random grace was bestowed to me has abrogated any notion that I once had in my mind about God’s existence. Once or twice could be random chance and luck; but a thousand times blessings and I realized that God is not an accident.

However, this testimony I share is not only about me, the greatest blessing I discovered on this education I received without my choosing is this: we are one people. When I saw homeless men and women along with their children in missions from Greenville, SC, Des Moines, IA, Nashville, TN and Colorado and the denizens of impoverished masses who I encountered on this exodus of mine, I instantly stopped using injustice as a sport. No longer can I, in good conscience, think that injustice only affects “my people” for poverty, homelessness and hopelessness is a blight that injures all without regard to the race, gender, religion, political ideology and the endless isms we let divide us. How can I advocate for justice for only “black folk” in Chicago or “my people” in Ethiopia when I resided once in the same shelter that a “white” poverty-stricken child named Sam called home? How can I let my heart bleed for only those who share my complexion while turning my heart to stone for those who look different?

We as a society keep devolving into the inferno of injustice because we insist on listening to petty and repugnant grievance peddlers who whisper antipathy and resentment into our spirits.Too many think they are fighting for justice but all the while they are adding logs to the flames that is licking this planet with the devil’s tongue of indifference and malice—the pursuit of justice has become an exclusionary endeavor. Instead of trying to mend the disease of hatred that is brutalizing this world, too many would rather fight the symptoms and in the process utter hatred and heated invective to counteract hatred and invective. All sides responding to anger with anger, a sad Kabuki dance where enmity births yet more enmity. We are becoming a society of snakes eating its own tail. If only people could just pause for a second and realize that the answer is love; the Achilles heel of evil and those who purvey is love. Love is a shield and a sword that is more powerful than any tank or missile possessed by any army in the world. Love and unity is the only way we can start to mend this planet and restore a sense of fairness to a world that is drowning in unfairness and acrimony.

But then a conundrum hits me; I still have an affinity and love for my birthplace Ethiopia and I still  harbor in my heart a desperate desire to end the centuries of suffering “African”-Americans have endured. How do I square this circle? How do I at once advocate for universal justice while concurrently cherishing my Ethiopian culture and heritage? How can I be a bridge to many when a large part of who I am is formed and informed by my beloved Ethiopia? This is something I struggled with and prayed over continuously until a revelation of sorts hit me. Imagine if you will a large family, in this family there are four siblings. Each child has a different first name and their own unique characteristic and quirks that differentiate them from each other. Yet, as unique as each child is and though their names are different, they are bonded by the blood that is in them and the last name that they share.

This family is humanity. All of us have different first names whether as individuals or the cultures we all have within us. But we are made one by the blood that courses within our veins for humanity was once a singularity. No need to delve into bible here, whether you believe in God or not, both science and faith affirm that this universe was once one that multiplied into many. So whether you are in Asia, “Africa”, Europe, Australia, North America, South America or heck even the penguins in Antarctica, we originated from one source. Thus, our blood becomes our bond and our last name is humanity. We are all children of a higher love, sadly we let our differences and tribal identities overwhelm and nullify our commonalities. We have become one big infighting family bickering over the petty differences and yelling past each other even though we share the same frustrations, pains and hopes for a better tomorrow.

There is nothing wrong about celebrating our heritage. I love Ethiopia with all my soul, I was born with the love of Ethiopia in my heart. Parents, be careful the names you choose to give to your children. I was named after the greatest of Ethiopian emperors named Atse Tewodros II, a hero of heroes who—through sheer will and tenacity—united a once bickering nation and died protecting his people from the tyranny of the British empire. Sharing the same name and the same blood as Atse Tewodros II, my first name became my crucible and my destiny. Even during the apex of my partying days and making six figures as an associate at Booz Allen, in my heart I always wanted to make a difference for emama Ethiopia. Where too many were gloating about the “development” taking place in Ethiopia and the fortunes which were being accumulated by a few as they disregarded the pernicious butchers TPLF, what kept gnawing at my spirits and darkening my happiness was the plight and tribulations of the broken masses who suffered back home.

In a land that could feed the entire continent, greed and gluttony relegates too many to the sidelines of irrelevance while a few live lives of royalty. Addis Abeba, though the capital of Ethiopia, has turned away from the kindness that kept the culture intact for 3,000 years and has now skulked into the sludge of empty materialism. Building after building being erected as the government ignores the masses who reside in hopelessness. What good is infrastructure if the people are not taken care of? A time will come where Addis Abeba will be renamed to Finfine and the capital moved back to Gonder. In time, the cancer of TPLF will recede along with the neo-Apartheid policies that hobbles the citizenry with the cudgel of tribal federalism. It would be folly to deny that Ethiopia is presently being bled by soulless tyrants but those who enrich themselves at the cost of the people, from Addis Abeba to DC and beyond, will in time be broken by the same means they broke the masses.

This I know to be true, things come full circle. I know in my heart that present tribulation does not mean permanent strife. Our lives are but seasons, we go through times of distress that eventually lead to happiness. The same way that night gives way to dawn is the way that tribulation births joys and purpose. The fires that come for all of us, for no man or woman is inured from pains, will in time sanctify us. This is God’s promise to me, what we Ethiopians call kalkidan, where we suffer presently under the boots of despots and godless plutocrats, we will in time find redemption and children in Finfine, Gonder, Mek’ele and beyond will not be mired in hunger and despondency anymore. It is this knowledge of renewal, added with the love of many angelic strangers, that ensured I was never broken spiritually and imbued my heart with the tenacity of Atse Tewodros II.

So I can do two things at once after all, I can love my birthplace Ethiopia and yet still love all without regard to borders and artificial boundaries. My love of my once home Ethiopia does not come at the cost of other cultures; if anything, my love of my heritage lets me appreciate the endless cultures and heritages that speck the world. I love what makes us unique; I am a man who gets his happiness the most by sharing stories with others—my muse are people. Maybe instead of fighting fire with fire and letting the world burn in the process—instead of fighting for the politics of neo-pharisees (plutocrats, politicians, and pundits)—we should love inward and then love the endless heritages that exist in this world. God exists withing us and is manifested outside of us by our language, our music, our food and our communities.  Heritage can either be the ax that shatters or be the ointment that heals; we have a choice to let love rule the day or allow bitterness to be our rue. None is greater than the other, all are the greater when we love and give to one another. No need to argue about politics and religion, be love and let love settle our differences.

The crux of the story is such: if we want to heal this world, we have to do so while at one time loving ourselves and simultaneously loving others. The experience of a hungry child in Finfine or a hopeless mother in Awasa is not unique to Ethiopia. The affliction of crony capitalism and vacuous materialism robs too many in every corner of this planet. So the kalkidan, a prophetic promise of restoration, is not only for Ethiopia—the totality of humanity will in time find redemption. The talk of “God’s chosen people” is rubbish, humanity came from one so then we are all God’s chosen children. The ego always one to ease God out, our hubris and arrogance is the main source of friction and warfare. So as I pray for the child in Ethiopia who drinks water from a sewer in Addis, I also pray with all my heart for Sam in the Greenville mission and the “black” children who used to frequent the gas station I once worked at last year in Atlanta. When you see me put quote marks around these useless labels, it’s because we are not labels that once nefarious men gave us—we are humans who are part and parcel of the family that is humanity.

As for me, I realized through this turbulence that the greatest gift imparted in me is not the blood of my great grandfather five generations removed Atse Tewodros II. My first name is not the source of my strength, what gave me resilience and fortitude during the most vexing moments and gives me the courage to speak my truth even now in the midst of deficit is the last name I share with my father. In Ethiopia, our last names are the first names of our fathers. Fitting, my father’s first name is Fikre which means “my love” in Amharic. It is love that sustained me and became my high-tower and my pasture. Like King David, I too once questioned God and cursed His existence. No more, I understand now that burden is a blessing and it was my trail of tears from South Carolina to Iowa to Colorado that bestowed in me a bit of Solomon’s wisdom.

This wisdom, as long as I am here on earth, I shall use to be the very change I wanted to see. I have been blessed with gifts to write and communicate, no longer will I throw those pearls before hogs and then wonder why my pearls were disregarded. From now on, I shall use my abilities to try my hardest to be the bridge to various communities and constituencies and show, one person at a time, that we have far more in common than we have that divide us. When it comes to the excesses of the few who bleed this planet, the ones who make billions in the name of capital, power, and wickedness, I shall reserve all my condemnation for these malignant leeches—true evil should be given no quarter. I pray that I learn to forgive those who hurt me and a few who took from me while praying that I also be forgiven for the times I hurt many. May God grant me the forbearance and the wisdom to give grace to those who howl at me for they are only lashing out because they are hurting internally. May love rule the day and may I be my last name for the masses.

To my beloved Ethiopia, hold fast like the jegnoch (heroes) that you are; as Paul once told Timothy, endure hardship like a good soldier. In time the immorality of tyrants and the wickedness of colonists will be relegated to the trash bin of history. God blessed thee with 13 months of sunshine for a reason, count hardship as blessings and smile defiantly for no man can take your kindness and the giving spirit we share with one another. A long time ago, when I was five years old, I wandered far from my home and ran into an impoverished family that called a mud gojo (hut) a home. I still remember their giving and loving ways as if it was just a few minutes ago—this is the Ethiopia I know and love. Bracketed by scarcity and mired in difficulty, their first instinct was to give. Kindness and communal giving is who we are supposed to be as humanity; the amount we can take is finite and meaningless but the abundance of giving is infinite. Want to find happiness, give to someone who is lacking not money but kindness, a bit of your time and love and you will realize that giving gives more to you than the little you give to someone else.

In a way, this is my way of giving back to my womb Ethiopia and to Ethiopians worldwide. Though too many see us through the prism of the past 40 years and mocks us for the hardships our nation endured—though ignorance has led people to associate Ethiopia with famine and hunger—benighted stereotypes can’t wash away a three thousand year history. Ethiopia is the womb of humanity, the cradle of Christianity and the essence of defying tyranny. Fom Eden to “Lucy” to Axum and Adwa, our history is one of profound significance. Though the neo-Mussolini TPLF placed that demonic pentagram on our sendek alema (flag), empty symbols can’t abrogate our biblical significance and egzyaber’s (God) promise that awaits us. While I’m at it, for those who keep saying “Ethiopian means burnt face in Latin”, please stop depending on propaganda to indoctrinate you. Ethiopia existed a thousand years before the Greeks came to prominence—can I claim that I named my parents? Ethiopia is named after a once king Etiopus and our heritage can be traced back directly to King David and Bathsheba and Solomon and Makeda (Sheba). By the way, to my fellow “African-Americans” and “Africans” as a whole, please shed that libelous label “Africa” and “black” ASAP! The entire continent was once named Ethiopia before a monster worse than Hitler colonized the Ethiopian continent. Scipio’s last name was Africanus, maybe protest less outward and find love inward instead by washing away the lies which have been inculcated in us by past imps and present over-seeing educators.

Let me end this article the same place as I begin. These lessons that I learned would not have been possible had I not gone through the fires of hell for the past two years. But let me hearken to the wisdom that Rabbi Dov from New York once told me while we were both smoking a cigarette during a cold February night in front of the DC Beacon Hotel—life can be so poetic if you observant enough. In between tokes of a Marlboro he told me “Teddy what mankind takes from you, God will multiply back to you seven fold”. I understand the wisdom of Rabbi Dov, who chucked at me and said “I’m a man of flesh who aspires to be Godly” when I expressed shock that a Rabbi smokes a cigarette, the blessing has always been with me. Though my wallet is non-existent and I can carry my possession in a military backpack—the last but wisest “luxury” I bought two years ago—I am rich in ways I could never have imagined during the foregone days of amassing degrees and paychecks. The wealth is in my heart and the love that resides in it. Where money and possessions depreciate and become in time worthless, the love in our hearts and the purpose we find in distress compound and multiply continuously.

I pray that my story becomes a testimony for others who are broken and an allegory of restoration and renewal to this broken world. I ask you, the reader, to not let the hatred of the world consume you. Do not let others lead you by the nose and convince you that you are victims. The wickedness of this world and the malevolence of others darken all of our doorsteps; instead of being aggrieved, be a champion and refuse to let your present circumstance be your perpetual existence. Ethiopian or not, understand that we are at the core one family who thrive when we act with less hostility and be instead a community. The article is titled “Ethiopia Yene Fiker” for a reason, Yene Fiker “love that is mine”—Amarigna has many contours. Take a break from politics and heated rhetoric for one day and be about love instead. The inanities of mainstream media and the forked-tongues of politicians will be here tomorrow. Just use today to be about love and apply love’s balm to the world instead of using your words to incinerate those who don’t look like you. Do you see the children in the picture above, they are using the candle for light instead of using the candle to burn each other. Be like them! Be the light and stop being fire!

Below is a music compilation I put together over the past couple of days as a way to pay tribute and honor Ethiopia and her people. But in reality, it is an homage and a tribute to all of us globally. As you see the visuals and listen to the music, know that each one of those songs represent the arcs of our life, from the innocence of children to love of our nation to defiance against oppression to love and heart break—all these roads lead us eventually to love if we choose it. I’ve always had an audacious dream of mine, to redefine the way the world sees Ethiopia and connect the hopes and pains of Ethiopians to that of everybody on this planet. But I kept going about it the wrong way, I cared too much and could not do enough but my love was misdirected because I kept letting vengeance get in the way of love’s redemption. I kept letting vengeance get in the way of love. May we all seek less vengeance and be more love so that one day children throughout the world could live in selam (peace), desta (happiness) and fiker (love).

Let me return to my audacious dream. Let this article and video below be the first step that I take in redefining Ethiopia and doing my part to redefine justice and what it means to seek equity. May more and more of us join hands and let unity and love rule the day. I ask this of Ethiopian jegnoch and non-Ethiopians alike; let me use some poetic language here, apply a bit of mitmita (hot pepper) and sinafich (wasabi) and sizzle social media with this artilce and video using #EthiopiaYeneFiker—give those who don’t know about our history and our culture a gursha (bite) of love. Make this #EthiopiaYeneFiker day and make this one trend and our home earth do a little eskista as you send out tweets or updates of why you love your culture and heritage using #EthiopiaYeneFiker. In the spirit of unity and onness, use the same hashtag to tell the world about your culture and heritage if you are not Ethiopian and show that we are all interconnected after all. There is an Ethiopian saying “Fiker yashenifal”—love wins. That is because love is the kalkidan (God’s promise) we all have been waiting for. #EthiopiaYeneFiker

“Servants shall come out of Kemet ; Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God.” Psalms 68:31


Teodrose Fikremariam
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Teodrose Fikremariam

Writer at Ghion Journal
Teodrose Fikremariam is the co-founder and former editor of the Ghion Journal.
Teodrose Fikremariam
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