Robert F. Kennedy, upon hearing of Martin Luther King’s assassination, made a beeline to one of the most impoverished parts of Indianapolis to give a speech to a crowd that had yet to hear the horror that took place a few hours prior in Memphis, Tennessee. Having launched his bid to capture the White House, RFK was in full campaign mode when news broke that King was felled by a conspiracy of hatred. Upon hearing this news, Kennedy decided to scrap his canned speeches and instead chose to speak from the heart; he wanted to be the one to convey the awful truth of what happened that day to a gathering of mostly “African-Americans” at 17th and Broadway.
When his campaign staff caught wind of his plans, they beseeched him to think twice lest he tempt fate by taking to the microphone before an audience that could explode in anger. RFK insisted only to be warned by the local police that he would be responsible for his own safety. Sometimes, the universe moves us when others advise us to stand still. That evening, Kennedy got on top of a pickup truck and gave the most astounding speech I’ve ever heard in my life.
Kennedy’s act of courage saved lives; while city after city throughout America burned to the ground as oppressed souls lashed out, Indianapolis—a city that was predominantly “black”—did not have one fire break out. If you listen closely to Kennedy’s speech, the same crowd that initially gasped when he announced King’s death was driven to ovations by the time he finished his speech. Such is the power of words: within our tongues reside life and death. We can either speak blessings into existence or we can bury ourselves into hopelessness.
The first time I heard RFK’s speech, I cried. I did not know why; I did not have the wisdom to understand but I knew that his words spoke to a pain I never understood and wounds I harbored in my spirits. There was one quote in particular in RFK’s speech that shook the foundation of my soul, a verse he cited from Aeschylus’s poem:
“He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”
These words, the minute I heard them seven years ago, called out to me like Sirens enticing sailors. Each noun, verb and adjective coaxed water from my eyes but I could not connect the dots. Was I crying for King or was I crying for myself? Was I feeling the blues of the world or was the ennui deep in my soul? Unable to comprehend, I decided to medicate myself by chasing the flesh over everything else. This decision to run from that which I did not comprehend and to flee from discomfort opened up the pathway to my greatest tribulation.
I make no secrets of what happened to me four years ago. But I have a confession to tell, my decision to fess up about my rendezvous with homelessness and to bear my soul to the world was a way to control outcomes as much as it was about standing for justice. My pen is of two minds; I am currently a fighter for the least among us and a warrior for my own ego. After spending two years on the streets—relegated to the periphery of society—I turned to the one thing I had left after I lost everything else to my name. Saved by love, love also resuscitated my ego.
My father, Fikremariam Million, used to always tell me that the world can take from you everything but what you know can never be repossessed. Without knowing it, he was training me for a day to come that almost broke me beyond repair. When I fell from grace and landed hard upon concrete pillows, the only thing I had left was the intellect I honed through years of feasting on random information. Alas, as smart as I was, I could not twin my acumen with a modicum of wisdom. It took indigence, hopelessness and extreme privation before I gained the discernment I could not attain through multiple degrees and social check marks.
The down payment on wisdom arrived like the monsoons in India yesterday. It started early in the morning when I decided to taunt Hillary Clinton by calling her the “herpes of American politics”. My gibe was met with a question: why must I vilify people who suffer in order to make one person suffer. My first reaction was to be defensive and to rationalize my childishness. I responded that I was not making fun of people who have herpes, I was castigating one person who acted every part a disease. Not only did I act defensive, I actually spent the next hour ridiculing this person who reached out to me most likely because he had the ailment that I made light of. Who has time for compassion when one is trying to trend and be heard! #LookAtMe
That was step one of a journey that revealed my own brokenness. Later on that morning, I was made aware of information about my family from someone I had recently gotten into a beef with. Refusing to give an inch, I loosened the very fires I disavow because he refused to reciprocate my kindness. This truth keeps evading me like Barry Sanders escaping tacklers—love is not forced, it’s a choice. As much as I tried to severe ties, God had other plans in mind. I was a part of a group chat that I initially tried to exit. After attempting for an hour to leave the virtual gathering, I decided to just ignore the texts as they came in.
Suddenly, one text caught in particular caught my attention. “Our parental grandmother, dad’s mom, was the daughter of Mayor Wonde, the first mayor of Harar, appointed by Emperor Menelik”. I dropped everything I was doing and stared into the screen like a toddler transfixed on an iPod. Then I made a beeline to my contacts to verify this fact, I texted the message to Mel Tewahade, someone I recently befriended inspired by a weird set of events that lets me know that there truly are no accident in life. Not only that, we truly become our names for Mel’s last name means “someone who unites”.
He told me to sit tight and that he would hash things out. Within an hour, Mel called me with tears stifling his words only for his pains to cajole tears from mine. After spending more than 20 years trying to find out the fate of my grandfather Million Tedla, Mel provided an answer that eluded me for most of my adult life. I knew that my grandfather was assassinated at the behest of Emperor Haile Selassie and in my heart I knew the official charges were trumped up. But in Ethiopia, where spoken conversations are kept more than written words, I could not get a definitive answer.
Mel filled the void and salved my wounds. Finally, I realized why I have endured bouts of depression and why I let my ego get the better of me all the time. Pains are not just earned in our lives; we inherit wounds and take into our souls the hurts of our ancestors. Prince to pauper, we are all made equal before tribulation. We are the sum of our smiles and tears and the experiences of people who came before us. My father grew up without a father, that was his inheritance that he passed on to me. By spending most of his life trying to compensate for a father he never had, my dad became his dad through absence.
Fikremariam Million was determined to never let his children feel the void of being abandoned by the loss of a father he never knew growing up. He was driven to provide for my siblings and I all the things he felt he missed in his childhood. To accomplish his mission, he drove himself to an early grave. Fikremariam worked three and four jobs at a time; he would wake up early in the morning to drive his cab then go to the post office to labor for eight hours only to return to his cab for a few more hours. By the time he arrived home, he was exhausted and did not have the energy to interact with us too much.
My dad’s present to us was giving us a roof over our heads, instilling in us the tenacity to win at all cost and the audacity to think bigger than our present circumstances. Yet these presents came at a tremendous cost, our gifts robbed us of his presence. Now I understand why my father apologized to me upon his death; now I see what he was trying to tell me as blue lights flashed on and doctors rushed in to resuscitate his heart. He was not apologizing to me, he was telling me to stop chasing his ghosts and to stop the war that started when Million Tedla was murdered in cold blood.
Our pains do not begin the minute innocence was shattered. To the contrary, all of us harbor grievous wounds that have been passed on from generation to generation. These markers that have been transferred from parent to child throughout human history is the source of all inequalities throughout the world. Some are burdened by adversities and they are broken by them while others are broken by pains only to break others in anger. With each passing generation, these iniquities multiply to the point where we are standing at the precipice of mankind’s final liquidation.
Perhaps I will never fully understand the full scope of what happened to my grandfather Million Tedla. Knowing dad and myself well enough, I can make an educated guess that my grandfather did not take too kindly to being pushed around. Moreover, I’m sure that he too, as I am, was an idealist who chaffed at the idea of submitting to a king who fled Ethiopia while he and the soldiers he commanded stayed behind and bore the brunt of Mussolini’s military.
However, even Million Tedla’s inner fire and his inability to comply with injustice did not start when he was born. His grandfather five generations removed, Emperor (Atse) Tewodros II, born Kassa Hailu, was a fierce warrior who vanquished all challengers and ascended to the throne. Tewodros’s most potent weapon was not his gun or his sword, his power was rooted in love. During the time where Ethiopia was shattered by Zemene Mesafint (age of princes) and the greed of the “nobility”, Kassa Hailu became a shifta (bandit) who took from the rich in order to return stolen treasures back to the people—Kassa Hailu was the real life Robin Hood.
Alas, as he rose to acclaim, Kassa underwent a slow transformation. A sip of power corrupts all souls; by the time Kassa Hailu became king, he let hubris enter his heart. Ego got the better of my forefather, that is why he changed his name from Kassa Hailu to Atse Tewodors II; he was attempting to fulfill a prophecy in Kebra Nagast that foretold of a king that would rise up, lift up Ethiopia and restore a nation that broken by the fires of pride.
When Tewodros lost his wife Tewabech, his last connection to love was shattered and was replaced with full vengeance. He lashed out against anyone who dared to challenge his command and eventually made the mistake of challenging the most powerful empire to ever exist on this earth. He imprisoned British diplomats and demanded that he be treated as equals by Queen Victoria. For this act of bravado, he paid with his life. When one takes on injustice, one cannot do so out of emotion sans thought through plans or else one will pay the price.
These generational wounds have come back to haunt my family time and again. My family tree on my dad’s side is populated with war heroes and nobles, yet that same tree is overloaded with pain and heartbreak. Though I have no direct proof of this, I am certain that part of my grandfather’s death sentence was the blood he carried in his veins. Haile Selassie was a ruthless leader, he eradicated anyone who dared to question his reign. The same way that Kassa Hailu tried to fulfill the prophecy by calling himself Tewodros, Haile Selassie likewise changed his name from Teferi Mekonnen in order to announce to the world that he was God’s elect who would deliver Ethiopia and rule for 40 years of peace and prosperity. As evidenced by Atse Tewodros’s 13 year reign and the lack of peace and stability during Haile Selassie’s administration, neither one were the leaders prophesied in Kebra Nagast.
Ego. Ego. Ego. The root cause of human suffering is pride and vanity. Ethiopia is on the brink today because we keep getting leaders who think they are God’s elect. America likewise is on the edge of insolvency because we too keep getting leaders who think service is to serve humanity to the lions while they feast at the table with would be kings. We are at a dangerous time, either we shed our egos and embrace love or our egos will be loosened for us by fires that are unimaginable—the boil cometh.
Robert Kennedy was gunned down 63 days after announcing Martin Luther King’s death in Indianapolis. Painful as that was for him, it was but a temporary flash. The one who carried the burden were his surviving family members, especially Edward Kennedy. Unable to cope with survivor’s guilt and weighed by the magnitude of losing both his brothers, Teddy Kennedy escaped trauma by chasing happiness at the bottom of bottles. He lived long but he suffered even longer because he was not able to relinquish the past.
If there is one thing that I’m certain of, it’s that pain is a universal language. There is not one person in this world who does not feel past pain or is enduring present tribulation. If we realized this—if we only knew that we are in this together—we would work together to mend ourselves and our planet instead of suffering apart.
If we are to take the next step as humans—if we are to arrive at peace on earth—this seemingly impossible task will never be accomplished through violence nor will equality be delivered through the gun. In fact, justice will never be done as long we are chasing outward. Peace starts within; as Mahatma Gandhi once said, “we must be the change that we want to see in this world”. When each one of us decide to face our pains, when we stop running from our past and embrace our scars, we will realize our greatest potential and fulfill a prophecy that was foretold a long time ago. We will do even greater things than He if we only seek within instead of looking up at the stars and declaring wars on each other.
Perhaps the most impactful and moving moment that happened yesterday was an event that had nothing to do with me. I ran across an article about a group called TIS Foundation started by Nigerian entrepreneur and philanthropist Emmanuel Irono and his wife Ogay Irono. What I read was an initiative after my heart; for too long I’ve been seething as I watched the World Bank, IMF and private banking interests shackle nations with onerous debts and indenturing people into a life time of slave wages. Instead of empowering people and giving them tools to succeed where they live, these colonial entities lure developing nations with loans and then kneecap them with ballooning interest payments.
Mr. and Mrs. Irono chose a different path, instead of giving loans to governments, they meet people where they are at and give them transfereable skills to succeed. TIS Foundation focuses on women because they know that women are the basic building blocks of society and that most of the time a dollar invested in women has a greater multiplier effect than the other way around. Rather than watching the buffoonery of our politics, I was edified by hearing the stories of true change makers in DC who give back to their birth land. I had to find out more about the Ironos, so I Googled their names. What I found out nearly moved me to tears.
Emmanuel was struck by tragedy when he was young—before he could endeavor in youthful indiscretions—he was forced to grow up. Right as he was graduating high school in Nigeria, both his parents died. As he gained a diploma, he lost his guiding stars. His company, Motir services, stands for Memory of Memory of Theresa Irono Romanus—Emmanuel named the company in honor of his parents. As I read more about the Ironos, I realized that what inspired them to give back was not ego but the yearning to protect others from the pains that they both felt growing up. Emmanuel and his wife are now multimillionaire entrepreneurs in DC, but their wealth is not measured in dollars but in the ways they changes people’s lives. That is when it hit me, Emmanuel is a name Jesus went by growing up.
Our names are powerful, we either become our names or the complete opposite. Tewodros means “God’s gift”, God’s gift to Emperor Tewodros was the compassion and empathy he had for his soldiers and fellow Ethiopians that enabled him to raise the most powerful army in the land. Once he gained power, he let his ego get the better of him which led to his demise. My grandfather Million’s last name Tedla means “luck”, Million’s luck was inheriting the bloodlines of Atse Tewodros that turned him into a renowned fighter who led the resistance and battled the occupying Italian forces during World War II—his luck proved to be a double-edge sword. My father’s first name, Fikremariam means “my love Mary”, I took on a truncated version of my dad’s first name.
Full circle, my full name Teodrose Fikre means “God’s Gift My Love”. For too long, I thought I was God’s gift to the world and let my ego lead my life, that way led to homelessness and despair. I finally realize, God’s gift is the gift we all have in our hearts—love. To those much is given, much is expected. I used to believe this was talking about rich people. I realize that those who have been given the most burden, who have tasted the most pains, are the ones who can redeem society and be the light for others who suffer in silence. #MillionsLuck Click To Tweet
Vengeance and anger feel good, but they are the pathway to desolation. Compassion and love are hard, but they are the gateway to freedom::
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