“And then the muezzins call: beckoning the city’s sleeping populace with the shower of praise for an almighty God. There are ninety-nine of them within the walls of this tiny city - ninety-nine muezzins for ninety-nine mosques. It takes the culmination of the staggered, near-simultaneous beginnings of a hundred less one to create the particular sound that is heard as Godliness in Harar.”
―pg. 2, “Sweetness in the Belly”, Camilla Gibb
This is how 6 AM looks in Addis.
That is how my day would begin in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The familiar Arabic verses would wake me from my slumber. A lazy smile would form on my lips, and I’d crawl out from under my covers after the last of the roosters too, finished cock-a-doodling. And a day of traversing through an African metropolis to meet with high political officials would begin.
Just about a month ago, I found myself conducting fieldwork in the Horn of Africa - an experience that was equal parts sensorially and intellectually stimulating. I spent two weeks with 3 professors and 18 other undergraduates researching an African security issue of our choosing. Here is my reflection of this account.
"I haven't been everywhere, but it's on my list."
Whilst flying over and near cities like Baghdad, Tel Aviv, Damascus...I had the sudden realization of the realness of these places. Rather the realness of their politics, all simply because of associating myself with their geographies. Because their geographies and mine, in those moments, became one and the same. Essentially it was the thought, “Oh my god, there is civil strife occurring 30,000 feet below me” which spurred Foucault’s ‘heterotopia’ to mind, wherein he discusses spaces that exist outside everyday social and institutional ones. Foucault uses the concept of a mirror to explain heterotopia,
“In the mirror, I see myself there where I am not, in an unreal, virtual space that opens up behind the surface; I am over there, there where I am not, a sort of shadow that gives my own visibility to myself, that enables me to see myself there where I am absent: such is the utopia of the mirror [...] it makes this place that I occupy at the moment when I look at myself in the glass at once absolutely real, connected with all the space that surrounds it, and absolutely unreal, since in order to be perceived it has to pass through this virtual point which is over there.”
―Michael Foucault, Of Other Spaces (1967), Heterotopias
And I suppose that’s how I usually feel when I read about global issues (especially using virtual mediums. He predicted Twitter in 1967? Smart, Foucault ;)). But flying through the air, I felt that I had surpassed the ‘unreal’, that I no longer needed a mediator point to occupy the place where the realness of the politics of these cities was felt.
But my feigned experiences of the world can never supersede my longing to actually see all of of it, duh, considering I possess the rather generic desire of travelling the world. And this point was only reinforced during this trip to Ethiopia.
On First Sentiments
“It was early, but the city was already in second gear. We passed toothless old women and shrunken old men and expressionless Sufis clinging to the edges of their wool blankets, and neatly groomed men with short beards and knit skullcaps, and clusters of veiled teenage girls with fits of the giggles, and snotty-nosed children who ran up and touched me, shouting “Farenji! Farenji!” and round, oily mothers standing in doorways with babies on their hips...”
―pg. 51, “Sweetness in the Belly”, Camilla Gibb
On one of our first days in Addis Ababa, our wonderful guide Abraham took us to the ‘mercato’, or market, the largest outdoor one in Africa. To say it was a sensory stimulation would be an understatement. The first of my flashbacks to the year I spent in Karachi, Pakistan when I was 8 happened here. The donkeys, the goats, the heat, the stalls, the vendors, the cars, the noises - both human and machine, the smells. I remember writing,
I smelled Ethiopia as soon as I stepped out of the airport. Its scent has stuck with me since and now being attached to it are memories. Nostalgia forms like this. Mix in the hot but pleasant sun and you have a recipe for African good time.
“The stars had only one task: They taught me how to read. They taught me I had a language in heaven and another language on earth.”
On Interaction with Locals
Our main purpose in Addis was to have interviews with ambassadors and the like, so our interaction with locals was kept to a minimum. However, on the way to the Debre Libanos Monastery, we stopped at a marketplace in a town called Ch’ancho and that’s where I met 17-year-old Yordanness. She was the sweetest and our conversation was equally saccharine. It made me think about language - its capacities, its limitations. The reason we were able to converse was because we could both speak English. But as I’ve discovered growing up as a Muslim, the Qu’ran’s essence, for example, is lost in translation from its original Arabic. Poetry almost always loses something in translation. As Susan Sontag says in ‘The Aesthetics of Silence’“...language is the most impure, the most contaminated, the most exhausted of all the materials
out of which art is made.” Which is why it was also terribly difficult to gather “my trip to Ethiopia” into this blog post. Interpretations are folly but that is often all we have. There is beauty, however, in this chaos - the beauty of choice where we “have the chance to demonstrate either cowardice or integrity in every moment” (M.G.). And Yordanness ended our encounter with the most integrous of sentiments - regret at being unable to leave me with a parting gift, though we had known each other for all of twenty minutes.
Yordanness and I.
On Typical Narratives of Africa, Avoiding the Pitfalls of “Othering”, and Privilege
Prior to the trip (and heck, after it too, now) when I told people I was going to Africa I was quick to blurt out “But not for a humanitarian trip, etc. etc.!” Well actually later I started saying this with more sarcasm than Daria ever dared. Also prefaced it with quips of “Africa, the country I’m going to.” Ironically, we ended up on the same flights both ways with a group also travelling from Canada and who were with Habitat for Humanity. In two weeks, after we had conducted all of our field research, *they had solved all of Africa’s problems. (*Wry humour courtesy of my professor).
Also, while in Ethiopia, I never took photos of any locals without their permission, because the last thing I wanted to do was frame my photos in such a way that I was documenting an "Other”. I know ‘Othering’ all too well, heh, and it ain’t a pretty thang, friends.
These cuties posed for the camera all on their own, aw!
These cuties posed for the camera all on their own, aw!
And I was prepared for the fact that I would feel extra-privileged during my time there. We stayed in a multi-starred hotel. We had three meals a day that cost next to nothing (for us). We traipsed in markets and bought trinkets and such for the sake of buying trinkets and such. We had ample access to clean, bottled water. We had a buffet dinner at the Sheraton in Addis, which was so extravagant, had such a colonial aesthetic, and was such a contrast to the rest of the city that it made me physically uncomfortable. (But I gobbled down my lavish dinner and dessert with great ease. Is this cognitive dissonance a microcosm of the problem of human society and/or nature? I wonder, I wonder...). Still, while this would probe *a lot of people to flesh out tired old narratives that are based on feeling sorry for the poor, and that would lead to well-intentioned but misguided efforts to find “solutions” and “help”...I left with a much different impression (also helps that I recognize this is a tired, old, haggard, dying, on-its-death-bed-and-so-damn-lethargic narrative). That people of varying socioeconomic backgrounds, all of which I saw in the parts of Ethiopia I visited, all make it work. That even those so far below on the rungs of the ladder of the privileged, have a livelihood. And that when we went south of Addis, into rural communities, smiles were abundant. Especially those on the lips of children, who would race with pure, unadulterated joy to our mini-bus to wave at us as we passed by. (& so then I had cheesy reverberations of “Everyone smiles in the same language!” ring in my head...damn you, grade-school posters.)
“Ten years ago Ethiopians had no word for diaspora, nor emigration. There was only the word for pilgrimage, a journey with an implicit return - to Mecca or the shrines of beloved Ethiopian saints - but the idea of leaving your country, except for a very educated few who sought higher degrees abroad, was incomprehensible. A betrayal even.”
―pg. 35, “Sweetness in the Belly”, Camilla Gibb
My group focused on intra-African migration and used Zimbabwean migrants to South Africa as a case study. My interest in the topic of migration prior to this research process was informed by following the news and events surrounding migrant justice from the local chapter of “No One is Illegal”, an organization rooted in realizing “anti-colonial, anti-capitalist, ecological justice, Indigenous self-determination, anti-occupation & anti-oppressive communities.” It also stemmed from following the debate surrounding U.S. immigration policy and reform, where undocumented migrants are often associated with racist politics.
When we began writing the proposal, due to our group’s divergent interests, we agreed to approach the issue with balance - of a human and state security perspective. When we divvied up research tasks, I therefore chose to focus on the human security aspect. This led me to explore Zimbabwean migrants’ experiences with xenophobia and the role of civil society in mitigating their negative experiences in South Africa. In our proposal, we focused on our case study a lot, and since I was primarily exploring our issue through the lens of migrants’ lived experiences, and the inability of the state to manage or better these experiences, I perhaps held more antagonistic sentiments towards the government of South Africa and their approach. However, insights from our field research implored us to ponder questions such as: is the influx of migrants that South Africa has experienced solely their responsibility, considering it is largely by virtue of their geographical location that they have experienced it? Should the onus be solely on them to deal with this influx if they lack the political capacity or the financial resources to do so? These questions and the opportunity to speak to a diverse group of ambassadors - African, North American, European, etc. - led us to explore the extent of involvement of other actors in dealing with the issue of intra-African migration. A perception of migration from African diplomats was that it is a positive (and inevitable) occurrence in terms of economic development. This and the reluctance or lack of knowledge to speak to the negative aspects led us to discover that migration is often not a policy priority. This also led us to uncover some of our biases and perceive the issue in a broader way, diverging from viewing it simply as a security threat. We began to implore the implications of mixed migration flows, which we began to see is what generally occurs within the African context.
Our first indication that this issue is far more complex than we had originally perceived was when we discovered the way intra-migration is generally thought of by African diplomats, as mentioned above. Many reiterated the concept of Pan-Africanism, and on the topic of African migration this included the movement of peoples between borders as being inevitable because boundaries in Africa have been artificially demarcated and certain ethnic groups, for example, can be found across said boundaries in Africa. At the same time, implementation of protocols and frameworks surrounding migration (both international and by the AU) have been left up to member states in order to respect state sovereignty. Thus the concept of sovereignty both produces a cognitive dissonance of sorts when it comes to the concept of Pan-Africanism, and poses as a major obstacle in implementing frameworks. Farther, speaking especially to non-African officials and gaining a deeper understanding of the complexities and dynamics of African politics, we began to uncover why implementation of these frameworks is a challenge. Sovereign states may not have the financial resources, political capacity or even political will to manage migration. The fact that migration is often not considered high politics (unless it involves a security threat surrounding transnational rebel groups, for example) also poses a challenge. Finally, most people are uninformed about migration because categorization is confusing and complicated. It’s difficult to understand these paradigms and how they are interrelated.
I learned that a lot of the time, what diplomats don’t say is useful. As mentioned previously, the hesitation on part of African diplomats to talk about the negative repercussions of mass migration led to a lot of insights. Our discovery, too, that migration is not a top policy priority and the fact that many therefore could not speak to it the specifics of it, helped us uncover some of the challenges with managing migration.
On the other hand, however, talking to officials, we were constantly aware that their answers had an agenda. Even when we spoke to an international NGO we are aware they are funded by the EU, so we can never truly know the ramifications of such a situation. Finally, speaking only to experts means that we were bereft of public opinion of our issues.
Overall, one of the biggest takeaways for me from this experience, from an academic perspective, has been learning about the research process - I can now finally understand why it’s not so necessarily finite! It will definitely affect how I’ll approach being a student of the social sciences from now on. I am leaving this course with far better research skills, the realization that migration studies is all-encompassing and that I would love to keep learning more, and finally the desire to continue staying on top of contemporary African politics.
My research group and I.
Our entire class and I (minus our "main" prof) in front of the African Union headquarters (!!).
And as for the experience of travelling, I think Mark Gonzales puts it the best when he says:
“I was raised with the belief that those who travel have an obligation to the regions they journey to, not vice versa. Often I reflect on what a different world this would be if more us shared in that perspective.
One day we will abandon this addiction to spectacle-based paradigms & tourism travel. On that day, new ways of conversing will begin. For the world is not only playground, it is also a cemetery, a cradle, & the place where homeless dreams lay their head.
May you travel often, & when you do so, let it be not for souvenirs, but to cultivate love & amplify dreams.”