BY BAKRI BAZARA
Mengesha’s book, “A Fulfilling Journey Through Conflicts & Contradictions”, a memoir, that came out last March is a book that gives us a succinct account of his early years growing up in Addis Ababa, his student days at University of Addis Ababa and the American university in Beirut, and his illustrious professional life at UNHCR. The larger portion of the book vividly details his work at UNHCR, where he rose the ranks to the most senior position at UNHCR. He was responsible for providing humanitarian relief-aid to conflict-ridden regions of the world.
Growing up as the son of a well-regarded nobleman, Dejazmatch Kebede Tessema, who in his own right had a distinguished career in Meneliek’s and Haileselassie’s imperial courts, Mengesha narrated his recollections of childhood days living in two worlds: the traditional at home and the modern at the private English school he attended. The dual roles he had to assume in order to function in both worlds came pretty handy later on as an adult professional at UNHCR , dealing with the impact of natural and human-made disasters in different corners of the world. It seems like the experience enabled him to sail through the nuances of the culture in the materially advanced parts of the world and in the less developed ones. It empowered him to be equally comfortable in Geneva, Switzerland, or Juba, South Sudan.
Mengesha showed that he is a well-versed narrator, probably learned from his mother, whom he claims was a captivating storyteller and a poet. I found the stories he imparted on the way his parent’s household was run and the various religious ceremonies observed by the family as interestingly informative about the life of the nobility in imperial Ethiopia.
The crux of the memoir depicts his professional life at UNHCR and his rise through the ranks of the organization that culminated in his attainment of the highest international civil service position.
His work-life reminiscences span decades of humanitarian-work providing relief to conflict-plagued regions in Malawi, Namibia,Zambia,South Africa, Liberia,Angola,Afghanistan,Darfur, Somalia, and other countries. He resurrects for us long forgotten wars in Africa and other parts of the world , whose lingering-effects, in terms of displacements, are still with us today.
A good example is the Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps in Kenya, which has been hosting, for the last thirty years, displaced-population from civil-war stricken Somalia, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. There are now over four-hundred-thousand refugees under the care of mainly the UNHCR.
A stone’s throw away from the tip of the horn, across the Red Sea , the war in Yemen has been raging for over eight years displacing over four-million people internally and forcing over twenty-four-million (70% of the population) to be dependent on food-aid. To a degree, a significant number of the humanitarian-aid challenges that Mengesha had to face throughout his career are still unresolved. There will always be conflicts and displacements, hence, there will always be a need for people like Mengesha trotting the world trying to provide relief and alleviate human suffering.
About three-quarters of his book is devoted to his career at the UNHCR, giving us an understanding of the genesis of conflicts that result in displacements, the challenges of providing the necessary services needed by the displaced, and the politics revolving around displacement issues which can be a hindrance to running a humanitarian service.
There are other synopses in the first few chapters of the book of events surrounding his days at the American university in Beirut, his involvement in the Ethiopian student movement in the Middle-east, his interactions with the Palastinian Liberation Front and the meeting with PLO’s leader, Arafat.
While attending AUB, the Lebanese civil-war erupted(1975). A riveting account of the civil war, the hardship he encountered barricaded in his dorm room while random artillery shells whizzed over AUB’s campus, and the coping mechanism he devised to deal with the terror and deprivation, all was encapsulated for the reader in the chapter titled: “ Life under the Lebanese civil war. “
We’re also apprised of some of the Ethiopian students with whom he came in contact in the middle-east, Oromos and Eritreans, mainly congregated in Cairo, who were promoting their version of politics trying to separate from Ethiopia and form their own nation. He had gotten to see first hand the burgeoning separatist movements plying their trade, with the support of some Arab nations, to whittle down the territorial expanse of Ethiopia and declare themselves independent. Eritrea fought 30 years before gaining its independence. The Oromos have been fighting, since early seventies, for independence in fits and starts. To this day, to some people, they seem like they don’t know what is it they want. Unfortunately, Ethiopia’s murky politics would need more time before it clears up.
He also gave us an account of Meneliek’s death: the succession to the throne of his grandson Iyasu, the controversy over Iyasu’s amicable relations with those of the Muslim faith, and his disdain for dignitaries in the imperial court and the highly conservative clergies in the Orthodox Church. Although those information can be readily found in history texts on Ethiopia, Mengesha’s recounting of those historical events have the added benefit of being information received from his father who served in different positions in Meneliek’s imperial government.
Higher education for Mengesha started in Addis Ababa where he attended his first year at the then Haile Selassie 1st University, now Addis Ababa University. This was in the early seventies, the students on campus were restive and full of revolutionary fervor. They were intent in bringing down the monarchy and the feudalistic institutions it rested on. Like their counterparts in America and Europe in the 60s and 70s, they were interested in changes in social structure and institutions. In Ethiopia’s case, the focus was on dismantling the feudal order.
Those were heady times, most students were influenced by the radicalism of leftist student movements in Europe and America. The campus was vibrant with sit-ins and demonstrations, student leaders were besting each other in orations couched in Marxist-Leninist phraseology.
Mengesha’s noble-birth and the privilege it afforded him in his formative years, teenage years, and later on as a freshman in university, rendered him ignorant of life outside his circle of nobility , it blinded him from seeing the daily life and outlook of the commoners who lived outside the compounds of his home and elite school. The shock he experienced in his first days as a freshman at Haile Selassie 1st university, where he had to meld with Ethiopians of all walks of life, was cogently narrated in the chapter of the book titled “University days and militancy”:
“ I attended HSU at a time when the revolutionary student movement was taking shape under various spells of radical Marxist thoughts. Gone were the days of looking forward to going to school to enjoy the company of friends who shared the same values and enjoyed similar sports activities. I also found out that trivial things such as the type of socks I wore, or the brand of watch I had on, or even the color of the shoes I wore, would have me labeled as being a stooge of a particular class—a bourgeois or a feudal. What you spoke of, how you walked, and who you hung out with determined the basis upon which you were to be classified. In order to conform with the mob, or the prevailing herd mentality, you had to hide your true feelings and what you enjoyed, and simply comply with expected dressing habits, hair styles, and group affiliations. Conflicts and contradictions raged in my mind, resulting in frustration and bewilderment. Under the prevailing peer pressure and the urge for conformity with the majority, I started using revolutionary words I did not really understand. The choice was between “Jolly-Jackism” and revolutionary posturing.“
He continued in that vein and wrote: “….heroes I was brought up to cherish and admire, such as my own father, patriots, kings, and Emperors—Tewdros, Yohannes, Meneliek, and Haile Selassie— were suddenly replaced by new heroes such as Che Guevara, Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh, Marx, and Lenin. You either followed the new world outlook based on Marxism, or you would be labeled a reactionary with feudal bourgeoisie thoughts. As if by divine intervention, we were baptized to become soldiers fighting for the rights of the proletariat and peasants.”
The shock was actually mutually felt by all first year students who entered the university. An aspect of the student population at HSU was that the majority of students in the early seventies hailed from humble beginnings, generally from rural areas, and from families who etched out a living from subsistence farming. These were the sons and daughters of farmers, most of whom lived as tenants on landholdings of the absentee aristocrats and nobility like Mengesha’s parents.
Unlike siblings of the nobility who were benefiting from the prevailing land tenure system and in general the imperial system, those sons and daughters of the peasantry grew up in reduced circumstances, deprived of amenities that those in households of the nobility took for granted. Most lived in primitive conditions, cramped inside thatched huts with no electricity and running water. Their school-day started with a long-distance walk to school. The facilities and the quality of teachers at the public school they attended was below standard, when compared to schools in the capital, Addis Ababa. In the evening, they did their homework and studied in a space illuminated by candlesticks.
Despite the odds stacked against them, a handful of those students sailed through elementary and secondary school and achieved the necessary grades in the national school-leaving exam, a requisite to admission to University.
Arriving on campus, they too were bewildered by the disparity between their lives and those who came from well-off families : sons and daughters of the nobility, aristocracy, and the well-to-do merchants. They saw the stark contrast between them and the privileged class in terms of mannerism, speech, dressing, and general outlook. Naturally, this aroused resentment in them and led them to question the legitimacy of the feudal system that on the whole was leveraged against them.
But those differences, for most, were gradually reconciled as students from both social classes got to know and understand each other. The university, which they all came to by merit, a neutral ground, afforded them the opportunity to acknowledge the reality of each other’s lot. In fact, it did not take much time for a significant number of students from the privileged class to be actively involved in the student movement, which by the early seventies was fast gaining momentum. Campus-life opened their eyes to how most Ethiopians lived and to the glaring harshness of the feudal system that their parents depended on. It disgusted them to see the economic backwardness of the nation and the injustices and oppressions that were inherent in the feudal order. This awareness was the impetus for some students from the privileged class to join the movement and vehemently denounce the very feudal institutions they benefited from.
On the other hand, those students who sometimes were referred to as ‘ commoners’ knew exactly how the exploitative system underpinning the imperial-rule worked. They were the victims of that system, they knew and despised the system that relegated their parents to serfdom and the hardships it entailed. So naturally they were ready to be part of the movement that wished to topple the feudalistic imperial-government. They hoped to bring about an economical, political, and social order that engendered justice, equity, and equal opportunity for all citizens. They strove for a dignified society, a society with full rights as citizens, and not citizens subjected to the whims of an indifferent monarchy.
It’s curious that Mengesha felt like he was forced to adapt to the prevailing zeitgeist on campus. One would think that his exposure on campus to how the “under class” lived would have elicited empathy and an understanding of why the majority of students were eager for drastic change in the way the country was run. The “mob” and the “ herd mentality” that he alluded to existed on campus and the peer pressure he felt to have that kind of attitude is , I think, a misperception of what was taking place then at the university. “Herd mentality” implies blindly following a leader without understanding why. What was transpiring back then, in the heydays of the student movement, was that the students knew exactly why they were following their leaders, they knew what their cause was, and were willing to fight for it. The obsession was to get rid of the monarchy and the grinding feudalistic order they were writhing under.
In that early stage of the movement, the emphasis was more on bringing down the monarchy and its state apparatus and less on what would supersede it. The students did not broach the kind of polity they would like to see installed after getting rid of the monarchy, the idea was relegated to the back-burner, hoping to resurrect it once the first order of business was accomplished. The overwhelming preoccupation, then, was to fight the forces of the monarchy, which were furiously bent on preserving the status-quo.
However, there was a vague understanding amongst students that the new polity would be civilian-ruled and based on democratic principles. The movement’s Marxism-Leninism was the default ideology they adapted because at the time that was the prevailing political ideology in the third-world and in some other parts of the world. That ideology dictated a defiant stance against capitalism and imperialism. It was the most expedient thing to do, Marxism-Leninism as a philosophy had wider acceptance on campus and it was seen practically as the antithesis of the existing order. It was the antidote needed to neutralize the spat-venom of the monarchy, the monarchy which students considered as the instrument of capitalists and imperialists. To the students, all were in cahoots to keep the down-trodden in their place.
I found Mengesha’s book to be well-composed, entertaining, and informative while taking us on a journey around the world showing us the absurdity of conflicts and the sufferings it had caused to multitudes of fellow human beings.
I highly recommend this book!
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