I woke up this morning at 4:30 AM from a rooster call. Inside my house. I share a house with a few other Ethiopians, and we don’t keep chickens, so I was pretty confused. I grabbed a flashlight and walked around the house in my underwear, only to confirm that the chicken was in fact inside my neighbor’s room. I saw her this morning and asked. She confirmed that she was harboring a chicken but didn’t say why it had to be in her room. After spending the morning at the office, I returned to find a dead rooster in the compound being prepared for doro wat (chicken stew). Doro wat is only made for special occasions and it all made sense; today is Lekatit 11th, a local holiday celebrating political independence.
Both Ethiopia and America are celebrating national holidays today. As the American’s celebrate President’s Day, my neighbors here are celebrating Lekatit Aserta Hada, a regional holiday marking the beginning of the fight in Tigray against an oppressive military regime. It’s like the 4th of July – Lekatit is the month and Aserta Hada means eleven. Today is the birthday of the regional resistance group called the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). 38 years ago, in 1975, peasant fighters began their struggle to overthrow “the Derg,” starting a civil war that enveloped all of Ethiopia for the next 18 years. The resistance was especially strong, and the Derg’s attempts to squash it, were especially brutal in Tigray, Ethiopia’s northern most region where I’m currently living. These guerilla freedom fighters are now my colleagues, friends, and neighbors here in Abi Adi. Pretty much anyone over the age of 40 was involved in the war as young soldiers, teachers, or medics.
Following the demise of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974, Ethiopia went through a power struggle of competing factions. The Derg, based in Addis Ababa, emerged as the victors and sought to adopt Soviet Union style Marxism-Leninism. All land was nationalized and many private industries were seized by the government. During the first years of power the Derg, led by Mengistu Haile Mariam, carried out what is now called the “Red Terror” where thousands of dissenters were executed throughout Ethiopia. The Derg was heavily funded by the Soviet Union and saw a huge influx of soviet weaponry throughout the conflict. The struggle continued for 18 years as various rebel groups, including the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, fought against the Derg. The Derg was finally overthrown in 1991 and the TPLF became a dominating force in shaping the new Ethiopia. Pretty much every one of these sentences is a huge simplification of history and I’m sure I’ll explain more about all these issues in later updates but this provides a little context.
A huge amount of people died during this time. One Abi Adi woman told me that there is a missing generation of people in Ethiopia due to the war. This is causing problems here in Abi Adi now because the missing generation cannot take care of their aging parents. I don’t know if this is true, but somewhere around 1 million Ethiopians died during the struggle. The estimates vary significantly. At a gathering on Sunday, I saw two singers perform a folk song about a boy asking his mother where his father has gone. He tells her not to lie and to tell the truth about his father which she has been withholding from him.
However, not all of the outcomes are negative. Recently, I visited the hospital in Abi Adi with my friend Tuha who was a medic in the guerilla army for 10 years. He doesn’t talk much about the war and tries to keep things light by joking about his experience and skipping on the details. None the less, you can tell it really impacted his world view. While we were at the hospital I asked a few employees about their general impressions of the hospital. They told me that they were not paid enough and that there are problems with the administration. This may or may not be true, I don’t know yet. Later, while walking to our next engagement, Tuha brought up the remarks from the hospital staff. He told me that people here need to understand that the only way to improve things is to take the initiative and work together.
Before visiting the hospital, we passed through old town Abi Adi, which was leveled by a Derg airstrike, purportedly on a market day to inflict maximum casualties. As a teenager, Tuha saw a serious problem facing his country and realized the only way to overcome it was to pick up a gun and fight for it. Where was his compensation, fair administration, and salary? There was none! Except for a free future for his family and friends. Anyway it made the complaints from the hospital guys seem kind of petty and ridiculous. I don’t really know if his attitude of self-sufficiency and problem solving stemmed from his war experiences, but it’s this attitude that gives hope to Ethiopia and is absolutely worthy of celebrating today.
“Our struggle is bitter and will take a long time, but our success is inevitable.” A tagline from the TPLF.
This last weekend was full of reflective patriotism as people celebrated their victory with speeches, dance, music, and food. Just like the 4th of July in America, Lekatit 11 provides an opportunity for this community to unite as a whole and remember the past in order to see how much progress has been made.