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From Irobs in Ethiopia

Why I am not shedding tears for my relative at Sinai prison (and it’s not because I am cruel)

Ziade Hailu, March 2012

The Bible tells us that Moses and the Israelites wandered in the desert of Sinai for forty years. They received the Ten Commandments and God made a covenant with them to be his chosen people. My little brain finds difficult to understand why God chooses one kind of people over all the others, though I am sure an irritated theologian will come up with a ready-made answer.   If you are not convinced of his arguments it is only because you are ignorant on biblical interpretation (which by the way is very tricky-symbolic, allegoric, literal etc…) and on the concept of ‘divine election’- but at least you have a clue as to why past Ethiopian rulers and some followers go out of their way to establish their lineage to the chosen people.

After having escaped Pharaoh the Israelites stayed in the harsh desert of Sinai for forty years and God fed them with manna and promised to lead them into the land that “flows with milk and honey”. Fast forward three thousand years or so, the new Pharaoh is poverty; the new law is “get rich or die trying”.  The condition of the “gentiles” on their way to the Promised Land is appalling. There is no manna to feed on; the red see is parting, there is no imminent guarantee of their entry in to the Promised Land. Instead the place is infested with blood thirsty, gun-touting kidnappers.

The ‘Sinai problem’ has been a menace for some time now, but it is only recently that it came to the attention of the international community by CNN coverage.  According to the report by the Israeli Army up to 17,000 migrants make to Israel every year. Many of them are from Sudan, Eritrea and Irob in Ethiopia.  Reliable sources from Irob Woreda tell me that since the past four years about 700  Irobs have managed to reach Israel paying blood money, 120 are in refugee camps, and as I write these lines another 30 are in prison in Sinai waiting for your money to free them. And many more have failed in their attempt and lost their precious life trying to enter the country.

In the meantime Israel is fencing 230Kms of border with Egypt and is building a detention center that holds up to 11,000 of us, future migrants of course. So, folks who are contemplating to try their luck, this must be the right  time before the wall is erected and the Jews state becomes smarter than the Bedouin tribe  to prevent your entry. It is an advertisement of sorts. But don’t mention my name and I am not complicit in a human smuggling business, most of all don’t call me at night for my contributions. This is do- it- at- your- own- peril-business.

Now, seriously, who is to be blamed for all the misery? Should we point our fingers at the young who are fleeing with (aynii yebiley, sini yebiley) their eyes wide closed? Or should we unearth the smugglers network with the aid of some spy agency and kill them all? (This is business, comprende?) Or again blame successive governments for not having offered opportunities at home to do away with poverty? The best solution of course would be to make our country prosperous and more democratic. But until it becomes so no one can stop migration. As long as information is available, capital and labor will always keep migrating in search of better opportunities.

A few weeks back a relative of mine contacted me from  a ragged mountain home in Addaga and said in an anxious voice “ my son escaped to Sinai and the smugglers are demanding  85,000 Birr, and if we don’t deliver in time they will either kill him or take body parts”. ‘kill’ and ‘body parts’ remained imprinted in my head for a few minutes. 85,000 birr…..I shrieked. I found myself confronted with an array of emotions ranging from shock to anger to indifference.  I felt like telling her, “did he asked my consent before he left for the desert of Egypt, or was there some money he has   left with me that I am forgetting”.  After I hung up the phone, the power of guilt feeling was so overwhelming that I drove to my bank to see if I could wire some money to his kidnappers.

But on my way to the bank the monkey mind was throwing dozens of questions at me:  Questions on personal responsibility, obligation, morality, guilt, support system within low income society etc. Why would a loved one put his family and friends in such a precarious moral situation? Why would these young people capitalize on guilt, fear and obligation?  I changed my mind. Instead of sending money to Egypt, I searched for a book on psychology to educate myself on the make-up of  emotional blackmailing. I failed to find one but looked for alternative sources.  Of lately my interest in psychology, biology and chemistry has improved so much that I am convinced I can explain almost every bit of behavior with the tools from these disciplines. (Take for example the subject of sex:  chemistry and biology help me to understand the hormone called oxytocin that is responsible for sexual reproduction and impacting “behavior that is associated with love”. Blame the substance in your brain and not the devil for “impure thoughts” you are having. And psychology coupled with moral philosophy explains if I should ever have sex and when: depending alternative views you subscribe to, you get an answer. If you are a religiously inclined person then the “purpose of sex is for the creation of children, and that any other reason for sex is sinful and a subversion of God’s law” or if you are  a so called rational humanist sex is “neither as an act of supernatural significance nor an expression of conquest, but an exchange of pleasure and affection between freely consenting adults”. Voila, you have the answers you need – or so it seems).

Now, again why do our youth do what they do? Why do they gamble on your money and their life? The first impulse that comes to your mind is sympathy for the youth who are desperately trying to make ends meet (or build a house in Adigrat) and there is nothing wrong with that. Choosing a Jewish state as an alternative migration destination is also accepted. Some people think migration is bad. I think otherwise. In a place like Irob where alternative livelihood means are scarce, migration is the best choice that is available to us. I have all the respect for the young who are trying to find a place that can offer better opportunities. In order to survive we have to change our tactics and if that was not so our species would not survive – a la Darwin. Basically this opinion piece is in defense of migration. However, I disapprove when one plans the journey under extreme risky conditions and does it in secret with the eye on somebody else’s bank account.  And such behavior has name:  blackmailing.

God Bless the ‘saints’ at Wikipedia (what else can you call people working hard to provide you with free information) it was not difficult to find out how manipulation works out. “Emotional blackmail is a powerful form of manipulation in which people close to us threaten to punish us for not doing what they want. Emotional blackmailers know how much we value our relationships with them. They know our vulnerabilities and our deepest secrets. They can be our parents or partners, bosses or coworkers, friends or lovers. No matter how much they care about us, they use this intimate knowledge to win our compliance”. One thing the wiki authors failed to include is how local culture like ours can be a fertile ground to promote emotional manipulation. The western concept of private property is not applicable to us. A person doesn’t live for himself alone. His wealth belongs to the tribe or relatives. He has the responsibility to take care of his extended family.  If he fails on such responsibility he will either be outcast or feel guilty for not doing what he is “supposed” to do: damn if you do it, damn if you don’t.

I am aware it would be naïve and simplistic to demand everyone in our community to take responsibility for their life with obvious problems of poverty and educational level.  But the mindset is unacceptable and must change. Strictly speaking, nobody has responsibility towards anyone except for his kids until they become adults. The rest is something you do because you love to do. If our community members understand such facts all relationships would be healed, grumblings and blackmails would stop. Most of all we would grow both materially and mentally.

I feel bad about the fate of my relative at a Sinai prison but I am not shedding tears for him. Call me cold blooded or an outright barbarous savage. Let my name be so but I am respecting the decision (no matter how risky it is) he has made for his life and I wish him good luck saluting his decision to beat poverty in his own way.


Ziade Hailu Reports from Dawhan Town on the Meskel Celebration 2011 (2004 EC) the Irob Style

UPdate #3. Live from Dawhan town. This town of  Dawhan  is ready to welcome her guests. This afternoon before the D day many, including media people, guests from far and close are converging to this small town. Accommodation is not easy but then what a heck….(alga leminie). Tomorrow is a big day but festive mood is already in the air.

The D Day is up on us. The president of Tigray region their excellencies,  Atto Abbay Woldu and Abune Tesfesilasie, are among the distinguished guests. The administrator of Irob woreda Mr. Rufael presented yearly performance report. The hall in Dawhan is overflowing with humans and highly over suffocated. nothing like this has been ever witnessed in that small town. your reporters in the ground will be updating you every minute.
Update # 6.  According to the report by the Administrator of the woreda Asimba and its environs t up to Ggundagude is earmarked for Eco tourism. Investors are invited to assess tourism potential in the region. Also investment in beles is highly recommended.
update # 5.  Breaking news: It was announced just few minutes back that the commercial bank of Ethiopia will start operations in Dawhan town beginning from October one. This is an important step for the region with long long years of history but no formal financial institutions for years.
Update #8.  It is raining heavily in Dawhan town. After an interesting luncheon with variety of food including great people are back to conference center. Question and answer session is being conducted. Though some people are complaining that the festival has become more of a serious stuff than a celebration of culture. If the rain doesn’t spoil things the best part they said is yet to come. Your reporters myself in the main studio and Huluf Weldesilase at the ground shall be updating you every minute of every hour during this historic day. Don’t go away.
Update #9.  Further reiterating what his Excellence  the bishop said in the morning about the resilience of the Irob people, the president of Tigray region is making a final speech. In brief his speech focuses economic empowerment. The Irob people suffered enough but that has to stop. He compared the irob topography to Israel and according to him that country receives less annual rainfall than Irob region yet it has become bread basket. If Irobs invest in bees, water harvesting, ‘tele/begi’ and work hard there is no way that the appalling poverty will continue. He said something in  line of Paulo Cohelo’s witting that if a community decides to change their fate then the universe shall conspire to make it happen. He received applause from the audience for comparing Irob to Israel. Now, we have heard the speech, witnessed the fanfare and rhetoric we wait for actions. This festival has clearly put Irob issues on the map of the powerful in Mekele town or so it seems.

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