Alemayehu G. Mariam
[This commentary is an expanded version of remarks I gave at the annual SEED Award Dinner (Society of Ethiopians Established in Diaspora) held at the Georgetown University Conference Center, Washington, D.C. on May 29, 2011.]
I thank the Executive Board of SEED and its chairman Prof. Melaku Lakew for selecting me as one of the 2011 honorees.
The very acronym of the organization is inspiring. Seeds germinate, become seedlings, develop roots and grow. In time, they bloom and blossom into beautiful flowers and drop new seeds for the next generation. For the last 19 years, SEED has been growing and blossoming, and this evening we see the seeds of SEED in the faces of these extraordinarily accomplished young men and women we are honoring.
I am proud there is an organization such as SEED to recognize Ethiopians who have aspired to make their own small contributions to the cause of Ethiopianity and humanity. For that, we should all celebrate SEED and congratulate its Board and members for having the foresight to establish and sustain for nearly two decades a non-partisan civic organization dedicated to recognizing the contributions of Ethiopians and friends of Ethiopia regardless of ideology, political affiliation, ethnicity, nationality, religion or race. SEED is a shining example of what individuals can accomplish by acting collectively through civic society institutions.
I am proud and deeply humbled in being selected to be among a group of honorees that has made extraordinary contributions in the service of all Ethiopians. W/o Abebech Gobena has been called by many as “Africa’s Mother Teresa” for her life-saving humanitarian work with orphaned and abandoned children and abused women. Dr. Woldemeskel Kostre trained generations of Ethiopian Olympic gold medalists and other athletes who have set numerous world records. Professor Redda Tekle Haimanot has made singular contributions to the eradication of polio and helped improve health care access in one of the most medically underserved parts of Ethiopia. Ato Ezra Teshome is widely recognized for his extraordinary contributions to the eradication of polio and helping to empower poor women and children in Ethiopia.
There are two Ethiopians who are being honored tonight posthumously. Professor Hussein Ahmed was an outstanding scholar whose original research illuminated the role of Islam as a cohesive factor in Ethiopia. Dr. Melaku E. Bayen was the first Ethiopian physician to graduate from an American university. He coordinated a Pan-Africanist campaign against Italian aggression in Ethiopia in the 1930s.
When I find myself standing among these towering and heroic figures, I remind myself, in the words of the poet Robert Frost, that I “have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep”.
These individuals are great role models for me, all of us here tonight and the next generation of young Ethiopians.
Speaking about young Ethiopians, I am especially proud to share this stage and event with the high school and college graduates honored this evening. The academic achievements of these young people are among the absolute best in America. Their community service and extra-curricular activities are inspiring to all of us. I am so proud of these young people that my “cup runneth over.”
I am not only proud this evening but also blessed. I share this stage with my daughter Abigail who is being honored in her own right for extraordinary academic achievements and community service. What took decades for me to learn, she mastered in her teen years: True democratic citizenship involves taking individual responsibility to help one’s community and those less fortunate than oneself with a sense of duty, obligation, commitment and honor. I have learned from her that when young people look beyond themselves and their daily distractions and frustrations, they become a mighty force for good and humanity.
This evening I want to say a few words to you from the heart. Many of you know me for the things I have said and written from the mind. Every week in my commentaries, I speak in the language of facts, statistics and evidence. I try as best I can to weave facts through a fabric of persuasive analysis and argumentation to convey my message. But speaking from the heart is more difficult because one has to penetrate the inner crust of facts and statistics and speak from the bedrock of truth.
The truth is Ethiopia’s young people are Ethiopia’s future. Nearly 70 percent of the Ethiopian population of 80 million is estimated to be young people (50 percent of them under age 15). An old Ethiopian proverb reminds us: “Our youth are today’s seeds and tomorrow’s flowers. (Ye zare frewoch, ye’nege abebawoch).” For me, the most important question today revolves around these future flowers in Ethiopia and in the Diaspora.
We in the older generation often ask the question, “What can we teach and do for our young people to prepare them for the future? How can we guide them to a better future?”
The right question in my view is: “What can we learn from young Ethiopians today?”
I believe the vast majority of young people everywhere share one common virtue: Idealism. They believe they can change the world and make it a better place despite the endless wars, communal and sectarian conflict and human rights abuses. Young people want freedom, peace and equal opportunity. They are deeply offended by unfairness and injustice. They have little tolerance for dishonesty and hypocrisy, the principal reasons for their disengagement from politics which they think is all about lying, money and corruption. They despise those who abuse their powers. They have contempt for double-talkers. They are turned off by the older generation’s attitude of “do-as-I-say, not-as-I-do.” They are disappointed when they see us lacking in courage and integrity and selling out for a few pieces of silver.
When I look across the proverbial “generation gap,” I see a gap in thinking, attitude and perspective, not age.
The young people have a “can-do” attitude; for most of us in the older generation, it is “no can do”. They find reasons to do things, we find excuses not to. When churn over old and tired ideas, they come up with innovative ones. When we wallow in despair over what could have been, they bubble with hope and excitement over what could be. We hesitate, they act. We brood, they think. We see the darkness in the tunnel, they see the light at the end. We drive looking through the rear view mirror; they cruise along looking through the windshield. Some of us in the older generation want things to happen. Many of us sit around and wish it to happen. Our young people make it happen! Such is the nature of the gap we need to bridge.
A long time ago, we in the older generation started out on the road to idealism, but somewhere along the way we took a detour to a destination called realism. There we began to worship at the altar of greed, power, wealth, fame and the rest of it. When our realism ultimately proved disappointing, we became cynical and concluded that in a dog-eat-dog world, only the strong survive. We became self-centered and indifferent to the suffering of the weak and defenseless, turned a blind eye to their plight, a deaf ear to their pained cries and muted our lips to the injustices inflicted upon them by the powerful.
We must now return to our idealist roots. George Carlin, the irreverent satirist, said “Inside every cynical person, there is a disappointed idealist.” Maybe you have seen a glimpse of that disappointed idealist in yourself. But there is nothing shameful in being an idealist. The greatest political and moral leaders of the world over the past century have been idealists. They were great visionaries because, like young people, they could imagine and envision a much better future. Gandhi told the British colonial masters: “In the end you will leave India because 100,000 Englishmen simply cannot control 350 million Indians if those Indians refuse to cooperate.” Dr. Martin L. King, Jr. “dreamt that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” Nelson Mandela pledged, “Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another…” These idealists were laughing-stocks in their day, but in the end they won and the world is a much better place because of their struggle, leadership and principles.
To be idealistic also means to be ready, willing and able to unlearn and change outdated attitudes, beliefs and fears. It took me a long while to appreciate Gandhi’s teaching, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Today I think in terms of humanity and not ethnicity or even nationality. I replaced my ideological rigidity with intellectual flexibility. I once kept silence in the face of brutality, today I champion accountability. I watched others relate on the basis of enmity, today I seek to promote cordiality. My ultimate hope is to mobilize global unity against inhumanity.
In 2005, I broke out of my hardened cocoon of realism into the mushy soft world of idealism. Following the May elections in Ethiopia that year, 193 unarmed protesters were massacred by government troops in the streets, and 763 shot and wounded. Over thirty thousand people were rounded up and imprisoned. The post-election events of 2005 plunged millions of Ethiopians into the abyss of cynicism and despair. It had the opposite effect on me.
My conscience was seared by the sheer brutality and inhumanity of that bestial and barbaric massacre. I thought of the Sharpeville Massacre in South Africa in March 1960 where apartheid policemen killed 69 unarmed black South African protesters. I was too young to speak out for the Sharpeville victims, but not too old now to speak for the 193 Ethiopians and the thousands of other victims of crimes against humanity.
That is how I became idealistic. I came to believe that it is possible to have an Ethiopia where citizens can peacefully protest the actions of their government and not be massacred for it. No person should become a political prisoner or a target of government persecution because s/he dissents with those in power. I believe those who hold the reins of power in Ethiopia must bow their heads before the law and not sit on the throne as the deities of the law. In other words, they are not the gods of law but the law’s humble and faithful servants. I began to imagine that no person in Ethiopia should be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law. I even had the audacity to imagine that there must be an independent free press in Ethiopia to stand as a watchdog over government and expose corruption. There must be an independent judiciary to administer justice and hold accountable those who abuse their powers. Elections must be free and fair, and young people should be allowed to play a central role in the country’s future. Long story made short, I became, as some might say, a hopeless idealist.
When you become an idealist, you stand up for your convictions. You preach and teach what you believe in. So I do my best to promote democracy, human rights and freedom in Ethiopia and Africa and elsewhere. I try to be the voice of the voiceless, though some may think I am just a voice in the wilderness.
It is true that I am a relentless critic of oppression, injustice and dictatorship. No doubt, some will laugh and call me naïve for my efforts. Surely, I must know that a few idealists cannot possibly change the world. That may be true, but I am persuaded by Margaret Mead who observed, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Idealism also means using ones misfortunes to help others in daily life. Several years ago, my wife developed breast cancer which was discovered in its earliest stages through an annual routine mammogram and successfully treated. Though my wife had an excellent outcome, so many Ethiopian women die needlessly by not doing regular mammograms and hiding the fact of that disease from their loved ones and friends once diagnosed. She decided to come out in public and write a “letter to my Ethiopian sisters” to raise awareness about breast cancer and how to prevent it from taking so many lives. Some well-intentioned people advised her not to make her condition public implying that there is something embarrassing about having the disease. She is an incorrigible idealist in her own right and believed that if more Ethiopian women knew the truth about early detection and treatment, they will be able to beat breast cancer every time. Silence about breast cancer kills more of our sisters and mothers than breast cancer itself. Let us all be whistleblowers against breast cancer!
We need to bridge the generation gap I spoke of earlier. We can do that if we speak the same language as our young people. We bridge the gap when we learn from each other. They can teach us about the future and the great things they can accomplish; and we teach them about the past, how to avoid the mistakes we made and the things we did right.
Some may think my bridge-building ideas are impractical, unattainable, fanciful and the stuff of dreamers. In my own defense, I will answer them with a question: After all, what do expect from a utopian Ethiopian?!?
In the struggle of all idealistic people, the outcome is always the same as Gandhi taught: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”
We will assuredly win if we are on the side of our young people. If you don’t believe me, talk to the young people in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya… I say, let’s join the Youthvolution in Africa.
If I have one message for all of you, and particularly the young people here tonight, it is that we all need to be the voices of the voiceless and stand up and be counted. In the words of the great Bob Marley, I say: Get up, stand up, stand up for your rights (and their rights too)! Don’t give up the fight! Make change happen one person at a time.
Thank you SEED and all of you who have come to honor us tonight!
“Change will not come if we wait for some other person, or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” Barack Obama
 SEED is a non-partisan civic organization established in 1993 dedicated to the recognition of Ethiopians and Ethiopian friends who have demonstrated outstanding achievements as educators, scientists, artists, religious leaders, high school and university students and community leaders. http://www.ethioseed.org
Previous commentaries by the author are available at: www.huffingtonpost.com/alemayehu-g-mariam/ and http://open.salon.com/blog/almariam/