Sunday, June 07, 2015

The Day of the Downfall of the Derg

I arrived in Addis around six o’clock on the morning of Thursday, May 28, 2015 -- or, twelve o’clock by Ethiopian time, which (rather sanely) is oriented to sunrise and sunset (even if somewhat metaphorically).

And while I don’t know the date by the Ethiopian calendar rather than Gregorian, I do know that the day that I arrived was --- The Day of the Downfall of the Derg.

All the banks were closed for the national holiday. I couldn’t exchange any of that cash that I carried close on my person to the other side of the world.


My father fled Addis Ababa, where he was born and raised, shortly after the start of the Communist Derg regime in 1974. He was 19, a student at the university, with no plans of leaving. “Before the Derg, you could count the number of people you knew who left on one hand” --- my aunt said over dinner the other night at an upscale new pizza joint, brick walls and chalkboard menu included.

People’s memories of the Derg are palpable. Although still little discussed among families or in artwork or in culture at-large, when the Red Terror and the Derg are summoned in memory to any space that I am in, the contours of that space seem to grow dark and heavy. “You were no longer surprised when another person disappeared, you no longer felt anything if someone you knew was said to have died” --- wearily, but matter-of-factly, she continued, shadows darting in the dimly lit, close quarters of the restaurant called efoy, relax.


The Communist Derg regime collapsed in Ethiopia in 1991. It has been superseded by a one-party democratic government. Some of the forms of this new government remain rather Communist (for instance, in telecommunications and, I believe, land ownership). However, as I understand, one of the aspects that most distinguishes it from the Derg is its emphasis on economic development.

I cringe at the concept of “development”. I read an interesting argument somewhere recently regarding the British colonial narrative of “civilizing” India. Arriving on the subcontinent, colonial powers were shocked to find that there were no historical records in India. Even today, the academic world that I am a part of still adheres to this notion that India “has no history” as such – that is, history as we think of it, people are sure to qualify: the mythic and the historiographical merges with the historical in Indian texts; they simply were not interested in history as we are, due to their conception of cyclic time, and the timelessness of the Absolute, etc, etc… And so, as early Orientalists and Indologists began writing the history of India, they used their own historical scheme of ancient/medieval/modern. The ancient past was a glorious time that was sadly followed by medieval decay. But, fortunately, the modern period brought the civilizing force of colonialism…

But perhaps, this argument goes, modern civilization, progress, and development is not in fact restoring the good of some classical antiquity.

Perhaps, this argument goes further, such a narrative of medieval decay is in fact a method of diverting attention away from the chaos and havoc wreaked by colonial forces.


A few years back, I spent my first summer in Cambridge, Mass. It was hot and muggy, hazy like I’d never known.

On 4th of July I went to a luncheon hosted by a few of my friends from school, socialists active in the Harvard Student Labor Action Movement (SLAM).

One of the people attending was a friend of my friends through SLAM, a worker at the College active in the union. Upon learning that my father is from Ethiopia, he laudingly narrated the installation of a socialist government in Ethiopia in the 70’s.

At the time, I knew even less about Ethiopian history than I do now, so I stayed quiet. But I knew enough to know that what he was saying was wrong – or at least how he was saying it was wrong. He was wrong, but I didn’t know, so I was quiet.


Ethiopia is a zone of incongruency and absurdities. There are layers and layers of cultures and communities. The nation is an anomaly, let alone development and democracy.

I am no political scientist, nor am I a historian. I am not even a writer. But I like to read, and the world that I find myself in is one of my favorite stories of all.

So, here’s what I have gathered: Ethiopians are very proud of the fact that they were never colonized by European nations. They were occupied by the Italians, and at times by the British; they received support from the Portuguese and the Turks, and so on; but they were never colonized. This has two especially important implications.

The first is that modernization, as such, occurred in Ethiopia on a different track than other colonies constituting the so-called “Third World”.

The second is that the Ethiopian nation has itself been a colonizing force in the Horn of Africa.


In just a week, this place is unhinging and rearranging my conceptual schemes and structures

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