‘I have a dream for Ethiopia and beyond’

Things are not going well in Ethiopia.
The country is witnessing a malcontent and Ethiopians are pessimistic: things can only get worse before they get any better.

Graham Peebles, Director of The Create Trust, a UK registered charity supporting fundamental social change and the human rights of individuals in acute need, in his article ‘Ethiopians are crying out for Freedom and Justice’ writes that the movement for democratic change – composed of people from all walks of life – is constantly being crashed by violent means.
Peaceful protestors are being shot at, confined in stadiums, arrested, intimidated.
”Human Rights Watch (HRW) says they receive “daily accounts of killings and arbitrary arrests”, and estimate that up to 500 protestors have been killed since November 2015, although many inside the country put the figure higher.
Thousands have been arrested and falsely imprisoned; young people – who are leading the charge for democracy – are being specifically targeted. Torture is widespread in Ethiopian prisons, and for those detainees who have expressed political dissent, it is virtually guaranteed. Witnesses have told ESAT News (an independent broadcaster based in Europe and America) that some detained protestors have died as the result of torture, and are buried in the prison grounds.
The ruling EPRDF party (in power since 1991) was not democratically elected, and has remained in power by stealing one election after another. They demonstrate no concern for democratic principles or human rights, and like all dictatorships, will do anything to remain in power. They seem unable to grasp the severity of the current situation, or understand the feeling among the population, the vast majority of whom despise the regime and are desperate for fundamental change. Protestors are calling on the government to step down, and for real and honest democratic elections to be held.”

Demelew is a young man from Bahar Dar. A young and strong man who sells fruits and vegetables at the main market of the city. Although at first glance he may seem one of the many farmers coming from the countryside, as soon as he starts talking, Demelew shows a deep knowledge of the history of the Ethiopian people and seems quite precise on the subject, so much into it that we begin a conversation with very folkloric tones (a mixture of English-Italian-Amharic -Italian Genovese dialect).
We talk about anything, but we always end up there: what is happening these days around Ethiopia.

“A few months ago skirmishes and tensions broke out in the area south of Addis Ababa, where the Oromo ethnic group felt cheated by the new development plan of the Ethiopian government”.
The look of Demelew starts to become severe  A grimace crosses his face and the lines of the skin tracing his face seem to be getting  deeper. He is transforming.

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“They have taken away large swaths of land from the Oromo in favour of the Shoah (the region of the capital), literally invading areas sitting on a vastitude of natural resources … But the game was obvious even before: we started having a clearer picture when in Addis itself an area as large area as the whole Bahar Dar was razed by Chinese bulldozers. Thousands of people lost their souks (local survival store), tucul, mud and corrugated iron shacks: abodes of men and women who found shelter there!!!”.
I am interested in what he has to say and I see that Demelew lives his words with anger and passion.  His sincere empathy emerges in connection to the thick, unbreakable fog which is engulfing Ethiopia these days.
I realise he still wants to talk.

“Explosions of revolts and protests were drowned in the blood of hundreds, both civilian and military … But it was not enough. Five months ago the government decided to expand the ‘area of Tigray’  (northern Ethiopia) annexing a wide area of Gojam border up to a few kilometers from Gonder. To do so, however, it was necessary to neutralize organised social dissent which all converted in a Committee.”
”The Committee, for the rights of the Amhara people was headed by officers of the local army . One night, last June, teams of government federal police came to Gonder to arrest some members of the committee and its leader, who had sensed the danger and barricaded himself home. It simply took  word of mouth to have Gonder people take to the streets to claim its pride and dignity … “

While talking, Demelew  waves his clenched fists firmly, as if to give an additional punch to his speech.  Then, outside the white blanket enveloping his body, his hands open and close rhythmically with his words.

“Inevitably there were more deaths and a wound difficult to heal. The confrontational path now will continue to expand and will not be solved in a short time. Because, you see, it seemed to end there, with a trace of a heavy silence enveloped by fatalism typical of my people, relying, at the end on God’s judgment and the good intentions of  the Almighty .”

At this stage I I have a start ! For the first time in nearly two and a half years I hear a local uttering these words . I understand the depth and intellectual greatness of my interlocutor, a man who can see with clarity and foresight what is happening in this corner of the world. I light a cigarette, ask  for a break, in order to scribble down some notes.  “Cigher iellem …”, no problem, he utters quietly.

With a look of mutual understanding, we continue.

“But this time the Almighty God decided to show solidarity with the people of Gonder, having awakened the spirit of pride of Amahra people who felt cheated … and Sunday, August 7, a huge demonstration was announced. In solidarity with Gonder. On Friday 5 Gojam was disconnected from the internet … Bahar Dar, roughly at 9 am was invaded by thousands of people who travelled from South to North, until they all reached the bridge over the Nile, the only connection between the two parts of the city.”
He clears his voice.
”The procession headed towards the government building and people started throwing stones. The reply came from automatic weapons … then weapons appeared from all sides and the carnage started. Yet if you asked anyone about the situation, the candid answer would be ‘No, no problem. Everything is quiet.‘ Some would say they fired into the air to “disperse” the people ”
”The next day, one of those  who had gone “missing” was delivered to my home. In a wooden box made of remainders of few pallets and nails. He was a young friend, 25, who was caught up in the middle of the unrest – a series of gunshots – while trying to escape.  The city was deserted: offices closed, shops, banks … no means of transportation operating. Just a display of special security forces through the city .”
”Now Bahar Dar is besieged. You cannot cross the bridge over the Nile ; in the suburbs there have been episodes of citizens daring to express verbal protest against the police and in return they just receive beatings. “

Demelew stops talking . He wipes his swollen eyes regurgitating tears and continues: “They killed over a hundred people Sunday, August 7th … but do not believe for a second that this will stop us from claiming our pride and our dignity … “

Without contradiction there is no life.
Just a few months ago Ethiopia signed its adherence to the International Committee for the protection and recognition of human rights.
The Ethiopia of the majestic Blue Nile , of the grand mountain range of Rash Dashen. the Ethiopia of its mysterious monasteries on lake Tana, the sacred beholder of the ‘ark of the holy alliance’, the birthplace of Lucy, the eldest known daughter of humanity.

I invite Demelew to a beer, just to loosen a little  the tension. He welcomes the idea and after a cool sip of lager starts talking again: “Maybe you have never realised, but I have a dream … I’m carrying a big dream for all peoples of the earth .. . that all may be custodians of their own destiny, the destiny of self-development and the peaceful pursuit of their dignity … “

By now the sun is about to fall, now is the time to return home. In the night only patrolling military vehicles are in action.
Getting up from the chair, Demelew accidentally stumbles upon the coffee table and many bottles of beer crash to the floor
He looks at me with a wink and cheerful eye, we embrace tight and he whispers in my ear: “Ayzoh Daniye … Ciger iellem …”, Do not worry Dear..No Problem

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(The Government has, in the meantime, declared the State of Emergency and immediate arrest with 6 months detention for anyone crossing the arms in sign of protest)

Photos and reporting: Demelew

 

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Addisallem: I know everything now

‘Tomorrow is my birthday’ she says.
‘Look, you were born in July, now it’s only May.’
‘My life has started the day I met you.’
Addisallem, New World, was born in July, 29 years ago.
This is not her real name though it suits her perfectly. Addisallem has lived more than one single life can bear during her skinny three decades. Equally true: she has come to life again.
Her parents were not in love, lest married. Her father never wanted any wife and Addisallem simply got in the way, she happened, in their lives.
She grew up in Bahir Dar (Ethiopia) with her mother and an Auntie, a sister of her mother. Her father was living in Addis Ababa, far from any potential wife. But he did have another family; the important was: no wives.
He had no permanent job and, according to the fluctuations of the touristic season, he was a bus driver. Fluctuantly, he was sending money to Addisallem’s mother.
Addisallem claims her life was normal up to when she was 7.
Maybe it’s just that she does not remember much prior to going to school because at 7, she says, she was already working. The days were all consistently the same: wake up early in the morning, no breakfast, the rush to a neighbour´s home to do house chores, the long walk to the well to fetch water, a faster rush back home to prepare coffee for her mother before she would wake up . And the rush to school.
Categorically empty stomach. Empty stomach even when there was no school.IMG_0052
There are no memories of school, just a whispered ‘I was not good at it.’
The afternoons were simply a photocopy of the mornings: the rush home and, before lunch, the cleaning of the kitchen, the usual mess her mother used to make.
Addisallem’s mother was not any mother. She was a heavy drinker: a seller and consumer of Areki, a homemade alcoholic fermented drink. She was even running her own Areki House in town, working at night and consuming large quantities of alcohol.
The Areki came with the joints and the qat – locally called khat – the mildly stimulant leaf chewed in Ethiopia, Somalia and Yemen, mainly.
Addisallem’s memories overlap: her mother never home or home and nervous.
Money was never enough.Until, one day, Mother was gone. That day lasted 5 years. Without a letter, without a word, without a phone call. She had moved South, almost on the border with Kenya.
It is  Auntie to take care of Addisallem until Mother decides to return. She is in a bad shape. Skeletal, nervous, with peaks of cruelty and paranoia.
Addisalam spies on her: she sees her mother injecting something- most likely drugs, but the girl is too young to know – in her arms or sticking cotton up her nostrils after having soaked it in something the girl cannot understand what it is.
It is silence which engulfs Addisallem. The fear the police might eventually abduct her mother, the fear to be left alone after the Auntie decides she cannot handle the situation any longer.
In silence. Because the day she decided to ask her mother why she could not have a new dress considering the father, occasionally, sends some money, the mother finds nothing better to do than grab the kettle boiling on the coal and pour the water on Addisallem’s back.
She still bears the scars.
Or the night they were walking home and two dogs started barking at them. The mother, scared, upset, paranoid, most likely high on Areki and drugs, pushes the daughter in front of her, towards the dogs. Addisallem is bitten on the leg, falls on her head and cracks the skull.
DSCF0443Auntie is gone, Addisallem is sore. She decides her only way out is to go to her grandmother – from her mother´s side –  to Addis Ababa. 600 km is nothing when you are fleeing for you life.
She will return a year after when informed that Mother is bed ridden. It will last only 1 month. Mother dies on an anonymous day weighting 20 kg.
Now Addisallem is totally alone. If she wants to survive, she needs a job. School is for the fortunate. She finds a job cleaning homes.
This is when her Father reappears. He helps her enrolling in an evening school. Hotel Management. At the end, he knows that with its fluctuations, tourism can bring money.

Addisallem earns her diploma and lives on her own. She has always been alone, at the end. ‘Had it been my father instead of my mother to die, I would be dead too. I am happy and strong now. Because, now, I know everything.’

Addisallem is still afraid of dogs. But she knows everything now. She dreams of a family and a son. She knows how a real mother should be.
Yes, she knows everything. A New World awaits her and when she meets a new friend, it’s like a birthday to her. Earned.

 

 

with Danilo Vallarino in Bahir Dar
photos: © Danilo Vallarino

The Nile Blues of Danilo Vallarino

 ”I live in Ethiopia in Bahir Dar in the region of Amara. I have been here for 26 months, my first working experience abroad, apart from a summer I spent working in a hotel in France.
Bahir Dar is a tourist destination, ranked among the 10 most beautiful cities of Africa, being near to the waterfalls and the source of the Blue Nile.”

Danilo Vallarino is humble,  timid almost. At times he seems to be carrying an ancient melancholy in him.
He arrived to Africa more than two years ago, following his job call. He is a Chef and when asked how can an Italian cope with the difference of ingredients available on the market, the tastes of the different latitude, – Ethiopia is not Italy, his home country – he makes no fuss: ”Not easy, but I manage. And every chef up to his job simply goes to the market!’.

He tells me this is not the Africa of the safaris, the Africa people generally have in mind.
His is the Africa of the Blue Nile river which, within Ethiopia, runs over 800 km and is the longest river of the continent. But it is in Ethiopia it holds its heart running up to Khartoum to meet the White Nile and give life to the entire Egypt.
The Blue Nile Falls are about an hour by car from Bahar Dar and then there are all the Orthodox monasteries on the Lake Tana, where the Blue Nile originates. In its own way, this is a very special tourist destination.

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For the past 15 years, Danilo has a companion. Better, two: an Olympus and a Nikon. He always carries them along. Even when he goes out just for two hours.

Sometimes, even when he is cooking. He does not photograph food – there is plenty of that in the net – he takes shots of people working with him. The smiles at the end of a difficult evening, the vapours and the aprons. Sometimes a hug, when a dish has come out particularly well.
From the kitchen of the hotel where he works, he looks outside. Ethiopia is there.
The Blue Nile chanting its blues. It´s a call he answers once a week, on his day off.

 

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”I always carry the camera with me, even when I go out for just two hours. Even before Ethiopia, when I was in Italy. The nature, nature itself, in its most savage – or natural – form, or people, daily life, the ordinary, are mind blowing to me. The lights at the end of the day when all these people have is a piece of bread, to share. The markets where people sell anything and fix anything. The workers, the basket weavers, the farmers.. virtually anything  which is natural.” 

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Do you manage to talk to people? To discover their stories?
”It is not easy to photograph them. At times people do not like it; at times someone asks for money. But I do not buy a photo. It would not be natural. So I have some patterns I follow  tricks – that help me.” 

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”A real Chef goes to the market” Danilo believes. It it also a way for him to know people and be close to them

 

He adds that a picture is obviously not merely a picture: there is always a story behind it.
”Sometimes I venture out alone and find myself in a crowd, surrounded by so many people. Each one of the men, women I meet bears on the face, hands and feet a databank of endless information. It is up to us to decode it, read it.”
”The women at the market, for instance, always remind me of delicate ceramic creations. They face the scorching sun all day long, selling little to earn even less. These women are a delicate equilibrium of its own kind. I always fear they might break. Yet, they are so strong.”

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 I happened to read a couple of poems of Danilo. Delicate, angry, sometimes sharp.
When I try to tell him, he distances himself from the concept of being a poet of any kind.
”I do not consider myself good at writing, but thank you anyway. I use angry words, true. Because anger is a part of me. I am often pissed. But it is a form of struggle I engage in, always, in order to never accept anything which is being served in front of me. But it is from that very same anger inside me that love grows. If only I could rely on more inner peace, then I think I would be a better person. Especially for those around me. Human relations are all we have. They should always come first.”

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Ethiopia is already a part of him. Ethiopia has changed him. He is one of the few people I  met who does not use the experience abroad as a platform to move on in life.
” I see the gap now. It happens when I return to Italy. I may be talking to my family, or anyone, and people pay attention to what you have to say for no longer than 5 minutes. I realise at a certain moment no one is listening. Someone interrupts me just to mention the Champions League.. just while I was trying say Hey, I was telling you about the women who every single day walk for hours carrying 15 litres of water on their head, bare feet. They look like mules…”
”I really do not know if people are not interested or prefer to ignore there is another reality, uncomfortable one. Maybe it’s a way to keep the conscience at bay.”

His conscience is not at bay.
”I do have a project, you know? It´s a big word, can I say it? It´s PEACE, in its broadest sense. Starting from inner peace. But relating to Ethiopia, I would like, one day, to publish a photographic book and try to help a small community. With no institutional help, no association involved. I think the biggest danger we run in places like this is darkness when it comes to historical memory. I will try to explain it: here, as in many other countries, there has never been an ‘age of the camera film roll‘. Nowadays people take pictures with their smartphones. Selfies and alike. Horrible. They think they are giving a sense of modernity and progress. But if you do not print, you are most likely going to lose everything. Pages of history and memory. What we received, as a society, has always been transmitted to us by stone, wood and paper. We need to print. A digital file is nothing. This is what I am planning to do: preserve for the future. Transmit. I do this also for my children who represent my bridge to the future. They might understand who their father was.”
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Danilo, most likely, will leave Ethiopia at the end of the year. His children await him.
”I love this people. There are times I get so angry when we work together but there is a fundamental attraction, a sense of belonging. Otherwise I would not have stayed. Fact is my children need me.”

The Blue Nile is chanting and returning to Italy will not stop it.11755909_507054052781119_1058695893138987668_n
Danilo will never, really, leave Ethiopia. He will come back, not only for the book.

 

all photographs: © Danilo Vallarino