Getty Images

Africa Specific: A Weekend In Ethiopia

A program focused on Ethiopian scholarship is starting with its past (with some help from The Weeknd), while Ethiopia wrangles with its biggest city’s future

It’s a big, wide, complicated world out there. And for most of us, it’s impossible to keep track of everything that’s going on. We get ground down. We get distracted. We get on Snapchat and spend half an hour making our friends look like lions. It happens.

Meanwhile, out in the world, there’s a lot happening, and a ton of it is happening in the 54 countries that make up the African continent. Six of the world’s fastest-growing economies are in Africa, as are three of the world’s fastest-growing cities. The world’s second-largest movie market — bigger than Hollywood — is in Nigeria. Nairobi, the tech capital of the continent, is known as "Silicon Savannah." But for a lot of reasons — including racism, the lingering effects of colonialism, and a mass-media culture that ignores a continent of 1.2 billion people — you probably haven’t heard much about Africa in your news feeds lately.

This is a series about the African continent, because what happens in Niger or Nigeria has implications for all of us, and vice versa, whether it’s good, bad, or Brexit. This is just a slice of what’s out there, so keep reading and keep learning. This is "Africa Specific."

The University of Toronto wants to start an Ethiopian studies program — and got a big assist from The Weeknd.

Ethiopia contains multitudes, and a massive backstory. "Our history is millennia old, if you like," Fisseha Tadesse, an Ethiopian language scholar and Toronto resident, told MTV News. "There are so many monuments of wonder and there are a lot of things to reflect the abiding characteristics of the country." But across North America, there aren't enough opportunities to engage with Ethiopia’s economic, political, social, and even ancient history.

That's why the University of Toronto set up a fund-raiser to create an Ethiopian studies program, beginning with a course in the fall of 2016 focused on the ancient language of Ge'ez. Grammy award–winning singer The Weeknd (#hairgoals) has been one of the university's biggest contributors.

Ge'ez isn't just any ancient language — it's one of the first known languages, standing alongside Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. Ge'ez was the original language of Ethiopia, but it's no longer spoken outside of church services and is in danger of being lost entirely. And Ge'ez is critical not just to Ethiopian history, but to history as a whole. "There are many texts [originally written in Greek or Hebrew] that are now only preserved in this language," Tadesse says (here's a video of him speaking Ge'ez). "That makes Ge’ez not only significant for Ethiopia, and Africa, but also for the whole world. It’s a very important language."

The Weeknd, born Abel Tesfaye, is Ethiopian-Canadian, and has always kept his heritage close. He is a past winner of the Canada-based Bikila Award, aimed at encouraging Ethiopian-Canadian young people to succeed in academics and business, and when the organization put out a call for support for the University of Toronto's Ethiopian studies program, the Weeknd responded immediately and donated $50,000. The Bikila Award's Tessema Mulugeta says, "Despite all odds, [The Weeknd] has tenaciously pursued his dream as a singer-songwriter and achieved international success winning various prestigious awards. He is our community hero for giving back."

addis on me

A photo posted by ⚡️✝⚡️ STARBOY ⚡️✝⚡️ (@abelxo) on

Eventually, the University of Toronto wants to create an Ethiopian studies center that will be a vital space for African-centered scholarship through an Ethiopian lens. The Weeknd's contribution, Mulugeta says, will be huge for Ethiopians across Toronto and beyond. Tadesse adds that Ethiopian studies would do a lot to change the perceptions of Ethiopia and Africa as a whole. "Africa is not just a blank slate where you take whatever you have from the West and write over it," he says, and he noted that the Ethiopian community in Toronto was playing a big part in creating the program.

"Study should tell us something about ourselves," Tadesse says. "It is self-examination. The attempt is to understand ourselves as human beings, however that’s expressed — in art, in literature, in whatever ways." Sounds like The Weeknd would agree.

Meanwhile, in Ethiopia this August, the government has been violently cracking down on protesters who just want to be heard.

Imagine an egg yolk in the middle of a circle of egg white. In Ethiopia, home to 95 million people, the capital city of Addis Ababa is the yolk, with the Oromia region surrounding it on all sides. Addis, a city of 3.4 million people, is rapidly expanding, but not everyone is benefitting; the Ethiopian government’s vision for the future of Addis is rubbing up against the interests of the people who live in Oromia, who fear they will be "landless, homeless, jobless and placeless" if the city spreads across the boundaries of their land. Protests have erupted in Oromia and across Ethiopia in response to now-postponed expansion plans, as well as to police brutality, and they aren't being led by politicians — they're being led by high-schoolers.

The Ethiopian government is countering with outright violence. During protests on August 6, at least 90 people were shot by police and army soldiers. Security forces have arrested journalists and opposition leaders, and fired live ammunition into crowds of peaceful protesters, killing hundreds. "The government is violently responding to some of the very basic demands that we are making as far as these policies are concerned, and they are policies that would have a very big impact on our day-to-day lives," says Dr. Awol K. Allo, a fellow at the London School of Economics' Center for the Study of Human Rights with a focus on Oromo politics.

Addis is "a great city," Allo added, "but underneath the sort of progress that you see, there are deeper historic injustices." He notes that the government has often acted as if progress overrides everything else — including democratization and open government. "People are expelled from their land to make space for those high-rise buildings, without appropriate consultation or compensation. Some of them are violently displaced from their land."

This isn't just about the suppression of Oromo voices in Ethiopian politics. It's about the suppression of the voices of Ethiopian citizens more broadly, in a political system that calls itself a democracy but certainly hasn't been acting like one.

Mersen Chala shows a picture of his brother Dinka, who was killed by Ethiopian forces a day earlier in the Oromia region.

In 2014, the Ethiopian government announced the Addis Ababa City Integrated Master Plan — the rapid expansion of the city that, according to Felix Horne, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, would have made it roughly "the size of Belgium." The people in Oromia weren't consulted or even notified. Thousands of people lost their homes and land, their houses bulldozed to make way for new buildings or factories as the government is focusing on continuing the country's massive manufacturing build-up. "They’re just forced to move somewhere else, and try and eke out a living," Horne says. Protests emerged in opposition to the "Master Plan," but so did widespread police brutality aimed at protesters, with hundreds arrested and dozens killed.

This summer, the protests have expanded across the country, with thousands of people joining to take part to condemn not only the now-postponed "Master Plan," but the harsh repressive tactics of the Ethiopian government.

Ethiopia's economy has grown by leaps and bounds over the last decade, but that success has given the party that has ruled since 1991 — the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front — the power to repress free speech. In 2015, the EPRDF won every single parliamentary seat in an election that saw electoral opponents jailed and beaten. The EPRDF has promised — and delivered — significant economic growth and development, but in Oromia, just outside Addis, Allo says that "people actually don’t believe that they have been benefitting from the economic progress that the country has been making."

If beating and shooting civilians is what the price of development looks like at Addis Ababa’s edge, no wonder the Oromo protesters — and thousands of Ethiopians — aren't buying in.

Young people have been leading the protests — and bearing the brunt of the repercussions.

The protests have grown over the past few months, with cities and towns in Oromia and beyond taking part. During earlier protests aimed at government repression, university students took the lead, but the government's harsh response forced many into silence. In November 2015, however, new protests began, with even younger students in front. They've been sharing information on Facebook, where they've found it easier to talk openly about their concerns. And they're not scared of backlash anymore. "The fear that has often gripped Oromo communities, that prevents them from coming out onto the streets in mass numbers in the past," Horne says, "I don’t see that in these kids."

"Historically, students are the key agents of change in Ethiopian politics," Allo says, "including the people who lead the state today." But Oromo students in 2016 are replying to the state leadership itself, one that has arrested nearly 5,000 Oromo people in three years because of their opposition (or suspected opposition) to the government. That same government has also responded to the young Oromo protesters, and to young protestors across the country, with force. "The police are regularly storming schools, arresting students, storming dormitories, or having plainclothes officers sit in these classrooms — who are very obvious," Horne says. "All these 16-year-olds and then you [will] have this 30-year-old man who shows up one day and sits at the back of the classroom."

Getty Images

Protest in South Africa against human rights violations in Oromia.

The protests that began because of the Ethiopian government's "Master Plan" are now focused on ending the brutality — the beatings by police, the arrests, and the shootings — and have gone beyond just young people. As Allo says, "How long do we keep tolerating a system that simply murders us, just because we made a very basic demand to have a say in this development policy that the government put forward?"

The Ethiopian government has every reason to recalibrate their relationship with the Oromo protesters, to see them as citizens to be heard, not as obstacles to development. As for the young Oromo who protested, Horne says that "they are going to remember these incidents, they are going to remember being tortured in detention, they are going to remember seeing their friends being shot next to them for daring to protest peacefully.” If the state security forces continue to violently suppress opposition, "they are going to get more protests, more long-term anger." But Horne added that the students aren't giving up on their country just yet. "What I get is these kids just want a future."