Who is “Habesha?”

South Semitic-speaking group of people whose cultural, linguistic, and in certain cases, ancestral origins trace back to the tribes of the Axumite (Habasha) and the Da’amat kingdom. Today they include the Amhara and Tigray-Tigrinya ethnic groups of Ethiopia and Eritrea who are predominantly Orthodox Christians, and have been since 332 AD. In the broadest sense, the word “Habesha” may refer to anyone from Ethiopia or Eritrea, while some would exclude themselves from this association. This definition states what society says Hebeshannet is. However, we feel that it misses the nuances of daily Habesha life. – The Habesha Diaspora Book Project Blog

Instead of debating why some exclude themselves from the Habesha identification, the book project organizers, quoted above, chose to just move on declaring, “The definition misses the nuances of daily Habesha life.” Although I respect their choice, it would have been great if they had opened a room for a debate among the young Diaspora Ethiopians on this sensitive issue. Such avoidance of an existing problem has been continuously repeated. I personally disagree with the idea that the Habesha definition, quoted above, “misses the nuances of daily life”; it doesn’t! In fact, it clearly reflects those “nuances.”

It is one thing to declare one’s Habeshannet and to celebrate it. But I do not agree with “Habeshizing” everyone who comes from Ethiopia because that is a cultural homogenization, a practice which made some Ethiopians feel “culturally superior” than their fellow Ethiopians in the not-so-distant past, encouraging ethnic elites from the “culturally inferior” groups to advocate for the complete destruction of Ethiopia. It is such type of cultural monopoly that has created groups like TPLF, which today dominates the politics and economics of the country. Similarly, some elites from countries as far as Egypt who favor Ethiopia’s fragmentation (due to geopolitical interest for their countries) have been capitalizing on this very subject.

As an Ethiopian who has observed and first hand experienced ethnic prejudices, I reject such an imposition of identity on me. I believe that the advocates of “Habeshannet,” regardless of how apolitical or genuine they may sound, are naively pushing those who wish Ethiopia’s disintegration to be more successful in their campaigns.

Let’s face it. Who is “Habesha,” really? Despite how liberal and unprejudiced one thinks, the commonly known definition of Habesha is one and only one: that girl or guy with a middle-eastern look, pointed nose, curly and (long) black hair, brown eyes, and fair skin; speaks Amharic or Tigrigna or has a mixed background. Those have been the qualities that have defined “true Habesha”; and they still remain authentic requirements. Others who lacked those qualities were rarely considered Habesha; they either had to assimilate themselves, conceal their background to be accepted, or had to completely reject that identity risking their life.

How many times have you been told that you look like Middle Eastern and that you should be proud of your true Habesha heritage? How many of us have been complimented that we look like “Ferenji” and that we are the most beautiful and the chosen ones—as if being a “Ferenji” is more divine-like than being African? How many of us have been ridiculed or have been cast out for getting married or even for having a date with “Tiqur,” or even worse, “Bariya?” So let’s be fair and face the reality. These stereotypes still exist despite our denial. It is time we must challenge ourselves; reading Mr. Obango Metho’s and other Ethiopians’ recently written articles on this issue can be the best way to begin this journey.

Growing up, it was so common for me to hear people saying, “Oh, she’s so beautiful! It seems she did not come out of her mother’s womb.” Another one, “Look at him. Doesn’t he look like an Angel? So handsome! He sure is not from that family.” These were not jokes. For the people, comments like these were real and normal, adding flavor to their daily gossips. If they couldn’t say those statements in public, they sure discussed them inside their house. I don’t blame them completely because it was the system that made them think that way. As the system changes, their mindset will also change. We, the young generation, however, must not repeat their mistakes. We should know better, especially living in the US, a country that has left behind a very dark racial history and still struggling.

Today, any person who advocates for unity and democracy in Ethiopia must first deal with any form of preposterous categorization of all cultures into one and must accept the uniqueness and importance of each culture. Let’s not pretend or justify that such categorization means no harm. The existence of cultural homogenization in our country has radicalized many young people in the past and in the present, forcing them to despise or renounce their Ethiopian identity. Therefore, we must oppose homogenization, including economic and political dominance of one group, unequivocally if we want to build a strong nation that is politically and economically fair to all.

In the United States, no one imposes a Latino identity on African Americans, or vice versa; no one addresses Koreans as Japanese Americans unless by mistake. Why can’t it be the same in Ethiopia? Why can’t an Afar, for example, be just an Afar without labeling himself or herself a Habesha? If one wants to identify one’s self as Habesha, fine. But let one not impose it on others!

I prefer to be called “Ethiopian” because it includes all who live in Ethiopia! I also have no problem with someone saying a Sidama Ethiopian, a Habesha Ethiopian, an Oromo Ethiopian, a Nuer Ethiopian, a Keffa Ethiopian, etc. My disagreement, however, as I indicated above, is with collectively calling all “Habesha” when some are openly rejecting that label.

I hope that this article will not be interpreted negatively. It is a personal opinion, meant to boldly criticize our mainstream culture. If you disagree, please share your argument. We live in a free country where we can share ideas freely and openly unlike the constant repression of freedom of thought in Ethiopia.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Who is “Habesha?”

  1. Ethiopiawi

    Ethiopia is all about faith, the ETHIOPIAN faith!

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