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I was at a Kebele (the lowest administrative unit) office for having an identification card. A pretty and coy office girl led me to a desk. The worker, a gentleman with his hair as white as snow, sitting on a swivel chair grabbed a yellow family file. It seemed he was looking for my name in the file. Next, he started filling in my name, age, the organization I am working for… Then, he stopped scribbling and looked at me. He squeezed his little eyes twirling behind a pair of thick spectacles.
“What is your ethnicity?” he enquired.
I looked intently at him without saying a single word. Then, I told him to take down that I am an Ethiopian. The man beamed mockingly and asked me again which ethnic group I belong to. A kind of ‘you idiot, say something about your ethnic background’ question…
“I am serious. I cannot tell you anything else about what you are asking for. Please, put down the word ‘Ethiopian’ in that blank space of the ID card.”
“What a funny guy you are! It seems you are a been to or a diaspora guy! … Hey, the diaspora guy, say something!” He pushed the ID card aside in a sort of dismay reflected in his small contorted face and stared at me leaning his cheek on his palms. He kept on gazing at me for about thirty seconds. Then he said, “I have a lot of things to do, my brother. This is a public spot. It is not a tavern! Did you get me? I can tell you that there is no time for jokes here… At least, try to value the people lined up behind you…” He showed me again a distorted mocking face.
“I cannot tell you anything which is different from what I have just told you, brother.” I was almost irritable. I clinched my fingers which were about to twitch.
“Ok, if you are not ready to tell me where you are from and your ethnicity, my dear diaspora guy, I am going to put in this space your ethnic background… I will do that for you! Does that make sense?”
“What does that mean?” I requested looking at him surprisingly.
“Simple! We all know you people from Amhara. You are always giving rise to problems whenever you are requested this question. So, it is not that much difficult to know who you are… your ethnic background,” he said cheerfully as if he discovered something hidden.
“I did not say I am Amhara. Did I? C’mon! Did you hear me saying that word? Why did you want to jot down that word without getting confirmation from me?”
“Because you Amhara people are so rigid that you are not willing to speak about your ethnic background,” he said showing a look of pride in his face.
“My brother, you are creating a problem. You are uttering what you are supposed to retort by your good-for-nothing bosses. Hey, listen up to me now! I am not ashamed of speaking about myself. Being Amhara, Oromo, Tigre, Wolita, Sidama, Somali, Afari… is not a crime. No need to mention such a thing here. But, what I want to tell you right now is that I don’t feel like carrying that tag! I want you to get that shit out of your head? I say I am an Ethiopian. Put that very word in your card! You have no the slightest right to snatch this title from me. Take heed of the fact that I was born and brought up in this very capital, Addis Ababa. My mother was also born here in this same place. So, what do you think I am? What do you need me to say? Of course, I am an Addis Abeban if you like. Can you jot down that? I tell you something… I want to be identified as an Ethiopian. Did you get that, bro? … Did I make myself clear?”
“Ok, tell me this? … Where is your father from?” he enquired.
“Cool down, bro! You are making a fuss over such a trivial issue. I can’t really tell you where my father is from. He hadn’t told me this before he passed away; neither did my mother. I am very sorry he is nowhere at present to prove this for me… For that matter, none of my family members was interested in this damn thing…” I could not carry on with my talking as he cut in.
“Oh! … What are you talking about? …You are killing my time… my precious time which I should give to the people that need our endeared service here! Please… please! I haven’t got a single minute to spare for you guys. Talking over this thing with you people is nonsense!” He pushed the ID card aside and tapped the table with the tip of his pen calling the next man behind me.
The other day I happened to be in an office for an interview to get a job. After probing me with a lot of questions, one of the examiners put forward to me the same question I am still facing in this country of mine.
“Where are you from?”
“Addis Ababa!” I was as fast as a flung-out pen knife to give my response politely.
“I mean your ethnicity… what is your ethnicity?” He said with broad but false smile.
‘Oh, my God! What is the significance of asking about ethnicity for a job which commonly demands professional efficiency?’ I taught to myself. Then, I cleared my throat and said: “I don’t know if this is… I mean…eh… eh… I was born and raised here in Addis Ababa. I think you can take down that I am an Ethiopian… Will you, please? I am sorry, I have no any idea for sure about my ethnic back ground.”
All the examiners suddenly burst in to laughter. Some of them were seen wiping their smiling wet eyes. What blunder did I make to swipe these gentlemen with laughter? … I was dumbfounded to notice that they were looking at me as if I came down from planet Mars. After this, I realized on the dot that I lost the chance of having the job… Then after, I heard from one of the examiners the last words. “Thank you for coming for the interview. We are through with our questions. You can go!”
I lost many things over the past 27 years for such simple thing. I have been deprived of my right to be an Ethiopian. I was rather made a laughingstock by some naïve individuals who failed to understand me. Some say with laughter making fun of me saying, “yearada lij biher yelewim”. This is to mean that a city boy has no ethnicity. This was our Ethiopia in which many poor innocent citizens like me were not given the chance to be Ethiopians.
Now the bygone time is long-gone (I believe it is a long-gone time). So, let bygones be bygones! … This day, things have been changed. We are embarking on the threshold of reform. The crooked act of belittling our Ethiopia in the bygone times has gone never to return. Therefore, please do give me back my Ethiopia. Allow me to be an Ethiopian. Don’t give me the go-by.
By Haile-Gebriel Endeshaw