The dust, towers and false promises of modern Ethiopia

Successive Ethiopian governments have continued a 'modernizing' project that not only offers people false dreams, but actively dislocates them from the things that gave them purpose in the past.

Still from Katanga Nation, 2022.

The new short documentary from Beza Hailu Lemma and Hiwot Admasu Getaneh, Katanga Nation, is a film of dust and towers. The action revolves around Amele, a woman who runs a makeshift hostel providing beds and meals in the slums of Katanga in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Amele’s hostel, a shack of corrugated iron sheets, is cramped yet brightened by religious posters and LED lights strung up between bunks beds. Amele behaves with the gentleness and good humor of a mother to all who stay with her, including Enkuan, a young man who is desperately trying to find work and money. Reciting a famous Amharic poem about Katanga, a voiceover wonders, “But what’s the point? Her [Katanga’s] houses will turn to dust. Towers will then rise in their place. When that time comes … who will remember beds for 15 Birr and full meals for 30?”

Enkuan first tries to make money by selling cheap goods on the street. He has his goods confiscated by the police, and when he begs for them to “show kindness,” a police officer orders him not to touch him, as if he is someone dirty. His entire livelihood is gone; in Enkuan’s words to Amele, “The government owns it now.” He decides to try day laboring instead, working on a construction site for 110 Birr (about $2USD) a day. He is informed this is the “usual rate” and that they will dock his modest pay if he is late.

The film shows the stark failure of state and institutions to work for the poor. There is no discussion about appealing to higher authorities or going to court to get Enkuan’s possessions back. Just like Enkuan has his property taken, so too do the people of Katanga face ongoing threat of removal and destruction of their modest community as the skyscrapers come closer and closer. These people don’t have ownership rights over their own possessions or lands. Katanga is full of people who migrated from rural places, but this is only revealed briefly in the film when Enkuan and another young man at the hostel talk about coming to the city in hope of work. The film fails to interrogate or even comment on the fact that most of the people in Katanga have come to Addis because life in rural Ethiopia has become extremely difficult. Land is owned by the government, not the people, and except for limited land distribution that occurred in the 1970s, Ethiopian rural farmers are continually denied land while foreign and domestic investors are given credit-backed support to take land and produce for export.

Indeed, the film has an ongoing problem with failing to contextualize what is happening in Katanga. It is full of discordant imagery, contrasting the Katanga slums with the sleek modern high rises of Addis Ababa. The film, however, does not feature any guiding commentary. One might suggest that no commentary is needed, that the images speak for themselves. However, without any commentary from the filmmakers, the film simply reproduces an image we are all familiar with: an African country experiencing economic growth on the backs of alienated poor people who, due to their good-nature, still manage to create a sense of home and comradery together. There is no interrogation or commentary on how we got here. Ethiopia was never colonized, and yet its laws, government, public institutions, and even its state education system are entirely Western imports. The education system presents modern Western life and industry, the likes of which we see in those empty high rises casting shadows over the Katanga slums, as something to be aspired to, as a way out of poverty. Western liberalism and aspiration are false dreams offered to Ethiopia’s young people. At the hostel, one rural young man says to Enkuan that he always thought Addis Ababa was a place of opportunities: “You could work hard and make it.” Enkuan meekly responds, “it’s tough out there, man.”

Ethiopia was not always a place of slums, of poverty-stricken people being taken advantage of by the state. Indigenous Ethiopian ways of life—of living full, unalienated lives connected to one another—flourished before the Marxist student movement of the 1960s and the military dictatorship of the 1970s. Successive governments have continued a “modernizing” project that not only offers people false dreams, but actively dislocates them from the things that gave them purpose in the past. The dream of “working hard and making it” in the city is a foreign import, a lie from the West that is deployed to further use people in the act of building Ethiopia as a new, Westernized nation. In recent times, this rhetoric has been bolstered by a prosperity gospel movement that is being used to theologize the dream of prosperity for the youth.

Ethiopian elites regularly use anti-colonial slogans but, in reality, they have built a colonial-type system. As Franz Fanon suggested, colonialism is created not just by force but also by destroying the people’s past: “By a kind of perverted logic, it turns to the past of the people, and distorts, disfigures and destroys it.” This is what has happened to the people of Katanga. The government took control of the land and the economy, introduced political division along ethnic lines, created an education system that perpetuates the lie that Ethiopia’s history and traditions were primitive or brutal, and created “prosperity” for a few urbanized groups by exploiting the lives, lands, resources, and culture of rural people. Places like Katanga resemble what Fanon called, “a zone of non-being.”

To give credit to the filmmakers, the film does show the resilience and strength of Amele, Enkuan and the other residents at the hostel. They are humanized and shown to have agency beyond many common tropes about Ethiopians as poverty-stricken and helpless. For the Ethiopian viewer, there is something familiar here: an Ethiopian sense of pride, of caring for others, of sharing what we have with one another. The spirit of Ethiopia, a proud African country that defeated colonialism at the battle of Adwa, lives in its people, not in the institutions of power that build towers in the dust.

The film opens and closes with the same image: Amele’s shack on a sandy dirt road, with the concrete skeleton of a skyscraper in the background. It creates a feeling that nothing will change for these people and, if no one is willing to interrogate the very systems that created this problem, it will.

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