A family in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa has been battling with the African Union over a piece of property in the past five years. But the family’s predicament is only a small part of a wider struggle under a soulless system that has little regard for the lives of its people.
More than just a house, our home is where the light of sunset greeted us on the north side of the windows, and on the east side sunrise enjoyed my mama’s favorite room where she braided our hair when she was not crocheting sweaters. Our home is where we communed in prayer and fasting. It is where we planted mango and fig trees, grape shades and banana leaf trees for generations to feed. It is where our dreams were protected and our fears sent out to sleep. If only structures could communicate, more than just a house, our home is a witness to love, where stories have been weaved and stitched, and our history preserved between heaps of cement in the cracks of walls, ceiling, and floors. The house now stripped of its home with explicit shadows grappling through its rooms the walls crumble, and the history is threatened to debris.
After months of visiting a range of government offices, and being told: “You have no right”, “The case is closed”, “The African Union has as much right as you do”, I’m directed back to the very first office that questioned my Ethiopian identity.
As I head there, Addis’ weather and my mood have little connection.
I walk into a disarrayed warehouse looking space—heaps of files swathed in dust, and tables, chairs and workers all in disorder. It seems, the working environment is normal or, the psyche of the workers has normalized chaos.
Setting foot slightly past the entrance, eyes peel off their gaze from stacks of documents or an awkward looking boxy computer to meet mine. Trying to find my bearings, I don’t move far from the entryway. I attempt to sharpen my eyes to look back without intimidation. And before making headway, in the midst of it all my attention is pulled toward an archive of documents sitting like Mount Kilimanjaro—short of the breathtaking scene and precision. This appears ordinary to a worker who’s trying to pull a document from somewhere in the middle of a heap of buried names. My eyes are wide open with uneasiness as I wait for the mountain to topple over. He proves me wrong—he’s well acquainted with the rhythm of disorder.
While the other workers look unaffected by the chaotic office scene, I feel like the strange one. They scan my presence with an apathetic expression. A second or so later, they all return to their assignment. And some, who use government time for leisure, are effortlessly kicking back like it were coffee or teatime in their living room—comfortable in their unaccountable gossip session.
As I hold my ground in madness, my existence, to most of them, is as invisible or inconsequential as the matter that brings me to this office: The Ethiopian Land and Development Agency (Kirkos Sub-City Office) in Addis-Ababa, Ethiopia.
Visits to these agencies are frustrating, almost blood boiling. Cardiac arrest is not even for the frivolous. The dealing, which requires nuanced language, is much easier said than done. Fewer options lead me here—to resolve an issue concerning my family's property/house.
In 2007, my family’s property was leased to the African Union. After the African Union abruptly terminated the lease in 2011, they refused to either renew or return the property to my family. Since, taking cover under their diplomatic immunity and refusing to negotiate, regardless of binding FDRE and International Laws, the African Union has removed all responsibilities and turned the case over to the Ethiopian authorities. The case is still under investigation for unlawful enrichment and seizing of private property.
For over five years, my family has been fighting for justice. Justice for expropriated private property—a home I was born and raised in; a home to many of my relatives; and a place that availed itself as a refuge to relatives and non-relatives who were in hiding from the Derg during the early 1970s red terror campaign in Ethiopia.
In the course of facing and overwhelmed by the tough emotion of a bleak injustice, my determination reveals itself as spirit rising to meet resistance. With conviction, holding my family close to heart untiring is the fight for justice—the fight for our right. Realizing the struggle is bigger than my family.
All the way through, meetings with lower to middle ranks in government are met with no middle ground in dialogue let alone justice. Justice is traded for deception—in its absence.
And again, I see the same recurring deception at The Ethiopian Land and Development Agency.
Judging by the behavior and inhumanness of some of the workers, especially those with authority, I heedlessly sit on a chair close by as my body is unable to carry the heavy somberness weighing me down. A poignant reminder of the long walk to justice.
Swallowed up by so many of the prevailing property issues that flood the office—uncompromising developmental plans and the negative impact of rapid gentrification on vulnerable people—I suddenly forget my own. A Tsunami of tears pours out in this space to no headline.
As I plough through and sort out my confused distress, I’m told I’m next in line. A man, second to the director, waives me down after brushing an elderly woman aside telling her to sit and wait her turn.
“Yes, you,” he says. His tone carries a message that I need to make a decision fast or lose my turn.
“Please have her take my turn,” I say, gently tapping the elderly woman’s arm suggesting she takes my turn.
I expect he’s going to say something but he shrugs his shoulder as if to say: “suit yourself”.
Keeping my disturbed look on him, I take my seat.
My anxiety fills the room. I never imagined I would return home to such lack of empathy.
I observe with a pensive mood how our level of care toward the elderly is tragically repugnant. Our elders, who at the time require care, face a world that places little value on respect.
Listening in, with most of these cases the grieving words resemble one another—issues on the aggressive displacement approach. And the official(s) who they’re addressing their case to comes across numb to their heartache(s). Ancestral tears and pain paints their aching faces, stretching in the seams of their wrinkles. It’s a matter of dignity, identity and years of history buried in the cracks and speaking walls—the root of their existence about to turn to ashes.
The breath of the elderly woman who’s presenting her case crackles like a shorted wire.
Short tempered with her slower word conjugation, sadly, the official responds with recurring words carried by a dismissive tone: “I keep telling you, there is nothing more I can tell you. Nothing I can do to help you.”
“But my son,” pleads the elderly woman.
And as words keep falling on deaf ears, I start to wish for a mighty power to pick each fallen word and glue them back together to give strength to “power to the people”. Strength to fight an “economic uptick that has come at the cost of human rights and loss of civil liberties—costs and benefits inequitably distributed”.
I start to wonder what capitalism and the framework of a supposed modernization is doing to our time-honored values and our due regard for the elderly.
It feels like déjà vu.
A few months back, in the US, I was having a conversation with friends. We were discussing how the US capitalistic system places more value on the population group with vitality. It cares about the fortified age and population that is able and active to contribute toward the expansion of the system—its bounty and might. And when age or ailment arrives, or a person is no longer equipped to contribute to the growth of its wealth, the system becomes intolerable. He or she is disregarded and dispossessed—no longer deemed significant.
I find the story has followed me to my native land.
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