This morning I received a question in my inbox from a young lady back in Ethiopia that has been weighing on me throughout the day. She opened up her query by first introducing herself in a most humble and graceful manner, a civility that is becoming all too rare given the age of anger we live in, and then noted that she too believes in unity and Ethiopiawinet above all but that I have to understand that Amharas are suffering and being brutalized back home and that we have to do more to speak up for “our people”.

People who read my articles and follow my work know by now that I abhor tribalism and am repulsed by those who peddle the nefarious snake oil of zerengnent. However, this young lady’s question and the conversation that ensued gave me pause not about the uselessness of pursuing justice through the lens of ethnicity but about the way I criticize those who gravitate towards those measures out of hopelessness. There is a difference between opportunists who incite hatred for the sake of cultivating an audience and the rest who are driven to factionalism due to extreme circumstances they are enduring on a daily basis.

Living thousands of miles away in the comforts of America without worrying fears of displacement or violence knocking at my door, it is easy for me to preach love and goodwill towards others. The truth is that we here in the United States and even those of us living in Addis Abeba and enjoy the privilege of indulging in Facebook/Twitter debates lead lives far disconnected from the vast majority of Ethiopians who are bracketed by turmoil on a daily basis. I can’t imagine how unbearable it feels to worry about feeding my family or fearing for their safety yet this is the norm for millions of our people back home.

The amenities we take for granted, like running water and food when we want it, are matters of life and death for too many Ethiopians.

A famous psychologist named Abraham Maslow came up with a theory called “Hierarchy of Needs” back in the 1940’s that describes the motivations of people based on a pyramid. At the very foundation are physiological needs like having access to air, water food and shelter. Next comes the need for safety followed by the need for love and belonging. At the very top, once people are able to attain foundational needs, is the need for self-actualization. Only by taking care of the essential components of living do people start to think of loftier goals like maximizing our potential as humans.

The reason why violence is multiplying in Ethiopia and tribalism is metastasizing throughout the land is because most people are still at step one or two of Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs”; it is hard to think of unity and collective prosperity when famine is the only thing you know. Consider these dire facts that are taking place in Ethiopia at this moment: 90% of Ethiopia’s youth are stuck in “multidimensional poverty”, 3 million people were internally displaced (a record high) and rampant inflation is making life exceedingly difficult for all except a tiny fraction of society.

Given these sobering facts, it becomes all too easy for resentment and acrimony to proliferate. It is not right to blame the average Amhara, Oromo, Tigray, etc who turns to ethnonationalism, we must understand that their actions are induced by pains. Instead of lecturing people who are hurting, the moral thing is to be compassionate and for those of us who are able to do all that we can to alleviate suffering so that tribalism can be lessened. Preaching to people about Ethiopiawinet without addressing their anguish might feel good for the writer but accomplishes little for people back home.

It is incumbent upon us, the talented 10th who live in abundance compared to the average Ethiopian and who have been blessed enough to not have to negotiate between shelter and food to be about solutions first before we get on our soapboxes. We must also be compassionate at all times and know the difference between messengers of hatred and their listeners. Martin Luther King once said that you can’t drive out darkness with darkness, instead of getting into shouting matches with people who talk about tribe above humanity, listen to them first and then have a conversation that is rooted in grace.

During times of hardship, it is easy to become bitter or indifferent. I’ve experienced this myself, when I went through my encounter with extreme adversity, my heart became callous and I became spiteful. It was not until I loosened the spirit of antagonism that my misfortunes turned into blessings. Along the way, I encountered one too many people who were so broken that they chose fury cynicism over empathy. If we are to change minds and stand up for unity, it is not through judgement but through appreciation of people’s struggles.

Ethiopians have lost agency, in the long run the only way we can restore civility and a sense of national pride that transcends ethnicity is by giving people hope and opportunity by empowering them locally. In the short run, when we encounter people who are hurting and angry, instead of preaching at them, let us just listen. This is a trait that is missing these days, in the need to quench our own egos too many of us want to talk but few are willing to hear people out. Screaming matches will only lead to amplified hatred, let us quietly enter into dialogues with humility for the sake of our common humanity.

In the end, I still believe that the only way we can restore justice back home is by being about Ethiopiawinet above ethnicity. On a broader level, we must be about our common humanity. We cannot let our concerns end at the borders of ethnicity or at the edges of identity. Loving our neighbors must not have any qualifiers, we must see our neighbors not through the concept of kilils or ethnic zones but through an empathy that is bigger than our differences.

The world should know the extent of suffering that is taking place in Ethiopia, but if we are to get this message out I will repeat the advice I gave to Ethiopian activists here in Washington DC a long time ago. Our struggles are not our struggles alone, the pains of Amharas, the burdens of Tigrays, the tears of Oromos and the heartache of every Ethiopian must be tied together with the suffering of others throughout the globe.

We will either rise out of difficulty together or we will continue to languish apart. #Ethiopia Click To Tweet

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