It would be in the best interest of Ethiopian film producers to use understandable languages accompanied by culturally relevant music that the audience may recognize, relate to, and appreciate the story presented. It is difficult, if not impossible, to enjoy films when actors/actress speak in their native languages while being accompanied by inappropriate foreign music, writes Alem Asres.
Like many Ethiopians in the diaspora, I like to visit Ethiopia periodically to see my family, reconnect with my fellow Ethiopians, and to recharge my cultural battery. Generally speaking, Ethiopians in the diaspora depend heavily on news carried by newcomers, letters from home, and on various national and international media as well as on Ethiopian entertainment industry to replenish and recharge their cultural batteries. It is not an exaggeration to state, that no matter where and for how long we reside outside Ethiopia, we identify ourselves as and we are identified by others as Ethiopians. It goes without saying that Ethiopians in the diaspora do not want to lose their culture and national identities. They are extremely proud of being identified as Ethiopians and are proud of their country’s place in world history. Moreover, with the discovery of Lucy, and hearing Ethiopians been described as polite, humble, dignified, generous, respectful and well-mannered, is not only uplifting but also make every Ethiopian walk with their heads held high. On behalf of those who cannot afford to visit Ethiopia as often as they want, I extend my thanks to the Ethiopian entertainment industry for producing and distributing films, TV shows and music via YouTube to keep us stay connected with our beloved motherland.
Having said that, I am compelled to write this article to share with readers what I saw and heard during my recent visit and how that experience affected the cultural battery I sought to recharge. My wife and I were attending the birthday party given for one year old boy. Like any birthday celebration, the hall was decorated with colorful balloons with “happy birthday” words written in English accompanied with “happy birthday” songs sung like wise. Given most of the attendants, parents and grandparents, do not speak English, curiosity forced me to ask one of the parents: “Why are the balloons, birthday wishes on the cake, and cards all in English instead of Amharic or other indigenous languages?” The mother of a child attending party responded and said: “We want our children to learn English because we need our children to be successful.” I have heard similar explanations many times during my stay in Addis Ababa. Given what I saw and heard, I began to think that speaking English is equated with success in life. I was left with this question, if Ethiopian children are not encouraged to write and to speak in their native languages, in addition to learning foreign language in schools, how are they going to communicate with the majority of Ethiopians who speak a number of native languages but not English. And how will they participate in the social and economic growth and development of their country which requires not only technical skills abut also linguistic skills to communicate nationally and internationally?
As an Ethiopian living in the West for years, I am disturbed and somehow depressed to discover that some of the new generation of Ethiopians, with the consent of their parents, is bent on adopting, without discrimination, an artificial and a consumer aspect of Western cultural norms, and social behaviors. Replacing Emmama with Mother; Abbabba with Daddy; Father, Memher or Yennetta, with Teacher or Mister and referring to young women as Chicks, as well as other less respectful expressions and behaviors towards each other tends to marginalize indigenous culture and social values. What I saw practiced in private homes, and what I heard and watched practiced in streets, in night clubs, and in restaurants of Addis Ababa, caused me to ask, how can we in the diaspora retain our pride and cultural values with which Ethiopians have been described by and identified with for years? How can we help the children born in the diaspora learn to appreciate and respect the cultural values of their parents and be proud of their Ethiopian roots?
Pride is defined as an inwardly directed emotion that carries both negative and positive connotations. For the purpose of this article, I would like to focus on the positive aspect of pride—pride which comes from knowing that one’s civilization predates other civilizations and learning that one’s people and one’s country is portrayed by ancient and modern historians, as a country rich with tradition rooted in enduring civilization. Pride comes from discovering that Ethiopia and her civilization is known throughout the world, from antiquity to the renaissance period, through the works of Homer, Herodotus, Pliny, Diodorus and other classical Greek and Roman writers who described Ethiopians with respect. It makes one incredibly proud to hear fellow Africans, Asians and Europeans speak of how Ethiopians defended their freedom against all odds to remain the only independent country in Africa.
Culture is the way of life created, learned, shared and transmitted from one generation to the next by a given society. Every society, large or small, rich or poor, European or non-European, possess its own culture. Ethiopia is no exception. Culture is not something we are born with. It is what we learn from our parents, schools, from written and electronic media—media which include books, magazines, cartoons, comedies and movies and TV shows we watch. Culture dictates from the way we walk, talk, and eat, to the way we learn and express our thoughts. Our language, art, and the music we play or listen to, tell the world about us and about our society. It is said, “Culture is a mold in which we are all cast, and it controls our daily lives in many unsuspected ways.” Therefore, we are judged by our manners and behaviors. We are told, that Ethiopian culture, art, music and literature, is much older than American, and even Greco-Roman culture. Alfred N. Whitehead, the British philosopher, in describing the importance of culture said: “Culture is activity of thought, and receptiveness to beauty and humane feeling. Scraps of information have nothing to do with it. What we should aim at producing is men who possess both culture and expert knowledge in some special direction. Their expert knowledge will give them the ground to start from, and their culture will lead them as deep as philosophy and as high as art.” When we respect all humanity regardless of their ethnicity, honor our culture, and behave accordingly, we respect ourselves and others will respect us for sure.
Adding new culture and speaking more than one language, is like having additional pair of eyes to see and to communicate with the world from different perspectives. It goes without saying that public and private schools are not the only source of education. Magazines we read, music we listen to, movies and TV shows we watch, are all designed to promote fashions, linguistic expressions, manners and certain social values which may be foreign to the Ethiopian society. No matter where we reside in the world, we are Ethiopians and therefore we are unofficial representative of the Ethiopian people. What we do and how we behave have direct impact on Ethiopian society at home and abroad. Therefore, developing, and retaining ones cultural norms while acquiring new culture and language is key to enhancing national and international communication.
Embarrassment is an emotional state of intense discomfort experienced by a person who hears or witnesses what is socially unacceptable behavior—behavior which may signify loss of pride and dignity been practiced openly. This writer grew up hearing Ethiopians been described as proud and independent people with more than 3,000 years of history. It is disturbing and embarrassing to hear and to see number of the new generation of Ethiopians adopting the outward appearance of Western culture in its totality and the mannerism at expense of indigenous cultural norms. I am not alone in experiencing an embarrassing moment when watching Ethiopian youth in some of the films, stuffing their mouth with food beyond its capacity and behaving table manner that is alien to the Ethiopian society and its long held cultural norms.
The purpose of this article is not to criticize the Ethiopian entertainment industry, classroom teachers, and all parents, but to share with readers the impact institutions, such as schools, family, and the entertainment industry, have on the growth and development of national culture. To that end, I am compelled to express that after visiting Ethiopia and watching national films, listening to the expressions used in the homes, on the streets of Addis Ababa, and observing social behaviors as well as table-manners of our youth, I return to my place of residence more depressed and somehow embarrassed. Table manners shown in films like [የሰፈሬን ልጅ Yeseferen Lij and ፈላሻው Felashaw 2], just to name few, are not only difficult to watch but they are culturally offensive. As a person who has been writing and teaching Cultural Dimension of Human Relation Courses from Global Perspectives, I am extremely concerned with the mixed and sometimes very disturbing messages conveyed by some the films and TV shows. However, I sincerely hope that my comments will not be taken as a rejection of Ethiopian films, TV shows or Western cultures, but as a desperate call for culture and gender sensitive messaging.
I am well aware that the lasting impact of Western education on non-Western society has been the marginalization and/or rejection of indigenous cultures and cultural norms such as language, history and traditional values resulting some-times in self-alienation. Describing the impact of Western education on Ethiopian children, Fikre Tolossa wrote: “The process of alienation starts when a child is placed in the first grade of a Western school. The moment a child attends first grade and moves to grade two, he moves away farther from his Ethiopian roots and gets a step closer to becoming Westernized. He prefers to speak in European languages than any of his native tongues.” It is possible that some of the Ethiopian youth may think, if they spoke English, even a few idioms, and name few European capitals, they may feel they are civilized compared to their fellow Ethiopians who are well-versed in native languages but spoke no English. In my book, a civilized society is described by its fairness and justice to all humanity, while a civilized person is characterized by his/her politeness, courteous, manners, and by his/her undying respect for fellow human beings regardless class, profession or age. It is very important to maintain one’s cultural norms and national identity while learning foreign languages and foreign cultures. Teachers, writers and filmmakers play key role in helping us maintain our national identity.
Film production in Ethiopia is at its infancy when compared to Europe. We know that films are powerful means of entertaining, educating and empowering their audience. Recognizing the difficulty of telling the untold and rather difficult stories of the Ethiopian society, I appeal to Ethiopian filmmakers to seek ways and means to help all national audience understand, relate, and identify with what is been projected on the movie and TV screens. Without exception, films are powerful tools in informing the society about its past, understand its present and helping to chart its future. We learn about our society’s past and present by reading books, visiting art museums, attending theaters to see films be it drama, comedy or documentaries.
When we watch films about Chana, Japan, or India, we see the credits written in endogenous languages accompanied by endogenous music of the countries with subtitles at the bottom of the screen to help the attendants follow the story. Why this is not so with some Ethiopian films? Is it not the responsibility of Ethiopian filmmakers to educated and empower their audience by using indigenous languages accompanied by indigenous music? Why Ethiopian films are credited using English words such as cameraman, director, editor, producer, make-up artist, stage, and production manager” etc., etc., followed by Ethiopian names? What percent of the audience understand the meaning of terms listed above? In my opinion, crediting Ethiopian films in foreign languages tend not only to confuse most of the audience but also force them to lose interest in films shown. Therefore, it would be in the best interest of Ethiopian film producers to use understandable languages accompanied by culturally relevant music that the audience may recognize, relate to, and appreciate the story presented. It is difficult, if not impossible, to enjoy films when actors/actress speak in their native languages while being accompanied by inappropriate foreign music.
Let me repeat; the purpose of this article is not to criticize the Ethiopian entertainment industry, teachers or families, but to call upon them collectively, to provide the youth with transformative and empowering education reflective of Ethiopian culture, art, language and her past and present realities. It is common knowledge, that those who are engaged in marginalizing and rejecting their culture and those who do not know their past will not successfully navigate their present nor will they successfully chart their future. To be perfectly clear, I am not asking Ethiopian artists, teachers or Ethiopian parents to reject Western culture in its totality, but to find ways and means to promote and strengthen Ethiopia’s heritage, her diverse languages, and her cultural norms. If my call is taken as positive call and acted upon as such, Ethiopians at home and abroad will be assured to retain their cultural norms and their culture-driven pride and self-esteem.
Ed.’s Note: Alem Asres (PhD), (former Alemayehu Wondemagegnehu) earned his Doctor of Philosophy in Social Foundations of Education with emphasis on Comparative and Multicultural Education from the University of Maryland, College Park. He received his MA degree in Urban Sociology and Urban Planning from Howard University, Washington DC, and his BA in Political Science with emphasis in International Relations, from the University of Maryland, College Park. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. He can be reached at [email protected].