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Collective memory: a solution for unity in diversity?

Although we have to set individuals and groups free to engineer their future and to herald their exceptionality, we should also work on our shared meanings and communication about the past. When we do that, we will not be obsessed only with the uniqueness of our respective groups. We will also understand that we are allegedly exceptional because of the presence of others, Kibrom Berhane.

Ethiopia is one of the most diverse nations in the world. It is inhabited by around 84 ethnic groups. These different ethnic, religious, and cultural groups do have common and distinct ways of life. Basically, for this particular reason, multiculturalism becomes a source of different conflicts. Our diversity and differences become signifiers of tensions and conflicts. Despite the seriousness of the challenges that would emanate from our diversity, it seems that our leaders and politicians fail to state pertinent ways to govern them. They fail to bring systematic, comprehensive, and thoughtful mechanisms to create a collective social whole.

Historically, due to the authoritarian nature of (some of) our leaders in different periods, many groups have been denied their identities in the name of nation-building and national unity. Conversely, contemporarily, in the name of eliminating entrenched inequalities between ethnic groups (which are inherited from the past regimes), different groups are usually nurtured with their differences with others and how they have been suppressed by different groups. This kind of political discourse and ‘conspiracy’ produced ethnicity as the most distinguishable social and political domain of the political ecology in our country. It reinforces ethnic identity as a key instrument of political mobilization. Thus, our political parties and politicians predominantly engage in ethnicity-centered political arrangements. This political arrangement, regrettably, is triggering further ruptures between different groups.

Among other issues, I believe, multiculturalism may demand our politicians and policymakers to balance between advocating collective memory or identity and self-expression of individuals and groups. The way people understand their past or their historical collective memory can substantially affect their in-group and across-group communications. Hence, rather than completely focusing on narrating what makes groups different from each other, the narrations of our party leaders and other politicians should balance between the uniqueness of their respective groups and the collective memory they can share with others.

It is believed that our collective memory and the way we communicate it is crucial to bring different individuals and groups to common grounds. Political narratives are also among the most important tools to, at least, be familiar with our collective historical memories. The way our leaders narrate stories in different contexts can shape the way we understand ourselves and others.

For instance, it is easy to claim that our group is better than others. It might even be very easy for somebody to claim that next to God his/her group is the architect of Ethiopia. Nonetheless, despite such senseless claims, the truth is crystal clear – this country is a shared property of every single Ethiopian.

Whoever claims to be the creator of this land, it is impossible to deny that the ups and downs in its history remain to be shared memories of its citizens. If Ethiopia is the aggregation of its different groups, no one can claim the ‘lion’s share’ in the making of this land. I believe that this kind of claim is unacceptable. Not only because it is immoral, but also for we cannot calculate the values of our contribution 'objectively.' Hence, it is better to accept that every group has contributed its own share in the making of Ethiopia. We cannot form teams of less important and more important groups that make up this country.

Therefore, in a country as diverse as Ethiopia, our politicians should not obsessively try to prove the exceptionality of their respective groups. This is an elusive and subjective matter to prove. On top of that, when they try to show the exceptionality of their respective groups, they might become stereotypical against other groups. And, I believe, this is how contentions loom.

Not only groups within a single nation, are the different nations in the world interdependent to each other to prove that one group is more important than the rest. Precisely, it is the collectivity of the different groups that make up the world. The issue is, thus, analogous to a mosaic; a tessera is important only when it is assembled with other tesserae. Therefore, a single group cannot be a full-fledged entity by itself so long as it is living with other groups. When different groups live together, there is a permeable boundary between them. Meaning, a group can affect and affected by the rest of the groups surrounding it. Hence, our politicians should try to combine the relative uniqueness of their respective groups with the collective memory of the nation. In one or another way, it is better to learn that the groups inhabited this land do have common threads that we cannot tear apart simply because we need to.

In sum, although we have to set individuals and groups free to engineer their future and to herald their exceptionality, we should also work on our shared meanings and communication about the past. When we do that, we will not be obsessed only with the uniqueness of our respective groups. We will also understand that we are allegedly exceptional because of the presence of others. Without the presence of others, we cannot know who we are; because our self-awareness is the combination of our own and others views.

Whether we like it or not our uniqueness is nuanced with the social framework. We cannot dismiss the contribution of the common memory for the understanding of our self-worth. Hence, as Eugenia Siapera writes (author of Cultural Diversity and Global Media: The Mediation of Differences), “the continued ‘crisis’ of multiculturalism represents the need to keep on thinking and reformulating our ideas of cultural diversity, togetherness, identity, and differences.” For this reason, our politicians should keep on thinking and come up with feasible solutions to tackle the awful conflicts caused due to our socio-cultural differences.

Ed.’s Note: Kibrom Berhane is a lecturer of Journalism and Communication at Mekele University. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. He can be reached at [email protected]

Contributed by Kibrom Berhane
Contributed by Kibrom Berhane