Arts & Culture

Cultural creativity in the Ethiopian diaspora

7 min read

In late September every year, celebrants in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church light a large bonfire called a demera to celebrate the discovery of the True Cross.

In the United States, where public fires are commonly banned, believers make demeras out of tented poles and colorful cloth. They are not meant to burn, but at sunset the yellow fabric at the top seems to catch fire.

The two demeras — one to burn and the other to simulate burning — are a compelling example of the cultural creativity that comes out of a diaspora, the scattering of populations either induced or forced to leave their homelands because of civil unrest or some other social pressure.

The image of the two demeras was offered up by Kay Kaufman Shelemay, Harvard’s G. Gordon Watts Professor of Music and Professor of African and African American Studies.

A Radcliffe Fellow this year, Shelemay was co-organizer of “Cultural Creativity in the Ethiopian American Diaspora,” a conference held at Harvard this week (April 13-14). It was a public examination of one such scattering — and the effects it has had on the art, music, religious practice, and writing of both the host country and the homeland.

Helping her put it together over the last seven months was Radcliffe Fellow Steven Kaplan, a professor of comparative religion and African studies at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Two days before the public conference began, over a dozen international scholars gathered in a Radcliffe-sponsored Advanced Seminar to share their research from nearly as many different disciplines. Shelemay and Kaplan will edit the resulting essays into a book on cultural creativity in the Ethiopian diaspora.

Ethiopia is one of the oldest nations in the world, and the oldest (after Rome and Armenia) to adopt Christianity in pre-colonial times.

The experience of loss in leaving a homeland brings anxiety and confusion, said one of the scholars, University of Chicago sociologist Donald Levine, author of “Wax and Gold,” a classic monograph of Ethiopian studies.

But that deep discomfort also brings “a release of energy that can take on creative forms,” he said, when the “marginality” of one culture collides with the mass of the other.

In the politics, art, and culture of the diaspora, “the themes are turned up more, the colors are a little brighter,” said Terrence Lyons, a comparative political scientist at George Mason University. And the politics of the homeland are often vigorously enacted in the new country, he said, creating a “transnational body politic.” (In recent Liberian elections, Lyons pointed out, 12 of the 14 candidates for president were in the United States when they announced their intentions.)

The conference was capped by a raucous Monday night Ethio-jazz concert at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre, with at least 700 people in attendance.

It was the final flowering of a 2007-08 scholarly collaboration at the Radcliffe Institute forAdvanced Study. Shelemay and Kaplan are part of a cluster of three fellows there looking at Ethiopian creativity.

Shelemay is also gathering oral histories on the Ethiopian diaspora in America for the Library of Congress.

The third fellow in the cluster is celebrated Ethiopian composer and vibraphonist Mulatu Astatke, who wrote part of the score for “The Yared Opera” during his stay. The work-in-progress — sampled at the Sanders concert — is a fusion of traditional Ethiopian Christian chants and jazzy electronic instrumentals.

Diasporas are not migrations — “neat transfers of population” from one place to another, Kaplan told conference-goers during the last session Monday. They are scatterings, and may reach the United States only after acquiring cultural influences and making differences in Greece, Russia, Italy, and other points of contact.

And though some diasporas lead to permanent residence in countries outside the Ethiopian homeland, the pull of the native land remains powerful.

As part of his studies of Ethiopian Christianity in North America, Kaplan is exploring the burial societies in Ethiopian communities. They are cultural artifacts that are both local (where the money is collected) and transnational (because of where the bodies are sent), he said. “Home is not where you live. Home is where you wish to be buried.”

The first generation of Ethiopian exiles becomes a “temporary community, politically active, [and] wanting to go home,” said Jon Abbink, who teaches African studies at VU University in the Netherlands. Second and third generations assimilate.

Holland has only 8,000 immigrants from Ethiopia — too few to have much cultural impact except for popular restaurants and a few fringe bands, he said, and too few to see one another as a community.

There are at least 150,000 Ethiopians in the United States, and probably many more, said Central Michigan University historian Solomon Addis Getahun. Successive waves of crisis prompted the shift of population, starting in the 1930s (invading Italian fascists), picking up in the 1970s (drought, famine, and civil war), and again in the 1990s (a protracted border war with Eritrea).

Now there’s a new facet to the diaspora, said Getahun: Ethiopia now accounts for one-half of all orphans adopted from Africa.

But in terms of cultural impact, the Ethiopian diaspora remains a gathering of adults who long for home and the children they raise — who gradually feel at ease with the adopted culture.

That generational divide — sometimes poignant, sometimes abrasive — was captured in a father-daughter dual keynote Sunday night at Tsai Auditorium in the Center for Government and International Studies building on Cambridge Street.

Still longing for his native land was Getatchew Haile, a scholar of Ethiopian literature and history at St. John’s University in Minnesota who moved to the United States in 1976.

His daughter, Rebecca G. Haile JD ’91, turned 11 that year. “I feel American and Ethiopian,” she said of her path to assimilation. “I think my father feels Ethiopian.”

In Addis Ababa, he was a leading scholar and a member of parliament — and nearly died after being shot during a military coup. Though mostly happy, Getatchew said of his three decades in the United States that the experience has also seemed like a long stay in an airport terminal, waiting to go home.

“I can’t be in Ethiopia,” said Getatchew, preferring — as most older Ethiopians — to be addressed by his first name. “But my work transports me there.”

Haile, a community activist and the first in her family to travel back to northeastern Africa, is the author of the memoir “Held at a Distance: My Rediscovery of Ethiopia” (Academy Chicago Publishers, 2007).

Immigration no longer means severing cultural ties, she said; they’re easier to maintain in an age of the Internet and cell phones.

But younger generations within a diaspora develop “hybrid identities [that] will affect the core of what it means to be an Ethiopian,” said Haile — both at home and in the homeland. Even there, she said, “society is not static.”

“Static” is something diasporas never are. The conference was proof of that, with its examinations of Ethiopian creativity from a range of worlds.

Nancy Hafkin, who worked for 25 years in Addis Ababa for the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, examined the Internet and creativity.

Marilyn Heldman — a Washington, D.C.-based art historian, curator, and expert on Ethiopian painting — talked about church architecture and painting.

Wheaton College’s Leah Niederstadt, an expert in contemporary expressive culture in Ethiopia, guided the conference audience through a look at Ethiopian modern art.

Shelemay spoke about Ethiopian music and its performance.

Ethiopian novelist Dinaw Mengestu — whose work was the subject of an entire section of the conference — drew literature into the mix of his native country’s creative diaspora, and read from his acclaimed “The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears.”

Mahdi Omar, founder and producer of The African Television Network of New England, looked at creativity on the small screen.

Elias Wondimu of Los Angeles, founder and head of Tsehai Publishers and Distributors, and former editor of the Ethiopian Review, talked about publishing.

Radcliffe sponsored the Advanced Seminar for the scholars, held April 11-13. The public conference was sponsored by the Committee on African Studies, in cooperation with other sponsors: Radcliffe, the Provostial Fund for the Humanities, the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, Harvard’s Office for the Arts, the Department of African and African American Studies, and the Department of Music.