The World Between: Writing from Ethiopia and Italy

Ethiopia has historically been a closed country, shielded by difficult geography and fiercely protective leaders who mistrusted the ever-invasive, ever-greedy foreigners that did manage to come in. In 1896, the great Battle of Adwa proved to the world that the small African nation could fight off—and defeat—an invading European army (Italy) with colonial aspirations. Ethiopia remained independent. Forty years later, in 1935, Benito Mussolini reminded his people of Adwa as his Fascist army went in again to try to make Ethiopia an Italian colony. That quest, too, failed for the Italians. But something interesting happened along the way. Though many returned to Italy, some soldati chose to stay in the country they had tried to conquer, and they made it their new home. Both nations would see complex relationships develop between their people: children from one place were born in the other; some left for Italy, in search of fathers; some, raised in Italy, wondered about the land of their mothers. Families were soon made up of both cultures and a new one emerged in the process.

In the decades following the 1935 war, Ethiopians would watch their country move slowly toward modernization, buckle under the weight of poverty and famine, and nearly collapse under a revolution and repressive regimes. Somehow, Ethiopia would gather herself again and again. The stories you will read here come from this history of collapse and rise, of migration and resistance, of despair and hope. Reading them, I found myself caught in that shifting space that all immigrants must inhabit—not all the time, not every day, but just often enough to remind us of birthplace and home and the landscapes that separate those two words.

I am not the same type of Ethiopian as my mother, but maybe the truth is that neither is she the same kind of Ethiopian as her mother, or her grandmother before her. Every generation witnesses change. They accommodate time, history, geopolitics and the simple human yearning to know more, to travel further, to experience difference. I come from a country with close to ninety different languages, with a population of over 84 million, the site of some of the most astounding discoveries in human evolution. There is so much here. Our history is vast, the identities so multitudinous, that if one asks what it means to be Ethiopian, there could be 84 million responses in 90 languages. We offer the words of a few here, voices that resist being representational and lean toward individual expression. Perhaps it is fitting that the pieces in this Ethiopia mini-issue reach beyond the country’s borders.

Many of us are by now familiar with the spectacle of overloaded boats, full of African passengers (many of them Ethiopian) heading toward a European shore, most often Italy. Paolo Castaldi’s graphic novel, Etenesh, forces us to confront the disturbing details of the journey that preceded those boat rides, the treacherous trek through the Sahara that many still do not survive. Gabriella Ghermandi’s haunting “I Remember” is a powerful reminder of how much of history we each embody. The act of remembering, or trying to, becomes a form of reclamation in her beautiful story. And what a pleasure to introduce a young poet, Surafel Wondimu, whose work evokes the frustrations of so many who have watched as their hopes for real freedom continue to be brutally repressed. He doesn’t mention Ethiopia at all, but her presence is implicit, an invisible line tethering author with subject.

Taken together, these pieces feel very much like a progressive move forward, outward. A reaching out, ever mindful of the center, the foundation from which this all springs: Ethiopia.

© Maaza Mengiste. By arrangement with the author.