Solen Feyissa, Ph.D.

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The Matthew Effect in Education: Understanding the Compounding of Inequality

The Matthew effects in education refer to the compounding of academic advantages or disadvantages over time, creating increasingly significant disparities in educational achievement. This concept was coined by the sociologist Robert Merton. The “name”Matthew Effect” was named after a parable in the biblical book of Matthew: “For whoever has, to him more will be given, and he will have abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him.” (Matthew 13:12). The core of the Matthew Effect is its reinforcing nature: early successes result in additional opportunities and resources, perpetuating a cycle of advantage, whereas initial difficulties can lead to limited opportunities, further intensifying academic struggles. Comprehending this effect is vital for tackling the deep-rooted inequalities present in educational systems across the globe. (see Perc, 2014 and Walberg and Tsai, 1983)

The Matthew Effect: Origins

The Matthew Effect was initially used to explain situations where famous researchers continued to receive credit for notable discoveries and ideas, when in fact, lesser-known scientists had published findings on the same topic before them. But evidence of the Matthew Effect can be seen in every aspect life, from politics and religion to education. Rigney notes, “The study of Matthew effects is concerned with how inequalities persist and grow through time. It explores the mechanisms or processes through which inequalities, once they come into existence, become self-perpetuating and self-amplifying in the absence of intervention, widening the gap between those who have more and those who have less.”

Underpinning the Matthew Effect in education is the principle of cumulative advantage. This principle reveals how children start their education with inherent benefits —whether due to socioeconomic status, availability of educational resources, or early academic skills —frequently outpace their peers lacking such advantages. This phenomenon acts as an amplifier of initial disparities, casting a spotlight on the entrenched systemic inequalities within educational institutions. These early advantages often translate into long-term educational and professional successes, further widening the gap between different socio-economic groups.

Socioeconomic status plays a crucial role in the Matthew Effect. Children from wealthier families typically enjoy access to a broad spectrum of educational resources, including sophisticated learning environments, a variety of extracurricular programs, and advanced learning materials. These resources create a fertile ground for academic growth, substantially boosting their learning outcomes. On the other hand, children hailing from less affluent backgrounds often encounter a scarcity of these enriching experiences. This lack of access to key educational resources not only limits their immediate learning potential but also places long-term constraints on their educational development. This stark contrast between different economic backgrounds underscores the broader societal issues of income inequality and educational access.

The Matthew Effect extends its influence to the critical domains of literacy and numeracy skills acquired at an early age. Mastery of these foundational skills sets a trajectory that significantly influences future academic and career success. Children who successfully navigate these early educational milestones are more likely to experience ongoing academic achievements, whereas those who struggle with early literacy and numeracy often find themselves trapped in a persistent cycle of academic difficulties. These divergent educational pathways, stemming from the earliest stages of learning, accentuate the importance of quality early education in shaping life-long learning trajectories.

The societal impact of the Matthew Effect cannot be overstated. It perpetuates a cycle of educational and socio-economic inequality, where the disparities in academic achievement are closely mirrored in wider economic and social divisions (see Bask and Bask, 2015). This cumulative advantage or disadvantage effectively cements class structures, limiting the scope of social mobility and perpetuating existing societal hierarchies. Such an entrenched system poses significant challenges to the ideal of meritocracy and equal opportunity, calling for a critical reevaluation of educational policies and practices.

Technology’s Amplification of the Matthew Effect in Education

Educational technologies (or technology in general), while offering unprecedented opportunities for learning, have paradoxically also intensified the Matthew Effect. Technology, heralded as a great equalizer in education, often plays a contradictory role. Its potential to democratize education is significant, offering diverse learning tools and resources. However, the reality is more complex. The disparity in access to technology—often referred to as the digital divide—mirrors and magnifies the existing socioeconomic divides. Students from affluent families are more likely to have access to high-speed internet, personal learning devices, digital learning platforms, and the skills that go with it. In contrast, students from less privileged backgrounds may struggle with limited or no access to these technologies. This divide not only affects their ability to engage with digital learning materials but also limits their exposure to essential digital literacy skills.

Moreover, the rapid integration of technology in education requires a level of digital literacy that is not uniformly distributed across different socioeconomic strata. Children who are exposed to technology from an early age, often from higher socioeconomic backgrounds, are better equipped to navigate and leverage these tools for learning. Conversely, students with limited prior exposure to technology face a steep learning curve, hindering their ability to benefit equally from digital educational resources.

The pandemic-induced shift to online learning further highlighted how technology can amplify educational disparities. Students lacking reliable internet access or adequate devices found themselves at a significant disadvantage, unable to participate fully in remote learning. This situation not only affected their immediate learning experiences but also had long-term implications on their educational trajectory.

The effective use of technology in education should be accompanied by policies and practices aimed at minimizing these disparities. This includes ensuring equitable access to technology and digital literacy training for all students, regardless of their socioeconomic background.

Digital Divide as a Catalyst in the Matthew Effect in Education

The digital divide refers to the gap between those who have easy access to the internet and digital technologies, and those who do not. This divide is not just a matter of technological access; it encompasses differences in the ability to use and benefit from digital resources. In the context of the Matthew Effect in education, the digital divide acts as a catalyst, accelerating the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students.

Students who have access to digital tools and high-speed internet are better positioned to benefit from the wealth of educational resources available to them. They can supplement their learning with educational software, access vast digital libraries, and participate in online learning communities, and more important have the knowledge and skills to do so. This access enhances their learning experience, offering a broader and deeper educational engagement.

Conversely, students lacking such access and skills are doubly disadvantaged. Not only do they miss out on these additional learning resources, but they also face challenges in completing basic educational tasks that increasingly require digital tools. This gap in digital access and literacy leads to a divergence in educational achievement, reinforcing the patterns outlined by the Matthew Effect.

The digital divide also has implications for skill development critical for flourishing. Students with regular access to technology develop digital literacy skills almost as a byproduct of their daily interactions with digital devices. Those without such access lag in acquiring these essential skills, placing them at a further disadvantage in an increasingly digital world.

Learning and equity

Recognizing that the Matthew Effect can impact learning outcomes is perhaps the most critical first step to combatting the inequalities it creates. Matthew Effect contributes to systemic disparities between schools in underprivileged and affluent areas. Because schools in affluent areas can spend more money per pupil, they enjoy the best facilities, attract more experienced and competent teachers, and perform better in almost every aspect. Moreover, re-thinking the notion that talent is natural instead of nurtured is a significant step towards combatting the Matthew Effect and ensuring that learning is more equitable.

Furthermore, addressing the Matthew Effect requires a comprehensive approach. Interventions need to focus on equalizing opportunities, especially in early education, and providing continuous support throughout the educational journey for disadvantaged students. Furthermore, to effectively address the Matthew Effect in education, it is crucial to confront the digital divide. Solutions may include ensuring equitable access to technology in schools, providing affordable internet access in underserved communities, and integrating digital literacy into the curriculum. Without addressing the digital divide, efforts to mitigate the Matthew Effect will remain incomplete.

Reflecting on the Matthew Effect in education prompts consideration of broader philosophical and ethical issues. Ideally, education should serve as a tool for bridging social divides. However, the persistence of the Matthew Effect reveals the complexities in achieving this ideal. It calls for reevaluating societal values and structures that perpetuate educational disparities.

Further Reading

Landscapes of ambition and neglect

My latest article is now published on “Africa is a Country.” I write about a road trip with my late father through Ethiopia’s majestic Bale Mountains National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, grappling with the pressures of both neglect and modernity. As we traveled the landscapes rich in biodiversity and historical resonance, the expedition became a metaphor for Ethiopia’s broader challenges: the tug-of-war between rapid development and the profound need for conservation.

The article dives into the delicate balance between ambition and preservation, set against the backdrop of a nation undergoing political and environmental transformations. It offers reflections on the weight of legacies—those we inherit, those we forge, and those we leave behind.

Here’s an excerpt:

In recent decades, Ethiopia has undergone swift development, fueled by a burgeoning population. Now the second most populous nation in Africa, Ethiopia is home to around 126 million people. This demographic explosion has inevitably led to expanded land use, putting the Bale Mountains under intensified strain. With few alternative habitats available, the pressure on this sanctuary escalates, raising the stakes for its protection.

The Bale Mountains National Park, by all accounts, is gasping under the weight of neglect. How does its slow degradation align with the grand ambitions of a leader? It’s as if the seduction of pioneering the “first-ever” has eclipsed the humble yet profound act of safeguarding the “last remaining.” The unfortunate irony is that in pursuit of a shiny, enviable legacy, what gets overlooked is an already existing legacy—a naturally curated masterpiece, millennia in the making.

In this, leaders become architects of paradox, masterminding what could only be described as a narrative dissonance: pushing forth the new while the old falls apart in quiet agony. The accolades flow for the former, while the latter only gathers the dust of obscurity and the quiet lamentation of those who remember. Such is the pitfall of a certain brand of ambition—a willful blindness to what is, in pursuit of what could be, a blindness that often exacts a steep price on one’s actual legacy and the very world one aspires to transform.

Nuruddin Farah’s penetrating vision of Ethiopia as a perpetual “demolition site” provides a counterpoint to the theme of misguided ambition. This destructive Groundhog Day phenomenon, as Farah calls it, makes it even more vital to question the quality of ambition driving the country’s current leaders. If today’s accomplishments will be tomorrow’s ruins, then it behooves those in power to weigh their pursuits with a long-term lens—a lens that privileges not just building anew but conserving what already exists. A leadership caught in the riptide of political one-upmanship, constantly aiming to dismantle the old to make way for the new, risks losing the nation’s heritage, its environment, its very soul.

Here is my article, “Landscapes of ambition and neglect.”

What is Carceral Pedagogy?

Carceral pedagogy broadly refers to teaching practices or methods that are employed to educate people who have been incarcerated for short or long periods of time. It’s sometimes interchangeably used with ‘prison education.’ As such carceral pedagogy can be defined as a teaching approach that takes into account the hopes, limits, unique needs and transformative possibilities carceral contexts hold for learning and teaching.

Carceral pedagogy defined this way is a solution. It begins with the recognition that teaching individuals who are incarcerated requires teaching strategies or approaches that are different from teaching non-incarcerated individuals, because the incarcerated have distinct needs compared to people who are not. As Molly Reed reminds us, “To ignore the structural differences between teaching in prison versus other settings leads to potential blind spots that can limit the capacity of instructors to understand and serve students.”

Carceral contexts, by virtue of the space and place they occupy, present unique challenges to students and teachers alike. For example, Kirsten Coe, who was involved in the Cornell Prisoner Education Program, describes how the absence of basic lab equipment, and space made teaching science challenging. Teaching in carceral contexts, therefore, requires that teachers plan for challenges and complexities that are unique to carceral spaces. Furthermore, basic assumptions we make about trust and the relationship between the learner, peers and teachers have to be carefully considered, built and maintained.

Carceral Pedagogy: an Emerging Definition

In the above definition carceral pedagogy is used to describe primarily teaching strategies within prison settings. In addition to encompassing prison pedagogies, more recently the term carceral pedagogy is being used to conceptualize the growing trend where schools are increasingly employing surveillance technologies and oppressive teaching methods in schools. In this sense carceral pedagogy highlights the oppressive nature of the methods and techniques in all learning spaces (see Ilana Horn’s #EndCarceralPedagogy campaign on Twitter).

This emerging definition describes a problem. It’s a recognition of an alarming problem in education. For example, in her remarks at a Contact North webinar, Audry Watters described carceral pedagogy as, “a pedagogy that draws on beliefs and practices that echo those of prisons — surveillance, punishment, and too often literal incarceration.” This view holds that modern era schools exist on a carceral spectrum. And surveillance capitalism is pushing them well past the “soft” end of that spectrum. This problem has been especially exacerbated by the fact that school administrators appear to approve and justify technologies or techniques if their use is perceived to lead to what they consider to be desirable outcomes. For example, better test scores (by employing techno-mechanical teaching techniques),or elevate test integrity (through the use of oppressive surveillance and control methods).


Earlier definitions of carceral pedagogy presented it as a solution to the challenges of educating imprisoned individuals. The emerging definition, on the other hand, defines it differently. In this emerging view carceral pedagogy is something to be avoided, because it is oppressive and disempowers learners, therefore we must end it.

Further reading/listening

Image Credit: Tim HüfnerHire/Unsplash

Book Review: “The Charisma Machine”

A charismatic technology derives its power experientially and symbolically through the possibility or promise of action: what is important is not what the object is but how it invokes the imagination through what it promises to do.

Megan Ames’s “The Charisma Machine: The Life, Death, and Legacy of One Laptop per Child” offers a compelling and critical examination of the ambitious One Laptop per Child (OLPC) initiative, a project that emerged from the MIT Media Lab in 2005. Championed by its charismatic leader, Nicholas Negroponte, OLPC represented a bold foray into the world of digital optimism, aiming to transform education in developing countries through the distribution of low-cost, rugged, and energy-efficient XO laptops. In her book, Ames explores the contrasts between the lofty ideals of this initiative and the stark realities of its implementation, providing insightful analysis and critique.

Ames’s book begins by setting the stage with the inception of OLPC, describing how the initiative was born out of a profound belief in the power of technology to democratize education. The XO laptop, with its distinctive green and white design, was a symbol of a larger vision to revolutionize education by providing children, irrespective of their socio-economic background, with tools to become proactive learners. However, as the story of OLPC unfolded, a chasm between this vision and the actual impact of the laptops on the ground began to be exposed.

As with many who lead development projects, Negroponte and OLPC’s other leaders and contributors wanted to transform the world—not only for what they believed would be for the better but, as we will see, in their own image.

Charismatic technology: One Laptop per Child at Kagugu Primary School, Kigali, Rwanda.

The strength of The Charisma Machine lies in Ames’s thorough critique of the underlying assumptions and challenges of the OLPC initiative. She argues that while the project was fueled by a strong belief in the transformative power of technology, it fundamentally misunderstood the complexities of integrating technology into diverse educational and cultural landscapes and instead relied on charismatic technology. Her assessment extends beyond technological shortcomings, touching on the broader implications of tech-driven educational reforms, particularly in resource-limited environments.

It will be individual children who identify with the charisma of the XO laptop, and through the force of their inspiration, they will uplift their communities to the freedom and prosperity that OLPC promised.

Through her critical lens, Ames highlights the realities that confronted the XO laptop. She points out that despite its innovative design and intended functionality, the laptop’s actual use in various socio-economic settings often fell short of OLPC’s aspirations. The book emphasizes the delicate balance between technological innovation and the nuanced realities of educational ecosystems, underlining the necessity of a deeper understanding of effective technology integration in education.

The Charisma Machine further explores the broader context of technology in education. Ames sheds light on the significant role of external factors—such as family support, mentorship, and community involvement—in the effective use of technological tools. She further discusses the power of narratives and imaginaries in shaping perceptions about technology in education, illustrating how these can drive innovation and change but also create unrealistic expectations.

Even though there is something inherently unjust in accepting that only a few children may benefit from a charismatic technology—which children, under what circumstances, and with what effects on equity?—there is another element that is even more problematic. In particular, the project’s focus on student-led learning, drawing as it does on imaginaries such as the technically precocious boy, does not account for the critical role that various social worlds and institutions—including peers, families, schools, and communities—play in shaping a child’s educational motivations and technological practices.

OLPC’s journey, from a pioneering initiative to a more cautionary example, reflects the shift in how such projects are perceived over time, transitioning from beacons of hope and progress to reminders of the intricacies involved in implementing technological solutions in education. As Ames highlights, understanding the appeal of such visionary projects can help stakeholders identify, manage, and even exploit the narratives driving technological interventions without getting caught up in them. This insight is crucial for developing effective and sustainable educational technologies that align with the specific needs and contexts of the communities they aim to serve.

In retrospect, the OLPC story serves as a vital case study, encapsulating the intricate relationship between technology, education, and societal contexts. It underscores the need for technology to be adaptable and responsive to unique cultural, social, and infrastructural landscapes. The critique of OLPC also invites a deeper exploration into the promises and perils of technological utopianism in education, urging a nuanced understanding of the dynamics at play. The Charisma Machine offers a valuable lessons and insights regarding charismatic technology in EdTech or ICT4D projects, advocating for initiatives that are not only grounded in reality but also inclusive and transformative, fostering a future where technology in education transcends boundaries, promotes inclusivity, and amplifies the voices of all learners.


Ames, M. G. (2019). The charisma machine: The life, death, and legacy of One Laptop per Child. The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.  328 pp


COVID-19 is killing a great many people in Ethiopia. My dad became one of its victims last week. He was 64.

Network Effects in Education

In educational settings, the concept of network effects explores the value creation by educators, change agents, and learners. Grounded in network theory, the underlying assumption posits that networks fundamentally alter the ways in which relationships are built and leveraged to attain positive outcomes (DiMaggio & Garip, 2012). These networks comprise people, schools, religious institutions, government bodies, and other places of influence that converge to effect change.

Networks also represent a constellation of interlinked advantages—or disadvantages—in a given community. The more interconnected advantages a community possesses, the more likely it is to add even more beneficial nodes to its network. Conversely, disadvantages tend to multiply as well.

What makes network effect significant in education

Networks have always been integral to human interaction, but the means by which they can be crafted and extended have undergone seismic shifts, notably through the advent of social media. When such a network becomes operational in the educational sphere, we see the emergence of the ‘network effect.’ In their paper, ‘NET GAINS: A Handbook for Network Builders Seeking Social Change,’ Peter Plastrik and Madeleine Taylor identify four noteworthy effects:

  • Rapid Growth and Diffusion: Enables the immediate dissemination of crucial information within the network.
  • Small World Reach: Facilitates easy connections between people in different geographical locations for diverse objectives.
  • Resilience: Equips a robust and varied network to withstand disruptions and provide indispensable support to its constituents.
  • Adaptive Capacity: Allows a network to recalibrate in response to environmental changes, leveraging the collective skills and knowledge of its members.

These influences dictate the efficacy and quality of educational delivery, depending on the goals of those enmeshed in the network.

Network Effects and Educational Equity

Network effects, when contemplated in an educational context, pave the way for comprehensive structural and systemic shifts. Integrating an underperforming school into an agile and effective network can result in significant enhancements in the educational experiences of its students.

Moreover, when a thriving network’s collective value is actualized, the benefits spill over into multiple areas of the educational ecosystem. Such a network can offer:

  • Inspiration and support for underperformers at multiple levels—students, teachers, administrators.
  • Avenues to critical funding opportunities and resources.
  • Fresh reciprocal partnerships and collaborations.
  • A platform for challenging systemic and cultural barriers impeding education quality.

When actors from various spheres—educators, policymakers, influencers—unite under the aegis of a network, the potential ramifications for educational systems are monumental. These networks, if orchestrated judiciously, hold the promise of a more equitable learning environment.

However, realizing this potential demands concerted effort from all stakeholders. Teachers, for instance, must be receptive to strategies deployed by leadership to truly engage with and enrich their students’ learning experiences. Similarly, parents must acknowledge and engage with initiatives designed to elevate their children’s education for it to be fully appreciated.

The transformative power of network effects in education is contingent upon the willful collaboration and proactive involvement of its participants. This collective endeavor, if diligently pursued, can chart a course toward lasting positive change.

Ethiopia’s Murderous New Era

On a sweltering Sunday afternoon, Effaa’s older son came home running, his face ashier than usual and his eyes wide open. He looked worried, afraid and confused all at the same time. One of their oxen was bleeding from the mouth, he told her, unable to eat and lying in the dirt. The two ran down the hill to the ox. Effaa could see its wet and bloodied mouth but could not locate visible cuts. No wounds to speak of. Then, mother and son agreed to look inside the ox’s mouth. To their dismay, they saw their ox was missing the front half of its tongue. This fact had a dire consequence for all three. The ox was about to lose its life, and them, their livelihood.

This was clearly a work of someone looking to harm the family. Oxen are not known to shed their tongues while they are still alive. Crucially, this could not have been the work of one individual. Effaa and her son barely had the strength to open the ox’s mouth to peer inside. Cutting a portion of its tongue must have required at least three people. It was a cruel and well-orchestrated attack, intended, she later told me, to drive the family out of the village in the hopes of commandeering their small plot of farmland.

In better circumstances, Effaa would have a vet see the ox, but this is rural Ethiopia; veterinary clinics are non-existent. If vets show up, it is to deliver vaccines sponsored by government or non-governmental organizations. For Effaa, there was only one practical choice: the ox had to be slaughtered and its meat sold to hopefully recoup enough money to buy a new ox, even if she would end up collecting a fraction of the money needed as she intimated to me later. 

Effaa poses for the camera in her backyard
Effaa poses for the camera in her backyard

When I finally spoke to Effaa at my parents’ house eight months after she lost her ox, she wept as she narrated the challenges she faced in the months after the ox incident. “This would have never happened if Tesfu was alive,” she told me. Tesfu, my brother, was murdered a little over a year ago. His death changed her and her children’s lives in ways they never could have predicted.

As a widow with young children, Effaa’s material belongings were there for the taking. Although her oldest son was in his mid-teens, he wasn’t old enough to defend their property from hostile takeovers—not without risking his life anyway.

Since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power in 2018, his rule has been marked by political upheaval and ethnic strife that have resulted in the deaths of thousands of Ethiopians. The prime minister’s perceived political miscalculations, and poor tactics have been well covered by the local and international press. But what is lost in the discussions of Ethiopia’s bloodshed is the suffering of children, parents, wives, husbands and communities left behind to deal with their loss.

Solen Feyissa poses for a photo with his three nephews
Solen Feyissa poses for a photo with his three nephews

Tesfu, short for Tesfaye, which roughly translates to “my hope” in Amharic, was one of the thousands of people who have been murdered in Ethiopia over the past three years. In what appears to me to be an act of random violence, a group of men he had never met before murdered him near Akaki, a small town on the edge of Addis Ababa, in cold blood. Tesfu was a father, a husband, a son, a brother and a beloved member of his community. He left behind his wife, Effaa, and their four children, three sons and a daughter.

Like millions of his fellow Ethiopian farmers, Tesfu couldn’t generate enough money from the small plot of land he inherited to support a family of six. To supplement his income, he also worked for villagers who lacked the means to till their plots of farmland, and during the holidays he sold chibo—bundles of sticks tied together to form torches burned on the eve of Ethiopian holidays. Tesfu never talked to me about what he did in any meaningful detail. I guess it’s the Ethiopian way. You just do your job, not talk about it.

Solen and Tesfu pose for a photo
Solen and Tesfu pose for a photo

Impermanence Isn’t Always Salient

On the morning of Wednesday, September 26, Tesfu had no inkling that in less than two hours after leaving his home, criminals would rob him, beat him and shoot him twice, killing him.

When our sister told me he was murdered, I felt pain in places I could not pinpoint. For a brief moment I wanted to kneel down and pray. I don’t know why or to what end. Childhood habit, I guess. I felt helpless. I sat motionless on the bed. Overwhelmed. There was nothing to do but listen to my sister narrate the circumstances of his death, all the while asking myself, “How could this be?” I hadn’t seen him in six years. He wasn’t supposed to die.

Over the next few months, I could not stop thinking about the circumstances surrounding his death. What exactly happened on that morning? I had more questions than answers. Untangling the stories about his death has proven more challenging as time passes. Everyone I’ve spoken to, from my mother to our uncles and aunts, tell stories that do not align. Even the medical examiner’s report was barely readable because one of our cousins poorly stored it. The report simply stated that he suffered two gunshot wounds, which, as I understand it now, led to hemorrhagic shock. Absent any explanations of how he died or who exactly killed him, I wondered what it must have been like to die alone in the dark. I imagined his agony and terror. What is it like to have all your blood drained out of your body? 

According to medical experts, as soon as Tesfu was shot and started to bleed, his body tried to form a clot in an attempt to stop the bleeding. As the loss of blood increased and the total blood volume in his body decreased, his heart kicked up another gear and started to beat faster to pump more blood to the body. But that was making the problem only worse and triggering thirst as a mitigation step—a thirst he likely did not quench. As blood loss continued, his brain received less of it resulting in a feeling of anxiety and probably fear. Soon, his breath was coming in quick succession and was shallow. Then the anxiety gave way to confusion and it to lethargy. His body was now ready to begin shutting down non-critical bodily functions. One by one his organs started to go offline until finally, everything was turned off and he was no longer alive. At sunrise villagers found his lifeless body soaked in blood. He was no longer a man. He was dead at 38.

Now that he’s gone, I often think about the last time I saw him. I try to remember what we talked about and come up with very little. He had come to visit me at our parents’ house in Addis Ababa. It was the first time I’d been home since moving to the U.S. five years earlier. Tesfu wasn’t feeling well, but he still came to see me. I remember my mom sternly talking to him, because she suspected he was going to a local healer instead of a medical clinic. She worried about him. I remember him laughing and telling our mother he was indeed seeing a medical professional and that she shouldn’t worry about him. More than our conversation, though, what is most salient in my memory is my bickering with our sister, who I thought was pointing the camera at the wrong angle. “Are you taking a picture of our shoes?” I complained half-jokingly. I complained about what I perceived to be too many out-of-focus or blurry photos. “How can you get this wrong? Get the little square thing right on one of our faces and push down the button. And don’t shake the camera.” I kept saying. Looking back, all of that sounds pathetic and stupid.

The Aftermath

What is left in the wake of Tesfu’s murder is a family in distress. In his absence, the family was exposed to attacks from villagers, most of whom, unfortunately, are blood relatives, and who wanted to run them out of their only home. The two older sons dropped out of school to help their mother and work on the farm; their daughter went off to live with her aunts in Addis Ababa in the hopes of protecting her from rural life, which, in Ethiopia, can be cruel to women. The youngest son, Bashada, moved to Addis Ababa to live with his grandparents. 

Effaa and her three sons pose for a photo in their backyard
Effaa and her three sons pose for a photo in their backyard

Although Bashada started attending a nearby school right away, it didn’t go well. He had a hard time adjusting to the school and making new friends, partly because he enrolled halfway through the semester, and he didn’t speak Amharic. At school registration, his grandparents changed his Oromo name to Dawit, after King David of the Old Testament, in the hopes of making him blend in more easily and avoid the bullying that often greeted those with Oromo names. It was flawed logic, and I believe made things worse for him. A child who, not long ago, lost his father was being stripped of his identity. 

Without professional counseling and guidance for children in his situation, he began to withdraw and disengage. He was eating less, talking less, and moving less as time went by. He sat in the house all day and refused to go outside. One afternoon his grandmother found him sitting with his shirt smeared in what she thought was key wot, a kind of red curry sauce. She was far off in her analysis. The “key wot” was actually his excrement and it did not end up on his shirt accidentally or by mistake. It was a sign of regression no one anticipated or prepared for. The family convened and decided it was in his best interest to rejoin his brothers in Yerer. And so he did. 

During my visit at their home in Yerer in March 2020, all three boys had dropped out of school and were helping their mother full time. Effaa told me she wanted to send the kids back to school, but all three refused to go because they wanted to be with her at all times. In their heart of hearts, the boys understand that the only way they can survive is if they stick together. I believe this is why Bashada wanted to return home. He was worried about the fate of his mother and brothers.

Ethiopia’s New Reality?

Although not at the scale of the killings that happened in Maikadra and more recently in Metekel and Konso, and many others before, many Ethiopians continue to lose their lives as a result of the political order in the country. Tesfu’s murder, one of hundreds of deaths to have occurred very soon after Abiy’s ascent to power appears to have marked a murderous new era in Ethiopian modern history. While the Ethiopian state remained the primary force behind the killing of Ethiopians in the past few decades, the current wave of violence against Ethiopians is being perpetrated by other Ethiopian citizens. What’s worrying and, in most instances, exacerbating the problem is the apparent government inaction or, as some suspect, complicity. This, no doubt, must change.

Tesfu is just one of thousands of Ethiopians who have been murdered in a country riven by political and ethnic strife. These Ethiopians may be just a statistic to those who aren’t impacted by their untimely deaths, but their deaths represent an incalculable loss to those who loved and depended on them. Their families, like mine, will never be the same. They suffer pain, poverty, harassment, lost hope and thwarted dreams. And, perhaps, the loss of their livelihood, in the form of an innocent ox.


Unsplash announced their 2020 photo awards last month. I was pleased to see a photo I voted for win the “most impactful photograph of the year.” Many of the candidate photographs were US-centric for sure, but Patrick Perkins’ orange photo captured the 2020 mood very well for me.

The finalists

Maikadra Preliminary Findings

Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) published its findings this morning on what happened in Mai-Kadra. the commission concluded the attack was premeditated. It was hard to read, but I worry this is not the last time we will be reading about something as awful and gruesome as this happening in Ethiopia.

There was one very small bright spot, though. Under the “humane acts in the midst of inhumanity” section, the report says,

Victims have also explained to EHRC that even though this atrocious massacre was carried out by Samri, a Tigrayan youth group, other residents, who were Tigrayan themselves, helped several of them survive by shielding them in their homes, in churches, and in farms.

An exemplary instance is the case of a Tigrayan woman who hid 13 people in her house first, before leading them to a nearby farm. She went as far as staying with them the whole night in case the group came back in search of them. Another is also of a Tigrayan woman who was hit on the arm with a machete while trying to wrestle a man away from attackers who set him on fire.

Podcast: The Journeyman of Reinvention

The Journeyman of Reinvention | Hakim Tafari:

There’s a saying that nice guys always finish last. That’s BS and it’s BS in the fact that you can be a good person and live your authentic life if you just do the work.

Crawl, walk, or run towards the light at the end of the tunnel, even if the light is just a pinprick, is going to end up being the size of the sun sooner or later but you have to know that that journey is worth it.

Also interesting to hear Hakim Tafari talk about his partner Melinda Alexander, who appears to be a fascinating person.