Solen Feyissa, Ph.D.

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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.

Orange

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.

Books

Books I’m reading or rereading in November

Addis Standard Article Now Published

Our article that I quoted in my earlier post is now live.

There is an enduring disunity among Ethiopian elites regarding its history and future. Informed by its long, and contentious multi-ethnic history, and fueled by recent shifts in the political landscape in the country, a war of narratives has been reignited. As we explain in this article, the narrative war is fought between adherents of what we have termed “Pan-Ethiopianists” and “Ethno-nationalists”. The spillover effect of this increasingly toxic debate has had a negative impact on the lives of everyday Ethiopians and continues to destabilize the country. Indeed, narratives surrounding ethnic identities and ethnic politics in Ethiopia is the one thing that demands the most attention. As it stands today, the way and environment in which the debate is occurring, and the actors involved in it indicates we may be approaching a threshold that cannot be uncrossed.

[…]

To use Edward Said’s words, “aggrieved primal innocence”- owing to past or present perceived or actual violence – or a sense of self-righteousness are the least of positions to start a debate on the history as long and contentious as Ethiopia’s and a process of nation-building, which has been made even more complicated with the divisive ethnic politics of the last 28 years. Nonetheless, even if we disagree on where we started and how we got here, we could at least agree on where we are heading. To be sure, it may still be argued that we would not know where we are heading if we do not know where we started. That may very well be the dilemma we might have to learn to live with and, even the right place to start the debate. But denialism, lack of empathy, and cancel-culture are the last traits we should carry into this debate not only because people’s lives, but also the future of Ethiopia as a state, are at stake. Good faith debate based on shared facts and shared goals are required if the historical Ethiopia is to survive another century.

The pitfalls of Ethiopian elites’ war of narratives

An excerpt from an upcoming article Shimelis Mulugeta Kene and I wrote

Although seldom framed and understood as such, the current political conflict in Ethiopia has its roots in disagreement among the elite on how to narrativize Ethiopian history.

Nation-building is a contested process of narrative construction. In his book, Imagined Communities, Anderson reminds us that nations are “imagined political communities”. Common to all political communities is a set of beliefs in unifying narratives about community special characteristics. These narratives provide explanations to the participating individuals and their leaders what makes their community unique, especially when compared to others.

The path to consensus is neither linear nor guaranteed. Consensus is especially difficult to achieve in a nation as ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse as Ethiopia. This has become a singularly arduous task especially now that a generation of Ethiopians have grown up in an EPRDF Ethiopia, who are more and more alienated from actual inter-ethnic-lived experiences of Ethiopians of present and past generations. It is also naive to expect the debate to remain even-tempered. Emotions can run high as communities attempt to reconcile their ethnic identity and group status as they negotiate the meaning of their shared history with others. However, prerequisites to making meaningful progress are high-trust communication mediums, shared facts, and shared goals. At the moment, the opposite appears to be true.

Social media and narratives of hate have made an already challenging process significantly more difficult. It is no more the traditional intellectual-elite class that engages in the production and dissemination of information that advances knowledge. Unlike the closely-knit intellectual class of earlier times, the debate now has a diverse body of actors: activists, political party operatives, and, as oxymoronic as it sounds, intellectual-activists. The elites with the loudest voices use low-trust and high-reach communication mediums like Facebook, Twitter, and other social media to peddle their own facts and pursue their own agenda. Social media as it exists today rewards absolute claims, purity, good and evil binaries, and unequivocal declarations of truth that leave little room for compassion, reasoning, careful interpretation, and nuance. Fueled by algorithms that favor combustible content, social media companies orchestrate human interaction that lead individuals to maintain extreme positions and be adversarial towards one another.

The emerging Ethiopian elites in both camps have harnessed social media in ways that have yielded extraordinary influence and power over political discourse that directly and indirectly affects the lives of everyday Ethiopians. They recognize their charisma is more significant to their audience than the contents of their speech or the quality of their argument. Name-calling, and ad hominem attacks, are their currency and they invoke current and historical grievances, and narratives of superiority to stoke fear and anger. Unfortunately, the narratives these elites broadcast are not without consequences. There is a correlation between recent violence in Ethiopia and the supposed adherents of these narratives.

Technology as Multiplier

Does technology transform education in lasting ways? The answer depends on who you ask. The consensus is that educational technologies are excellent multipliers of existing institutional, social and personal capabilities.

Toyama (2015) calls this multiplication function of technologies, the law of amplification. The law of amplification makes a far reaching claim in suggesting that technology alone does not and cannot impact or solve problems where humans are at the center. The law of amplification argues technology simply amplifies human intent, as Toyama (2015) notes, “Like a lever, technology amplifies people’s capacities in the direction of their intentions” (p. 28).

The law of amplification is not an entirely new concept, though. For example, Mumford (1966) stated that technology “[supports] and [enlarges] the capacities for human expression” (p. 53). Similarly, Hagen (2001) observed, “computer technology is not an independent force … [it amplifies] trends at work or reinforces existing institutions (p.56).” Cohen and Levinthal (1990) described the law of amplification as absorptive capacity while Agre (2002) described it as reinforcement model.

Another term that echoes the same idea is “The Matthew Effect,” which gets its name from a verse in the Gospel of Matthew that reads, “for unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath” (Matthew 25:29, King James Version).

Over the next few weeks I will explore reinforcement model, The Matthew Effect, absorptive capacity, and the Network Effect as they relate to EdTech.

Paper on Instructional Deisgn

Out article “A week-long instructional design approach to teach postoperative pain management knowledge among Afghan anesthesiology faculty: a potential global health teaching blueprint” is now published at Journal of Global Health Reports.

I’m sharing the background, Methods and Conclusion here. Read the full article over at JoGH.

Background

Anesthesia-focused short courses might be an effective and sustainable way to further the ongoing training and evidence-based practice skills of anesthesia professionals in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). Instructional design, the process by which formalized learning theory is incorporated into education planning and delivery, is a tool that can strengthen learning in these short courses. As part of an ongoing multilateral project between the University of Minnesota (UMN) and Kabul University of Medical Sciences (KUMS), this project sought to identify the feasibility and potential educational impact of a newly designed postoperative analgesia short-course employing instructional design principles. The Afghan faculty learners’ subjective viewpoint of the short course experience was also investigated and is described in this article.

Methods

Afghan learners and United States based faculty met in Bangalore, India in August 2018 for this short course. During the 6-day course, learners participated in didactics and workshops discussing regional anesthesia techniques, multimodal analgesia, safety, pain assessment and management, and the influence of ethno-cultural context on pain control. Interactive games, model-based nerve block simulations, and flipped classroom approaches were educational strategies used in the course. The Afghan faculty also participated in instructional design workshops designed to strengthen their teaching skills for use with both students and faculty colleagues. Pretests, posttests, and opinion surveys were completed by the Afghan faculty learners.

Conclusions

The short course in postoperative pain management appeared to improve short-term knowledge among Afghan faculty participants. Afghan faculty had a favorable opinion of the course and increased confidence in their ability to use instructional design best practices. The results of this project suggest that short courses based in instructional design can be useful and effective for short-term knowledge gain in an LMIC setting such as Afghanistan.

Advice from a legend: be still

Be still and let your imagination run it’s course. The full podcast episode is worth a listen.