Meles Zenawi is dead. After weeks of speculation, the body of Ethiopia’s Prime Minister has come home from a hospital to be buried in the country he led for nearly twenty years. I sit at my desk in New York City, trying to fathom what this means for the Ethiopian diaspora and for those still at home. As surely as I can go to Ethiopia and see the country’s stunning growth, I am aware of the rapidly shrinking freedoms for both foreign and national press in the country. Eight journalists, including Eskinder Nega, winner of the 2012 PEN Freedom to Write Award, still languish in prison. Meles is dead, I tell myself. I erase his name from the sentence, and imagine his grieving family. My sympathies go to them. But it is the name that adds weight and meaning; it is everything.
Meles Zenawi’s legacy is as complicated as the life he chose to live, under a name (Meles) that he took from a fallen comrade during his days as a guerrilla fighter. The fact is that under Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia witnessed unprecedented growth and became one of the stabilizing forces in the Horn of Africa. He worked to eradicate poverty and for seven years, nearly sixty per cent of the country’s total expenditures went to sectors that could help alleviate the problem. He has both pushed Ethiopia forward and held her people down. I suspect I am not alone in teetering between these two sides. But I’m bothered by this vacillation, by the necessity of thinking that one right can negate another.
As a writer, I feel compelled to uphold the ultimate legitimacy and importance of words, and of expression. As a daughter, a niece, a cousin, I want the safety of those back home. But more than their safety, I wish for them the opportunity to dream and to strive forward in the land of their birth.
When I imagine this for one young cousin, I envision her working in an Ethiopia that bustles with traffic, construction, the hum of shops and cafes and businesses. I see her walking through the streets and exchanging greetings, passing kiosks with newspapers that display censored headlines. It is 2015 and it is an election year. She will already know who will win, and when she goes home, she will know that Voice of America might be blacked out, as it has been before. She will not write about politics on her blog. She will not be a journalist. She will not follow her friends who want to protest for greater rights. But she will not do all of this in a larger home than her parents, wearing newer clothes than she had growing up, typing into a computer her father could have never afforded, watching the news as it rolls through the latest achievements in Ethiopia’s growth. She will be thankful for the opportunities she’s had, because they have been real and they have made a difference and they have been in large part because of late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
And as Ethiopia prepares for new elections, she will pause, but it won’t be so hard to put aside the memory of protestors who claimed that election results in 2005 were rigged. And when I go back for a visit, we might walk down the road where I lived, in front of my grandfather’s house, and never speak of the twelve-year-old neighbour who was shot and killed in the wake of the 2005 post-election violence, not a word. Instead, we will link arms in the silence and go home.
Photograph by the U.S. Department of Agriculture