The world could learn a thing or two from Ethiopia
If there's one thing that I learnt after living in Ethiopia for three years it's that, besides coffee and long-distance runners, the country is rich in diversity. People are guided at large by their religious persuasion, and there are numerous religions, although the largest, by quite some distance, are Orthodox Christianity and Islam. Ethiopians are proud of their peaceful coexistence, amidst countries that continue to stumble over ethnic and religious divisions.
Don’t get me wrong, the past has not been without problems, but the two dominant religious groups have managed to mould themselves into an integrated society. More recent tension has largely been limited to political skirmishes, but I’m not here to talk about politics, rather the relationships seen on the streets of Ethiopia.
(Photo: Adam Jones)
A clear example of religious understanding and cohesion is the walled city of Harar, which won the UNESCO’s City for Peace prize in 2003, precisely because of the peaceful cohabitation between the two dominant religions. Amazingly, within the 1km-squared radius that is Harar’s ‘old town’, you will find countless mosques, a Catholic church and an Orthodox church.
“Harar must be understood within the larger context of Ethiopia where scholars have long noted the historically peaceful interaction of Muslims and Christians. The Orthodox emperor welcomed the first Islamic refugees sent by the Prophet Mohammed himself, seeking peace and safety.”
(Journal of Religion, Conflict, and Peace, 2010)
Ethiopians have long participated in an everyday ethos of peaceful coexistence. In Harar, citizens talk openly about growing up next door to people from different religious and ethnic backgrounds. They come together to share in each other’s triumphs and losses. A Muslim Harari woman said, “Peace is not imposed by the government; you learn civility and love for others from your parents,” (Journal of Religion, Conflict, and Peace, 2010). And many Ethiopians agreed that a tradition of acceptance and hospitality has been entrenched through living together in close proximity for so long.
One of the entrances to the walled city of Harar
So how did Ethiopia overcome previous religious strain? In the 1970s, Ethiopians rallied together against the oppression of the communist regime, realising that isolation was not a successful way to endure through such a brutal time. Answers were found through support; by forming alliances that spanned across religion. People from all different faiths overcame the regime and their common struggle united them. As well as struggle, common traditions helped to bind Ethiopians. Such customs include fasting and making pilgrimages on religious grounds. These familiar practices help people to relate to each other, and reassure them that these neighbours are in fact, just like them.
Intercommunal relationships change over time and will continue to change, but a nation’s strength is demonstrated by its ability to adapt to these changes. Sure, change can be scary. We tend to recoil from the unknown, to stick with the safe and familiar; it is human nature. Accepting people’s differences doesn’t just demonstrate political correctness, but it is a necessary step towards progress in the increasingly multicultural societies that we see today.
So in the wake of the Manchester Evening News Arena attack, an incident which I hold very close to my heart (although I’ll never live in Manchester again, Manchester is ‘home’), I’ve witnessed, from afar, Mancunians’ defiance to remain united and it makes me swell with pride. Unity is the best weapon against hate and I know that Mancs will not turn their backs on the rich cultural heritage that makes this city so special.
“Some born here some drawn here, but we all call it home. And they’ve covered the cobbles, but they’ll never defeat all the dreamers and schemers that still teem through these streets. This is a place that has been through some hard times/ Depressions, recessions, repressions and dark times/ But we keep fighting back with Greater Manchester spirit, northern grit, Greater Manchester lyrics/ And it’s hard times again in these streets of our city/ But we won’t take defeat and we don’t want your pity because this is the place where we stand strong together with a smile on our face, Mancunians forever.”
Poet Tony Walsh, who performs as 'Longfella', reads 'This Is The Place' in Albert Square, Manchester at a vigil on 23rd May - read the full poem, here: