Consciousness is the Source of Empowerment

March 16, 2008

In his review of Aleqa Asres Yenesew's book titled Tekami Mikir, translated as Useful Advice by Dr. Messay Kebede, the latter seems to subscribe to the author's school of thought that "the heritage of a legacy and the assumption of a common destiny define a nation rather than its ethnic or linguistic oneness." Dr. Messay goes on to add that "what matters is not that facts justify the discourse, but whether the discourse is empowering."

Aleqa Asres's book was reportedly published in 1958, and Dr. Messay's voluminous review was posted on the Ethiopian Review website, among others, on March 14, 2008. Based on Dr. Messay's review, the content of Aleqa Asres's book seems to be thought provoking, especially given the fact that it was written about half a century ago. The central message of the book, as can be gleaned from the review, appears to be warning about the risk of departing from the deep knowledge endowed in the Ethiopian tradition in pursuit of what is termed as "modern education." The debate on this very important issue should have been brought to the policy fore at the time and conclusively fathomed. Aleqa Asres should have been praised for raising the issue even if his crucial prescription as a solution to the issue could have been conclusively defeated then as it can be defeated now.

According to the review, even as Aleqa Asres asserted that "a common destiny define a nation rather than its ethnic or linguistic oneness," he prescribed that "the torch of Ge'ezŚwhich is then an idea, a divine mission, and not an ethnic identityŚmust pass to southern [Ethiopian] peoples." Apparently, Ge'ez, an old Ethiopian language, is conveniently used by Aleqa Asres as the "heritage of a legacy," a utility for the "assumption of a common destiny," as well as a tool for fighting against linguistic plurality, all at the same time.

While there is no refuting that there is much to learn from any language, including Ge'ez, and that a conscious society can ill-afford to ignore the age old knowledge embodied in its tradition, and that its language is a medium of expression of such embodiment, it amounts to a disservice to humanity to cultivate only one language at the expense of other languages. To the extent that language is a medium of expression of human consciousness, a conscious human being can easily understand the concept in the expressions. In a 2002 interview with The Ethiopian Reporter, Jean Doresse, a famous French historian, had the following to say.

"When I went to Ethiopia I found the life, the ancient culture which was at the origin of ancient Greece. I found this in the vein of people more than the excavations. I found there the exact way of thinking, the clear mentality of ancient Greece. I am very much fond of reading Plato and some of his dialogues but I could not understand those dialogues until I visited Ethiopia. This is because Greek literatures were translated into different languages including French. But while translations were being made, there were always distortions in meanings. When I visited Ethiopia, I found ways of thinking and ideas that made me very clear with my Plato's readings."

In a 1998 interview he gave to Wendy Belcher, the late Ethiopian Laureate Tsegaye Gebre-Medhin expressed in the following words his reverence for what humanity has accomplished over the ages: "The cradle of man is here [Ethiopia], the beginning of man is here, there is no refuting that. Archaeologists, geologists have dug everywhere and they have come up with the bones to prove that man started here. And that man was not sleeping, from the moment he was created he started creating. The heritage of that man, of the ancestor, is the heritage of the world."

There is no doubt that the knowledge that can be gained by learning the Ge'ez language is likely to reinforce the observations of these two distinguished thinkers of the world. At the same time, they did not have to use Ge'ez as a medium of expression or Ge'ez speakers as partners in conversation to gain and pass on their insights.

In the opinion of this writer, Dr. Messay has been one of the more articulate observers of Ethiopian intellectuals. In his review of Aleqa Asres Yenesew's work, however, his views seem to have lost intellectual traction, slid down the hill, caught in hopelessness, and submitted to a Messianic Destiny. In the same paragraph where he reminds us that learning leads to knowledge and knowledge leads to understanding, Dr. Messay echoes Aleqa Asres's prescription that fate is reserved for us, that we should accept and be happy by our fate for not doing so is ignorance and a vain protest, and that "leadership, especially political leadership, is thus a divine assignment."

In a mixed signal review of agreeing with and departing from Aleqa Asres's thesis, Dr. Messay seems to conquer with Aleqa Asres that "the understanding that God is the cause of everything is essential to approach Ethiopian history and social organization." In this statement, either a single path to the Messianic Destiny is assumed or that the multiplicity of the path has been conveniently overlooked. Apparently, neither Dr. Messay nor Aleqa Asres present here an answer to the question of why two Ethiopian boys should fight over the names of Jesus and Mohammed when we all know that both of them haven't stepped their feet in the land of human origin and that both of them have expressed their appreciations for the civility of the Ethiopians.

While we know that Sigmund Freud, best known for his theory of the unconscious mind, argued nearly 70 years ago that the "chosen people" concept was not of Jewish origin but imposed upon them from outside, Dr. Messay suggests to his readers about an "Ethiopian mission" whereby the Ethiopian society assigned to itself that it is God's chosen people. Without elaborating why Ethiopians would choose themselves to be God's chosen people or why God would favor the Ethiopians over other groups of His people, Dr. Messay hastens to urge us conveniently to the Messianic Destiny and advises us that "such mission requires that intellectuals assume the role of watchdog by protecting the society against ideological infiltrations damaging to the mission."

Dr. Messay's departure from an objective assessment in this voluminous review dwells on the expedient dichotomy of "traditionalism" and "modernization." No clear definition or description of both terms was provided. The lack of a deeper understanding of what is "traditional" and what is "modern" appears to have led him to the state of clouded imaginations about "Eurocentrism" as a grip on third-world intellectual productions, the lack of "no quarrel with the Western world" in Aleqa Asres's thesis, its warning that "European scientists will never reveal the wisdom of science" to us, and that Ethiopians are na´ve when they think that "Europeans will teach them the secrets of science."

Even within the Ethiopian domain, we are yet to find a consensus about the following seeming endorsement of Aleqa Asres's view by Dr. Messay: "Notice how Asres's view widely departs from the position of many Ethiopian intellectuals today whose ethnicization deprives them of any national stature by making them the representatives of particular groups. They are not the outpost of national unity and survival, but the launch pad of internal divisions and conflicts." It goes without saying that we can not expect all Ethiopian intellectuals to be on the same page when an Amharic speaking Aleqa Asres from Gojjam, as Dr. Messay notes, prescribes that Ge'ez be imposed on us all.

While we can fairly say that there is an emerging consensus about the need to deeply review our age-old consciousness by using all the available media of expressions, including the Ge'ez language, we can also fairly argue that the Ethiopian intellectuals have a collective unconscious mind about the rich heritages of our diverse peoples. Fortunately, we have many vibrant as well as marginalized languages that we can tap on and scratch the surface of this collective unconscious to bring out the deep knowledge in our own backyard.

Nature has been our people's Open Laboratory for at least 100,000 years, if we are convinced that the latest DNA study that reported that humanity dispersed from a single location near Finfinne (Addis Ababa) is true. In that case, the pursuit of the hidden knowledge in Ge'ez may well lead us to discovering Afan Oromo in it. Perhaps, it may not be by coincidence that the Oromo tricolors of black, red, and white are exactly the same as the tricolors in Yemen's flag. In Jean Doresse's words, "Historians argue that the first language was Sabean. But Oromiffa, Somali and Afar languages use words whose origin is earlier than hieroglyphic Egyptian. They are the most ancient spoken languages."

Perhaps, what this all will lead us to is to the fact that the source of our empowerment is going to be the consciousness we have built and are going to build, instead of the search for a false Messianic Destiny out of a single long marginalized language.

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