Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Fretting over Difret

On October 9th I saw the movie Difret (ድፍረት) with the seventh grade class of my son's school. Suzanne had volunteered me as a chaperone for the "field trip" because she knew I would be interested in the subject matter. She was right. Difret, which takes its name from the Amharic word meaning courage or audacity, is an award-winning movie about T'elefa (ጠለፈ), the practice of abducting young girls for marriage in Ethiopia.
Difret refers to the audacity of a woman to challenge a long-standing patriarchal tradition.
The movie is based on the true story of Aberash Bekele, a 14-year-old girl who in 1997 was abducted on her way home from school by men on horses. (Watch the scene.) Locked in a hut, Aberash was beaten and raped by the man who intended to become her husband. Later, with a gun accidentally left behind by her captors, Aberash killed her rapist, a 29-year-old farmer. The movie depicts those events in its first few minutes. The majority of the film's story concerns how Meaza Ashenafi and the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association (EWLA) took on Aberash's case and, against all odds, won, making the practice of child abductions officially illegal. (Watch an early scene between the girl and her lawyer/protector.)

The word T'elefa, according to my Amharic dictionary, also means "rape," "hijack," and "change the direction of something." The practice undoubtedly changes the direction of a girl's life. Here's how a BBC News report from the time of Aberash's trial in 1999 describes T'elefa:
In Ethiopia's wild south, abduction is a legitimate way of procuring a bride. The practice has been going on so long that no-one can remember how it all began. The usual procedure is to kidnap a girl, hide her and then rape her until she becomes pregnant. Then, as father of the child, the man can claim her as his bride. At this stage, he will call on the village elders to negotiate the bride's price and to act as middle-men between his family and that of his bride. 
It's hard to believe that this custom of T'elefa has persisted for so long. It's also hard to find any reliable statistics on the practice, especially now that it is outlawed. In his official statement, director Zeresenay Berhane Mehari says that T'elefa "affects over 40% of adolescent girls" but doesn't specify region or ethnic group. According to a 2001 study conducted in a rural district of northwest Ethiopia and published in an Ethiopian medical journal, the prevalence of marriage through abduction was 6.2% (72/1168)." Interestingly, the median age of the abducted girls in that study was 13, with the oldest at 20 and the youngest only 7. So while the movie intended to shock with its subject matter (and it did), it could have easily been more shocking.

What is also shocking (although it's hard to top the abduction and rape of a 7-year-old girl) is that the film was not allowed to be shown in Ethiopia, even after winning awards all around the world. The film was to have its Ethiopian premiere in Addis on September 4, 2014. Everyone was seated and the lights were just about to dim when Zeresenay suddenly emerged on stage to inform the audience that he could not show his film. Here's what he said:
Distinguished guests, ambassadors, we were just told by the police that we have to stop this film because there is a court order on it. We have not been informed prior to this. The Ministry of Culture knows about this and the government knows about this. This is the first time we are hearing it. This is obviously an attack on us and I am really sorry for this to happen and I hope we’ll see you again…  
Someone posted this moment to YouTube, which I saw just a couple of weeks ago. But censorship seems to move fast in Ethiopia. I just tried to add a link to that video and saw that it had been taken down due to "copyright infringement."
The charge of copyright infringement is absurd since someone had only filmed and posted Zeresenay's frustrated announcement and the reactions of audience members.
I wish I known about all this when I saw the film with the seventh graders at the Embarcadero Center Cinema, because Zeresenay was there with his wife and young son. I would have asked him what he had learned about the ban on Difret since September 4. Based on interviews earlier in the year, Zeresenay did not seem worried that there would be any interference from the Ethiopian government, especially since it did not shine a light on contemporary corruption. As Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam wrote in an essay called DIFRET: The Abduction of a Film in Ethiopia, "Zeresenay simply did not understand the perverted thug mind."

As I mentioned in a previous post, Ethiopia is ranked 143/180 in the World Press Freedom Index and certainly falling fast. What has become clear is that journalists and filmmakers will need even more ድፍረት (both courage and audacity) to confront the Ethiopian government's increasingly repressive and pervasive censorship.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Memoirs of a Gursha

Several weeks have passed since I've written anything here, and October is nearly over. While I'd like to blame the San Francisco Giants for progressing too deep in the baseball postseason, I simply have not made enough time for my language study. On the other hand, I have had several experiences this month related to my cultural understanding of Ethiopia, and I hope to document them before the month is over.

The first took place on Saturday, October 4. Suzanne and I planned to spend that Saturday night in Napa, so I arranged to meet Professor Adugnaw Worku at his home in Angwin, a small town just north of Napa with a population of about 3,000, many of them Seventh-day Adventists. I had contacted Adu Worku after Lulit gave me his email, and we had met briefly at the Enqutatash festival in Oakland on September 13. There he had told me the story of his incredible journey from Ethiopian goatherd to American professor, and so I already knew of his connection to the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

His story is indeed fascinating, and it hinges on an event that occurred when Adu was fifteen years old. While walking through bushes, a friend just ahead of him bent forward a thorny branch that then snapped back into Adu's left eye, causing extensive damage. Adu had no choice but to make a 50-mile journey to a hospital, which was run by Seventh-day Adventist missionaries. A philosophy of SDA missions is to situate a church, school, and hospital all in the same compound. Adu, at the age when most American students are entering their sophomore year of high school, enrolled in the SDA school as a first grader and never looked back.
You can hear Professor Worku tell his story here.
What seemed at the time like a tragic event turned out to be a powerful blessing for Adugnaw Worku and his family. Because of his mangled eye, he and several of his siblings were able to avoid a life of subsistence farming and earn college degrees instead. In a somewhat related vein, if I hadn't had a second bout with brain cancer in 2011, I probably would not be studying Amharic right now or trying to understand where Anemo came from, a project that I enjoy. The radical act of refusing to place any value judgment on apparent misfortune reminds me of the story about the Taoist farmer (multiple versions of which can be found here):
     A man named Sei Weng owned a beautiful mare which was praised far and wide. One day this beautiful horse disappeared. The people of his village offered sympathy to Sei Weng for his great misfortune. Sei Weng said simply, "That's the way it is."
      A few days later the lost mare returned, followed by a beautiful wild stallion. The village congratulated Sei Weng for his good fortune. He said, "That's the way it is."
      Some time later, Sei Weng's only son, while riding the stallion, fell off and broke his leg. The village people once again expressed their sympathy at Sei Weng's misfortune. Sei Weng again said, "That's the way it is."
      Soon thereafter, war broke out and all the young men of the village except Sei Weng's lame son were drafted and were killed in battle. The village people were amazed at Sei Weng's good luck. His son was the only young man left alive in the village. But Sei Weng kept his same attitude: despite all the turmoil, gains and losses, he gave the same reply, "That's the way it is."
I'll take a moment here to acknowledge a good friend who is trying to adopt Sei Weng's attitude as she deals with breast cancer. Wendy has been exploring in her blog the many positive and life-affirming results of getting the disease.
Read about Wendy's story here. I love her henna head.
But back to Adu Worku. In my first encounter with him, Adu was not dressed in a suit; rather, he wore the traditional Ethiopian white cotton cloth called shemma (ሸማ), much like the picture below, so I was not sure how "traditional" our second meeting would be, especially since we were about to enter his private space.
Adu Worku is a humble man. He playfully calls himself a peasant.
I first made sure I knew the formal greeting phrases for elders. And since I figured food would be involved, Suzanne and I looked up the rules of etiquette for dining in an Ethiopian home. Most "rules" we recognized. For instance, we expected to be urged to eat more food, and we already knew to use our right hands only when picking up the injera. However, we were surprised and a bit alarmed by this particular rule of etiquette we found on Kwintessential, a website for a "complete professional translation company":
Guests are often served tasty morsels by another guest in a process called "gursa". Using his hands, the person places the morsel in the other person’s mouth. Since this is done out of respect, it is a good idea to smile and accept the offering.
Despite our trepidation, we were ready to smile and accept whatever came our way, even if Adu or his wife decided to insert some injera into our mouths. It turns out we had nothing to worry about. As we were nibbling on the abundant Ethiopian food, I asked Adu about the practice of "gursa." After letting me know that it's pronounced gursha (ጉርሻ), not "gursa" (thanks, translation company), Adu explained that it is a very intimate act, usually performed by people who know each other well, like a husband and wife. Adu and his wife demonstrated the practice and then Suzanne and I tried it. It's actually quite similar to the display of intimacy shown by American couples when they shovel cake into each other's mouth at their wedding reception (just without the smearing of frosting on the forehead). In Ethiopia this act of intimacy simply happens more than once in one's adult life. According to my online Amharic dictionary, gursha (ጉርሻ) not only indicates "a mouthful of injera," but it also means a "tip" or "bonus," as in something extra and perhaps unexpected.

After eating, Suzanne and I were treated to plenty of extra and unexpected surprises, all of which felt nearly as intimate as the gursha custom. Adu Worku sang nostalgic songs and played several traditional Ethiopian instruments he had learned as a child in northwestern Ethiopia herding his family's goats. Adu told us that playing music allowed him to connect with his homeland. Here he is playing the masinqo (ማሲንቆ), the one-stringed spike fiddle, and actually singing about homesickness:

Next Adu played a well-known wedding song on the washint (ዋሽንት), or Ethiopian flute. I actually had learned this song, called Mushiraye (ሙሽራዬ) on piano with Elias Negash. It has something to do with the bride or groom (or both), since "bride" is mushrit (ሙሽሪት) and "groom" is mushra (ሙሽራ). You can hear Suzanne and Adu's wife talking in the kitchen. Suzanne was following rule #7 from Kwintessential's rules of dining etiquette: "A woman should offer to help the hostess with the preparation or clearing up after a meal is served."

Then Adu picked up the krar (ክራር), or Ethiopian six-stringed lyre. He tuned the krar to the Ethiopian Batti scale (Lydian variation) and plucked the accompaniment to his song.
Here's how the scale looks in C (although it sounds like Adu starts on an F).


Next Adu played a song called Fano (ፋኖ) about a person who rebels against the government, retreats to the bush, and becomes a social justice outlaw, not unlike Robin Hood. Adu explains that the krar has traditionally been the instrument of choice for such noble outlaws. Here he strums the lyre instead of plucking it.

Adu played several other tunes, all plaintive and heartfelt. He ended by playing the classic song "Tizita" on his other krar that was already tuned to the Ethiopian major pentatonic scale.
The song "Tizita" is so well known that Ethiopia's major pentatonic scale is named for it.

We soon found out that music runs deep in the family. Adu's son Tad also treated us to a performance, and you will see from this video that Tad is definitely a second-generation Ethiopian American. Here he is singing his song "Smile" and accompanying himself on the guitar. I love that Tad's mom is sitting right next to him as he sings, as if she is the person he wants to make smile.

Upon hearing that Tad plays with a band, I asked him if he plans to incorporate the sounds of the masinqo, washint, or krar into his music in the near future. He said he knows he probably will but he wants it to come organically in his journey as a musician. Right now he's busy establishing his credentials as a singer/songwriter.

After all the soulful music and conversation, Adu's wife tried to get us to eat more food, which we anticipated. Had we not been expected in Napa, we probably would have stayed longer; it was hard to leave such a special environment. And while no one in the family actually placed food in our mouths in an act of gursha, we certainly left feeling nourished in a deeply intimate way.