In the Borderlands Blog / Dispatches

Dispatches #5

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

I sit on a quiet patio in Bole on a Sunday afternoon, catching up with an old friend from Canada who, like me, is completing a PhD in history in the United States. Like me, she is a child of the diaspora, born abroad to parents from the Horn, retracing and rediscovering roots alongside academic research. It strikes me that the last time I’ve seen this friend, the last time our geographies have overlapped, was also in Addis Ababa, in 2013.

“You know, we’ve talked about this before… we are continuing something our parents started” she remarks. We’ve had these conversations often, and with others in our circle, academic women of the Horn diaspora, as we seek to understand our work in relation to ourselves. I wonder to myself if my research interests of geography, identity and the Ethiopian/ Somali borderlands is a sort of displacement for how borders have taken shape in my own life: between continents and countries, between languages and cultures, between history and experience, between analysis and subjectivity. Or generationally, for my two Somali parents from two countries, from two towns 150 kilometers apart. I think of what it means to be in these borderlands, at once a scholar of the border, but also a child of borders.

I have been in Ethiopia for almost two months now, beginning a year and a half “in the field” for dissertation research, after two summers of preliminary fieldwork and months spent in archives in the UK and US. Friends familiar with Addis are amused when I tell them I live in Bella, around Faransay. It is somehow simultaneously central and remote – close to major hubs like Arat Kilo, but isolated at its higher elevation. It reminds me of a village, in the ways the lives of its residents are so intertwined, and so local.

“You must be the only Somali in Bella,” one friend says, and I tell him he’s probably right. After a flight back from Jijiga, and dressed in an abaya, a taxi driver starts driving me towards Bole-Michael, where most Somalis in Addis Ababa live.

“I said Bella, not Bole,” I tell him, “Bella.” After repeating it to himself a few times, he heads towards my new neighbourhood. We pass through and behind a crowded market, uphill and over a bridge overlooking aluminum and wooden roofs. Blue minibuses wiz by on their way to Arat Kilo, unintimidated by the unsecured heights and sharp curves of the road to Bella. Overloaded and heavy with people, occasionally the minibuses struggle to climb the last part of the road, rolling slightly backwards before the driver shifts gears again and powers through.

“Des yilal,” he says, how interesting, and tries to charge me extra for taking him to a strange and difficult place.

I am here because the border demands a duality, a command of not only my native Somali, but of Amharic. The language is clumsy and uncomfortable on my tongue. I admire the beauty of its script, the shapes of its letters, and learn to read and write well, but struggle with its sounds, with its diverse accents, with the lived language. Amharic speakers are generous and encouraging with people learning to speak the language, and I am inspired by the multilingualism of many Ethiopians, who, like most Africans, move between different regional languages with ease. I am consumed by Amharic, by the desire to cross this border and access the world opened up by another language and its archives. At times, it feels as though I have crossed and made great strides forward – after holding my own in a conversation with someone, or watching and understanding a television show; other times, when I miss a joke or have to ask someone to repeat themselves or speak slower, I am back on the other side.

In being here, in “the field,” I have also had other borders collapse around me. No longer are there clear distinctions between research and leisure, or between ethnographic and archival, as there was in my original research design. The field is all consuming, and fieldwork happens in the least expected places. A walk to the nearby gebaya for a mobile card while wearing dirac shiid, my usual clothing for lounging at home, can lead to a discussion with the shop owner or neighbours about Somalis, on both sides of the border. My clumsy Amharic has opened up valuable conversations the same way, prompting questions about where I’m from and what I’m doing here, and leading to Ethiopians offering their own perspectives and arguments about the Somali territories and their relationship to Ethiopia.

I didn’t plan on doing ethnographic fieldwork in Addis Ababa – my plans for my first months here were to improve my Amharic, and explore the archives here before moving east, to the borderlands, for the “real” fieldwork – but the border manifests itself everywhere, and moves with me.


Dispatches is a regular series of posts from Collective members traveling or living in East Africa.

Safia Aidid is a PhD Candidate in History at Harvard University, whose research focuses on Somali nationalism and its interaction with the Ethiopian state. You can find her on Twitter @SafiaA.

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