Q&A: Ethnicity in Ethiopia

In our last email update, we asked our readers to send us their questions. Here is one question and our response. Please continue to send us your questions; nothing is too big or too small. If you have a question for Charlotte, she would love to answer it.

As you know, race is a big topic right now in the USA. I wonder if this is also a problem in Ethiopia, maybe between tribes or religious groups. Is a white person who lives in Ethiopia treated differently, looked at more negatively, more positively?

This is a great question and points to one of the biggest challenges Ethiopia faces. First, white people are looked at differently, primarily because of the history of colonialism (even though Ethiopia was never colonized, they were subject to Italian occupation and exposed to colonialist practices throughout Africa) and association with–and access to–wealth. This makes for some challenging interactions as it is true that we do have more money and access, but we are unable to provide the support that is often requested (nor would it be prudent from a sustainability perspective). So, from a financial perspective, we are seen and sometimes treated differently–whether this is positive or negative is complex and often depends on context.

With regards to religion, historically there has been tension between Orthodox and Evangelicals and between both of these and Muslims. This tension has sometimes become violent. We have heard many different stories and perspectives about these interreligious tensions. We have not personally witnessed violence, but we are certainly aware of tense conversations and dialogues. Recently, however, the Prime Minister has brought together Orthodox and Evangelicals for dialogue, which has historically been almost impossible. Given that the Prime Minister is Evangelical with an Orthodox mother and Muslim father, he seems to be well situated to bring these groups together. It is our prayer that this dialogue continues and unity and peace prevail.

The most significant obstacle for Ethiopia currently, though, seems to be inter-ethnic tensions and hostility. Here, too, there is a deep and complex history. It is impossible to adequately discuss this history here, but current political unrest finds its roots in these historical narratives. Primarily, in an attempt to recognize and honor the various ethnic groups within the country, the Constitution itself emphasizes these differences, for good and ill. Good in that each ethnic group is given official recognition and representation, but ill in that ethnicity has become one of the primary lenses through which personal and group identity is formed. And it is ethnicity that is sometimes the driving force of politics and economics.

This poses significant challenges politically and for the Church. Recently, I (Than) had an opportunity to read more about this complicated reality in proofreading an edited volume being published by an EGST faculty member. Each author and chapter highlighted different factors that impact ethnic identity and inter-ethnic hostility and offer some ways to overcome these challenges. From a theological perspective, the authors also point to the larger Church’s ministry in such a context and explore what it means to love our neighbor. Although addressed to Ethiopians and the Ethiopian Church, there is much we can learn in the US from these reflections.

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