'Remembering' Ethiopia

  • introduction
    • 1: Introduction

    • When I travelled to Ethiopia in 1999 it felt very much like a homecoming. This was odd, because it was my first time ever being there. I was born and raised in Canada to Ethiopian parents. My first encounter with the sights, sounds, and smells of Addis Ababa should have been jarring at worst, unfamiliar at best. But it felt like home instead. The family I had come to know so well by name were now the people embracing me. I was walking through the very structures and landscapes that once hung as art on my wall. I had eaten all these same dishes before, just never this good. I would also have numerous encounters and experiences that would serve to remind me that I did not quite belong. Yes, I was very much connected to this place, but Toronto was also very much my home. However, I learned to live rather comfortably within this ambiguity. It created no existential crisis, it just was.

    • When we developed the negatives from that first trip to Ethiopia, my mother chastised me upon discovering that I had taken very few pictures of myself or other people. She didn’t understand why I needed so many pictures of landscapes, architecture, and cows! However, that album remains one of my most prized possessions to this day. It’s an artefact. I knew I would want to remember what it felt like to be in that exact place in that precise moment, and when memory would fade, those pictures would just have to do.

    • Years later, I would rediscover the storytelling power of photography. It is the tool I use to capture and communicate ideas, experiences and emotions that I do not have other vocabulary for. It has been my trusted companion on subsequent trips to Ethiopia, helping me to create memories where there were none, and serving as a repository of moments, encounters, and experiences that I knew I would want to remember one day.

  • memory
    • 2: Memory

    • While this woman is not biologically related to me, she is very much family. This picture was taken at my grandmother’s house on the three-year anniversary of her death. At the time the picture was taken, the woman was vowing to preserve the memory and legacy of my grandmother as long as she lived herself.

  • memory
    • 3: Memory

    • This picture was taken during a hasty visit to this woman’s home. Her age does not show when she speaks, her personality is infectious and I did not want to leave. While she is not biologically related to me either, I have learned that she is close to my family’s heart. She hurried to show me an old picture of herself, lined with portraits of the people she loved, including my aunt and mother.

  • tastes
    • 4: Tastes

    • When my cousins picked me up from Bole airport, our first stop was my now favourite coffee shop. I was tired from a long flight and wet from the rain, but they knew I would not protest. Coffee is such an important part of what it means to be in Ethiopia. It is the delicious freshly roasted beans, yes. But it is just as much about the ceremony of it. “Nu, buna tetu” – come, drink coffee. It is the universal way of saying, let’s just be together.

  • tastes
    • 5: Tastes

    • When you’re not huddled around a coffee pot, you’re huddled around a communal platter of some ingenious concoction of spice and butter. Ethiopian cuisine provides a multi-sensory experience – a variety of colours, textures, aromas, and the chatter of good company.

  • smells
    • 6: Smells

    • This trip overlapped with Ethiopian Easter and it was a privilege for me to see the city come alive with preparations for the feasts that would ensue. The smell of sautéed onions, meat stews and spiced butter filled homes as the Lent fasting period came to an end.

  • smells
    • 7: Smells

    • Anytime I smell wood smoke my mind is taken straight to Ethiopia. It’s a cheap way to travel! When I saw the huge billow of smoke rising from this neighbourhood, I hurried to take this picture before it blew away. It’s not often you’re presented with an opportunity to take a picture of a smell.

  • family
    • 8: Family

    • I have now spent more time in Ethiopia than either of my parents has since they first left the country. This means my memories are not only my own. After a trip, I will spend countless conversations recounting how so-and-so is doing, how bad the traffic has become, and what the political climate is like these days.

    • The man pictured above is my mother’s brother. He told me to wait with my camera, and ran in the house to dig up a picture of my mother when she was a teenager. He asked me to take this picture, show it to my mother, and remind her of how much he cherishes her.

  • family
    • 9: Family

    • The woman sitting down in the picture below is my father’s sister. She is holding my phone looking at a recent picture of my father making fun of his greying hair, but so grateful to have seen it. The woman standing up is a family friend. She told me that she took part in the celebration my family in Ethiopia held the day I was born in Canada.

  • home
    • 10: Home

    • My aunt’s house is my home away from home. It is where I stay every time I go to Ethiopia. I am sure that I have a picture of every doorknob, window frame and tile in the house – much to the amusement of my family. But so much of what I love about Ethiopia, and who I love in Ethiopia, is in this house. It’s imperative that it be documented. Light has a wonderful ability to convey far more than the photographic subject can on its own. The morning sun enchants my aunt’s backyard garden, which she tends to with great care.

  • home
    • 11: Home

    • The light at dusk brings life to the otherwise mundane clothesline hanging in my aunt’s front yard. It is the warmth in these pictures that remind me of why it felt so much like home.

Text and images by Alpha Abebe*

“To live ‘elsewhere’ means to continually find yourself involved in a conversation in which different identities are recognized, exchanged, and mixed, but do not vanish. […] Our sense of belonging, our language, and the myths we carry in us remain, but no longer as ‘origins’ or signs of ‘authenticity’ capable of guaranteeing the sense of our lives. They now linger on as traces, voices, and memories that are mixed in with the other encounters, histories, episodes, experiences.” Ian Chambers (1994) Migrancy, Culture, Identity.

My graduate studies have been dedicated to the deconstruction of cultural identity and the understanding of its mechanics. Nations are ‘imagined communities’, borders are a political construct, identities a product of socialisation. I know these things. But I also know that my life has been organised and shaped by my connection to and relationships with Ethiopia, despite the fact that I’ve only ever vacationed there. It’s the quintessential diasporic story.

This photo essay includes a selection of images I took in Ethiopia while travelling there for my doctoral fieldwork in 2013. This was not part of any data collection, but rather, the moments and encounters in between. They were the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes I knew I would want to remember when I left. 

*Alpha Abebe is currently pursuing a DPhil in International Development at Oxford University, and her research is focused on Ethiopian diasporas and development. Alpha is also a photographer and a community organiser.