On Artisanal Exploitation: A Look At Ethiopia

Words by Amani Bin Shikhan

Flashback to July 2012. It was the first time I had stepped on Ethiopian soil in seventeen years, and the first time I had experienced the land as an adult. As we passed through customs, quickly flashing our Canadian passports and whizzing through the brightly-lit airport, my mother and I were surrounded by young employees in perfectly pressed blazers, anxious domestic workers trying to catch a phone signal, natives with samsonites and fast tongues looking to make their own intercontinental journeys, and the waiting who outlined the fence that separated the gorgeous glass-walled building from the busy streets of the everyday, working class Ethiopian. We were quickly greeted by family and driven to my aunt’s house as the sun rose, where much of my maternal family awaited us with a breakfast of freshly ground and roasted bunaa in small espresso shots, kita drizzled with berbere and kibey or marr, and shiro fitfit. I relished in the excess of my childhood favourites as second and third helpings were heaped onto my plate, the extraneous nature of invisible labour forgotten on me. On our first night out, we ventured into downtown Addis, stopping for dinner at a popular fast food spot filled with foreigners. I scoffed at the non-Ethiopian faces as I took out our freshly-exchanged birr and smoothly paid the bill, starting to truly feel ‘at home’. What I had not known, as a nineteen-year old kid of the diaspora, was that our meal of burgers, fries, milkshakes and macchiatos had totaled more than the monthly paychecks of my cousin, a young husband and father fresh of an NGO stint in Somalia, and his best friend, a taxi driver. Combined. To say food was expensive in Addis, with a population of over 3 million, would be a gross understatement.

Fast-forward to 2014. I exhaled sharply as my fingers tapped quickly over my keyboard, researching the emergence of teff as a new ‘superfood’. Likening the grain to the newly recognized grain fascination that is Peruvian quinoa, teff is explained as a staple of Ethiopian cuisine, and nothing more. “Breads, cookies, pancakes, you name it, teff can do it”, the article reads, and it takes everything in me to not laugh, or cry for the inevitable inflation that seems to always follow the pursuit of white trendiness and capitalistic interest in the Global South. Over crackling phone connections with my family in the widely diverse province of Wollo, I learn that the cornerstones of Ethiopian food, which include teff, berbere, and the unique taste of flowery honey of Ethiopia’s south are now more accessible and affordable to me in Toronto than they are in the land they are indigenous to. Even the price of a gursha, a handheld bite of food often distributed by restaurants to those too poor to afford a plate have risen to jaw-dropping prices in Addis, my family tells me on the ride home from the airport, as the fluorescent lighting of the airport dims. The ever-present problem of rising food prices in Ethiopia and other East African nations is nothing new, with much outcry from both the region’s natives and their respective diaspora. When farmers are no longer able to control their crop without external manipulation, when globally-acclaimed companies are able to tote ‘fair and equitable trade’ while simultaneously pillaging the same land, what is the future of Ethiopian agriculture? What awaits Ethiopians in a global economy that participates in selective amnesia when faced with conflict over cultural history, even in the broadest sense? Who is allowed to claim the lives of Ethiopians with no repercussion?

Fast forward to 2015. Todd Kliman, a man of almost-admirable gall, writes about Ethiopian food. Todd Kliman divorces Ethiopian food from Ethiopian people at large. Todd Kliman likens himself to an actual Ethiopian, claiming a form of convenient kinship to the one Ethiopian woman he humbles himself enough to speak to as an all-knowing White Man™. “‘You’re part habesha,’ my friends like to joke, invoking the word Ethiopians use to identify themselves. Nah, I say. Maybe just a little more avid than the many fans of the food in our region.” Somehow, Kliman has managed to regularly frequent D.C., the home of the largest Ethiopian diaspora for over twenty years, travel halfway across the world to their motherland, and yet, still finds himself completely ignorant to the intimate balance of labour, love and lineage that gives birth to the Ethiopian cuisine. This ignorance is willful. This ignorance is violent. In his extremely long-winded diatribe, he speaks of Ethiopians in two capacities: forlorn citizens with little knowledge of their own culture and no desire to ‘evolve’, and innovative trendsetters who could not have mustered the confidence to stray from what he considered to be a culinary stagnancy without his co-sign.  Seriously.

Instead of understanding the nuances of Ethiopian food and the social, economical, and regional differences in its history, Kliman has, instead, chosen to portray the Ethiopians in his piece as overwhelmingly incompetent and uniform in their cultural praxis, ignoring the significance of Ethiopian food as a deconstructed lieu de mémoire, allowing itself to be packed and unpacked, purposed and repurposed in the ever-shifting homes of its originators. Kliman could not possibly understand the rituals of roasting coffee beans and the prayers that are recited like clockwork at every step, or the spices that are meticulously dried, ground and sealed to travel across bodies of water and masses of land to once again be simmered, served and blessed by its family on the other side of the globe. To many, food is just food, fuel for the body. Here, it means more.

Admittedly, this piece is particularly infuriating, but it is not the first and definitely not the last; the unbearable curiosity of whiteness is insatiable, unrelenting and wholly colonizing in nature. Essentially, Kliman and the never-ending bevy of white culture voyeurists have and continue to dehumanize millions of black and brown people while not only profiting, but dictating the cultural progression, —and in their unwarranted opinion, regression—as an outsider, completely detached from the ramifications of their exoticism. The white, western gaze is all but missing in the world of food criticism. Overtones of racism and a bizarre disdain for a lack of conventional and easily identifiable classism are glaringly apparent in Kliman’s writing, reflective of countless who share his flippant attitude towards food and its richness to the people it belongs to. The stripping of a people’s food is just a significant act of violence as any other. To pretend that this is merely accidental is to erase years of robbery of resources, years of rewritten histories, and years of intentionally pillaged and frail economies, leaving them susceptible to the whims of those who dissect and gut the cornerstone of black and brown life with nothing they are willing to offer in return. While some debate whether or not quinoa is ethical and others are forced to make greater sacrifices for the capital, the question remains: who is allowed ownership? Who is the beneficiary? Who is left standing once the trendiness fades? Who is remembered? Who is left to die?

Amani Bin Shikhan is a child of the Red Sea, adolescent of the 416, and speaks entirely in rap lyrics. To read her diasporic woes on the run, diddy bop over to @manimaani