The Stanford Daily
Tuesday, January 21, 2003
Editorís Note: This is the fourth in a weekly series of interviews with international students at Stanford meant to heighten awareness of issues of social and political importance around the world.
Meklit Workneh is a sophomore studying human biology from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, a country roughly twice the size of Texas in the horn of East Africa. One of the only countries in Africa to resist European colonization, Ethiopia has been under both a monarchical and communist government in the 20th century and transitioned to a federal democratic government in the early í90s. Having just emerged from a border war with Eritrea, its northern neighbor, this country of roughly 70 million people now serves as the home to the African Union but continues to battle a rising HIV epidemic and food shortages.
The Daily sat down with Workneh, who is one of approximately 15 Ethiopian students at Stanford, to discuss the political and social issues facing her country.
The Daily: The population of Ethiopia is pretty much half-Muslim and half-Christian. Have students from Ethiopia been scrutinized by the U.S. government like students from some other African and Asian countries have?
Meklit Workneh: I think when Sept. 11 happened, Ethiopians felt that we wouldnít be affected by that ó Muslims and Christians combined . . . A lot of people are being denied visas, and weíre getting a lot more scrutiny. Not just to get American visas but also for European countries. People are being affected by that, and I think they kind of feel like, ďWhy us?Ē Weíre not really involved; we donít have a lot of terrorist activity in the country. There is some, but itís very small and remote.
TD: Ethiopia is unique in that it is one of the only African countries that has essentially always been independent. How do you gauge the political situation of your country right now?
MW: The present government is now in the tenth year, the tenth or eleventh year, that itís been in power, so on the outside it might appear stable. About five years back, Ethiopia and Eritrea were being held up as these countries are doing so well in the horn and could be examples for the rest of Africa . . . For the people within the country itís very different, because we see a lot of the problems that exist within the government. For one, the parties are kind of divided along tribal / ethnic lines, and I personally disagree with that. I feel that fosters hatred or distances between the different ethnic / tribal parties. In terms of economics, right now with the famine and the HIV epidemic, things arenít looking so good.
TD: The Bush administration has halted U.S. funding for condom distribution in Africa. How do people in Ethiopia feel about this?
MW: To an extent, I think people see this as a problem that we have to fix ourselves. At the same time, they do look to Western countries for support and funding. But, I think a lot of people right now are looking for solutions that are Ethiopian, that arenít coming in from a Western model, and I see that sort of thinking becoming more prevalent now, like we need solutions to our own problems; we need to identify the cultural values we have and apply that to these problems. And thatís really good, I think, because a lot of the Western ideas and Western models that come in havenít been working.
TD: What is the atmosphere for women like in Ethiopia? Is your situation unique for an Ethiopian woman?
MW: In many ways, my situation is unique. I donít feel itís because Iím a woman, though. I think itís because of the academic opportunities that have been presented to me. I think there are a lot of steps and people are making a lot of effort to integrate women effectively into government, into education, into health sectors . . . I feel as though thereís a lot of improvement that could be made in terms of integrating women into different fields, and the efforts being made are really good. A lot of our ministers are women; our minister of education is a woman, and I think even historically, women have not been oppressed as much in Ethiopia. Weíve had empresses that were women, very powerful women.
TD: Are there a lot of Ethiopians who try to study abroad, and do most plan to return to Ethiopia to assist the country?
MW: Yes, there are a lot of people who want to study abroad . . . What usually happens when people come out here to get their education is they end up staying, so there is a huge Ethiopian diaspora in the States and a lot of European countries . . . I read something saying that the Ethiopian diaspora is one of the biggest donors to Ethiopia right now. So obviously theyíre sending money back to relatives, but theyíre also investing in the countryís private investments and donating money to the government. But there is a very small group that also tries to go back and create a difference back there, and I hope to be among that group.
TD: During your life, youíve experienced a change in governments and a war with Eritrea. What was the climate in Ethiopia like during this time? Did these events affect you, or did they seem remote?
MW: When I was younger, with the Communist Party in place then, it was an interesting time . . . My parents ended up moving us, my two brothers and my dad, to Nairobi because things were just getting really crazy in the country and a lot of times young boys would be rounded up to go serve in the military. So we moved, and that was a direct result of the conditions of the country. And then, three years later we moved back, and things were a lot more stable then, after the government changed. You could see the country going through transition . . . At first, I feel like a lot of people were like, ďGreat, now we get to vote ,and we get to do this.Ē But I feel that as the years have gone on, people have become less and less supportive of the government, just because there hasnít been a significant amount of growth.
TD: How do people relate the current state of the country with the new government?
MW: Opinions differ. There are some people who say the old government was better, there are some people who go all the way back and say that the monarchy was better, times were so much easier then. In terms of the whole AIDS epidemic, itís difficult to blame it entirely on this government because the whole explosion happened in the í90s, but there are some people who do that and associate it with this new government coming in. In terms of the famine, the government back home actually took some responsibility for that.
TD: Is there anything you want to add?
MW: I would say to people that there are a lot of these problems going on in Ethiopia and a lot of African nations, and we forget to look beyond all these problems people are having. Yes, we are having a famine right now, and itís horrible, and yes, there is a huge HIV epidemic, but I feel that people forget that there are people out there that think like them, that do the same things. Yes, weíre different, culturally and everything, but thereís a lot of similarities that people forget, that there are people out there, that there are all these beautiful cultures, that there are positive things too.