Hostile neighbours Ethiopia and Eritrea passed the bloodiest decade of war
in 2000, with a tragedy that consumed about 80 000 lives. Yet, a decade
later, the two countries are falling in love in the northern Ethiopian
regional capital, Mekelle.
For centuries the history of northern Ethiopia has been filled with gruesome
war stories and the city of Mekelle bears special witness. Nearly every
family has contributed human alms to horrific wars. Almost every household
features photographs of beloved sons hanging on ramshackle walls.
In the nearby jungle Meles Zenawi, now the prime minister of Ethiopia, and
Isaias Afewerki, now the president of Eritrea, shared the armed struggle
against the Derg's military junta. And after 30 years of joint struggle and
bloodshed, Afewerki's country achieved long-sought independence in May 1993.
Then, divided over the fate of the Kashmire-like border town, Badime, the
best of buddies in the jungle became the worst of enemies in the palace. And
for about 20 years, from their respective thrones, Zenawi and Afewerki led
their respective countries in a resistance against each other.
Still at loggerheads, both now use monopolised media to ridicule each other
and both give rebels free airtime to disseminate propaganda against each
other's governments. They even ban each other's music. Unwritten law has
Eritrea restricting Ethiopian music, especially in the port region of
This story, however, takes a different shape on the road to Mekelle.
Consider Selam-Bus, one of the few bus services in Addis Ababa with a daily
departure to Mekelle. Unlike other transport services elsewhere in the
country, Selam-Bus offers luxuries such as safety belts, a portable
refrigerator, air conditioning and -- most importantly -- two television
Aboard, Eritrean culture dominates TV programmes, with its music and movies
featuring Eritrea's official language of Tigrigna. Most passengers from
Ethiopia's Tigre ethnic group, of course, speak a twisted version of the
same language. Many of Ethiopia's incumbent bigwigs are also from this
ethnic group, including premier Zenawi himself.
Yet, in spite of all the Ethiopians on the bus, the two-day trip seems to be
sponsored by Eritrea.
Even Mekelle dances only to the Eritrean tune. Traditional restaurants blare
Eritrean music, notice boards and cinema houses announce the schedule for
Eritrean movies and glossy posters of Eritrean music stars decorate coffee
This situation astounds Tsegaye G/Tensay (39), an Ethiopian who was born in
the Eritrean capital of Asmara, where he lived half of his life.
"Music is my passion and my profession," says the composer. After the
intense war between the border nations, however, he was not able to enjoy
Ethiopian songs in Eritrea.
But when Tensay returned to the Ethiopian town of Mekelle, through the
assistance of the Red Cross, he found an Ethiopian city engulfed in Eritrean
music. Mekelle, in fact, has three government-controlled FM stations that
all enjoy playing Eritrean music, which is obviously not in the government's
interest. The fact is, listeners prefer the music of their "enemies" to
"Even at their weddings the grooms urged me to play Eritrean," says Amanuel,
a popular disk jockey who works in one of the prominent nightclubs,
Abyssinia. Almost 90% of the songs he plays are Eritrean though, he says
"nowadays I try to mix some songs of our own along with Eritrean".
His own small DVD kiosk rents everything from Bollywood to Hollywood, but
local residents prefer Eritrean films. So adverts posted throughout the city
shout "New Eritrean movies: coming soon!"
Every Saturday and Sunday youths flood the city's recreation centres and TV
houses -- a cinema hall where people hunker down and watch international
soccer and popular local TV shows on a big screen -- which are addicted to
Only the English Premier League draws bigger crowds. And these sites can tap
into the Eritrean channel from Arab satellites and present it to large
audiences in Mekelle, with no competition from Ethiopian TV.
Of course, the wide acceptance of Eritrean music and other art has to do
with proximity. At some point in history, the two peoples were one. Mekelle
and Asmara share language, culture and social fabric.
The war -- politically but not culturally motivated and lacking social
backing -- split two brotherly nations only on demarcation. But there seems
to be no demarcation in their hearts.
Mohammed Selman, a lecturer in journalism, is a freelance writer. He lives
in Ethiopia. In 2009 he won the Excellence in Journalism award from the
Foreign Correspondents Association in Addis Ababa
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Received on Fri Oct 14 2011 - 12:44:59 EDT