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Bunker Mentality

September 14 , 2019

Ethiopia as a developing nation, while considering what kind of modernisation it wants to follow, should keep in mind that building walls in the name of preserving tradition is impractical, while mindless modernisation is destructive.

Human beings are both capable of building as well as destroying. At the scale of a society, this particular feature is best summed up with walls and bridges.

Piling stone after stone, some build walls thinking they will feel safe and united as a response to a primitive instinct of self-protection based on fear. But all they really do is isolate themselves, resulting in the rise of their fright of the unknown and reducing their field of vision and the extent of their tolerance. The scope of what they deem possible diminishes by the day, narrowing their horizon. These state of mind of these foes of change was well described by James Baldwin when he wrote: “Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying, because it so profoundly attacks one’s sense of one’s own reality.”

Others build bridges to connect us. Those are the creatives, the curious ones and most of all the open-minded. Because of their inquisitive nature, they are keener to learn from the differences of others. They are usually reluctant to make peace with mediocrity nor understand bigotry. They are ignorance’s natural enemy, resist socially imposed dogma and hold dear their analytical autonomy.

Racially-mixed people are usually good ambassadors of the bridge builders, because their very birth is a culture shock. Their world is scattered with contradictions, and they are forced to connect the dots. While most of us belong to a community we were born into, as we assume it is the case for everyone, mixed people don’t have this privilege. I once heard an Ethio-European say: “I am a Ferenji in Ethiopia and an Ethiopian in Europe. All I am really is a racial bastard.” For this person, the erection of walls and societies’ habit of wanting simple narratives is a dreadful reality resulting in an identity conflict. What happens when in a country like modern Ethiopia, those two mindsets collide?

One tries to destroy the other’s constructions. Unfortunately for us, we destroy bridges much faster than they can be built. As for our walls, they are spreading fast while seeming indestructible.

That can be explained by the fact that “team wall” dreads the feeling of being wide open, because they believe an exposed nail ends up hammered. But the worst part is that fearful minds do not stop with the rampaging of bridges. While “tradition” is the name they have always used for issues they never had the courage to change.

While traditionalists hide in their bunker, hyper “modernisers" on the other hand want to bulldoze everything. The trend is indeed to tear down everything in the name of development and modernisation. Kasanchis, once the hub of the azmari(traditional singer), today is a cultural ghost town, Fendika being the only remaining soul reflecting a time of old night life.

From inside our walls, we look up to occidental societies that are the result of thousands of years of cultural diversity that came to maturity through innumerable wars or trade, while Ethiopia really opened up to the rest of the world only in its most recent history. In such a rushed copy-paste crusade, creatives, artists and pioneers are cast aside as we forget that the societies we are trying to emulate were systematically imagined and carefully created by out-of-the-box thinkers defying an established status quo. There cannot be sustainable and balanced development without the sparkle of the arts and creativity.

In addition to being soulless, our attempts to mimic an existing but inappropriate model does not match well with our natural inclinations. Blind and blunt modernisation disturbs our very own traditional and inherent common sense. My grandmother would be upset when anything that can be fixed is thrown out, while her grandchildren are obsessed with replacing most things with a newer, shinier version.

As a nation, we should now ask what we want to build or destroy instead of duplicating other ill-assorted models. Neither a bunker mentality nor mindless modernisation will do. Careful consideration is required. One thing is for sure, this decision, like any other, should never be made out of fear or one-track thinking.

PUBLISHED ON Sep 14,2019 [ VOL 20 , NO 1011]

Hanna Haile is the founder of Zellan Creative & Cultural Center. She can be reached at (

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