Lately, I’ve been pondering the role of culture and its effect in cultivating a happy, lively and balanced society. Ethiopia, as many people know, is certainly not among the more developed nations – nor, unfortunately, even considered among the progressive nations of the developing world. Factors contributing to the state of the economy, politics and development may often seem above the level of influence of the average Joe – shall we say, average Biniyam – especially here in Ethiopia.
One thing all people can contribute to, however, is cultivating in the youth the many languages, dances, rhythms and rhymes of times gone buy and celebrating the richness of these traditions in the present. On Saturday I travelled with MELCA (Movement for Ecological Learning and Community Action) to a group meeting of SEGNI clubs from local public schools just north of Addis, near Menagesha. SEGNI stands for Social Empowerment through Group and Nature Interaction, and focuses on environmental and cultural conservation.
The meeting took place in Holeta, in a grove of trees set by the club’s members. The purpose of the meeting was to gather information from the various SEGNI clubs concerning the impact of their activities. It began with a prayer and then dance performances – quite impressive, might I add – by some of the younger girls. Following the dancing, a few of the students read poems highlighting the preservation of culture and the environment. Others took the occasion to express what SEGNI has meant to them personally. Some of the teenage guys noted that the club had transformed their lives. Previously, they were into trouble often and had little regard for the environment or culture of their community. After spending time in the woods, as required by the SEGNI program, they decided to refocus their energies on preserving the environment and their traditional culture.
One of the most entertaining aspects of the morning meeting was when the students performed a skit to illustrate how poor decisions by family leaders (in this case, the father) lead to the destruction of the environment, neglect of culture and ultimately tear families apart. The acting was superb – even more so when I learned they had just put the skit together that morning. The leading man was so animated I laughed nearly constantly.
The play began with the father instructing his son to come with him to cut down a tree, which they then sold to generate income, without bothering to plant another tree in its place. Rather than investing that money in the family, the father spent it wasting away at the local pub. Thereafter, the family situation continued to deteriorate as the father looked to the pub for an escape, and income dwindled because they had not harvested their timber in a sustainable fashion. Along the way, cultural education was neglected as the man’s son could not look to his father to learn the languages, dances and parables of his local people and other tribes and ethnic groups of Ethiopia.
W/o Amasele Kebede, one of the SEGNI club leaders, made another insightful observation concerning the impact of the SEGNI clubs on the local youth. She noted that many high school aged youth often neglected the teachings of their parents because they were obtaining formal education which their parents did not have. SEGNI, however, requires that all youths respect their elders for the real-life education and knowledge they have obtained. Furthermore, SEGNI encourages them to seek wisdom and guidance from those with more worldly experience.
The event ended with a traditional coffee ceremony conducted by teenage girl members of the SEGNI club and was hosted in a traditional style hut with thatch roof – also constructed by SEGNI club members. Outside the hut the students displayed native seeds they had collected from local farmers in order to catalogue and record the varieties. Additionally, they collected traditional handicrafts from the local people to include in their collection.
As these students work to preserve cultural traditions and the environment they are also developing leadership skills and a sense of responsibility. Their efforts will collectively aid in restoring an environmentally degraded country and in preserving the rich culture and traditions so much a part of Ethiopia.