The excitement that travelers abroad feel and the aspirations and hopes
expected by relatives and friends who see off their loved ones is usually short
lived. This is because the experiences and problems they encounter in a foreign
land prove to be more than expected.
The major challenges faced by the Diaspora stem from communication. In
Belgium, for example one has to speak French, Flemish, Dutch or German. We
seldom find English speaking people outside Brussels. The language barrier is
very serious because the Diaspora are vulnerable to all sorts of predicaments.
For example, they do not know where to go for proper shopping or how to fill out
simple application forms.
The next major obstacle is colour discrimination. The problem of
renting a house is aggravated by the fact that landlords may prefer a certain
skin colour, to put it mildly. The city municipals, known as communes (which are
equivalent to our Woredas), also facilitate house leases based on criteria like
registration sequence and the family size or other dependents.
If the owners happen to be of foreign origin then families of colour
can rent houses without much ado ... so long as they are able and willing to pay
the rental. If on the other hand the landlord happens to be a white national the
story could be different.
Houses for rent are advertised in commercial papers giving all the
details including the numbers of bedrooms, floor areas and monthly rent etc.
Interested people may arrange an appointment with the agent to pay a visit to
the house and check to see if it suits them. The agent would then contact the
owner to conclude the contract. Lucky people could strike a deal, settle the
advance payment of three months, receive the keys and move in the next day.
If, however, the owner is for some reason or other prejudiced against
migrants of colour, he may change his mind and go back without even having the
curtsy to beg pardon. The colour preference or the implicit discriminatory
attitude is not confined to house renting only.
Last Sunday for example, I was strolling around the Sunday Market area
at ‘Place Jourdan’, one of the squares in Brussels, when I came across an
unnecessary row that emanated from the unfortunate colour bias involving an
elderly white vendor and a young African woman.
She asked him if the stall stretching from one end to another was his
wanting to buy an item from the distant corner.
“My possession extends from end to end but you had better go home and
eat yam,” he said. This vexed her and she asked him from where the yams are
obtained … to which he retorted, “Congo.”
The implication was not lost on her and she snapped back that he had
better watch his mouth lest she takes the case to the concerned authorities. By
way of passing, she told him that all the pearls and precious stones come from
the country of yams, D.R. Congo and Rwanda.
Indeed the laws and regulations concerning human rights in general and
segregation due to colour in particular are strictly observed. There are many
interest groups and vigilantes that act like watchdogs whenever there is abuse
of human rights.
I heard a story of a black man who was charged double the price a white
man pays for a glass of beer. Members of a vigilante human rights’ watch dropped
by and proved the complaint to be true and took the case to court. The ruling
put the beer house out of business.
The other major dilemma faced by the Diaspora is finding professional
employment which is usually advertised in various publications. Even if
applicants qualify for the job advertised, more often than not, their requests
are not considered if the subjects are over 35 years of age. Secondly, even if
they qualify for the job, technically speaking, they are screened out during the
subsequent interviews; most likely because of the colour of their skin. Many
Ethiopians realize that they do not belong to Europe and are not bothered much
as one might expect from such ordeals.
There are other subtle ways of expressing the inherent discriminations.
Long faces and stern manners; turning of backs or stating ignorance even though
they know perfectly well which is which.
Polarization by political outlook and other common interests seem to
prevail among Ethiopians whom I found to integrate with the Germans better than
with the Belgians or the Dutch.
A total of six hours journey by train (with a transfer and a brief stay
at Köln) had taken me to Wilhelmshaven, one of the most beautiful port towns in
the Northern part of Germany. Incidentally, the trip gave me the opportunity to
witness that the Germans are taking the issue of maintaining the environment
very seriously. I saw a number of windmills planted in the green fields where
grazing livestock left manure on the soil. I also saw many people using bicycles
for shuttling in town.
During my stay there, I never once heard a single vehicle blowing its
I thought it was an historical irony that the Germans tolerated race
differences and integrated well with the handful of Ethiopians that live there,
including my eldest son.
One can not take the saying ‘Birds of the same feather flock together!’
for granted. In fact, I could sense that black people repel each other. Some
migrants from central African countries do not seem to have a positive outlook
towards people from the Horn of Africa. People from North Africa, like Morocco
for instance, seemed to have a positive attitude towards Ethiopians judging by
the way some of them referred to us as ‘Habesh’ and conversed well with us.