Editor’s note: The Horn African Americans for Peace conference, held April 13 at Roy Wilkins Auditorium in St. Paul, seemed like an event of interest to the community. We asked free-lance writers on our list who would like to cover it. Melissa Slachetka said she was interested. This is her report, along with additional information in sidebars.
I’ve never been to Africa, and my impressions about the continent, coming mainly through news shows, National Geographic, and an occasional conversation, are that it’s a big continent with a lot of beauty and culture, but a history of war, starvation, and disease.
When I arrived at the HAAP human rights conference, I instantly was struck by colorful voices of all languages and bright flags I had never seen before. I was in awe.
The Horn of Africa is a peninsula of eastern Africa that juts out into the sea and looks like a rhinoceros horn. Whenever I have looked at a map of Africa, I have seen the Horn region made up of Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somalia, and Eritrea.
This is the CIA World Factbook map of the Horn of Africa.
I learned from the conference that when some people from the area look at the Horn of Africa, they see Djibouti, Somalia, Somaliland, Eritrea, Ogadenia, Oromia, and much more.
This is the map of the Horn of Africa from a brochure distributed at the conference.
About 300 people made up the early afternoon crowd at the conference, almost every single one from Africa.
Some women stood up and started dancing and waving a flag; they wore it on their heads like scarves. This flag wasn’t from a country, but instead was a flag of the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF). The ONLF is fighting to separate Ogadenia from Ethiopia, making it an independent country. This flag, with bold stripes of red, blue, and green: in the center a large silvery gray star, was worn proudly on buttons, waved on sticks, handed out on bold fliers at the conference.
I looked around and saw a few families dressed in white with colorful beads woven and draped in the hair. These were traditional clothes and beads of Oromia, a similarly unstable region of Ethiopia.
Articles on Horn of Africa from our community media partners
Congressmen Payne and Ellison paid tribute to myriads of political chaos and calm in the Horn of Africa
by Abdulahi Sheekh, African News Journal
Oromia Chief Administrator Forges New Ties with U.S.
by Julia N. Opoti, Mshale
People at the conference said Ogadenia and Oromia have been invaded. If this seems abstract, think of the Civil War in the United States and the fighting that took place.
“The Ethiopian Government has invaded Somalia, Eritrea, Ogadenia, Oromia…” Wolday Gebremichael, Community Outreach Coordinator and a founder of this conference said. Gebremichael seems to be in support of Oromia and Ogadenia gaining freedom. When asked about the importance of the conference to the community, Gebremichael responded, “It is extremely important, because the issue at stake is human lives.”
The ONLF is seen as a liberating force by some and a rebel army by others. ONLF describes itself on its website as “a grassroots social and political movement founded in 1984 by the Somali people of Ogaden who could no longer bear the atrocities committed against them by successive Ethiopian regimes.” On the other hand, when asked if ONLF is a terrorist group during an interview with Ethiopian TV, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice replied, “Well, certainly a — what we’d call a negative force and these organizations need to be dealt with.”
Imagine my confusion when I realized that these dancing women were supporting an alleged terrorist group, and that to them this is a freedom army.
The U.S. government supports the Ethiopian government, but some U.S. political leaders seem more critical. In March, Senator Russ Feingold said in a speech on the Senate floor that he was “seriously concerned about the direction Ethiopia is headed.” He added that, “according to many credible accounts, the political crisis that has been quietly growing and deepening over the past few years may be coming to a head. For years, faced with calls for political or economic reforms, the Ethiopian government has displayed a troubling tendency to react with alarmingly oppressive and disproportionate tactics.”
In spite of the controversy and political elements, the African Americans gathering at the HAAP conference took time to celebrate the place they came from. Between speakers, poetry, song, dance, and celebrations from the Horn were shown on two huge screens flanking the podium. Groups in the audience excitedly watched, applauded and danced to these images. In that short period of time, the the audience of many celebrated peacefully as one. As I walked out into the warm sunshine of a Minnesota spring , I understood my freedom a little better, even if I didn’t understand what vision of the Horn of Africa I should be supporting.
Melissa Slachetka contributes regularly to the Daily Planet.