Long After the African Union’s Golden Jubilee: A Letter to Jailed Blogger Natnael Feleke

Trad Bar, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Photo by Rod Waddington via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Trad Bar, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Photo by Rod Waddington via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In April 2014, nine bloggers and journalists were arrested in Ethiopia. Several of these men and women had worked with Zone9, a collective blog that covered social and political issues in Ethiopia and promoted human rights and government accountability. And four of them were Global Voices authors. In July 2014, they were charged under the country’s Anti-Terrorism Proclamation. They have been behind bars ever since, their trial postponed time and again.

This post is part of our series – “They Have Names” – that seeks to highlight the individual bloggers who are currently in jail. We wish to humanize them, to tell their particular and peculiar stories. This letter comes from Amanda Leigh Lichtenstein, an American poet and writer who has long worked in Ethiopia and other parts of East Africa.

Dear Natnael,

Trees on my street burst green with all their budding, Natnael. I feel absurd reporting to you about the weather, but no more absurd than assuming I have the words to reach out to you when you’re behind bars at in Addis. You’ve been held there now for over year, for a kind of writing and activism defined and fueled by questions and demands. You were accused of accepting money and inciting violence, and all I can do now is tell you that the trees are green. It’s all I can do when I feel I am powerless to do much else. I can remember you, post about you, say your name, and insist that those around me do the same. If I turn away from you, I betray myself as a writer.

I’m writing to you from rainy Chicago, where I’ve been seeking you out online from the relative quiet and comfort of my apartment. I’ve been back in the country now for almost year. At night, I listen to the swoosh of cars on the expressway. I admit: Internet connectivity was a huge relief to me in those first few months in the States. Now that I’m home, I’m never far from questions about how life is going in Ethiopia. My Ethio-Net sim card is still tucked into a coin purse full of amulets and charms. I burn frankincense on my stove, chatting when possible on Viber and Facebook to friends in Ethiopia who are still, in many ways, free. When months go by without an update, it’s always for one reason: Internet, yelem!

Police lead Natnael Feleke (center right) and fellow blogger Atnaf Berahane (center left) to court. Photo courtesy of Trial Tracker Blog.

Police lead Natnael Feleke (center right) and fellow blogger Atnaf Berahane (center left) to court. Photo courtesy of Trial Tracker Blog.

News of your arrest did not come as a surprise to me. You, Ethiopian, and me, American, both live our lives outstretched in a tangle of traps and tropes. What we can or cannot change about our mutually disappointing governments shifts with access to money and media, courage and creativity. I close my eyes at night thinking of your particular fate, and wonder how any of us who are free continue to go about our lives as if there’s nothing to lose. In fact, there’s everything to lose.

It’s likely we could have met at some point in Addis, when you were still a faithful bank employee, zipping around Addis knee to knee in pack minivans, sipping on macchiato in the morning, spris or St. George in the afternoon, getting your shoes shined, dipping your fingers into hot shiro with friends, walking up steep inclines into the fog, puckering injera into a kiss, listening to Aster Awake in a blue Peugot, hanging out at Taitu before the fire, people-watching near the bookstores in Arat Kilo. I don’t know you, and I can’t say I know Addis, but I’ve moved through those rain-soaked streets, slipping into warm cafes to meet with journalists-turned-bird-watchers, trying to evade careers pocked with fear and anxiety.

In the months leading up to your arrest in April of 2014, I’d landed in your great city several times, heady with altitude, thinking I knew something about your country, how to move around with impunity, talk about gender equality in hotel lobbies, connect with visionary artists, sip on red wine as I tapped whatever Internet came to me in stutters and starts at the Jupiter.

I learned early on that my project’s success depended on how lightly we tread with local and federal authorities, how we maneuvered the restrictions imposed by the CSOA. Even writing you now is a risk I was warned not to take. I jeopardize associations, friendships, connections, networks, links by making this letter a public gesture. And to be honest, I dismiss these warnings because of a certain level of American arrogance, I suppose, that keeps me a stone’s throw from fear.

I’ve written and erased several versions of this letter so far – but I can’t help but wonder what happens when we stop writing — talking — reaching out to each other for answers, the way you did back in 2013, when you met then Secretary of State John Kerry at Addis Ababa University and addressed his contradictions. Did John Kerry ever write back to your letter? Have you not yet been made a foreign policy priority? Are you not yet a crisis we’re forced to confront? Has he given up anything to release you? Of all the diplomatic meetings held in Addis to keep the peace, how many hands shook to release you?

Natnael with US Secretary of State John Kerry, Addis Ababa, 2013.

Natnael with US Secretary of State John Kerry, Addis Ababa, 2013.

It chills me to read that your charges are tied up with your meeting with Kerry back in 2013. The whole premise — a televised encounter moderated between visionary Addis students and the US Secretary of State — feels like a cruel performance in which all of us, citizens and diplomats, Westerners and Africans, are merely players. But what else is there to do but show up to those gatherings, let your life’s course spin out in an unimagined direction? We could stay home, we could stay silent, but when we show up at these kinds of gatherings, there are witnesses. Reality, then, is not fixed, but in motion. Each question is a stone tossed in a still, stagnant pool of injustice.

This is the real “hard-talk,” as in — you have been brought before a judge again and again on charges of terrorism. How often will that word itself be terrorized by our government’s abuse of it? What happens when our writing causes us to splinter ties with that illusory world of affection? When our writing is more than a love letter or a grocery list, but a set of demands, a catalogue of a pain? At what point will any of us look at ourselves or each other in the mirror and notice only love behind our eyes?

Kerry will tell you, he’s an advocate for candor. In Libya, he thought he had to help. In Mali, he thought he had to help. In Syria, he thought he had to help. He talked of war crimes, violations of human rights and law. And there you were —risking a lot merely by expressing thoughts freely. Didn’t Kerry tell you that if you wanted to change Ethiopia it would have to start with its youth? They tell us the same thing, here, while unarmed black men are killed by police without consequence. The present, historical moment feels grim, sometimes, Natnael. The trees are still bursting green in all this grim.

And then you blogged because you cared. And then you were scared. I tried to explain to high school students in Chicago that a person’s words have the power to change the world. And then they couldn’t believe that writers could be rounded up for imagining the world as if it could be otherwise. That it happens in many places. That it will happen, again and again, so long as writers are willing to write their way out of the madness of these days. And then, for a time, I couldn’t believe it either. And then, there’s you.

Send us news, Natnael. Write back.

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