I was getting a manicure and pedicure in my local hair salon when the news channel flashed updates of the Saudi Arabian led coalition’s bombing of the Houthi’s in Yemen. In the brief exchanges with my manicurist, a statement she made about the ensuing attacks caught me off-guard and had me embark on a complex reflection process on the concept of “othering.”
I love the country of my birth, growing and knowing – Ethiopia. My roots here of course run back for generations extending between the North and South of the country in an eclectic mix of traditions and values. Though the extent of my heritage based on the facts that my parents and I know is limited to a North – South divide, I don’t rule out that roots can intertwine beyond the binaries or singularities which we are often boxed in and are keen in boxing others into.
The scent of being an Ethiopian that my fellow country dwellers experience is an aroma that is invisibly tattooed all over me. I am very much a product of the city of my birth, Addis Ababa, as I am equally a product of the cities of my growing, maturing and rising in the three other countries I have lived in before. Perhaps it is for this very blended aspect of Self that I don’t consider myself a nationalist and cannot fully fathom the related rhetoric uttered in any part of the world. More importantly, it is the very element of “othering” that for a lack of putting it in better words, “rubs me the wrong way.”
In the fixation of seeking one “like me” that knows and understands where “I” come from and what shapes a “me”; in seeking familiarity, there is an underlying fear of the unknown and unexplored masked as solidarity. Yet for this solidarity to exist, there is an “other” that needs to be won over. There is an “other” which gradually becomes less worthy of respect and undignified. The distance and space between “we” and “them” becomes greater and justifies this divide.
It is this mindset of an “other” that makes it okay for a stranger in a clinic to seek validation from another that is familiar by asking, “what is wrong with her?” of an Ethiopian woman waiting in the clinic who happens to be married to a “tikur sewye”, and expect one to join in the laughter and mocking.
It is this mindset of an “other” that engages some pockets of the population in Western countries to scapegoat immigrants for any problems.
It is this mindset of an “other” that leads to the brutal massacre of 148 students in the Kenyan University of Garissa. And the cycle of “othering” that enables hundreds of seemingly sensible people to cross waters and lands in allegiance to a senseless formation of a group of people (ISIS), who I imagine were “othered” elsewhere.
An “other” needs to be quelled for a “me” to exist, seems the leading logic in such a dangerous mindset. The little “othering” we engage in and treat innocently is what culminates into larger divisions lest we fail to nip them in the bud as they arise.
The “other” is merely a figment of our imagination; a result of our socialization and the source of our unexamined fears.
Billene Seyoum also blogs at www.africanfeminism.com