Trapped in a soured relationship
Four days before Christmas last year Swedish journalists Johan Persson and Martin Schibbye were sentenced to 11 years in prison in Ethiopia, charged with entering the country illegally and supporting terrorism.
I do not grasp the full impact of oil prospecting in Ogaden, or the controversial link between Lundin Petrolium (the company the journalists were investigating) and Carl Bildt, the Swedish foreign minister. Likewise, I am unable to judge the legitimacy of the Ogaden National Liberation Front, with which the journalists were in contact, in breach of Ethiopian law.
Yet, as a daughter of both countries, who is generally suspicious of oil multinationals and silencing people by law, it is impossible to remain indifferent to the drama that has unfolded since Persson and Schibbye’s arrest in July last year. It is a drama that resonates with certain aspects of being a Swede of Ethiopian origin, in the same way that the case of Eritrean-Swedish journalist and writer Dawit Isaak does.
Incarcerated since 2001 in Eritrea, which became independent from Ethiopia in 1993, Isaak, like Persson and Schibbye, was drawing attention to sensitive issues. The difference is that Persson and Schibbye have had their charges tried in court, but Isaak has yet to appear before one.
Among the first to be adopted from Ethiopia to Sweden in the 1970s, I am linked to a relationship that dates back more than a century. In the 1860s Swedish missionaries first settled in Ethiopia and in 1954 it became the first country to receive Swedish development aid. When the two nations celebrated 50 years of “partnership” against poverty in 2004, the relationship between the countries was still one of unilateral aid and modest bilateral trade.
Replacing the word “aid” with “partnership” reflects an admirable effort and approach to humanitarian aid, but it also distorts reality. The rapport between Ethiopia and Sweden was never mutually beneficial and the “partnership” is dysfunctional in the way any relationship in which one party gives and the other receives is dysfunctional.
It is inevitably tainted by a dose of donor arrogance and passivity on the part of a disempowered receiver. It is also dented by the stubbornness of a receiving country that emphasises its autonomy to avoid drowning in a sea of gratitude and by the anxiety of a giving nation known as one of the most egalitarian societies in the world. Theirs is a complicated friendship that threatens the self-image of an African country that was never colonised and a European nation with a colonising past so far back in time that it does not view itself as a former coloniser.
My being adopted to Sweden, with my twin brother, was a manifestation of the interest in and solidarity with the outside world that partly, but not completely, characterised Sweden during the 1970s. Over the years we became a family of seven: apart from my brother and me, our Swedish parents, two sisters from Guatemala and an older brother from the Philippines (he has since moved back). This was before anyone talked about “rainbow” nations or families and long before Angelina and Brad made such constellations fashionable.
Many of us were offered far better lives than we would have had in our countries of origin, but the problematic aspect of international adoption cannot be ignored. To some extent it can be viewed as a reproduction of the worst crime of colonialism—appropriating the colonised nation’s potential for growth. This was done through natural resources during the days of colonialism and children in the post-colonial era.
What internationally adopted Swedes also have to deal with is that our very existence in Sweden is proof of the failure of our own countries—countries that inevitably are a part of us.
My relationship with Ethiopia has always been clouded by shame about a country that seemed incapable of getting its act together. It was a shame rooted in the general Swedish perception of Ethiopia as a basket case. Throughout my life I have been reminded of this perception by concerned, friendly people, by large images of suffering Ethiopians in the subway every Christmas and by not-so-well-meaning fellow Swedes sharing racist jokes about starvation and Africa.
Similarly, my bond to my adoptive country has always been rather fragile: my belonging is constantly being questioned and I am constantly reminded of a debt of gratitude I seem to owe to so many people.
I have lost count of how many sweet old ladies asked me to assess exactly how happy I am to have been saved and more than once I have been blamed for the failure of my country of birth by other guests at dinner parties who “frankly have given up hope on Africa”. Others projected their low expectations of Ethiopia and Africa on to me and rejoiced in the slightest progress, such as my speaking Swedish—my first language—fluently and having Swedish friends.
This persistent and widespread paternalistic attitude towards Ethiopia and the rest of Africa has had a negative impact on my ability to identify myself fully as a Swede among others. It is an attitude not just shown by ordinary people, but also by the current foreign minister, who refers to the minister for development co-operation as “the minister for Africa”.
I have since reconnected with Ethiopia through friends and several visits to the country. One of the phrases I know in Amharic is “I don’t speak Amharic”—useful in a country where almost everyone looks as if they could be my brother or sister. To witness what I knew intellectually but failed to realise emotionally, that I come from a place where people laugh, cars drive in the streets, and high-rise buildings reach to the sky, has been a healing experience. Ethiopia is a country of which I am immensely proud, but one that also makes me sad and disillusioned.
Terrible events sometimes lead to positive outcomes, even if they may not be worth the sacrifices of those directly concerned. In the case of Persson and Schibbye, their incarceration will hopefully bring some attention to Ethiopians in the same situation. What is more, the increasing number of Swedes calling for easy solutions, such as cutting aid to Ethiopia immediately, might encourage Ethiopia and Sweden to revisit and redefine their relationship.
It has changed during the course of the years as both countries have made new friends, identified new enemies and changed their priorities. I am not suggesting that Persson and Schibbye’s prison sentence is a direct consequence of Ethiopia and Sweden’s failure to address the changed expectations of their complicated relationship.
I do, however, view their imprisonment as an almost perfect metaphor for the arrested, or at least severely delayed, development of the two countries’ deadlocked relationship and Ethiopia’s transformation into a democratic, freer and more equal society.
I hope that 2012 will be the year when Ethiopia, Sweden and I will learn to embrace ambiguity while facing the world with open eyes and minds, hoping to find new and creative ways to tackle 150-year-old issues. And, hopefully, Persson and Schibbye, who have decided to seek pardon instead of appealing their sentence, as well as Isaak, from whom no one has heard in years, will be reunited with their families.
Katarina Hedrén is a film programmer and former chairperson of the Swedish-based film festival CinemAfrica.
She writes about film on her blog, In the Words of Katarina