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Dancing to the Eritrean tune

Hostile neighbours Ethiopia and Eritrea passed the bloodiest decade of war in 2000, with a tragedy that consumed about 80 000 lives. Yet, a decade later, the two countries are falling in love in the northern Ethiopian regional capital, Mekelle.

For centuries the history of northern Ethiopia has been filled with gruesome war stories and the city of Mekelle bears special witness. Nearly every family has contributed human alms to horrific wars. Almost every household features photographs of beloved sons hanging on ramshackle walls.

In the nearby jungle Meles Zenawi, now the prime minister of Ethiopia, and Isaias Afewerki, now the president of Eritrea, shared the armed struggle against the Derg’s military junta. And after 30 years of joint struggle and bloodshed, Afewerki’s country achieved long-sought independence in May 1993.

Then, divided over the fate of the Kashmire-like border town, Badime, the best of buddies in the jungle became the worst of enemies in the palace. And for about 20 years, from their respective thrones, Zenawi and Afewerki led their respective countries in a resistance against each other.

Still at loggerheads, both now use monopolised media to ridicule each other and both give rebels free airtime to disseminate propaganda against each other’s governments. They even ban each other’s music. Unwritten law has Eritrea restricting Ethiopian music, especially in the port region of Mitsiwa’e.

This story, however, takes a different shape on the road to Mekelle.

Consider Selam-Bus, one of the few bus services in Addis Ababa with a daily departure to Mekelle. Unlike other transport services elsewhere in the country, Selam-Bus offers luxuries such as safety belts, a portable refrigerator, air conditioning and — most importantly — two television sets.

Twisted language
Aboard, Eritrean culture dominates TV programmes, with its music and movies featuring Eritrea’s official language of Tigrigna. Most passengers from Ethiopia’s Tigre ethnic group, of course, speak a twisted version of the same language. Many of Ethiopia’s incumbent bigwigs are also from this ethnic group, including premier Zenawi himself.

Yet, in spite of all the Ethiopians on the bus, the two-day trip seems to be sponsored by Eritrea.

Even Mekelle dances only to the Eritrean tune. Traditional restaurants blare Eritrean music, notice boards and cinema houses announce the schedule for Eritrean movies and glossy posters of Eritrean music stars decorate coffee houses.

This situation astounds Tsegaye G/Tensay (39), an Ethiopian who was born in the Eritrean capital of Asmara, where he lived half of his life.

“Music is my passion and my profession,” says the composer. After the intense war between the border nations, however, he was not able to enjoy Ethiopian songs in Eritrea.

But when Tensay returned to the Ethiopian town of Mekelle, through the assistance of the Red Cross, he found an Ethiopian city engulfed in Eritrean music. Mekelle, in fact, has three government-controlled FM stations that all enjoy playing Eritrean music, which is obviously not in the government’s interest. The fact is, listeners prefer the music of their “enemies” to their own.

“Even at their weddings the grooms urged me to play Eritrean,” says Amanuel, a popular disk jockey who works in one of the prominent nightclubs, Abyssinia. Almost 90% of the songs he plays are Eritrean though, he says “nowadays I try to mix some songs of our own along with Eritrean”.

His own small DVD kiosk rents everything from Bollywood to Hollywood, but local residents prefer Eritrean films. So adverts posted throughout the city shout “New Eritrean movies: coming soon!”

Every Saturday and Sunday youths flood the city’s recreation centres and TV houses — a cinema hall where people hunker down and watch international soccer and popular local TV shows on a big screen — which are addicted to Eritrean dramas.

Only the English Premier League draws bigger crowds. And these sites can tap into the Eritrean channel from Arab satellites and present it to large audiences in Mekelle, with no competition from Ethiopian TV.

Of course, the wide acceptance of Eritrean music and other art has to do with proximity. At some point in history, the two peoples were one. Mekelle and Asmara share language, culture and social fabric.

The war — politically but not culturally motivated and lacking social backing — split two brotherly nations only on demarcation. But there seems to be no demarcation in their hearts.

Mohammed Selman, a lecturer in journalism, is a freelance writer. He lives in Ethiopia. In 2009 he won the Excellence in Journalism award from the Foreign Correspondents Association in Addis Ababa

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