An African Immersion: Examining Peace, Governance, History and Culture in Ethiopia
by Wendy Ekua Quansah
A Life-Changing ExperienceSophomore Zaire Smalls, who had never traveled abroad before, said the thought of going to Ethiopia created a nervous energy. "I was really excited about traveling to an African country," said Zaire. "The fact that Ethiopia is the first Christian civilization made me feel like I struck gold twice."
Like many others on the study tour, Zaire was not sure what the trip would be like. "I didn't expect the experience to be as life-changing as it was," she added. "Every aspect taught me something new."
Historic landmarks in the towns of Gondar, Axum and Lalibela revealed a country deeply-rooted in its leaders and religion.
Up against hot temperatures and the infamous territorial "holy flies" that forced many in the group to swat nonstop, students explored the enormous 17th century castle compound of rulers such as Emperor Fasiledas, Yohannes and Eyasu. The group visited the Church of Debre Berhan Selassie, where colorful wall paintings of more than 80 winged-angels covered the ceiling.
Students also witnessed a traditional church wedding where family, friends and locals gathered around in a circle to sing songs to the bride and groom. The joy of the occasion was evident in the jumping and shouting by the men who seemed to be with the groom's party. At one point, the groomsmen stole the show with their exuberance.
Other cultural landmarks included the skyscraping obelisks carved from single blocks of granite at the Stele Park, and the massive fortress believed to be the original palace of the Queen of Sheba. Though parts of her palace wall were missing sections and marked by discolored, jagged rocks, her feminist, all-powerful, non-traditional reign was felt throughout the compound.
For graduate student Asha Makalani, the palace added a biblical element to the cultural experience.
"In Ethiopia, Christianity has such a powerful presence and Axum seemed to be the epicenter of that force," she explained.
A similar presence was also felt throughout the eleven rock-hewn churches, approximately 2,600 kilometers high in the mountains of Lalibela.
A few students, who woke at dawn to experience the Medhanialem (Holy Savior) annual festival at the Church of Bete Medhanialem, joined together with locals who were wrapped from head to toe in white cloth.
It was common for everyone to remove their shoes at the entrance of the church, and white head coverings for women were also an important sign of respect.
"Visiting Lalibela can only be described as a spiritual experience," said Asha, reflecting on her time at the service. "Every aspect of Lalibela was spiritual, uplifting and inspirational."
The excitement of the cultural landmarks permeated throughout the academic portion of the trip.
Peace and Development in Africa
"Given the preponderance of negative and inaccurate information that has traditionally characterized coverage of African issues and the emerging positive news on peace and development in Africa recently, it became imperative to organize a study trip centered around conflict resolution, peace, and development in Africa," said Dr. Assefaw Bariagaber, faculty chair at the School of Diplomacy and African Union Study Seminar course professor.
In Addis Ababa, the young diplomats visited A.U. headquarters and the U.S. embassy. The took part in briefings with high-level representatives, where the students learned about various institutions and their functions, including U.S. national security and Africa, U.S. interests in the Horn of Africa, U.S. - A.U. relationships, and Ethiopian national security interests.
Graduate student Paul Palamattam said his deep interest in conflict management and the creation of institutions working on conflict resolution encouraged him to take part in the study tour.
"The African Union is an important institution and the chance to travel to the seat of the A.U. and learn about its ethos, efforts, and endeavors was an experience I couldn't miss," he said.
For Paul, the opportunity to meet with high-level leaders such as Michael Battle, the U.S. Ambassador to the A.U., enriched the experience. "I'm very grateful for all that I was able to learn," he said.
Dr. Bariagaber said the study tour provided "students with an environment conducive to generating critical analyses of issues such as peace and development on the Continent."
The trip also gave students a better sense of career opportunities that are available abroad and through international agencies. Some students came away with ideas for internships, while others gained new insights into their special areas of interest.
"The trip awakened my interest in the Horn of Africa," explained graduate student, Sthelyn Romero. "It helped me zero-in on what I want to do with my degree, which is to work towards achieving peace in Africa. Now I am seeking internships that work with Africa and African issues in terms of furthering peace and protection of human rights."
Asha Makalani plans to pursue a career in international development, specifically focusing on youth and education. "I was very intrigued and inspired by A.U. efforts to enhance education throughout the Continent via the PanAfrican University project."
Stephanie Yasco, also a graduate student at the School of Diplomacy, was happy she had the chance to learn "first hand" how the A.U. and other organizations work. It was an opportunity, Stephanie explained, that "not many people get the chance to participate in. This seminar has inspired me to seek other opportunities that are directly related to the African region."
The trip to Ethiopia was an unforgettable and rewarding experience for everyone. Zaire Smalls perhaps put it best: "I wouldn't have taken my first trip abroad to any other place with any other group of people than the students of the School of Diplomacy."