Commemorating One Hundred Years of Relations Between Ethiopia and the United States
By Selamawit Legesse

Taking the establishment of the formal diplomatic ties between the United States and Ethiopia as a point of reference, a three day program celebrated one hundred years of friendship between the two nations. The event was held March 25-27, 2004, at Howard University in Washington, DC.

Dr. Alem Hailu, one of the organizers of the event stated that “the centennial marks the first U.S. diplomatic relations with an independent African country, and the bonds of friendship, understanding and partnership forged not only between the respective governments but also thousands of scholars, activists, educators, artists and missionaries.” Over 400 people came to the opening ceremony, and the panels and round table discussions were well-attended.

One of the highlights of the opening program was the keynote address delivered by Representative Elijah Cummings, Chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. His eloquent presentation pointed out the ideological unity of the civil rights movement of the 1930s through the 1960s and Ethiopia’s position as an inspiration for the movement. The Honorable Cumming’s statement on the solidarity between African- Americans and Ethiopians, “You are us and we are you,” was received with a standing ovation. He concluded by promising to continue advocating Ethiopia’s interests in the U.S. Congress.

.One of the enduring legacies of the bonds forged between the institutions as well as individuals of the two countries has been the U.S. Peace Corps program. A large number of Peace Corps returnees gave personal testimonies and reflections on their cherished experiences in Ethiopia. The volunteers combined insights with moving stories and brought tears of joy and nostalgia to many members of the audience. Marian Haley Beil shared the sense of pride they felt in serving such an old historic nation. Clare Shea, calling herself and two colleagues Gojame, recalled memorable days in Negus Teklehaimanot School in Debre Marcos.

An Ethiopian Entrepreneurship round table, moderated by Professor Lemma Senbet of the University of Maryland, symbolized the success story of Ethiopians who have excelled in their chosen fields in America. Prominent businessmen and women of the round table included Solomon Bekele, Eyob Eswaran, Fasil Gabre-Mariam, Kassa Maru, Markos Mulugeta, Bisrat Negatu, Noah Samara, Bereket Woldu and Zewditu Wondimu. Each shared personal business stories and what they considered to be the key to succeeding in the United States.

The entrepreneurs answered the audience’s questions candidly. They also offered many pieces of advice, such as the importance of working well with the local, state and federal government’s civil servants/ programs, respecting regulations, and being prompt while simultaneously dreaming big.

Mrs. Wondimu shared the way she deals with a competitive business environment and with often being the only minority, Black, Ethiopian, or woman in many of her business dealings. She was the lone female at the panel. Strongly and proudly, Mrs. Wondimu hollered her mantra: the key is “to reject the rejection.”

Heated discussions followed the presentations. A question about the lack of business cooperation with other Africans created energetic debate about the lack of unity even among Ethiopians. Dr. Samara, President and CEO of World Space, said, “too often we curse ourselves by believing the rhetoric that Ethiopians are never able to work well together. But we must start to think positively about ourselves and have fun with each other.” Mr. Bekele, President of Crown Insurance and VFH Captive Insurance, suggested that the creation of more professional associations (instead of the ethnic and political groups) might establish an environment conducive to teamwork.

Mr. Mulegeta Lule, Vice President of Ethiopian Press Journalists’ Association, moderated the media panel. When asked about the positive impact of their efforts or any unintended negative effect on the Ethiopian community, the journalists defended their work and denied any harm their roles might have caused. Demiss Belete, representing Hager Fiker radio, stated that one of their many services to the community is an organized fund raising to send a homeless person back to Ethiopia.

Some of the audience members forcefully asserted their comments. Even one of the community pillars, Professor Haile Gerima, fought to communicate that it is crucial that the journalists provide constructive information to the Ethiopian community. Professor Dr. Belai Habte-Jesus, who not only attends public gatherings concerning Ethiopia but also participates in the discussions by contributing his articulate and positive remarks, expressed his concern and stressed the need for the Ethiopian media to provide programs that attract and educate the younger generations.

Authentic Ethiopian cuisine, donated by Dama, Meaza and Zed’s restaurants and Zenebech Injera added to the atmosphere of festivity and fellowship. A wide array of programs from poetry reading to traditional music and dance as well as choir presentations made the occasion a truly memorable experience.

Scholars, public officials, community leaders and concerned citizens carried serious discourse in the wide array of organized panels. An official relations panel looked at the political dimensions of the relationship; a health care panel examined the challenges of emerging diseases and health policies; and a sustainable development panel addressed the issues of famine, deforestation and environmental degradation. A wide range of themes spanning military relations, history, community and society were covered over the three-day period. In addition, Tsehai Publishers launched two books at the event: The 1903 Skinner Mission to Ethiopia and A Century of American-Ethiopian Relations and Letters from Abyssinia, 1916 and 1917.

Key institutions and organizations such as the Rastafarian Society reminded participants of Ethiopia’s glorious traditions and promises bequeathed to all who cherished American-Ethiopian people-topeople relations.

The event honored historical figures such as Frederick Douglass, W. E. Du Bois, Martin Delaney, Melaku Beyan and William Leo Hansberry. The contemporary personalities recognized at the program included Getatchew Haile, William Scott, Joseph Harris, Mickey Leland, Yohannes Giorges and Jane Kurtz. Many institutions such as the Ethiopian World Federation and the U.S. Peace Corps were also celebrated for their work and contributions.

The program fulfilled its declared promises of celebrating mutual achievements of advancing knowledge, expertise and understanding of value to both nations. The program also assisted the Ethiopian Diaspora in serving as a viable bridge between Ethiopia and the United States. It will go down in history as a momentous event for reflection, celebration and fellowship. The theme also perfectly fits where the event took place. Howard University continues to be home to many Ethiopian professors and students.

The centennial was a great occasion for building social capital by affirming the contributions of numerous individuals and institutions towards strengthening the U.S.-Ethiopian relations. Dr Hailu underscored this point by citing an Ethiopian proverb: When a person pleases you with an act of kindness, either return the favor in like measure or tell others about it.

As the meaning of his name (the world at his power) and his determination suggests, do not be surprised if Professor Alem Hailu organizes yet another fantastic avenue where Ethiopians and friends of Ethiopia get together to learn from each other and address their differences.

Selamawit Legesse is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at:

U.S.-Ethio Relations Conference in D.C.

Representative Elijah Cummings speaking at the opening ceremony

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