‘I left my country, but my country has not left me.’Mesfin Tadesse
Balageru Television. Yekedimo Serawit. Ep 13. Pt 1. “Former Veteran”. YouTube, Dec 2020. [Amharic & English].
To view the interview click here. Mesfin speaks 5 minutes after the start of the program, in Amharic. Ianet speaks at the end, in English.
Mesfin was born in Ethiopia during the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie I. He spent his teens and twenties under the communist Derg. Early childhood in Harer was carefree. Mesfin made roosters out of wire and sketched his beautiful mother.
She was a nurse, midwife & traditional healer. Click here, to read about Ethiopian herbal medicine. She also fought with patriots during Ethiopia’s 1935-41 resistance to Mussolini’s invading fascists. Click here, to learn about this.
His father was a colonel, military teacher and Ethiopia’s Border Security Command Officer. Mesfin’s parents were supporters of the helpless and defenders of their motherland.
Their son became one of them. The Derg conscripted him to the military. He was underage. With other boys, he saw action in Eritrea.
Mesfin trained for the Airborne special force. He made 69 parachute jumps and gained his Airborne Master Parachutist’s & Dispatcher’s wing. For an explanation of the badge, click here.
Serving mostly in desert areas, he survived numerous missions impossible. As Airborne boarded Antonov aircraft, the military played a song of forgiveness. Celebrated singer Tilahun Gessesse sang it. Click here to listen. The Soviet also used it for funerals right up to the final day of communism: Perestroika was in 1989. Though a youth, Mesfin also trained recruits.
As a child, Mesfin had lived through the communist revolution and Derg Red Terror. Click here to read more please be warned that it is upsetting. The Derg destroyed Mesfin’s family and community. Before they came to power, a friend and he had found survivors of the 1972–1973 northern Ethiopian famine. Enemies of Ethiopia had used this to exacerbate unrest & bring down the monarchy of Emperor Haile Selassie I.
Despite extraordinary trauma, Mesfin remained an accelerated school student. He was multi-lingual and literate in Ge’ez, Hebrew and Amharic. Arabic and English became Mesfin’s fourth and fifth languages. Click here, to see the Ge’ez Ethiopian writing system. Few can use Ge’ez today.
The youngest enrolled in his course at Building College, Addis Ababa, he studied Design and Construction Engineering. He then won a United Nations Development Program scholarship to study a Bachelor of Civil Engineering (Water Development) at University of Cairo (Gamal Abdul Nasser). Mesfin topped 1st Year.
Mesfin returned voluntarily to Ethiopia from his study in Egypt. It was now the mid-1980s. He was a specialist in water technology. Click here, to see a photo of aquifer water. The communist government wasted Mesfin’s skills. It forced him to work anywhere. He risked imprisonment and worse by ignorant & unqualified party members. They obstructed the work of professionals.
Keen to preserve the natural environment, Mesfin lobbied his engineering superiors to adapt projects. He consulted with Ethiopian traditional land owners. Brilliant bosses & elders made his work worthwhile. Click here, for an image of wonderful Oromo elders.
Mesfin was a skinny youth in a t-shirt, who led workforces of up to 800 people. He called older men gashe. They called him ‘son’. There was no ridiculous ‘Doctor Engineer This or That.’ Nobody had bought their degrees. They were schooled the Ethiopian way.
Their engineering technology dated from thousands of years ago in ancient Abyssinia. This was before the time of the Engineer Queen Saba (Queen Sheba), around 1,000 BC. Senior engineers were diligent & humble. They respected all skilled workers.
In 1991, a second disastrous change of government in Ethiopia drove Mesfin to Kenya. For over 3 years, he built water-supply systems there, providing potable water to refugees. He worked for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). For information about UNHCR, click here. For UNICEF, click here.
His hours were long and his pay was low. Mesfin slogged in heat and Kenyan police bashed him. No European could take that. None had his technical and negotiating skills, both gained in Ethiopia.
Mesfin’s humanitarian work and advocacy for refugees saved countless lives, mostly women and children. He respected local Kenyan land owners & consulted with them: foreigners had hurt them. Caroline Elkins wrote “Britain’s Gulag” about this. To read a review, click here. His work helped Kenyans marginalised by their president. Click here, to read about Daniel arap Moi.
In Kenya, his defence of the helpless brought enemies. Did they care about refugees? The sequel to Lucy’s People will cover this. Refugees would increase in number. See the statistics: click here.
Emigrating later to New Zealand and then Australia, Mesfin had much to offer both countries. However, New Zealanders made him work as a garbage collector. Welcome to another former British colony. Mesfin ran behind a reeking truck while co-workers and the public flung abuse. His retort? An Ethiopian innovation: mechanical lifting of rubbish bins. Australians call them sulo or wheelie bins. These images show them – click here to view. Now, he works in Australia as a master builder, registered with Master Builders Association WA.
The West loves to under-employ and exploit African professionals. Click here, to read a report on this. Many immigrants have internationally recognised qualifications, yet what do Australian recruiters tell them? ‘Over qualified.’ Those words are empty of meaning. To Ianet, they are weasel words: have fun reading about them – click here. In human resources, ‘over qualified’ is a cover for systematic racism. How many Aussies have caught taxis driven by immigrants with PhDs?
More Racist Rubbish
In those two countries, Mesfin came to know racism unheard of by un-colonized Ethiopians. He played soccer for New Zealand and scored spectacular goals. Ungrateful fans booed and threw rubbish. It covered the whole ground.
In Australia, an Italian builder showed Mesfin his gun when he refused to go slow laying bricks. Another belched and surveyed the crowded lunch area.
‘My grandmother says that Ethiopians eat people.’
‘Do not worry, I will not eat you. You are too stinky.’
Recently, a stranger banged on his vehicle window. ‘That is not your car!’ She meant, ‘You stole it.’
Anglo-Saxon Aussies blurt out things such as, ‘You Muslim?’ However, they have even better to offer Africans: Mesfin pays taxes that fund public libraries. He has visited the world’s finest. Read our book extract about Negus Menelik’s library: click here. When he browses Australia’s comparatively mean collections, library officers sidle up to him. ‘You lost?’ They disguise the insult as customer service. It means, ‘You do not belong here.’
Security guards accost Africans as they emerge from banks. One did this to Mesfin in a shopping centre. The youth planted his feet wide apart and folded his arms, mustering all of his linguistic expertise. ‘You lost?’ Head down, Mesfin pretended not to hear, but the guard persisted. He pestered Mesfin, who said, ‘I built this. Now, can you tell me where the flood exit is. . . ?
‘What, you do not know? How are you going to help patrons in a flash flood? You need more training. Let me phone your boss.’
‘Please, do not Sir.’
Mesfin ignores ‘sir’ and shuns neck ties though he has been presented to the queen for maintenance work on Canterbury Cathedral. He would have preferred farming, reading, writing, playing music, weaving and producing herbs and fruit. Loyal to women, he is a true African man. Nothing beats an Ethiopian neighbourhood. Click here, to hear a great song.
Ianet was born in Australia and raised by a plucky mother. She grew up wild on farms. While a toddler in remote Western Australia, the family had a pet kangaroo that drank tea with milk. He waltzed with the adults. Ianet danced to tango music until she fell down.
Papua New Guinea
When she was 7, her family moved to Papua New Guinea (PNG). It was then a territory of Australia administered from the state of Queensland. Click here, to read a news article.
Her father patronised the people. ‘I teach agriculture to the natives.’ When Ianet spoke with New Guinean people, he dragged her and a younger brother to a freshly dug grave. ‘This is what happens to you when you play with native children.’
At school, teachers segregated her from New Guinean children. However, there was the school ute. Australians referred to grown police officers as “police boys”. They drove students to school in its open tray, bumping them all the way downhill, no seatbelts. Falling and rolling over each other, kids shrieked with laughter. White adults were furious, powerless to prevent those 10 minutes of joy.
PNG locals were distressed at violent acts committed by Indonesia upon their countrymen. This began after Indonesia annexed the western part of the island, Irian Jaya. Click here, to read an historical account: it tells what happened to West Papua from 1962 onwards. The world did not help: no surprise to those who know history – click here, to read what the world did to Ethiopia.
Colonialist nations unleashed bullies upon other peoples. Ianet’s father was one. He held his gun to his wife’s belly.
‘I will shoot all the kids and then you.’
He was in charge of a remote highlands area into which only helicopters flew. Ianet’s mother sought help from his subordinate. That gentleman propositioned her. Desperate, the young mother then forged her husband’s signature on an application form for leave. Australia granted her approval to fly home alone on vacation. She acted swiftly, pretending to leave early for the family’s annual leave. With one suitcase and four children, she fled to Australia’s south-west.
The family ran a sheep farm near the coast. Ianet roamed free, picking wildflowers – soon illegal. She also conscripted her brothers to watch her ballet productions on the veranda.
The backdrop was an estuary housing ancient World Heritage fish traps. Click here, to read about the site. Where were the Aboriginal builders? Four decades later, she would learn about them and other Aboriginal Australian technology, aquaculture & agriculture. Click here, to view an elder’s talk. The speaker is Aboriginal Australian Bruce Pascoe.
Her grandfather gave Ianet her first job. ‘Search for sheep lying on their backs. They’re too fat to roll over onto their feet.’
The 10-year-old believed him, spent a long time in paddocks and decided that the Aussie Southdown breed was ugly. By contrast, Ethiopia’s sheep have brown coats, long legs and intelligent faces. All of its livestock is interesting looking.
The family’s next move was to the most isolated city in the world: Perth, Western Australia. At the age of 13, Ianet obtained her second job as a member of the chorus in a pantomime called Robinson Crusoe. Two of her roles were pearl and cannibal: racist constructs had followed her to the land of tutus.
Ianet qualified as a librarian, then an English-language teacher. She appreciates bi-lingual education. When a person’s home language is taught in schools, students learn the official language better. Click here, to read short information about research by Androula Yiakoumetti.
Ianet also wrote dance-teaching manuals, but forgot to read How Not To Fall Over on Stage. Consequently, she holds the record for stacking it. Ethiopian dance fascinates her. For an overview, click here.
Ianet learnt Ethiopia’s writing system. For a page about Ethiopian Fidal, click here. Her world opened up. Fidal works well. Its characters match the sounds of Ethiopian languages.
By contrast, Roman-alphabet letters can be pronounced in many ways. After years at school, some native English speakers remain confused by this. It could explain why poor reading & writing is frequent among Australians. For literacy statistics, click here.
Human Rights Letters
As a young adult, Ianet joined Amnesty International. Through them, she wrote short letters to despots with long honorifics: ‘Your Sublime Excellency, Chief Bottle Washer and State Nappy Changer, Lord of All Who Bear AK-47s and Wondrous Pie Eater . . . ,’
Ianet’s letters were serious. They appealed for the release, or proper trial, of political prisoners in their countries. The sheer volume of paper might overwhelm leaders who thrived on cruelty. Would they reconsider their tactics? For universal human rights information, click here.
She was unsuccessful. The worst of human rights abuse continued: summary executions, genocide, torture, systematic rape and land grabbing. As Mesfin says, ‘Devils never get exhausted.’
During Ethiopia’s Red Terror, Ianet wrote to Derg leaders who ignored her. Decades later, she would meet survivors among Ethiopians and Eritreans living in her own country. Click here to view a photo. Mesfin was one. They rarely complained. Ironically, it was those migrants who made the lives of Australians better, including hers.
What has changed?
Australia apologised for what it has done to the Australian Aboriginal people – click here to read about it. In a way, it is still a colony – click here to view a talk. The dominant culture is white Anglo-Saxon or European. Its members continue to hurt both indigenous people and migrants. The UK has much to answer for, not only in Australia. Unlike other Aussies, Ianet does not want to meet the queen and would fall over while attempting a curtsey.
- Mesfin’s photos: Author’s Mother © Imperial Ethiopian Government, 197-?]; Mig 29 Fighter Jet at Bahir Dar Military Museum ©Ianet Bastyan, 2020; Airborne Master Parachutist’s Wing:bidorbuy; Gffirse Dam © Mesfin Tadesse, 2020; Visiting the US © Jenny, 1995
- Ianet’s photos: Author’s Mum © Gerald J. Bastyan, 1952; Oyster Harbour © Ianet Bastyan, 2016; Ethiopian Brumby © Mesfin Tadesse 2020; Bata di cola: flamencobites.com; Ianet near Entoto © Mesfin Tadesse, 2020
- Featured image: Lake Tana Pelicans © Mesfin Tadesse, 2020