Thursday, March 15, 2018

'Freedom!': the mysterious movement that brought Ethiopia to a standstill -guardian

Qeerroo – young Oromo activists – drove the mass strike that helped topple the prime minister of one of Africa’s most autocratic governments
Supporters of Bekele Gerba, secretary general of the Oromo Federalist Congress, celebrate his release from prison, in Adama, Ethiopia on 14 February 2018.
 Supporters of Bekele Gerba, secretary general of the Oromo Federalist Congress, celebrate his release from prison, in Adama, February 2018. Photograph: Tiksa Negeri/Reuters
Today, Desalegn is a banker. But once he was a Qeerroo: a young, energetic and unmarried man from Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, the Oromo, bound by what he calls a “responsibility to defend the people”.
Twelve years ago he helped organise mass protests against an election result he and many others believed the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) had rigged. This landed him in prison, along with thousands of others, on terrorism charges.
Since then he has married and, like many of his generations in Ethiopia, mostly avoided politics. That was until 12 February, when he joined almost everyone in the town of Adama, and in many others cities across the region of Oromia, in a strike calling for the release of opposition leaders and an end to authoritarianism.The boycott, which lasted three days and brought much of central Ethiopia to a standstill, culminated on 13 February with the release of Bekele Gerba, a prominent Oromo politician who lives in Adama, and, within 48 hours, the sudden resignation of Ethiopia’s beleaguered prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn. The shaken federal government then declared a nationwide state-of-emergency on 15 February, the second in as many years.“It was a total shutdown,” says Desalegn, of the strike in Adama. “Almost everybody took part – including government offices. You wouldn’t have even been able to find a shoeshine boy here.”
For him and many other residents of Adama, about 90km south-east of the capital, Addis Ababa, there is only one explanation for how a normally quiescent town finally joined the uprising that has billowed across much of Oromia and other parts of Ethiopia since late 2014: the Qeerroo.
Police fire tear gas to disperse protesters during the Oromo festival of Irreecha, in Bishoftu, Ethiopia, in October, 2016
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 Police fire teargas to disperse protesters during the Oromo festival of Irreecha, in Bishoftu, October 2016. Photograph: Tiksa Negeri/Reuters
Who the Qeerroo are, and how they have helped bring one of Africa’s strongest and most autocratic governments to its knees, is only dimly understood.
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In traditional Oromo culture the term denotes a young bachelor. But today it has broader connotations, symbolising both the Oromo movement – a struggle for more political freedom and for greater ethnic representation in federal structures – and an entire generation of newly assertive Ethiopian youth.
“They are the voice of the people,” explains Debela, a 32-year-old taxi driver in Adama who says he is too old to be one but that he supports their cause. “They are the vanguard of the Oromo revolution.”
The term’s resurgence also reflects the nature of Oromo identity today, which has grown much stronger since Ethiopia’s distinct model of ethnically based federalism was established by the EPRDF in 1994.
“In the past even to be seen as Oromo was a crime,” says Desalegn, of the ethnic assimilation policies pursued by the two preceding Ethiopian regimes, imperial and communist. “But now people are proud to be Oromo … So the Qeerroos are emboldened.”
As the Oromo movement has grown in confidence in recent years, so the role of the Qeerroo in orchestrating unrest has increasingly drawn the attention of officials.
At the start of the year police announced plans to investigate and crack down on the Qeerroo, arguing that it was a clandestine group bent on destabilising the country and seizing control of local government offices. Party sympathisers accused members of being terrorists.
Bekele Gerba waves to his supporters after his release from prison in Adama, Ethiopia on 13 February 2018.
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 Bekele Gerba waves to his supporters after his release from prison in Adama, on 13 February. Photograph: Tiksa Negeri/Reuters
Though many dispute this characterisation, few doubt the underground strength of the Qeerroo today.
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Since the previous state of emergency was lifted last August, Qeerroo networks have been behind multiple strikes and protests in different parts of Oromia, despite obstacles like the total shutdown of mobile internet in all areas beyond the capital since the end of last year.
Bekele Gerba, the opposition leader, credits the Qeerroo with securing his release from prison, and for sending hundreds of well-wishers to his home in Adama in the aftermath. But like many older activists, he confesses to limited knowledge of how they organise themselves.
“I only became aware of them relatively recently,” he says. “We don’t know who the leadership is and we don’t know if they have a central command.”
But in a recent interview with the Guardian, two local leaders in Adama, Haile and Abiy (not their real names), shed light on their methods.
According to the two men, who are both in their late 20s, each district of the city has one Qeerroo leader, with at least 20 subordinates, all of whom are responsible for disseminating messages and information about upcoming strikes.
They say their networks have become better organised in recent months, explaining that there is now a hierarchical command chain and even a single leader for the whole of Oromia. “This gives us discipline and allows us to speak with one voice,” says Abiy.
Their job has become more difficult in the absence of the internet.
“With social media you can disseminate the message in seconds,” says Abiy. “Now it can take two weeks, going from door to door.” Instead of using WhatsApp and Facebook, they now distribute paper flyers, especially on university campuses.
The role of Oromo activists among the diaspora, especially those in the US, also remains crucial, despite the shutdown.
Zecharias Zelalem, an Ethiopian journalist based in Canada, argues that it is thanks to prominent social media activists that the Qeerroo have acquired the political heft that youth movements in other parts of the country still lack. He highlights in particular the work of Jawar Mohammed, the controversial founder of the Minnesota-based Oromia Media Network (which is banned in Ethiopia), in amplifying the voice of the Qeerroo even when internet is down.
“[Jawar] gives us political analyses and advice,” Haile explains. “He can get access to information even from inside the government, which he shares with the Qeerroos. We evaluate it and then decide whether to act on it.”
He and Abiy both dismiss the assumption, widespread in Ethiopia, that Jawar remote-controls the protests. “The Qeerroos are like a football team,” counters Haile. “Jawar may be the goalkeeper – helping and advising – but we are the strikers.”
Supporters of Bekele Gerba, secretary general of the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), chant slogans to celebrate Gerba’s release from prison
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 Supporters of Bekele Gerba chant slogans to celebrate Gerba’s release from prison. Photograph: Tiksa Negeri/Reuters
The reimposition of the state-of-emergency has angered many Qeerroos in Adama and elsewhere in Oromia, where the move was widely seen as heavy-handed bid to reverse the protesters’ momentum.
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Some analysts fear further repression will push members of a still mostly peaceful political movement towards violence and extremism.
Many in the government, as well as in other parts of the country, worry about a rise in ethnically motivated attacks, on people and property, and especially on ethnic Tigrayans, who make up about 6% of the population but are generally considered to dominate politics and business.
Late last year federal troops were dispatched to university campuses, in large part due to escalating ethnic violence, which included several deaths. There were reports of similar incidents during protests throughout the past month.
Jibril Ummar, a local businessman and activist, says that he and others tried to ensure the protests in Adama were peaceful, calming down overexcited young men who wanted to damage property and attack non-Oromos.
“It worries me,” he admits. “There’s a lack of maturity. When you are emotional you put the struggle in jeopardy.”
Gerba says he worries about violence, too, including of the ethnic kind. “We know for sure that Tigrayans are targeted most, across the country. This concerns me very much and it is something that has to be worked on.”
In the coming days the EPRDF will decide on a new prime minister, and many hope it will be someone from the Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation (OPDO), the Oromo wing of the ruling coalition.
This might placate some of the Qeerroo, at least in the short term. But it is unlikely to be enough on its own to dampen the anger.
“When we are married we will retire from the Qeerroo,” says Haile. “But we will never do that until we get our freedom.”

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

To keep girls in school, Ethiopians open up about menstruation | Daily Mail Online





















In Ethiopia, so-called girls' clubs in schools are helping break the taboo of talking about menstruation

In Ethiopia, so-called girls' clubs in schools are helping break the taboo of talking about menstruation
There's one room at the Sheno primary school in rural Ethiopia that's different from all the others, starting with the sign over the door reading: "Menstruation is a gift from God."
Inside this converted classroom, boys and girls gather in what some pupils call the "girls' club" to break one of the country's most enduring taboos: talking about periods.
In Ethiopia, adolescent girls are generally left to muddle through puberty on their own without guidance or the means to buy sanitary pads.
Only 54 percent of Ethiopian girls finish primary school, according to the United Nations children's fund, UNICEF, and many abandon it because of cramps or embarrassing mishaps during their periods.
With child marriage prevalent in rural areas, local beliefs link menstruation to sexual activity, and so an accidental blood stain could see girls relentlessly teased by their classmates.
When 14-year-old Yordanos Tesfaye first got her period, she was "shocked and frightened".
"I went home and told my father but he couldn't afford to buy me a pad. Then I told my friend and she suggested I use a rag. However, I didn't know how to use it and dropped it on the street and I was very embarrassed," she told AFP.
Like many teenage girls, she was tempted to drop out of school, but support from the girls' club convinced her to stay.
Only 54 percent of Ethiopian girls finish primary school, according to UNICEF, and many abandon it because of cramps or embarrassing mishaps during their periods

Only 54 percent of Ethiopian girls finish primary school, according to UNICEF, and many abandon it because of cramps or embarrassing mishaps during their periods
The clubs -- officially called "menstrual hygiene management" clubs and open to pupils aged 11 and older -- began as a collaboration between local health officials and UNICEF, based on the idea that adolescent girls won't stay in school if they can't effectively manage their transition to womanhood.
"That (time) of the girls' lives is absolutely critical to manage well in order to improve the sort of academic performance and reduce the dropouts in school," said Samuel Godfrey, UNICEF's sanitation chief in Ethiopia.
The programme has been implemented in 65 schools and UNICEF is planning to expand it further.
- 'Not a disease' -
Children attend primary school in Ethiopia from the age of seven to 14 but many stay longer if they were late to enroll or have repeated a class.
At Sheno school, which has more than 760 pupils and lies some 80 kilometres (50 miles) from the capital Addis Ababa, sanitary pads are given out for free and boys and girls work together to demystify the female menstrual cycle.
Since the girls' club opened three years ago, Sheno's rate of dropouts due to period woes has been reduced to zero. The year before it opened, 20 girls left, according to the school.
Clad in a white coat, biology teacher Tafesech Balemi guides girls through the changes their bodies are experiencing, while also educating the boys.
She hands out reusable sanitary pads to girls who can't afford to buy them and also offers a shower and a mattress where they can lie down if they don't feel well.
Biology teacher Tafesech Balemi guides girls through their body changes and educates boys to demystify the female menstrual cycle

Biology teacher Tafesech Balemi guides girls through their body changes and educates boys to demystify the female menstrual cycle
"We teach students in this club that menstruation is a gift from God. We teach them that it is not a disease but rather it is natural and biological," she explains.
Tafesech also tracks girls who don't come to school and will meet with their families if she believes their absenteeism has something to do with menstruation.
At another school in the same region, Hiwot Werka, 14, was mortified when she got her period while in class, staining her uniform.
"I used to hide... the whole day until nobody was around."
Adding to her shame, her mother accused her of being sexually active and forbade her from leaving the house, beating her when she tried to go to school.
Local health officials went to speak to her family, to explain to them that what Hiwot was going through was normal and not linked to sex.
"After a time, my mother came to realise that menstruation is normal," said Hiwot, who was allowed to return to school.
- Key role for boys -
Despite the name of the clubs, boys are an integral part of it because they help fight some of the most vicious side-effects of the menstruation taboo.
An Ethiopin initiative hands out reusable sanitary pads, like those being made here, for free

An Ethiopin initiative hands out reusable sanitary pads, like those being made here, for free
Yonas Nigussie, 14, remembers teasing girls who had a mishap during that time of the month, yelling out: "You know you have blood on your behind!"
He credits the club with changing his attitude completely, and now tells friends who taunt girls to knock it off.
"I remember when my sister got her first period. I was the one who brought her pads," Yonas said.
Ethiopia is among several countries in Africa that have implemented ways to accommodate women during their periods.
In 2015, Zambia enacted a law allowing women to be absent from work without notice to help them deal with menstrual pain.
And earlier this year, Kenya mandated that all schools provide sanitary pads to girls, free of charge.