Time and again we keep falling into this notion and habit of dismissing or silencing voices - for whatever reason it may be. Political, cultural, religious, professional, personal… but humans always find ways to make themselves heard or live their best authentic lives whether the oppressor sees it or not. The oppressor often triumphs through the idea that it has dismantled the ideology, identity, or question of the oppressed. “If we don’t see it, if we don’t hear it, then it doesn’t exist.”
But that to me is a fool’s paradise. Given the oppressor’s moves mostly arise from fear of the oppressed - rational or irrational - the biggest “victory” lies in believing the “threat” no longer exists… but that existence is, of course, relative. Does it exist if we don’t know? If we don’t see it? If we don’t hear it? I think it would bring us to the famous philosophical question - “If a tree falls in a forest but you didn’t hear it, did it really fall?”
What the oppressor often forgets, however, is that the oppressed always, almost always, find a way to resist. The resistance might not be strong or big enough to dismantle and take the oppressor down, or it may even be some perpetual state of resistance with no time limit in its conventional sense… but it certainly serves a purpose or two. A purpose to be, to speak, to express, to organize… a purpose to simply exist.
Resistance doesn’t always take an active and visible political form in the public sphere or doesn’t necessarily try to take spaces or make political statements. Sometimes, people, groups, or communities resist just as a way of coping and navigating ways to coexist without disrupting the status quo, the norm – and that is what I refer as a perpetual state of resistance – an everyday resistance.
Sometimes, people, groups, or communities resist just as a way of coping and navigating ways to coexist without disrupting the status quo, the norm – and that is what I refer as a perpetual state of resistance – an everyday resistance.
A good example that most Ethiopians or many other collectivist cultures relate to is how, especially the youth, have a double reality or dual identity that is divided between our immediate family/elders and friends. Yes, that part of us we never want our families/elders to know about but our friends/peers know by default. And there is this unwritten and unspoken agreement that our friends and peers automatically know what goes in the “family compartment” and what goes in the “friends’ compartment”. This kind of compartmentalisation reminds me of how, a little over 20 years ago, some families in our neighbourhood found out some of their kids had converted to Protestant Christianity from Orthodox Christianity and all hell broke loose! Upon finding out, their families did a crackdown of some sort interrogating their children on how this happened, and some even punished them brutally for following a religion they didn’t approve (or so I’ve heard). Important to note here how Orthodox Christianity has for long been the default sect of Christianity for most followers – including how it was the state religion until 1974.
I see this as a rather complex reaction that takes pride in preserving old cultures and obeying elders who are often the embodiments and gatekeepers of cultural and social practices. The hegemonic cultural narrative most of us come from as a nation takes so much pride in its ancient religions, cultures, social practices, languages, and traditions that are intertwined with each other. So, anything disrupting these ideals of “normal” is considered a threat – especially if the religious hive is ever poked. And the elders of our communities – not necessarily grey-hair elders but usually just fully-grown adults or sometimes even those comparatively older than the people in question – are the enforcers of these normative ideals. What’s interesting is the authority these figures hold is not up for negotiation or question. More often than not, this blurs out the line between consent and respect in which consent can easily be compromised as one is expected to abide by what is considered socially and culturally acceptable. This subscription to what is acceptable can be manifested from behavioural to practical performance. For example, think how we teach a child that it should never say no to an adult because adults (i.e. anyone older than the child) must be respected, and when it’s an even older adult, must never be questioned. In this, we can see how respect is the first cousin of that symbolic (and embodied) authority where agency is usually off the table. So, when we say ‘respect your elders’, it doesn’t always mean ‘respect the wisdom earned from the number of years the person has lived before you’ but it also means ‘fear this authority and abides by it’.
How we navigate around this form of authority is a very good example of a perpetual social resistance; people always find peers and comrades who are on that journey together. The resistance may not necessarily have an end goal… and in this case, it may not even be in a sense of considering our parents or families as conventional oppressors, similar to what we imagine to be an oppressor in many political spaces - but it is a means of finding a community and validation about who we are or what we want in the moment. This is not a question of being right or wrong - we, as teenagers, youth or adults, may be making the worst or the best choices against the will of our parents or elders but it is not about one side winning over the other, but rather about finding a means of existing and surviving without rocking the boat in a way that brings dismays and disappoints the “authorities”. It is a personal resistance embedded in our social value and the unofficial pact we have made as we keep mastering “the art of compartmentalisation”. Imagine if your families or people you hide half of your life from find out about everything you have put in the friends’/peers’ compartment.
How we navigate around this form of authority is a very good example of a perpetual social resistance; people always find peers and comrades who are on that journey together
Another example where everyday resistance cushions itself in is language - a social and cultural tool that fascinates and impresses me beyond reason! What I see as a form of resistance here is the Gold and Wax (ቅኔ) - a unique and centuries-old style of poetry common to northern Ethiopia - maybe other Ethiopian cultures too, but my knowledge is limited to the Amharic language - so Amharic Gold and Wax will be my only reference in this context.
Gold and Wax - or as called in Amharic ‘Qene’ - is a distinct way of poetic communication where the speakers/poets/ባለቅኔ craft hidden meaning/s in their poems (i.e. gold) and cover it with an obvious meaning (i.e. wax) which may even be unrelated to the hidden meaning or message they are trying to put across. What fascinates me about Qene is the fact that people of that particular culture found ways and means to communicate their inner most desires, wants, and feelings or opinions about a given topic that happens to be a taboo for that culture and community. It is a means of saying it without really saying it and sparing yourself from all the trouble and rejection or scrutiny you may face from the “authorities”. These topics range from explicit sexual contents to highly political commentaries and everything in between. Qene in politics questions, affronts, and challenges authority – symbolic or embodied – and that authority may threaten or jeopardize the speaker or the group on whose behalf she/he is speaking… but today I want to talk about the topic Qene finds a way to challenge and speak about sex.
What fascinates me about Qene is the fact that people of that particular culture found ways and means to communicate their inner most desires, wants, and feelings or opinions about a given topic that happens to be a taboo for that culture and community.
Sex and topics about sex are taboo in most Ethiopian cultures that I know of. But, evidently, there are cultures who embrace and acknowledge human sexuality while others, often informed by religious norms that have long been married to the local cultures, consider this a taboo or a private topic to not be raised or discussed with others. But of course, people will find a way. There is always resistance as if humans are these vessels who would otherwise violently cease to exist unless they digest their wants and desires in one form or another. So, in this case, Qene becomes the digestive. Multiple golds of sexual topics from desire to orgasm are conveniently waxed with style, and sometimes, with humour. We cannot mention Qene and not mention the art and creativity of Azmari music and Azmaris; they speak aloud of what is in everyone’s heart on topics considered taboo and people just laugh them off and bask in the endless humour, pun, mockery or, sometimes, banter. But they probably will never pick up that topic again in public or with the “respected elders.” So yes, this to me is an embodiment of cultural resistance in which, although people conform and live by the norms, they still find other creative and artistic means of expressing themselves and communicating their personal or collective truth.
This to me is an embodiment of cultural resistance in which, although people conform and live by the norms, they still find other creative and artistic means of expressing themselves and communicating their personal or collective truth.
These are just a few examples of social and cultural resistance within a particular context of the Ethiopian culture that could perhaps be relatable to many other collectivist cultures. Our everyday life is filled with different forms of perpetual resistance that we constantly produce, mould, and create to live our truth through our beliefs, identities, and desires that are considered as threats, immoral, or taboo by the cultural and social authorities and standards that we learn to fear and “respect”. But eventually, we learn or are forced to learn that difference doesn’t necessarily mean threat. If we actually think a little harder, a unicolour ball of thread is very dull and boring compared to a colourful one.
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