Refugees I’ve Known: Prof. Dawit

Lessons in Peace, Agency, Beer and Food

 

The capstone of Goucher College’s Honors Program is a multidisciplinary senior seminar. In the Spring 2003 semester, six professors divided up the semester between them. We spent two weeks learning about post-colonialism through the lens of sugar with a book like this one, spent another two weeks reading a fascinating dissertation about math and philosophy … and joined a Peace Studies course for two weeks, taught by a new faculty member, Prof. Seble Dawit.

An article in the Baltimore Sun a year after I graduated highlighted Goucher’s Peace Studies minor, which has since become a major.

“Conflict is not the problem,” says the human rights lawyer, whom Goucher hired three years ago to create a major in the field. “The problem is continuing human reliance on incredible and often catastrophic violence as a means of resolving conflict.”

I remember Seble as a short, compact, lively woman with a big smile and a fascinating life, from Ethiopian refugee to an academic comfortable with controversy in defense of African self-determination.

Practically the only thing the Internet seems to know about Seble Dawit is that she faced off against the writer Alice Walker in 1993 in an op-ed in the New York Times critiquing Walker’s film “Warrior Marks” about female genital mutilation in African societies:

Dawit, Toubia and others argue that Westerners ought to work at the grass roots with African women, and that “a media campaign in the West will not stop female genital mutilation.”

The op-ed itself is not available online, but it has been written about in numerous academic treatments of FGM, including “Cutting through the Obfuscation: Female Genital Surgeries in Neoimperial Culture,” an essay by Isabelle Gunning:

“Neither Alice Walker nor any of us here can speak for them [hundreds of African women on the continent who are working to eradicate the surgeries]; but if we have the power and the resources, we can create room for them to speak, and to speak with us as well.”

In “Converging Concerns: Feminist Bioethics, Development Theory, and Human Rights,” Prof. Anne Donchin also quotes the article in a context well beyond FGM:

These critics insisted that the struggle to transform such traditional practices is better left to those who are sensitive to the social conditions that perpetuate them and who can foster change in ways less likely to intensify the oppression of these women. A New York Times op-ed piece by Seble Dawit and Salem Mekuria (1993, A27) put it this way: “Genital mutilation does not exist in a vacuum but as part of a social fabric, stemming from the power imbalances in relations between the sexes, from the levels of education and the low economic and social status of most women. All eradication efforts must begin and proceed from these basic premises.” They urge the formation of partnerships with African women; such partnerships would use the power and resources of the West to create space for these women to speak out and to speak with us.

Two and a half decades later, there’s clear evidence that Dawit was on the right side of the issue. Just this month, Al-Jazeera English published a beautiful piece of photojournalism about a successful program among the Masaai of Kenya to create an alternative rite of passage for Masaai girls. Success hinged on a network of peer trainers engaging fellow Africans across generations, encouraging fathers, grandmothers, brothers and local leaders to take pride in the education and agency of their girls, rather than their sexual lives.

I didn’t know any of this in the two weeks I sat in Seble’s class. Even so, digging through the Internet for her story today, I think these ideas, of the right to agency and self-determination of local people in the international development context, must have permeated everything we did in those two weeks.

Certainly, Seble’s class was where my skepticism of the Peace Corps began. In the second week of her class, I emailed Seble to let her know I wouldn’t make it on Tuesday because I was going down to Washington, DC, for my Peace Corps interview. On Thursday, Seble started class by turning to me. “So? How was your interview with the Peace Corps?”

I grinned. “I’m in! It looks like they’re probably going to send me to the Caucuses to teach English.” At the time, the program had not yet reopened in Jordan and Morocco.

A freshman beside me sat upright in her chair, glaring at me, and exclaimed with righteous indignation, “How could you? How dare you sit in this class and then go to work for the CIA?”

I was confused. “I’m joining the Peace Corps.”

“Everybody knows,” she declared, “that Peace Corps is secretly a department of the CIA!”

“Actually, there’s a clear legal separation between the Peace Corps and the intelligence community, for the safety of the Volunteers.”

The freshman scoffed, turning her back to me. “Sure. That’s what they say.”

Seble, who had been watching the exchange quietly, pushed me to explain myself.

“I’m not saying the Peace Corps is perfect.” I explained that I knew that it was founded as a propaganda tool of the Cold War, and that it’s fundamental purpose is to counter the bloody reputation of Western imperialism by spreading Western-style democracy and ‘progress’ to the developing world. “That’s not my agenda at all. This is an opportunity to get someone else to pay for me to immerse myself in another language and culture, learn from them, and hopefully do something helpful and useful in return. Despite the flaws of the Peace Corps, I think I can do some good from inside that system.”

The freshman was not impressed and clearly saw herself as my intellectual and moral superior. Seble thanked me and moved on.

I arrived in Jordan almost a year later, engaged in a nascent internal debate that stays with me still. What do I, as a white American of a certain class, have to offer people who are different from me? Where is the line between offering and imposing? Have I listened enough before acting?

I have regrets. I know I have too often been self-righteous, too certain that my way is superior. And I know that both Seble and that freshman were a catalyst for that ongoing inner dialogue.

The things I learned from Seble weren’t all academic, though. At the end of our Honors Seminar, we went to dinner with all our professors at one of those dimly lit Chinese restaurants with the Lazy Susan in the middle of the table so everyone can share their orders more easily. It reminded me of one of the few times my Depression-era Nana actually took us out to eat.

Seble asked the server about their Japanese beer selections. After he had taken all our orders, she said, “I love beer, but I can only drink Japanese brands, only the ones imported from Japan.” She shook her head. “You know, Germans make a big fuss about their beer purity laws, but there’s a short list of additives that the Germans still allow in, including some I’m allergic to. Not in Japan. Water. Wheat. Hops. That’s it.”

Later in the dinner, Seble told us a little about her refugee journey. I don’t remember many details, but a few things stuck with me.

I’m guessing Seble left Ethiopia somewhere between 1974 to 1991 during the oppressive Haile Mariam regime. I don’t know if she considered herself Coptic, Muslim or Jewish, or none of the above, but I have never forgotten how animated she became talking about the resettlement of Jewish Ethiopians in Israel.

They hadn’t elected to go, as with many other communities of the Sephardic diaspora, but for decades the government of Israel, in order to increase the Jewish population there, made a series of back-room deals that essentially bribed other governments into forcing their Jewish citizens onto chartered Israeli immigration flights. Then, when dark-skinned, Semitic-speaking Sephardim arrived from Iraq, Ethiopia and elsewhere, they faced discrimination, even secret state-sponsored sterilization.

I remember Seble shaking her head at Israeli racism and saying, “Then they landed in Israel, the government stuck them in tents in the Negev, the hottest part of Israel. Because, you know, they’re from Africa, so they must be used to the heat. Most of Ethiopia is above 2,000 feet! It never gets hot like that!”

Seble herself was accepted as a refugee in the United States. Refugees don’t get to choose where they are placed when they get here; the government decides where the local welfare systems can best bear the burden. Seble was placed in the upper Midwest, I think in Minnesota. Wherever it was, I remember this story very clearly:

From time to time, Seble would splurge and take herself to Denny’s for a meal. “I would watch the other tables of people–big, tall, fat American Midwesterners–with their big plates piled with bacon and french fries and all this food. I would watch them eat the whole plate, all in one sitting. I could eat for three more days from my leftovers!” This started her talking about life near starvation in Ethiopia, and how the rich, plentiful food in America meant that when she first arrived, she sometimes ate herself sick before she learned moderation.

I wish I had known her better, had more time to hear her stories. One thing I know for sure, she’s a fascinating person. It’s hard to quantify exactly how much she influenced my increasingly postcolonialist view of the world, contributed to the dialogue inside my head that helps me think before I try too hard to “help.”

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