Editor’s Note: This is the first installment of a three-part letter from a trip around the Horn of Africa.

By Jose Mora |

It is remarkable to me how much a basic geographic characteristic like elevation can condition the experience of a nation. Distant places that happen to lie at the same altitude can be so similar to each other and yet diverge so sharply from lowlands only a short distance away. Ethiopia is a classic example of this. Its borders encompass the entirety of the Ethiopian Highlands — a massive dome of rock — and also some of the lowlands around it.

The country’s altitude is, in one sense, a blessing: Ethiopia’s rugged terrain and elevation make it a natural fortress, and its fractured geography means that the country encompasses a variety of climates, ecological niches and cultures.

This blessing, however, is limited. Ethiopia’s fractures and variety also mean that it inclines toward national fragmentation. Because of this, the country is engaged in a nearly continuous debate about what the very concept of an “Ethiopian nation” means. This is at the root of much of the violence, oppression and poverty that have dogged Ethiopia for much of its modern history.

For me, living in Ethiopia is like living in a laboratory of nations. Identity in the Ethiopian Highlands is still precipitating from its different constituent parts and, living here, I can see Ethiopian-ness in formation. Ethiopia’s elites present an idea of Ethiopia as a predominantly Christian nation founded deep in antiquity by the descendants of Solomon of Israel and the Queen of Sheba. They acknowledge that other ethnicities and language families exist but see these identities as footnotes to the main story of the great Ethiopian nation. Ethiopia’s green, yellow and red flag encapsulates this: red for the blood shed for the nation, green for the land and its fertility and yellow for the harmonious relations between ethnic groups.

This broad idea of Ethiopian identity has always reminded me of China. In China, too, an imperial state rules over a constellation of ethnic groups. Both Ethiopia and China try their best to foster a sense of cultural belonging in the interest of unity. But in Ethiopia, as in China, the specter of separatism looms large.

Ethiopia has attempted to relieve the pressure from its ethnic factions by creating a federal system that recognizes the right of ethnic groups to claim full independence. This, however, only serves to camouflage Ethiopia’s true, strongly centralized system of government. This contradiction underscores the struggle of modern Ethiopia and the continued reality that ruling the country is an interminable exercise in nation-building.

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