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Notes from an author: Nadia Owusu on life-shaping lessons in Ethiopia

Moving to Addis Ababa as a child, during one of the 20th century’s worst humanitarian disasters, proves to be a life-shaping lesson in the power of unity.

By Nadia Owusu
Published 24 Apr 2021, 08:00 BST, Updated 11 May 2021, 16:22 BST
The Church of Saint George is one of eleven rock-hewn churches in Lalibela, Ethiopia.

The Church of Saint George is one of eleven rock-hewn churches in Lalibela, Ethiopia. 

Photograph by Getty Images

It was the famine that brought my family to Addis Ababa in 1989, when I was eight. My father worked for the United Nations World Food Programme. After persistent drought and a civil war, the toppling of the authoritarian regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam had split Ethiopia into two. An estimated one million people died; almost 200,000 children were orphaned.

I remember the orphans, children my age and younger, walking Addis’s potholed roads among the donkeys carrying sacks of grain and the cars emblazoned with NGO logos. I remember, often, feeling confused and ashamed. How were they expected to survive without parents to love them?

My own mother left us when I was two, returning to the United States where she was born and raised. We were living in Tanzania then. My father remarried, but between my stepmother and I there was unspoken tension. Growing up the way I did, without my mother, moving country every few years, I thought of my father as home.

Nadia Owusu's book, Aftershocks: Dispatches from the Frontlines of Identity, is published by Sceptre.

Photograph by Nadia Owusu

We lived in a gated community among other expats, most of whom were in Ethiopia in response to the crisis. There were armed guards at the gate. We had a big grassy garden with rose beds, swings and a gooseberry patch, a treehouse with a view of the shanty town across the street. Our one-storey, three-bedroom cottage had ceiling fans and a generator for when the electricity was cut off. Our neighbours lived in homes of cardboard, mud and rusted tin, between which sewage pooled. The children waved to me and I waved back. My father reminded me, time and again, that the only thing separating us from them was luck. 

He was Ghanaian and particularly emphasised that, as fellow Africans, Ethiopians were our kin. We were bound together by our shared history of occupation and oppression, but also by a vision for the future in which, through unity and cooperation, the entire continent, and ultimately the world, would thrive. Poverty and hunger would be eradicated. It was our responsibility, given our good fortune, to help realise that vision. That, he said, was why he did the work he did. He hoped that, when I grew up, I’d do my part too.

“Our neighbours lived in homes of cardboard, mud and rusted tin, between which sewage pooled. The children waved to me and I waved back. My father reminded me, time and again, that the only thing separating us from them was luck”

by Nadia Owusu
Nadia Owusu

When I think of my time in Addis, I picture orphans rubbing their bellies, long lines of people desperate to buy grain; soldiers walking with rifles slung over their shoulders. But I also picture my sister and I in the Hilton hotel’s pool. I remember the smell of eucalyptus. Emperor Menelik II imported trees from Australia to provide wood to build a new capital: Addis Ababa: ‘new flower’. 

My father took me to see live Ethiopian music. A beautiful singer in a traditional white dress led me to the stage and taught me how to shake my shoulders in the Ethiopian way. He took me to see flocks of flamingos in the Great Rift Valley and the rock-hewn churches in Lalibela. He also took me to a shanty town to visit my adored nanny, Mulu. 

“Welcome to my Ethiopian house,” she said. We sat in a circle on her cardboard floor and drank Coca-Cola. 

Once, as we were driving through the Piazza neighbourhood, my father pointed out a church. “That,” he said, “is the Armenian Orthodox church.” My mother is Armenian-American. Her grandparents survived genocide in the Ottoman Empire and arrived in the United States as refugees. I knew little, then, about her culture. In the years leading up to the genocide, many Armenians came to Ethiopia to escape religious persecution. Armenians and Ethiopians share the same religion. “That’s another thing connecting you to this country,” my father said. 

We were evacuated from Ethiopia in 1991 as the conflict swept into Addis. I went on to live in Kampala, London and Rome. At 18, I moved to New York for university where I built a career working for nonprofits addressing issues of poverty and inequality. The time I spent in Addis shaped my understanding of the world and the forces that impact people’s lives, forces like luck, the weather and war.

Aftershocks is a memoir of my hopscotched life. More than that, though, I aimed to do what my father told me was my responsibility. I wrote toward a vision for Africa, and the world, in which we all understand just how deeply we’re bound together. 

Nadia Owusu's book, Aftershocks: Dispatches from the Frontlines of Identity, is published by Sceptre, (£16.99)

Discover more stories from our Notes from an author series

Published in the April 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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