The ‘D’ Word


By Sergut Dejene

When in Addis, you’ll hear many opinions regarding the diaspora and our effects on the country.

Contract taxi drivers I’ve talked to, for example, gush about how we [Ethiopian diaspora] are doing great things returning to work, investing in the country to help Ethiopia grow. I’d like to think they are generally speaking the truth, though it does cross my mind that their remarks could simply be a business tactic to acquire repeat customers.


Sometimes, you’ll run into boomerang Ethiopians – those who grew up in the country, worked abroad for some time, then returned to work in the country.- who are (surprisingly), quick to voice their somewhat snarky opinions and curiosity (read: suspicion). I ran into a few such individuals at a networking event last week and immediately began to feel apprehensive (and slightly defensive) regarding the conversation that would take place.


“So, what exactly do you do?”

“Who pays for you to work here?”

“Is it a government program?” and so forth.

After explaining my current role in Ethiopia, I anxiously awaited the most inevitable question: “why?”. I was, after all, born and raised in America – the land of opportunity and freedom (for the most part). So what business did I have in Ethiopia?

The thing is, I’m still figuring that part out, and I’m okay acknowledging that. I’m active in the Ethiopian community in my hometown, but does that translate to similar passion for working in Ethiopia? Perhaps I subconsciously feel obligated to make a difference in the country from which my family came from – a sense of gratitude for all that they’ve sacrificed and done for me and my sibling. Or maybe I simply wanted to try something new, and Ethiopia was just different enough where I still felt like I was in my comfort zone.

There are certainly pros and cons to diaspora involvement in Ethiopia – an influx of talent and resources to help improve various sectors within Ethiopia. At the same time, resentment can be experienced from locals that do not receive those economic and social incentives/privileges afforded to the diaspora, as well as those that do not immediately benefit from diaspora’s involvement in the local economy (think of the rapidly growing socioeconomic disparities between the rich and the poor). Such examples include special business promotions, employment opportunities, and incentives for members of the diaspora returning home and engaging in knowledge transfer*.

After having lived and worked in Ethiopia for a month (how time flies!), I continue to recognize my privilege and acknowledge the fact that I am still an outsider. It can be a bit isolating at times – to live in a country where everyone looks like you and speaks a similar language, and yet you are instantly reminded (with each person’s uncomfortable glare) that you aren’t necessarily part of the “in group,” or that you really aren’t Ethiopian and have no business here with the exception of visiting family and supporting the tourism industry.

In the States (at least where I’m from), Ethiopians don’t like using the term “diaspora” to describe themselves. It’s kind of a dirty word, and I’m not sure why. Perhaps it implies that one isn’t completely or “traditionally” Ethiopian, simply for the fact that one chooses (or is forced to) to live abroad from their home country. Or maybe in induces some sort of political/socioeconomic status that divides Ethiopians as a whole. To me, the term “diaspora” simply represents the children and descendants of Ethiopia. Though we may be scattered across different societies – America, Europe, or the Middle East – we are still united by our heritage, our families’ histories, and our love for Ethiopia.

So why all of the suspicion?

Sergut Dejene

Sergut is the founder and president of the Auxiliary Board for the Ethiopian Community Association of Chicago and she is also 2016 fellow for Ethiopian Diaspora Fellowship.