By: Kebadu Mekonnen, Ph.D. (Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Addis Ababa University)

As we celebrate the 125th anniversary of the victory of Adwa, we must recognize that we live in a time of populism and political polarization. A fractured social cohesion allied with apparently irreconcilable political factions meant that we rarely agree on a common set of facts about our past, for facts are increasingly politicized and people’s acceptance or denial of them considered a sign of loyalty or betrayal to their identity.

Is there a way to talk to each another under such conditions? What precise role do shared memories play in either entrenching or breaking the webs of thick relations that people hold dear? Is there a role that Adwa ought to play in a just and ethical revitalisation of our collective memories?

The Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit stated that “collective existences are webs of relations based on bonds in which shared memories play a crucial part.” If history’s role is in reconstructing the past and giving account to the causal chain of events, the role of memory maybe principally capturing its sense and sensibility.

When remembering the past, we must be careful that our account reflects the relationship between actual human beings who’ve led human, all too human, lives with all their glory and ugliness.

Tzvetan Todorov, the wise interlocutor of the history of the twentieth century, forewarned that polar thinking about the past, if anything, deepens the shadows that the past continuesto cast on the present. In Memory as a Remedy for Evil, heargues, “The memory of the past will serve no purpose if it is used to build an impassible wall between evil and us, identifying exclusively with irreproachable heroes and innocent victims and driving the agent of evil outside the confines of humankind.” 

Collective memory can manifest in two different forms: as trauma or catharsis. In the Ethiopian context, stories of pervasive cultural and ethnic prejudice signify the trauma of our past. Whereas, the victory of Adwa signifies catharsis as a model of independence and dignity.

The post-Adwa spirit of Ethiopia can be characterized by a confidence brimmed with national pride, and an unfailing sense of independence that is expressed through an overt comportment of defiance. Adwa practically debunked the sermon of superiority that animated European imperialist campaigns in Africa.

With a sentiment reminiscent of Ethiopians’ pride in their long and lustrous history of statecraft, it may be right to say that the Ethiopian victory was the result of prior state building. Adwa’s significance, however, reaches far beyond Ethiopian national frontiers. It gripped the imagination of black people within Africa and beyond who’ve fettered by the tyranny of racial oppression, colonial subjugation and the humiliation that it engenders.

However, when collective trauma is invoked out of loyalty to one’s ancestors who have reportedly suffered injustice, oftentimes “it can poison our relationship with the innocent descendants of their oppressors.” If, in addition, the ‘we’ happen to share thick ethical relations with those designated descendants, say we are fellow citizens, such transference of past enmities on to the present would have catastrophic consequences for peaceful coexistence.

But when the narrative of enmity is imagined between groups living across national boundaries, the memory of trauma often gives rise to what Isaiah Berlin called bent-twig nationalism. Berlin contends that some expressions of nationalism are belligerent reactions to humiliation at the group’s alleged treatment as inferior. Abuses by others often produces in the abused a Volksgeist or national spirit which responds, “like the bent-twig of the poet Schiller’s theory, by lashing back” and hit its bender.

Like a willow tree branch stretched by a bender, its sudden release sends a whiplash towards anyone standing inside its perimeter. To be clear, many contemporary variants of the politics of cultural identity follow the bent-twig model. Recent inclinations to weaponize past memories—frantic with hatred and prejudice and with the view to confer resentment a political outlet—is contrary to the ethical role memories ought to play.

How can we then preserve the stabilizing doctrine of a home without smuggling a resentment fueled nationalist persuasion? As Susan Neiman recently remarked, “when memory becomes interchangeable with trauma, no country can hope to heal any wounds. We need ground to stand on before we can stand up to or own shame.”

Just how historical monuments are erected with the view to justify ourselves before them, memory of the past must be used to interrogate and hold ourselves to account that we are to live righteously. Thus, keeping alive a memory of harm must essentially serve a moral function, namely that its end ought to be judged in terms of values. The past holds no value in and of itself, independently of how we live now.

We are objects to the memory of the past and its value is partly a function of how well we are orienting ourselves in the present. This is not only because we are, in some meaningful sense, products of our past, but it is also because memories are interpretations of—not substitutes for—how things were. One does justice to a memory of the past by advancing the cause of justice, which, by definition, is impartial to the identity of the would-be victims.

That we must guard against the familiar ways of weaponizingmemory does not imply that the alternative is to erase the memories of injustice altogether. Reliving the memory of harm that’s been done to us can ignite bitterness that may lead to acts of vengeance. However, the antidote to maladjusted memory is not forgetting but transformation. The transformation of trauma into catharsis consists in abstracting a universal maxim from a particular experience “— a principle of justice, a political ideal, or a moral rule—which must be legitimate in itself and not just because it relates to a cherished memory.” 

There is one suggestive way to begin the process of healing. That is precisely by drifting our focus away from the victims, for we are more likely to spring to action following the example of heroes than being motivated by pity for victims. It is more likely that we’ll be inspired by people who’ve led exemplary lives fighting evil against all odds. Even better, we can draw inspiration from moments of collective triumph; itcould be a rising up from a natural tragedy that revealed an admirable national character, or an overcoming of a foreign invasion. Adwa comes in as a paradigmatic case of the latter kind.

Just as Tolstoy’s creed has it that ‘happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’, so in the same way, all heroes essentially come as redeemers, but victims are victimized in different ways and for different reasons. Whilst the hero’s virtue is constitutive to his personality, it would be degrading to conceive of victims as if their suffering defines them. A society that is consumed by trauma, without symbols of transformation, is perceptively frozen in time.

Adwa is that symbol of transformation and so are the heroes who fought in it. Considering the circumstances in which people, otherwise divided by culture and religion, social status and a place in the power structure, all flocked to Adwa to defend the motherland from the clutches of colonialism, it is undoubtedly the single most unifying event the scale and significance of which wasn’t seen ever since.

When present day adherents of the so called ‘national question’ speak on behalf of victims of ethnic prejudice and subjugation, they often forget that they are speaking about the very people who laid down their lives in Adwa so to preserve freedom, dignity and a sense of an independent home land to their descendants. If we, their descendants, are asked to justify ourselves before them, would one think that they’d be satisfied to see us tearing each other apart?

This is to say that what I termed as the Adwa test for national reconciliation is a perspective for aligning how ought we to treat each other as fellow citizens. Should we approach social reconciliation from the perspective of division and enmity, instead of as people whose destiny is inseparably tied, we’d then fail the ancestors in whose name we fight.

Adwa is the ground on which we stand, and “a flame that makes us want to live righteously.” Happy 125th anniversary of the victory of Adwa!