Moving the Fuga from the Margins to the Centre
Ethiopia is home to a diverse array of ethnic groups – many of which co-exist in a relatively peaceful manner. Nevertheless, some groups – the Fuga people in Ethiopia’s Southern Region for example– say that they still exist on the margins of society and sometimes even confront violence because of their peripheral status. Recent efforts, however, have strived to alleviate some of the economic and societal hardships confronting the community. Some of these efforts involve foreign governments, like the United States and Finland.
EBR’s Meseret Mamo spoke with stakeholders to see what progress, if any, is being made to achieve this end.
Ethiopia has come a long way in ensuring the human rights of different ethnic groups. However, some say the drastic changes that have taken place in recent years have failed to improve the status of some minority groups.
One minority group that has been isolated for generations – and that claims discrimination is a reality that they regularly confront – is the Fuga people. Residing in the Kambata Zone of the Southern Region, the Fuga people say they occupy a marginal status and are excluded by the majority, although they play important roles in Ethiopian society. No one knows how the prejudice, stereotyping and discrimination started – although many suspect that it’s related to the Fuga people claiming Jewish ancestry, dating back to antiquity. Members of the community say that prejudice continues, resulting in suffering and pain among the Fuga people.
Desta Duketo, 24, is a member of the community and says he confronts discrimination regularly. A father of one, he lives in Durame City, the capital of the Kembatta Zone, as a potter along with his wife. The discrimination and isolation he endured ever since he was a child made Desta doubt his humanity. “When I was a child, people were afraid of me like I was some kind of monster,” he told EBR. “I was afraid of the insults. That was why I didn’t go to school.”
The Fuga people are among the many marginalised communities in Ethiopia that have historically been denied access to land for economic activity. To date, many still rely largely on low-paying jobs like pottery to support their livelihoods. Members of the Fuga community say that the historical legacies of such social and economic isolation have caused harm and financial hardships.
The difficulty in accessing land isn’t exclusive to the Fuga. Other minority groups in the country facing a similar reality include the Qemant people in northern Ethiopia; the Manjo people, who also live in Kaffa; and the Chinasha people in Welayita. In fact, the Kayla people in Tigray, the Nefre people in the Gurage Zone, the Tumt in Oromia, and the Balaj in Northern Shewa experience similar or worse discrimination and marginalisation.
One of the reasons these communities have endured discrimination for so long, according to Teclehaimanot Gebreselassie (PhD), assistant professor of history at Addis Ababa University, is because majority groups want some people to be subordinate so as they can serve them without questioning.
Although discrimination against certain groups based on skin colour, ethnic, and religious identity is decreasing in Ethiopia, the Fugas remain one of the marginalised communities. Members say this is because prejudice still lingers within Ethiopian society with regard to who they are.
This misperception, advocates say, is detrimental to how the community integrates into the larger society. “This [prejudice] contributes to the intensity of the problem [or marginalisation],” explains Bogalech Gebere, founder of KMG Ethiopia, a non–governmental charitable organisation established seven years ago in the Zone. The organisation seeks to lessen discrimination against the Fugas.
In the first three years of operation, KMG attempted to alleviate discrimination against the Fugas through facilitating interactions between them and the rest of the community in all seven woredas of the Kembatta Zone. They conducted this effort in collaboration with the Finland Embassy through a project entitled “Empowerment of Fuga Communities /Golden Hands.” Since 2012, KMG’s activities have also received support from USAID through the project “Improving the Social Economic Status of Marginalised Artisan Communities” in four woredas.
Wendesen Terefe, planning and supervision officer of the project undertaken by USAID and KMG Ethiopia, describes the success of their efforts. “In all of the woredas of the Kembata Zone, the two projects have brought success by highlighting the course of marginalisation, which has no foundation both from the victims and non-Fuga community.” However, he still believes mitigating the problem will be difficult because the discrimination is deep-rooted.
Although programmes exist to raise awareness about the community and lessen discrimination, members of the Fuga community say it persists. “Because of this, there are people who consider themselves less than human,” says an elder in the community. “They do anything for those who are considered [part of] the majority and marriage with the Fuga people is still unthinkable.”
Despite claims from the Fuga community of continued discrimination, Abebe Worku, director of the Public Relations Directorate at the Ministry of Federal Affairs and Pastoral Development, thinks otherwise. “There is no marginalised community in Ethiopia. Of course, there are some appeals concerning the recognition of identity issues, which is handled by the House of Federation,” he says.
Close to 42,000 Fuga people live in the Kembatta Zone, which is home to roughly 800,000 people. However, in Kembatta’s seven woredas, including the capital Durame, members of the community and KMG say they have no political representation. They claim that no Fuga people are found holding political positions or working at the governmental level. There are also no Fuga judges or police officers in the Zone according to community members.
This lack of institutional representation in the area exacerbates their lack of trust in government officials and the judiciary. In fact, many say they usually don’t call the police for help or go to court seeking justice, as evinced by Desta’s experience.
“A few years ago my wife was beaten and initially I was considering going to the police,” he said. “But I dropped the idea when the non-Fuga elders approached me and said I have to submit to their proposal. I know they will come to my house and beat me to death otherwise.”
This is why KMG Ethiopia encourages community conversations in order to reduce the intensity of marginalisation facing the community. The Fuga and the non-Fuga community are made to hold parallel and separate discussions on the issue of marginalisation: the Fugas discuss why they don’t resist and the non-Fuga debate why some treat the Fugas in a discriminatory way.
Bogalech (pictured above) says that so far the discussions are proving to be a fruitful endeavour. “The outcome was as we wanted,” she says. “During these discussions, Fugas talk about why they are not treated in an equal manner while the non-Fugas ask themselves why they discriminate against the Fuga people. An open discussion is all we wanted and we achieved that.”
The success was celebrated in Durame City on October 17, 2015. Members of the diplomatic community such as Patricia M. Haslach, the United States Ambassador to Ethiopia; Sirpa Maenpaa, the Finnish Ambassador to Ethiopia; Belaynesh Zevadia, the Israeli Ambassador to Ethiopia; and others were in attendance.
During the ceremony, representatives from the non-Fuga community apologised for any wrongdoing against the Fuga and vowed to call them ‘golden hands’from now on, replacing the name Fuga, a word often used in a deragatory manner. Members of the Fuga community also expressed their appreciation and forgiveness. The term ‘golden hands’ holds special significance for the community because it acknowledges the important hand-crafted goods the community produces, which takes skill and is passed through generations.
Nevertheless, even the seating arrangement at the ceremony reveals that there is a long way to go before the communities come together. During the celebration at Durame Stadium, the Fugas and the non-Fuga communities sat far apart from each other, forming separate groups during a ceremony intended to bring the communities together.
Tamirat Getahun, Deputy Programme Director of KMG Ethiopia, agrees that there is still a lot of work to be accomplished. “After the current project phased out in September 2015, another programme launched to empower the ‘golden hands’ economically” by providing them with a place to create and sell their goods, he says.
A committee is being established from relevant government agencies and stakeholders to ensure the continuity of the work accomplished in the previous project, according to Wendesen. For the moment, it is a success for all KMG members to observe members of different communities gathered at Durame Stadium, shouting ‘Dendiname’ together, which in the local language means ‘yes we can!’ However, whether the communities will respect each other and live happily together or not will only be seen through time. EBR
4th Year • November 16 – December 15 2015 • No. 33