Wednesday, February 01, 2023
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A Somali’s Memory of Dirdhabe: Would PP Destroy it?

By Faisal A. Roble

Back in 1972, in the early morning hours of a foggy day, I saw for the first time the second largest city in Ethiopia. Soon after the lorry I was riding on cleared its way out of the snake shaped chain mountain range of Dangago did I catch sight of the largest High School I have ever encountered. It was Prince Menkon Secondary School of Dirdhabe. Somalis call it Dirdhabe and their brethren Oromo call it Dire Dhawa..

Dir- Dhabe city

The school was located at the edge of the eastern wing of the city. In that case, it serves as the gateway to what proved to me a fascinating city, perhaps the most inclusive city one can find in Ethiopia.

Prince Mekonen, suspending for a moment the political nature of naming places, now a fledgling “Dire Dawa University,” was a multi story building made of red brick that overwhelmed me. The school indeed lived up the glory picture that I painted in mind out of stories my friend, Abdirahman Osman, a Dradhabe boy told me many times. 

The surroundings of the School were busier than I imagined. Peugeot cars filled the streets; Italian large and mid-size trucks loaded with coffee beans roared constantly. The east-bound Land Drovers transporting the stimulant plant of Qat and other goods to the Somali region passed us with a high speed. 

My most lasting impression of that morning was left by Muslim girls of all nationalities biking to school. The scenes of girls wearing the Somali dress called Dirac, a close family of the Indian sari, head scarves covering their wavy hair, and using biking as their form of transportation reminded me of scenes that I only saw in Indian movies. The first scenes I encountered at the gateway made me feel the full flavor of a metropolitan city where diverse people walk, drive, and shop while oblivious to their surroundings. Everybody seemed to mind their own business.

It took us a while to go through this initial traffic and reach our destination – Michael Junior Secondary School. I was with students from my city for the soccer championship for Hararge province. Dirdhabe then was part of Hararghe province. For the two weeks it took to wrap up the championship, we practiced, dined, and slept at the school. Just like the city that hosted us, my team members from Jigjiga were diverse in ethnicity. 

We had Somalis, Somalized Arabs, and what we Somalis called Habashi, meaning non Somali (this category could include Oromo, and the large number of Amhara/Tigre who settled in the City). Hereri players were also amongst our players. 

I still recall Faisal Abdo, a lanky tall Arab Somali who played at the striker position. Faisal was to us what today Paugba is to the French National Team. The two Muqrid brothers of Abdiwahab and Shiino were tough as a nut. Another teammate was Ibi – an Amhara or Oromo, Ibi was tiny but a tough player. He could easily dribble the ball to pass. Then it was myself – a fast and quick number 9. For the championship, we first defeated Harar who lined up Texo. Years later, I learned that Texo was Mengistu Hail Mariam’s brother. Tall and big for his age, Toxo was an intimidating defense. I believe we lost the championship to Chercher , then known as As a Tefferi.,  

For the second time, I came back to the City was after a year. This time, my purpose was to visit a relative and get to know the city well. I lived in Xafad Issa or the Somali (Issa) quarter. I frequently visited Alabaday and Guudka. I spent an entire summer with the family of Mohamed Xirsi Jini who was married to my cousin. They had a nice house with a courtyard planted with grapes where we always had lunch, a separate kitchen, and a separate living quarter for the maid. 

The daily lunch meal was hefty, consisting of a salad dish (salada Oromo as it was called which mainly consisted of Salad, lemon, salt, a little pepper, and a touch of oil). It was simple, healthy, and delicious. The main course will always be delicious surbian rice cooked with goat meat. Pasta was intermittently served. Often the desert was an assortment of Arabic sweets. Fidira, an Arabic version of Omlet, introduced to the City by Yeman settlers, continues to glue and create a mosaic fabric unique to Dirshabe.

Every now and then the family I stayed with visited Cinema Imperial. In those days, Somalis were very well off. Many thirty-something men worked for the cement factory or for Katony (or garment manufacturing). The most well-off Somalis were either traders or those employed by the Railway agency of Ethiopia.  

Another entertainment for residents of this magnificent city was soccer. Some of the best teams and players in Ethiopia were in Dirdhabe. Ismail Gariile Faxal from the city became one of the prominent right wing players for Ethiopia and was in 1963 named Africa’s best planer. Ismail and  about 4 other prominent Somali players ended up joining the Somali National Team. My own cousin, Ali Musa from the same city escaped to Somalia and became Somalia’s best midfielder in the 1980s. Many other players from Dirdhabe also joined Ethiopia’s National team. 

You may ask who were the residents of the city then? Somalis, Oromo, Arabs, Harari, and Amhara-Tigre were all residents. Your average school-age child spoke Arabic, Somali, Afan Oromo, and later on Amharic, although Arabic and Somali were widely spoken. It was a common place to see my cousins from Dirdhabe while on vacation in Jigjiga, easily navigating from Somali to Arabic, to Afan oromo, and then to Amharic. Herari was within their reach. Yet, the lingua franca, unregulated or prescribed by any state agency, was ironically Arabic. 

Somalis were by far one of the richest communities. They dominated trade. The richest traders were Mohamed Xoogsade  and Haji Ali Dalmer. The most powerful elder was Haji Al-Ahzari, a Somali religious scholar who became a close friend of Haile Sellassie. Equally, there were other rich people who belonged to the Somali, Oromo, Harari and Amhara communities. Arabs dominated wholesale business distributing imported consumer goods. 

Somalis, Oromo, and Harrari have heavily intermarried owing to their religious similarity. Yet, in general, all ethnic groups intermingled. Dirdhabe was always painted as a city with a laissez faire and a cosmopolitan assortment of ethnic people who lived peacefully. 

Somalis and Oromo in particular lived together without any conflict prior to 1992. A political culture that robs Peter of his land and identity to satisfy Paul has been thus far the game. It is getting worse and may in the future lead to an unmitigated civil strife.

In the proposed “referendum” Dirdhabe will once again be given an uncomfortable image – this time one group or another will be given the bitter pill of losing their identity that defined them. Somalis most likely would be told to join the Oromo region and hand over their share of Dirdhabe identity. And that imprudent social engineering of Dirdhabe does not bode well for the peace of the East. 

Prior to any referendum whose results will always be questioned by one group or another, a prudent policy would look at an alternative policy that achieves the following:

  1. Sustain and enhance the century-old peaceful coexistence of the residents of the City.
  2. A system that makes financial solvency for Dirdhabe and its surrounding rural districts.
  3. Draft and, if it exists, revise a tailored charter that suits this unique and iconic ethnic cohabitation laboratory. 

The East could see days of instability in the future if Prime Minister Abiy Prosperity Party bends that arch of peace too much.  

For me, Dirdhabe will always stay in my memory as a city that it could have been.

Please. Don’t kill it.

In a follow up piece, I will look at the challenges facing the regions of Sitti, Fafan, and Liban  which are sources for an immediate inter-ethnic conflict.

Faisal A. Roble
Email: [email protected]
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Faisal Roble, a writer, political analyst and a former Editor-in-Chief of WardheerNews, is mainly interested in the Horn of Africa region. He is currently the Principal Planner for the City of Los Angeles in charge of Master Planning, Economic Development and Project Implementation Division.


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