Teferi Adem reflects on his experience as a Fulbright Scholar

My Fulbright Experience to Ethiopia, 2022-23
Teferi Abate Adem, HRAF Research Anthropologist

Conducting follow-up extensive ethnographic fieldwork in the Wollo area of Ethiopia has been a deeply felt dream of mine over the last decade. I lived this dream this past academic year, thanks to a generous grant from the Fulbright U.S. Scholars Program and the kind support of Dr. Carol Ember and colleagues at the Human Relations Area Files at Yale University, my employer since 2005. I also thank the senior leadership of my host institution, Wollo University, for much-needed support including a comfortable office, access to libraries and archives, research permit letter to travel and live in study communities, and connections with young anthropologists with irrepressible energy and willingness to help. Over the ensuing ten months, I had ample opportunities not just for conducting ethnographic research, but also to teach and supervise social anthropology graduate students, help WU in organizing an international conference, and give invited talks at other universities.

Livestock market in Dessie.

Livestock market in Dessie.

Ethnographic Research

I wanted to start my fieldwork with a short visit to two rural communities that I previously studied for my Ph.D. dissertation research in which I examined the perspectives of multiple layers of decision makers who shaped the implementation of rural development and agricultural policies. While both communities are located within a short (less than a two-hour drive) distance from the town of Dessie, they vary in rainfall predictability and cropping systems, due to location at vertically contrasting agro-ecological zones. The first community is the midland and has moderately reliable rainfall allowing cultivation both in belg (spring) and meher (summer) seasons. The second is in the relatively cold highlands (dega) that rely mainly on belg rains, which proved to be more erratic and unreliable than the main summer rains. The goals of the return visit combined the cultural expectation of meeting and greeting previous informants and friends while also tracking some of the changes that have occurred since my last fieldwork. Furthermore, I thought that the contrasting agro-ecological features of the communities made them ideal case studies for my new research on the range of cultural and contextual factors that might differentially affect farmers’ resilience to vagaries of increased irregularities in the onset, duration and intensity of rainfall during local growing wet seasons.

During the return visit, I also realized that I needed to prioritize studying local responses the 2020-2022 Ethiopian civil war that started in Tigray region and subsequently expanded to parts of Amhara and Afar areas. By October 2021, both of these communities were sites for fierce fighting between the insurgent Tigray Defense Forces (TDF) and the Ethiopian National Defense Forces (ENDF). The fight subsided after about two weeks when TDF forces finally captured Dessie and the nearby Kombolcha towns, forcing the ENDF to retreat further south. My conversation with farmers in both communities was dominated by their lived experiences through two successive phases of the war. The first phase spanned about two months, from end of October to the first week of December 2021, when rebel forces controlled the communities. During this time, farmers in the communities faced mobility restrictions, lacked formal government structure, and suffered from the stresses of very little or no  access to health care and other basic services. The second phase started in mid-December 2021 when the ENDF retook the area, forcing the TDF to evacuate to the north; at this time, farmers began bouncing back from the impacts of the war by rebuilding livelihoods and mending broken trust. By the time of my visit, much of the conversation both with me and among farmers was dominated by the impacts of the war and the “after life” it left in the form of uncontrolled spread of small arms and continued distrust between some members of the community.  The war events dominated conversation and there was very little talk about other shocks, including the global COVID-19 pandemic and the desert locust outbreak that destroyed crops in the spring of 2020.

Building on the stresses of war-induced shocks and political uncertainties, I refocused my research to explore reported impacts across different social groups and geographical communities. Consequently, I ended up with much broader ethnographic fieldwork that explored the gendered impacts and coping mechanisms taken up by women, men, and youth living in ten war-affected communities, all of them located in what came to be known as “the Wollo front” of the civil war. I will soon begin sharing findings of this work. To this end, I am waiting for approval of a comprehensive report I co-wrote and submitted to a funding agency. I am also scheduled to present parts of the finding in an invited panel on “Ethiopia after the EPDRF: Continuities and Ruptures” (organizers by Professor Data D. Barata and Donald Donham) at the upcoming African Studies Association Annual Meeting in San Francisco.

After a group discussion, Teferi thanks the participants.

After a group discussion, Teferi thanks the participants.

Teaching and Dissertation Supervision

During the fall semester, I was involved in co-teaching a field-based course on ethnographic methods listed in Wollo University’s cooperative social anthropology program with NTNU in Noway as “SOAN522: Ethnographic Methods: Wollo Field Course”. Originally designed by Professor Svein Ege, the course sought to foster student interests in conducting “…high quality fieldwork that encompasses documenting what they have observed in the form of notes and other documentation equipment, citing references properly, and practicing fieldwork by selecting more particular topics.” Together with Professor Svein and other WU colleagues, I provided extensive feedback on students’ daily notes and field encounters, advised on topic selection, and offered real time data collection tips and rapport building strategies. I also encouraged student-led peer discussion and brief on-sight readings. In one quiet October evening, for example, all of our nine graduate students took a turn to read one entry from Malinowski’s “A Dairy in the Strict Sense of the Term”.

In the spring term, I ran my own full-length hybrid seminar, entitled “Ethiopian Ethnography in Regional and Global Perspective”, to Ph.D. Anthropology students at Bahir Dar University. The goal was to critically engage themes in the “ethnographic record” that are relevant for understanding Ethiopia. In doing so, I encouraged students to develop their own understanding of Ethiopia’s diverse ethnic groups and culture by rethinking how interactions between groups have been studied and analyzed over the years. To achieve these goals, I selected quality readings and arranged them thematically, beginning with historical imaginations and early scholarly portrayals of Ethiopia.  The ending of the seminar emphasized recent debates on enduring institutional and political cultural problems that might have contributed to why millions of Ethiopians, in comparison to other Africans, continue to suffer from the burdens of abject poverty, chronic food insecurity and political instability including recent civil wars.

A woman selling forest products used as incense in Dessie.

A woman selling forest products used as incense in Dessie.

Advising and Dissertation Supervision

During my time as a Fulbright Scholar, I supervised three Social Anthropology M.A. projects at Wollo University and two Social Anthropology Ph.D. dissertation projects at Bahir Dar University. One of the M.A. projects, by Gerawork Legesse, seeks to explore how farming households and communities responded to and had been shaped by the emergence and expansion of rural towns. Gerawork explores these issues by taking the town of Shafi as a case study. The second M.A. project, by Awol Endris, examines changes and continuities in traditional Amhara marriage practices. Awol does this through a comparative analysis of his own ethnographic data on different phases of the marriage process, from initial request for betrothal to the actual nuptial ceremony, with what was previously reported by informants as well as other researchers. The third M.A. project, by Meymuna Zegeye, seeks to understand previously underappreciated roles of traditional Muslim Clerks as agents of culture change. In doing so, Meymuna draws on ethnographic biography of the revered “Abiye Gerewa,” founder of the famous Gerawa Mosque in Kellela district, whom the community regarded as trailblazers for expanding Quran education, praying for the wellbeing of the land and people, and fostering spirits of collective action and mutual help especially in times of drought and civil war.

My two Bahir Dar University Ph.D students were Abraham Genet and Mindaye Shimekit, both of them faculty members of the same university. Abraham had just successfully defended his proposal for a dissertation research project he titled “Cultural Significance of River Abay in Ethiopia: Ethnography of Water-inspired Meanings, Religious Practices and Symbolic Aspirations along the Banks of Wetet Abay.” Together with Dr Yihenew Tesfaye, I had the pleasure of supporting Abraham from the inception of his topic to the final proposal defense. I am looking forward to supervising him in the rest of his journey. Mindaye’s dissertation seeks to explore dynamics of local conservation practices and recent challenges relevant for understanding the continued existence of pockets of “sacred forests” in the otherwise highland deforested highland Ethiopian landscape. He explores these dynamics by taking densely wooded sacred land located at the mouth of the Blue Nile as a case study.

Wollo University colleagues and Norwegian visiting professors with Social Anthropology graduate students in Kellala District.

Wollo University colleagues and Norwegian visiting professors with Social Anthropology graduate students in Kellala District.

Conferences and On-Campus Workshops

One rewarding highlight of my Fulbright experience was helping Wollo University organize the founding “Wollo Education, Science and Culture” international conference (WESCi).  Conceived as a collaboration project with Dr Mohammed Sanni of the London-based Vibranium Foundation, the conference aimed to highlight Wollo province’s homegrown regional cultural solutions for fostering increased cooperation and mutual respect among historically heterogeneous religious and ethnic communities. The goal was to analze whether Wollo’s vernacular community mechanisms provide compelling lessons that may contribute to addressing Ethiopia’s current troubles with ethnically mobilized political polarization and armed violence. With this sense of urgency as a backdrop, the conference took place on January 14-15, 2023, at the main campus of Wollo University in Dessie.

Fourteen scholars, invited from different countries and academic disciplines, presented papers at this founding WESCi.  The conference was hybrid, featuring equally divided number of remote and in-person presentations. I contributed to the success of the conference by inviting six highly recognized US-based scholars to speak remotely. All the six speakers* kindly accepted the invitation and spoke as scheduled, despite the time difference between Ethiopia and the USA. Together, the speakers represented the disciplines of history, anthropology, political science and education. Both the broad breath of speakers and the quality of the presentations delighted the largely young WU faculty.

Wollo University 1st International Conference on Wollo Education, Science and Culture.

Wollo University 1st International Conference on Wollo Education, Science and Culture.

Networking with Colleagues in Other Universities

Parallel to all the above-mentioned activities, I also found some time to network with colleagues in other Ethiopian universities with additional support from the U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa. Three of these efforts resulted in invitation to give a campus talk.

My most recent travel was to Woldia University, located about 120 KM north of Dessie, where I gave a presentation to faculty members and graduate students in the College of Social Sciences and Humanities on June 7, 2023. Together with interested WLU colleagues, I also used this opportunity to visit two IDP camps and hosting rural communities in North Wollo, exploring areas for future collaborative research and evidence-based humanitarian action.

The second trip was to Mekdella Amba University on May 25, 2023. During this time, I offered an invited talk on my ethnographic fieldwork experience to a well-attended audience, consisting of both faculty members and students from several departments. I also held a series of informal consultations with young faculty members who wanted to discuss their own research plans while also asking questions related to possible opportunities for research grant and graduate studies in the United States. Organizing a group of interested colleagues, I used this opportunity to pay a half-day visit to friends and former informants in Tewa, a rural community on the escarpment of River Abay where I lived previously when conducting research on dynamics of household stratification for my MA degree in Social Anthropology.

The third visit was to Bahr Dar University (BDU) in the first week of April 2023. During this weeklong stay, I presented my preliminary findings on the uneven impacts of Ethiopia’s 2020-2022 civil war across communities and social groups. I also used this opportunity to meet up with the above-mentioned Ph.D. student mentees, Abraham Genet and Mindaye Shimekit.

* The speakers were: Berhanu Abegaz (the College of William and Mary), James McCann (Boston University), Peter Castro (Syracuse University), Peter Little (Emory University), Elleni Centime Zeleke (Columbia University), and Adane Gebeyaw Kassa (Prairie State College).


HRAF congratulates Teferi Abate Adem on his accomplishments as a Fulbright Scholar.