Amharic or English? – Expanding the Democratic Base

December 13th, 2008 Print Print Email Email

Kuchiye – / December 13, 2008

I confess I am as badly hyphenated as any in the Diaspora. Only the other day a rude awakening hit home when my son asked me to translate an Amharic article I wrote in connection with the Obama campaign. (more…)

Kuchiye – / December 13, 2008

I confess I am as badly hyphenated as any in the Diaspora. Only the other day a rude awakening hit home when my son asked me to translate an Amharic article I wrote in connection with the Obama campaign. Apparently an insider had intimated to him about a tangential reference I made to the young man.

Translate I did, carrying a sense of guilt for raising an Amharic language challenged child. Assuming my own family serves as microcosm of a typical Diaspora family, surely the question of whether or not to write in English becomes a real issue.

But wait! Just about a year ago I encountered a dilemma of the reverse kind. In one of my rare moments of brilliance I concluded that punditry in English is not of much consequence since 80% of Ethiopians in the Diaspora, according to my cursory survey, are far more conversant in Amharic than they truly are in English. That is when I started writing in Amharic with still improving eloquence. Who am I kidding? my English wasn’t that earth shattering in the first place.

Such being the case, who indeed are Ethiopian pundits targeting as their audience or are they trying to convert the converted, to teach the learned? Are they engaged in a feel-good exercise that the elite are all too often accused of? If they knowingly target the learned 20%, aren’t they investing 80% of their effort on 20% of the opportunity? Please understand I am asking theses questions in good faith and from a desire to see the ideas of these brilliant minds flourish in every Ethiopian house and heart.

Just look around and figure out how many out of 10 people in a public gathering, the church, the mosque or “Mahber“ understand let alone appreciate the luminous articles of Prof. Alemayehu G/Mariam, Prof. Teodros Kiros, Fekade Shewakena, Robel Ababiya and Selam Beyene, to name but a few? Not many, I am afraid. Isn’t it precisely the reason why we conduct meetings in Amharic? Isn’t it why we have Amharic rather than English radio and TV stations? Amharic rather than English newspapers? So what is up with this cyber punditry in English?

Let’s for the sake of expediency assume 20% of our community posses adequate knowledge of the English language; enough to understand conceptual arguments and patient enough for lengthy diatribes. Since we are in a giving season, I will throw in another 5% to account for the “Am-English” speaker and swell the potential audience to 25%. Of this, what percentage will be interested in politics? What percent will access the internet regularly and if that to check emails and pay the bloody bills electronically? What percentage will postpone chasing the American or some other dream and sacrifice an afternoon for a public rally to protest the unfair imprisonment of Teddy Afro? I would say a paltry 1%. Trust me; this number did not come out of thin air but from real experience. If you are Thomas the doubtful, take a look at some factual information on the most frequently visited websites:

Information on the most frequently visited websites
Abugidainfo Ethiomedia Ethiopian Review

Traffic rank based on a combined measure of page views and users (reach) – Average one month 264,538 150,303 130,675

Traffic rank based on a combined measure of page views and users (reach) – Average 3 months 275,542 156,787 75,468

Source: Alexa (December 4, 2008)

Let’s see., for example, enjoys an average of 4,408 visitors per day including repeat visitors, (264,538/30 days/2pages per person =4,408). Does that mean my article on Abugida will be read by all 4,408 visitors? Most certainly not; but I will dwell on that some other time.

Considering a universe of about 1 million Ethiopians living abroad, the combined number of hits our websites receive is dismal. I have deliberately left out the home front for two reasons. One, most good websites are banned. Two, even if they were not banned, the pathetic bandwidth problem of the country makes internet surfing a truly demoralizing experience. These are material facts over which web site administrators and cyber pundits need to scratch their heads about.

So the question becomes “How do we increase internet traffic?” Jeff Bezo of Amazon and Eric Schmidt of Google fame would tell us the key is “content”. Trust me once again, these billionaire tycoons know what they are talking abut.

How do you then improve content and increase traffic when you are writing in English with almost total disregard to 80% of the community?

Is this going to be a case of damned if we write in Amharic and exclude the young and damned if we write in English and ostracize the majority? It doesn’t have to be.

Obviously, a blanket outreach module does not work since communities have varied interests, language preferences, esthetic values etc. We can and must stratify our society into meaningful groups so that appropriate communication modules that help in reaching every sector of society proliferate. Only then will we be able to expand the democratic base and garner sustained support from well informed and well committed citizens.

As for me, I will continue to have fun writing in Amharic and maybe occasionally in English. Just find me copy of that famous book “Lemma Begebeya” so I can launch a “Meserete Timhrt” program for my son.

Merry Christmas!

  1. Azaria
    | #1


    I enjoy your Amharic as well as your English articles. Your style is fun in both and you discuss critical issues that we ignore. Bless you.

    Thank you

  2. juma
    | #2

    Dear Kuchiye,

    I believe you have raised an important issue in this article and I wish all writers would heed to your advice.

    The length of the articles is also an important aspect as you lightly pointed out. I wish writers would be to the point if they want the majority of people to read their articles. I usually scan an article before reading and wouldn’t read it if it is more than 5 or 6 paragraphes unless it is an article on a burnning issue (which most aren’t in my opinion). Very often, for instance, articles on Ethiopian politics preach to the choir: listing at length the problems (human rights and political transgressions) in Ethiopia and writing very little or none about what should be done.

    Any ways, please keep your articles as brief as possible because most of us reading your articles on the Web aren’t interested in intellectual discourse about the issues but informative and inspirational stuff.

    Before, I break my own rule of being brief, let me stop by pointing out to Kuchiye one minor error in his/her article which wouldn’t still affect the validity of the article’s argument: the alexa numbers that you presented are rankings – they don’t show visitor numbers. For instance, 264,538 , is the rank of and not the number of visitors. Check out’s or’s rank (again notice that it says it is rank not number of visitors) from to be sure.

    Keep the good work.

  3. juma
    | #3

    To Kuchiye: I am sorry about the punctuation and grammatical errors in my previous comment.

    To abugidainfo: I wish there was a mechanism on this page that allows me to edit my comments after I hit the submit button.


  4. yikerbelen
    | #4

    Dear Kuchiye, This was my big question all the time.Personally I can read in english and I get 70-80% of the concept of any article. one question comes always in my mind. Almost all diaspora’s intellectuals have been writting so many and very important articles which every ethiopian can learn and get well based education or documents in english , on the other hand most of ethiopians have a common problem of reading and getting the general concept of any article in english. If so, for whom and for what prupose ethiopia’s diasporians[ intellectuals] are wasting their time by writting and posting so many articles in english if their people can not read and understand it? To show for others their english language ability or for what purpose? I think as long as they are wasting their percious time , their target should focus to educate [teach]create awarness and arm their people by well based information. this should be their finally goal and taget, other wise, their waste of time will be considrered as ‘ kemezemez wodih tenechele wodiya.’ yihonal. That means , as They lost the main target , they will never get the target. They will write and read them selves. any ways , too much thank you for Kuchiye’s son for asking his father for translation, we advice all children to put more pressure on their parents day and night for more translations. Thank Mr Kuchiye for raising my concern and big question

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