“Salamta” is the Amharic greeting that welcomes you aboard every Ethiopian Airlines (ET) plane anywhere in the world. In it, we hear our own “salaam” or even “shalom”, for we are all related to Ethiopia.
So, what can we do in these times of disaster but stretch out our hand in condolence and say to Ethiopia, “salamta” (peace and calm) as we mourn.
But then, who should console whom? From the moment I heard on Sunday morning that Flight ET 302 from Addis to Nairobi had crashed on take-off, I feared the worst for Kenya.
I knew for sure that there would be many Kenyans on that flight, and it was unlikely that there would not be acquaintances among them. When sports maestro Hussein Swaleh was named in early reports of the casualties, I realised that my hunch was not exaggerated.
Similarly, the loss of Tamarind boss Jonathan Seex in the tragedy reminded me of his colleague, then a manager of the Tamarind seafood outlet behind the National Bank of Kenya building, who sold me his excellent Subaru station wagon car that I drove all over Kenya for more than a dozen years.
In such terrible circumstances, we often clutch on to trivialities as a way of coping.
Generally, Ethiopian Airlines is a favourite choice for me, my family and many of our friends wherever we travel.
This is not only because their fares are competitive but also, and especially, because their service seems to make every passenger feel really important.
Many are the precious memories of our flights on Ethiopian Airways, even now when one is afraid of listening to or looking at the media for fear of more devastating revelations.
But just when you think you have heard the worst, like the 32 Kenyans lost in this single tragedy, sorrow hits even more directly to the heart.
I was settling down at my desk on Monday morning when a terse message arrived from one of my KU friends.
“Agnes Gathumbi and another colleague (James Mwangi) in our department perished in the Ethiopian air crash.”
Dumbfounded! Petrified. Now I am the one to be consoled.
Prof Agnes Gathumbi was one of my longest-time friends and colleagues at KU. An English Language specialist, she worked with us on numerous projects, both for the university and at the then-Kenya Institute of Education.
Agnes was an exceptionally knowledgeable and articulate scholar, and it was always a joy working with her.
But the most remarkable thing about her was her irrepressible sense of humour.
Her stream of jokes kept us laughing and relaxed even through the most arduous and tedious tasks.
It is almost unbearable to think that we shall never hear that beautifully modulated voice of hers again, never revel in her dimpled smile again, never laugh hilariously with her again!
But even as we reel and writhe in our grief, we cannot close our eyes and hearts to the other 31 compatriots whose people will be grieving as painfully as we are.
Indeed, this is a global tragedy, since the victims, including a number of United Nations personnel, came from every corner of the earth. The whole world mourns, should mourn, with Ethiopia, and Kenya.
Indeed, in my helpless groping for a means of coping, I found myself clutching at Ethiopia’s classical role in the African world and its diaspora.
Our unity in grief with Ethiopia should remind us of our privileged position as the next-door neighbours to a land that is par excellence the representative of Africa, the land of the black people, all over the world.
Indeed, we can claim to be a part of it. “Ethiops”, I understand, means black people in Greek, and “Ethiopia” is their land.
This is the land that is frequently mentioned in the Bible. It is presumably the land of the Queen of Sheba, a connection that gives it a claim in Judaism.
Some of us may remember Israel’s airlift of some 40,000 Ethiopian Jews (the Falashas) to their “homeland” some time in the mid-1980s. Ethiopia is also the land of the Kandake Queen of the Book of Acts, whose eunuch butler was the first recorded baptised African Christian.
The land has remained prominently Christian, with its famous mountain rock cathedrals, in one of which some people believe the Ark of the Covenant is hidden.
Maybe less well-known is that Prophet Muhammad (SAW) once advised some of his closest followers to seek refuge in Ethiopia from persecution by some of their Arabian compatriots.
During their exile, they were honourably hosted by a Christian Ethiopian ruler. Thus does Ethiopia connect to all the three monotheistic faiths.
Closer to our times, Ethiopia is known as the only African country that never succumbed to the yoke of colonialism.
Those who tried to subjugate it were decisively beaten off and Ethiopia remained proudly and permanently free.
No wonder then that it has always been a beacon for freedom-seekers, including some of our own, as legend has it.
Ethiopian Airlines, which has been flying since 1946, is itself an icon of proud survival.
During the particularly difficult political times in the 1980s in Ethiopia, the airline is said to have temporarily relocated its main operations to Nairobi and operated from here for several years.
In the Diaspora, the Ethiopian influence is seen especially in the Caribbean, and now international, Rastafarian Movement, whose symbol is the late Haile Selassie (Rastafari), Emperor of Ethiopia, the spiritual home of the “Rastas”.
I was intrigued to learn that reggae, the Rastafarian-inspired music, which the UN has adopted as part of the world’s cultural heritage, actually derives its rhythms from the drums played for Nyabingi (the Owner-of-many-things), a mysterious female spirit venerated in Rwanda and parts of Southwest Uganda!
Anyway, troubles and tribulations may come and afflict us, but with all this long, broad and deep treasure of history and experience, Ethiopia will stand firm and proud, as she has always done.
With her, we too will stand and rise above our losses and sorrows. Salamta!
Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and literature. [email protected]