Jessica Beshir’s mesmerising documentary captures the frustration and disillusionment of a generation.
CHILDREN BATHING in a shrinking lake. Incense wafting through an open door. The wet slap of mud against a wall. Two boys lying on the ground, staring wistfully at the sky. Like snatches of memory, the images are displayed one after the other.
“Faya Dayi”, a hypnotic new film about life in Ethiopia’s eastern highlands, is less a documentary than a poem, its lyrics set against a sequence of monochrome pictures which languidly unfurl across the screen. The experience is as intoxicating as the leaves of qat, a mild stimulant native to this part of Africa, which is a recurring motif. But beneath the luscious surface is a sombre evocation of the boredom, frustration and anger which afflict a generation of Ethiopian youth.
The central character, insofar as such an elliptical film possesses one, is 14-year-old Mohammed, who works as an errand boy for the qat-chewers of Harar, a holy city of Sufi shrines and labyrinthine streets. With a mother living across the Red Sea in Saudi Arabia, and an abusive, qat-addicted father at home, Mohammed stands in for the many thousands of young Ethiopians with scant prospects who feel they have no choice but escape. His wrestling with the dilemma of migration—and his eventual decision to embark on the smuggler’s route, through Djibouti and Yemen, to the Gulf—will be all too familiar to many Ethiopians.
Yet his predicament is also a local one: that of the young men and women, ethnic Oromos, from the farming country of Hararghe which surrounds the city. The land they live off is dying. Rainfall is no longer predictable and the nearby lake is drying up. For centuries farmers here relied on coffee production, Ethiopia’s main cash crop, but lately they have switched almost entirely to qat, which requires less land and even less rain. “The scent of coffee has changed. It doesn’t taste the same,” laments one farmer, sipping from a cup.
Qat, then, is a lifeline, and the camera dwells tenderly on the plant as it is transported from fields in the morning to factories and then onto trucks in the evening. Each night great bundles, wrapped in plastic, are ferried to Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital. But the drug is also tugging hard at Haraghe’s social fabric. An older generation of men have withdrawn into a listless haze of qat and prayer. Mohammed’s father beats him. “Everyone chews to get away,” says the boy as he wanders Harar’s narrow streets. “Their flesh is there but their soul is gone.” Harar, in this telling, is a place of broken men and wayward husbands: “the ghost”, says one woman, “who abandons your warm bed every morning when you awaken”.
Jessica Beshir, a Mexican-Ethiopian film-maker, grew up in Harar before fleeing abroad during the military dictatorship of the 1980s known as the Derg. She returned in 2011 to film the town and its surroundings, alone and undercover, for one or two months at a time over the course of a decade. Her approach is largely aesthetic—the film is bereft of almost any details of place, time or context—but obliquely political too.
Mohammed and his friends are from a generation of Oromos known as the “Qeerroo” (the term does not appear in the film but most Ethiopians would immediately identify them as such). Widespread protests which raged between 2014 and 2018 were organised by young Qeerroo and led to the toppling of the authoritarian government then in power in Addis Ababa. In its stead came Abiy Ahmed, an Oromo, who the Qeerroo briefly welcomed as one of their own. In the young prime minister they found a potential liberator as well as someone who might raise the prospects of economically marginalised Oromo.
The boys’ frustrations are as much political as economic. They complain of injustice—such as the academically gifted friend who was purposefully given bad marks at school by the “Woyane” (a slang term for the previous ethnic Tigrayan-dominated government). They mourn a friend shot by the police who died before he could reach hospital. And they speak with bitter disappointment about the dawn they believed had broken when Abiy came to power. The effect is to humanise a group which is often maligned by the rest of Ethiopian society. “It’s hard for me to open up and say what I feel inside,” says one young man in a halting, pained voice. The film is a rare chance for him and the others to speak out.
Today most of the boys are on the run or in hiding. State violence has returned with a vengeance. And in northern Ethiopia, in the region of Tigray, a brutal civil war is underway. Although Haraghe and its youth have suffered greatly over the years (Haraghe was hit particularly hard during the civil war of the 1980s), their plight is by no means unique. Violence everywhere in Ethiopia has bred numbness compounded by fatalism. Maaze Mengiste, an Ethiopian author, has argued that her society is burdened with a trauma that is now generations old. The world of “Faya Dayi”—where people of all ages find recourse in qat, prayer or exile—is this Ethiopia in microcosm.