Abebe Yirga Ayenalem – Singing the dam
Abebe believes that the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) led to a shift in narratives surrounding Abbay, highlighting its place at the centre of political, cultural, religious, aesthetic, emotional, geographic, and public space in Ethiopia. He considers songs as mirrors which reflect the reality of a society, and therefore looks at the vast production of songs about the GERD and Abbay to know more about what the river and the dam mean to Ethiopians. “Different artists across the country have been singing about the dam and the river, Abbay. From kids to the legends, and from amateur singers to internationally renowned artists, everyone in Ethiopia has been singing for Abbay and the dam.”
Abebe also touches on the political importance of the songs, claiming that we can turn to them to learn about who’s contributing to the construction of the dam, and for whom it is being built. “These songs have been used for public mobilisation to support the construction of the dam since the dam is financed by the people and the government of Ethiopia. In every public mobilisation and fundraising event, songs have been playing a significant role.”
by Etenesh Demeke and Assegid Eshetu
This song was performed by a group of primary school kids, right after the beginning of the construction of the GERD. It is the most popular song whenever there is a mobilisation activity at the school. It is one of the most iconic songs about the river, and is included into the primary school curriculum. The main themes of the song are the ending of lamentation about Abbay, the sharing of the river with other riparian countries, and the importance of the dam.
While reproducing traditional narratives about the river, as a national treasure and icon this song also portrays the GERD as a way to help the river return home to Ethiopia. Before the dam, the river had a place in culture, religion, identity and politics, but did not bring any economic benefit to Ethiopia. Thus, generations of Ethiopians felt angry about the river that was sung as a traitor and a migrant. Now with the construction of the GERD, the river is hailed for returning home and providing Ethiopians with the economic blessings it once withheld.
The aspirations about the river that remained unaddressed for centuries were finally listened to with the construction of the GERD, as the lyrics of the song tell: “Generations relayed it like a waterfall … anger and suffering got over … anger and suffering got a listener.” The dream of constructing a dam became real with the GERD. The song ends with emphasising the benefits that the GERD will provide also to the other riparian countries, Sudan and Egypt.
‘Let us reach high accolades through work’
by various artists
This song is performed by thirteen artists from different ethnic and age groups, singing with happiness, pride and optimism. The song presents the GERD as a vessel for the rebirth of Ethiopia’s glory – “For the pride of Ethiopia, to return to its previous glory” – to be admired by the entire world: “Let it be seen in the world being proud of itself.”
Other lyrics convey how the grandeur of Ethiopia could only be achieved through work. To regain the past glory and place in the world, Ethiopians need to work together. Also this song refers to Abbay as a previously lost and migrated river, and adopts the metaphor of rebirth: the river is born again and this time committed to contributing to the development of Ethiopia.
Quchit to Eskista
by Tadele Roba and Mesfin Bekele
In this happy march song, the famous artists Roma and Bekeleplay the character of two Ethiopian migrants coming home to work for the dam, and to reunite with Abbay and their fellow Ethiopians. The main theme of the song is happiness about the construction of the GERD, celebrated through dancing Ethiopian folk dances. Once again they sing about Abbay returning home to serve the country, and celebrate the reunion between the river, Ethiopians living in the diaspora and Ethiopians living in the country. Indeed the song draws a clear parallel between Ethiopians who migrated abroad and Abbay: both were previously lost and can now return back at home thanks to the GERD:
“I returned home, as Abbay did” sings the song. The dam is also considered a weapon against poverty. Poverty is the enemy which caused both Abbay and the diaspora to migrate. The construction of the GERD means no more worries and regrets, because the dam will erase long existing lamentations. Abbay can now trust and help Ethiopians, thanks to the dam. The dam has brought a new era of hope. “It is an era of hope and let this be the year of peace. Abbay turned his face and came back home.”
Abebe’s concluding remarks
“Songs are indeed important to communicate narratives that are (re)constructed around water bodies and infrastructure. In most cases, large water infrastructures like dams are not merely engineering or development projects. They are also complex emotional constructions, with deeply embedded political and historical meanings, as well as identity and aesthetic connotations.
Thus, in the eyes of Ethiopians, the GERD is not just a mere water infrastructure. It is hope. It is a symbol that rectifies past injustices and betrayals. It is also the present that shows the capacity and unity of Ethiopians. It is the answer to the generations-old question of alleviating poverty in Ethiopia. It is considered as a historical achievement, equal to the victory in the battle of Adwa against the Italian invader army (1896).
Such symbolic meaning of the GERD is made possible by the great significance of Abay for Ethiopian culture and public opinion. Therefore, I encourage water scholars, water diplomats, and decision-makers to further take into account the cultural, emotional, and symbolic dimensions of the river and its infrastructures to better contextualise them, and to contribute to more sustainable water governance, particularly in the case of transboundary waters.”
Story collected and written by Aisling Kenny (August 2021)