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An Ethiopian Odyssey

Chapter 26 - Fortress America

16th February 2005

Arriving in Washington, I was met by Leikun Tefera, who just happened to see his aunt, Tiruwork Abebe in the photo on the website! He and his wife, Fre, happily agreed to meet me at the airport. Chapter 26: ‘Fortress America’ provides more stories of classmates and theire relatives. My four day stay there passes quickly, with lots of Ethiopian connections: the city is home to the largest Ethiopian diaspora in the world. But I’d also come to pay my respects to the dead at Arlington National Cemetery.

My last full day in Washington dawned. The sun wasn’t as warm as the previous day, which had been a blip in the usual cold winter weather. As I sat stirring my coffee, I looked out of the window and thought about John F Kennedy. Today I planned to visit his grave at Arlington National Cemetery, where nearly 300,000 soldiers are buried, including recent casualties from the Iraq War. I wanted to walk among the gravestones and pay my respects to some of them – people I’d never known, who had given their lives for freedom and their ideals. Sometimes I didn’t agree with their ideals, particularly this latest war, but I had to admire their courage.

Standing up and being counted for what you believe in is becoming increasingly rare in our societies, as we strive to fit in with what is acceptable and acquire the things and status which count for ‘success’ today. So many of us have consequently lost our way, living lives of quiet desperation and disconnection with who we really are, deep down inside. The only place many can be themselves is with their family; sometimes not even there, sometimes just in their hearts, and so they put on masks pretending to be someone they’re not. Therein lies madness, because true sanity comes from feeling, thinking, saying and behaving in ways that reflect our soul.

At Arlington Cemetery, JFK was on all the visitors’ minds. Soft rain fell on us and the slim white headstones that fanned out as far as the eye could see, like ice lolly sticks. Jack Kennedy’s gravestone lay beside his wife Jacqueline’s, an eternal flame burning between them. On one long slender piece of concrete had been carved his famous words, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you….’

A few yards away was Bobby Kennedy’s memorial with an excerpt from the speech he had given in apartheid South Africa in 1966, the same year we had arrived there. On 06/06/66, he had included a vision of courage in his speech at the University of Cape Town: “It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centres of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

The voice of our Latin teacher, Mrs. Rock, came floating back to me as she stood in front of standard 6A in the prefab class at Kempton Park High. “You will remember this day for many years to come – 6th June 1966. We don’t get many dates like this.”

Africa was the continent that connected me to the Kennedys – hearing about Jack’s death in Ethiopia and Bobby’s in South Africa. Despite Africa’s reputation for megalomaniac rulers who clung on to power long after they should have relinquished it, ordinary people wanted freedom and democracy and they revered individuals who stood for the rights of the man in the street. Before I left the cemetery, I strolled by some fresh graves where bare red earth surrounded the sparkling white headstones. Funeral cars drove to and from the special chapel fifty yards away. I gazed at the newest stone, marking the death of a young US Navy sailor who was just 21 when he died on 15 December 2004. I wondered about those he’d left behind – perhaps he already had his own young family and it wasn’t just his parents who were grieving.

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