‘Whose Australia?’ Deconstructing A Semester Abroad In Melbourne
by Kulani McCartan-Demie
I will begin this post by acknowledging that for perhaps the first time in my life, travelling from my safe, multicultural home of London to the other side of the world, Australia was met with an underwritten sense of displacement. I was somewhat out of place, an Ethiopian-Irish female spending a semester studying in Melbourne— often deemed among the more ‘diverse’ cities of Australia. I was surprised to have only met a handful of POC, let me be honest, I can count these individuals on one hand and even that it self is me being pretty generous. One individual I will always remember, was ‘Ababa,’ I remember the day after I arrived, seeing a lady cleaning the kitchen who looked familiar to my Ethiopian family. I asked one of the Australians, who had lived for a couple of years in this particular flat about her; what her name was, where she was from? They shrugged and almost looked confused that I dare ask such a question. Me being me, I approached inquisitively the next day asking her name and where she was from. I knew that she was East African, but nevertheless I asked her where she or her family was from. At first she told me she was from ‘Africa’—perhaps used to the limited knowledge of African countries from the average Australian—but I remarked “but where in Africa Aunty?’ and soon learnt that she was from Eritrea and her name was ‘Ababa’. I told her that I was half Ethiopian and within ten minutes she kindly offered to bring me Injera, an Ethiopian staple bread and Berbere, a key Ethiopian and Eritrean spice to cook with. It was amazing that despite being so far from home, I found someone from the Horn of Africa who taught me how to make staple Ethiopian dishes and bought me fresh injera! I would often spend my mornings catching up with her, whilst making a cup of tea, learning about her life and when she migrated to Australia, what the UK was like, and learning of her upcoming return home to see her family after many years and attend her son’s wedding ceremony in Eritrea. I was very fortunate to meet Ababa and hope I will one day meet her again.
It was incredible to learn of a strong African diaspora in Melbourne, in ‘Footscray’, a sort of migrant hub area closer to the city. I was particularly proud to experience the Oromo diaspora in Melbourne, the ethnic group my dad belongs to in Ethiopia. A few days before I left Melbourne to return home, I attended the annual Oromo Cultural Festival held in Federation Square greeted by thousands of Oromo’s and non-Oromo’s from all around Australia and the world. This celebration promoted self-empowerment and sought to raise awareness in the wider community about the lifestyle, culture and ethics of members of the Australian Oromo community. To see Federation Square embellished by rows of sky-high Oromo flags marked a proud moment for my Dad and me. From being awkwardly interviewed on national Oromo TV, reaffirming my ‘Oromo-ness’ to the cameraman who questioned this (given my lighter complexion), to being introduced to many Australian Oromo’s as the daughter of ‘Dr. Demie’ from London, by a family friend. I was proud to witness how strong diasporic and cultural networks are working globally.
I recall a time I walked passed Flinders Street station, Melbourne’s equivalent of Kings Cross, and there a black man stood, in the centre of the road on Melbourne’s prime Flinders Street, holding up a placard entitled, “Stop Australia’s Racism”. Amidst the traffic, I really wanted to go up and hug him and tell him that what he is doing is so critical and valuable to this country. I guess my time spent in Australia is characterised in two-fold; I found it such a beautiful place experiencing some of the World’s most beautiful white sand beaches and crystal oceans, but equally a country underwritten by an uncomfortable colonial history. This is why it was imperative that I studied the politics and history of Indigenous Australia- writing on epistemic and ontological whiteness and the treatment of mixed race and Indigenous Australians throughout history proved very important to me. How could I go to a country and not seek to learn about its past and its Indigenous communities, who are silenced, disenfranchised and undermined by the state everyday. I think in this sense it drew interesting comparisons to my next semester in South Africa, which echoed similar characteristics of incredible beauty alongside racial, ethnic and political cleavages, and albeit another beautiful country which has undoubtedly enriched my life experiences to date.
Young Oromo girl in traditional clothing holding her hands crossed in Oromo peaceful protest gesture, ‘X’ in solidarity with Oromo’s.