This is a personal account of my opportunities, challenges, and experiences while I am away from my home country, Ethiopia (there) and in Zurich (here) as a visiting PhD student at UZH’s Political Geography Unit. It is just my self-reflexivity and sense of feeling after swinging between here and there. I am grateful to be at UZH, particularly because the conflict in Ethiopia has disrupted the studies of so many other students I know. However, it has been difficult to stay focused on my PhD when my mind and my concerns have been with my family and friends back home, who were living the crisis that I was able to leave behind.
Doing a Ph.D. in Ethiopia
My academic friends back in Ethiopia often say that I am lucky to get the chance to come here as a visiting PhD student. I agree that it is a good opportunity. I also feel privileged compared to them; my friends who remain there. Coming here, I am placed in both an appropriate academic home and a welcoming non-academic world. As always echoes in my mind, I now live in two types of ‘libraries’—academic and life libraries—where I have gained both literary knowledge and horizons in my life experience every single day. This really helps me to progress in my writing of my PhD thesis. The value of being here at UZH will shine more when I speak more about the educational and societal landscape in Ethiopia.
Students in my home institution lack guidance and support. Meeting with one’s academic advisor is not always easy, and feedback from the academic advisor is frequently delayed and much more time-consuming, as many students, including myself, complain about. Some even go so far as to say that some supervisors have kept student papers for feedback for much longer than the actual time required to produce a given piece of paper. This, combined with poor infrastructure such as a lack of office facilities (which is unimaginable), a poor internet connection, and limited resources, makes the lives of PhD students difficult. It is more common to see many students under pressure as time passes and they become tired of their studies and eventually drop out of the program, sometimes after spending six to seven years or more. Only a few courageous students persevere and finally graduate after years of delay. Given that some of them have also been involved in other income-generating activities, a delay of two or more years appears normal. In addition to this existing fact, my batch of PhD students has been extremely unlucky due to national and international issues – from civil war to pandemics – that have distracted us from our studies.
Ethiopia’s recent political crisis: Conflict and Covid
Since we were admitted to a PhD program, my country's political situation has shifted dramatically, making it far more unpredictable and complicated than at any other time in history. First, a nationwide popular protest ravaged the country from 2014-2018. The protest was initially staged by Oromo youth, commonly called the Qeerroo, who demanded an end to displacement, economic exploitation, and political oppression of the Oromo — the majority but marginalized group in Ethiopia. The popular uprising gradually expanded to other regions, leading to the resignation of the then prime minister in early 2018 and internal power reshuffling within the ruling party. Despite the early periods of euphoria, the political transition did not translate into democratic spaces, peace and stability. As a result, it was difficult for us, PhD students, to fully focus on our studies as we were worried about the future of the country and our own security. Our attention was drawn to the issue of who said what, what has been reported, and what will happen next. Amidst such a political crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic posed another challenge, forcing the university to completely suspend teaching-learning and research activities. But even this was not the end.
The worst happened in late 2020, when disagreements between Ethiopia’s federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the party that had dominated Ethiopia’s politics for nearly three decades, culminated with the outbreak of the war. This was (and still is) more of a concern for my friends there than their academic endeavors.
In late 2021, the TPLF advanced to the capital city, escalating tensions among my friends and residents of the city where my family also resides. Many people were terrified and awaiting the first gunshot in the capital city. My friends were not only discussing what had happened and contemplating their deaths at this point, but were also planning escape routes in case the worst would happen. Some had already taken action, fleeing the capital city for their rural homes of origin. Thus, they were unable to focus on academics. Some students who defended their PhD proposals earlier were also stuck because they could not go for data collection due to security concerns and different rounds of states of emergency declared at the national level during this time. Now, after four years of the PhD journey, some students have yet to defend their proposal, while others are struggling with field work. Worse, some others have already become fatigued and fled, deciding not to continue their studies.
Life in Zurich
This opportunity to visit UZH drew me out of those traps. The political geography unit provides me with a very convenient academic platform. I have benefited from books available at my working office, as well as the online resource pool and publications that I have access to as a university member. Such opportunities, particularly access to up-to-date reference materials, are very limited or often impossible there. I have joined a vibrant team of researchers in the unit who are very open-minded, supportive, and encouraging, from whom I have learned a lot. I have also benefited from the political geography seminars, where I participated in scholarly discussions and presented my preliminary results, from which I received feedback. I have also been able to attend virtual academic presentations in the department and outside that are relevant to me, though physical attendance has been limited again due to the pandemic. Importantly, informal discussions and debates with colleagues in the office have significantly broadened my theoretical knowledge and also contributed to the overall structure and line of argument in my writings.
As a social anthropology student, interacting with professionals from other fields, such as geographers, allows me to share viewpoints and see things from a different perspective. Furthermore, the visiting program allows me to focus and work long hours on my academic writing. It also provides me with the opportunity to reflect on myself and put my potential to the test. Unlike friends back in Ethiopia, whose academic work is so often impeded by a plethora of obstacles, I have no reason to grumble about my institution’s support.
Yet, even from this distance, the pain of separation from my family, home, and the violent politics unravelling back there challenges me every day with the disassociation of being physically absent but mentally fixated on Ethiopia. In particular, in November and early December 2021, when the war escalated and the battle ground advanced to the capital city, I was completely unable to comprehend what would happen to my family and the country at large. I was thinking and talking to different people there from a distance about how and where my family could flee under the condition that the capital city would be the centre of the war. However, I was not there for my family, let alone to assist them, but to closely share their emotional feelings. Could you imagine a father writing his Ph.D. in the serene safety of Switzerland, with two little kids and a wife whose entire family is in danger but who is unable to save them? It was excruciatingly painful. In the worst scenario, had the conflict advanced to the city, I may have been separated from my family, possibly forever. Such scenarios happened in different parts of the world.
I felt guilt for not being there. I cursed myself over and over for coming here. I was also arguing with myself about going back there instead of staying here. My altruistic nature was telling me to go there and be with them and pay all the sacrifices necessary to save them, while my selfishness was pulling me to say, "Things will be improved soon and it makes no difference if you are there. Rather, it is better to do everything you can from afar to save them." My friends here were asking how I felt about my family and the situation. I often said, "It is OK." Some of them wondered and asked me, "How do you say OK while things are getting worse?" But that was how I responded, despite the fact that I was internally burned with deep inner sorrow. I was moving in a dead body. There was also a time when I was envious of the people of Zurich and their dogs, seeing how they lived in a peaceful world while my people and families were suffering because of man-made political mess. Yes, it is still "OK."
The good news is that things have improved there since the end of the month of December. The TPLF was also forced to retreat. All that worried me did not happen in the capital city. My mind drifted back towards my PhD thesis and my life in Zurich. Yes, everything that has gone away is still "okay," and it has also been an opportunity for me to learn and grow. As a result, I believe that being here is more than just a chance.