Martha Kuwee Kumsa
"Nobody I knew ever came back ..."
Date posted: May 29, 2003
Laurier's Martha Kuwee Kumsa
In 1980, 24-year-old Ethiopian journalist Martha Kuwee Kumsa kissed her three toddlers goodbye and set off for work at the weekly newspaper, Barisa. Barisa had been published by and for Ethiopia's oppressed Oromo population but had been taken over by the military-led regime and made into one of their mouthpieces.
"My plan for the day," Kumsa later wrote, "was to go to the office, get a photographer and a driver, find a story that would breathe some life into Barisa, and come back home to my kids in the evening."
It didn't happen. At the newspaper office, four men were waiting for her. "Just a few questions," one of them said. "It would only be 10 minutes." Kumsa knew better. "Nobody I knew ever came back … the corpses of my three little ones danced before my eyes."
She was thrown into a waiting car, blindfolded, her hands tied, then flung into jail, disappearing just as her chemical engineer husband, Leenco Lata, a founder of Barisa, had two years before.
Kumsa was imprisoned for almost a decade. She was never charged with a crime. She was beaten and tortured. She did not see her children again for seven years. Then, "I was able to see my children once a month (theoretically) but we couldn't meet every month," Kumsa says. "Sometimes the visitors' lines would be so long that by the time my kids got to the front the visiting time would be over. Other times the warden would get so worked up that he would chase away children under the age of 15."
Kumsa, who spent her time in jail writing and teaching, was finally released in 1989, with the help of PEN Canada (which champions freedom of expression) and Amnesty International. She came to Canada in 1991 with her children and "a bag full of dreams" and for the first time in years, "we came together as a family under one roof."
But it wasn't easy for the newly arrived family. The three children had been shunted around between friends, relatives and inlaws while their mother was in prison.
"They suffered a lot," says Kumsa. "They had a sense of abandonment, and anger. They asked, 'Why did you bring us into this world?' "
Faced with raising three children on her own, Kumsa tried to find a job in journalism. Unsuccessful despite her experience, she took a course in Life Skills and Job Search, which gave her insight into the Canadian workplace and wider community. As a result, she made the decision to return to school, and earned a BA in sociology at York, then a BSW at York. "I couldn't find a job," she says, so she went to the University of Toronto for a MSW.
Still unable to find a position despite her MSW, she began doctoral studies in social work at U of T. In 2000, she became one of the first two recipients of the University of Toronto and Massey College's Scholars at Risk award.
Her PhD dissertation deals with identity cohesion among young Oromo refugees. It is, she says, a "very personal and very universal" thesis, which "cuts across all levels."
Kumsa is now completing her PhD and joined Laurier's Faculty of Social Work in 2002.
In 1996, Kumsa received the Helman/Hammet Award for Free Expression from Human Rights Watch in New York, and the Dr. Wilson Head Memorial Award for Outstanding Work in Anti-Racism, Peace and Human Rights, from Atkinson College at York University.
And also in 1996, she was reunited with her husband, Leenco Lata, who had reappeared in 1991 after co-founding the Oromo Liberation Front and successfully fighting, with other liberation movements, against the military dictatorship of Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam.
"He disappeared in April 1978, just a month before our last girl was born, and we saw him in Nairobi when he visited us for two days in September 1991, just as we were leaving for Canada. That was the first time he set eyes on our lastborn."
Lata, author of The Ethiopian State at the Crossroads: Democratization, Decolonization or Disintegration, is now living in exile in Toronto, and Kumsa, in addition to her scholarly activities, is an active member of PEN International, PEN Canada, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, and the Oromo-Canadian Women's Organization, is a founding member of Oromo Global Communities Network, and a volunteer for Amnesty International
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