Kentucky Fried Chicken wants to move into Addis Ababa. Among the last of African countries to be colonized by fast food, Ethiopia just received their first multinational fast food chain in 2018, when two Pizza Huts opened in Addis. More international chains want to open in the capital, though their efforts are stymied by Ethiopia’s fervor for self-branded counterfeits: Addis is home to a few unauthorized In-N-Out Burgers, at least one false Burger King, and a Subway that serves more stews than sandwiches. The logo for Kentaki Krunchy Fried Chicken, or KKFC, looks almost identical to its American inspiration. Its owner, Tseday Asrat, is a serial entrepreneur known for nearly reproducing Starbuck’s green sigil logo at every location of Kaldi’s, a coffee chain he also owns in Addis. Asrat claims to have received KFC branding licensing from KFC Saudi Arabia, but KFC corporate disagrees.
Despite a growing chicken availability, chicken simply isn’t very popular in Ethiopia. Historically, local chickens have been too small and slow growing to be raised specifically for meat, and they are eaten only after they’ve fulfilled their life’s mission as layers. As a result, chicken is widely treated as a delicacy, an anomaly among African countries. The bird is eaten for special occasions, like Ethiopian New Year and Christmas, while beef and goat are consumed far more casually. Doro wat, largely considered the national dish, is stewed for several hours to render old, egg-laying hens tender and moist with piles of shallots, berbere, and tomato paste. By day’s end, the meat is stained through with red oil, while the niter kebbeh—spiced butter—lends the dish a creamy quality. A few eggs hardboiled in the red braise finish it off, resulting in a smooth, heat-speckled sauce that slow-burns its way down, a spicy funeral pyre for an old hen at the end of her life.
And yet, chicken eateries like Kentaki are suddenly opening across Addis. Another spot called Chicken Hut now sells barbeque chicken pieces in the high-rise malls popping up in the capital. The experience of eating there is very American: I went up and ordered, they gave me a big, ugly buzzer, and it rattled obnoxiously when the order was ready. The paper placemats on Chicken Hut’s food court trays feature a cartoon cow imploring you to “eat moore chicken,” copying the iconic Chick-Fil-A tagline. But unlike Chick-Fil-A’s self-interested heifer, the Ethiopian cow isn’t just hoping to save its own skin. Instead, it’s calling to the new Ethiopian denizens of the mall—tweens in black jeans and sneakers—and urging them to be modern. Do what your parents would never do: order a Chicken Nugget Meal.
With the influx of fast food–style eateries, casual chicken consumption appears to be growing more common in the capital. Fried chicken, chicken sandwiches, and stir-fried chicken are considered the food of foreigners, but also of a modern Ethiopia—I’ve ordered chicken katsu at the country’s only Japanese restaurant. Even outside of the restaurants, chicken seems to be having a small moment in the East African country. The protagonist of the country’s first 3D mobile game, Kukulu, is a brave chicken trying to escape a prototypical Ethiopian village. A television advertisement for an Ethiopian beer depicted football fans cheering on a single chicken to predict the winner of the 2018 World Cup.
This emergent chicken fever clashes, though, with traditional Ethiopian culture. Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, who make up about 40 percent of the population, are forbidden from eating chicken at all for approximately half of the year. Normal Orthodox fasting, for which one eats an effectively vegan diet, occurs two days out of every week, and then for longer sustained periods at various points. And while all meats are forbidden on fasting days, red meat is still far preferred over chicken. Another 36 percent of the population is Muslim and will only eat poultry if it is halal. In this atmosphere, how could an American fried chicken chain possibly stay in business?
But international fast food chains aren’t even the main force driving chicken consumption: the heart of chicken’s growing presence is the Ethiopian government. In 2011, the Ethiopian government’s Climate Resilient Green Economy Initiative included a plan to ramp up chicken production and consumption dramatically in the coming decade, increasing the share of poultry in meat consumption by up to 30 percent by 2030. They have been aided by NGOs that have flocked to support a new wave of chicken-based interventions, designed to promote capitalist social relations, self-reliance, and climate change adaptation.
Ethiopia’s native chickens are small and gangly. They grow slower, have less meat on them, produce fewer eggs, and die more easily compared to the mass production broiler varieties. Those high-production foreign breeds, however, require expensive input and mechanized environments to survive, while local breeds are able to survive with less mediation in their indigenous surroundings. For the international development community, this was a classic opportunity for intervention.
Attempts to jump-start economic development by improving the genetic quality of livestock have been a focus of development institutions for over fifty years. The difference now is the mobilization around resilience, a development buzzword and organizing principle, in this case referencing an animal’s ability to survive in harsh and uncertain climatic conditions. Economic development and climate adaptation can be tackled by introducing a “more resilient” chicken—or so says the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), a research organization that runs the African Chicken Genetic Gains Program (ACGGP) in Ethiopia, Nigeria, and Tanzania. According to the ILRI, problems with nutrition, with development, and with poverty in Ethiopia can all be tackled with a resilient chicken.
So, what is a resilient chicken? In Ethiopia, it’s a chicken that can survive drought, grow faster, and grow larger without becoming more resource intensive. Resilience or resiliency, then, is the capacity of an individual chicken to fiercely withstand anything nature throws at it. Michael Watts, Professor of Geography and Development Studies at Berkeley, has argued that this new organizing ideology of resilience isn’t dramatically different from previous development keywords like sustainability. Resilience redirects political imagination and governmental power toward biosecurity management while encouraging political subjects to be self-reliant.
By the logic of the development machine, a farmer with a resilient bird then becomes resilient, too: she doesn’t need resources from the state—she only needs herself and this bird to get through climate catastrophe. In this new era of climate adaptation development, the desired outcome is to discipline a neoliberal subjectivity comprised of subsistence farmers who internalize the state’s neglect of them. Previously common-sense anti-poverty interventions, such as improving access to markets for subsistence farmers, are fading as rising global temperatures and increasingly extreme weather patterns threaten agricultural practices around the world. Twentieth century attempts to improve the genetic stock of chickens across the continent may have produced healthier birds, but not birds especially designed to withstand drought (or certainly not on paper) and so-called “unimproved” indigenous breeds have remained the most ubiquitous. In the last two decades or so, though, international development institutions and NGOs have refocused on resilience strategies—including income diversification, access to some insurance, and improved livestock breeds—as ways to mitigate the disastrous and yet unknown effects of climate change.
The ACGGP is running a few experiments on the growth and health of foreign breeds, testing their ecological appropriateness—an essential component of resiliency. They have taken South African and French breeds and placed them in what they believe are very common Ethiopian conditions: small farm properties with not a lot of free space, perhaps with some trash scattered nearby, and an intermingling of cattle, dogs, and sleepy house cats. Most indigenous breeds of chicken are completely free-scavenging, but not all foreign breeds are. The yard might have a stray soda can tab. Will the foreign chicken eat it, choke, and die—or not?
Curious about how resilience was assessed in the field and what it meant for a foreign breed to be doing well on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, I followed along with the ACGGP researchers on an hour long-drive from the eastern end of the web of Addis to a western peri-urban space where people keep livestock in thatched, garage-like structures and weave cotton along the river. We snaked through the home of one farmer participating in the study, into their enclosed backyard where zebra-striped South African chicken breeds bolted about. They appeared to be thriving. But did that mean they were resilient?
I first came to Ethiopia to study the human impact of large-scale land expropriations for foreign agribusinesses. I had volunteered for an NGO in Oakland that had published reports about the federal government expropriating large tracts of land and giving it to foreign investors. In one egregious example, the federal government granted an Indian floriculture company three hundred thousand hectares of land in Gambela, destroying local livelihoods. When I arrived in Ethiopia, a young, excited bureaucrat at the Ethiopian Agricultural Investment Land Administration Agency told me they had halted their program in response to bad press coverage and NGO reports of human rights abuses, like those put out by the organization I’d worked with in Oakland. After further poking around, I was told in not-too-subtle terms that I shouldn’t be looking into these land deals at all. My hand was forced, and I had to drop the project.
I wasn’t sure where my research would turn until one afternoon my taxi stopped at the only traffic light in the city, at Meskel Square, a massive plaza facing sweeping stadium steps. Behind the steps was a billboard advertising Ethiopian Airlines’ new fleet that produced up to 15 percent fewer carbon emissions. In a country with negligible carbon output compared to those in the global North, and with so few Ethiopian citizens flying the national airline anyway, what was the intended audience for this ad? Who were the Ethiopians engaged in this discourse?
British friends of mine recommended I set up in the local co-working space, which was also the office of blueMoon, a sustainable agribusiness incubator in Addis. Although a chic standing bar-only café stood at the first floor of the glass mid-rise, traditional coffee is made on coals in the middle of the office floor, fanned occasionally to keep the pot boiling. In every other respect, the office sports the hallmarks of international startup culture: brightly colored sectional furniture and wall decals that say disrupt. The founder of blueMoon, Eleni Zaude Gabre-Madhin, received her PhD in applied economics at Stanford, and she adopted much of the ethos of Silicon Valley. At blueMoon, techie dogma transfers via reality television versions of American entrepreneurship: the next generation of Ethiopian change-makers begins each day at the incubator with a mandatory episode of Shark Tank.
Everyone there is amped. When I interviewed the incubator fellows, they said: I want to be Mark Cuban. I want to be Elon Musk. I’m going to have the Facebook of agriculture. I’m still not really sure what that means.
Tadesse Alemu of Guaro Farms, a resident startup at blueMoon, hopes to sell vegetables and fruits grown on a rooftop garden in Addis to health-conscious elites. “My life is all hustling,” he told me. He hopes to create an eco-and health-conscious lifestyle among his high-end clientele by bringing hydroponics to Ethiopia. When I asked him about his inspiration, he cited Ethiopia’s climate vulnerability, as well as the growing severity of droughts in the North. While their business plan does nothing to address farming in such drought-prone regions, the pitch received funding on the basis of its relationship to climate adaptation and sustainability.
For Bethelhem Dejene of Zafree Papers, making recycled paper products in Addis Ababa is all about “making Ethiopians care about the environment.” She told me she sees value where no one sees it—in waste. In Ethiopia, the profitability of recycling is still promising. But if it turns out it’s not, one of the largest landfills in Africa, Qoshee, recently constructed the continent’s first waste-to-energy plants on the other side of town.
For weeks in the spring of 2018, every single showing of Marvel’s Black Panther sold out at the one international theater in Addis. In its Afrofuturist imagining, the fictional country of Wakanda is the only African country that evaded European colonization. It’s also the most technologically advanced society on Earth, its natural resources harnessed for its own use rather than expropriated by colonizers.
Many young, cosmopolitan Ethiopians see Ethiopia as the real-life Wakanda. In today’s modern mythology, Ethiopia’s victory over the Italian army at 1896’s Battle of Adwa has been inflated to the point of obscuring the country’s eventual fall to Italian occupation, however brief, under Mussolini. For Safia Aidid, writing in Africa is a Country, the “ghosts of Adwa” are the ethnicities that were conquered under the empire’s expansion, and the ongoing erasure of their histories to service Ethiopian nationalism. This myth of the nation as “never colonized” is a powerful image for Ethiopians trying to tell a new—and a strongly nationalistic—story of Ethiopia, one that rejects the images of starving children and international stereotypes of Ethiopians as passive recipients of foreign aid.
In Ethiopia, the future is not conceived as a long-anticipated struggle towards triumph but instead, as the anthropologist Dan Mains writes in Under Construction, as a return to the glory of Abyssinia, the empire that formally ended in 1974 with the overthrow of Emperor Hailie Selassi and was a time of redemption for those Ethiopians who identified with the regime. The future is a renaissance. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, the filling of which has embroiled the country in significant tensions with Egypt, holds so much of these promises.
Biruk Yosef, the program manager at blueMoon, reiterated the Wakanda-esque narrative: “Ethiopia was never colonized” so the natural resources have yet to be “harnessed.” In the Ethiopian tech sector, the country’s potential is latent in its untapped resources and uncolonized spirit. And yet the techie capitalist ambition is another form of colonization itself.
Facing Marx’s famous simplification of the transformation of capital, Aime Cesáire proposed the equation: “colonization = ‘thingification.’” Startup epistemology is the corollary to colonialism’s commodification, whether if it proceeds via reification or abstraction. Forests become pins on Google maps—acreage to be included in carbon calculi; indigenous agricultural practices are codified and scaled up for their climate adaptability; the Ethiopian coffee ceremony becomes a packaged experience for the eco-tourist; chickens are genetically improved and mass-produced.
In the US, the elite of the technology sector are largely notorious libertarians with deep-seated doubt about the ability of the public sector to provide services. Google co-founder Larry Page once claimed he’d like to leave his fortune to Elon Musk as an investment in humanity’s future on this planet. In Ethiopia, startup culture isn’t simply predicated on a war with a perceived inefficient state—it’s conceived as pushing back against neocolonialism. After decades of being colonized by aid, young entrepreneurs see themselves as cultivating their own concept of “development.” They argue they are making Ethiopian solutions for Ethiopian people.
At the end of November 2019, Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s CEO, visited blueMoon and other tech incubators in Addis Ababa. “Africa will define the future (especially the bitcoin one!)” he tweeted. A countermovement is brewing among middle class and cosmopolitan Africans who think the established development institutions have done nothing for them, that “development” as it is known is coordinated by neo-colonists who, at best, don’t understand and, at worst, have insidious motives. Inspired by entrepreneur capitalism of the West, they believe growth and wealth can only be created through market-based solutions, with charismatic entrepreneurs at the helm. In Ethiopia in particular, the desire to realize techno-optimist hopes is shaded with nationalist dreams of the country becoming a pan-Africanist leader—for tech, for development, and for environmentalism—on the continent.
These are the Ethiopians that billboard spoke to.
At the ACGG’s Poultry Research Facility in Addis, there’s a rectangular barn-like structure with segregated enclosures of various test breeds of chicken: one gated room for the South African breed, Potchefstroom Koekoek; the French selection from the company Sasso; and a strain named “DZ-White” collected from local farmers. A refrigerator-sized incubator filled with special eggs from Belgium sits in the corner of a spare concrete room.
In 2016, ACGG partnered with the Belgian artist Koen Vanmechelen, who had been crossbreeding chicken varieties for about twenty years—as art. By continuously crossbreeding endemic chicken breeds from around the world, he hopes to create “a Cosmopolitan Chicken carrying the genes of all the planet’s chicken breeds.” His Cosmopolitan Chicken Project in Ethiopia—entitled Incubated Worlds and referred to as an “installation” on his website—brings his latest generation of bird together with ACGG-selected local breeds to synthesize a new bird that is both Ethiopian and international.
It is, of course, impossible for a bird to acquire “all” of the genes; it has a set number, like all other living creatures. While you could, perhaps, genetically engineer more genes into your chicken, they couldn’t all be expressed at the same time. If they did, you would not have a chicken—at best, you’d have some kind of chicken puddle. Vanmechelen has to know this; it’s just the way the project gets presented, its ideological dressings, that makes it sound like a diversity buffet.
Once mature, the Cosmopolitan Chicken will be cross bred with one of the local breeds, probably the Horo, supposedly making the ideal blend of global and local, cosmopolitan and Ethiopian. The local breed has ecological suitability and a long history of living in Ethiopia. Blended with the worldly resilience of the Cosmopolitan Chicken—a truly capitalist, cultured chicken—it will become the best chicken for Ethiopia. Likewise, the Cosmopolitan Chicken bred with the local Nigerian chicken will be the best chicken for Nigeria. Of course, this also benefits Vanmechelen: Every time he convinces a country to accept this crossbreeding endeavor, he adds another chicken to his gene-pool art show. It’s also the ideal development project, scratching every ideological itch with tie-ins to diversity initiatives, climate change adaptation, local empowerment, and ecological resilience.
The ACGG Project Leader, Dr. Tadelle Dessie, hopes that Ethiopia can substitute a portion of cattle production with industrialized chicken production to help the country achieve the federal government’s Climate Resilient Green Economy Plan, which seeks to modernize and diversify the agricultural sector while reducing carbon output. Despite his continual insistence that Ethiopia needs to do its part to mitigate climate change, the country is responsible for a negligible share of the world’s carbon output. Yet, the Ethiopian government hopes to increase chicken’s share of national meat consumption to 30 percent with the explicit ostensible intention of lowering overall carbon emissions, a goal that will require a 500 percent increase in national poultry production. This might seem like a way to reduce carbon output, but only if it offsets beef production—and it simply won’t.
Others, like Olivier Hanotte, a scientific advisor at ILRI, are more concerned with chickens’ ability to alleviate poverty and improve nutrition. But Ethiopian farmers won’t see increased profits unless there is increased demand for chicken. At ILRI, there’s hope that Ethiopians will see chicken as the climate-conscious meat choice, at least among the eco-minded cosmopolitans and techies in Addis. Dr. Tadelle believes that doro wat should be eaten more often, and that general attitudes about chicken “need to change.”
The sleek outer walls of the Poultry Research Center at ILRI are plastered with two giant chicken portraits, large-scale reproductions of photos by Vanmechelen. The busts of the chickens face each other in an eternal staring contest, the rubbery red skin around their faces uncannily glossy, their eyes empty but serious.
We’re trying to get people to think—about chicken, says Hanotte. People can see this from the mall. So I went down the street to the newly constructed Century Mall, stood on the sixth floor, and looked out. He was right: you can see the research facility clearly, adorned with two giant chicken heads. For Hanotte, these chicken glamor shots are an “Ethiopian landmark” and part of a concerted effort to increase chicken consumption.
But the ILRI Poultry Research Facility’s strangest feature is a small white room, in which a projection plays on the wall, 24/7. In the video, a white woman reads aloud a seemingly random sequence of four letters, which turns out to be the genome of the latest generation of the Cosmopolitan Chicken. In front of the projection, a lectern holds a book five or six inches thick, printed in 8-point font, containing the full gene sequence. This room was created by Vanmechelen, who insisted it was built inside the research facility. But the facility is not a public space; it doesn’t have frequent visitors, and you cannot enter as an average Ethiopian.
The woman on the projection just stands there with a magnifying glass, chanting: AGCACCGCGTG….
My guide turned to me and asked if I wanted to read part of the sequence.
“Oh. . .definitely not,” I said.
He chuckled and shrugged, probably thinking, But isn’t this for her? Isn’t this what foreigners want to see?
A version of the book, called The Book of Genome, now lives in the National Museum of Ethiopia. At the presentation ceremony, Vanmechelen described it as “honor[ing] the generosity of the local as a prerequisite for the existence of global diversity.”
But the researchers at ILRI clearly explained that they saw themselves as scientists simply trying to make a new bird for the good of the country, any potential cultural interventions aside. They want to leave the actual distribution of the new bird to the capitalists. The identity of some of these capitalists is unsurprising: Bill and Melinda Gates—or, rather, the Gates Foundation, in collaboration with an investment organization based in Dubai, and ten angel investors. They all fund EthioChicken, the now-multinational chicken enterprise founded by a white man from the United States that scales up production of improved breeds and sells day-old chicks at very low cost to farmers who rear the poultry and then resell them at a profit.
The Gates Foundation is known for their pro-chicken efforts, which they tout as a means of providing protein and economic independence to countries struggling with malnutrition and poverty. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation also funds the African Chicken Genetic Gains program. Thus, the new Ethiopian Cosmopolitan chicken has the potential to be distributed by EthioChicken. The development stars align in unexpected ways sometimes: chicken as low-cost poverty intervention, chicken as climate resilience, chicken as climate change mitigation.
When in Addis, I could buy eggs like those in the states—they’re available by the pre-packaged, plastic-encased dozen at the ferenji market, a supermarket geared toward foreigners. But I’d much rather stop by one of the nearby sooks, tiny window shops that face Addis’s streets, and pick individual eggs from those sitting out on a ledge. These are habesha eggs, from local breeds, small and speckled. Ferenji eggs, from foreign breeds, are flavorless in comparison. Nobody wants them. I can only smell eggs in the US once they are fried. In Ethiopia, eggs smell like eggs the moment they leave their thick shells. Their sumptuous funk is still new to me; catching a whiff is like smelling warm butter for the first time. My Amharic instructor, Belaynesh, would start class by asking about breakfast: Did you have habesha enkulal? It’s was question full of pride, like she was letting me in on a delicious secret. I always chose those eggs.
When chickens are allowed to forage, the carotenoids from insects they eat make yolks a vibrant orange. In the global North, some chickens are fed supplements to deepen the yolks’ hue artificially, just as salmon is often colored in the US, as this coloring is associated with nutrition, but it is widely understood that there is no relationship between yolk color and nutritional content. Studies show there isn’t even a relationship between color and flavor of yolks beyond the psychological—it’s all in our heads. But these studies are based in the US, and compare conventional and pasture-raised, organic eggs, which are not the same as truly free-range eggs on the other side of the world. Americans buy eggs in opaque, branded packages that contain a number of identical objects; Ethiopians buy eggs, and meat—or the animals that become meat—as specific, individual things. No brand, no logo, no tagline. Even without the magic of the commodified presentation, Ethiopians still know what foreign chicken implies—it is bigger, grows faster, and tastes bland.
A bizarre artifact of the melding of private capital and state diplomacy: a USDA Foreign Agricultural Service report from 2017 outlines the problem of poultry supply and demand. Chicken demand “is expected” to grow, the report notes, although Ethiopians “prefer red meat” and, on special occasions, prefer indigenous varieties of chicken. The report recommends a drop in chicken price, to “spur demand” as the Ethiopian government seeks to rapidly increase poultry production. To achieve the state’s goals, citizens are being told that ferenji chickens, and their eggs, will unify the country, will make its citizens more modern and more resilient to the climate disasters on the horizon. In the end, resilience meant giving Ethiopia more chicken that few people want. And if Ethiopians don’t want to buy ferenji chicken, they’ll simply be exported to foreign markets, as the USDA report claims. This makes clear that climate-smart poultry is simply convenient rhetoric: exporting will exacerbate the same carbon problems that eating chicken was supposedly intended to alleviate.
In Ethiopia, to think about chicken is to bring yourself into an environmental consciousness—or as Arun Agarwal calls it, an environmentality—that situates individualist ethics at the fore. To think about chicken is to be a good citizen, to mitigate climate change. The face of the chickens plastered on the side of the International Livestock Research Institute thus become a moral imperative, especially to those environmentally-minded techies in Addis’ sustainable incubators.
To ostensibly battle climate change, receive climate-related development funds, and alleviate poverty through chicken consumption, someone needs to demand chicken—500 percent more chicken. Maybe Ethiopia’s techies will, but my friend and one of blueMoon’s 2018 interns, Denat Ephrem, won’t be joining them. We spent one rainy afternoon in Addis looking for lunch that would satisfy both our needs. “I mostly like salad or fruit for lunch,” she told me. “Shouldn’t we be trying to eat less meat?”
For all the development world’s emphasis on chicken availability to solve nutrition problems, one study by IDInsight found that even when farmers purchase improved chickens, their incomes increased, but nutritional outcomes remained unchanged. Children didn’t even eat more eggs.
Fried chicken in Addis isn’t a story of foreign capital wiping out local tastes and practices. It’s part of a wider effort by international development institutions and the federal government itself to turn chicken into a handmaiden of resilience to create a unified Ethiopia. We in the States talk less about resilience to climate change and more about mitigation. We still feel some false sense of subject agency, that we could possibly determine whether or to what degree climate change will happen. But in Ethiopia, there’s an understanding that no set of actions taken will meaningfully affect the rate at which the climate changes. Resilience is a reactionary quality; it suggests a relationship with a course of events that you’re not able to influence.
Drought and agricultural devastation as a result of climate change are the looming specter, resilience against which is the stated impetus for agricultural interventions by neocolonial NGOs and anti-colonialist, Afrofuturist startups. What remains baffling is the sense that commodity-driven interventions are the solution in the face of climate precarity, when it is the wasteful excess of the unchecked free market that has skyrocketed carbon emissions. The discourse of resilience is taken up by development specialists, bureaucrats, and capitalists alike and dropped the moment it loses its usefulness.
Meanwhile, as COVID-19 moves throughout Africa, restaurant patronage and tourism has plummeted, drastically decreasing chicken consumption. Over the course of five weeks in May and June of this year, EthioChicken killed nearly 650,000 chicks and destroyed many eggs to avoid flooding the supply chain. Perhaps the pandemic will signal the abrupt end of these nationalistic chicken efforts. At the same time, though, many tech-savvy Ethiopians and foreigners have turned to Addis’s nascent restaurant delivery apps, such as Deliver Addis, which can bring you mesir, injera, hamburgers and a wide variety of chicken meals by motorbike. Addis Chicken, which uses the delivery platform, is a completely vertically integrated poultry manufacturer and purveyor of unfamiliar meals such as chicken meatball sandwiches and doro tibs, a dish that is popular in Ethiopian American cuisine but utterly foreign in Ethiopia itself. Addis Chicken’s recent Facebook post deploys Covid as yet another reason Ethiopians should be eating more chicken: “They say protein helps support our immune system. In support of fighting COVID-19, Addis Chicken is promoting its delicious chicken starting on Monday 4th of May through Sunday 10th of May by offering 50% discount…”
But the most intriguing post on Addis Chicken’s Facebook page is an image of an intrepid chicken clad in armor holding what appears to be an Amhara warrior shield above the text አድዋ, Adwa, Victory for All Africans. The post reads: “Addis Chicken wishes you a Happy and Joyful Adwa Victory Anniversary! It’s a victory for all Black People.” It might appear that this nascent poultry processor is simply shoehorning their product into a holiday, but I believe the association between fast food chicken and pan-African modernity is not a coincidence. Adwa Victory is an essential part of a new vision of Ethiopia as a leader of neo-colonial resistance, a unified Ethiopia without internal differences. But the recent protests, violence, and political upheaval in the country suggest deep tensions between ethnicities that undermine the Abiy Ahmed government’s attempts to foster a more cohesive national identity. In an Ethiopia vying for different visions of the future, it is unclear to whom chicken nationalism will appeal.
Belaynesh spent one afternoon teaching me how to make doro wat on her living room floor. Despite my disappointment, she said that on short notice, we didn’t have time to prepare a live habesha bird from the market, and needed to get a frozen ferenji bird from the store. At a spigot outside of her home, Belaynesh crouched down and washed the bird the same way she would have with one that had just been slaughtered, traditionally by the man of the household. We peeled shallots by the dozens and stewed the chicken over a gas hot plate, sitting atop a thick protective plastic over her living room carpet. We spent hours prepping this large, ceremonious dish, surrounded by her husband, children, and stepchildren.
But in the end, Belaynesh wanted nothing to do with the stew. Her family picked at it, but no one was really interested—maybe it just didn’t seem right to eat such a special food on an ordinary day. I was handed the rest in a huge Tupperware, and my hosts were insistent the food was for me—ferenji for ferenji. I still haven’t had real doro wat, made from a habesha bird. Belaynesh’s family knew what a disappointment that stew was going to be.