Those who move beyond their native language to express their thoughts and write movingly about the African diaspora experience, identity, life, and politics in more than one language are very few in numbers. It does not only take courage but a commitment to bridging two or more worlds using different spoken languages. Elyas, the creator and founder of Kweschn Media is a multilingual poet, writer, and filmmaker based in New York City. He writes in English and Amharic languages mainly. He also uses Afan Oromo and Tigrigna languages. Sometimes he translates the original posts to its English counterpart or Amharic language to make sure that he is inclusive of others.
Elyas covers a wide variety of socio-economic and political issues. From covering current events, to sharing his source of inspiration, struggle, and nostalgia away from his origin in Ethiopia as well as his diasporic life and sense of belongingness, Elyas’s writings are of specificity and breadth of his identity and his experience as an African, New Yorker and Harlemite. He questions those who abuse their power and highlights stories and issues that deserve the spotlight. He balances stories of hope and prosperity with stories of uncertainty and struggle.
Recently, he reminded his readers celebrating the World’s Poetry Day that English-speakers are not the only poets who should be celebrated:
World Poetry Day, eh?
I think you meant
The English Language Poets Day, right?
Can you think of an Oromo language poet
Or a Tigrigna, a Swahili lyricist?
How about the Somali
Who breathes poetry like a fresh air?
Oh, no, he must do it in English
Like his fiery sister Warsan Shire
Or his Ethiopian neighbor Tsegaye Gebremedhin
To wear your “laureate” hat
And not to be forgotten
Just as another pirate of the Horn, right?
“We were ahead of you, waxing.
We are here behind you, fixing.
But we will be here, nonetheless.
You can’t erase us.”
Since I was first introduced to Elyas’ work, I have noticed that he is an authentic creator, dreamer, and lover who shares his passion for writing and progressive change through his short stories, articles, and poems. At times, his political commentaries can also be provocative and evokes a longing for home.
Personally, I find his blog as well as his Twitter handle (@kweschnmedia) very informative about current issues and events that take place in the U.S. and Africa, particularly concerning Africans and African descents. Throughout the past few years, I have also witnessed his social media presence growing across platforms including Instagram and Facebook in which he brings inspiring pictures with blurbs as a side note. There were also times when he used to transmit live entertainments through his UStream account. I believe that this is what makes Elyas a full-fledged artist and producer because he wears different hats proudly.
Through Kweschn Media, Elyas connected women’s history month with Adwa victory on “When women’s history month meets Adwa Victory”; criticized the Ethiopian government on “the masterplan behind the masterplan” to highlight issues of Oromo protest in Ethiopia; and raised awareness about Black Lives Movement within the black diaspora community on “Harlem protest: a reflection”.
When I was introduced to his work, as an Ethiopian exploring the waves of the diaspora life elsewhere, I connected to his dreams and reflections because I saw myself in his writings. He gave me hope and something to aspire for in writing and reflecting my views regardless of who is cheering me.
Recently, I had the opportunity to spend time with Elyas to ask him about his journey, his thoughts on African storytelling and his future projects.
On the journey of a blogger and multimedia producer
Elyas: As one of the early Ethiopian bloggers, I started blogging around 2005 because of my need to express myself and reflect on current affairs; back in those days, you could count the number of Ethiopian blogs in the blogosphere, a very small community.
Between 2005 and 2010, I had different kinds of blogs, written in Amharic and English, but deactivated them all for various reasons; I was still in college then and could not commit to the writing challenge. I mainly used those blogs for sharing my poems and short stories. I blogged anonymously because of the freedom to express myself unhindered.
Around 2010, I almost gave up on the idea of blogging. However, the urge to write emerged again, and this time I vowed never to deactivate the blog that I would publish, which I named Kweschn (phonetic spelling of Question). I also decided to use my real name, letting go anonymity, especially once I began writing on political issues that I wanted to advocate openly. Kweschn grew very fast and was named one of the top five informative Ethiopian blogs a year or two later. That was very encouraging.
On his hope and aspirations behind Kweschn Media
Elyas: When I began the blogging journey more than five years ago, I had no such lofty goals as “changing the world.” I only needed an outlet to express myself, to tell my story, without censorship.
None of the existing media outlets offered young people like me that chance. If you wanted access to share your views, you had to choose a side, subscribing to their political agenda. And I simply refused to fall for that; and thanks to blogging, I could empower myself.
But now I see the importance of blogging more than just a personal outlet. It can be a platform to challenge the established media.
The lack of Ethiopian platforms that entertain diverse, opposing perspectives has motivated me to keep Kweschn alive and work on transforming it from a personal blog into a multimedia content platform that will engage, empower, inform and inspire young Ethiopians, Africans at home or in diaspora.
Also, as an immigrant who has lived in the United States for sometime now, I want Kweschn Media to expose young Ethiopians and Africans back home to the real America. I want my work to help them understand that America is not really the heaven they constantly dream about, that it has its own multifaceted domestic challenges. I want them to know the sociopolitical challenges, race relations, police violence against Black people, White privilege, surveillance system, and economic hardships that the average person experiences. I believe it is important to know the truth beyond the CNN report, MTV bling-bling, Hip Hop fantasy, and Hollywood fiction that we consume regularly. I think every immigrant or aspiring immigrant should be aware of the historical and current experiences of Black Americans and other minorities in the United States.
On the role of African storytelling and storytellers
Elyas: Sharing your views with the world, knowing very well that nobody may give a damn about what you write, is never easy. And, when you are an African storyteller, it is even more challenging.
The lack of resources and support system aside, the African writer faces existential crisis.
The African writer is hopelessly at the mercy of Western media exposure and how “brilliantly” he or she writes in the English (or French) language. African storytelling has yet to emancipate itself from colonial and neo-colonial shackles.
There are versatile African poets and writers who express themselves in their native languages — whether they use Amharic, Swahili, Afaan Oromo, Tigrigna, or Somali, for example. But the “international media” deliberately celebrates those who write in English (or French) and those whose worldview matches with the Western worldview.
With some exceptions, most African writers are directly, or indirectly, coerced into appeasing the Western senses and sensibilities when they tell their stories. For the writers who crave instant worldwide recognition, the proven shortcut has been exploiting the common stereotypes that spotlight the continent of Africa and Africans poorly.
I keep that awareness in mind whenever I blog.
Authenticity means to me that I am true to myself, that I listen carefully to my inner voice, despite the influences and the chatter coming from outside sources.
I never blog to appease others but to express my opinion as close to the truth as possible. It is important to remain an independent voice in an environment where groupthink dominates uncontested.
Nobody may care about your thoughts or your story shaped by your unique experiences; you may be attacked for failing to subscribe to the popular beliefs of the day, but you have to remain true to yourself. Your personal story develops the more you learn, the more you read, the more you experience the world, the more you doubt, the more you unlearn and question.
Acknowledging nothing is permanent, adapting to new facts and circumstances, and still standing up for what you believe is right and doing the right thing everyday, whether others see it or not — that is what I consider authenticity.
How he wants to be identified by the general public who are curious about his work or who have never heard of his work before:
I blog to question ideas and beliefs that make no sense to me. I blog because I find writing a liberating experience. I also blog to encourage, empower others.
As a young Ethiopian in the Diaspora, I strive to become a bridge builder, (between Ethiopia and Africa, Africa and the African Diaspora, the African Diaspora and the Africana communities). I see myself as a social entrepreneur, using multimedia storytelling as my vehicle for connecting people of diverse perspectives and experiences.
I do not see myself as an activist blogger, but I care about social justice and sympathize with dissidents who practice what they preach, given that what they preach is not hatemongering. I support those who advocate for social justice and believe in coexistence. But I just cannot be a part of regurgitating a propaganda.
Before I sign up for a “cause,” I first need to know: who is behind it; what is the end goal; how will it make life better for the people on the ground; is there a feasibility study and plan; why should I support it; and will my support make any difference at all. Once I am convinced, I can see myself playing a role as a storyteller or strategist.
As the Kweschn blog transitions to Kweschn Media my goal is managing it as an objective multimedia content platform, committed to delivering insightful analysis and empowering stories.
I am also interested in collaborating with like-minded individuals who are voices of reason. I welcome thoughtful contributors as bloggers, editors or mentors. The ideal KM team would be passionate about pan-African issues, willing to challenge one’s bias; would question what others overlook; and would believe in finding a common ground where two extremes exist.
Last but not least: Future projects?
Separate from Kweschn, I do have future projects that specifically focus on the Africana communities in New York City, which may also expand to other metropolitan cities. With this projects, I plan to highlight underdog stories that rarely make it to the mainstream but are worth telling. With these projects, too, I welcome individuals who would like to collaborate.