MY DAM, MY WHY, MY DIGNITY

By Mekdelawit Messay Deribe, a Ph.D. student, Florida International University, mekdelawitmessay@gmail.com.

Why does Africa’s forerunner project, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) inspire, motivate, and enamor its supporters so much? What is it about the GERD that resonates with us, moves us so deeply that we give from the little that we have, stand by it with our heads held high in the face of fierce powers, and show it a loyalty so deep it even inspires others to stand with us? In his book called Start With Why Simon Sinek says, “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” He argues that starting with the “why” of doing things, then moving on to “how” and then to “what” makes for lasting successful endeavors. He calls this approach “the golden circle.” Sinek’s book is written in the context of business and how people who lead with “why” can inspire others, but this core principle of starting with “why” can also be extended to all aspects of life.

I have found striking parallels and applications of this principle in the case of the GERD; in the unrelenting will of the people to see it through, in the unparalleled support it has amassed, and in the fierce conviction it has inspired. For me, and for many people, constructing this dam and providing electricity to every Ethiopian comes down to ensuring a dignified life for all. The desire for dignity: a dignified life, a dignified country, a dignified present, and future lies at the heart of Ethiopia’s endeavor. This is the “why” behind the GERD and it is this drive which inherently resonates with me and many others, that compels us to give our unwavering support for GERD.

According to Sinek, after crystallizing our “why”, the next step is to examine the “how” of operationalizing our “why.” How can Ethiopia ensure a dignified life for all? The way to Ethiopia`s “why,” the way to a dignified life, is through the utilization of available resources. Ethiopia is endowed with seasonal rivers, abundant land, immense hydropower and irrigation potential and a demography of mostly young people who can drive the country forward. Utilizing all the resources that the country is endowed with to the best of its abilities–that is Ethiopia`s way of achieving its “why”, and that is our “how.” 

The final step is identifying the “what”–the proof and manifestation of our “why,” as Simon Sinek puts it. The GERD now makes perfect sense. The GERD is the emblem of Ethiopia’s will to reclaim its dignity, to go against all odds to provide Ethiopians with a decent life today, and to gift the generations to come with a better and dignified Ethiopia. It is a physical manifestation of Ethiopia`s “why.” 

As emphasized by Sinek “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it” and the reason why Ethiopia is building the GERD, is a universal concept; to provide a dignified life for all! It is this inherent alignment and resonance with the “why” behind the GERD that inspires and brings millions to rally under the banner of the GERD. Intrinsically, we can all relate to this yearning for a dignified life; because that is what everyone is trying to achieve, one way or another, day in, day out, be it in our jobs, education, how we raise our kids or govern communities. It is because Ethiopians, at the core of our being, sense and align with the “why” of the GERD, that people from all walks of life wholeheartedly support it, come rain or shine. 

The GERD is a flagship project of monumental scale which will transform the lives of millions of Ethiopians and contribute to the goal of ensuring an honorable life to every citizen. I have highlighted in multiple forums how the provision of clean, affordable, and abundant energy will have ripple effects in multiple facets of individual lives, communities, our country, the Nile basin region, Africa and even in the world. Millions in Ethiopia are still living in the dark with no access to clean water, education, health care and other basic necessities. This constitutes a serious lack of basic human rights and is tantamount to living as in the medieval ages in the 21st century. The provision of clean and affordable energy will have far reaching effects beyond provision of light, in terms of food, water and energy security, improved education and health care access, better climate change action and environmental conservation, improvement in quality of life, expansion of industries and the resulting boom in job opportunities and innovation. The GERD, as a mega structure built on transboundary water, will also foster regional collaboration and integration, spreading its benefits beyond Ethiopia to neighboring countries. It will also play a significant role in pushing Ethiopia and neighboring countries in the direction of achieving the UN sustainable development goals (SDGs).

Sinek elaborates on the power of alignment with the “why” of things in his book, giving the Apple brand as an example. He writes about people who align with the “why” of Apple, who wait in line for hours to get their hands on the latest Apple product and are even willing to pay a premium for it even though there are other products with better features and pricing. Similarly, Ethiopians align with the “why” of the GERD are happily paying a “premium” out of the little they have, which is a great show of their commitment. Sinek identifies such people aligning with the values, the “why” of a company as loyalists; and indeed, Ethiopians are loyal to their country and to the GERD. They align with the “why” behind the GERD because it is a just and honorable endeavor! It is for a dignified life!

Sinek further talks about what happens when enough people believe in what we believe causing what he calls a “tipping point”. Others refer to the phenomenon as the formation of a “critical mass” or “the point of no return”–a threshold after which change is inevitable. The GERD has not only galvanized and enamored Ethiopians, but the whole of Africa. It is easy to see why the inherent drive to ensure a dignified life would resonate with Africans. The GERD is the embodiment of the spirit of “Yes we can!” It speaks to Africa’s audacity and aspiration to reclaim its dignity, destiny, and future. It represents Africa’s renaissance, a step forward in the process of transforming Africa through the generation of a much-needed energy.

No wonder people who have been historically treated less than human, told that they can’t, that they are not equal to the rest of the world or worthy of basic human dignity would resonate with this riveting outlook! It is because millions of fellow Africans resonate with our “why” that they stand in solidarity with Ethiopia. This is why we see a tipping point forming.

When enough people believe in what you believe, a tipping point develops and tips the scales, causing the status quo to change. A tipping point in the Nile basin has already been reached. The talk of equitable and reasonable use is more prevalent and forceful now than at any other time in our history, not just at the higher levels of governance and leadership, but also at the level of everyday individuals, Ethiopians, and Africans. This is the recipe for revolutions, for radical changes, a critical mass of people driven by the same why. Change is coming!

The article was originally published on June 24, 2021, in WeAspire Blog (Editor).