Ethiopian Grit: Women Poets Firmaye and Aregash
Ethiopian Review (December 1997)
On a rainy day in Addis Ababa this past July [in 1997], poets gathered at the Hager Fikir National Theater. Folding chairs, damp wool, and microphone feedback made it typical of poetry readings around the world. Unlike many, however, this one drew a crowd: they were standing three deep at the back of the hall. And, unusually, among the dozen poets reading that afternoon were two women. Aregash Seifu and Firmaye Alemu had yet to be published, but they were invited to read at the nationally televised event along with some of the elder statesmen of poetry.
After Aregash read her first poem in Amharic, I saw why, for the packed audience clapped wildly. Excited whispers filled the hall and my Ethiopian companion leaned over to say, “She won’t stay out of jail long.” He added that the delicate and soft-spoken poet had recently appeared on television as part of the first feature on Ethiopian women poets. Robed in black, the tiny Aregash read her fiery poems without hesitation and gave only a small smile at the applause. Her self-possession seemed other worldly.
Firmaye Alemu read later in the afternoon. The other poets had remained seated to read, but Firmaye crossed to stand at a mike and launched into a theatrical performance. Her first poem featured heat, so she mopped her brow and fanned her dress as she read. A modern woman, she wore stylish spectacles and short hair. A mischievous smile ended every poem. She knew she wasn’t being ladylike, but she was having too much fun to care. Besides, being forward had gotten them the television feature on Ethiopian women poets. Not to mention funding for a book of women’s poetry from the country's leading business tycoon Sheik Mohammed Hussein Alamudin. She had wrestled a commitment from him in a half-hour visit. Firmaye could teach lessons in Hollywood!
After the reading, I asked for an introduction to these two intriguing women. I wanted to find out how they had become so outspoken. The two, who were good friends, agreed to an interview and we spent a lovely evening together at the Ras Amba Hotel near Aret Kilo [in Addis Ababa]. Both women, it turned out, had experienced some sorrows that gave them the strength to write frankly. At a party a week later, I watched them modestly receive a stream of admirers, mostly women murmuring words of praise. “What they are doing for women!” one fan exclaimed as she passed me.
Interview with Aregash Seifu
(conducted in English)
WB: How did you get started as a poet?
AS: You know, one cannot get exactly the point, being a poet. It must be inside you, you have to be born with it a little. I started getting interested in poetry in my high school days. I used to read Amharic poetry very much, poems of the great, the elder poets. That made me like poetry. After that I started reading English poetry, American poets, African. That mixes with my blood, you know? After that, then life itself brings you and I started writing poems. I became poet.
WB: How would you describe your poetry?
AS: I’m following my own style. Plain, but strong and to the point. I want to touch everybody’s life.
WB: As women poets, are there any obstacles?
AS: There are, there are many obstacles, we cannot count them. You know, being a woman in an underdeveloped country is a definite problem, moreover being a woman poet is something that one doesn’t see often because we have to live. We have to survive, for that we have to work a job, so we don’t have time. We do have our evenings, our nights to write, but it’s a great problem. Men poets don’t hear such things like we hear, “Oh, why don’t you do your job, your work? This is only talking!”
WB: Have women traditionally been poets in Ethiopia?
AS: Many women are poets in Ethiopia. Because, you know, poetry is the soul’s song. So, when a woman grinds and plants and carries her baby, she always said some poetry. Even in rural areas, there are many unwritten poems. We call them sunichal, folklore, unwritten poems. Very sweet and very deep. They tell many things. They are mostly about love, life, and religion. About farming, and satire sometimes, sometimes. You know, when a lady wants to scold her neighbor or her husband, she puts it in a poem! During a funeral, they speak in poetry about the dead man and everybody weeps, even there, there is poetry.
WB: I know that your husband passed away recently, and many people have said that he was a great poet. How did he affect your poetry?
AS: My husband was a good writer, translator, and poet. He was really a poet because he didn’t want to be showy, he used to write and just keep his poems. So, after his death, I was very much touched, we had planned to publish our poems together. Unfortunately, he passed away and that made me bitter. Sometimes, you know, sorrow steers you and leads you to do something. In this case, I only started to perform my poems in public after his death because, you know, maybe I will die. I will never know when the time will come to me, so why should I keep my poems hidden?
WB: Some have mentioned that your poems might get you in trouble. Why do you continue to write them and read them?
AS: I couldn’t keep them inside me. Because I see many irregular things. So, can I live a thousand years? No, I cannot, so I want to tell the truth, even, I cannot help it.
WB: What do you see for your future as a poet?
AS: Can anyone guess that? You never know. From history we know that poets and writers and artists, the life of these people is misery. I have read it and it is the same now. I can see, they live in poverty. Because, you know, we poets don’t wish for a good life, we wish truth, we wish equality, we wish people’s rights to be reserved, so we are always in trouble.
Interview with Firmaye Alemu
(Conducted in English)
WB: How did you get started as a poet?
FA: I can say that I had this gift since I was very small. Because, when I was eight years old, there was a poetry contest in our school and I won! Then, after that, I forgot about that poem. But, in 1976 [probably according to the Ethiopian calendar, about 1983 in the Gregorian calendar], I had a problem in the office. I had asked to go abroad, legally, but I had jealous people who wouldn’t let me go. I didn’t know that anyone could be jealous of me! They gave me a hard time, really, a hard time, so I was distressed, I didn’t like to be with anybody, I felt lonely, and I was reading, reading, reading, and at last, I used a paper and pen to tell my inner feelings. So, my first poem while I had this problem was titled, “Let Jealous People Be Dismissed.” That poem was broadcast on the radio. The next poem I wrote was “Let Jealous People Live.” That was contradictory, you see, but if these people had not been around giving me problems, maybe I wouldn’t be a poet! And that’s how I started writing poems.
WB: How would you describe your poetry?
FA: Mine is mine own style and everybody says it. I write the way I talk, and I will never fashion it. When I read, I feel as if I am talking to somebody. In the newspapers and on the radio they say, “Firmaye’s poetry does not communicate when it is on paper. But when she is on stage, when she performs it, it says much.” That’s what most of the people say, and I believe it.
WB: What is your vision in your poetry?
FA: Not happiness. Criticism, let me put it that way. Criticism. I criticize everything, I criticize myself, I criticize my nights, why do I have to sleep when there are so many things to be done? I criticize the government, even religion. Why does religion say that when somebody slaps your left cheek, you should give him the right? Why? [laughs] I criticize this and that, I never accept what is around me.
WB: Where do you think you get that spirit from?
FA: My father. He’s just like me. It happened that he was not educated and his time did not appreciate a poet-writer. He is a very critical person, his friends will never agree with him, they are always against him. He was a merchant and being a merchant and this art didn’t go together so he became bitter. It is only me who understands my father. I think I took everything from him. And most of the people say, the way I act is not Ethiopian. I don’t know, I have been in Ethiopia only. This is my nature, I am very open, I don’t want to hide anything. I criticize, I tell you whatever bad thing is about you, I don’t want to keep it in my mind, if I keep it, I cannot sleep. I feel bad, I feel that I’m doing sin, why don’t I tell her? So they say you are just like a foreigner, and there is no black foreigner except the African, so they take me as Ugandan, Kenyan, whatever they feel like!
WB: So maybe your poetry comes from this frankness?
FA: Yes, yes. If I want people to get my message I must be frank. In 1979 [probably 1986], during the former regime, even if people said something very small about politics, they got killed. But I was irritated by something: whenever you want to take your child to school, you have to go through somebody; whenever you go to prison, you must go through somebody to get out of that prison; even in hospital, if you don’t have somebody you know, you will never get medicine, you will never be cured. Look, that was life. So I said, why? Let them kill me, so I wrote something on politics, and I was expecting them to come to take me to prison, but fortunately, they didn’t. They were afraid, because many people were clapping about that poem, everybody liked it. So I said, I am very frank, if I don’t tell people frankly, they don’t get my message; if they don’t get my message, then my poem is useless.
Wendy Belcher lived in Gondar from 1966 to 1969 and returned to Ethiopia this summer on a group project Fulbright. Her first book, Honey from the Lion: An African Journey, won several awards.
Note: This article is slightly different than the final version published in The Ethiopian Review, but since that is no longer available online, I've posted it here. Also, sadly, both Aregash and Firmaye died within two years of this article being published.
The following is the opening of a previoius draft of the article, which gives a bit more feel for the occasion.
On a rainy afternoon in Addis Ababa this past July, poets gathered at the Hager Fikir National Theater. Folding chairs, a wooden stage, and microphone feedback made it typical of poetry readings around the world. Unlike many, however, this one drew a crowd: they were standing three deep at the back of the hall. Elbow to elbow in damp wool jackets, the mostly male audience scarcely breathed. Only the sound of latecomers pushing through the back door interrupted the two-hour reading by the dozen poets.
I had gone not expecting to stay: I didn’t understand Amharic, Ethiopia’s lingua franca, and the event was being nationally televised. I suspected this spelled staid and hoped to slip out after getting the flavor. But the crowd was there for a reason. Among the elder statesmen of poetry were two relative unknowns: the women poets Aregash Seifu and Firmaye Alemu.
The program started late, after all the poets had jockeyed for space at the crowded banquet table, and was emceed by a quick-witted jokester. He, slim, bifocaled, commented after every reader, offering advice and praise, even teasing a young man about his post-reading marriage prospects. He did not read himself.
During the first readings, my eyes kept returning to one of the women. Robed in black, she sat very still, hands folded, hair perfectly coifed. She seemed subdued, her delicate features too composed. What was she doing here, I thought, with this boisterous announcer and a room filled with men? When Aregash Seifu’s turn came to read, she was ready, no rustling or coughing. Her voice was steady, sure, and for the first time I relinquished my desire for meaning to the pleasure of sound. Her voice wrapped around my head until I was sure that she was speaking from inside me. After, the packed audience erupted for the first time, clapping wildly. Excited whispers filled the hall and it was some time before I could get a translation from my Ethiopian companion. Finally, distracted by others, he simply said, “She won’t stay out of jail long.” Surprised, I examined her small form again. In response to the applause, Aregash gave only a faint smile.
Naturally, I turned my attention to the other woman, wondering whether Firmaye Alemu would also present a puzzle. She dressed boldly with jaunty spectacles, big earrings, and her hair short as a West African girl’s. She looked nothing like the other women in the room, who were draped in dark colors and shawls. When she finally read, she quickly distinguished herself by marching to a standing mike (all the other poets had read seated). There she launched into a theatrical performance, mopping her brow and fanning her red dress as she hissed through her first poem, about heat. She beamed a mischievous smile at the end, arms akimbo, glad for the laughter she had provoked. Ladylike was not a word that came to mind.
After the reading, I asked my companion for an introduction to these two intriguing women. As we approached, my companion told me that they had both recently appeared on television as part of the first feature on Ethiopian women poets I wanted to find out how they had become so outspoken. The two, who were good friends, agreed to an interview and we spent a lovely evening together at the Ras Amba Hotel near Aret Kilo. Both women, it turned out, had experienced some sorrows that gave them the strength to write frankly. At a party a week later, I watched them modestly receive a stream of admirers, mostly women murmuring words of praise. “What they are doing for women!” one fan exclaimed as she passed me.