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Ethiopia's Poet Laureate: Tsegaye Gabre-Medhin

by Wendy Laura Belcher. Published in the Ethiopian Review (October 1998).

Tsegaye Gabre-Medhin. No living person more symbolizes the greatness of Ethiopian literature than this poet and playwright. A leader of Ethiopian intellectuals since the 1960s, Tsegaye has shaped (and survived) tumultuous changes in Ethiopia's history. Today he remains a national treasure.

Tsegaye was born in 1936 into a family as complex as Ethiopia. On his father's side were warriors, on his mother's, clergy. He is part Amhara and part Oromo. Birthed in a village, he was raised in a town. He attended church school, where he became fascinated with the Ethiopian form of poetry called qene, and then a British school, where he became fascinated with the Western form of drama called pantomime. It is no surprise that he has spent his life making links between traditions, forging connections where others see only difference.

Tsegaye wrote his first play when he was fifteen. After traveling on scholarship to various European theaters in 1959, he became director of the new national theater and has been the leading figure in Ethiopian theater ever since. Throughout the 1960s, he wrote and directed play after play. During this period, one critic has observed, Tsegaye changed Ethiopian theater.

"It was Tsegaye who initiated a new style for Ethiopian drama," says Jane Plastow, a former professor of theater at Addis Abeba University. A style that was "serious, highly poetic, but most importantly, no longer concerned with Church morality and the exploits of the aristocracy, but with the evils of life as experienced by the poor."

As a result, the public attended his plays in droves and the government frequently censored them. Forced to resign from his post at the national theater in 1970, Tsegaye was reinstalled as the director in early 1974. By 1978, the Mengistu government was again banning Tsegaye's plays, as the current government is today. Throughout, Tsegaye has continued to be prolific, not only writing original plays, but also translating Western classics and composing poetry in both Amharic and English. For his efforts he has received a host of prizes, including Ethiopia's Poet Laureate. Some scholars believe that he should be forwarded for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Tsegaye has not always been praised. Foreign journalists have sometimes found him hard to interview, his public has sometimes found him hard to read, and his colleagues have sometimes found him hard to work with.

Nevertheless, he has been Ethiopian culture's most articulate advocate, a person convinced of Ethiopia's primacy and the power of embodied words.

Last year in July [1998] I traveled to Addis Abeba to interview Ethiopian artists and authors. I hoped for a chance to meet Tsegaye and he graciously granted me an interview, despite his not feeling well. The next morning I traveled by taxi to his home, with its simple garden and children playing. Inside, Tsegaye was seated in front of an upright piano, his injured leg elevated.

Around his stooped shoulders was a white shema. With his distinguished forehead and piercing eyes, he looked like a biblical sage.

After the interview got going, I could see why some would say that he was difficult to interview. Tsegaye had a firm idea of what he was going to talk about and no interruptions were permitted until he had completed his comments. But I didn't mind this. Tsegaye is devoted to an African reading of the West and an Ethiopian reading of Ethiopia. This is a gift.

INTERVIEW Q. If we had someone here with us today, an American who had many Western ideas about Ethiopia, what would you tell him or her to give an idea of Ethiopia's historical importance and role?

A. You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free. The cradle of man is here, the beginning of man is here, there is no refuting that. Archaeologists, geologists have dug everywhere and they have come up with the bones to prove that man started here. And that man was not sleeping, from the moment he was created he started creating. The heritage of that man, of the ancestor, is the heritage of the world.

You don't begin knowing yourself halfway. You don't start from Europe, because Europe started from Africa. It started in Ethiopia and Egypt.

Mythology started from Ethiopia and Egypt. Even the pope wears a double crown, as the pharaohs did 5,000 years ago. We practice the same cultures and yet we deny it.

I would tell an American friend to go to Washington for the July 4 celebrations, and see the Americans worshipping the temple of the sun at the Washington Monument [which looks like the Aksum obelisks]. America borrowed the temple of the sun from the Romans, the Romans borrowed it from the Greeks, the Greeks borrowed it from Ethiopia and black Egypt. It's the same temple of the sun, whether you call it black Egyptian, Aksumite, or Ethiopianthe bonfire for the temple of the sun is a black practice. It is my stone, my temple of the sun. A mutual heritage.

So I tell the American friend that he came up with nothing new, you in the West simply repeated it with higher technology. You are still worshipping my temple of the sun, we are one. So, when he comes here, I will tell him to look for his heritage, for the heritage of the ancestors, for our mythology, to walk in the footprints of his ancestors. This land is a museum of man's ancient history. They look at us, they watch us, the Europeans, the Americans, the other nations, with this tremendous fascination. They are awestruck by the unique practices of our church, of our Islam, of our ancient pre-Judaic worship.

So I'll tell my European friend, my American friend, not to steal the Ark of the Covenant, which the slaves stole and say they received from a cloud. They didn't receive it from the cloud, they took it. And Solomon returned it, he didn't give it to me, he returned it. This is the source, his source, this is his heritage, our heritage. He must come and walk in the footprints of the human ancestors. The American has gone to the moon and found dust, he's going farther away to look for other planets, very good. But know thyself first. That is what I would tell my American friend.

Q. What about more recent history, Ethiopian history?

A. Ethiopia shall come into her own again. Democracy shall triumph. The law will have the upper hand, not tribalism. With the law and with democracy, the people shall have the upper hand. We are suffering, we suffer because of littleness and because of greed, imperial greed, the partitioning again of Africa. But empires who consume with blind greed have throughout history been consumed by the power of the people. The Greeks have, the Romans have, so have many empires. But the nation by the people, to the people, and for the people will triumph again.

Q. What does it mean to you to be an Ethiopian?

A. A simple human being. Conscious of African history, African civilization, African culture. Conscious of world civilization, world culture, of equality, of world brotherhood, I think that has been what the ancient history of Africa, the ancient history of Ethiopia has meant to us. What it still means to us. So we, as we go to America to learn, the Americans must come here to learn. To humble themselves before the ancestors, not to be arrogant, that's what Ethiopia means.

Q. A friend of yours recommended that I ask you about your poem "The Day's Hunger Consumed." He said that it has been censored by three governments.

A. In 1959, I had just graduated from high school and I was traveling north from Addis Abeba to Asmera. I was going to see about having a book published there because the censorship had stopped it from being published here in Addis Abeba. A classmate suggested it might be published freely in Asmera. (This is the period when Eritrea was rejoined to the motherland, Ethiopia.) My first leg of the trip was to Woldia, Tigray. Nothing of the situation there had been heard or written or broadcast about in the capital, so I came face to face with hell. That is, famine. I was only 29 years old. In Dese, we arrived in the evening, and the bus was surrounded by so many people, there were rows of people asking for help. More than what I was acquainted with in Addis Abeba. Very early in the morning, like 4:00 a.m., we were told to board the bus again for Mekele, capital of Tigray. Then we crossed this high plateau, across Alimata(?) mountain, and arrived in a small village, called Quaha(?). Again, it was toward evening. [long pause] And there was such a sound of humans screaming for food and help.

I was told to stay on the bus. Our bus was surrounded by police, to protect us from the people. They were surging forward, thronging toward the bus. This elder person who was sitting next to me, he reached below his chair and found a sack of bread that he had bought in Dese, and there was another lady who was doing it on the other end of the window. I was unprepared, I didn't know what to expect, but these people knew something was happening so they were ready for it.

So, they were handing out this bread with their hands, they were dropping bread and it was caught by so many hands trying to grab it, trying to get more. And some crumbs fell on the back of the head of a little woman who was carrying a lean, thin, hungry child. When the bread dropped, she tried to grasp it from the back of her neck, but the child had already grasped it and desperately stuffed it in his mouth. Then the police, who were carrying large sticks, struck this woman and she fell. Flat. The child was thrown off her back and onto the ground.

This man who was sitting next to me, I subconsciously put my hand in his big khaki overcoat, and I pulled out something, it was a gun. He suddenly grasped me and cursed, asking if I was mad.

We couldn't go into the little cafeteria there. Most of us preferred to stay on the bus and so we continued to the capital Mekele, about 30-35 km away from Quahay. The whole city was screaming. It was almost night when we arrived there. I sat up the whole night in a small cafeteriathey called it a hotel. The news was too much, something terrifying, something I had not heard of. And, of course, the police had surrounded the hotel; they were protecting us from the people.

But at dawn, the cafeteria service came in with a glass of tea and a piece of bread. I opened my window and I looked out toward where the noise was coming from, a sort of square. With my small piece of bread, I rushed toward where I saw a small human creature. The police had left it to die and were keeping the people away at the other end. This one was by itself.

I bent down and tried to lift it, to give it a piece of bread in its mouth. It bit it for a brief moment and its eyes opened and it fell in my hand. That's it. That's it. He died.

The same experience happened along the road later on, along the road to Asmera, and in Asmera itself. It was not so horrible as in Mekele or Quahay, but there was starvation there, too.

I hired a bicycle and traveled in town on the main roads. Already I was told that the censorship had arrived there and there was no way I could publish my book. So, I spent several days in strolling and discovering the town, the major center of town, the mosques and the church. It was quite a clean town. Asmera belonged to the Italians, so the Ethiopians who now call themselves Eritreans, they were not allowed to walk there, in the main street. So I wanted to know what kind of a town, what kind of a street they were not allowed to walk on, but this experience with the child kept on coming back to me, and so I started scribbling, rewriting my notes. When I came back, I gave my poem to a friend who happened to be an assistant manager of the Ethiopian radio. He grabbed the poem and he liked it, he had been an actor in several of my plays. Then, on his own, he read the poem on the radio the same evening I gave it to him. Of course, he was suspended from this job for having read it. The government was very angry because the situation was being kept very quiet; the famine was kept very quiet. This is something like 32 years back now.

Wendy Laura Belcher is Ethiopia Review's Contributing Editor who lived in Gonder from 1966 to 1969 and who returned to Ethiopia in the summer of 1997 on a group project funded by Fulbright. (wbelcher@ucla.edu)