Tsegaye Gabre-Medhin Qawwessa
Tsegaye Gabre-Medhin (Amharic: ጸጋዬ ገብረ መድኅን; 17 August 1936 – 25 February 2006) was an Ethiopian poet and novelist. His novels and poets evoke retrospective narratives, fanciful epics, and nationalistic cannonations. Tsegay is considered to be one of the most novelist along with Baalu Girma and Haddis Alemayehu, his books become successful in commercial sales and in even academic thesis. His works solely based in Amharic and English.
Tsegaye Gabre-Medhin was born in Bodaa village, near Ambo, Oromia Region, Ethiopia, some 120 km from the capital Addis Ababa. He born from Oromo family. As many Ethiopian boys do, he also learned Ge’ez, the ancient language of the church, which is an Ethiopian equivalent of Latin. He also helped the family by caring for cattle. He was still very young when he began to write plays while at the local elementary school. One of those plays, King Dionysus and the Two Brothers, was staged in the presence, among others, of Emperor Haile Selassie.
Gabre-Medhin later attended the prestigious British Council-supported General Wingate school – named after British officer Orde Wingate. He subsequently attended the Commercial school in Addis Ababa, where he won a scholarship to Blackstone School of Law in Chicago in 1959. In 1960 he travelled to Europe to study experimental drama at the Royal Court Theatre in London and the Comédie-Française in Paris. Upon returning to Ethiopia, he devoted himself to managing and developing the Ethiopian National Theater – which institution staged an impressive memorial for its former director.
During this time Gabre-Medhin travelled widely; he attended the first UNESCO-organised World Festival of Black Arts in Dakar, Senegal, and the Pan-African Cultural Festival [fr] in Algiers. In 1966, at the age of only 29, he was awarded his country’s highest literary honour, the Haile Selassie I Prize for Amharic Literature, joining the ranks of such distinguished previous recipients as Kebede Michael. The prize earned him the title of Laureate, by which he has ever since been known.
Following the Ethiopian revolution of 1974, Gabre-Medhin was appointed for a short time as vice-minister of culture and sports, and was active in setting up Addis Ababa University department of Theatre Arts. In 1984 he wrote an extended, and very poetical, essay “Footprints in Time”, which appeared in large format with photographs by the Italian photographer Alberto Tessore. It traced Ethiopian history from the prehistoric time of Lucy, the first-known hominid that had recently been found in the Afar Desert in eastern Ethiopia.
One of Gabre-Medhin’s passionate interests throughout this time was in the struggle to regain Ethiopia’s looted treasures. A close friend of Chief Olusegun Olusola, the Nigerian Ambassador in Addis Ababa, who was a fellow poet, Gabre-Medhin was present when the ambassador agreed to throw his diplomatic pressure behind the national demand for the return of the Aksum obelisk, which had been taken on Mussolini‘s personal orders in 1937. The chief’s support marked a turning point in the Aksum Obelisk Return movement. Gabre-Medhin was no less insistent that Britain should return the manuscripts, crosses, tents and other loot taken from Emperor Tewodros‘ mountain citadel. Much of this loot is currently in the British Museum, the British Library, and the Royal Library in Windsor Castle.
Gabre-Medhin always believed in the unity of the Ethiopian people and felt that this by far transcended purely political matters of the day. In later years he concerned himself increasingly with questions of peace, human rights and the dignity of humanity. He was elected to the United Poets Laureate International, and received many international awards – the last of them from Norway.
Although unable to return to his native land, which lacked the dialysis facilities on which his life depended, he remained in close contact with the Ethiopian diaspora. Gabre-Medhin died in Manhattan, where he had moved in 1998 to receive treatment for kidney disease. He was buried in Addis Ababa at Holy Trinity Cathedral church, where the body of Emperor Haile Selassie lies.
Tsegaye Gabre-Medhin was proud of Ethiopia’s long history of independence and her unique cultural heritage. He insisted emphatically that his country needed heroes, and used the theatre deliberately to teach his compatriots to respect the Ethiopian heroes of their past. One of the most widely acclaimed of his plays, Tewodros, commemorates the life of Tewodros II. Considered a pioneer reformer and moderniser, the emperor committed suicide in 1868 rather than fall into the hands of a hostile British expeditionary force.
Another of Gabre-Medhin’s plays, Petros at the Hour, tells the story of Abune Petros, the Bishop who accompanied the Ethiopian troops in their struggle to resist the Italian fascist occupation. Captured by the enemy on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, the prelate was executed after a show trial. A third play, The Oda Oak Oracle, a tragedy about Ethiopian country life, also enjoyed great popularity, both in Ethiopia and abroad.
Besides these compositions, Gabre-Medhin translated Shakespeare (Hamlet and Othello being the most popular of these works and directed by Abate Mekuria) , as well as Molière’s Tartuffe and Le Médecin malgré lui, as well as Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage.
Gabre-Medhin’s poems, in Amharic and English, were also widely read. A score of them, including “Prologue to African Conscience” and “Black Antigone”, were published in the Ethiopia Observer in 1965. Another poem, in Amharic, castigated the European nomenclature for the waterfalls of Sudan and Egypt – which totally ignored those of Ethiopia, and caused Gabre-Medhin proudly to refer to the Tis Abay, or Blue Nile Falls, as the “Zero Cataract”.
“walk in the footprints of his ancestors. This land is a museum of man’s ancient history. 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”
—Interview on what Ethiopia means to the average American
- Collision of Altars (Drama, 1977)
- Oda Oak Oracle (Drama, 1965)
Wendy Laura Belcher Wrote the following under the title of “Ethiopia’s Poet Laureate: Tsegaye Gabre-Medhin“
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  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. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Faceb2Face Africa Also wrote the following “Celebrating Ethiopian author Tsegaye Gebre-Medhin with 5 of his greatest quotes“
Born on the small mountain town of Boda, Ethiopia on this day in 1936, Tsegaye Gebre-Medhin was one of his country’s most important literary figures and the best known.
Considered by many to be Ethiopia’s greatest playwright, Tsegaye had earned a degree in 1959 from the Blackstone School of Law in Chicago but his interests soon turned to drama.
Even though he wrote in English, he is best known for his use of his own Ethiopian languages. Accounts state that he wrote more than 30 plays, most in Amharic, Ethiopia’s official language, and translated many Western works into Amharic, including those of Shakespeare, Brecht and Molière.
His Amharic plays focus mainly on contemporary Ethiopia, particularly the plight of young people in urban settings and the need to respect traditional morality, as in Crown of Thorns (1959). Oda Oak Oracle (1965), which is said to be his best-known verse play written in English, is based on Ethiopian history and focuses on religious conflict.
Later in the 1960s, he decided to write about the common man, rather than religion and royalty, and this marked the beginning of modern Ethiopian theatre.
As a poet, Tsegyaye published several poems, mostly on subjects related to war and peace, having had a father who fought for his country during the Italian occupation. His English poetry appeared in Ethiopian journals and was included in several anthologies of African poetry, including New Sum of Poetry from the Negro World (1966).
In 2002, the newly formed African Union even adopted one of his poems as its anthem. The poet and playwright, who founded Addis Ababa University’s theatre department, was also a celebrated human rights activist who also promoted Ethiopian culture during his travels. He won a variety of awards, including the Human Rights Watch Free Expression award in New York in 1982 and the Honorable Poets Laureate Golden Laurel Award given by the Congress of World Poets.
But his achievements did not come without difficulties. His career covered three major regimes: Emperor Haile Selassie I’s rule, Mengistu Hailemariam’s dictatorship, and former rebel leader Meles Zenawi, who ruled Ethiopia for more than 20 years.
All the three regimes banned his plays. He once indicated that of 49 works, about 36 had at one time or another been censored. The acclaimed Ethiopian playwright who was also the country’s poet laureate died February 25, 2006, in New York, U.S. after moving there to receive treatment for kidney disease.
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