Ethiopia's bloggers remember their poet laureate

Memories of one man dominated the Ethiopian blogosphere over the past few weeks – the father of Ethiopian theatre and Poet Laureate Tsegaye Gebre-Medhin.

His death in late February went unnoticed by much of the international and African press outside Ethiopia. So it was largely down to the country's bloggers, with their vastly superior stores of cultural memory and local knowledge, to step in through March to make the appropriate tributes.

Weblog Ethiopia was not the only one to notice the unsatisfactory coverage from old-school media – with the honourable exception of Reuters and the New York Times. In a comment on Meskel Square he wrote:

It seems BBC's Addis correspondent gave the shrug not only to the bombings, but also the death and funeral procession numbering upwards of a thousand for Ethiopia's Poet Laureate Tsegaye Gabre-Medhin. The poet and playwright wrote more than 30 plays and translated many Western works into Amharic, including those of Shakespeare, Brecht and Molière. In 2002, the newly formed African Union adopted one of his poems as its anthem, and he recently added to his awards the Norwegian authors’ union’s freedom of expression prize for 2005. His literary work is recognized enough that Reuters and the New York Times wrote in depth articles on his passing…But not even a word from BBC's Network Africa.

Contrast that to BBC's coverage of Mali musician Ali Farka Toure's death, the hyperlinks to his music, the live phone call to his house during the funeral…It's clear some media in the West only care to show disaster, or song and dance as the only products coming out of Africa.

Things We Should Have Written Down posted a tribute article he had written for Addis Ababa-based newspaper The Sub-Saharan Informer:

The recent passing of Ethiopian Poet Laureate Tsegaye Gebre Medhin has sent ripples of sadness – and nostalgia – throughout the Ethiopian artistic community. Widely regarded as the father of modern Ethiopian theater, Tsegaye was also a poet, historian, and essayist, who lived and worked through censorship under three different oppressive regimes.

Alemu Gebra, an actor and director at the National Theater, was a student in 1975 when Tsegaye opened the country’s first actor’s training school, and remembers one such occasion.

“I remember one play in particular that we performed in front of Dergue officials,” Alemu says, laughing. “Colonel Mengistu was in the audience. They realized it was a direct criticism of them, and it was immediately stopped.”

“Ripples of sadness – and nostalgia” summed up much of the commentary from the rest of Ethiopia's stalwart bloggers.

Carpe Diem Ethiopia wrote his own poetic evocation of a child hood in Addis Ababa as a tribute to the great man:

I dedicate this piece to one of the greatest Ethiopians that ever lived, Belatengeta Tsegaye Gebre-Medhin. Farewell, hero…

…By the time I reached the old neighborhood, dusk had arrived in the city. Addis Ababa undergoes a complete makeover around this time, especially in the summers. The day is cooling down and the evening chill drives her residents to hastily wrap their heads in the warmth of their gabis. The air is filled with the smell of mender cooking: a mélange of berbere, Qibe, and burning eucalyptus. I rolled down my window and drew in this aroma unique to Ethiopia and one that summons pleasure-filled memories of a childhood now gone.

Ethiopian Politics did a favour for all us English-only speakers and provided a translation of one of his poems:

“dreaming a dream unrealizable
tending a disease incurable
weeding a plant uncultivable
helping other lives be livable
to live my own, I was incapable”

Wegesha of Aqumada described an interview he had conducted with the poet laureate shortly before his death:

I simply sat on the chair facing him and quietly waited until he got off the phone all the while being reminded of my late grandfather shrouded in Gabi and the hand woven skull cap covering his thinning hair.

And relative newcomer A view from my porch spoke for many with the entry:

It is a very sad time for Ethiopia and Ethiopians for we have lost one of our greatest man. Poet Laureate—Tsegaye Gabre-Medhin died in New York where he has been on dialysis treatment. May God bless his soul. My deepest condolences to the family and friends of Tsegaye Gebremedhin. He will not be forgotten.


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