Ethiopia's bloggers remember two prisoners

Tributes to two imprisoned men stood out from Ethiopia's blogosphere over the past fortnight.

ET Wonqette of the blog Weichegud ET Politics came up with a heart-rending portrait of Ato G [Ato = Mr.], an elderly man employed by her and a group of friends to look after a small charity in Ethiopia. Ato G agreed to send the funders regular updates on the progress of the organisation:

Every three months or so we get a letter from Ato G, an elderly Ethiopian man who lives a few hundred kilometers from Addis Abeba [Ethiopia's capital]. Ato G’s letters have become events. We pass them around eagerly.

Ato G's handwriting is brittle and it carves mercilessly into the flimsy, bumpy sheet of paper. He uses the same color pen -bluish purple- that leaves a crater of ink spots every time he rounds the letters “de” and “m.”

His letters are agonizingly no nonsense. He doesn’t use any magniloquent greetings Ethiopians usually preface a simple letter. (“Ke semai kokeb yebeza nafqote …” Loosely translated… “My yearning transcends the number of stars in the sky…”) Instead, each word is obviously penned after much thought, none wasted on himself. He takes time to list all our names, with all the women prefixed with a respectful “Weizero” (Mrs.) and the men with Ato (Mr.). No sycophant titles; not a trace of overwrought flattery or flowery phrases.

But then… then he calls us “Lijoche” (my children). And the way he writes it, Lijoche… something about it tugs at me every time.

Then his letters stopped arriving. After some investigation, they found out why. Local officials who had heard of the money flowing into this new charity had come to his house and asked for a bribe. When he refused “the bureaucrat pencil-pushers thought a few days in jail would straighten out the old man”. So they locked him up for 16 days.

When ET Wonqette phoned Ato G after his release, he consoled her by saying “‘Mechase mn yderegal? Dehna qen eiskimeTa.’ (What can you do? Until better days dawn.’)” You should read the full transcript in the post 16 days. She concluded:

That’s the thing about Ethiopia. What breaks your heart also manages to mend it.

I wish people knew how much kindness there is in Ethiopia. Even through this seemingly chronic state of misery and brutality, there is kindness that breaks your heart into a million and one pieces. Ethiopia, we often forget, is so much more than a government determined to asphyxiate the spirit of people already savaged.

And perhaps the universe is waiting for us to find our spirits before it dawns better days for us. But the minute I loved what Ato G had done more than I hated the people who had robbed him out of 16 days, I knew I had arrived.

It is ruinously, unrelentingly peaceful. Better days are coming because there are so many others doing their “16 days.”

Ethio-Zagol of the blog ethiopian life, politics, culture and arts wrote about another elderly Ethiopian man – one who is still in jail.

He wrote about Professor Mesfin Woldemariam, a prominent figure in Ethiopian political and cultural life who founded the Ethiopian Human Rights Council and more recently the opposition Rainbow Ethiopia: Movement for Democracy and Social Justice. Late last year, after violence broke out following disputed national elections, he was detained alongside other key opposition figures on a range of charges including treason.

Ethio-Zagol summed up his feelings on the title of the post – To Mesfin Woldemariam: the single most important Ethiopian academic and intellectual of our time. He went on to remember happier days when the Professor used to hold court in Addis Ababa's best coffee house Tomoka:

Tomoka has an intriguing feel of a 19th century Viennesian coffeehouse. Its tables are as much a platform for ideas as coffee. It is where brilliant youth with precocious talents for analytical thinking and reasoning grapple with philosophy, politics and economics.

Professor Mesfin Woldemariam used to have a routine morning walk to Tomoka where he would be surrounded by the smart and fiercely combative young intellectuals, who weren't even born when his seminal works on famine and food security were published, and argue about everything on earth, from post-modernism and Derrida to Tomism . The spirit of Tomoka is Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto ; nothing human is alien to me. No debate, however, is without an Ethiopian reference.

Like ET Wonqette before him, Ethio-Zagol ended on a determinedly upbeat note:

The influence of great dissenters will be felt when their ideas and views sip through the layers of time and reach the subsequent generations. Professor Mesfin has among other things saved the principles of non-violent struggle and the defence of individual rights from extinction in Ethiopia with an exemplary, frank and patient devotion. The youth in Tomoka and elsewhere are making it mainstream. Idea lives beyond the incarceration and death of its holder.


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