Afewerq Yohannis and Debbebe Seyfu: Notes on Ethiopian Writers

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Afewerq Yohannis and Debbebe Seyfu: Notes on Ethiopian Writers
Afewerq Yohannis and Debbebe Seyfu: Notes on Ethiopian Writers of the Late Twentieth
Century
Author(s): Reidulf K. Molvaer
Source: Northeast African Studies, New Series, Vol. 6, No. 3 (1999), pp. 59-73
Published by: Michigan State University Press
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Yohannis
Afewerq
on
Notes
the
Late
Ethiopian
Twentieth
and
Debbebe
Writers
Seyfu:
of
Century
Reidulf K. Molvaer
F rogner,Oslo
introduction
The twentiethcenturysaw thebeginningof fictionalwritingin Ethiopia.After
a hesitantbeginning,the marketbecame, in a modest way consideringthe
demand of Ethiopia's readingpublic,almost floodedby the second halfof the
century.Many of theauthorswho thenappearedwill remainimportantas long
as Ethiopianliteraturecontinuesto be read; othershave made moreephemeral
contributions.For mypart,I have no notionwho Ethiopia'sgreatestauthoris,
although I believe Be'alu Girma is among the greatest, as are Haddïs
Alemayyehu,SeggayéGebre-Medhin,and perhaps also Birhanu Zerïhun. On
the whole, the hunt forthe greatestEthiopian author is both futileand misleading.I shall not attemptto judge the two authorsI writeabout below; still,
theyare worthyof notice,and bothhave theiradherentsand are lovedby many
readers. I knew Debbebe Seyfu fairlywell when I wrote my book about
1
Ethiopianwriters,BlackLions, and I knewAfewerqYohannis'sworkverywell
frommyearliestdays in Ethiopia. I have collectedsome biographicalnotes on
themaftertheirdeaths.I owe mostof what I know about theirlives to sources
and interviewswithothers,as I did not interviewthemduringtheirlifetimes.
When I was collectingmaterialsforBlackLions, I had ofcourseto makemany
choiceson whomto include.Most choiceswereobvious,but in some cases I also
consultedothers,not least Ato Amare Mammo. He had firstsuggestedI write
such a book,a suggestionlatersupportedby severalotherEthiopianswho knew
theEthiopianliteraryscene bestof all. I decidednot to includetheauthorsI list
are featuredin this article.
below in Black Lions,but the two most noteworthy
®Northeast
African
Studies(ISSN 0740-9133)
Vol.6, No. 3 (NewSeries)1999,pp.59-74
59
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60 Reidulf
K. Molvaer
The othershave a ratherscantyproduction,but neverthelessit is worthwhile
noting their contributionsen passant: 1) Laqech Hiruy,who anonymously
wrotea tinybookletof advice foryoungpeople,is the firstwoman in Ethiopia
to publish any book at all and certainlya noteworthyfigure.She was ill and
bedriddenwhen Dr. AmanuélGebre-Sillaséofferedto introduceme to her.I was
afraidtobe intrusive,
and in anycase thebrilliantAlem-SeggedHiruy,withboth
BlatténgétaHiruy Welde-Sillaséand Ras Imru Hayle-Sillaséas grandparents,
bothof whom are includedin Black Lions,2could writethe storyof her aunt so
I omittednotleast
muchbetterthanI evercould. 2) The poetSeyfuMettafferïya
fortheUnited
he
was
known
as
a
recluse.3
Solomon
Deréssa
had
left
because
3)
membersof theEthiopianliteratiand was thereStateswhen I was interviewing
foreout of reachat the time.While his book of poetry,Lijjinnct(Childhood),is
highlyregarded,he has not publishedmuch else.44) AfewerqYohannisis featuredin this articlebecause I now have sufficientmaterialsfora biographical
sketch;and 5) Debbebe Seyfu,the second authorfeaturedhere,publishedmost
of his workafterI had completedmyresearchforBlack Lions.
I wanted to include the mostimportantwoman writerin Ethiopia,Siniddu
Gebru, in Black Lions, but she had her own ideas about how her biography
should be written.I later wrote about her in an articlein NortheastAfrican
Studies.5I also debated whetherto include AfewerqGebre-ïyesus,but to my
mindhe posed a problemof where to place him in Ethiopianliterature,as his
only novel, Tobbïya,was writtenon commission and published abroad. It
became well known in Ethiopia only a few years beforethe end of imperial
days,when it was used as a textbookin Amharicclasses in secondaryschools.
in Ethiopia.The problem
Afterthe revolutionof 1974, it was nearlyforgotten
of his place in the traditionof Amharicliteraturein Ethiopiaand his influence
upon otherauthorsremainsunresolved.He is notmuchread today,and is probably overratedby non-Ethiopians.6
Captain Afewerq Yohannis : Poet, Playwright, Translator
I got used to seeing the name of Shambel AfewerqYohannis included in
poetrycollectionsin the bookshopsof Addis Abeba fromthe time I began to
take an interestin Amharicliteraturein the late 1960s. He used his military
title,Shambel(captain), althoughhe was not in activemilitaryserviceafterhis
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NotesonEthiopianWriters
Century61
oftheLateTwentieth
reputedinvolvementin the abortivecoup
attemptin Ethiopiain 1960. Many people
appreciate his books, and some of the
most discerninghave told me thatwhile
on the whole he is not counted among
Ethiopia's foremostpoets or writers,he
has writtenmany finepoems. A prolific
writer,he is perhapsbest known forhis
poetry, though he wrote many other
thingsboth for the stage and the mass
media. His translationsof Westernliteraturemayhave influencedotherEthiopian
authors by bringingnew ideas to the
country.
I met few people of a literarybent who
but thatmaybe accidentalas he was a very
knew AfewerqYohannispersonally,
kind and sociable man. Afewerqwas describedby his friendsas a nationalistic,
compassionateman. He wantedeveryoneto be happyand have a good time,and
"so much so thathe was always shortof
he is rememberedforhis generosity,
money,"as a close friendput it.
When Afewerqdied in 1980, the Ethiopian newspaperAddis Zemenran a
lengthyobituary,and in 2002, an issue of the weeklypaper ïtiyoppublisheda
profileof him.7There are so manysimilaritiesbetween these two newspaper
came
articlesthattheyare eitherwrittenby thesame personor theinformation
In
first.
2000
the
fromthesame source,as thesecond articleclearlybuildsupon
Gezzaheñ Desta, a musician who had workedwith AfewerqYohannissetting
tunes to some of his lyricsforfamouspop singers,mentionedadditionalbiosuppliedby theauthor
graphicalpoints.These, togetherwithsome information
AberraLemma,are mymain sources forthisbiographicalsketch.
and Weyzero
AfewerqYohanniswas born to Ato YohannisGebre-Mariyam
1919
Ethiopian
BoggalechWeldé near Filwiha, in Addis Abeba, on 13 Ginbot
Calendar (EC, 21 May 1927). His fatherhad recentlyreturnedfromEngland,
wherehe had studiedfora master'sdegree.The articlein ïtiyopgiveshis father
thetitleLijj, whichindicatesthathe was ofnoblebirth.Soon afterhis birth,his
Yohannis
CaptainAfcvverq
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62 ReidulfK.
Molvaer
motherlefthis fatherto bringup Afewerqalone. YohannisGebre-Mariyam
died
when Afewerqwas seven years old, and he continuedto live with Boggalech
Weldé.Afterleavingschool,Afewerqmarriedhis childhoodsweetheart.
AfewerqYohannisshowed unusual talentsfroman earlyage,writingpoetry
in school at the age of 12. He began his schoolingat the Lazarist Mission. He
attendedthe Italian Consolata Mission school afterItaly invaded Ethiopia in
1935 and thencontinuedhis educationin theelementaryschool runby French
Catholicmissionariesin Addis Abeba. For secondaryeducationhe went to the
TeferïMekonnin School, althoughone source writes that he also attendeda
secondaryschool run by the ProtestantSwedish Mission.
When AfewerqYohannis was 17 or 18 years old, he wanted to serve his
so he joined theImperialBodyguardin 1944. He passed
countryin themilitary,
the entrancetestforthe five-yeartechnicalcourse in the artillery;one source
has it that he was assigned to the handicraftsection ( tegbare-id,
), but this is
After
his
he
unlikely.
completing course, servedwhereverhe was assignedfrom
1950 to 1959 and almostcertainlyserveduntil the end of 1960, when a coup
was attemptedin Decemberof thatyear.During thisperiod,he advanced from
therankof lieutenantto captain.A tale toldof him fromthoseyearsillustrates
his inventiveness:he is said to have developeda homemadebomb of unknown
volumeand power.He servedin theKoreanwar (1950-53), at theend ofwhich
he was decoratedby the UnitedNations and the Ethiopiangovernment.When
he was 33 years old, his militarycareer came to an abruptend when he was
implicatedin the 1960 coup attempt.
While in militaryservice,AfewerqYohannisbegan to writemoreseriously
than he had done previously,and he became deeply involvedin the Imperial
Bodyguard'sculturalactivities.The Bodyguardhad createda section fortheatrical and musical performancein 1950, and since Afewerqhad shown creative talentsin this field,he was transferred
fromthe artilleryto thissection
and assignedthetaskof promotingculturalactivities.Afewerqwholeheartedly
involvedhimself:he contributedpoems, music,and artworkand was much
respectedforhis views in all fieldsof the finearts.
The Imperial Bodyguardband had enormous success and made Shambel
AfewerqYohannisfamous,as he was the star of the Bodyguard'smusicaland
theatricalsection. The band introducedmoderndancing with foreigndance
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NotesonEthiopianWriters
oftheLateTwentieth
Century63
tunesto Ethiopia.Afewerqalso suppliedlyricsto manyofthepopularmelodies
sung by well-knownsingers such as Bizunesh Beqqele,8 Tilahun Gessese,9
Te ferraKasa, MahmudAhmed,10MelkamuTebejje,and others.For manyyears
a verypopularweeklymusicalshow on Ethiopiantelevisioncalled Hibre-tVirït
featuredthesesingersperforming
withpopularbands.
this
of
Afewerkwas involvedin
During
period highprofileand productivity,
thecreationof popularmediaand made use of a local radiostationcalledTeqill,
afterHayle-Sillasé'snom-de-guerre,
his Ethiopian horse-name.Afewerqoften
talks
over
the
radio.
He had his own column in the Imperial
gave patriotic
Bodyguardnewspaper Wettadder-inna
gïzéw (The Soldier and His Times), in
whichhe publishedlengthy,
sometimescontroversial,
articleson varioussubjects.
In one,he reportedtheviewsofscientistswho maintainedthatthereare similaritiesin the way man and animals,such as chickens,rats,and donkeys,are created. This createda hue and cry fromofficialsclose to the thronewho, ever
watchfulforslightsto theimperialstatusquo, interpreted
thearticleas an insult.
Early011Afewerqbecame interestedin thetheatre,and in his postas thecultural arbiterfor the Imperial Bodyguardhe became the life and soul of the
Bodyguard'stheatricalactivities.He wroteseveralplaysofvaryinglengths,and
in September1960,his playIwnetAtmotim(TruthWill Not Die) was shown at
the National Theatre in Addis Abeba. In retrospect,
some see thisplay as drahistorical
as
a
"beacon
events,
maticallyforeshadowing
gleam," renderedin
Amharicas fana wegï,or trailblazer,of the attemptedcoup led by the Imperial
Bodyguardlaterthatyear.
ShambelAfewerqYohanniswas accused ofhavingbeen involvedin thecoup
he was arrestedand imprisoned.For severalyears
attempt,and in theaftermath
The biographicalaccuracyof thisperiod
Afewerq'smovementswere restricted.
of his lifeis difficult
to determine,
but some of thoseI interviewedsay thatdura former
ing this periodhe lived at Robïtand Sebbeta in Shewa. Alternatively,
of
mine
that
he
lived
in
detention
in
or
Welisso, possibly,accordcolleague
says
ing to Gezzaheny Desta in an interviewwith an Amharicnewspaperin 2000,
Afewerqwas detainedat Debre-Birhan.
There is some doubtregardingtheroleShambelAfewerqYohannisplayedin
connectionwith the attemptedcoup. Amonghis well-knownpoems thatwere
writtenand disseminatedprior to the coup are "Alchalkum" (I could not),
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64 ReidulfK.
Molvaer
"YeweddeqeAbeba" (Fallen flower),and "IgirwaIndayneka"(May it nottouch
her foot).Though nothingobjectionablehad been discoveredin thempriorto
thefailedcoup,or in his otherworksoffictionafterthecoup attempt,hintsand
double meanings were discovered, especially in the poem "Alchakum."
Afewerqwas suspectedand accused of complicityin the plot,resultingin his
incarceration.He was not the only memberof the Ethiopianliterartiwho sufferedsuch punishment;Tilahun Gessese also was detained for having performed"Alchalkum"and otherpoems such as "U-uta" ("Help!").
AfterAfewerqregainedhis freedom,he startedto writeagain. At first,after
his arrival in Addis Abeba, the high-ranking politician Mekonnin
Indalkacchew,who was also an admired author,made many difficultiesfor
him. Even so, due to his excellentstyle,he foundwork as a journaliston the
Dims, The Voiceof Ethiopia. He had a column called
newspaper Ye-ïtyopiya
"Indét Lïhon Chale" (How did it come about), in which he dealt mostlywith
scientificinventionsbut also withphilosophicalsubjects.He also wroteseveral
books,whichwereadmiredfortheirpleasingstyle,and he wroteessayson such
subjects as patriotism,love, nostalgia,philosophy,honesty,and history.He
started working for radio and hosted a series of programscalled Kcalcm
AsdennaqïTañkoch,WondersoftheWorld.He also hosteda programwhere he
answeredquestionsfromlistenerscalled Scienceand Life.
In additionto writingstoriesofhis own creation,AfewerqYohannistranslated
booksintoAmharic,as he was fluentin English,French,and Italian.Even
foreign
laterin lifehe continuedto be a lyricist,
writinglyricsforpopularlovesongs.He
of
most
his
time
and
spent
reading
studying,and it was the books he thought
would be mostusefulto his countrythathe translatedinto Amharic.With his
translations
he was an important
offoreignliterature
and genres;some
progenitor
considerthatitwas Afewerqwho introducedtheshortstoryto Ethiopia.11
All in
all, AfewerqYohannispublished18 books,and he also leftbehindseveralunpublishedmanuscripts.He did not care too muchabout moneyand wealth,finding
in collectingbooks.At theend ofhis lifehe leftbehinda prijoy and satisfaction
vate collectionof about 5,000 books. In 1986, six yearsafterhe died,a book of
storiestranslatedintoAmharicfromRussianwas dedicatedto his memory.
Afewerqhad many friendsand admirersand, it seems, no enemies. The
well-knownauthorBirhanuZerïhun (1933/4-1987) once said of Afewerqthat
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NotesonEthiopianWriters
oftheLateTwentieth
Century65
he began to admirehis poems when he went to school,beforehe had even met
him or knew his name. His poems were disseminatedanonymouslybecause at
thattimemanypoems were recitedor sung publiclywithoutthe author'sname
being mentioned. Birhanu Zerïhun recounted that later, once he became
acquainted with Afewerq,he admiredand loved him even more,both forhis
writingand forhis pleasingpersonality.
One
Duringhis lastyears,AfewerqYohannisexperiencedmanyfrustrations.
of the mostdifficult
to bear was thathis eldestson, whomhe had hoped would
settledin a careerbeforehe died,became involvedin politics.His son, Yohannis
Afewerq,was a supporterof the EthiopianPeople's Revolutionary
Party,which
He
was
arrested
and
the
imprisoned,though
opposed
militarygovernment.
"withouthavingdone anythingreallybad," as one intervieweerecalled.After
the 1974 revolution,thelegal situationin Ethiopiawas ratherconfused,as arbipeoplein local assotraryjustice was in thehands ofunscrupulous,incompetent
Yohannis
was
left
ciations(qcheles
). Consequently,
languishingin prison.During
theyearsthatfollowed,Afewerqdid not know where to turnforhelp,and his
helplessnesssaddened him greatly.When I firstheard of the case, in 1986, his
son was stillin prisonbut was subsequentlyreleased.12
It added to Afewerq'sproblemsthathe was overlygenerousand as a result
At the same time,he was overlyambiwas constantlyin financialdifficulty.
tious,havingbegun,forexample,to build a house beforetheRevolutionthathe
could neverhave completedon his meagerincome.Many problemscontributed
to makinghis last yearssad and burdensome,and he probablystartedto drink
too much because of them.He was almost 53 years old when he died on 22
Yekhatït1972 EC (1 March 1980). He was marriedand the fatherof nine childrenby his second wife.13
The Poetry and Politics of Debbebe Seyfu
Amare Mammo firstintroducedme to Debbebe Seyfuin Addis Abeba. They
came fromthe same part of Ethiopia, and Amare had encouragedDebbebe
throughouthis writingcareer.Amare Mammo suggestedDebbebe was worth
includingin myplannedbook about Ethiopianauthors.During the timeI was
researchingEthiopian authors' biographies,I came to know Debbebe fairly
well. He was a verykindand friendlyman whomI likedverymuch,and he also
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66 Reidulf
K. Molvaer
made available to me some students'
papers on authors in his departmentat
Addis Ababa University.The observations below build partly on my own
acquaintance with Debbebe, but largely
on a number of articles writtenabout
him afterhis death, collectedand given
to me by AberraLemma,a fellowwriter
and a refugeein Norway since 2000,
who knew Debbebe well.
Only a small number of Debbebe's
works were publishedat the timeI was
in EthiopiacollectingmaterialsforBlack
Lions. I asked a few people of a literary
The latepoetDebbebeSeyfu
turn fortheiropinion about the quality
of Debbebe Seyfu's work, and these enquiries led to strangecontradictions.
Some considerhimboth a good writerand an inspirationto others,but others
said thathe had been promotedby ideologistsforpoliticalreasons.These views
werestronglymaintainedon bothsides,and since I could notquite makeup my
own mind,I decided not to interviewhim formybook.
When Debbebe Seyfu died in 2000, many wrote in homage of him in
Ethiopian papers. This alone could be an indicationof his influenceand the
value ofhis writing,but in Ethiopia,one has to look fortheswitchof theolive
treekept hidden inside the toga (wisteweyra), readyto be used on an unsuspectingperson. As so manyhave been imprisonedfortheiroppositionto the
government,it is safer to criticizeindirectly,by praisinga person who was
treatedunfairlyby the currentgovernment.Even now, I cannot exclude the
possibilitythatpoliticalopinion plays a role in people's evaluationof Debbebe
When reflecting
on thediscussionsI have had abouthim,
Seyfu'scontributions.
I perceive a patternto this contradiction:those who work with literature
praised him, but those who thoughtless of his books mainlywork in other
fields.With all such reservationsin mind,what weighs mostheavilyin judgmentabout Debbebe Seyfu'sliterarycontributionand talentis thefactthatseveral people who have taken up writingsay that they were inspiredby his
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NotesonEthiopianWriters
oftheLateTwentieth
Century67
example,eitherwhen he was theirteacherat theuniversityor by his published
work.
Debbebe Seyfu was a small man, verysmall, because he sufferedfrom
poliomyelitisin his childhoodand thisstuntedhis growth.I mayhave insulted
him unintentionally
once when he asked me if I was marriedand afterreplyI
himifhe was. I shouldofcoursehave learnedbythattime
asked
ing, tactlessly
thatphysicallyhandicappedpersonsgenerallydo not marryin Ethiopia. Once
when I metDebbebe,I refusedto take a taxi and insistedon walkingfromthe
Hilton Hotel to the universityat SiddistKilo, a landmarkknown as thesquare
with six corners,or exit roads, in Addis Abeba. Debbebe Seyfuwalked alongside me,and we had come a long way beforeI noticedthatsweat was pouring
down his facedue to theheat and myinconsideratepace. He seemedso normal
physicallythat I had not noticed the effortit posed forhim. He never complained,though,even ifhe thoughtI was tryingto walk him offhis feet.
I have seldommeta moregenerousand courteousman. Afterhis careeras a
teacherended, and a period of deterioratinghealth,he died in Addis Abeba
where he had been livingwith his mother,brothers,and sisters.He died only
14
two monthsbeforehis fiftieth
birthday,on 24 or 25 April 2000. Perhapsit
would have cheeredhim in his last years to know thathis storywould be told
abroad and his work appreciatedhighlyenough to be broughtto international
notice.
Debbebe Seyfuwas born in Yirga-Alem,Sidamo, on the feastday of Saint
Abbo on 5 Hamlé 1942 EC (12 July1950), accordingto manywrittensources.
Althoughtheexactyearis contradictedby othersources,15one Amharicnewspaper writesthathe was born in 1945 EC. His fatherwas Ato SeyfuAntenAsfaw.
Yistenyand his motherWeyzeroMariyam-Werq
Debbebe attendedthe Ras Desta School in Yirga-Alemforhis primaryeducation. He went on to secondaryschool at what was then called the HayleSillasé I Secondary School but is now called Kokebe-$ibah,in Addis Abeba,
until 1959 EC (1967), fromwhichhe graduatedwithdistinction.Fromhis earliest years he was a voracious reader,and he decided early thathe wanted to
pursue highereducation. Alreadyat this earlyage, he had a love of literature.
He won firstprize in a shortstorycompetitionarrangedby the Radio Voice of
the Gospel in Addis Abeba when he was in his last years of secondaryschool.
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68 ReidulfK.
Molvaer
Debbebe enteredAddis Ababa University,then called the Hayle-SillasséI
and fora yearhe studiedin the accountingdepartmentof thebusiUniversity,
ness college.This did notsuithim,and, accordingto Dr. Feqadé Azzeze, his colleague of manyyears,it was duringthattimethatit became clear to himwhat
his fieldwas and he transferred
to the arts faculty.He studiedEthiopianlanand
literature
at
a
time
when
it was notverypopularto studythesesubguages
jects, which reflectshis greatlove forhis homelandand interestin Ethiopian
culture.Debbebe also perfectedhis knowledgeofGi'iz by studyingthelanguage
privatelywith the clericMerïgétaQeselam.
He took his firstdegreein 1965 EC (1973 ), when he was 23 yearsold. For
his master'sdegreehe studiedEnglishliterature,qualifyingwith top marksin
1972 or 1973 EC (1980/81). He tookbothhis degreesat theuniversityin Addis
Ababa but evidentlydid not wish to go abroad fora doctorate.By thistimehe
had alreadystartedhis career as a writerof fiction(sine-$ihuf
). As a poet,he
seems to have steadilyimprovedover the course of his life,and thus achieved
his best work towardstheend of his life.
His birthplace,Yirga-Alem,was thecapitalofSidamo provinceand had been
foundedby Ras Desta, EmperorHayle-Sillasé'sson-in-law.The townof Awasa
laterbecame the provincialcapital of Sidamo. In 1964 EC (1971/2), Debbebe
wrotea well-knownpoem about the town of his birthand childhoodin which
he made a pun out of the town's name by makinguse of thepossibilityof readingtheword Yirgalem,the titleof thepoem,in two ways: Yirga-Alem,whichis
the propername of the town,and Yirga-lem,both of which are pronouncedin
the same way. An Amharic newspaperarticleis dedicated to a discussion of
Ethiopian topographicalpoetry,16as is the poem about the town Ambo by
SeggayéGebre-Medhin,an eminentpoet whose biographyis includedin Black
Lions.17
Withhis writingsand poetry,Debbebe made manyeffortsto pointout and
correctthe manysocial shortcomings(seha) of his country,and all was done
in a spiritof patriotismand compassion forhis people. As early as 1965 EC
of the governmentcon(1972/3), he wrotea polemicagainst the indifference
cerning the great famine that was beginning to plague the country.This
poem, entitled"Ayé Yené Zimmita Gagirt,"showed his humane spirit.The
same year he also wrote a poem called "Ye'Abbatih Lijj" in the same spirit,
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NotesonEthiopianWriters
oftheLateTwentieth
Century69
and he continuedto compose poetryon thistheme,with "Bétin Ye'Asharahin
Zer" in 19(S7EC and "Tré Çhew" in 1971 EC.
It seemed naturalthathe saw some hope of bettertimesforEthiopiawhen
therevolutionoccurredin 1974. He supportedtherevolutionary
cause forquite
some time,perhapsuntiltheveryend of theMarxistregime,whichfellin 1991.
I do not know ifhe was disillusionedwiththerevolutiontowardstheend ofthe
Marxistregime,as manyof his friendsand colleagueswere. His revolutionary
aim and slogan (yetchaddisolewtmczmur)was Greaterself-awarenessand selfrealization,YeraséGinizzabé.He involvedhimselfin the national discussion
about Marxism.He wroteabout the linguisticproblemsof expressingMarxist
ideas in Aniharic.Apartfromspecificallypoliticalwork,he workedmoregenerallyon expandingthe expressivenessof Amharic,to developthe languageso
that it could express modernideas. His contributionin this respecthas been
appreciatedby intellectuals.
Debbebe Seyfuwas a memberof the Ethiopian Writers'Union (EWU) for
manyyears.He openhandedlyhelped manyauthorsto publishtheirwork.It is
indicativeof the highesteemin which he was held by Ethiopianauthorsthat
he was chosen to be chairmanof the union in the late 1970s and early 1980s
EC. Duringthistime,he editedtheunion'sjournal,Bilén,togetherwithAberra
Lemma,who was then the generalsecretaryof the EWU. Debbebe suggested
authorsfora collectionof shortfictionentitledInneho,a book publishedby the
KurrazPublishingHouse.
It was duringthis timein the EthiopianWriters'Union in the early 1980s
that the bitter controversyoccurred over Be'alu Girma's celebratednovel
Oramaif,18which was criticalof the government.The book was publishedbut
thenwithdrawnfromthemarketafteritwas bannedbytheMarxistgovernment
of Be'alu's formerfriendand collaborator,PresidentMengistuHayle-Mariyam.
Its publicationled to Be'alu's abductionand secretmurder.The entireboard of
the Kurraz PublishingHouse, where Debbebe Seyfualso was a member,was
sacked because,in theireagernessto getthebook on themarketas soon as possible,theyhad acceptedOromajj forpublicationwithoutfollowingestablished
procedures,thoughDebbebe had objectedto itshastypublication.19
In one obituary,Debbebe Seyfuis called professor,
but titlesare used loosely
to honor a loved and respectedteacher,so I do not thinkthiswas his real title
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70 ReidulfK.
Molvaer
at theend ofhis teachingcareer.Othersourcescall himassistantprofessor( reddat proféser
), and thatis the mostlikelytitle.He taughtin the Departmentof
Ethiopian Languages,Literature,and Theater Arts at Addis Ababa University
from1965 to 1993. He made a strongimpressionon manyof his studentsand
on his colleague Dr. Feqadé Azzeze, who has testifiedto his abilityas a fine
teacher.At firstDebbebe taughtliterature,
but from1973 EC until he retired,
he taughtin thetheaterdepartment.He wroteforthestage,and in 1973 EC he
publishedan instructivework on the theater,YetéatirTibebKesehajïTeumétu
Amar; which consistsof extractsabout the theaterfromvarious sources. He
translatednumerousplays.In mostof theseplays,the charactersare in search
of theirtrue identity.These plays were staged on the universitycampus by
dramastudents.One playhe translatedintoAmharic,Kiftet(Gap), was shown
repeatedlyon Ethiopiantelevision.
Debbebe Seyfuwas dismissedby the post-revolutionary
governmentin the
1990s.
The
reason
official
was
that
had
he
been
a member of the
early
its
EthiopianWorkers'Party,forwhichhe had writtena poem commemorating
foundation.He was neveraccused ofhavingtakenpartin any unlawfulor cruel
acts or activitiesperpetratedby some of the membersand supportersof the
Marxistmilitaryregime.He was not amongthe first60 academicsto be purged
fromthe university,
but rumorscirculatedabout him in his last years as head
of thedepartment.
Perhapshis oustingwas withthecomplicityofhis own colleagues,who were
envious of his remarkablesuccess in the department.One articleabout him
afterhis deathis dedicatedexclusivelyto thetopicof envy,quotingbiblicalpassages. Many thinkthatDebbebe's last tragicyearswere the resultof themachinationsof,among others,Asfaw Damté, who was suspectedof concealinghis
tracksby speaking at the end of a memorialgatheringfor Debbebe. When
Asfaw made his speech, the verypeople who had asked him to pay tributeto
Debbebe walked out. The Ethiopianpropensityforthedisingenuousdiggingof
pits foreach otheris one practicalaspect of the classic Ethiopian "wax and
gold" technique.
This end to his careercaused Debbebe muchgriefand confusion,so thathis
last sevenyearsoflifewereverysad. Frombeinga friendly,
outspoken,and outgoing universityteacher,he turnedinto a silent and introvertedperson. He
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NotesonEthiopianWriters
oftheLateTwentieth
Century71
withdrewwithinhimself,severingcontactwiththeoutsideworld.Some of his
later poems reflecthis mood at this time,as, for example, does "Aydellem
ZewetirMot," (It is notalwaysdeath). One verseof"LeminMote Bilu," (If they
ask whyhe died), in translationreads: "If theyask whyhe died / tellto all concerned/ withholdingnothing/ thathe died / sulkyand at loggerheadswiththe
world."20
Some of Debbebe Seyfu's early poems were published in an anthology,
Mcdbcl,along withcontributionsfrom16 otherpoets.
SiqcredaBi ir: Yc/jitimoch
Most of his poems, however,were published separately,in Ye-BirhanFiqir
Debdabbé(Letter
(Love of [the]light)in 1980 or 1981 EC, and in Le Ras Yetesafe
to myself),withthesubtitleSecondVolumeofYe-BirhanFiqir,publishedin 1992
EC (1999). The latter volume, published a few months before his death,
includes a forewordby the writer and literarycritic Ato Mesfin HabteMariyam.21The forewordcontains an evaluation of Debbebe's contribution,
both as a writerand as a teacher,as well as some personalimpressionsabout
Debbebe. Dr. AbrihamFelleqe and the poet Ato YohannisAdmasu are among
themanygreatadmirersofhis poetry.The articleswrittenafterhis deathseem
to know no end to thepraise accordedhim. Mesfineven expressedtheopinion
thathe shouldbe consideredforthe Nobel Prize.Time will show how his contributionwill live on in Ethiopianculturaland intellectuallife.
At present,he is a somewhatcontroversialfigure,but certainlynot ignored.
Debbebe's poems have been introducedas prescribedtextsat the universityin
Addis Ababa. For some timebeforehe died Debbebe Seyfuintendedto writea
novel,but deathovertookhimbeforehe could realizethisdream.He
full-length
also is said to have planned to publisha largeanthologyof poetryin collaboration with Dr. Feqadé Azzeze. Debbebe Seyfu wrote numerous unpublished
playsand articles,and leftmanyunpublishedpoems.
Notes
1. ReidulťK. Molvaer,BlackLions:TheCreative
LivesofModernEthiopia'sLiterary
GiantsandPioneers
NewJersey:
RedSea Press,1997).
(Lawrenceville,
2. See Molvaer,Black Lions,for chaptersdevotedto the lives and works of
and Ras ImruHayle-Sillasé,
1-27,95-131.
Blatten/féta
HiruyWelde-Sillasé
3. SeyfuMettafferiya
contributed
to an anthology
of Ethiopianpoetry,
translated
intoRussian(n.p.,1983).See Molvaer,
BlackLions,403.
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72 ReidulfK.Molvaer
4. SolomonDeréssa'sbiography
up until1974is toldin Lee Nichols,AfricanWriters
at theMicrophone
D.C.: ThreeContinents
Press,1984).He hasbeen
(Washington,
recognized
poet forhis use of freeverse.
by AberraLemmaas an innovative
BlackLions,402.
Molvaer,
5. See ReidulfK. Molvaer,"SinidduGebru:PioneerWomanWriter,Feminist,
and Politician,"
Northeast
Educator,
Studies,
Patriot,
n.s.,4, no.3 (1997):
African
61-75.
6. Alain Rouaudhas writtenan excellent
aboutAfewerqGebre-ïyesus.
biography
AlainRouaud,Afä-Wärq,
unintellectuel
témoin
desontemps
, 1868-1947
éthiopien
BlackLions,368.
(Paris:n.p.,1991).See also Molvaer,
7. îtiyop,
11Meggabït
1994EC, 13.
o. tiizunesh
mendortneramousauthortiealu
tieqqelewas at one timean intimate
Girma.
1940.His artistic
9. TilahunGessesewas born27 September
debutwas in 1950.
10. MahmudAhmedis verysuccessful
and
his
renown
international
internationally,
beganin theUnitedStates.
11. In thisheld,thecontribution
ofTaddeseLiben(b. 1930),Ethiopia'sgreatest
short
has probably
beenmoreinfluential
withhisoriginal
work,although
storywriter,
he learnedmuchfromforeign
models.
12. PerhapsAfewerqgavehis childrenhis rebelliousspirit.His secondson, Abiy
becamea journalistand editorofan independent
and cennewspaper,
Afewerq,
sorshipissuesled tohimbeingpersonanongratain Ethiopia.He wentintoexile
in Kenyaforfouryearsbeforeemigrating
toAustralia,
wherehissisterlivedas a
untillate2000 orearly2001.
refugee
13. See Molvaer,BlackLions,399-400,forAberraLemma'sbiography.
Newspaper
to as sourceinclude:BirhanuGebeyyehu,
AddisAdmas,21
articlesreferred
21 Mïyazïya1992EC, 14;
Rïporter,
Mïyazya1992EC, 14ff;GezzaheñGétacchew,
1992
HabtamuAseffa,
26
Kebbede
EC,
6ff;
Gebrehanna,
Ruh,21
Mebreq, Mïyazïya
Hamlé 1992 EC, 14,17;KifluHussain,TheReporter,
12 July2000, 15; Meseret
Asmu,Tikusat,25 Mïyazïya1992 EC, 5; MeseretAttalay,
Fert,Hamlé 1992,
Ruh,
16-19;TaddeleGedlé,AddisZewen,29 Mïyazïya1992EC,4; YoséfGeiinene,
5 Nehasé1992EC, 14ff:Qalkïdan,1 Hamlé1992EC.
14. EthiopiansourcesrecordthatDebbebediedon Tuesday,17 Mïyazïya1992EC.
Othersourcesgivethedateas the16th,and thathe was buriedon the17that the
churchofSt.Joseph.
15. ManyEthiopians
do notknowtheirexactdateofbirth.Eventhosewhoknowon
whichsainťsdaytheywerebornmaybe mistaken
abouttheyear.
16. AddïsAdmas,21 Mïyazïya1992EC, 14.
Black
17. Forthebiography
oftheeminent
see Molvaer,
Gebre-Medhin,
poet$eggayé
Lions,269-74.
18. Be'aluGirma,Oromay(AddisAbeba:KurrazPublishing
House,n.d.).
19. Be'aluGirma(1938/9-1984)becamethevictimofcapricious
justiceina qcbelein
knew
AddisAbeba.Be'aluGirmajustvanished,
andnoneofhisfriends
or family
wherehe was,orwhathappenedtohim.I was first
toldofhisfatein 1987byAto
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NotesonEthiopianWriters
oftheLateTwentieth
Century73
SelahadinMohammed,
a member
ofan important
Muslimfamily
from
Harer,then
whoworkedat a certain
livingin AddisAbeba,whosaidthatone ofhisrelatives
qcbelewhereBe'alu had been heldforsometimetoldhimthattheyhad killed
Be'alu.See thechapter
on Be'aluGirmain Molvaer,
BlackLions, 341-52,esp.346,
300.
20. Translation
12July2000.
byKifluHussainin TheReporter,
21. DebbebeSeyfu'spublishedworksare: Yetïyatir
TibebatKesehafé
Tewnétu
Amar
ofa bookbyJosef
(n.p.);Marksïzminna
Yeqwanqwa
Chiyyiroch
(n.p.),a translation
Yebirhan
Stalin;Ycbirhan
Debdabbe,
Fiqir,vol. 1; LerasYetesafe
Fiqir,vol.2 (n.p.).
He admiredChekhov,
and translated
a numberof RussianplaysfromEnglish
translations:
Sïtteretter
i an expressionthat means in translation
Sayqqwatter
whathas notbeen tied";KebahirYewetta
Asa (A fishout of water);
"Untying
Itnicssn
Innesswa
andfeminine
forms;
(Theyandthey)masculine
Iddimtennyocchu
(Thewedding
guests);andKiftet,
(Gap).Itis possiblethatsomeworkslistedas his
translations
areactuallyhisownshortplays,butI havenotbeenableto identify
themorcorroborate
this.
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