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Letter from Addis Ababa Author(s): Solomon Deressa Reviewed work(s): Source: African Arts, Vol. 2, No.

2 (Winter, 1969), pp. 42-44+62 Published by: UCLA James S. Coleman African Studies Center Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3334259 . Accessed: 02/12/2011 04:44
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AddisAbabaest une ville pleine de contrastes; ne nous etonnons pas sur un boulevarda six voies d'avoira ceder le passage a deux vaches. Grand centre international,c'est aussi une ville africaine traditionnelleavec son immense marche; on peut tout y acheter; il n'attendque le romancierqui saura en la dimensionepique. Le Musee exprimer du Centre d'Etudes Ethiopiennes y achete des objets d'art de l'Ethiopie traditionnelle.II y a dix ans les manuscrits du XIVesiecle ne valaient pas plus chersque des romansfeuilletons!

Bien sur, la litterature ethiopienne ecrite en Amhariquea une audience internationale limitee;pourtantde nombreux auteurs ecrivent pieces et poemes pour la radio et les theatres de la ville. Comme ailleurs en Afrique se pose le problemed'une critiqueavertie et responsable. L'absence de maisons d'editions caracterise la situation culturelle en Ethiopie; elle explique le nombre d'oeuvres impubliees. La censure est aussi responsable de cette situation; et pourtantcommentrexercersur une litterature dont un des procedes essentielsest le "doubleentendre".

style himselfa poet, give a public reading, or claim to be a seasoned professional of the stage, and capitalizingon for material, the local media'sstarvation leave drama aside and present a symphonic composition that will have at least two nights of good attendance. The next step is to pass on to the much more enjoyable and lucrative business of advising the government or sitting on juries of expertson the arts. Certain of being played up by the qualitatively understaffed media,the Addisdilettante understandablyforgets the distinction between the dedicated artist and the polyvalentsmall town celebrity. This is all very well, but when you get down to the brasstacks of it all, it amountsto saying that Addis Ababa is a ripe, fascinating,and beautifulyoung woman who has everything it takes except the capacity to desire. Under other circumstances, with a little more interest on the part of the government, which after all has the monopoly on most things, Addis Ababa might have become a Salamanca, say, as Spengler caught a glimpse of it in his rearmirror
- an organic, cultural city.

A though perhaps the most cosmopolitantown on the continent,Addis Ababais in manyways the most African of Africancities. It was obviously conceived by Ethiopians for Ethiopians who had every intention of living a traditional Ethiopianlife. Because the traditional Ethiopian way of life has not been dealt with in foreign literatures,travelogs apart, and also because the Ethiopian character is anything but candid, the place often proves both fascinating and incomprehensibleeven for the more sensitive foreigner. The ultra-modern six-lane boulevardswith fourphasetrafficlights that can be turned into a purgatoryof congestionby a couple of absent-minded cows crossing against the light--the cows are probably owned by a poor familythat runsits own dairyfarmright behind AfricaHall lead into residential sidestreetswhich in turn open onto backalleysthatcanwith startling abruptness turn into fragmentedimages in a hell dreamedup by HieronymusBosch. Childrenare playing marbles.The pros are standing pert and insolent at the doors of their shabby or not-so-shabby dwellings. A carefree male customer is urinatinginto the gutter. whateverone might Notwithstanding hear of life in Addis Ababa,I would not be surprisedif it were the freest city in the world. So free, really, that nobody talks of freedom. Free of fears about one's political opinions, free of small town gossip, free of puritanicalsexual mores. And also free for those who peddle junk in the guise of art. In fact, the mannerin which these stray artists sidle up to you, look askance,and give 42

before unyou the hustler "esperanto" for a or the canvas, furling parchment moment whets your appetite for more excitementthanmereaestheticpleasure. As the almostsole collectorof thisjunk, residentforeigner,who the artsy-craftsy generally claims that Ethiopiansknow nothing about art, has had a most detriL mental effect on the traditionalartist's method of production. In the not-sodistantpast the unschooledpainterprepared his own canvas, concocted his own paint, and got to work without too much worry as to what others would think and without too much hope of findinga buyer for his product.He was perhaps completely unaware of the finer tricksof the trade, but in working forhis own pleasurehe was freeto follow his own whim within the traditional stylized frame of reference. The result was, whether good or bad, in each case a unique work. Today he has adopted factory techniques-do a picture and if it fetches a good price on the street corner, go back home, take out the original pattern, trace the outlines and fill in the colors. Fortunately, contemporaryEthiopianliterature,written mostly in Amharic,is accessibleonly to Ethiopianswho, althoughthey may lack the cultivated sophisticationof western readers,are much less willing to be impressed. Non-Amharicreaders through of what is being done their unawareness almost deny the very existence of Amharicliterature. On the other hand, the Ethiopian's in mattersaesthelack of sophistication tic also plays havoc with the arts. Anybody (especiallya foreigneror an Ethiopian educated abroad) can walk in,

To spendan hourin the earlyevening in one of the half dozen bookshopsof Addis, which anyway seldom carries books worth mentioning, can be an interestingexperience.An odd Englishman might come in for a three-day-old copy of his Daily Telegraph.A Frenchmanmightwalkin and askfor Le Figaro Litteraire, or whatever other French paperconstitutesthe piece de resistance in his habitualdiet of incomprehensible French-style journalese on literature. A polyglot young Ethiopian would

saunter in and ask for a copy of Jeune Afrique or whatever will steady his African revolutionary's palpitating heart. The affluent Ethiopian, like the AID employee, will be sure to come in for his Newsweek or Time magazine. All of these in their own way represent more than printed information. They are talismans to several successful evenings in hotel lounges. There being no coteries of writers and artists, only intellectuals who have put in the day's work towards the fashioning of modern Ethiopia meet in the lounges of the several hotels to discuss the same things that they were discussing a dozen years ago when they first came out of college. But this is only one facet of Addis. In the west end of town, Addis Ketema (New Town), or the mercato, sprawls for thousands of square meters. Everything under heaven is bought and sold here. All the 86 languages and dialects of Ethiopia are spoken, as well as Arabic, English, Italian or whatever other language you may wish to try, but Amharic is still the lingua franca. The un-westernized wealthy merchants of this pulsating financial nerve center of the country do not frequent the hotel lounges, the art exhibits, or concerts. But one does run into them at presentations of Amharic plays or movie matinees. The affluent and educated Ethiopians do not go to the mercato if they can help it. For shopping they send their servants. Avoided by the serious-minded Amharic writer whose daily preoccupations do not differ markedly from those of the intellectuals, the mercato whose every square foot is a mine of material lies waiting for the Ethiopian novelist who can write on the dimensions of the great Russians. Tourists go there for souvenirs. The Museum of the Ethiopian Studies Institute also goes there for its collection of objets d'art, ancient manuscripts, and specimens of fast-disappearing Ethiopian handicrafts. Only a decade ago a 90-page dime novel fetched the same price as a 14th century illuminated manuscript on parchment. But times are changing. On this side of town there are times of the vear when two or three art exhibits are going simultaneously, followed by two or three Amharic plays in succession, followed again by amateur dramatics by members of the thirty to forty thousand expatriate citizens of Addis. And then long stretches of nothing. One does not hear of Ethiopian literature outside of Ethiopia for the simple reason that our writers write in Amharic. Although some of them are so slight that by the UNESCO definition they would be "brochures," new books are coming out all the time. And this in spite of the fact that there is no publishing house in Addis and that the writer who does not have the means to be his own publisher had better have 43

the fund-raiser'sinstinct for conjuring up moneyout of thin air. A lot of writers have neither. So some of the best works done in Amharic today, even if they pass the censor,remainwhat one writer refersto as "deskliterature." sarcastically MengistuLemma,a careerdiplomat, has to date written stage comedies and a radioplay that displayan astute satirical sense, pungentirony,and a thorough knowedge of traditionalclerical Ethiopian literature.His firstpublishedwork, however, was a volume of poetry that not only showed great promise,but also contained at least one poem that Amharic literature will always be legitimately proud of. Mengistu Lemma's father, Aleqa Lemma, was a poet and scholarof the Church.Realizinghis rare fortune, Mengistu taped his father reciting his own poems,the poemsof those who taught him, and those of teachers anothergenerationback.The traditional Ethiopian teaching method had leaned heavily on memory, and the ninetyeight-year-old father's answers to the young writer'sthousandand one questions resulted in a unique book that spans two centuries of Ge'ez-Amharic poetic techniquesand one man'sfruitful odyssey througha long life. Introduced in simple,clear Amharic, well annotated and indexed, the book may yet prove more importantto the developmentof Amharic literature than any one particularworkof the same caliber. Tsegaye Gebre-Medhin, writer-inresidence at the National Theatre, has given us renditions into Amharic of Shakespeare'stragedies which for power of imageryand beauty of language should be envied by anybody at any time who has tried to get Shakespeareout of the English.When he works in AmharicTsegaye is perhapsthe most difficult but greatest living Ethiopian poet and also an excellent playwright. Even for a full-time writer, he is prolific. Wielding what must easily be the largest vocabulary in Amharic letters, he has also writtennon-dramatic poetry characterizedby a brooding, haunting sort of atmosphere.But his directionof his own plays has invariably proved unsatisfactory. dramatically Gebre-Kristos Desta, a painter who is perhapsoverly cerebralon canvas, is so far the only Ethiopianpoet who, unwittingly or not, has unleasheda raging controversy in the local papers as to whether his poems are poems at all. It is difficultto believe that the journalists failto see the sparsebeautyof his rhythm in several dimensions. One assumes that his offense has been to break with
the sedate tradition of Amharic poetry which, put grossly, amounts to variations on the kind of poetry that Alexander Pope wrote. It is as if GebreKristos had tried to make Japanese poems pass for Chinese. When the first

volume of his collected poems appears, not seem to be set up to give them the chances are that Amharicpoetry might guidance and assistance that thev reneverbe the sameagain. quire. The need for reorganizing the Andthen thereare writerslike Sebhat place is felt by most practicing artists whom one still reads, and interested people in town. Gebre-Egziabher Even more than scholarly writings, if one is lucky,in manuscript. Matter-offact as a person, Sebhat writes short songs were for a long time the true stories and novels that make no conreceptacles of the best in Ethiopian scious attempt at Ethiopianism. His poetry. This may still be true to some extent in the countryside, but in Addis characters are etched with such preAbaba itself the shifting of stress from cision and his Amharicprose is so unthe lyrics to the music has delivered a adorned that one barely notices how unusualhis stories are. He has successsalmagundi. The two folkloric dance fully, I think, managed to make pergroups that have government subsidy are in such a sorry state that one counts versity rub shoulderswith sanctity and find explosivehumorin the quiet short- the months to see them out. Worthwhile folkloric groups such as the comingsof the nationalcharacter. Orchestra Ethiopia (composed of native Tesfaye Gessesse, who was educated in the U.S., has written and successfully instruments backing good Ethiopianstyle singers) have proved ephemeral produced several plays. But his short stories and poems remain unpublished. due to lack of financial backing. What Addis misses is adult enterTesfaye interweaves pathos with a tainment that one can depend on at humorthat sometimesborderson farce, least to keep up a certain level of medibut he is often held back by too great a ocrity. Whether because the return preoccupation with technique. His not but addresses were lost by filing clerks or writing, although consciously not, several films of the stature of exotically Ethiopian, reminds one of Madame X seem to have been given AntonChekhov. The major published novel of the permanent residence permits. Those who can afford television sets have been last severalyears, however, is Fikir Iske reduced to turning to Bonanza and Mekabir(Love Unto Death), a 600-page The Invaders for solace. blockbuster by Haddis Alemayehu, a A Frenchman writing of Ethiopia in cabinetministerin the ImperialGovernthe first decades of the century made ment. The book's majorshortcomingis the peculiar statement that Ethiopians, that of any medievalnovel - plot. Coincidencesabound.But this is a conclusion when on the road, go three to four days without food, then consume superon afterthought.While immersedin the human quantities of raw meat on the story,one is hardlyawareof these drawfifth day, take off a day or two while backs.The book'squalitiesare its prose, which is simple yet elegant, the true digesting, and begin the same routine comes which of statement, again. Whether our physical appetites every ring are so much nearer to the boa conout of personal experience, the fleshand-blood aliveness of the characters, strictor's than to other people's may be debatable. But had the Frenchman and an ambitiousrange. been speaking of our cinema-going Skunder, internationally the bestknown (and deservedly) Ethiopian habits, he might have been nearer the truth. Once a year the Creative Arts painter, is perhaps the most singlemindedof our artists.His three one-man Center holds a film festival which sometimes runs eighteen consecutive nights. shows in the last two years have met And then one gets to see such winning with a measure of success which by films as the Czechoslovakian Closely would be enviable. standards any Watched Trains, Britain's The Empty Finally, Afework Tekle, the first trainedand consciousEthiopianpainter, Quarter, and at the other extreme the versatileRenaissance Ghanaian Hamile, a bad parody of is a many-faceted, man. He has done perhaps more than Hamlet, even in comparison to our home-made movies. any single individualto force the philisOne should not get the mistaken tine native to accept the artisticprofession not only as serious, but also as no impression that there are not enough Besides worse than the administrator's. things of artistic worth taking place in Addis. What we sorely need is seriousdoing church murals, he has designed criticism that would be at least minded most exquisite postage stamps,clothing, worthy of the efforts of the practicing playing cards,and is responsiblefor the artists. The non-Ethiopian who delves stained glass at Africa Hall. Although into analyzing and appraising native he has not exhibited recently, this efforts usually ends by creating more articulate artist continues to work in
the now famous Studio Alpha. Turning to the younger artists, too numerous to be dealt with individually here, all that one can say of them as a group is that the one Fine Arts school, run by the Ministry of Education, does

misunderstanding than worthwhile guidance. So much so, in fact, that unfoundedly unfavorable comparisons are often made between the arts in Ethiopia and in other African countries. The educated Ethiopian, on the other Continued on page 62




continuedfrom page 44 hand, is so busy climbing into the newly formed middle class that he can hardly be said to be interested in anything that does not bear directly on the price of cars, TV sets, city plots, and rent of houses with proper plumbing. It might well be that Ethiopian artists and writers, working for their own national market and not too concerned with whether foreigners understand them or not, work with an independence of spirit and self-reliance uncommon in most so-called developing countries. In any case, an Ethiopian who has the command of English and French necessary to read books by his fellow Africans (Chinua Achebe and his peers excepted) cannot help finding a return to Amharic texts a refreshing change from the oversimplified and ever-repeated theme of "how tragically the old ways went and how the young hero successfully straddled two worlds." Quite clearly, the most pressing problems are lack of patronage for the plastic arts, the limited readership due to low literacv rates, and the almost complete lack of publishing firms. But these are problems that relate to every point of national life and therefore should be considered more a challenge than a deterrent by Ethiopian artists. Publishing firms, in particular, are not going to appear in any great number unless the book business cani become lucrative on a national scale. Both private and government organizations have shown enough interest in the expansion of literacy for Ethiopia to win the 1968

UNESCO prize. Hence, from the point of view of literacy, the situation looks promising. However, under present circumstances of stringent censorship, very little of what is written would even reach the publishing firm. The rather marked lack of freedom concerning the written word is at least as striking as the ease with which the Ethiopian writer has learned to accept being censored. It is an interesting fact that the mainstay of traditional Amharic literary technique, double-entendre and intricate symbolism, has put both writer and censor in a rather embarrassing position: what did who mean and what is who reading into what? One would assume that some of the purposes of a writers' or artists' association would to attempt to bargain for some sort of publishing facilities and also to widen the boundaries of censorship that create the writer's sense of claustrophobia. But this can hardly be said to be the case in Addis Ababa. The one writers' organization is taken seriously mostly by people who have little to do with writing. The organization, when luckv, manages to finagle a trip abroad for one or two writers a vear. At its worst, it puts on contests of poetrv that would have a hard time being published by a self-respecting high school magazine--and this in a country in which poetry is both a very serious affair and a popular pastime. Because of the censorship situation, it would be unfair to expect this "Letter" to give even a superficial survey of the current literary scene in Addis Ababa. This writer is forced to mention onlv those works that have either been pubished or that he has had the good fortune of seeing in manuscript form. ?

continuedfrom page 27 easily, can't you?" "Yes, I can, mother." "Good! Now, as you know very well, they have plenty to eat over there because they have plenty of rain. My brother has more cows, more goats, more corn, more pumpkins than anyone else in his village. He has many children. They are healthy and happy and kind. You will play with them the whole day. My brother's wife is a very kind person. She will look after you very well. If you go at once, you'll reach there before nightfall. When you feel hungry, just eat a little of your bread, and don't wander off your way to look for berries in the thicket." As her parents embraced her, Nomabhadi began to sob again. "Don't cry now, my child," said the mother, trying to look cheerful. "If you cry along the way, the Mbulu will hear you, overtake you and rob you of your bread. Remember, you are to look straight ahead all the time. Don't look to the right or to the left. Above all, my child, don't look back. Do you hear? Don't look back at all!" Nomabhadi set out for her mother's brother's village. It was a fairly long stretch to the foot of the mountains, but she walked on bravely and took the winding path up the slope steadily. But before she disappeared over the ridge, the impulse to take one last look at her old home was too strong. She looked back. What she saw made her cry out in pain. The whole homestead was in flames. She knew at once what this meant. Her parents had burnt everything in the courtyard, set fire to each and every one of the smaller huts, and then shut themselves in their own Great Hut and set fire to it from the inside. She would never see them again. mother again. As she turned to resume her journey, she remembered her mother's warning that she was not to cry, and she quickly checked her sobs. But her first cry of pain had been heard, for she heard a strange voice calling to her in a lisp, "Sister! Sister! Why are you crying? Wait for me." With a start, Nomabhadi wiped away her tears and, before she knew what she was doing, she had looked left and right to see where the voice came from. A strange creature had just emerged from the thicket and was running to overtake her. It was half-human, halfbeast. It was walking on its hind-limbs but could not hold its body up. Its body was wrapped in the skin of some animal resembling the baboon, but much

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$6.00 published by the African Studies Center University of California Los Angeles California 90024