Article by Ogova Ondego
Published December 29, 2007
As most people celebrated Christmas on December 25, 2007, Ethiopians did not. Chances are that the people of Ethiopia, an eastern African nation, will not join in the celebrations marking January 1, 2008 on Tuesday, too. Well, Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populous nation, is not just another country. This nation with a long and rich cultural history, in fact, marked the beginning of the third millennium on September 12, 2007 with feasts, music and dance aimed at attracting ever increasing foreign exchange from an ever growing number of curious tourists seeking to satisfy their curiosity and adventure in an ancient yet young nation that adopted the Greek name Aithiopia in the fourth century AD and which may have adopted Christianity ahead of most Western nations, including The Vatican. OGOVA ONDEGO writes.
Ethiopia is one African nation whose people’s courage, patriotism and national pride I admire. Whether at home or in the Diaspora, most Ethiopians appear to be proud of their cultures that they flaunt about in unique dress, cuisine, lithography, language, and music and dance.
And who can begrudge a nation that traces its history from the line of the biblical wisest and richest king that ever lived–Solomon–and that was never colonised by Europeans who built spheres of influence in the 19th and 20th Africa?
Both Old and New Testaments of the Bible mention Ethiopia that is believed to be the cradle of humanity. African history places Axum (Aksum) at the centre of an international trade network that linked the Nile, the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean from which it prospered. The kings of Axum erected high stone pillars, employed gold coinage, and developed a rich literary culture.
Some of the well known Ethiopian emperors include Menelik, Tewodros, and Haile Selassie.
But this article is not just about how emperors and the aristocracy conspired with the Coptic Church against the masses in keeping them ignorant for their own survival or the great history of Ethiopia whose population descended from local Africans who intermarried with Semitic groups from the Middle East. The church got vast stretches of land for supporting the royal dynasty’s claim of its descent from King Solomon and its divinity. As such the ruling class faced no opposition as the accepted teaching was that their authority was derived from God.
In a New People magazine article titled Ethiopia: The Land of Burned Faces, Joseph Caramazza writes about Kassa, a politician without any relationship with the royal family who, after overthrowing provincial lords and restoring a strong and united Ethiopia, was crowned in 1855 as Tewodros II. Moreover, he writes, genealogists even found a Solomonic link for him!
Granted, Ethiopians are right to be proud of their history but it has been a long tortuous past, the monuments of Gondar notwithstanding.
Though the history of Ethiopia stretches 3000 years back with the Solomonic and Queen of Sheba line running through it, the country was run on a feudal system with an absolute monarch at the top of it.
As this horn of Africa nation embarked on its third millennium–seven years behind the rest of the world–I could not help but retrieve Salem Mekuria’s documentary, YEWONZ MAIBEL (Deluge), from the DVD rack to watch it. Again. Made in 1995, this 69-minute film is a tale of love, patriotism, the lure for power, betrayal and dashed dreams told from the filmmaker’s perspective. In the filmmaker’s own words, YE WONZ MAIBEL “is a personal visual meditation on history, conflict and the road to reconciliation. It is a tale of love and betrayal, of idealism and the lure of power. It is a memorial to a brother who disappeared and a best friend, executed. It is a story of the Ethiopian students, their ‘Revolution’ and its aftermath–a brutal military dictatorship.”
In making the film, Mekuria says, “I wanted to contemplate on the role of the individual in perpetuating national tragedies, be it famine, war or political terror, by revisiting family tragedies in my home, Ethiopia. Focusing my lens on and searching through my own history, I sought personal experiences that illuminated universal truths.”
I hope all those who celebrated 2000 years of Ethiopia at home and also n the Diaspora watched YE WONZ MAIBEL and reflected on Mekuria’s questions: “What motivates us to love or to destroy? What turns good to evil, nobility to cowardice, and vision to nightmare? Where do the ranges in-between reside? “
Mekuria concludes, “I have no answers but I offer this work as a tool for looking back to get a sense of how we can look forward to a future in which responsibility and choice inform our conduct.”
Using mainly archival footage, Mekuria’s documentary confines itself to the period 1974 when Selassie was removed from power and 1991 when Mengistu was overthrown and he fled to Zimbabwe. Mekuria recreates the cataclysmic events hat befell Ethiopians during the period under review with photographs, paintings, music, and personal letters.
Her best friend Negist and younger brother Solomon are comrades in the struggle to bring down feudal monarchy as she herself is still reluctant to join the fray. As the revolution progresses it splits into two with Negist and Solomon on either side. The latter, a member of the so-called ‘anti-revolutionary’ EPRP, is executed by Negist’s Meisone ‘revolutionary’ side. Negist eventually loses her own life as she attempts to flee upon realizing the folly of doing Mengistu Haile Maryam’s dirty work for him; his desire is to consolidate all state power in his person and will stop at nothing to achieve this. That is why he has split undiscerning families and friends.
In the film, one learns that Ethiopia has never known the value of negotiation but that whatever misunderstanding has always been resolved through military campaigns by the emperors. As such, it is not easy for them to adopt democracy as a system of government.
Deluge may also be used in explaining why armed struggle is accepted as a solution to inter-state misunderstanding in the horn of Africa.
Though films made mainly from archival footage are usually boring, this does not apply to Deluge that has been packaged creatively.
One is also tempted to believe that the feudal system may have been all right for Ethiopia so log as the people were not exposed to western values. Indeed Mekuria appears to suggest that it started to tear apart when Emperor Haile Selassie I tried to modernise it by educating a few select students in western universities.
YE WONZ MAIBEL may have been made in 1995 but the events it covers events up to 1991, only mentioning that the remains of Haile Selassies were found under the office of Mengistu Haile Maryam in 1992. The documentary may mislead the viewer when it says that by the time Haile Maryam fled to Zimbabwe in May 1991 and his regime collapsed Eritrea–that declared its independence in 1993–was already independent of Ethiopian control.
It appears university students have always been at the forefront in the Ethiopian revolution. It was largely through them that Haile Selassie was removed from power by the military in 1974. Students challenged the emperor’s lavish birthday party in a nation whose people were starving. The students went on to help Col Mengistu Haile Maryam in educating largely ignorant rural masses that it wasn’t necessarily true that emperors ruled by divine guidance before Mengistu turned his guns on them.
Students continue to be a thorn in the flesh of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi for what they see as the government’s intransigence in not granting the citizenry freedom of expression that is fundamental in democracy. Zenawi argues that fast-paced democracy would hurt the country. He has organised Ethiopia into nine federal states along ethnic lines.
And perhaps Zenawi is right as Ethiopia is seven years behind the rest of the world. This country that is also known as Abyssinia may, like the rest of the world that uses the Gregorian calendar, count its years from the birth of Jesus Christ. It however sets the birth of Christ seven years later. The Ethiopian calendar has 12 months of 30 days each and an extra month of five–six days in leap years like 2008–days.
The New Year in Ethiopia comes in September and not January. Christmas, too, comes not in December but about 13 days later in January.
Circus Ethiopia, a performing arts group specialising in acrobatics, juggling, balancing acts, comedy, music and dance was created in order to reach out to and rehabilitate street children in the capital, Addis Ababa. But eventually the group branched out into the mainstream, performing to ever growing audiences around Ethiopia and festivals abroad. In 2005, for instance, they performed to great acclaim in Nairobi, Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar.