Belatengeta —Poet Laureate—Tsegaye Gabre-Medhin,
is Ethiopia’s premier versatile and prolific man of letters. For half a century now he has been continuously productive as poet, playwright, essayist, social critic, philologist, historiographer, dramatist, synthesist, peace activist, artistic director…on matters national, continental and global. Even if he has yet to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, he has often been more appreciated and duly honored abroad than in his own land. Perhaps this is in keeping with that old Ethiopian saying to the effect that ‘a prophet is often not esteemed in his own country.’ In this day and age, when most of us have been preoccupied and indeed consumed by wars and rumors of wars in Ethiopia-Eritrea and elsewhere in the Horn of Africa, it seems as though there is nothing else of positive value or of grave concern that deserves or commands the attention of Ethiopians. Today we shall take time out from violence and war and reflect on the life and works of Poet Laureate Tsegaye Gabre-Medhin who is a living legend, a literary hero, and as one observer described him recently, Ethiopia’s “biblical sage”.
A Glimpse At Poet Laureate Tsegaye’s Literary Journey
Poet Laureate Tsegaye is of the generation—numbering a dozen or so who are extant—of Ethiopian men of letters who were born during the crucible of the Fascist invasion of Ethiopia in the 1930’s. As such his early childhood gestation period was molded by the trauma of that war of aggression against which his patriot father fought. Born in the vicinity of Ambo and the environs of the source of Awash River in Shewa region, the young Tsegaye was also influenced and shaped by the subcultures, languages and the blending of his Oromo and Amhara heritages. Indeed, as he was to relate later on, he considers himself as one who represented an Ethiopian amalgam or bridge between the two cultures. And it did not take long for this child prodigy not only to absorb Oromifa and traditional Zema and Qine in Ethiopic (Ge’ez) as well as Amharic in the traditional neighborhood church school but also to rapidly learn English in the contemporary modern school or Asquala. Indeed, the young genius, Tsegaye Gabre-Medhin, was barely a teen when in 1942 (Eth.Cal.), he wrote his first play, The Story of King Dionysus and of the Two Brothers, and saw it staged in Ambo Elementary School. It was watched by, among others, Emperor Haile Sellassie himself.
Young Tsegaye’s educational itinerary then takes him to formal higher schooling at home (Wingate and Commercial School) and abroad (Blackstone School of Law) in Chicago where he took his Bar Exam. But his precocious self-reading of his inner needs, moods and proclivities pointed towards pastures for artistic and literary expression. And so he pursued opportunities to visit and apprentice at experimental theater and drama establishments in Britain, France and Italy in the late 1950’s. In addition to writing and producing Amharic plays including Yedem Azmera, (Blood Harvest), Yeshoh Aklil, (Crown of Thorns) and Joro Degef (Mumps) during this period, playwright Tsegaye also wrote scores of short poems in English some of which are reproduced in Ethiopia Observer, (1965). And he wrote a prize winning essay for Fullbright Fellowship competition on What Does World Brotherhood Mean To Me, in 1959.