The poet and dramatist Tsegaye Gebre-Medhin, who has died aged 69, was considered
This was often achieved under trying circumstances. His career spanned three regimes: Emperor Haile Selassie I’s feudal rule, Mengistu Hailemariam’s Marxist dictatorship (under which he was briefly imprisoned), and the putative democracy of Meles Zenawi. All three banned his plays; he once estimated that of 49 works, 36 had at one time or another been censored.
Tsegaye was born in Boda, a village some 120km from the capital, to an Oromo father, who was away fighting the Italians, and an Amhara mother. (The two groups speak languages from entirely different linguistic groups, Cushitic and Semitic respectively; the latter has an alphabet of some 300 letters.) As many Ethiopian boys do, he also learned Ge’ez, the ancient language of the church, an Ethiopian equivalent to Latin; he also helped the family by caring for cattle. He was more unusual in beginning to write plays when at the local elementary school. At 16 he transferred to the Wingate school in
The 1960s were an important decade. He returned to
Briefly, he was appointed minister of culture, but Haile Selassie was deposed by Mengistu Hailemariam and, during the Red Terror in 1975, Tsegaye and the playwright Ayalneh Mulatu spent months together in a prison cell. Ayalneh, who remained friends with Tsegaye for the rest of his life, remembers a daily 11am roll call of men to be killed, and the day his own name came up. It was mispronounced, and Tsegaye seized on the mispronunciation to argue they had the wrong man, thus saving Ayalneh’s life. They wrote poems and plays on the paper bags their food came in.
Agit-prop came into its own under the Marxist regime, as did Tsegaye’s own brand of declamatory nationalism. He wrote Inat Alem Tenu (or Mother Cour- age, though he borrowed only the title) and Ha Hu be Sidist Wer (ABC in Six Months), which referred to the period of the emperor’s deposition. In 1979 he helped to establish the theatre arts department at
There are persistent reports that the actors were beaten while on tour. Despite this, "I like to go out and communicate with the common folk of
In 1998 he moved to
Obituary, Tsegaye Gabre-Medhin
Tsegaye Gabre-Medhin, Ethiopian Poet Laureate, Dies at 69
By JESSE McKINLEY, New York times, Mar 9, 2006
Tsegaye Gabre-Medhin, an acclaimed Ethiopian playwright who was also the
country’s poet laureate, died on Feb. 25 in Manhattan, where he had lived
since 1998. He was 69.
His death was announced by his family.
Born in the small mountain town of Boda, near Ambo, Mr. Tsegaye became one
of his country’s most prominent literary figures as well as an international
emissary for its culture. Considered by some to be Ethiopia’s greatest
playwright, Mr. Tsegaye (pronounced say-GAY) wrote more than 30 plays, most
in Amharic, Ethiopia’s official language, and translated many Western works
into Amharic, including those of Shakespeare, Brecht and Molière. (His
native tongue was Oromifa, but he was also fluent in Amharic, several other
African languages and English.)
He was even more prolific as a poet, publishing countless poems on topics
from war (his father had fought for his country during the Italian
occupation, 1936 to 1941) to peace. Steeped in the mythology of his region,
he viewed the history of Ethiopia – an ancient kingdom with a tradition of
independence from colonial powers – as symbolic of a continent’s pride and
"In order to bring about a better future, one must learn from the past," Mr.
Tsegaye said in 1993 interview with The Ethiopian Review. "You cannot build
a future based on hatred because hatred is the enemy of hope."
Ayele Bekerie, the director of undergraduate programs for African studies at
Cornell University, called Mr. Tsegaye "a pioneering figure" who used "the
medium of poetry to advance the idea of national unity among the diverse
populations of Ethiopia," a nation that Mr. Tsegaye saw as too often
splintered by coups, uprisings and famine.
"To him," Mr. Bekerie said, "the stability and unity of Ethiopia lay in its
respect for different cultures."
>From an early age, Mr. Tsegaye excelled at school and at 13, wrote his first
play, which was staged at his school and seen by Emperor Haile Selassie, the
final Ethiopian monarch. (Mr. Tsegaye was buried at the national cathedral
in Addis Ababa, in the same compound as the emperor.) A scholarship student,
he graduated from the Blackstone School of Law in Chicago in 1959. But
dramatic ambitions soon impinged on his legal career, and by 1960, he had
studied experimental theater at the Royal Court Theater in London and the
Comédie-Française in Paris.
>From 1961 to 1971, he was the artistic director of the Ethiopian National
Theater, and in the late 1970′s, he founded the department of theater at
Addis Ababa University, the nation’s largest. In 1964, his wrote "Oda Oak
Oracle," a play steeped in Ethiopian legend but written in English; it had
productions in Britain and the United States, and elsewhere around the
A decade later, as the national theater’s general manager, he was arrested
and held without formal charges after the country’s military junta, the
Derg, banned his writing. Over the years, other regimes would also forbid
the production of Mr. Tsegaye’s work (18 of his 33 plays were banned at one
time or another), but he eventually saw his work mounted either at home or
abroad. Mr. Tsegaye traveled, spreading the word of Ethiopia’s ancient and
modern culture through lectures, essays and international conferences.
In 1998, Mr. Tsegaye was forced to leave Ethiopia to receive treatment for
kidney disease. He is survived by his wife, Woizero Lakech Bitew, of
Manhattan; his daughters, Yodit, Mahlet and Adey; and his sons, Ayenew,
Estifanos and Hailu.
Despite his poor health, he was active until his death.
In 2002, the newly formed African Union adopted one of his poems as its
"All sons and daughters of Africa, flesh of the sun and flesh of the sky,"
the anthem reads, "Let us make Africa the tree of life."
* Copyright 2006The New York Times Company