Ethiopia’s poet and playwright of the common people
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
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