Ethiopia’s poet and playwright of the common people

Tsegaye Gebre-Medhin

Ethiopia’s poet and playwright of the common people

The poet and dramatist Tsegaye Gebre-Medhin, who has died aged 69, was considered Ethiopia’s poet laureate. He was one of the most important literary figures that country has produced in the last hundred years, and certainly the best known, both within and outside it; his 1960s decision to write about the common man, rather than religion and royalty, marked the beginning of modern Ethiopian theatre. He wrote in English and was a translator of Shakespeare, but his real gift and achievement was to harness the considerable lyrical powers of his own, Ethiopian, languages.

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 Addis Ababa, where he developed an interest in pantomime; this was followed, in 1959, by a degree from the Blackstone School of Law in Chicago. He had not forgotten his first love, however; the following year he used a Unesco scholarship to do an educational tour that included visits to the Royal Court Theatre in London and the Comédie Française, Paris.

The 1960s were an important decade. He returned to Ethiopia in 1960 to run the Municipality Company at the National Theatre and establish a school which produced a number of leading Ethiopian actors. Realising the usefulness of Shakespeare in the making of dangerous political points, he translated Macbeth and King Lear. He also translated Molière’s Tartuffe, and wrote a play in English called Oda Oak Oracle, which was performed in theatres in Ethiopia, Britain, Denmark, Italy, Romania, Nigeria, Tanzania and the US, and still appears on reading lists in black studies departments. But it was Yekermew Sew (Tomorrow’s Man) which established his place in Ethiopian theatre.”Drawing from Ge’ez and Amharic and Orominya, he was able to coin phrases which, in normal Amharic language, don’t exist, but are powerful and expressive,” says Tamrat Gebeyehu, author of the Ethiopian entry in the World Encyclopaedia of Contemporary Theatre. Thus it was “a pleasure to hear his characters talk, even though chances were you did not understand 50% of what they were saying.” In 1966, aged 29, he became the youngest person ever to receive the Haile Selassie I Prize for Amharic Literature.

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 Addis Ababa University where he is remembered as being very strict and aloof. In the 1980s he also wrote historical plays about Ethiopian kings, one of which, Tewodros, was performed at the Arts Theatre in London in 1986. In 1993, after Mengistu Hailemariam was in turn deposed, he wrote a companion piece to Ha Hu be Sidist Wer. This was Ha Hu Weynis Pe Pu – A or Z, a play about peace, which the current regime banned.

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 Ethiopia,” Tsegaye wrote in 1999. “The peasant, the patriot, the soldier, the traitor, the housewife, the priest, the sheikh … It is from them that I learn about my country and people. And generally their comments are accompanied by tears; their stories are mostly melancholy; their memories are bitter and tragic. It is that which I reflect in my writings. That is why my plays dwell on tragedy.”

In 1998 he moved to New York to undergo dialysis, virtually unavailable in Ethiopia, and to be near his children. He remained active, promoting Ethiopian culture, until the end. In 2002 the African Union took one of his poems as its anthem. He is survived by his wife Lakech Bitew, three daughters, Yodit, Mahlet and Adey, and three sons, Ayenew, Estifanos and Hailu. Tsegaye Gebre-Medhin, poet and dramatist, born August 17 1936; died February 25 2006.