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The Song Of Our People


Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, is a quiet, broken city in the forested mountains of Africa, a city inhabited by 1 to 2 million refugees of political movements -- royalists and communists -- and by another million poor, crippled, and homeless who offer pity to one another on cobbled sidewalks.

Ethiopia is a geologic uplift on the Horn of Africa at the mouth of the Rift Valley. It rose as a Semitic culture imposed on African tribes, a medieval European city-state isolated in sub-Saharan mountains. As Ethiopian histories tell it, Addis Ababa became the nation's capital when the emperor's wife discovered hot springs during a royal afternoon picnic. Her husband, Menelik, pleased with her discovery, decided to move the palace in 1890 to the flank of a mountain at the northern end of the Rift Valley. Along with the king and queen came everyone else. It was a very Ethiopian thing to do during those feudal times.

Occasionally Ethiopia's feudal pageant caught the modern world's attention. There was His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie, trim bearded and of military bearing yet small in stature, pleading in the gloomy light of a dais at the League of Nations, or standing in the long shadow of General Charles DeGaulle at John F. Kennedy's funeral. Haile Selassie was the last of 200 kings and queens who claimed descent from King Solomon. The long lineage collapsed as the liberating spirit of the 1960s reached Addis Ababa. But the spirit passed on and for the following seventeen years, there was socialism and bloody terror. People here called it Derg's Time, for the governing committees (dergs) set up by the dictator General Mengistu Hailemariam. Following still another liberation in 1991 Ethiopia now plans another rebirth.

I have another Ethiopia in mind. A countryside where my wife and I lived for two years in a hillside house with blue wooden shutters and blue wooden doors. Out of open front doors, through eucalyptus branches and over the roof of the schoolhouse, we could see across the valley to an Orthodox church with ostrich eggs impaled on the three wooden points of its rugged Axumite cross. The sun rose behind the church each morning with clarity, slipping down the wooded side of Jello Mountain where some wildlife experts believed the rare mountain nyala lived.

At night, we graded papers under a flaring Aeroplane lantern. Next door a shepherd blew his bamboo flute over the crackling of the fire that blazed on his floor. Over the whooping of scavenging hyenas that skulked in dark streets, farm boys in smoky, circular huts drummed on goatskins. Their song filled the dark, cool nights of the Harar Province mountains.

* * *

Last year, for the first time since I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the mid-sixties, I returned and heard their song as an Ethiopian friend and I walked through the Mercato district of Addis Ababa. The members of a roving band of Moslem pilgrims -- snag-toothed men and turbaned boys -- sat facing one another in a circle of drums, clothing, bundles of goods, and feet, chanting in the language of the Oromo. The song they sang was one I remembered without knowing the words. It lifted me from Addis, like the repeating rhythms of the night train, jolting along the narrow-gauge tracks of the desert floor. I used to spend much of the thirteen-hour ride to our town hanging out the open second-class door holding onto the outside rail, bathed in the cold, black night of the desert, the jaundiced light of the cars blurring the African bush, the carved rock faces, the shrill peal of the deeper night when the cars crossed dry ravines.

When my friend, who is now a lawyer, was twelve or thirteen, he came to our house after school and wanted to learn everything. He had a broad smile that opened our hearts. He maintained the reserved nature of Ethiopians, but invaded our conversations with questions about refrigerators, the origin of freckles, and boxer Muhammad Ali. We exchanged details of our cultures. He told my wife and me folk stories from his, and quoted pithy wisdoms from the school's small library of ragged, out-of-print books. In the land of the blind, he once said, the one-eyed man is king.

When we left Ethiopia, our friend wanted to come with us. But we encouraged him to stay in Ethiopia and serve his country. Bright and eager to please, he scored well on eighth-grade leaving exams and received a scholarship to attend General Wingate School, a private secondary school operated by British teachers. He went on to Haile Selassie I University to study law. On the campus he joined antigovernment protests that led to the fall of Haile Selassie.

* * *

My friend didn't benefit from seventeen years of socialism. He desperately wanted to change his society, but he refused to join the Communist party. He studied the craft of survival as his nation fell apart in white and red terror campaigns.

He was employed by a succession of government agencies and became a sober, hard-working bureaucrat. When foreign governments came to negotiate trade and manufacturing agreements with the government corporations the lawyer represented, they took him to dinner at a local hotel. Where did you go to university? they asked. Addis Ababa, he replied. Where did you go to learn to speak such good English? Right here in Ethiopia, he said proudly, smoothing his r's and flattening the a's of his Midwestern American accent.

During my recent visit, we took a series of taxi rides west of Addis, past the national leprosarium to a recreation park beside Meta Brewery. On the road, the lawyer pointed out a subdivision of houses Ethiopians describe as California-style. The neighborhood is near an international high school run by Americans, and the center of the American military, development, and diplomatic community. My friend used to work as a gardener and grader of student papers for the school superintendent, and took the superintendent's daughters to American movies. But on the Haile Selassie University campus, he was a political activist and a leader in the student Marxist movement.

On a day two decades later, we were facing one another in the back of the blue pickup taxi in the socialist tradition of confrontation and dialogue. The lawyer offered to me what sounded like a confessional.

"We shouted for the Yankees to go home. They went home and we had nothing."

* * *

As we traveled together, the lawyer began drawing for me a small circle around his Ethiopian history. We would watch the evening news about the former Derg officers who were in prison waiting for war crime trials. "We were classmates," he said of one former ideologue. "We were Wingaters together." He also remembers friends from the eighth grade who are dead or in exile. Others, former friends, are now running the country. It is a small, dysfunctional network from which he has removed himself to survive.

Among family photographs and certificates on the wall of his home, the lawyer tacked a piece of paper on which he wrote, "This too shall pass." He is a bachelor approaching middle age and he lives in a small government rental duplex across the street from a former training center where he was once a prisoner.

In Derg's Time, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church was publicly ignored by the government. Soldiers piled stones in a wall from curb to curb to block the front entrance to Trinity Cathedral. But the stones did not discourage the devout. For many years believers entered the church through the graveyard in back of the church, climbing the hill in the chill morning.

While living in Ethiopia this time, I stayed in a house with a splendid view of Trinity Cathedral. The church is surrounded by a tall grove of eucalyptus. The dome appears wrapped in branches and the rows of sculpted saints who guard the dome are lost in the leaves. But the tall, naked trunks of the trees revealed the cemetery, where each Sunday morning Ethiopians dressed in traditional white cotton garments drift like spirits among the large, cradle-shaped gravestones of the churchyard.

"There is no other country in the world in which there are so many churches as in Abyssinia," wrote James Bruce of Kinnaird, a Scot who looked for the source of the Nile for seven years in the 1800s.

Once I followed a German tourist into an Ethiopian Christian landmark, Debre Berhan Selassie, a small 300-year-old church in Gondar. The church walls and ceiling are sealed with rich, graphic frescoes of Ethiopian and Christian history. The government guide, Teara, pointed to the figure of Abuna Tekle Haimenot. "He had one artificial leg because he stood reading the bible for seven years without stopping," the good-natured Oromo told us.

"It does not take seven years to read the Bible," the German said.

"Oh, but we have many, many bibles," Teara explained.

Angels surround the doorways. Their faces stand in rows on the ceilings, their ears like wings, and they stare down with large infant's eyes etched in black kohl. A monk named Abbe Hailemeskel painted the interior of this small Sistine Chapel.

"It took him nine years," Teara told us. I pictured the priest prone on a scaffold, his arms aching with pain as he colored the black kohl that surrounded the angels' eyes. He gathered the colors for his paintings from the rocks, soil, and plants that surrounded the city, and from the blood of animals.

* * *

Easter in Ethiopia is like Christmas elsewhere. It is the high season that follows two months of fasting. On the day before Easter, I rode by taxi to the National Theater to see an Amharic production of the Greek tragedy Oedipus. Flocks of sheep stood in the gray mist along the roadside like Christmas trees in a Lions Club parking lot. The heads of several slaughtered cows had been discarded in the median of one boulevard, and municipal garbage bins were overflowing with the entrails of freshly slaughtered animals.

Abate Makuria, the director of Oedipus, rushed across the cold, care-worn National Theater before the Saturday matinee. He is one of the nation's popular dramatists, a small, round man dressed in fashionable running clothes, deck shoes and a floral print sports shirt. In a flush of energy, he waved to arriving members of his cast and offered an aside.

He wanted to show Ethiopia's tragedy to her people. Abate chose this Greek tragedy to perform, and staged it in the language and dress of modern-day Ethiopia, and set it in the beggar's place in the cemetery behind the churchyard.

I sat a few aisles in front of the loge where the royal family used to sit for private performances. Their faded velvet curtain was drawn shut, and before it stood actors dressed in the robes and crowns of priests. Their acolytes held massive silver crosses, struck small cymbals, and swung burners of incense, casting the sweetened smoke throughout the theater.

Then, as they walked down the aisle, they droned the priests' liturgy in the ancient Ge'ez language. In the wings of the stage-men on one side, women on the other-actors dressed as beggars huddled among wooden risers. The play was performed according to the Greek script, but the beggars and the priests held a mirror to their Ethiopian audience. I recognized the gross similarities between the drama of the state and the street outside.

On the following day, Abate stood at my living room window and talked about Oedipus in Ethiopia, smoking a series of cigarettes and pacing the carpet.

"This is a classical opera. The chorus was like a still life. The poor stoically played the chorus to the tragedies of its rules. Take Oedipus and Haile Selassie. Imagine. The people faced hunger, the people faced drought. The same situation. They appealed to him. `Get concerned with the people,' they said. He didn't. He was concerned with himself. And when he realized, it was too late. It was just like Oedipus.

"The Derg didn't understand the values of the Ethiopian people. `I will make a new man of you,' they said. It was an artificial gesture. The traditions are in my countrymen. It's an attitude, a vision. That's where the Derg went wrong. Communism didn't penetrate."

What inspired him to do Oedipus was the richness of the Amharic language. "You can say anything in the power of its poetry," said the director. "It is a song of our people."

David Arnold (Ethiopia)

David Arnold is editor of WorldView, the quarterly magazine of the National Peace Corps Association. He worked on the staffs of three U.S. daily newspapers, wrote for several national magazines, taught journalism at several U.S. universities and was a Fulbright lecturer in Pakistan and Kenya. He holds a B.A. in English literature from Washington University in St. Louis, an M.A. in journalism from the University of Missouri at Columbia.

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