A seasoned scholar, a delicate poet, peerless ethical hero: Tedla Bairu recollects Mengistu Lemma
That is the third in our collection of posts to have fun the life and occasions of Mengistu Lemma (1928-1988), an Ethiopian playwright, dramatist, poet and diplomat, who secured his popularity with performs, The Marriage of Unequals (1964) and The Mighty and the Lowly (1979) and poems reminiscent of Basha Ashebir in America. On this extract taken from the autobiography of Mengistu Lemma entitled Demamu Bi’iregna, posthumously revealed by Mega Publishing in 1996, Habteab Bairu, an extended pal of the writer recollects Mengistu, his life and his work. This text was initially written in Amharic and being revealed right here for the primary time with an English translation.
The start of our friendship
I got here to know Mengistu Lemma once we have been each college students at Kotebe, the previous HaileSelassie Secondary Faculty. Initially, Iwas from Asmara and on arriving in Addis Ababa in 1945, I enrolled at Akakai Faculty, on the outskirts of the town. After six yr’s keep there and onsuccessfully passing the varsity examination, I used to be transferred to Kotebe, the place I made Mengistu’s acquaintances. We have been the primary batch of the varsity to efficiently full the highschool leaving certificates examination. The federal government madeit recognized its plan of getting us sit for matriculation with a view to sending the highest type entrants abroad for additional schooling. Solely seven of us who wereenrolled made it to 12th grade, Mengistu Lemma, Belay Abay, Yohannes Mekonnen, Assefa Woldeghiorgis, kebede Woldeghiorgis, Abraham Demena andmyself. Naturally, we developed a way of camaraderie and shut friendship, because the seven of us began to organize ourselves to take a seat for the London matriculation check. As luck would have it, solely Mengistu and I have been capable of attain the very best rating within the check which was administered by the British Council.
Once we have been summoned by the British Council and advised of our success within the examination and wereentitled to a scholarship within the UK we, with youthful impetuosity, screamed: “We don’t need your scholarship. Our Emperor will discover us a scholarship!” Our defiance was not with out grounds. Throughout these occasions, a heated political wrestle was happening to free Eritrea from theBritish protectorate. The motion was spearheaded by my brother, Tedla Bairu, and his activism rubbed off on me. The resentment and resistance towards the British was evident right here in Addis Ababa.This was as a result of the British, having supplanted the Italians after the occupation, had began to forged a covetous look over Ethiopia. Such adevelopment was positive to trigger suspicion and resentment on the a part of thepeople. The sense of resentment was notably robust amongst us the educated for we have been nicely conscious of the Anglo-Ethiopian Settlement of 1944.
It was on this state of affairs that my friendship with Mengistu developed. Each of us have been consumed with a passionate sense of patriotism. We had accepted Haile Selassie’s authorities with absolute loyalty and unstinting devotion.
The Emperor handled the scholars of Kotebe and Teferi Mekonnen Faculty (TMS) with beneficial and specific partiality and thus he was capable of win the devotion and loyaltyof the scholars. He paid a go to to the varsity virtually every day to examine the teachinglearning course of. He additionally every so often had lorries loaded with oranges andfruits delivered to our college and distributed to every considered one of us, thus endearing us to him.
We have been blissfully unaware of politics, there was nothing to intrude with our undivided loyalty to the Monarch. We had not heard about Marxism and associatednotions of sophistication evaluation. Throughout Christmas and winter break, all college students fromvarious faculties within the capital comparable to Menen, Wingate have been taken to the Genet Leul Palace and introduced earlier than the Emperor to obtain handouts of sweaters and biscuits.
As I discussed earlier, we went to the UK for additional schooling in 1948. As is well-known, we Ethiopians have a excessive sense of patriotism. I don’t assume it’s large of the mark to say that our nationalism attimes bordered on vanity. So England for us was a land perpetually coated with snow and insupportable chilly night time, with not a blade of grass in sight. To brace himself for the coolness of UK awaiting him, Mengistu requested his olderbrother to purchase him overcoat or thick sweater however his brother couldn’t affordit. To our aid, the federal government purchased all of the clothes we would have liked and we madeour approach absolutely dressed up. On our arrival to the UK, we enrolled at a schoolcalled Regent Polytechnic. Later, we joined London faculty of Economics. Throughout our college days in London, Mengistu helped me to grasp Amharic. As I got here from Asmara, my Amharic was poor and halting, and in fascinating irony Mengistu helped me to extend my proficiency in Amharic in a overseas land, one thing I did not do again house.
Too unbiased minded
On our return residence, after the completion of our research, Belay Abay and I in no timejoined the swelling rank of younger bureaucrats. However Mengistu being a radical andprogressive, stepped to a special drummer. As soon as he rang a name and invitedBelay and I for lunch. “Welelaw, what a few deal with at present? He referred to as every of his buddies Welelaw. We went to Castelli Restaurant, although costly right now wasthen reasonably priced. Whereas have been having fun with the lunch, he advised us concerning the tantalising supply made to him by Ato Mekonnen HabteWold, a excessive rating official within the Haile Selassie’s authorities. “The rationale I referred to as you is to ask your opinionon what plan of action I ought to take as regards to the supply. Mekonen promised that I might take full cost of the Hager Fikir theatre, making free use of the stage, if I like, with no matter I select to point out. And a spacious flat, a automotive and engaging wage as well. What do you assume?”
It was a time when upward mobility was very a lot within the air within the capital with everycivil servant, each the locals and returnees, setting their sights on the mainchance in a rush to purchase plot of land, car and looking for preferment to raisetheir lifestyle. Mengistu, nevertheless was not the sort to hanker after such comforts. He didn’t let the thrill of such a suggestion carry him away, asking as an alternative for our opinion. Plus Mekonnen Habtewold, was not one whose give you would flip down calmly.
However Mengistu, having been gained over by radical politics throughout our keep in London,didn’t care very a lot for the trimmings of energy and materials comforts.Mengistu was nicely versed in Marxism. He advised us that for all Mekonnen’s sort supply and promise, in fact he knew that the official had no intention of permitting him the liberty to stage his or different performs, his principal objective being to make him a stooge within the service of the regime’s ideology. His wage then was meagre and he didn’t personal a automotive.
A person of precept
However this didn’t make him succumb to the lure which got here knocking on his door. He steadfastly held to his rules. I permit myself not an iota of doubt in bearing testimony to his ethical braveness and mental integrity, which had no matchand was an instance to all of us. Thus, he selected to finish his days in moderately lowered circumstance as an alternative of accepting of mess of pottage and the prospect of the workplace of minister that got here his approach unbidden. Mengistu despised dishonest, dishonesty and opportunism. He didn’t stand double dealing individuals. An individual who claimed to be progressive whereas belying his phrases by his deeds might neverbe Mengistu’s good friend. Such an individual was sure to be the goal of his acerbic wit and sarcasm. On account of this, his relationship with many individuals was not very pleasant. Nevertheless it was not as if he was motivated by hatred. It was simply that he detested dishonesty. Mengistu was a faithful pal. The important thing to win his friendship was being a truthful individual. His life type might summed up in a phrase, ‘no frills’. He was averse to any type of materialism. When lots of his associates drove Mercedes within the 1950s, he was content material with a scooter then referred to as lambretta.I’ve no hesitation in calling Mengistu a seasoned scholar and a delicate poet.His talent was not restricted to poetry. He was additionally a wonderful playwright. I feel his performs fall within the class of “theatre of concepts.” He adopted alongside the strains of Bernard Shaw. The type of performs that fall underneath rubric of theatre of ideasare people who increase lofty concepts aiming at instructing and inculcating values within the society, with a view to serving social objective.
Mengistu was an individual with a exceptional readability of thought. Whereas I served time in Derg jail for eight years, one among myprison mates was Teferi Bizuayeh, a cinematographer by career, who had studied the artwork in Moscow for seven years. On a type of moments we spent ourtime reminiscing, he advised me that he was indebted to Mengistu for saving hislife within the turbulent years of the revolution. I requested him to elucidate. He recounted that Senay Likke (a pacesetter of the Ethiopian scholar motion in america and founderof the Wez League, a post-revolutionary political celebration that served Derg, pretending to be its mental wing.) who occurred to be his relative, used topush him to hitch his celebration. I had then cultivated an in depth friendship with Mengistu and requested him for his opinion as to which social gathering I ought to be a part of. “Don’t let anybody lead you astray. Higher protected than sorry. Energy is within the arms of army junta.Don’t be fooled by the promise of freedom. If you must be a part of a celebration, I counsel you to hitch Seded.”
Mengistu’s literary craft was highly effective from early on. Sadly, whereas his writing wonhim common acclaim and affection, it inevitably led him into collision with these in energy. A few of his writings truly have been instrumental in bringingabout modifications for higher. Most of us who have been learning overseas have been of theopinion that if we need to see our nation developed, we needed to undertake westernways wholesale and go the entire hog in copying the type of Europe. Mengistu,nevertheless, was against such cultural aping. And we used to tease him, “Are youcapable of appreciating the music of Beethoven and Mozart?”
Mengistu,fed up with what he took to be shallow considering, penned a poem entitled “Mugt” (Argument). He gave the handwritten poem to Sylvia Pankhurst for her to publish in New Occasions and Ethiopian Information, which she did. This brought about one thing of a stir, a wider impression than we might probably anticipated. We weren’t conscious that the newspaper was dispatched to Ethiopia and located its approach into the palace.
The Emperor felt the poem was written as an innuendo focused towards himself inparticular. The harmless strains written as witty rebuke to his wayward friendswere taken as reference to the behavior of imitating western methods among the many excessive officers within the courtroom, notably the practise of placing on what was calledmorning coat, a coverage initially promoted by the likes of Blatten Geta Hiruy.
I later heard that palace individuals began placing on conventional outfit on publicholidays like New Yr, all this due to the poem.
was not only a man of letters. He had exceptional bent for handicraft. He made
himself wallets and leather-based jackets. One other talent of his that used to impress
me was his present for portray. He made effective sketches. When he was with buddies,
chatting with them, he used to do their sketches.
A solitary existence
In the course of the finish of his life, Mengistu was turning into sullen and solitary, holding to himself. In the course of the day, he taught courses on the college. He virtually gave up meetingpeople. His way of life more and more got here to resemble that of monk. As soon as when he disappeared for a stretch oftime, I dropped by his place to investigate of his wellbeing. What I found wassomething that I didn’t anticipate. His residence was a spacious previous villa. As Ientered the premise the bottom was coated with by marshy grass you may hideyourself in. It appeared a abandoned place with not a soul round. It was a shockto me. I might hardly consider he select to stay on this means. I expressed mydispleasure at such wanton disregard for his life. He responded firmly “You paid a go to simply to disturb my peace,” I used to be not postpone by his phrases. I had the labourers minimize the grass.
Mengistu was typically misunderstood. Individuals thought he was old-fashioned and boastful. However he was not. In truth, quite the opposite, he was liberal and progressive. He was freeof any trace of bigotry. He was a person forward of his occasions. Definitely, hepassionately argued for cultural autonomy. I feel what led to the misrepresentation of his ardour for cultural autonomy.
Particularly, I want to single out a top quality of his that struck me wheneverI considered him. He was a proud man. Probably this was one thing that heinherited from his father who was half- Gondarian. He was acutely aware of this. Hewas a dignified individual. Even throughout meal occasions, he behaved with considerabledignity. It in all probability took him eight or 9 seconds to place into his mouth thehandful he picked from the plate.
The late Habteab was the brother of Tedla Bairu, Eritrea’s firstchief government and chief of the Unionist Social gathering, which demanded unity with Ethiopia, was one of many first college students who went to review in Britain after the warfare, together with Menghestu Lemma, Afewerk Tekle, Mikael Imru, Zewde GebreSelassie, and lots of different outstanding personalities.
Asfaw Damte recollects Mengitu Lemma
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