Chase me till I Catch You
by: Alemush Zelalem
Lately, I have found myself inexplicably sympathizing with a childhood character
generally deemed offensive. "Arengwade bicha key bandira, feswan fesachibign
Amina" goes the catchy tune. It appears that Amina, (not to be confused with the
other of Biyotana fame)1 , forgot herself at a not-so-opportune moment. She has been
held accountable by Ethiopian youth since. Of course, it could all be political - that
Amina saved her "opinion" for such a time as when it could be, er..., experienced
effectively. Judging by the way we enacted the story (imagined smells and all), her
effect was quite legendary.
Or, and this is where my recent revelation comes in, Amina got a glimpse of the
enormity of what it was to be an Ethiopian in national and mythological magnitudes,
and... well... forgot herself. With the outlines of her conscious self thus erased, an
almost magical other emerged and swept her off into another world. I dwell in this
same world often, experiencing a heady sense of flying through new spaces and
fastening my passions to ideas and cultures that compound my core. This core has yet
to be threatened or compromised by my ventures. It thrives in internal rhythms
amazingly grounded while in flux. My world is colored by moments of forgetting to
remember. Forgetting the decorous CHewa denb du jour to remember an ease of
being that reaches beyond the immediate social and political frame and allows me to
ride the certain magic of my Ethiopia within.
My thoughts have yet to emerge in an organized pattern that would invite discussion
or have meaningful bearing. In the meantime, I can say this: My Ethiopia has yet to be
framed in a flag, or forged by discourse in academic or popular circles. A playful
muse, she turns corners when I think I'm close... or when I need a dazzling array of
facts and figures to support an argument. She returns when I'm in the throes of Gebre
Kristos Desta's love poems, gasping at the stark images provoked by his words and
language of naked simplicity, like Billy Holiday's singing. Unannounced, she arrives
when an aging man with greenish eyes tightens his kuta around his shoulders and
recounts the days of the Italian-Ethiopian war with searing poetry and song. A muse of
moments, I feel her bold presence like the memory of my grandmother's breath, until
she slips away shrouded in thick incense smoke through the narrow corridors of Harar
to linger unexpectedly in the folds of my habesha libs from Gondar, (which I refuse to
wash.) She beckons away from the books and the footnotes, to where she lives... away
from the raging debates and "burning issues"... to where she lives with her particular
I came looking for her here - a cold city in the Midwest, a graduate program in the
Humanities, equipped with very little by way of dates and occurrences that shaped the
contours of her path. I knew she was not here herself, only bouncing reflections of
others studying her... grasping. Not quite sure I would fashion a life from my quest, I
pressed on through the required coursework and exams in a seemingly ordinary way.
It was not quite appropriate to speak of my imaginative nights that would turn the
seminars and books we read into rich and detailed dreams. With ease, I spent my
sleeping hours in the courts of Dingiswayo in early nineteenth century South Africa or
among the griots singing the glories of the Songhai empire. I smelled the dust, saw the
colors, heard the language dancing all around me. Without a doubt, I knew it was all
a part of me - an ever-growing frame of reference that afforded immeasurable
comforts to my elusive muse.
Walking over to my oral exams, the event that would mark my transition to fieldwork
in Ethiopia, I was visited by a song that had slipped from my immediate horizons.
"IndeAdal mechagna sirezim lelitu.....ketef yihen gize neber medhanitu...."
Muluken Melesse's tizita with its languid vocals evoked the day it had been released in
Addis. My dad, in his intensity, had created a 90-minute cassette tape of this piece
recorded back to back. He dashed around the room attempting to re-arrange the
speakers on the outside porch with just the right effect for when my mom came
driving in from work.
The next two hours passed with my replaying the song in my mind, and apparently
participating in the discussion with my four committee members. As if emerging from
a dream, I later gathered myself enough to inquire of one professor how it all went
down. He claimed from all the defenses he had attended in his years, this had been the
most composed presentation ... and what was I thinking about anyway? A
composition of rare grace sent from my muse for assurance, I thought.
Going home meant conceptually clothing my abstract ideas in Amharic and navigating
the cultural minefield by guiding my interviews to sensitive subject matter delicately.
Nothing was ever predictable. There was a particular rhythm to the elders that I
needed to be still to understand. Marked by my dej Tinat and their often colorful
personalities and perceptions, even the most challenging of my sessions were journeys
of self-discovery and embrace. My muse quieted her restless wanderings then. It was
as though she was content to let the elders perform the rites of passage that would
further transform and sensitize my intellect as, (unbeknownst to them), they continued
to margebgeb the magic.
I am now shaping my project into a dissertation and encountering countless forks in
the road (which I imagine are tended by Eshu-Elegba, the Yoruba Orisha, mischievous
glint in his eye and all.2 ) I am fraught with various anxieties about this part of the
process, which even my latest eccentricities, (drinking cold milk in wine glasses, if you
must know), seem to do little to quell. Even more so now, I am less than enthusiastic to
enter a life of academia that seems to demand a coldly structured approach to
organizing knowledge. A couple of my professors assure me that I and others like me
would do wonders for the field by widening the scope of the discourse to include such
things as culture and popular memory in studies of political and social change.
Pulsing as we do with these sensibilities, they maintain we would also communicate
with an essence different than our Western colleagues to stimulate potential students.
My experiences in the classroom thus far, which included a student bursting into
(albeit patriotic) tears at the mere idea of re-thinking the American constitution with
the unmentioned groups in mind, has left me wanting. I feel that my training would
best be employed in documentation projects that would preserve the words and images
of our elders. There are endless themes to pursue, ideas to realize and a wealth of
knowledge to explore in academic and creative ventures. An archival effort that would
house such a project would make the material widely available for scholars and
interested individuals alike.
Time is often a merciless opponent. Even since I began my research, a good third of
the group I interviewed has already passed on, and my choking sense of urgency
heightens with every death announcement I hear. My muse and the past join chorus
to chant the popular Caribbean adage "Chase me till I catch you." As long as the
margebgebya does not rest, I will continue the tireless chase both in the intellectual
and subtextual realms of my imagination. Meanwhile, I harbor lofty dreams of one
day being aptly situated to be caught and found worthy of conveying some small part
of the magic in all its complexity.
1For those of you struggling to keep your Amina's straight, Amina Biyotana was the contending dame
with largely unintelligible lyrics sung with gusto in her honor: "Amina... Biyotana... Alesimba...
Senewawa... Amina tu se pascalina... tuzoro... alore... to the bam!bam!bam!"
2Eshu Elegba is the deity that embodies crossroads in Yoruba belief. Of provocative nature, his name Eshu means "childless wanderer, alone, moving only as a spirit" and Elegba "owner-of -the-power." He is the ultimate master of potentiality and continues to be one of the most important images in the black
Atlantic world. See Robert Farris Thompson, Flash of the Spirit. (New York: Random House, 1984)