A Web Site For The Young Ethiopian Professional. Volume II   Issue I    
Saturday July 4 2020

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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 silence.

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)

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