A Son's Tribute to his Father
by Makonnen Ketema
I was willing to put my country above my family. I could have taken a job elsewhere, which paid more than what I got paid while I was working for the government. I would not stoop low, like some officials, and take money away from my poor country and its people. I believe that I was honest and worked to the best of my abilities to help build my country. Since I have not left my children any wealth, I hope one day that they will be proud of their father's accomplishments and his good name.
My father, the late Ketema Yifru, had entered these words in his prison diaries in the mid 1970s, after having served his country as Foreign Minister from 1961 to 1971. These were the very words that have compelled me to present my father's work to the public.
In addition to letting the world know about my father's accomplishments, I have also, for a number of years, wanted to set the record straight about the history that my father was blessed to be a part of. There are many who I believe have set their minds on revising the history that was made during the 1960s and the 1970s. Mr. Richard Kapuchinski (The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat) and Mr. John H. Spencer (Ethiopia at Bay: A Personal Account of the Haile Sellassie Years) are two of the authors who I believe have presented the wrong information about my father and his former colleagues. While the former led us to believe that Ministers, including my father, would sneak out from behind trees to talk with the Emperor, the latter would want us to believe that my father, a strong nationalist and an avowed Panafricanist, was nothing but a socialist. What is to be gained by minimizing the contributions that others have made to their countries? Of all people, Mr. Spencer, who had served under the Emperor's regime, should know that the Emperor would not have kept Ketema Yifru as his Foreign Minister for all those years if he were indeed a socialist. Why is there a need to present negative stories, which I think are mostly fabricated, about a country that has been plagued with problems? These questions have always come to mind after I finish reading these books. Foreign writers who spend a few months in our country and who, all of a sudden, become experts of Ethiopian history have written extensively about my father and his colleagues.
Since the depictions of my father and many of his former colleagues have been distorted by the Kapuchinskis and the Spencers, I decided to collect and release accurate information about my father and some of his former colleagues on a website. Maybe now, with the contents of my website and with the addition of others, that trend will be reversed. Hopefully, their many significant contributions will be known all over the world.
I began the task of collecting material about my father, and by extension about the creation of Organization of African Unity (OAU), years before he passed away in 1994. Most of the material about the OAU and my father's biography came from what I call "my father's Library of Congress." Never before had I seen so many interesting documents in one place. The documents included: the 1963 Verbatim of the African Leaders and Foreign Ministers Meetings; letters from Prime Minister Aklilu Habtewold to my father; drafts of some of the Emperor's speeches; a BBC taped interview of my father; pictures; official letters to my father by officials around the world, such as the Private Secretary of Queen Elizabeth and the Kenyan Foreign Minister; my father's prison diaries (1974-1982); books and numerous newspaper articles written about the Emperor's government; and many other documents. To add to this extensive list I was fortunate enough to have an extensive and detailed taped interview of my father conducted by Yemane Demissie.
I was overwhelmed with emotion when I began to go through the material because it brought back some memories that I had kept bottled up most of my life.
Yes, I had had a father, but unfortunately he was taken for 'questioning.' I remember the day when soldiers took my father away from me. That afternoon, the gates were opened wide and in came the soldiers. It was terrifying because I was only seven years old. Numerous soldiers surrounded our house. I remember an incident that day, which brought tears to my grandmother's eyes. She saw my older brother trying to wrestle away a rock from my hand, which I had meant to throw at the soldiers who had come to take my father away. I heard that some of the soldiers were themselves overwhelmed with emotion after they saw that little incident. My attempt, no matter how sad it made those soldiers feel, was futile, of course. I was not able to stop the soldiers from taking my father away.
Within a matter of a day our lives had changed completely. My mother was now caring for her children and her imprisoned husband. For me, there was a huge void created by the absence of my father. In the nine years that followed, I was constantly reminded of my grandmother and my mother playing the roles of both mother and father. My father was no longer there to attend meetings between parents and teachers. My mother tried her best to fill in for my father. She would start her day by preparing food for my father and the four of us, all sons. Then, she would drop us off at school early in the morning. At 11:00 AM she would go off to Emperor Menelik's Palace where my father was being held, and she would deliver his meal and his books. On weekends and holidays, I was able to accompany my mother on most of her trips to the Palace.
While most of my friends in school talked about their fathers, there I had absolutely nothing to say. Yes, I had a father, one I rarely saw. We were able to see him but I was never able to talk to him the way I wanted to. Just like any other kid would do in the presence of his father, I had always wanted to brag about my soccer skills or the fact that I had won a race. On one of our visits to the Palace, I remember how awkward it was to speak to him. I had prepared myself for the wonderful conversation that I was going to have with my father. I had intended to update him on my life in general. Unfortunately, nothing would go as I had planned. We sat among a number of soldiers who were there to monitor our visit and to keep a close eye on my father. The conversation that I had planned to have would never materialize. Looking at the uniformed soldiers, who at this point looked like the ones that had taken him away, did not help at all. It made me both angry and emotional. I remember wiping the tears off my face.
On September 2, 1982, my brother and I were getting ready to go with our mother to the Palace to deliver my father's meal, as usual. As we were about to leave our compound, we saw an elderly gentleman; he had gone to see my father and had come to inform us about my father's release from prison. We all cried. He had been imprisoned for almost nine years; none of us had believed that this day would come. Once we pulled ourselves together, my mother and I rushed off to the Palace to pick my father up. My mother left my older brother at home so that he could call everyone to inform them of our father's release from prison. At the Palace, we were told that he was sent to Jan Meda, where he and the rest of his prison mates were to be educated on Marxism and Leninism. As we drove towards Jan Meda, someone flashed their headlights at us. To my surprise, I saw my father sitting in the car. I jumped out and was finally able to hug and kiss my father without any supervision, for the first time in many years. At last, I could now honestly say that I had a father.
Unlike my two oldest brothers, who had left the country some years before, my brother and I had the privilege of spending time with our father. During those years, I truly can say that my father became my idol and my hero. After his release, I began to see what others had said about him, including strangers who volunteered to tell me about his character. He was open to new ideas and willing to hear you out no matter how ridiculous you sounded. I also found out that I had a kind and humble father; he was kind in a sense that he was always willing to help you out, and he was humble in that he would rather not talk of his many accomplishments. In fact, it was some years later that I was fortunate enough to hear him talk about what he had achieved. Truly, if it were not for those photographs that were kept in his study, I would never have thought that he had once rubbed shoulders with the likes of Seku Toure, Jomo Kenyatta, Nelson Mandela, John and Jacqueline Kennedy, Marshall Tito and to name a few. My father was one who would also take his time to listen to his teenage son talk about the current political situation of the country. In hindsight, I remember how ridiculous I sounded at times, but never once did my father let on to this fact. After I had finished my analysis, he would correct me on some facts and then he would encourage me to speak up about what I believed in.
Sorting through and assembling my father's materials for the website, it dawned on me that I was tracing the voyage that my father had taken from the small village of Gara Muleta in Harerghe. It was during this stage that I finally knew that my father had done more than his share for both his country and his continent. I might have known some facts about his accomplishments earlier on, but doing that research and going through the process of putting things together gave me a greater perspective of Ketema Yifru, Politician and Diplomat. It was exhilarating to examine in detail how that poor kid from Gara Muleta got to where he was. It was also interesting to know that my father was one of the leading Panafricanists on the continent. Thanks to this project, I now know more about my father than I would ever have otherwise.
Once I finished putting things together, I had to decide on how I was going to present the materials that related to his life and accomplishments. I chose to present both my father's biography and the details regarding the creation of the OAU article on the internet because I felt that this was the best way to reach the younger generation. My focus has always been my generation, a generation that knows more about Adwa than it does about the 1960s. While we should be proud of Atse Menilek, Ras Alula, Zeray Deress, Ras Makonnen, and many others, we should also understand that there was a different battle that was fought in the modern era: diplomacy. In this era of diplomacy, we had the likes of Emperor Haile Selassie, along with people like my father, making it possible for our poor country to become a leading voice in world politics.
The website was launched in the first week of April 2000. So far, the comments have been positive and encouraging. I was moved by one of the comments, which read, "I knew deep inside that my poor, proud, beloved Ethiopia was great because she had people like Ketema Yifru." Others have told me that they would not have known about the creation of the OAU and the lives and works of my father and some of his colleagues if it had not been for this website. I am very grateful for the comments that I have received from everyone and I hope others continue to send their much-appreciated comments.
For more information go to: http://www.oau-creation.com