Inen Yabiregn Yakinfegni Yakinfegni...
by Alemush Zelalem
Allu Yetebalu insurance companies in town have found uncharacteristically sympathetic ground to discuss the strange but graceful contortion of Sankofa bird's neck. 1 They have narrowed it down to two possible explanations: The first, that it is a birthright of mild sentimentality from her misty Adinkra past. The second, that a yogi move went terribly awry when she tried it at home. Maintaining a healthy distance from the case, they freely speculate over machiato on the conditions that may have landed the bird in such a predicament. A few thoughtfully recommend to no one in particular, that a visit to Wzo. Assegedech, whose wegeshaprowess stood no nonsense, would have Sankofa Bird nimbly genuflecting in no time at all. Smoothly, the discussion shifts to the latest rendition of aches and pains heard in insurance company circuits.
Such as she was, Sankofa Bird would have benefited greatly from a recent essay I read by a college professor, likening history to the rear-view mirror of a car. One could always turn on the ignition and move the vehicle, but seldom drive without glancing at one or another of the mirrors - for bearing.
At first consultation, my own rearview mirror reveals the predictable. The usual suspects file past in chronological or thematic order- polities from past and present, warring groups and Emperors, empire expanding, power centralizing, women with political acumen like you wouldn't believe, the slave trade, Church controversies and religious fervor, philosophical endeavors... and much, much more.
Then, I take an unexpected turn and drive beyond the safety of city lights. The path I am on is one well traveled by scholars and explorers alike, generating considerable documentation and numerous on-going discussions. Still, I am missing something.
The bottom of my mirror reads that on my journey, characters may appear larger than life. Anticipation turns cartwheels in my stomach. Unheeding and beguiled, I steal away bediK diK CHelema, my eyes glued to the blind-spot circular mirror attached to the side-view. I am searching for something the official story may have missed... something beyond the linear recounting of events and unsettling interpretations.
As I drive, I reflect on how in the Ethiopian case, history often seems a creature mustering its dwindling self-esteem and openly hungering for kinder representation. Denounced, deconstructed, revised and reconstructed, History is invited only when adorned in the most appropriate language and mode prescribed for present day socio-political occasions. When History arrives at the gathering wearily assembled, many flock forward to partake in conversation.
Some begin with long reverberating notes that put the bilal's minaret call to prayer (and Tilahun Gesesse's amazing lungs) to shame, enumerating the needs and sorrows of the motherland, glorious stories of visions lost and imagined. History shivers sympathetically, his Hode Basha nature quickly watering his eyes. Another group clamors for justification from History for some current issue of hot debate. History lowers his bifocals and looks vaguely glazed by their intensity. When he furtively glances toward the wall, he notices a man with leftist leanings clad in khaki taking copious notes. An expression of pain and anxiety flickers across his face. Breathing deeply, History shrinks back from the crowd with a slow hesitant smile.
Caught before he can make a quick exit, he now stands facing Western guests who eagerly push and probe in the relentless pursuit to fatten their perceptions. A diplomat who can yawn without opening his mouth, History appears engaged without committing to viewpoints. Yet another group stands ready to recount the days of magnificence, of sacrifice, of might and honor. Squeezing his eyes closed, History fights the uneasy sense that he is playing a role in a preordained script and prepares to leave with a mental note to pass future invites and stay home with Ms. Herstory and the children.
My musings are interrupted by the gathering clouds in the mirror. Emperor Tewodros appears with thunder in his eyes. Frustrated and angry with the closed doors of the regional power lords, the dispute with the Orthodox Church... and now the threat of the British, he prepares to reckon with his final silence on Maqdala. As his image freezes in the larger frame, flag flapping rhythms of an improvised soundtrack, my blind-spot mirror focuses unobtrusively on a moment that draws little attention to itself. A whimsical moment before the pain of Gebriye's death and the desperation that followed.
Gebriye, Tewodros's friend, confidante and advisor strides towards him versed and ready to discuss the latest findings of military intelligence. Anxious though he is to hear Gebriye's thoughts, Tewodros feels the loose ends of his struggles tightening around him like the TibTab of his waistline. Bereft, he realizes how violence had violated the vision. It is the end of the beginning. As he looks up, Tewodros is stunned by Gebriye's signature finCHit smile. Fleetingly, his heart gladdens and unbearably fills with the aching moment. It is the beginning of the end.
Just as burdened by the possibility of internal take-over and worried to distraction by the successive Egyptian, Sudanese and Italian threats, Emperor Yohannes appears next in my mirror. His more lenient approach to power had him content to be recognized as sovereign of the empire with regional kings left to their own devices. Despite this, Yohannes is nagged by the constant appearance of Menelik on the scene with what seems to be thinly veiled ambition to displace the emperor. Rightfully indignant, Yohannes is on his way south to settle this issue once and for all, when he receives word of the situation at Menelik's camp.
Zawditu, the daughter of the Shoan king, has been heard to openly grieve that had her husband been alive, all this would never have happened. Memories of her quiet presence at his court flood the Emperor. Zawditu's very young age and her short-lived marriage to his equally young son Araya-Sellassie flash before his eyes. The sincerity of her sorrow starts something in him. Tightening his reins, he gently guides Abba Bezbiz northward, back to the hub of the palace grounds.
With the express intent of interrupting the chronological flow in the mirror, Ras Gugsa Wele storms the stage with his fiery temperament flavoring the early years of Tafari Makonnen's rise. A powerful personality on his own merits and the nephew of Empress Taitu, Ras Gugsa refuses to wear the Tafari Kidde pants that decidedly stop all circulation below his knees. He is alienated from his wife the Empress Zawditu and is generally disgruntled by the turn of events that render him outside the political loop. He insists that all he did to incur the Regent's wrath was forget to greet him appropriately when he rushed in to see his wife one day.
Banished to the north, he secretly delights in the discomfiture of the other nobility pouring their legs into the impossible pantaloons. "LeTafari Kidde medhanitu... Kedded new..." he offers mischievously. Once, he'd even slit the sides of the TK's worn by an unsuspecting man in a visitor's entourage, much to the startled man's shock and barely disguised relief. Unbeknownst to them all, seeds for the fashion precursors to the bell-bottom rave were unwittingly sown.
Onward still, the settled face of Empress Taitu, busy about her day as savvy politician and adviser to her husband Menelik. Omni-present like the sun, Taitu is known for her vigilant protection of national interests. Bold and decisive in her ways, she has transformed the office of Itege into a presence to be reckoned with in court affairs. Secretly, she enjoys most the particular challenges posed in maintaining the precarious balance of internal politics. Important families of good repute provide her with endless possibilities of fashioning or dissolving marriage arrangements that she gleefully micro-manages. The net effect of her activities add colorful wiring to the abstract image of inextricably linked pieces.
Seated in her private quarters, she absent-mindedly picks at the food before her. She had sent for lunch from her niece's house with this disarming message: "Moyash nafkognal, Itu." The niece's husband, who had innocently volunteered to deliver, is seated across from the Empress, studying her face with growing alarm.
Taitu's task at hand, to send this same niece on a third alliance venture when next she paid a visit, was crystallizing beautifully. Marriage to her niece had not deterred this pesky man before her from rebelling again anyway. She quickly empties her face of anger and hastily runs through the mental list of logistics that would soon have her niece spirited off to the next unprepared husband.
Returning to the present, Taitu abruptly pushes away the mesob and composes her expression into the perfect combination of sympathy laced with disapproval. "Ay- minew... Yichin new balemuya bilew yagebut?!" she barks incredulously, artfully avoiding mention of the fact that she had ardently arranged this very same marriage a few months ago. "Tegodtewala... minew minew... kalTefa sew? Yelem...Yibelu ingidih... lela yeteshalech indiralen inji... yihema indet yigefal?"
Mindful of the late hour and the distance I had traveled, I stopped to take stock of what my blind-spot mirror was seeking to reveal to me. It was then that I recalled one of my favorite interviews with a woman who had taken refuge in a cave during the Italian-Ethiopian war. The arrival of the Italians, and the unexpected departure of the Emperor coupled with the difficulty of communication, had thrown most city dwellers into chaos. Many were opting to leave by foot and join resistance efforts wherever they were organized against the invaders. There was little time to prepare for the journey and resources were scarce.
With a new-born baby she was desperately trying to protect, this woman had the added unfortunate honor of being the wife of a well-known resistance leader hunted by the Italians. In all the confusion, she had become separated from her husband, and word was that the Italians were hoping to capture her alive to induce him to submit. When they finally found her and her attendant, she was trying to create a carrying pouch for her baby from pieces of her clothing.
Once in captivity, the Ethiopian collaborators whom she knew well refused to acknowledge her predicament or plead her case for fear of losing their privileges with the Italians. It was not until the Italian general in command visited her that some glimmer of compassion stirred. He ordered for her to be fed, and gave her his own towel and sheets to wrap the baby in. She did not quite trust his intentions and was mindful of the vested interest in keeping her alive. But she smiled recalling this moment of humanity shared amidst the brutal reality.
Another of my close elder-guides, one of the few survivors of the 1960's attempted coup, relived his experience with frightening detail. An evening that began like any other had ended in a gory shoot-out at the palace. With seven bullets lodged in his leg and the trauma of watching friends and colleagues injured and dying in the same room, his life depended on his silence. He played dead and survived. As he spoke, I waited with bated breath for what I thought would be his anger at the incident and its instigators. He reflected quietly on the unfortunate confluence of youthful zeal and the need for change that combined to create this watershed event of our past. Surprisingly, there was little in his reminiscences by way of judgment.
Maybe time had taken the edge off the incidents, and they had since seen worse, but even the most discerning of ears would have been hard pressed to find bitterness in the tone of their memories. It struck me then that this was the elusive element in the history I read. Simplistic though it seemed, in the interest of being "objective" and "critical" we often subjected the past to harsh scrutiny with splintering effect. The historical participants themselves may be positioned at odds with our interpretations.
Somewhere in there, between the stories of oppression and poverty, of intrigue and conquest, is a past that has its moments of forgiving, of humor, of quirkiness, and everyday courage. Preoccupied with this these sobering thoughts, I remembered an experience I once had taking a bus going to the countryside from Addis Abeba.
A middle-sized man with mournful eyes had come in and stood up front to narrate a long-winded tale of his misfortunes. This included coming to the city for medical reasons, being robbed blind and left unable to meet his expenses or return home. He was followed by others who, with the disciplined focus of performers in character, were awaiting their turn in an orderly line outside the bus. A sucker for a good story, I was a captive listener until the distraction of the voice behind me proved stronger.
The woman seated there was conducting a running commentary that provided editorial supplements to the unfolding drama. In a stage whisper that intentionally resounded, she would clear her throat with authority and commence: "Yihem yalefew samint indihu sil neber...." or "Ere Qoy Qoy, zare degmo leweT argotal..." I noticed the private enjoyment she found by beating the speakers to their own bottom line. Like an enthusiast who had returned to see a marvelous show, she continued to reveal the plot to the increasingly chagrined audience.
My impressionable mind instinctively resisted what I thought were her cynical perceptions. As the inevitable cup came around, a cacophony of teeth kissing "Mts" was punctuated with the clinking coin contributions. Surreptitiously, I glanced back to see her hand reaching in the depths of her bosom to pull out her purse and place her offering.
The screen on my mirror was turning blank indicating the end of my journey. I was stepping outside my car to stretch my legs and begin the drive back when I looked up and caught the shimmering brightness spreading above me. A peacefully gliding creature with fiery blue light on the tips of her wings was persuasively pervading the inky black porous cloak of the night sky. As this astounding sight got closer, I recognized Sankofa Bird with her neck craned towards a host of characters from the past who followed in a rambunctious carnival procession full of laughter and jest.
Among them were the earlier visitors, and others that I had long hankered to meet ... Abba Koran with his horses, Hasenu Wedaj and his poetic incantations, Tona the last king of the Walaita, Werqit the stalwart protector of Wello ... and more. A tangible yearning to hear their stories with their particular flows and eddies washed through me.
As their twinkling footsteps disappeared in the silvery path, the warmth that embraced me with their presence gently receded. It left behind a silent resolution to prepare unframed spaces for them to inhabit with their eccentricities and amazing achievements. My heart leapt at the thought that when we won their hard-earned trust, they would grace us with two ultimate gifts - nuanced understanding and movement with bearing.
As Sankofa Bird reached overhead, she gave a conspiratorial wink and murmured into the wind to be vigilant against the lulling comforts of hindsight.
The past had much to share for those caught in a little wonderment.
1: Sankofa Bird, not to be confused with Big Bird, Yellow Bird, or any other fine feathered being you may have befriended, is the most miraQuan yewaTech of them all. An Akan symbol from Ghana, the word Sankofa and the accompanying image of the bird translate into "Return to the source and fetch." Metaphors around the basic theme that the past informs the present abound. Meanwhile, Sankofa Bird cranes her neck in an impossible curve and looks back even while she's flying forward, inspiring many in her wake.