Tsegaye Gebre-Medhin: Ethiopian Playwright and Poet

By Katlego Mereko

“I like to go out and communicate with the common folk of Ethiopia; the peasant, the patriot, the soldier, the traitor, the housewife, the priest, the sheik… it is from the that I learn about my country and people.” 

Tsegaye Gebre-Medhin was a prominent Ethiopian poet and playwright who sat with a deep sense of duty towards people. His art appealed to historical justice and a sense of reclamation of the heritage of Ethiopia. 

He was born on 17 August 1936 in Boda, a village about 120km from the capital, to an Oromo father and an Ahmara mother. Omoro and Ahmara are two groups from completely different language clusters, with the former being Cushite, while the latter is Semitic. When Tsegaye was born, his father was away in the battlefield, fighting imperial incursion from Italy. 

As a young boy, he learned Ge’ez, an ancient language of the church which is like an equivalent of latin. Learning this language was common for boys in Ethiopia. He also assisted his family by helping take care of cattle, but no too long afterwards, Tsegaye was trying his hand out in playwriting, something quite unusual for a boy his age. 

At 16 years of age he transferred to Wingate School in Addis Ababa. He subsequently pursued and Law in the USA in Chicago at the Blackstone School of Law and graduated in 1959. The following year he felt the urge to rekindle his first love, art, by using a UNESCO scholarship to do an educational tour that included visits to the Royal Court Theatre in London and the Codie Francais, Paris. 

He returned to Ethiopia in 1960 and ran the Municipal Company at the National Theatre and established a school which produced a number of leading Ethiopian actors. He translated William Shakespeare’s Macbeth and King Lear after realising their usefulness in making important political points. He also translated Moliere’s Tartuffe, and Wrote a play in English called Oda Oak Oracle, which was performed in theatres in Ethiopia, Britain, Denmark, Italy, Romainia, Nigeria, Tanzania and the USA. 

However, Yekermew Sew is the theatre play that established his rank in Ethipian Theatre. Ethiopian author, Tamrat Gebeyuhu, had tosay this about the play. 

 "Drawing from Ge'ez and Amharic and Orominya, he was able to coin phrases which, in normal Amharic language, don't exist, but are powerful and expressive. 

“It was a pleasure to hear his characters talk, even though chances were you did not understand 50% of what they were saying." 

Briefly, he was appointed minister of culture, but Haile Selassie was deposed by Mengistu Hailemariam and, during the Red Terror in 1975, Tsegaye and the playwright Ayalneh Mulatu spent months together in a prison cell. Ayalneh, who remained friends with Tsegaye for the rest of his life, remembers a daily 11am roll call of men to be killed, and the day his own name came up. It was mispronounced, and Tsegaye seized on the mispronunciation to argue they had the wrong man, thus saving Ayalneh's life. They wrote poems and plays on the paper bags their food came in. 

He has the rare honour of being the youngest person ever to receive the Haile Selassie I Prize for Amharic Literature, which he received I ’66 when he was aged 29. In 2002 the African Union took one of his poems and adopted it as its anthem. He was a cultural activist who wrote several protest plays which got banned under oppressive post-Haile Selasie I rulers. He died in February 25, 2006.


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