Friday, 23 April 2010

"He could be as a ugly as a monkey’s behind"

The case of the Criminal Walk and Other stories by Hama Tuma, Outskirts Press, 2006.

It was published in 2006 but I do not know when the stories were written.

“As people say, misery is a brother and happiness just a passerby.”

Readers, please excuse but I am going to be rambling on for the next three paragraphs which you are more than welcome to skip, don't miss Hama Tuma's quotes though, am sure you'll love his style.

I never wanted to study History, I always used to dodge lessons or snore in the front row so that I would get thrown out of class. There isn’t much I find remotely mentally titillating in the records that human beings - or should I say ‘man’ beings ;-) - keep. The earliest examples of writing, as archaeological findings indicate thus far, does not recount romances, love, not even hate nor war, but economy, pure and simple mathematical calculation (actually not that simple!).

History's body is literature, through it, with it, it thrives, invites, seduces - literature does mean to know one’s letters, entire cultures can know their letters without ever having written them. The History of all people travels on lips, pulses heart beats, generation-in generation-out. This telling, this imprinting of the memory of past events, is to me History with a big H. The History that my liver (the seat of all emotions in Ancient Mesopotamian belief and in pre-islamic Arabic poetry) was longing for I found in language classes where one is exposed to the texts in the form they were found, in their original tongue, expression and handwriting, and what an invitation is the writing of the hand and its flowing, transient movement.

In Hama Tuma’s writing I found not only the blossom of words and the many magical shades of meaning they provide, but also the History of a people and its past, well no, its future because story telling is a tribute to Time itself, so that with this offering it is Time who will remember and stand witness.

Ok sorry, enough … This book opens with a dedication:

“The arrogance of power is still there, injustice abounds but the martyrs and silent and discreet heroes are remembered and their banner still flies high under the Ethiopian sky.”

It is both his skills at similes I love in his writing and his portrait painting-writing.

Talking of lies:

- I have heard they ask a lot of questions to trap you in a lie?
- As if a lie is not white and it is not the ferenji who invented every lie on earth!

Talking of marriage:

“You are sold off by your parents long before you reach puberty” went on the woman “handed over to a man you had never seen. He could be as a ugly as a monkey’s behind aside from being a brute like most men. He could stink like an outhouse; he could have some undeclared skin disease, no matter. Arranged marriage, the deal is made before you stop suckling at your mother’s breast. Is this fair, I ask you? They cut off your nails so that you cannot scratch at your husband on the wedding night. They expect you to fight though since no fight means you are an easy woman. Come wedding night, your half drunk husband throws himself at you with as much sensitivity as a rushing flood. He enjoys your scream, the whole family enjoys your cry of pain and the blood smeared cloth or bed-sheet is shown to all and accepted with ululation. Welcome to the world. What a welcome. By thirteen you feel torn, soiled, abused, and old. Is it a surprise if I hate him?”

This is my favourite portrait, I rolled with laughter in the bus as I read it (literally, I bumped my head on the board crouching from cracking up). Of course, this character is fictitious…

“He was Prime Minister of the impoverished country, a coward perceived as the strongest man in the nation of seventy plus million people, the man all men feared and, he hoped, all women desired. He had passed years in the jungle as a leading member of a guerrilla organization and though he had cleverly kept away from the frontlines and taken part in a battle only once (he fled and was almost executed for cowardice), he paraded as a tested and veteran guerrilla. A verbose man, he actually came across as a vulgar street-smart political con man that liked to parade as a seasoned political strategist or war commander. He had a whore of an ego but he was realistic enough to know that his colleagues and the people at large laughed at his posturing.

It was a Wednesday morning in the month of April when he woke up […]. The bathroom was full of mirrors and the moment he entered he was confronted by the image of the former dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam. Ordinarily a coward, he fainted outright. […] What had happened [to his face] overnight?

Then in his fury and utter dread this dictator banished all mirrors. The story ends with my absolute favourite line:

“If you meet Ethiopians who look unwashed or are passing clandestine hours in front of a mirror, please remember that they have been denied the right to look at a mirror and see themselves.”

Fab writer wouldn’t you say?

Hama Tuma is to be found here

Notes with fingers jumping to ooohhh yessss, Masai Hip Hop!

Monday, 19 April 2010

Bwaža and Damwamwit

These are two Gurage gods (well one god and one goddess) whose praise poems I am lifting from "Gods and Heroes" (by William A Shack and Habte-Mariam Marcos, 1972). It is a collection of Gurage praise-chants. Bwaža is this permanently irate god who has an itchy thunderous palm. Damwamwit is the goddess of creation and death. She reminded me much of Ishtar (the goddess of procreation and war) in Ancient Mesopotamia, at least a less whimsical version.

The Gurage worship three deities and the gods inhabiting these poems are:
- Wak, the god of War, also known as the 'Sky god',
- Damwamwit (also Maryam who is either one and the same or a separate entity goddess) and exclusively belongs to the realm of women,
- The mighty Bwaža, the Thunder-god, who sits in the Gurage's conceptual hierarchy next to Yegzar, "their otiose supreme beings, associated with nature an inanimate objects".

The prayer-chants are called waywat. The Heroes chants (secular praise) are called wayag. These poems honour chiefs, warriors, tribesmen and chant the heroic deeds of clans and lineages of tribes who have made it into the world of Gurage legends.

The poems for the Heroes section are those of the Čaha, Enor, Gyata and Aža tribes. Together with the Mwaher Gurage, the Gurage formed the traditional political confederacy Yamest Bet Gweragwe (Gurage of th Five Houses (tribes) ). In 1889, date of the rule of Pax Aethiopica, the Walane-Weriro and Aklil Gurage came under government administration of the Western district and since then the confederacy is seven (Yasabat Bet Gweragwe).

Chant to Bwaža

"Oh Brave one!
When you desire, you visit the makya (1)
Zara, at the place of Baša (2);
Šanka at Ţuraše, and at Darsamwa's place;
Ambad at Adana's.
Ašam (3), oh brave one!
Good day, oh brave one!
Your creation is with Gweragwe.
You kindle harar (4) and gwaya (5).
Oh my Lord!
Thought possessing garara (6) You needed garara;
though possessing gwaya You covet gwaya.
In the gwaya someone erects,
You descend and sit down (7).
What did You see there?
What did You see here?
You were discovered (8)by entreaty;
You were brought (9) by entreaty;
At the ğafwara of Madar (10)
what did He find for play? (11)
Negwes (12) Wedewa with his gwandar. (13)
For talking faher, (14)
You had him rest his head on the dat (15)
at his gwatana (16). Oh girls!
At the village of Bwaža;
at the village of Damwamwit (17);
beat your ander! (18)
Clap your hands!
Is there a place You did not visit? (19)
You went to Wagapača, Agyat's place (20).
What did Agyat do?
For raising dust (21) at Your gwatana
You went to Yabiţara, Damwamwit's place.
Be like the bygone days;
at the dawn (22) when life was wahameya, (23)
when red and black cows were tethered in the gader, (24)
when You set them afire to roast."

"(1) a term used to designate men of high status and reputation. Hence as the line suggests even men of high reputation are not immune from Bwaža's 'visit', a euphemism for 'punishment'
(2) in lines 3-5 neither the men not the places can be identified.
(3)The common expression of greeting, lit. 'welcome'
(4)The house on a large homestead usually reserved for entertaining guests.
(5)The main house and sleeping quarters.
(6)Meaning the sacred forest where deities are believed to dwell; here the line suggests that because of his omnipresence, many such forests are needed by Bwaža
(7)i.e. Descend from the sky to strike with lighting a house
(8)meaning that the omnipotence of Bwaža was 'discovered', ie 'recognised'
(9)An allusion to the myth which relates of the coming of Bwaža whose first presence coincides with the development of state organization of Gweragwe.
(10)In everyday speech, yenangara, the place-name for the sacred forest and shrine of Bwaža is a taboo word, the term Madar being used when referring to the sacred area.
(11)The striking with lightning a person or property is conceived of as an act of Bwaža's capriciousness, a way of 'playing', or 'entertainment'.
(13)the silver armband worn by the negwes, a symbol of the office of kingship.
(14)Ie talking boastfully; also meaning behaviour that is openly insulting, immodest, offensive.
(15)The allusion is to a man who rests his head ona head-rest (gyema) while sleeping. Here Bwaža is said to have made Negwes Wedewa rest his head against the trunk of a dat-tree (Juniperus procera) while seeking shelter from the rain, and the Thunder-God struck him dead. Lines 21-24 emphasize the moral point that kings and their subjects alike were punished equally by Bwaža
(16)Sacred forests are also referred to as gwatana
(17)name given to the 'female' deity of Gurage women whose shrine is located in the village of Yabitara
(18)small hand-drum usually beaten by young girls while singing. Drumming is performed only by unmarried girls. Hence the exclamation 'oh girls'
(19)see nbr1
(20)the shrine of Agyat, or Wak, War-God of Čaha, is located at the place known as Wagapača.
(21)An allusion to the dust raised by mounted warriors being led into battle by Wak.
(22)i.e. In former times.
(23)The name given to the second and most important of the five days of feasting during the celebration of Maskal. The first, yeft; the third, esat or 'fire day'; the fourth, nek bar or 'great day'; the last ers bar or 'small day'. Wahameya symbolises success, abundance, rejoicing.
(24)Cattle stall in the main house."


"Maryam : the place of Maryam in the Gurage belief system seems sometimes to be confused with that occupied by Damwamwit. Maryam, creator-goddess is credited with furnishing the natural world, which Yegzar, the Gurage High god, is believed to have created, with human and animal beings."

"Oh Maryam, abo! (1)
Maryam, in Sanan;
Maryam, in Ašwawenna; (2)
Maryam in Addis Ababa;(3)
Maryam, in Workite; (4)
Maryam, is for all!
Maryam; is for Čaha;
Maryam is for Kings;
She is for Negwes Amarga (5)
Oh Maryam, Oh Maryam, abo!
Oh Maryam, You create him.
When cattle are created,
You create them.
Oh Maryam, the creator!
Oh Maryam, the destroyer!
Oh Maryam, of all that You created,
why did You create death?"

"(1)the word abo, which also appears in praise-chant to Bwaža is of uncertain origin, probably an Adeya loan-word. Its use is reserved exclusively for ceremonial songs addressed to tribal dignitaries, chiefs, and 'kings', for example, and religious personages, the word being repeated as a refrain following a stanza of praise. Abo roughly translated means 'Long live...'; hence in this line 'Long live Maryam'
(2)presumably place-names which cannot be identified
(3)the modern capital of Ethiopia
(4)perhaps the place mentioned here is meant to be the market town of Walkitte
(5)Reference to the late Negwes Amarga (d.1958) of the Čaha tribe of Gurage.
(6)Lit. 'infant' of 'child', is also used as an informal title of respect for a young man who has gained prominence and success in warfare, but has not yet had bestowed upon him a military title. Very often he was of the rank and file of soldiery who excelled in bravery during his first encounter on the battlefield. Here the term is used, it seems, to refer to war heroes.
(7)This line alludes to the dualistic nature of Gurage thoughts about creation of the world and living beings in it. The High God of Supreme Being, Yegzar, is credited with creation of the 'natural world'; Maryam created the world of human and animal species".

Note: this HTML, the tabs and the fonts are absolutely doing my head in, so I am leaving it until I feel guilty enough about cosmetics to try to re-arrange the text size and font match. Apologies to the readers.

Notes typed with fingers bopping to a big wallop of this.

Friday, 16 April 2010

Africa Confidential.... Confi what?

I came across "Africa Confidential" ("50 years of reporting in Africa", "one of the longest-established specialist publications on Africa") several weeks ago, that is in name only. My curiosity was intensely teased when I could get no access to it: none from media outlets, be they online or in print, none from archives, none in dissected parts in other magazines, none from universities' online digital resources (Africa Confidential is only available to read when logged on ON campus) and most certainly for me no access from the magazine itself - the price of an annual subscription being in direct competition with my food budget (the prices range from £665/US$1,128 to £737/US$1,290 for an annual subscription.... oh plus VAT).

"To preserve our readers’ information advantage, Africa Confidential is only available by subscription. You’ll not find it on high street news stands or other public outlets. Moreover, none of our commentary, news and analysis is syndicated to the international news services, or re-sold to any of the web-based information aggregators."

"So when you subscribe to Africa Confidential, you can be sure of receiving timely reporting and insightful analysis that is not available from any other media source."

Fair enough.... but this did not appease my thirst: confidential yes, but as in protecting its information from whom? Its online 'About Us' page reads:

"Why confidential?

This continent-wide, on-the-ground coverage enables us to identify and monitor upcoming issues before they are picked up by the general media – and analyse their real significance for our readers.

What’s more, all our contributors write for us on the basis of strict anonymity, a principle that was established from the outset in 1960 to ensure writers’ personal safety in the turbulent, early years of post-colonial African independence. Hence the newsletter’s title.

Ok, wonderful, honourable, prudent, whatever, but then it further develops that its readership includes:

"national governments, the diplomatic corps, defence & security analysts, academic institutions, humanitarian and relief aid organisations, and private and public corporations in a wide variety of commercial sectors, from mining, energy and telecommunications, to financial markets and automotive."

Being both innocent and naive I had anticipated that national governments and defence institutions may turn out to be the main source of troubles for their writers' safety but no no hu hu it says. If the personal safety of its contributors is not at risk from these saintly bodies then does it only leave one monster: the public?

This is where I have ax to grind: the elitism of information providers or gatherers. I wonder where their funding comes from other than subscriptions (tax money?). Well, this made me salivate even more: a promise of information available to few could only be a certainty to hit gold...

Anyways, I did reach base (I mean campus) eventually and all Africa Confidential's treasures shone through my screen, specifically its 8th January 2010 'Dry times for a quick election' feature, a report about Ethiopia's forthcoming election. A report I found particularly dumbfounding in 1) its title "The government faces elections against a divided opposition: its biggest enemies are the weather and Eritrean President Issayas Afewerki" and 2) its analysis of the Ethiopian people's concerns regarding the election thus surmised:

The people’s priorities
Many voters want to see a serious plan to develop the economy, to push down the ruinous costs of education and healthcare. That takes priority over concerns about human rights or military operations in the Ogaden and Somalia. Excoriated by Western liberals (but admired by ‘realist’ diplomats), Meles neither excites nor appals many Ethiopians; nor is he seen as especially authoritarian compared to his predecessors, Derg leader Mengistu Haile Mariam and Emperor Haile Selassie.

The EPRDF offers policies in droves. Almost every ministry is producing a new five-year Plan for Accelerated and Sustained Development to End Poverty, of the kind encouraged by the World Bank and Britain’s Department for International Development. Such plans highlight the opposition’s policy weaknesses – and the government can point to much faster economic growth over the last few years.Inflation has fallen in recent months, as has the budget deficit. The prices of export commodities seem to be on the up, with coffee earnings predicted to reach US$900 million this year, with sales of more than 300,000 tonnes. There are massive plans for further power development; Gilgel Gibe III, the largest project, will have a capacity of 1,870 megawatts. It is on schedule and Gilgel Gibe II, with a capacity of 420 MW, will start generating in mid-2010.After last year’s drought, food will be short in eastern areas of Tigray, Amhara and Oromo, parts of the Afar, Somali and Southern Nationalities regions. Most of Ethiopia is ‘generally food secure’, but the midseason assessment is that 4.7 mn. people will need food aid in the first half of 2010. The United Nations World Food Programme says its funding for Ethiopia has a $127 mn. shortfall. Government food reserves are at 200,000 tonnes. Production in the Belg (February-June) harvest and prospects for the Meher crops (the main season, which normally accounts for 90-95% of annual production) are poor after the lighter than usual Kiremt rains.

And pray, what the heck is "southern nationalities" region?

So that's what was so confidential. Should I tell you about its 5th March article titled 'Target Eritrea'.... ? It's first paragraph is quite erm... peculiar... to me. Maybe in another post?

Incidentally, you may want to read their Who's Who list available online.

Notes taken by fingers blues-ing on Gil-Scott Heron's new Album 'I'm New here'

Monday, 12 April 2010

"Kan darbe yaadatani, isa gara fuula dura itti yaaddu" (Oromo proverb)

"By remembering the past, the future is remembered".

These notes are taken from Mengesha Rikitu's research on "Oromo Folk Tales for a new generation" by (see also his "Oromo Proverbs" and "Oromo Grammar"). Some proverbs are folk tales are worth the detour:

1) Oromo Proverb – Harreen yeroo alaaktu malee, yeroo dhuudhuuftu hin'beektu

"The Donkey doesn't know that it is farting again and again when it is braying." (ie some people concentrating on their own verbosity are unaware of what is going on behind them)

You can tell that dhuudhuuftu is the farting can't you, am betting on the sound that word makes.

Oromifa is one of the five most widely spoken (Afroasiatic) languages in Africa. Its importance lies in the numbers of its speakers and in its geographical extent. The 'official' numbers point to 30 million Oromo speakers (but there has not been to this day a complete or reliable census). The majority of the Oromo people are in Ethiopia and a sizable chunk of this community also dwells in Kenya.

2) Oromo Proverb : Waagayoo hin'arifatu, wanta hundumaa yeroo saati hojjeta
"God is not in a hurry, He is working everything out at it's proper time."

3) Oromo Proverb : bari fallana, takka namaa fodogaa, takka nama fondoga"Time is like a spoon once it feeds, once it snatches."

The Oromo people have been turned into an invisible majority in Ethiopia and have suffered (and still are suffering) violent and ruthless blows at the hands of policies designed to erase them as a people, to wipe out their culture and language.

The women and men of the Oromo diaspora are trying to preserve their cultural heritage and this book is one such example at putting to pen an oral tradition at risk.

4) Oromo Proverb : Gadhee fi badheen afaan ballatu
"A gourd cup and a bad person are wide at the mouth" ( ie : those who do not know their limits talk too much).
Reader, I hope you're not thinking right now this might apply to this blog post...

5) Oromo Proverb : Harka abbaa tokkotin ibidda qabbaachuun nama hindhibu
"It is not difficult to catch fire with someone else's hand" (ie it is not difficult to risk someone else's skin.)

The Oromo alphabet consists of 30 letters (5 vowels, 24 'consonants' - 5 glottalised 'pair' letters - one letter not in the consonant group which is sub-gap and voiced). Keep it in mind while pacing this:

6) An Oromo Folk Tale : 'A WISE KING AND A CLEVER OWL'

"Once upon a time in a far off country there was a well known king..."  

 ...well you know how it goes so I'll take it from here, if you'll allow, to shorten the post slightly, not to disrespect the story teller Mengesha Rikitu.

This king spoke every language known to human beings and animals. He loved his wife very much and acquiesced to her every request (she was, you'll have guessed, very beautiful and equally very whimsical). After many unreasonable demands such as wanting a carpet made from corn silk, the lady demanded a carpet of feathers. Since the king spoke to all animals he called upon all birds to present themselves immediately that morning so that he could pluck their feathers. As soon as he called them [and knowing what he would do to them, woaw, animals are so devoted and are such fatalists!] they arrived. However the Owl was missing. The king, miffed, decided to wait for the Owl before starting the plucking. The Owl only came at sunset.
"The king asked 'why didn't you come this morning?'
The Owl replied 'Oh my Lord, O my majesty, I was very busy with my work'.
The king dumbfounded asked 'why were you so over-busy'
The Owl replied 'I was counting days and nights, male and female'.
The King growing more curious than angry, further inquired 'What did you find then, are there more males than females?'
The Owl answered 'There are more women than men and more days than nights'
The king asked 'why is it so?'
The Owl answered 'I know that every day has night and every man has wife'
The king asked 'what do you mean?'
The Owl replied 'Oh your majesty, in the night when the moon shines it makes the night like the day. In the same way a man who obeys every command of his wife becomes like a wife himself'."

This story opened a whole series or rather, ahem, ungratifying proverbs about women (ie ungratifying for women). I would have posted some of them but I do find that as we say in French the best jokes are the shortest.

I do find these proverbs humorous from the height and distance of my passport which affords me rather luxurious human and woman's rights (luxurious in comparison with many other legal and cultural practices around this globe) but one book did set my not-yet-born smile back into place: Oromtitti: the forgotten women in Ethiopian History by Belletech Deressa. More on that in another post.

A final wisdom note:

7) Oromo Proverb : Ganamaan Ka'anif Waaqi dur hin'baan
"To rise early will not help escape from God"
… one I'll definitely ponder on tomorrow at dawn...

Notes taken with fingers jamming to Mos Def 'Umi says' , 'Mathematics' , Kenna 'Out of control'

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Tickling Ge'ez, no no I don't mean tackling...

Notes based on "Ethiopic : An African Writing System / Its History and Principle" by Ayele Bekerie, The Red Sea Press, 1997.

In his chapter 'The History and Principles of the Ethiopic Writing System', Professor Bekerie introduces parts of the exegesis for Ge'ez. I wish I could get my hands on Asras Yanesaw's Yakam Matasabia, preferably translated in English (I'll settle for French also mind you). Anyways, briefly, this is what I wanted to share:

Ge'ez is a writing system that organises itself around 7 orders (what Indo-European terminology would categorise as vowels within a syllabary) and 26 graphs. I keep here the term graph used by Professor Bekerie and I really hope that his new term 'syllograph' for Ge'ez will be widely accepted and adopted from now on by Ethiopianists. Indeed, Ge'ez is NOT an alphabet! On a personal note, I do think that there would be much to be gained from observing Ge'ez's graphs as logograms or at the very least inquire as to the morphographemic dimension of its syllabary (maybe it has already been done, any suggestions anyone?).

So 7 Orders times 26 Graphs equals 182. This number represents half a year, that is, one equinox. There are two equinoxes in a year, and so 182 times two is 364. This corresponds to the total number of days in a year... Well, not really, of course a year is 365 days, 6 hours, 9 minutes and 9.55 seconds. That is why there is a thirteen month in the Ethiopian calendar, to make up for the 'discrepancy' - a calendar which is therefore equinoctial and based on a solar year.

I am not going to dive into numerology, I find it quite difficult to count actually, no jokes. I am just wondering though, why divide the 364 total by 12, I mean where does this 12 come from, why a basis of twelve months? Or is it that number 30 (30 days, that is the number of days in each Ethiopian month) dictates 12 months? 30 has no relation to a prime number in a system organised around 7 or 26.... hmmm, curioser and curioser... well for someone as numeral-illiterate as I. Perhaps a reader has the answer or perhaps the answer is to be found in a comparison elsewhere. '12' reminds me of the Sumerian and Akkadian sexagesimal system (organised around 6 or 60) – which would account for 12 and 30. The Sumerian calendar is based on synodic months, a lunar year of 12 months plus another added (or an intercalendary one added) in order to fall in sync with the solar year. It also revolves around two seasons, as would suggest the Ge'ez calendar's two equinox base. There is also a 'still-being-uncovered' study of the mnemonic aspects of graphs and astronomy for Sumerian and Akkadian, and the Ge'ez preserved system would be a fantastic source of information.

I don't think I am seeing double, to me this is another lead into the similarities of two most ancient civilisations: Ethiopia and Ancient Mesopotamia. Don't get me wrong, when I say comparison, I mean comparison. The study of languages has become (or perphas always was) hijacked by politics and religion. I am no hijacker. Whenever I compare (languages, culture, whatever) I compare, strictly. It does not mean that I am equating.

I believe that Ge'ez is indigenous to Abyssinia. I don't buy that it was imported. I also believe that Ge'ez is far more ancient than the dates it has so far been allocated (due to the dearth of archeological data available until now and certainly also due to the dead end street that is endlessly seeking a source to Ge'ez in Yemen).

What a wonderful world Abyssinia is, ain't it!

There is a fascinating world of hermeneutics in Ge'ez, that is using numbers to decipher scriptures, again dear Asras comes up with taunting explanations of many terms like Abraham, Selam, Hewan. I only have exerpts of what he wrote: hello, hello, if any one out there in cyberspace has a copy, please could you share one with me? That would be grand!... well, one can hope can't one...

Notes taken with fingers jigging to K'naan 'TIA', 'ABC', and 'Soobax'.