Saturday, 22 May 2010

The Ethiopian Mikado

RIP : The touched-by-genius, talented and no doubt slightly tyrannical Stefanos Lazaridis has passed away. This bold opera stage designer was born in Dire Dawa in Ethiopia, and educated in Addis Abbeba. Lazaridis is yet another talent that sprung from Ethiopia, it's in reading his obituary that I learnt his place of birth and study. Ethiopia is springing up in the most unlikely places, at least I would not have expected to find a link there.

I do not mean to be facitious - well not overly - with the following but as elections in Ethiopia are tomorrow, of sorts, I'd like to respectfully dedicate the above song ('As some day it may happen' also called the list song), from the Mikado opera for which Lazaridis famously designed, to a current African version of KoKo (the Lord High Executioner). I would like to ask : is it really what you wanted to turn into? Here are the original lyrics (some words may be offensive but bare in mind it was written in 1844/1845).


As some day it may happen that a victim must be found,
I've got a little list — I've got a little list
Of society offenders who might well be underground,
And who never would be missed — who never would be missed!
There's the pestilential nuisances who write for autographs —
All people who have flabby hands and irritating laughs —
All children who are up in dates, and floor you with 'em flat —
All persons who in shaking hands, shake hands with you like that —
And all third persons who on spoiling tête-á-têtes insist —
They'd none of 'em be missed — they'd none of 'em be missed!


He's got 'em on the list — he's got 'em on the list;
And they'll none of 'em be missed — they'll none of 'em be missed.


There's the nigger serenader, and the others of his race,
And the piano-organist — I've got him on the list!
And the people who eat peppermint and puff it in your face,
They never would be missed — they never would be missed!
Then the idiot who praises, with enthusiastic tone,
All centuries but this, and every country but his own;
And the lady from the provinces, who dresses like a guy,
And who "doesn't think she dances, but would rather like to try";
And that singular anomaly, the lady novelist—
I don't think she'd be missed — I'm sure she'd not he missed!


He's got her on the list — he's got her on the list;
And I don't think she'll be missed — I'm sure she'll not be missed!


And that Nisi Prius nuisance, who just now is rather rife,
The Judicial humorist — I've got him on the list!
All funny fellows, comic men, and clowns of private life —
They'd none of 'em be missed — they'd none of 'em be missed.
And apologetic statesmen of a compromising kind,
Such as — What d'ye call him — Thing'em-bob, and likewise — Never-mind,
And 'St— 'st— 'st— and What's-his-name, and also You-know-who —
The task of filling up the blanks I'd rather leave to you.
But it really doesn't matter whom you put upon the list,
For they'd none of 'em be missed — they'd none of 'em be missed!

You may put 'em on the list — you may put 'em on the list;
And they'll none of 'em be missed — they'll none of 'em be missed!

Lazaridis designed for many operas: Carmen, the Marriage of Figaro, Tristan and Isolde (my first love actually, who needs a man to stage a love story, give me an opera!), Doktor Faustus, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Hansel and Gretel, a lot more ..... and my favourite, as favourite's whims go : The Mikado.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Leaf of Allah : Khat

I am reading 'Leaf of Allah : Khat and agricultural transformation in Harerge Ethiopia 1875-1991' a book by Ezekiel Gebissa, 2004. I really wanted to spread open here, by way of a summary, the wisdom contained in this book - as I see it given - as well as pointing out historical info. No study of the Horn of Africa, be it historical, cultural, social and especially religious, can be complete without looking into Khat, so part one here you go:

* * * * *

The mirqaana : the desired state of heightened energy, reached in all and each of the following three phases.

1. The Igabana : The Eye Opener.

‘A typical farmer in the rural areas of Harerge starts the day by going into his oyiru, the family garden’. He inspects the farm and by 9am he goes to his khat orchard and settles down with other men for the morning chew. Igabana means the eye opener). A small quantity only of khat is chewed to quickly achieve a mirqaana so that ensues a burst of energy for labour intensive daily activities. Then breakfast, then work.

2. The Bartcha :

The early afternoon chew follows. Farmers may obtain their khat from their oyiru, urbanites bring their zurba (one bundle) – commonly bought from the chat terra or the town's market. However if the Bartcha was an invitation the host provides the leaves.

The Luluqacha : Rinsing of the mouth.

‘At the end of the Bartcha the chewed leaves are usually spat out but experienced chewers swallow it with water, tea or milk ‘as a final act of ceremony.’

3. The Atarora:

It is a last evening or night time chewing although not that regular nor widespread.

Note: Solitary khat chewing is not the usual practice.

The consumption :

Chewing: the leaves are placed between the inner side of the cheek and the gum on one side of the mouth. Khat chewing is always accompanied by drinking water or an infusion of coffee husks or milk to reduce dryness of the mouth and to soften khat leaves. This helps with the extraction of juices. 'The chewer adds leaves until a quid is formed'. It is sweetened by a pinch of sugar or sip of sugar containing drink to accommodate the bitter taste. 'Preparing the full quid may take as long as thirty to forty five minutes'.

Khat be used as an astringent medicine, boiled with milk or water and drunk as a beverage.

‘In the absence of rapid delivery’, if fresh leaves are unobtainable a paste is made from powdered leaves ingested or drunk as an infusion of boiled dried leaves. Khat is rarely smoked as is tobacco, but crushing the ends of twigs and leaves to roll them in cigarettes is recorded however.

Note: Rural chewers usually eat! Khat-chewing, against all pseudo-researches and urban myths, does not cut the appetite nor risk to engender malnutrition. Gebessa notes that in Harerge's rural areas khat is chewed before or after plentiful meals.


The leaves or twigs of Khat (or Kat or Cat, no not that one, don't try to chew the feline) are known for their stimulant effects. Chewing khat is widespread and popular in many parts of the world particularly in the Arabian peninsula (Yemen), the Middle East, Asia and the Horn of Africa, and has been so for as long as the land can attest to its growth (well that's almost everywhere....).

Fresh leaves are preferred since the main active ingredient in khat is cathinone which degenerates fast (two or three days after plucking) resulting in the less potent cathine, found in dried leaves.

Khat is chewed to relieve fatigue, sensations of hunger, thirst or is used as a stimulant or medicine. The consumption of khat is almost institutionalized in the religious life and practices of several Muslim communities in the Horn. For centuries, chewing khat has been standard practice in religious ceremonies held at Muslim shrines across the Somalia, spending long hours of the day and night chewing khat whilst reciting passages from the holy Quran and praying. It also plays an important role during Ramadan and during the Arafa celebrations. Khat chewing precedes or follows religious readings and meditations during the Mawlid, the birth of the Prophet (PBUH).

In the Horn of Africa, the consumption remained contained and small until the arrival of the Djibouti-Addis Ababa railway at Dire Dawa in 1902. Henceforth, it has grown considerably with help of highways, Air transport and …. the Derg (yeap, khat consumption grew more rapidly and widely during this military rule than due to the other factors so far counted or analysed it seems).

Ethiopia is the foremost producer and exporter of khat but the plant is also grown and used in Africa in Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Uganda, the Congo, South Africa and Somalia.

France and the US have banned the importation of khat. But in Britain, Israel, Canada, the Netherlands and Yemen it is legal. Said Barre banned it in Somalia in 1833 but the prohibition was unsuccessful.

Traditionally it is in rural areas that khat was used and known. More recently, urbanites have taken a strong liking to it. There exists a usage divide between these two communities. Rural users believe that ‘if khat chewing is not followed by hard labour it then serves as an irritant rather than as a stimulant’. Ezekiel Gebrissa says that ‘Khat is valued for its critical role in such productive activities as work, meditative worship and cultural ceremonies. However for users in cities and towns khat is a recreational substance used (or more precisely abused) solely for social pleasure.’

For both rural and urban consumers khat is a medium of social interaction.

The Khat shrub is a member of genus Catha in the family Celastraceae found widely dispersed in all continents except for polar zones. The origin and nature of the plant is still uncertain and under study.

Notes and thoughts taken through an all XX evening: Teardrops , Crystallised , Hot Like Fire , well their entire album in fact on rep-rep-peat.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Axum's Mothers Speak

"Our wombs cry for our sons,

Where are the flowers of our lives, Kaleb?

Why have you pinned down our love
To rust in a scavenging day?
Where are our men, Kaleb?

Why have you hung our womb to dry
Beyond the darkness of time?
Our breasts hurt, demanding
What visitation ravaged our essence.
The sleepless spirits
Accuse our thoughts, Kaleb.

The season of mothers
Question our dreamless nights.
Our wombs cry for our sons,
Our feet fret for their sight.

Where are the flowers of our lives, Kaleb?"

This is the 'Mothers' Chorus' in the play 'Collision of Altars' written by Tsegaye Gabre-Medhin and published in 1977.

Tsegaye Gabre-Medhin wrote this historical play set in the Axumite empire at the time of Kaleb, the famous emperor of Axum - he is known as Ella-Asbeha (transposed by inebriated Greeks as 'Hellestheaeus'.... talk about slurping...)

Kaleb is reported to have gone into Yemen several times to try to recover his lost territory there. Every attempt met with a smarting failure and this is a cry from the women who lost all, sons to husbands to brothers, begging a reason for their loss, another sacrificed generation.

It's a chorus written by Tsegaye of course. Beautiful. It's a timeless cry that can be spoken by so many across nations, a call to plea-deaf leaders who fight wars in absentia to anoint their waning-phallic prides with. History is no fool, it recognises them for the paper-proxy-generals they are, heads of never-thanked armies, strong only as long as their people's blind love and resigned trust last.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

You Know You're Habesha When

Some time ago I found on youtube, or picked up from a retweet on Twitter I can't remember, a video called 'Typical Habesha' parents. Watching it made me travel back to at least 20 years ago when my dad used to call as if he were stuck in a crashed car about to burst in flames: 'where is my coffee spoon' .... a dancing and ritual interlude to 'bring me my coffee spoon'. That darn spoon was always staring at him from a safe 5 centimeters' distance, waiting for me. If my eyes would so much as begin to roll he'd start a dramatic speech addressed to phantom witnesses about the disgrace of old age and the disgrace of fiendishly uncaring 10 year-old children. It was a tug-of-love between us and I remember this fondly. He's not habesha, nor am I, it's just that this video echoed well creased memories of many a spoon thrown at time and space! I've been hearing (very funny for me but perhaps not so much for those under peer pressure) stories of shared family traditions from friends who come from the Horn, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia, and I bumped into an old page listing 'You Know You're Habesha When', although it's staged in the US, how does it match with you I wonder? My favourite in there is 'Your parents' favourite TV show is the news'. You know I'm talking to you :-). I should attempt a list about 'You Know You're Algerian When' but then it would only have one entry 'When you're angry you throw things and break stuff'....

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Eritrean Wonder Women

I found this superb photo essay Wonder Women of Eritrea from photographer Cheryl Hatch who is otherwise known for her war photography generally and her many visits to Eritrea in 1999 during the war. See the full text to photographs here.

I like these photos particularly because they show women's smiles and laughter, it maybe a bit (or very much) naive of me but it shows hope in a subtle way... perhaps.

There is a lot going on amongst the Eritrean diaspora recently with the Peace Conference on its way (with who is attending a question still hanging). Eri blogs and forums are bursting with letters, blogs, articles, rants, sighs, hope, irritation, trembling bunn talk, well a sure sign of fuming keyboards :-) anyways, interesting development in store I'd say, historical possibly. It made me search for the never yet implemented (and somewhat or very much-what illegal) Eritrean Constitution finally drafted in July 1996. I like the preamble come what may and especially:

Noting the fact that the Eritrean women’s heroic participation in the struggle for independence and solidarity based on equality and mutual respect generated by such struggle will serve as an unshakable foundation for our commitment and struggle to create a society in which women and men shall interact on the bases of mutual respect, fraternity and equality;

not that Eritreans are forgetting, I am finding out that Eritreans forget absolutely nothing :-) but certain aspects of traditions die hard and I hope that these women will eventually get the recognition they deserve, actually that all Eritrean women get the recognition that it is they who are building Eritrean society, day-in day-out, in times of peace or war, the 'good' ones and the 'bad' ones (although supposedly no one can tell the difference other than God but humans have a distinct tendency to play gods). Asmara means 'The Women Agreed', yea chaps, the women founded the city, not that I am suggesting that all the blokes were out snoring or anything, but languages speak, they are spoken yes but more importantly they speak! Too often we overlook this.

Anyways, looking forward to see what happens in Eritrean politics as always.

Notes taken fingers zouking to Hugh Masekela, Orchestra Baobab, and the fantastic music cloud of Blackclassical, thank you man!

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Daraa Dubertii or Ladies First

Does anyone know lore on the origins of the Oromo? The only bit of information I've found in folklore (history books on this are the pits) is that Oromo origins go back to a mother, Roobee, and her two sons, Booran and Bartuuma, who are the founder of the Oromo nation. They did not know their father, and the stories say that indeed, their father was unknown (see the link thus here). So could it be that a long long time ago, before time remembers and before men conjugated time, the Oromo nation was born out of a matriarchy? I suppose all civilisations did. By the way, big thanks to , I really enjoyed reading this, thanks to those who put it together: Qaaluu Institution.

Anyways, Duraa Duberti (Oromifa for 'ladies first' I am told)

The Siqqe:

When women married in Oromo society, they were given a Siqqe, a long staff style curved cane, to keep for protection. This is one of its uses apparently, I really want one of those:

when and if her husband abused her, she would take the Siqqe, go outside the house, and wail. Women in the community would pick their Siqqes and join her. None of the women in that village would return to their houses or prepare food for their families until the elders in the community listened to her concern and disciplined her husband for abusing his wife.
This is from Belletech Deressa 'Oromtitti'. Hell! This is one of the sure perks of the Gada system!


I am so relieved that I have found not only one of the most honest description of marriage I ever read, but a practice that does not hide this primeval truth in any other fiction. This applies to a description of the Borana family structure as written by the one and only Asmarom Legesse in his book 'Gada':

One gets married for the purpose of raising children and for the purpose of maintaining the continuity of one's line. Sexual gratification is an entirely separate matter.

It is very common, therefore, to find married women who had lovers. The relationship between lovers is a reasonably open matter.

In French we say that the chains of marriage are too heavy for two people to carry, you need a third. So the French are originally from Borana, cool...


Notes taken with head in the sea (I wish) and fingers in a fluffy cloud (I wish not) thanks to Marcos Valle, and Marco Valle again and OMG, absolutely love this Roots Manuva.