30 October 2016

Ethiopia: The First Contemporary Ethiopian Woman Novelist - Tsehay Melaku

Novelist Tsehay Melaku was born and brought up in Addis Ababa. She is a widow of Brigadier General Tariku Ayne who was gunned down by the Derg regime. She is a well known novelist. Most of her novels have won hearts and minds of the readers. she has so far produced nine fascinating novels revolving around various social, economic and political issues. Tsehay as well had worked for Legdadi Radio Station for many years. As she was so passionate about the art radio programme dedicated to women empowerment, she used to work there for free.

In the same vein, Novelist Tsehay had actively participated in Gondar Development Association, Ethiopian Writers Association and the like. Having served as a teacher for several years, she has become retiree and fully engaged herself in producing books. The Ethiopian Herald had a short stay with Novelist Tsehay with a view to sharing her long life journey with our esteemed readers. She has touched upon a number of mesmerizing issues. Excerpts:

Let us begin with introducing yourself to our esteemed readers.

To begin with, my name is Tsehay Melaku. I was born and raised in Addis Ababa around 'Arat Kilo' which is commonly known as 'Sefi Sefer.' Most people do not know the area. Now eye-catching condominium houses have been built in this place. In the past, a large number of people used to live in this village making tents for Emperor Menilk. I had five sisters and five brothers.

Tell us about your parents.

My father was a priest. At the time when Italians invaded Ethiopia, along with his dad and brothers, my father had bravely fought the invaders for five years. During the Italian occupation, they went to Gondar to take up arms against the fascist Italians. After the Italians had left the country, my father was awarded a medal of valour for his bravery in the battles against the invaders. Having completed his mission to defend the motherland from the then colonizers, he came to Addis Ababa and began to work as a clerk. At that juncture, Emperor Haile-Selassie used to help Ethiopian patriots for their great sacrifices in the war against the fascists.

As a gift, the emperor had given a plot of land for patriots. But, my dad did not want a plot of land, he wanted a decent job at that time. Thus, he was sent to Debre Tabor, his birthplace. Sooner than later, he began to work there as Deputy Governor of a given woreda. Subsequently, he had worked in various capacities in his birthplace. My mother was a housewife. She was able to read prayer books. Above and beyond, she was a good and kind mother. She often took good care of us. She was the backbone of the entire family. My mother was everything to me. It has been four year since she passed away.

Where did you complete primary and secondary education?

I attended my primary education in Dagmawi Menlik School. I was a competent student. I was working day and night in order to stand first and make by bread buttered well. There was a competition among students as all students would like to stand first in the class. Cheating in exams was considered as taboo. At that point in time, some students did not like me because I did not allow them to copy answers during exams. That being the case, my nickname was Thumb. When I was at a loss what to do, I was in the habit of crying my eyes out thinking that they were insulting me. At some point, while I was bursting into tears as usual, one of my teachers came within reach of me and asked the reason. In a little while, I told him everything in black and white.

Afterwards, he told me that my classmates gave me the name referring my cleverness. I was not able to understand my teacher in the blink of an eye. He later proved the reality on the ground. He said, "Without a thumb, the index finger, middle finger, ring finger and little finger have no value. The middle finger also losses value in the absence of a thumb." When my teacher ordered me to pick up a book folding my thumb, I found it challenging. In this way, I was able to discover the secret without difficulty.

I attended grade seven and eight in Debre Tabor. There was only one high school in each province. As there was only one high school in Gondar, students who were promoted to grade nine, came to learn there from Gayent, Wolqait, Debarq, Dabat and so on.

Who did you live with?

Well, most students used to rent houses in Gondar with a view to making their dream become a reality. Our parents were sending us money for everything we sought after. We did not encounter a problem as the whole thing was as cheap as dirt. To my amazement, we were in the habit of buying a 25 kg of Teff for five birr and a sack of potato for one birr. What is more, the house rent was one Birr. It was an amazing time. Any way, I started grade nine in this fashion.

As I was dreaming of becoming a nurse every so often, I sat for an exam and stood first. My father was entirely against my idea for he wanted me to be a judge. He was not in the position to lend me his ears despite I tried to convince him. So I was confused and joined grade eleven for the sake of my dad. Unfortunately, my father passed away when I was a grade eleven student. He was the sole breadwinner of the family.

Who turned out to be the breadwinner then?

Prior to answering your question, I would like to say a few things about my father. At the outset, I used to spend religious holidays with my parents. On one occasion, when I went home for Easter holiday celebration, my father told me to take care of my brothers and sisters no matter what the cost may be. He was constantly telling me that I was a great person. I did not expect my dad would pass away soon. After a week, he breathed his last without prior notice. I had to search for a job for survival in spite of the fact that I passed the school leaving certificate examination. I made up my mind to take a teaching course at Addis Ababa University. It was a four month teachers' training course. In next to no time, I got employment opportunity in Asela General Comprehensive School as a teacher for the benefit of rescuing my relatives from the trouble they were in. I began helping my mother, brothers and sisters. We were living under the same roof.

Thanks to God, my brother and sisters had earned their BA and MA degrees. They learnt better than I did. At this point in time, their bread is buttered well. I was able to earn my BA degree after my retirement in view of the fact that I gave priority to my brother and sisters success. Luckily, I got the chance and studied literature when Unity University and Writers Association was giving free scholarship. Before I joined university, I was writing different books revolving around various issues using my background knowledge. I was very successful. The thing was, I was always asking myself what I was lacking and what I would add if I joined university. In due course, I graduated with great distinction.

When did you start working for Legadadi Radio Station?

To start with, as writing is an in-born talent, the idea of engaging myself into the profession was coming in and out of my mind. When I was in Arsi, I spent most of my time in reading a number of books. By the way, I served in Arsi for ten years. Consequently, I was transferred to General Winget School, Addis Ababa. I also taught there for twenty two years. All in all, I taught twenty two plus years. When I got chances, I used to express plainly my thoughts, feelings and ideas. When I came back to Addis Ababa, I began constantly participating in Legdadi Radio. When they discovered my continuous involvement, they came straight to the school where I was working. I was given a two week programme. I was happily and actively taking part in the programme. Everybody was enthusiastically attending the programme from time to time. I was writing different write-ups using five pen names such as Wubshet Endailalu, Kassa Metaferya, Yegibts Hiwot Abay, Zewditu Zegedam Sefer and my real name.

I was raising a number of social issues and thus people were actively involving themselves in the programme. The other programme was 'Bier Beset Amba.' The programme was broadcast once a fortnight. It completely focused on girls. It encouraged girls to go to school and build their self-confidence in addition to encouraging girls to be free from economic independence and fight against unnecessary pressure of culture. I worked for Legdadi Radio Station for ten years for free. In fact, my target was to test the potential I had in writing and to what extent my issues would win the hearts and minds of the general public. My dream was to be an author. In the early days, I did not know whether my dream would turn out to be a reality except keeping on working hard.

Did your dream become a reality?

As chance would have it, I was able to produce seven novels and two antologies of poems entitled 'Qusa' (Grudge), 'Em'minete' (Chief of nun) , 'Anguz' (unerasable scar), 'Bes Rahel' (The Leper Rahel), 'Yesimet Tikusat(poems)I' (The fever of Emotion) , 'Yeniseha Shengo (forum of repentance)', 'Yesimet Tikusat' (poems)II 'Ye Petros Wazema'(Eve of Petros), and Jegna ende Tewodros, Qorat ende Petros. (Valiant like Tewodros; resolute like Petros) My first novel entitled 'Qusa' was written in 1989. One thousand copies were printed. The printing cost was 14,000 Birr. Unfortunately, my daughter was in poor health at that point. She was hospitalized. All my books were kept at home owing to the condition of my daughter. Luckily, merchants came straight to my residence and bought the books. Almost immediately, I repaid the money I borrowed. My fame soon spread across the country following my successful work. I turned out to be infinitely happy. 'Anguz' was not a lucky book. Sadly, the books left unsold.

What was the problem?

My books were not sold at all for the reason that it was the time that the Derg regime was removed from power. Most people were worrying about scores of things. Everybody's attention was on magazines and newspapers following the situation of the country. My books left unsold. The printing cost was 48,000 Birr. I borrowed 24,000 Birr and paid the first down payment. My books were published on credit. I was not able to pay the credit as quickly as possible. When I was at a loss what to do, I requested the school to cooperate. In the end, they understood my problem and began deducting some amount of money from my salary every month. It took three years and a half to clear the debt.

What issues do your novels embrace?

Well, most people know my novels as they touch upon a number of issues revolving around social, economic and political arena. For instance, the novel entitled 'Anguz' (unerasable scar), fully focuses on the mass killings of the youth and the highly educated segment of the society. Moreover, it touches upon to what extent a number of people pointlessly lost their lives in the Red Terror and White Terror. It is crystal clear that the overriding body of the time was making use of dreadful aggression against anybody that was not a part of its party by illogically arresting, tormenting and slaughtering thousands of people. At that point in time, the EPRP (The Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Party) confronted the Dreg's control of the rebellion itself by stirring up for a broad based democratic government run by civilians.

Similarly, the White Terror as well was able to annihilate the lives of a number of Derg members and their supporters within the shortest time possible. At that point in time, security forces were methodically hunting down and killing alleged EPRP members and their followers, in particular students. At the end of the day, Colonel Mengistu turned out to be successful. The Derg won the struggle for control of the Ethiopian revolution. In a few words, the novel under discussion clearly expresses the nuts and bolts of the Derg regime and its impacts on the general public.

Your last book fully focuses on the biography of Brigadier General Tariku. Can you tell us a little about him?

Brigadier General Tariku was my husband. He was a valiant. He was crazy about everything I wrote. I was constantly sending letters at the time he was in Tigray, Asmara and other parts of the country on duty. I was in the habit of writing various letters at different times. He was keen about the flow of my ideas. He was encouraging me to produce a book taking into account the different letters I wrote over and over again. At some point, my husband said, "Please prepare a book. I know you have the potential. If your books are not sold, I will sell them for my soldiers on my won." He has served his country for 32 years in desert. He accepted as true that Ethiopia's problem could be solved through dialogue. He did not believe in war. He was unlawfully killed in 1987. He was a hero. After he passed away, the then Nadew Army soon lost its shape and form. Bit by bit, the Ethiopian problem set in motion. He had served his country with love and bravery. He felt affection for his country. His body was buried in Asmara.

After many fights with thoughts I made up my mind to write his biography as a remembrance. The book serves as an obelisk. I spent many years to collect important information about my husband. If truth be told, getting the required information was very difficult. My daughter, Mekdela Tariku, was also collecting information about her father from different sources for she wanted everything to be written based on facts. Having passed through many ups and downs, I ended up preparing a book regarding Brigadier General Tariku. The book launch was held in the presence of the ex-president, Girma Wolde-Girogis, Generals, Colonels and high ranking military officials.

After most colonels and generals read the biography of Brigadier General Tariku, they told me that I had left out some important information about him. More to the point, they also informed me that the book lacked many facts and they would give me what they knew about him.

Why was Brigadier General Tariku killed?

A long time ago, TPLF soldiers broke Mak'alle prison and freed more than one thousand soldiers straight away. The Derg officials were gnashing their teeth following their success. They made an effort to figure out the secret behind how the TPLF soldiers turned to be successful in breaking the prison and achieve the desired goal. This time, they were told that Brigadier General Tariku was the mastermind of the mission. But the reality on the ground was different. In spite of the fact that Brigadier General Tariku tired to defend himself, nobody was able to understand him. At the end of the day, he was brutally put to death. I have got different information about him from his colleagues. I am thinking of enriching the book using the various information I got from different sources.

How many children do you have?

I have got two daughters. I love my children with all my heart. They are both educated. I am a grandmother of two children. My first born has got two children. One of them has got master's degree in Water Technology. Currently, my second daughter lives in America. She left for America for further education. I am really very successful in life. To be frank, I was able to serve in Gondar Development Association, Ethiopian Writers Association and the like. Above and beyond, I was awarded a trophy, clock, Ethiopian traditional clothes and certificates.

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