Hiruy Wolde-Selassie – The father of Amharic literature”

The Ethiopian Herald

Arts & Culture

May 27, 2007

by Melese Telahoun[1]

 

A joint discussion forum under the theme the “literary life and social contribution of writer (author) and poet Blaten Geta Hiruy Wolde-Selassie” was conducted in the hall of School of Graduate Studies, Addis Ababa University on Sunday morning 20 May, 2007. The forum was jointly organized by Theatrical Department, AAU, in cooperation with Hanos Reading Centre. Experienced literary professionals presented papers at the forum. Numerous participants including youths, authors, translators, distinguished elders were present at the forum.

Ato Wondwessen Adane, from AAU, facilitated the progress of the forum. In line with the programme, author and critic Asfaw Damte was supposed to make an introducing speech. But he was reportedly unable to be present because of reason beyond his control. Ato Wondwessen read Asfaw Damte’s introductory speech to the audience.

In his introductory remark, Ato Asfaw said “Relatively speaking, a lot has been said and written about Blaten Geta Hiruy Wolde-Selassie. However, I have personally not come across works which exhaustively deals with or gives a detailed account of his contributions. Foreign writers have made better efforts in this regard. However these writers have committed errors in their writings because they were not careful. “In my modest view, Blaten Geta Hiruy has made multi-faceted and important contributions. This can be divided in to two sections.”

The first section constitutes the tasks that Hiruy has accomplished in his capacity as a government official. This is a wide area which deserves independent research. Hiruy has served as Director of Addis Ababa Municipality, as a government delegate and as foreign minister.

Asfaw went on to say that the second section constitutes the contribution Hiruy has made to the Ethiopian literature (both Amharic and Gee’z literature).

Although a lot has been said about Hiruy in this sphere, it would be difficult to assume that sufficient and appropriate work has been done so far. “I have nothing to say about Hiruy’s contributions to Gee’z Quine because I do not have the capacity to do so.”

In Asfaw’s words “Blaten Geta Hiruy has made significant contributions towards consolidating the Amharic language as a medium of literature. In 1904 E.C. had published a book entitled ‘the number of books found in Ethiopia.’ This writing is a work which makes effort to introduce an activity which is not usually done in our country. This writing was published for the second time after 16 years under the title “A catalogue of books in Ethiopia written in Gee’z and Amharic languages”.

Blaten Geta Hiruy has written and published 20 books most of which are non-fiction. The basic objective of these books is to bring Ethiopia to the level of those countries who are said to be civilized. This objective is clearly indicated in the book he has written about Japan which he visited at the time.

Hiruy has produced three literary works, namely, Wodaje Libe (My Dear Friend) which portrays human behaviour and life through sayings (1915 E.C): Yelib Hassab (the marriage Birhane and Tsion Mogessa), (1923 E.C) and Addis Alem (New World, the abode of genuine and generous people) 1925 E.C.

All the three creative works indicate that they were written to get across the objectives and messages of the author Hiruy.

Ato Getachew Senai a student of literature at AAU presented a study paper to the forum so that it would serve as a point of departure on the works and contributions of Blaten Geta Hiruy Wolde-Selassie. In his lengthy presentation, Getachew surveyed the life of Hiruy as a government official and the efforts he made in several areas including literature for the betterment of his country.

Here are excerpts from the presentation: Blaten Geta Hiruy Wolde- Selassie was born in May 1881 (E.C) at a place called Merhabete, Shoa, Amhara region. He has reached great heights by educating himself. He was a self-made man. Hiruy is referred to as “The Father of Amharic Literature”. He is well known by many for the books of history, literature, biography which he has written.

Information written about him indicate that Hiruy started works as government employee. He was appointed government official through his own knowledge, efforts and patriotic feelings. Hiruy has been decorated by medals from other countries in recognition of his dedication and strength.

Hiruy in his days, made efforts to eradicate harmful (backward) traditional practices. Hiruy indicated in his books that change was unimaginable under conditions where the society cannot free itself from old, outdated traditional practices. Positive changes could not be witnessed in Ethiopia, unless the society liberates itself from outdated traditional practices.

Getachew pointed out in his paper that Hiruy never spent his time idly. He was a voracious reader. Moreover, Hiruy was a literary figure who used to frequently read newspapers. Whenever he came across ideal in articles published in newspapers, he would never refrain from expressing his views about the articles. Whenever the need arose.

Hiruy has, in two of his books demonstrated that old practices and violation of women’s rights were unjust.

In his book entitled Addis Alem, Hiruy portrays the squabbles between an educated youth on one side, and his family and a priest (cleric) on the other. The book depicts the outlooks of those days, reflects the living standards of the society, and the religious oppressions improve on the then community. Hiruy has left behind artistic works which reflect the realities of his days.

In his book Wodaje Libe, Hiruy wishes the Ethiopian people to assimilate deep knowledge through reading and examining books. Wodaje Libe carries a great message which advises readers to “Read and examine books.”

Getachew says Blaten Geta Hiruy has performed great tasks in favour of his country by maintaining contacts with great leaders of the day. He has, among others served as Director of Ethiopian Printing Press as the first President of Ethiopian Red Cross and as a diplomat. He has written some 40 books under time pressure. Some 28 of the books are creative works.

In his books, Hiruy repeatedly emphasizes in one form or another that working is the basic answer to the issue of development. He says no work should be despised or look down upon. “The smith, the farmer, the trader, the tanner should be respected for their work”.

In his book entitled Addis Alem (New World), Hiruy focuses on tezkar (feast or banquet in commemoration of a dead relative). We know tezkar is a bad tradition that has not yet been eradicated even to this day. Most communities still compete in organizing the tezkar. But Hiruy had been struggling against this bad traditions in his life time

Hiruy has repeatedly said in his books that married life is very important and useful. In one of his books, he has shown that the two characters (husband and wife) remain together until their death.

Through his characters in his books Hiruy condemns conjugal infidelity and extra marital relations. He says such affairs will shake up social foundations.

An AAU student who has written a term paper on the book Addis Alem says; “This book was written at a time when the society had little awareness on the issue of ensuring respect for women’s rights. Hiruy has written the book to create awareness in the communities of those days on the question of women’s rights. The books shows that respect for women’s rights starts from her own family members.

The question of early marriage, and its negative consequence are all dealt with in the book. In conclusion, Getachew said that the writer Hiruy has made efforts to teach the community to liberate itself from harmful traditional practices.

Following the presentation several participants have expressed their views and opinions on Blaten Geta Hiruy Wolde-Selassie and his writings.

Dejazmach (Dr.) Zewdie Gebre- Selassie made the following observation on Blaten Geta Hiruy.

Blaten Geta Hiruy is one of the important Ethiopian personalities who was raised, nurtured by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Hiruy has never wasted his time idly. He was and avid reader and writer. In the area of diplomacy he was quite farsighted and wise. He had a great vision for his country. He wanted Ethiopia to become as economically advanced as the then Japan. He made great efforts to make Ethiopia advance as Japan without changing its basic identity, cultures and morals. At one time, Hiruy had the opportunity to visit Japan. During his stay in Japan, he made notes of his observations, and upon coming back to Ethiopia he wrote an inspiring book on Japan emphasizing that Ethiopia, should in certain aspects emulate Japan in terms of attaining economic development. The book about Japan which was written in Amharic was translated into Japanese and published. This was simply because the Japanese were so impressed by Hiruy’s book.

Hiruy was in his time, the architect of Ethiopian diplomacy. However Hiruy did not accompany Emperor Haile-Selassie when he went to Geneva. Hiruy was extremely depressed when he was living in exile in Britain during Ethiopian occupation by Italy. He was seldom seen in public while living in exile in England. He was extremely disturbed so that he isolated himself from the public. He later died in 1931 (E.C) while he was in exile in London.

Ato Mammo Wudineh, a well known author and translator of many books said the following:

Personally I used to study Blaten Geta Hiruy’s book at the Institute of Ethiopian Studies, (IES). I had the intention to get each of his books published. But my intention has not been realized so far. As you indicated earlier Hiruy’s books have not been properly and deeply examined.

These books remain there unexplored. They have not been proprerly introduced to the generations. And I think it is necessary to introduce Hiruy’s rich literacy heritages to the public. The present generation shoulders the great responsibility to further examine the works of Hiruy and other pioneers to the present and future generations. So we call upon you (the young generation) to transmit these literary heritages to future generations.

Another participant said during his life time made Hiruy efforts to promote good governance. He was extremely modern in terms of accepting people to his office. He never accepted people in his office without prior appointments. He talked to people who came to him upon appointment without the intervention of any body.

Still another participant said: I would like to say a few words in addition to what has been said by others early on. I have a great admiration for Blaten Geta Hiruy Wolde-Selassie- whom I have come to know about him since the past seven years. I never knew him in person. I knew about Hiruy through having read his books. My late father had a collection of Hiruy’s books and I had the opportunity to go through them. Hiruy had a number of great qualities. He read reviewed books, and assimilated deep knowledge from these books. He used to openly expressed his views on what be believed was correct or right. Hiruy had never had the chance to go abroad to have modern education. But he educated himself through the assistance and teaching of private tutors. It is such effort that he had learnt foreign languages like English. He also learnt how to speak Arabic and French languages through his own personal efforts. Blaten Geta’s literary works which are presented in beautiful language deserve to be deeply examined re-examined and studied. The present young generation should deeply study the works of Ethiopia’s renowned writers such as Hiruy, Kebede Mikael and others. This great man, I think has made great contributions towards the development of his country. However, so far, there is nothing, that commemorates this great man. A home belonging, to Blaten Geta had been confiscated should I think be returned to member of his family. And the home should be named after Hiruy on commemoration of his contributions. And the house should be turned into a museum where his works are and stored for generations to come.

One of Blaten Geta’s granddaughters had the following to say:

Blaten Geta Hiruy does not belong to us. He belongs to the Ethiopian people. Blaten Geta belongs to the world. He is also your grandfather, great grand father. I would like you to help us financially, or other-wise to effect the return of this house.

***

The following short pieces of advice are taken from Blaten Geta Hiruy Wolde-Selassie’s book entitled “Father’s advice to his son.”

. My dear son! Don’t worry too much. Don’t worry about what would happen in the future.

. Don’t be friends with people who do not fear God.

. Dear son, do not be bothered to enjoy excessively. If you want to do this, you would never be kind and generous to others.

. Don’t be aggressive towards your wife and children.

. Cry for a friend who does evil things rather than for a friend who is dead.


***


The following message which was sent from abroad for this event was read to the audience.
“Jacksonville University, May 2007

J. Calvitt Clarke said,[2] It is a great honor for me to have been asked to write a few words in honor of Blattengeta Heruy Welde Sellase.  I doubt, however, that I can add much to what you already know.

 

In a few words, I would like to stress the difficulties Heruy faced as Ethiopia’s foreign minister in the 1930s before the Second Italo-Ethiopian War of 1935 and 1936.  The central problem he faced was, “How could Ethiopia acquire the economic, political, military, and social tools that made white, European civilization strong, without falling subservient to those same Europeans?”

 

In preserving Ethiopia’s independence, Heruy had little to work with.  Colonies of more powerful European states surrounded Ethiopia, and these states were often hostile and always patronizing toward Ethiopia.  As Ethiopia struggled to preserve its independence and integrity, the Ethiopians had their own interests, which Heruy sought to advance, and he manipulated the other powers as best he could.  By offering commercial opportunities, by seeking military support, and by reaching out to world opinion, Heruy tried to soften the stark reality of a stronger Italy seeking to encroach on his country.  Heruy adeptly tailored Ethiopia’s public message to specific audiences and to the world at large.

 

Although an Anglophile, in his diplomacy his most interesting approach was toward Japan.  With the Japanese posing as the leader of the world’s “colored peoples,” many colonials and American blacks turned to Japan for inspiration.  Europeans feared this connection, and they feared Japan's growing economic and political influence in the colonial world and in Ethiopia—formerly the sole preserves of European imperialism.  Heruy’s effort to associate Japan with Ethiopia ultimately backfired, however.  The government in Tokyo proved reticent to obligate itself in ways Ethiopia needed, and Ethiopia’s association with Japan muted world resistance to Italy’s aggression in autumn, 1935.

 

That Heruy failed to preserve Ethiopia’s independence after 1935 was no fault of his.  For decades he had worked diligently, cleverly, and persistently to find a model for modernization that would build Ethiopia’s position in the family of nations.  But in the end, neither he nor Ethiopia had the necessary time or resources.

 

Nonetheless, in the vast fabric of world history, the resistance of Ethiopia and Heruy himself to Italy’s aggression was not in vain.  The Italo-Ethiopian War played a crucial role in developing the postwar, colonial, independence movements that destroyed Europe’s empires.  The last African territory colonized and the first freed from that status, Ethiopia presaged what was to come in Africa and Asia.  In fact, the war galvanized the colonial peoples of color to resistance, and in important ways changed the nature of that struggle.  We owe Heruy and Ethiopia a debt of gratitude.

 

 


[1] Heruy’s grandson, Shimelis Yilma, who now lives in California, asked me to post this article .

[2] I have taken the liberty of inserting here what I originally wrote.  The Ethiopian Herald article made some changes.  Shimelis asked me to write this congratulatory letter, which he read to the assembled group.