Book Review: The Afersata by Sahle Sellassie
The Afersata An Ethiopian Novel by Sahle Sellassie was published by Heinemann African Writers’ Series in 1969. It is unfortunately currently out of print. It is dedicated to the memory of the author’s father. It is quite a short novel (90 pages).
The novel begins with the hut of villager Namaga burning down due to arson. In order to discover who is the culprit, Namaga demands an Afersata. An Afersata (an Amharic word) is a traditional form of court proceeding aimed at getting at the truth of a matter. Every male member of a village is required to participate, no matter what their social status, and is asked if he is the culprit, if he knows who the culprit is, or if he has any knowledge related to the crime. He must swear an oath on the lives of his offspring, the most valued possession of a peasant farmer. But the novel is really a reflection on the current state of tenant farming in Southern Ethiopia among the Gurage people, an ethnic minority to which the author of the novel, Sellassie, belongs. Originally written in English, the novel spends a lot of time explaining cultural customs and seems aimed at both an international audience and city dwellers from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, who do not know very much about the situation of rural farming communities in general, and of ethnic minority farming communities in particular.
The cover of the book, illustrated by Portuguese artist Pedro Guedes, son of artist Pancho Guedes, portrays the opening scenes from the novel as villagers try to save Namaga’s hut and his possessions from the fire. On the page opposite the first page of the novel, there is an illustration by renowned Ethiopian artist Ale Felege-Salam, which portrays The Afersata, with the elders and villagers gathered around a large tree.
Selected passages from the novel:
In the following passage, Sellassie describes how the local tax collector or Cheka Shum often was paid writing documents for illiterate villagers-by liquor.
In the villages like those of Wudma there are no bars. But some of the village women brew local beer, mead and arake in their spare time. The stronger the liquor they brew the more they are appreciated. If no liquor is available in the villages then the official would have his mule saddles and would ride to the town where the sub-district court is located and have his fill there. Or he would simply ask a young man from the village to go and get it for him from the town. It is rare, however, that the officials spend money from their own pockets to buy liquor. They get it free of charge from those who have some pending cases to be settled. Page 9
Much of the novel is social criticism of both traditional Ethiopian social institutions and current government policies of the ruling ethnic group (the Amhara). The following passage is a criticism of the institution of dedje tenat:
The age-old institution known as dedje tenat or asking for favour, an institution that has benumbed the creative spirit of the people, has always been common not only in higher circles but also in the lower echelons. The institution of dedje tenat calls for loyalty on the part of the favour-seeker and benevolence on the part of the giver. So as a result a person’s sense of achievement and reward, as well as his initiative and his creative spirit are crushed. Page 11
Sellassie criticizes the social structure of traditional village life. Through my reading in African Literature, I’ve found it interesting that in many traditional African communities, craftsmen and artisans, such as blacksmiths, are actually seen as be amongst the lowest of the low. This is also true in the Gurage village portrayed in this novel as depicted in the following passage:
Despite the inconveniences created by the Afersata, members of the submerged class considered it a privilege to attend the meeting. As far as they were concerned it was a new step towards the recognition of their civil status. Formerly they were outcasts who lived on the fringe of village society because of the trade they practised. As wood-workers, leather-workers and metal-workers they were despised and pushed aside from all social and civil activities.
If the Ethiopian peasants could not improve their material life over the centuries it was probably because they could not enjoy fully the fruits of their labour; and if material progress stagnated it was probably because the creators of material civilization were despised. The man who carved wood, the man who tanned leather and the blacksmith who forged iron into utensils was an inferior creature by the fallacious logic of the ignorant. Page 15-16
Melesse a civil servant living in Addis Ababa and the uncle of Beshir, the suspected arsonist, is asked by his friend and fellow civil servant Tekle to visit the Gurage village. Tekle, an Amhara, has been interested in visiting a Gurage village ever since he studied them as a student of social science in Addis Ababa. Melesse is reluctant because he is worried that seeing a Gurage village will make him sad and nostalgic. As I said at the beginning of this review, I feel that Sellassie was writing this novel to be read by people like Tekle, people who have lived mainly in the city or amongst the dominant ethnic groups of Ethiopia. As is demonstrated in this passage, these people do not know very much about the Gurage and do not think highly of them:
Tekle: I used to think that the Gurage were simply porters in Addis, shoe-shiners and pedlars. Now I see a people with a distinct culture and a respectable way of life.
Melesse: You are not the only person who has a wrong image of my folks. Half of the town dwellers have the same ideas as you had before. And besides you still don’t know much about my folks. You have so far seen only the insignificant symbols of their culture.
Before the unification and centralization of Ethiopia in the nineteenth century the Gurage lived in a stateless society. Laws were made directly by the people themselves as in the old Greek city states. The chiefs and the elders certainly played the most important role in this matter, but the assembly under the tree was open to anyone who wished to be present and give his opinion about any matter concerning society as a whole. There was no established army to defend that stateless society, but society as a whole was responsible for any crime committed by an individual. Thus, if a person murdered another, either he would be exiled from his motherland or his tribe would contribute money for him to pay the blood price. This type of collective responsiblity is still practiced elsewhere in Ethiopia. The institution of Afersata, for instance, is based on the philosophy of collective responsiblity. Pages 50-51
The position of women is also reflected on in the novel, however at no time are any of the women in the novel named, they are only referred to based on their relationship with a man, for example, Namaga’s wife, Beshir’s wife, Melesse’s mother. Women are not required to attend The Afersata, something which actually makes no sense considering that women are just as capable as men of committing crimes.
About Sahle Sellassie
According to his biography on the back of this novel:
Sahle Sellassie Berhane Mariam was born in 1936. He has studied at the University College in Addis Ababa, l’Universite d’Aix-Marseille and at the University of California, Los Angeles. He contributed short stories and articles in English and Amharic to publications in Ethiopia. Shinega’s Village, a novel written in Chaha, has been published in English by the University of California Press, and Wotat Yifredew, a novel in Amharic, appeared in Addis Ababa. His historical novel Warrior King about the Emperor Teodoros will appear in 1974.
After completing his M.A. in Political Science from the University of California, Sellassie returned to Ethiopia in 1964 where he worked for the British Embassy as a translator. His major work in Amharic is Bassha Qitaw (1986), about the war with Italy (1935–41). In 1983, he has translated A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens and in 1987.
I find it fascinating that Sellassie wrote a novel, Shinega’s Village: Scenes from Ethiopian Life, in Chaha, a dialect of Gurage. It was translated into English by Wolf Leslau, a Polish Jewish Professor from the University of California, Los Angeles, who received the Haile Selassie Prize for Ethiopian Studies from Haile Selassie himself . Obviously, Sellassie was trying to write something almost exclusively for his own people, as many people in Ethiopia would not have been able to read Chaha. It is clear to me that Sellassie sees one of the goals of his literary output as highlighting the experience of his people, both for themselves by writing in their own language, although as is highlighted in the novel The Afersata, many are not literate; for an international audience; but most importantly for Ethiopians from the dominant ethnic groups. I was recently asked by two Ethiopian students of Ethiopian Literature written in English what I felt the main theme of Ethiopian Literature written in English is. Frankly, I have no idea as I haven’t read all Ethiopian Literature written in English, however, I do feel that for Sellassie, writing in English meant reaching an international audience but also reaching an educated Ethiopian audience through a language that, in the Ethiopian context, put everyone on a level playing field-English. This may seem ironic for Western readers but as Ethiopia was never colonized by Britain (although there were definitely some British imperialist excursions, the most dramatic one actually precipitated the suicide of Emperor Teodoros II) English has less negative associations with it than Amharic might to someone from an Ethiopian ethnic minority like the Gurage. As many Ethiopian ethnic minorities have to learn Amharic as a second language because it is the language of the dominant ethnic group, the government, and the Church, Amharic speakers have to learn English as a second language. Therefore, as English is no one’s mother tongue, to read in it is to read on a level playing field. I would love to hear others’ reflections on this.
The Afersata-an Ethiopian novel-valid and resonant by A. Gagiano (book review available online)