The Woyingi Blog

Book Review: The Afersata by Sahle Sellassie

Posted in Ethiopian Literature, Gurage, Heinemann African Writers' Series, Novels by the woyingi blogger on March 29, 2011

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.

Further Reading:

The Afersata-an Ethiopian novel-valid and resonant by A. Gagiano (book review available online)

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What happened to the Ethiopian Women’s Lawyer Association?

Posted in African Women, Countries: Ethiopia, Domestic Violence, Domestic Violence, Ethiopian Women by the woyingi blogger on October 11, 2010

I was recently searching for the website of the Ethiopian Women’s Lawyer Association (EWLA). I wanted to add it to my African Links Page. I had first learned about the EWLA when its Director Mahdere Paulos came to Ottawa on a tour of the Canadian produced documentary It’s Time: African Women Join Hands Against Domestic Violence in 2008. I had a chance to speak with Mahdere Paulos and even still have her business card. But through trawling the internet I was surprised to discover that the EWLA website is no longer online and according to Ethiopian bloggers Paulos has fled Ethiopia. What’s happened?

First, let me describe the Ethiopian Women’s Lawyer Association and its work:

Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association (EWLA) is an organisation that has been working since 1995 to raise awareness of women’s legal rights in Ethiopia using diverse media such as newsletters and the internet. ELWA aims to influence the drawing up of laws, ensuring that gender is taken into account, and to put in place practical measures to help economically poor women access legal services. The organisation hopes to put women’s rights on the government agenda, with the ultimate goal of eliminating all forms of legally and traditionally sanctioned discrimination against women.

EWLA uses newsletters, the media, and the internet to get its message across. For example, EWLA also has a 10-minute educational radio programme that airs once a week on the national Radio Service (Saturday mornings from 8:40am to 8:50am). The association also has a documentation centre that provides reading materials on women’s issues and other related matters to students and individual researchers. These communication tools are meant to ensure that EWLA’s research on the social, economic and political impact of discrimination against women reaches key people in government and throughout civil society.

Interpersonal approaches also characterise ELWA’s work. The organisation has an ongoing public education training programme for women on women’s rights, assertiveness and reproductive health and rights. The objective of the training is to enhance awareness on women’s rights among female students and women workers.

Mahdere Paulos, Former Director of EWLA

The documentary It’s Time is part of a larger project undertaken by the Law Courts Education Society of British Columbia (now Justice Education Society) in partnership with organizations in Ethiopia and South Africa to develop training for all levels of the criminal justice system, such as police, prosecutors and judges to work together to combat domestic violence in these countries.  British Columbia’s own justice system’s experience with integrating their criminal justice system’s handling of domestic violence is the basis for this training. According to a 2009 Law Now article:

In the early 1980s, British Columbia’s justice system lacked an integrated plan amongst police, prosecutors, and victim service workers that dealt with domestic violence. These stakeholders were united in 1985 by a training program created by the Victim Services and Crime Prevention Division. The program defined domestic violence, identified the stakeholders’ roles, and emphasized strong communication between those stakeholders.

Since 1989, the Law Courts Education Society (LCES) has been dedicated to improving access to the legal system through hands-on, targeted, two-way education between the public and those working in the justice system. As a non-profit organization with ongoing public and private sector financial and volunteer support, the LCES is able to offer a unique and comprehensive collection of justice-related educational services and work effectively towards creating a justice system that is accessible to all.

Ethiopia only began addressing women’s rights at the legislative level in 1995. In 2005, the country revised its penal code to outlaw domestic violence, however, it was apparent to organizations like EWLA that Ethiopian authorities needed training on how to address domestic violence. EWLA’s Director Paulos led the way on developing a project to get training from the Law Courts Education Society in Ethiopia. According to the 2009 Law Now article:

The project would face many obstacles including an existing lack of trust in the justice system. In addition to early marriage, prevalent cultural practices included rape, abduction, and female genital mutilation. Traditionally, domestic violence was considered a crime only if it resulted in serious injury. Police did not feel compelled to get involved in these family issues, thus allowing the practice of a husband beating his wife to root itself in Ethiopian society.

The following are comments from members of the Ethiopian police force who participated in these trainings:

I had no idea about domestic violence previously. During this training I called my wife to apologize for what has happened during our married life.

We also need to address gaps in the law for women who are abducted, raped and then forced to marry the rapist. Other men often facilitate the rape. No one will marry her so she is forced to marry the rapist and then expected to take him food in jail several times a day. It is double victimization.

When I met Paulos in 2008, I had no indication that the work of her organization was in jeopardy, although it did face obstacles financial obstacles like most NGOs. However, it appears that something has gone very wrong.

It seems that this is not the first time EWLA has had trouble. In 2001, the Ethiopian Ministry of Justice place a suspension on EWLA that was eventually lifted subsequent to the international response from activists and women’s organizations from around the world. During this suspension, EWLA’s bank accounts were frozen. At the time of this suspension it appears that the Ethiopian government did not give any clear reason why they wanted EWLA shut down but activists suspected that is was part of an overall effort on the part of the government to suppress independent civil society organizations.

But recently in 2009, Ethiopian blogs began reporting that EWLA’s Director, Paulos, had fled to Kenya in July of that year after resigning from EWLA. I haven’t found anything on the internet to confirm or deny this. However, I did confirm that Paulos is no longer the Director of EWLA and that in March of 2010, Paulos made a presentation in the United States to the Ethiopian Lawyers Association of North America about her work with EWLA. What really happened and why?

Mahdere Paulos is quite an accomplished women. According to the It’s Time website:

Mahdere Paulos holds a law degree from Addis Ababa University. At 23 she was a high-court judge in Addis Ababa. She has practiced law since 1996, and has worked with EWLA in a variety of capacities including legal aid officer, paralegal trainer, and board member. She has been Executive Director of EWLA since April 2005. Recognized internationally for her advocacy and public education initiatives on gender-based violence and child marriage, Ms. Paulos has presented at numerous African and international conferences, including the Joint Consortium on Gender Based Violence in Dublin, Ireland, December 2007. In 2006 the International Centre for Research on Women hosted a series of speaking appearances by Ms Paulos on child marriage in cities across the US, including Washington DC, Chicago, and New York. She has met with government officials in the U.S. State Department, USAID, and Congress, as well as with international nongovernmental organizations, partner organizations, and the press to raise awareness about the problem of child marriage. Ms Paulos is the Chairperson of the Kembatta Women Self-Help Center, and the Network of Ethiopian Women Association. She is an advisory board member of the Initiative Africa Organization.

I found an article online that alleged that EWLA had to let go of 70% of its staff as of May 2010 due to a shortage of funds. According to the article:

Zenaye Tadesse, Managing Director of the association, told The Reporter that the shortage of money came about after the association re-registered as a local Non-Profit Organization (NGO) as per the new Charities and Societies Proclamation, which mandates 90 percent of its funds to be raised from local donors.

According to Zenaye, aside from cutting jobs, the association has been forced to stop its various activities and has been limited to providing free legal consultations in Addis Ababa and six regional states through volunteers. Among the activities that have been cut back are undertaking researches, awareness creation and trainings, and publication and dissemination of informational materials.

The association used to get as much as 11 million birr from various international rights groups, donors as well as contributions from its members. EWLA, which claims to have helped close to 80,000 women since its inception, needs as much as 8 million birr a year to implement its goals. Zenaye added that the association needs 1,200,000 birr a year just to provide free legal consultation service.

This new Charities and Societies Proclamation also affected activities of the Ethiopian Human Rights Council and the Ethiopian Bar Association. I wonder why there is this new law that seems to be deliberately trying to cut off the funding that would allow Ethiopian civil society organizations to be fully independent and thus able to criticize government policies. According to an Expert Brief from the Council on Foreign Relations by B. E. Bruton, the United States increased reliance on Ethiopia to police the Horn of Africa in the War on Terror has actually exacerbated conflict in this region and allowed for the entrenchment of an authoritarian political regime in the country:

Arguably, U.S. reliance on Ethiopian military might and intelligence has served to exacerbate instability in Somalia. Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia, and the extended presence of Ethiopian troops in Mogadishu, instead of quelling conflict, has triggered a local backlash that has served as a rallying point for local extremists. It was the development of a complex insurgency against the Ethiopian occupation that effectively catapulted a fringe jihadist youth militia, the Shabaab, to power. International jihadists have now capitalized on the local insurgency, and on U.S. support of the Ethiopian invasion, as an opportunity to globalize Somalia’s conflict. The presence of foreign expertise, fighters, and funding has helped to tip the balance of power in favor of Somalia’s extremist groups. Additionally, there is growing concern that the conflict in the Ogaden may give birth to indigenous jihadist movements.

Anti-American sentiment in Somalia is pervasive, and stems in large part from U.S. complicity with the Ethiopian invasion and reported Ethiopian human rights abuses in Somalia. Ethiopia has also reportedly engaged in human rights abuses within its Ogaden region, which borders Somalia, where the government is engaged in a counterinsurgency effort against an ethnic Somali separatist movement. Though Ethiopia has denied these charges, human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have documented atrocities committed by both sides in that conflict. The U.S. decision to withdraw its military personnel from the Ogaden in April 2006, and the subsequent failure of the international community to seek accountability for these atrocities, has cemented a widespread public perception in Ethiopia and Somalia that the United States is willing to turn a blind eye on human rights abuses in exchange for cooperation in the counterterror effort.

This Expert Brief also poses the following question:

Is Ethiopia still a democratic country, or is the regime of President Meles Zenawi regime headed towards dictatorship? The perception that Ethiopia is a fundamentally democratic country remains strong, particularly among European nations. The lack of any consensus would require the United States to take a lead and potentially isolated role in pressuring Ethiopia for reform.

Finally, U.S. efforts to promote democratic reform in Ethiopia are impeded by a lack of willing partners on the ground. Democratic civil society groups generally fear for their safety and are not willing to mobilize in a public advocacy effort. This means that U.S. efforts to counteract repressive measures by the government will not be supported–or legitimized–by a corresponding local effort. International organizations that might have engaged with opposition political voices have already been expelled from the country.

I am planning on contacting the EWLA’s Facebook Group in order to learn more about its cuts in funding and what may have happened to Mahdere Paulos. If you have any information, please pass it along.

Update: October 21, 2010. I have been able to correspond with Mahdere Paulos. She really has fled Ethiopia due to fear of government retaliation. According to her, the government interpreted her outspokenness against the Charities and Societies Proclamation as opposition. She says that she and the EWLA were also accused of giving false information about the government that ended up in the US State Department’s 2008 Human Rights Report on Ethiopia. This is quite troubling news.

Further Reading:

It’s Time: African Women Join Hands Against Domestic Violence Documentary Website

Joining hands to stop domestic violence in Africa by Kevin Smith in LawNow July-August 2009 (article available online)

Amnesty International: Ethiopian Parliment Adopts Repressive New NGO Law (January 8, 2009)

Human Rights Watch: Analysis of the Ethiopian Charities and Societies Proclamation in its Draft Form

Analysis of the Ethiopian Charities and Societies Proclamation (NGO Law) by the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law

U.S. Policy Shift Needed in the Horn of Africa by B. E. Bruton 2009 Council on Foreign Relations Expert Brief available online

Human Rights Watch: Ethiopia Donor Aid Supports Repression (October 19th 2010)

Human Rights Watch: Yoseph Mulugeta, former Secretary General of the Ethiopian Human Rights Council (October 8th 2010)

The Life of Malik Ambar

Originally recorded in 2008 for the CHUO Black community radio program “Black on Black”.  I intend to write a more thorough profile of Malik Ambar in the near future.

I’m going to tell you something about the life of Malik Ambar. The story of Malik Ambar is just one of the many stories I could tell you about the history of the slavery of Africans in India. Ya, you heard me right. India! You listening now.

Okay, it all starts back in Africa, in southern Ethiopia. We know his name was Chapu and that he was probably born in 1548. It’s not too clear how Malik Ambar became a slave. It could have been that his parents were forced to give him up in order to pay a debt or he was a war captive, or he was abducted during a slave raid by either Ethiopians or Arabs. The enslavement of people who weren’t Christian was legal in Christian Ethiopia and it was religiously legal for Arabs to enslave anyone who wasn’t Muslim. Either way, Malik Ambar ended up sold to Arab merchants in Yemen. He eventually ended up as a slave in Baghdad where his master converted him to Islam, gave him the name Ambar, and taught him some things about finance and administration. This education made him an even more valuable slave and he was eventually sold to the Ethiopian prime minster of Ahmadnagar a province in the Deccan region of India. There’s was an Ethiopian prime minister? Ethiopians, then called Habashis were popular in the region as military slaves. They were consider to be more loyal and less likely to rebel against their masters, then say, their masters own children.

Malik Ambar was eventually freed and built up an militia of mercenaries which he would hire out to various rulers in the region. Ambar developed a reputation as an skilled military commander. At the time, the rulers of the Deccan were fighting off the attempts of the Mughal Dynasty of Northern India to invade them. Ambar was so successful that he was able to replace the ruler of the Nizam Shahi Sultanate with his own son-in law, Sultan Murtaza Nizam Shah. Ambar was officially his regent but everyone one know that Sultan Murtaza was just a puppet and Ambar was the real ruler of the Sultanate. Ambar led the resistance against the invasion of the Mughals, whose Emperor Jahangir, took a personal dislike against Ambar and often wrote in frustration about how his army was being defeated by a “black-faced slave”!

Jahangir shooting at the head of Malik Ambar

Jahangir shooting at the head of Malik Ambar

Despite Emperor Jahangir’s rather racist rantings against Ambar, Mughal court historians acknowledged Ambar’s skill: “In warfare, in command, in sound judgement, and in administration, he had no rival or equal. History records no other instance of an Abyssinian slave arriving at such eminence.” Perhaps the best evidence of Ambar’s special talent was the fact that the Sultanate fell to the Mughals soon after he died.

The story of Malik Ambar is one of extraordinary success: beginning as a slave in Southern Ethiopia and ending as the de facto ruler of a Sultanate in India. But, I can’t help but wonder if, despite his glorious rise to power, if Malik Ambar didn’t want to do the one thing that it was truly impossible for him to do, the one thing that was so impossible for all slaves taken so far away from the land of their birth to do, to go back home.

Further Reading:

Malik Ambar: Military guru of the Marathas by A. Rangarajan

Malik Ambar: A remarkable life by N. Goswamy

Malik Ambar: Slave Ruler of the Deccan by R. Begum

Slavery and South Asian History, edited by Indrani Chatterjee and Richard M. Eaton, published by Indiana Unversity Press (The image on the cover of this book is of Malik Ambar by Hashim c. 1610)