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This poem is taken from PN Review 235, Volume 43 Number 5, May - June 2017.Three Contemporary Ethiopian Poets
These are all poets who I have been lucky enough to work with personally in the past few years. They write in Amharic, an inflected Semitic language that is widely spoken by all ethnic groups in Ethiopia (as a first or second tongue) and has lots of plosive consonants and slippery vowels!
Zewdu Milikit is a soft-spoken university lecturer in Gondar, north Ethiopia, a beautiful old city that was once the capital of Solomonic kings. He is a well-known poet who mostly uses traditional six- or twelve-syllable lines, with patterns of internal and end rhyme. As it is still dangerous to criticise the government, Zewdu adapts the old poetic tradition of ‘wax and gold’, i.e. hidden or parallel meanings. So his ‘silly stomach’ is surely a dig at the ruling clique getting fat while ordinary people struggle to survive.
Alemu Tebeje and Makonnen Wedajeneh are both journalists who fell foul of the Ethiopian authorities and became refugees in UK. They live and work in London with their families. Alemu also runs an active human rights website called Debteraw. Although they can be much more open than poets living in Ethiopia, they still treat their subject matter with the same irreverent humour and passion.
Some of Zewdu’s and Alemu’s poems have previously appeared in Modern Poetry in Translation, but for Makonnen this is the first time his work has been published in English.
In the final poem, ‘A good shemma’, a shemma is a traditional woollen shawl worn by Ethiopian men over their normal clothes.
ኦ! ምዕራባዊ ዴሞክራሲ!
ወደ ግሊኔግልስ፣ ለመሄድ ታድለን፣
በምቹው አውቶቡስ፣ እየተንፈላሰስን፣
በአደባባይ ሊታይ፣ ግልጽ ተቃውሞ፣
የኢትዮጵያን አራጅ፣ ድምፃችን አጋልጦ።
ፈቃድ ሰጣችሁን ከአንድ ሰፊ ማሣ፣ ከአንድ ትልቅ ባዶ፣
ከሆቴል ከራቀ፣ ሁለት ማይል ሄዶ፣
ስለዚህ! …ምንም ከአራጁ፣ ባይደርስ ከጆሮው፣
መፈክራችንን አየር ላይ ልንተኩስ፣ የተሰጠን መብት
ዕፁብ ነው፣ ድንቅ ነው፣
እውነተኛ መድበለ ፓርቲ እንፈልጋለን! በማለት የጮኽነው
እኛም ሰው ነንና፣ ሰብአዊ መብት! ብለን ያለቀስነው
ጸሀይ ዘቅዝቃላች፣ ቀኑ ይብስ በርዱዋል፣
ፖሊስም በጫማው፣ ምድሩን ያዳምጣል፣
አንዳንድ ቁራዎችም፣ ስንጮህ እየሰሙ
ያንዣብቡ ነበር፣ እየተገረሙ
ለእናንተ ጉባኤ፣ መልዕክት ሊያደርሱ
እያንዳንዱ አንደበት፣ ለዲስኩር ተስሎ
የቃላችሁ ጥፍጠት፣ ቃላትን አቃጥሎ፣
ከሚጋግርበት፣ ሙልሙል ዳቦ አብስሎ።
ስለዚህ! ጨለማ ውስጥ ሆኜ አመሰገንኳችሁ
ለድንቅ ጎዳና፣ ድንቅ መንገዶቻችሁ
ሃሳብ ለማስገለፅ፣ ክቡር መብታችሁ
ጭር ላሉት ማሳዎች፣ በራሪ ቁራችሁ
የጭራቅ ስብስብ ከርስ ልትሞሉ፣ ላዘጋጃችሁት ደረቅ ብስኩታችሁ።
O, Western Democracy!
I praise you,
who takes us to Gleneagles
in a warm coach,
so we can stage our protest
against the Butcher of Ethiopia.
You drop us by an empty field
two miles from the hotel,
so even though the Butcher cannot hear,
we are free to hurl our slogans
at the wind:
‘Political plurality!’ we shout
‘Human Rights!’ we cry
The sun is low and it is rather cold.
Policemen stamp their boots.
Some crows hear what we say
and look surprised, they undertake
to carry messages to your conference
where every beak is lapping up
the sweetness of your words,
jabbing at your shortbread promises.
So in the dark, I praise you
for your glistening motorways
of free expression,
your empty fields and willing crows,
for the dry biscuits you feed to monsters.
ከሆዴ ስፋት ጋር ሳነጸፅራቸው
ትከሻዬ ቀሎ ተጣቧል ደረቴ፣
ቅል ሆናብኛለች ትንሽ ጭንቅላቴ፡፡
ይዬ ሞኙ ሆዴ
ሁሉን አችል ብሎ
አቋሜን አጠፋው ቦርጭ ሆኖ ወጣና፡፡
My silly stomach
So I can feel how big he is,
he starves my fingers,
leans my toes
and fills my chest with feathers.
He even shrinks my skull
into a little gourd and boasts
he is by far the best
of stomachs in the world,
stands there pleased as punch
to be a silly paunch.
አባቴ ነህ ልጅ
የለቅሳ ሳቄ ነህ የሀዘን ደስታዬ ፣
ከፊቴ እያርቅህ ቸሩ ፈጣሪዬ ::
የአጭር ረጅም ነህ የጨለማ ንጋት ፣
አምላኬ ህልፈቴን ካንተ በፊት ያርጋት ::
የመረር ጣፋጭ ነህ የጉስቁልና ጌጥ ፣
ሰው እንዳያይብኝ ከልቤ ተቀመጥ ::
የደርቅ ዝናቤ ነህ የርሀብ ጥጋቤ ፣
አንተን ባጣሁ ቁጥር ይጨንቃታል ልቤ ::
ሁሌም ከጎን ሁን አትራቅ ከደጅ ፣
አንተ የኔ ደጋፊ አባቴ ነህ ልጅ ::
ይላል ኢትዮጵያዊው ለራሱ አባት ወልዶ ፣
ከግንባሩ ቆዳ የልጅ ተስፋ ገምዶ ::
I am my son’s son now
Everything holds its opposite: I laugh now when I cry,
I hold you close, my son who has created me.
You who are not short or tall, but both; not day
or dark, but dawn, and always on the move, but still;
who are the sugar-sour, pretty-rough, the adult boy
I keep away from people, store you in my heart;
my rain-dry and my hunger-fat, the one I miss
in numbers much too large to count.
Be always at my side, my son, close to my front door,
walk with me as my walking stick, and father me.
Take the hopes you took from your own father’s head
and play them back to me, and play them back.
ባልተወለደ አንጀት፣ በስለታም ቢላ፣
ወጥ ብጤ ሠርቼ፣
በቃኝን የማያውቅ፣ ቀፈቴን ልሞላ፣
ሆዴን እንጂ ሕመሙን፣
ገና ስጀማምር፣ ለመግፈፍ ቆዳውን፣
መዘላበድ ሰምቶ፣ ያላፊ አግዳሚውን፣
የ ‘አልሞት ተጋዳይ’ መከላከያውን፣
ዐይን የሚቆጠቁጥ፣ መርዙን ቢረጭብኝ ፤
‘ተደፈርኩ’ ብዬ ቡራከረዩ! አልኩኝ።
ባንድ እጄ አይበሉባ፣ ዕንባዬን እንትኔን እየጠራረግሁኝ፣
እኔም ጀግና ሆኜ፣ ደካማ እማጉላላ፣
በታትኜ ጣልኩት፣ አንጀቴን አራስኩኝ።
እስክሰፈር ድረስ፣ በሠፈርኩት ቁና፣
ግና መቼ በቃኝ፣
ዛሬም እልጣለሁ፣ እከትፋለሁ ገና!!
I start to cut the onion with a knife.
It is defenceless
and I am intent to fry it in a pan
and then to simmer it
until I’ve made a tasty sauce
that satisfies my endless appetite.
I never give a thought to onions’ suffering.
But straight away the onion shouts
its version of the universal
struggle for democracy,
calling all its natural defences into play
to spray a burning vapour in my eyes.
Look! a grown man wiping tears away.
I clutch the knife
and mask the coward that I really am
with Action Man – slish! slash!
the onion screams and falls
to pieces under a thousand cuts.
But the time will come, I know, for me to pay.
A good shemma
Adam, greedy man, you gravy-lover,
without a fig, you would be nobody!
A man who doesn’t know he’s nude,
don’t know enough to sow his seed.
No one can be his true self inside
without a good thing on the outside.
So snake, don’t stop your slithering,
you tempted Eve and her meandering
woke Adam from his sleep: I’m nude! he cried,
and realised a fig leaf is undignified –
a good shemma, of fine Egyptian cotton,
that’s what a man requires to hang his hat on!
This poem is taken from PN Review 235, Volume 43 Number 5, May - June 2017.