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This poem is taken from PN Review 235, Volume 43 Number 5, May - June 2017.

Three Contemporary Ethiopian Poets Chris Beckett

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,

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