Read 3 Lucy’s People Book Extracts
- Yerada Lij on Horseback – Warrior and patriot Belay Zeleq
- Mama Teliqwa – Mesfin’s patriot grandmother
- Emperor Menelik II House of Books – Ethiopian national library
1. Yerada Lij on Horseback
Aba Koster the Bold
Mum’s cousins were close like brothers. The warrior Belay Zeleq (Zeleke) was from Bichena, Gojjam. He had long hair worn in an “Afro” or in the Amhara style of sheruba: braided on the head and free around the neck. Gojjami patriots called him by his horse’s name, Aba Koster ‘Father Bold’.
In 1935, at the start of the invasion, Belay was 23. He waged a new style of guerrilla warfare in secrecy. Only after their victory in 1941 did Ethiopians celebrate his achievements.
Belay Zeleq fought the fascists in Gojjam, Welo, Shewa and Sidamo provinces. For a map click or tap here. He captured one Italian general and killed 6. Early on, he ambushed a convoy. Patriots gained much-needed weapons. Never betrayed, the warrior and his horse survived in the thick of battle, bullets flying. He emerged through flames. This baffled Italians who called him ‘Illusion’.
Belay preferred peace. Female patriots caught an Italian colonel. He begged them to kill him straightaway. The women found him attempting suicide. They kept him alive and handed him over to Belay’s warriors. When they reached the camp, Warrior Belay told the colonel’s guards, ‘Give him good breakfasts; cook his eggs how he likes. Let him read from a prayer book each morning and then walk and think. Bring him to me later.’
The colonel wrote home, ‘I am confident they will not kill me.’
A Journal Turns into a Book
The Italian colonel observed the patriots’ discipline as they prepared for campaigns. ‘These barefoot men are more civilised than us.’
When they took the colonel to Warrior Belay he said, ‘We will not touch you even though you have killed our children. You are free to go where you like about the camp. If you run we will punish you. Our guards see far.’
For the first time in his career the colonel felt no pressure. In Rome he had always been on a deadline to design battles. He wrote a journal; it turned into a book.
He did not want to go back to the Italians, nor to Italy. The Ethiopians kept an eye on him. They treated him like any brother; he slept and ate with them. They carried out kitchen and logistical work with him around. He marvelled at their preparation of battle-front supplies. Without refrigeration, food transported 1,000 kilometres did not spoil.
The colonel asked to see their leader to apologise for what fascists had been doing to his people.
‘What do I do to ask his forgiveness?’
‘Prostrate yourself at his feet and kiss them. If he is not ready to forgive, he will move them out of the way.’
He did this. Arbnye Belay lifted him to his feet, kissing him on his shoulders right, left, right.
The colonel wrote 4 books on Ethiopian culture and the injustice of the fascist invasion. The UK took him in and burned his books. For 4 years, they kept him cold in a London flat on two English meals per day.
Back in Rome after the war, the Italians burned his latest volume. He tried to return to Ethiopia to live out his days but died of stress-related illness.
2. Mama Teliqwa
Each winter, Mama Teliqwa travelled 700 kilometres by bus from Gojjam. She disembarked with Afro hair, bare feet, patriot leggings containing supplies, and her zinnar ‘ammunition belt’. Out of loyalty to Ethiopia locals scrambled to help though she was hands free. A small backpack held personal items. Her hand luggage was her mozer rifle.
The police once arrested her at the depot for bearing arms. Identifying her as a patriot, the chief chauffeured her home.
Mama had cargo: sacks of gulo silk from the waist-high ‘angel’s plant’. She and our mother produced luxury garments. However, Mama Teliqwa’s favourite task was cleaning the patriot swords. She had pet names for each. Her mozer and ammunition shone. Mama polished all the bullets, copper-green from lengthy peace. Our sisters filched her homemade leather-holster polish to use on their skin.
The TV Set
When I was six, the government installed a French-made television set in our village of Arat Kilo. It was at the current location of the African Economic Commission near Jubilee Palace. Mama Teliqwa took us to watch a foreign movie there.
The whole village turned out. We stood at a fair distance from the screen. Mama stroked my hair calling me Getahun, meaning ‘beloved’. Reception was excellent and the movie commenced.
The star had a love interest and there was a scene with what our grandmother called ‘naked kissing’. Mama Teliqwa took her rifle from her shoulder and aimed it at the television screen. She fired a shot. The screen shattered into tiny pieces. My sisters covered their ears and raced to tell Mum.
The police came. Mama told them she was protecting us from television’s corrupting influence. ‘We must not betray our children.’
They apprehended her. She growled at the officer who tried to lift her into the Land Rover. ‘Do not touch me.’
He approached again and she pushed him away. ‘Next time, I’ll shoot you. Wait until I have sat down before you start the engine. I do not want to smell its dirty backside.’ Mama hated exhaust fumes.
Mum contacted Dad. The Defence Minister had Mama set free with apologies. She had refused to relinquish her famous arbnye ‘patriot’s’ rifle: Bad boys in Arat Kilo nicknamed it Aymire ‘never misses’ and kept clear of it. Tilahun sang about it.
From then on, Arat Kilo’s residents viewed movies containing scenes of questionable morality at 9 pm after Mama’s bedtime. Our family hid our TV set when she came to stay.
3. Emperor Menelik II House of Books
Elders once used the national library at Emperor Menelik II Palace: Ye Menelik Bete Metshaf This meant ‘Menelik’s House of Books’. I had been inside it while at Jubilee in Palace School – it was for everybody. The Derg closed it. Our national library would remain a sleeping beauty within 40 hectares of neglected-botanical gardens. To read our post featuring the emperor click or tap here.
Under Emperor Haile Selassie I, the library had 15,000 books: 7800 with basaltic stone or soapstone covers, 5100 with wood from warka and ancient girare trees, and the rest of leather. Mostly handmade, they were between 500- and 1500-years-old. Many were illuminated. The library loaned them at no charge.
Priest librarians came across as regular guys, but each was multi-lingual and literate in five or six languages. All specialised in a subject. Patrons would leave with the perfect book, for them to read for one month.
The library had a unique loans system. Staff did not record personal information: no name, contact, place of work or address. Priests instead stamped the inside of borrowers’ wrists with indelible ink. The shoe shiner or pavement-vegetable seller would notice it. ‘Ah, you have a book from Menelik’s House of Books.’
People commented when rogue patrons kept books for longer than a month. ‘The mark is two months old. Why not return the book?’
A son told his mother, ‘I’ll return it tomorrow.’ The mother said, ‘Until you do, no food.’
If stamp-marks remained, community members could take library patrons to the police station. They said, ‘Beheg amlak ‘by the justice of God’. The utterance could stop the flow of river water. It would make a king step down from the throne to address mundane business. A street sweeper could arrest a prince or official. The police then took delinquent borrowers to the library.
Staff accepted late returns without a word. There were no fines. The patron had to look away while a priest took a leaf from an opaque jar replenished at midnight. With it, they made their wrist-mark vanish painlessly.
What about those hyena-like people who cut pages from 1500-year-old books? Priests handling returns could not detect this straightaway – some had 1200 pages.
Instead of copying out an appealing article, these people kept it. They kept recipes for beer or honey wine, formulae for treatment of hepatitis A, or ‘how tos’ on making spells and witchcraft.
Maybe they wanted to learn mineral exploration. They needed tracts on mineralogy that explained how various types of soil indicated the presence of certain deposits. Patrons would also require instructions on how to mine gold, diamonds, bluestone or uranium, and extract and wash the ore.
Weeks later, a bad library patron would be at a community event, perhaps the theatre. There would be an announcement. ‘So-and-so has cut a page from —— a book from the National Library.’ Oh, the shame. Their wife would run away and file for divorce. Nobody in the community would speak to them.
They had to return to the library where the Master of the House of Books was called. He heard their case and decided the punishment. This did not include imprisonment nor was there a kangaroo court for the rich to bribe and hire expensive lawyers. No military court-martials with one-size-fits-all punishments: nobody is infallible.
Masters of empathy, priests put themselves in the patron’s position. There would be excuses.
‘I was stunned by that illustration.’
‘I wanted to know how to get rich.’
‘Ye Dawit Zmmare ‘The Song of David’ beguiled me. The book made me a fool; I’m a mere human being. Its craft and knowledge are in a world of their own: it made me do it.’ The guilty one burst into tears.
The Master could see through a sob story, but the priests would bring tea and continue to listen, reading the offender. There would be unexpected questions. Psychologically disarmed, he would confess to having made up the story. No soldiers and guns, no waterboarding or torturing upside down, no starvation or solitary confinement.
The delinquent awaited the library court’s decision. It did not judge people as equal. Some might have a disability. Others could suffer economic pressure to prospect for gold.
Penalties depended on the age and rarity of the vandalised book. Judges would sentence ordinary workers to 3 or 4 hours of daily-community work, lasting between 3 and 6 months. This could be street sweeping, toilet cleaning or tidying the workshops of the disabled, especially the blind.
When they completed community service, wrongdoers were fully exonerated and returned to society. People spoke to them again and never mentioned any crime. Their futures were not adversely affected by this serious, yet one off, error. However, they needed a guarantor for their next loan.
The library permanently barred prominent members of society who vandalised books. Given the chance what would they do with public funds?
Book extracts: from a draft of Lucy’s People: An Ethiopian Memoir © Mesfin Tadesse with Ianet Bastyan, 2021
Featured image: Lake Tana © Mesfin Tadesse, 2020
Photos: Belay Zeleq Statue in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia © Mesfin Tadesse, 2020
Ethiopian Patriots Statue in Bahir Dar, Gojjam © Mesfin Tadesse, 2020
Pre-Christian Era Waldeba Ethiopian Bible © Mesfin Tadesse, 2017