Asfaw Damte recalls Mengistu Lemma

Asfaw Damte recalls Mengistu Lemma

Mengistu Lemma (1928-1988) was a leading Ethiopian playwright, novelist, poet and a scholar, who in the words of the late Prof. Richard Pankhurst may be considered the Molière, Bernard Shaw or Gogol of Ethiopia. In this extract from interviews conducted on several occasions at his residence in Addis Ababa’s Tor Hailoch area, author and literary critic, Asfaw Damte (83) recalls their earliest encounter.
The first time I saw Mengistu Lemma was at an event at the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCCA) when I was freshman at the university college in November 1955. Three kinds of events were held at YMCCA. There were events in the evening. Many guest lecturers were invited. There were discussions, debates that were really intellectual. These often focussed on some important topical and national issues. For instance, there was a discussion on how community development ventures should be organized. There was a tendency to form development initiatives along ethnic lines and there were debates on these issues. Upon his return from UK, Mengistu presented two speeches. On the first lecture, which was on literature and criticism, sought to set the tone by suggesting the term ጥበበ ቃላት (Tibebekalat)-opted as equivalent for the English “literature”. The speech was reproduced on weekly Yezaretu Ethiopia on the next Friday.
The second speech which took place after the next year 1956. He dwelt on the problem of Amharic criticism. This was also reproduced in Hidar 7 and 14 of the same weekly. I have followed Mengistu in using the term Tibebe Kalat for the English equivalent “literature”. But it was very recently that dawned on me that Tadesse Liben too had used this same nomenclature in his volume of short stories published before Mengistu’s speech. It should be remembered that Tadesse was Mengestu’s roommate at Kotebe.
So in those times Mengistu for me was a legendary figure in Amharic literature, all the more because his major contribution የግጥም ጉባኤ (the Synod of Poetry) was stencilled and was read by the elite in 1957. We did not know him that close but we heard tales about how he came back from the UK after seven years of study without a certificate to show for it. The reasons for this was he often changed his field of study but also during his last year he stood up to a famous professor at the London School of Economics.
When I came back from the UK mid-1960, I took it upon myself to be catalyst for creating opportunities for Ethiopian writers and painters to meet together. It was a fortunate timing as movements were underway to form the Haile Selassie Prize Trust. It was thus that I took to Mengestu Lemma on these issues, that is about forming an association for writers and he was very glad and responsive. This led to a formation of a weekly literary meeting that lasted eight months. The day chosen was Friday. In the early days, it was he himself who hosted the meeting at his home. The meeting gave us an opportunity to come to know each other closely. Tsegaye Gebre Medhin, Tesfaye Gessesse, Gebre Kirstos Desta, Mengestu Lemma, were among the participants. My first intention was to form associations for each category in the arts. But there were not enough men of letters and painters. Then the painters worthy of name were Afewerk Tekle and Gebre kirstos Desta. Afewerk was willing to join the discussion group. But Mengestu blackballed him. For any potential member to gain full acceptance, he needed to get 100 percent endorsement. We were careful about limiting the size of the group because we had agreed that more members might mean more troubles to manage. Afewerk was really interested but Mengestu Lemma for some reason blackballed him. What makes is stranger, they were close friends. Mengestu Lemma argued that he had the tendency to boss around. Afework indeed had such inclination. In areas of music, there were Tsegaye Debalke and Ashenafi Kebede. My role was to act as agent to bring them together. I was neither a writer nor a painter. I objected to some of the things Mengistu Lemma was wont to do for instance when the Creative Art Centre was formed. The Director of the Centre approached our group and invited us to be counsellor for the Art Centre. We discussed the matter for we were concerned that the director, the American Philip Kaplan, had a tendency to dictate the way things get done as regards the activities of the Centre. So we had every reason to distance ourselves what concerned out group was that we were being co-opted to become passive members without having a real say in the way the centre was to be run. I for one decided that if our group was to provide counselling for the centre, something had to be done as the centre of the extension of the university. Mengistu didn’t share my objection because the director had promised him that his play Marriage of Unequal would be performed by the centre. Tsegaye too was given a same promise for his English play Tewdros. It was thus agreed that we should go to the University’s President with our objection. The President then was Dejazmatch Kassa. I was told to ask for appointment for audience with him. I was then serving at the Ministry of Finance and had occasional contact with the university over question of budgets. The aim of course was to give us direction for our dealings with Kaplan. Mengistu didn’t agree with this. It was decided that we should hammer out our opinions one last time before I could approach the president. Accordingly, we met at the home of Mengistu Lemma one Friday evening. Mengistu didn’t turn up. I was put up by his behaviour. After all, all that I wanted was to act as catalyst and correspondent. I was neither a writer nor a painter. So I shared my disappointment to Tsegaye and told him I might need to resign if this state of affairs to continue. Mengistu was a very difficult person to work with. Unless you dare to confront him to his face, he chooses to take a subtle and “debteraw” (The debtera is figure in the church acts as a healer and is viewed with suspicion by the ecclesiastical hierarchy.) path. He had an attitude of superiority, a kind of ‘we are not in the same category’ kind of mentality. I loved his poetry and was his admirer. But since he was not a kind of person who would submit himself to the rules of association. The discussion group was eventually dismantled when I chose to resign.

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