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Gabre–Medhin, Tsegaye Kawessa

Tsegaye Kawessa Gabre-Medhin

1936-2006

Writer

Ethiopian writer Tsegaye Gabre-Medhin was considered his country's most important literary figure of the twentieth century. His death in February of 2006 prompted an outpouring of tribute, with the writers of his obituary in London's Guardian newspaper, Yohannes Edemariam and Aida Edemariam, noting that Ethiopia's poet laureate "wrote in English and was a translator of Shakespeare, but his real gift and achievement was to harness the considerable lyrical powers of his own, Ethiopian, languages." A New York Times obituary by Jesse McKinley also commended Gabre-Medhin's service to the literature of the African continent. "Steeped in the mythology of his region, he viewed the history of Ethiopia—an ancient kingdom with a tradition of independence from colonial powers—as symbolic of a continent's pride and potential," McKinley wrote.

Gabre-Medhin's first name was pronounced "say-GAY," and there are several alternate forms of his full moniker, including one that reverses order as Gabre-Medhin Tsegaye. He was born in a village called Bola, near the larger spa town of Ambo in the Shewa zone of Ethiopia, in 1936. His cattle-herder father was not at home at the time of his birth, having joined the resistance fighters against the occupation of Ethiopia by Italy that began that same year. Gabre-Medhin's father was an Oromo, the largest single ethnic group in the country, but his mother was of Amharic stock, a highlands people who spoke an entirely separate language from Orominya, the Oromo tongue. As a result, Gabre-Medhin grew up with fluency in both languages. He also learned Ge'ez, an ancient religious language used in various Ethiopian church liturgies.

Ethiopia's future poet laureate began writing plays as a child, and one was even staged by his Ethiopian Orthodox Church middle school and attended by the Ethiopian emperor, Haile Selassie I. After a stint at a secondary school in Addis Ababa, the capital, Gabre-Medhin earned a bachelor of laws degree from the Blackstone School of Law in Chicago by correspondence. He won a scholarship from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) that enabled him to travel to abroad for study at two famed venues, the Royal Court Theatre in London and France's Comèdie Française. When he returned to Ethiopia in 1960, he took a position as artistic director with the Haile Selassie I Theatre, which would later be renamed the Ethiopian National Theatre. He directed plays and worked with the theater's renowned school of drama, and soon his own new works were being staged in the city.

The first of these was Jorodegif ("Mumps") in 1959, followed in quick succession by Listro ("Shoe Shine Boy"), Igni Biye Metahu ("Back with a Grin"), Chulo ("Errand Boy"), and Yemama Zetegn Melk ("Mother's Nine Faces"), among many others. Oftentimes he ran afoul of government censors for the subversive mes- sages contained in his dramas, but nevertheless emerged as "one of the most important literary figures [Ethiopia] produced in the last hundred years," the Edemariams wrote in the Guardian. They further noted that his "decision to write about the common man, rather than religion and royalty, marked the beginning of modern Ethiopian theatre."

Gabre-Medhin wrote two dozen original plays, with a few in the English language but most in a mixture of Orominya, Amharic, and Ge'ez. Usually the audience could not understand all of the play's dialogue in full, but the merging of the ancient languages gave his works a lyrical tone and even resulted in the coinage of new words and phrases. His handful of English-language plays include Tewodros, first staged in Addis Ababa in the early 1960s, and Oda Oak Oracle: A Legend of Black Peoples, Told of Gods and God, of Hope and Love, of Fears and Sacrifices. This latter work was published by Oxford University Press in 1965, a year after it premiered in Addis Ababa. The plot centered upon a couple, Shanka and Ukutee, who marry according to the decree of their village oracle; the priest also instructs that their firstborn child must be slain in a sacrifice to the ancestor spirits, but Shanka and Ukutee attempt to thwart this fate with predictably tragic results.

Gabre-Medhin's rising fame resulted in his being awarded the 1966 Haile Selassie I Prize for Amharic Literature, making him the youngest person ever to receive that honor. A year later, he was made manager of the Ethiopian National Theatre, but political strife in the 1970s alternately stalled and advanced his career. When Emperor Haile Selassie was ousted in a 1974 military coup, Gabre-Medhin was installed as the minister for culture and sports a year later. His tenure was brief, however, and the Marxist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam later ordered him jailed along with Ayalneh Mulatu, another prominent playwright. In 1977 he took a post as assistant professor of theatre arts at Addis Ababa University and became one of the founders of its theater department.

During a prolific career, Gabre-Medhin produced a volume of poetry as well as Ethiopian-language adaptations of plays by two towering figures of sixteenth-and seventeenth-century European literature: English playwright William Shakespeare and the French dramatist Molière. The latter's Tartuffe and several Shakespeare classics, including Macbeth and Hamlet, were adapted into Amharic and staged in Addis Ababa in the late 1960s and early 1970s. For his original plays, however, Gabre-Medhin became firmly committed to the idea of writing only in his native languages. In comments he provided to the reference book Contemporary Dramatists for its sixth edition in 1999, he explained his reasons: "Just like no Chinese literature can make a truly British culture, so there is no English, French, Dutch, or Portuguese, etc., literature that can make a truly African culture."

Gabre-Medhin's health declined in his later years, and he and his wife were forced to move to New York City in 1998, where some of their six children already lived, in order to be near a dialysis center for regular treatment that would forestall kidney failure; such machines were almost nonexistent in the Horn of Africa. He died in New York City on February 25, 2006, at the age of 69. Four years earlier, the newly created African Union, a cooperative organization of 53 African nations, had adopted one of his poems as the lyrics to its official anthem. "O sons and daughters of Africa, flesh of the sun and flesh of the sky," its chorus exults, "Let us make Africa the tree of life."

At a Glance …

Born on August 17, 1936, Bola, Shewa, Ethiopia; died on February 25, 2006, in New York, NY; son of a cattle herder; married Laketch Bitew, 1961; children: daughters Yodit, Mahlet, Adey; sons Ayenew, Estifanos, Hailu. Education: Earned LL.B. degree from Blackstone School of Law, 1959; studied drama and playwriting at the Royal Court Theatre, London, and French theatre at the Comèdie Française, Paris, 1959-60.

Career: Playwright, poet, and translator. Haile Selassie I Theatre (now the National Theatre), Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, artistic director, 1961-71, and general manager, 1967-74; editor with Oxford University Press in Addis Ababa, 1971; University of Dakar, Senegal, research fellow, after 1971-; Ethiopian Ministry of Culture and Sports, Addis Ababa, permanent secretary, 1975-76; Addis Ababa University, assistant professor of theatre arts after 1977; Ethiopian Peace, Solidarity and Friendship House, secretary general, 1979; advisor to Ministry of Culture, Addis Ababa.

Awards: UNESCO fellowship, 1959; Haile Selassie I prize, 1966; commander, Senegal National Order, 1971; Gold Mercury award, 1982.

Selected writings

Plays

Belg ("Autumn"; produced in Addis Ababa, 1957), Berhanena Selam, 1962.

Yeshoh Aklil ("Crown of Thorns"; produced in Addis Ababa, 1958), Addis Ababa, Berhanena Selam, 1959.

Askeyami Lijagered ("The Ugly Girl"), produced in Addis Ababa, 1959.

Jorodegif ("Mumps"), produced in Addis Ababa, 1959.

Listro ("Shoe Shine Boy"), produced in Addis Ababa, 1960.

Igni Biye Metahu ("Back with a Grin"), produced in Addis Ababa, 1960.

Chulo ("Errand Boy"), produced in Addis Ababa, 1961.

Kosho Cigara ("Cheap Cigarettes"), produced in Addis Ababa, 1961).

Yemama Zetegn Melk ("Mother's Nine Faces") produced in Addis Ababa, 1961.

Tewodros (in English; produced in Addis Ababa, 1962; revised version produced in Addis Ababa, 1983), published in Ethiopian Observer, vol. 10, no. 3, 1966.

Othello (adaptation of the play by Shakespeare), Oxford University Press, 1963.

Tartuffe (adaptation of the play by Molière; produced in Addis Ababa, 1963.

The Doctor in Spite of Himself (adaptation of a play by Molière), produced in Addis Ababa, 1963.

Oda Oak Oracle: A Legend of Black Peoples, Told of Gods and God, of Hope and Love, of Fears and Sacrifices (produced in Addis Ababa, 1964), Oxford University Press, 1965.

Azmari (in English; produced in Addis Ababa, 1964), published in Ethiopian Observer, vol. 10, no. 10, 1966.

Yekermo Sew ("The Seasoned"; produced in Addis Ababa, 1966), Berhanena Selam, 1967.

Petros, produced in Addis Ababa, 1968.

King Lear (adaptation of the play by Shakespeare), produced in part, Addis Ababa, 1968.

Macbeth (adaptation of the play by Shakespeare; produced in art, Addis Ababa, 1968), Oxford University Press, 1972.

Hamlet (adaptation of the play by Shakespeare; produced in part, Addis Ababa, 1968), Oxford University Press, 1972.

Kirar Siker ("Kirar Tight-Tuned"), produced in Addis Ababa, 1969.

Ha Hu Besidist Wer ("A-B-C in Six Months"; produced in Addis Ababa, 1974), Berhanena Selam, 1975.

Enat Alem Tenu ("Mother Courage"; adaptation of the play by Brecht; produced in Addis Ababa, 1975), Berhanena Selam, 1975.

Atsim Beyegetsu ("Skeleton in Pages"), produced in Addis Ababa, 1975.

Abugida Transform, produced in Addis Ababa, 1976.

Collision of Altars, Collings, 1977.

Melikte Proletarian, produced in Addis Ababa, 1979.

Mekdem ("Preface"), produced in Addis Ababa, 1980.

Gamo, produced in Addis Ababa, 1981.

Zeray, produced Asmara, Eritrea, 1981.

Zikegna Abera, produced in Addis Ababa, 1986.

Other

Issat Woy Ababa ("Fire of Flower"; poetry), Berhanena Selam, 1973.

Ethiopia: Footprint of Time (travel), photographs by Alberto Tessore, Magnus, 1984.

Sources

Books

Contemporary Dramatists, sixth edition, St. James Press, 1999.

Periodicals

Africa News Service, March 7, 2006.

Guardian (London, England), May 3, 2006): p35.

New York Times, March 9, 2006.

On-line

"Literature and the African Public, by Tsegaye Gabre-Medhin," Tezeta.org,http://tezeta.org/18/literature-and-the-african-public (October 2, 2007).

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