All countries change, it’s just some countries change more than others and sadly most often because of ‘these’ others. Ethiopia is one such country and the featured poems here by Bewketu Seyoum, reflect many of these changes and the search for a more positive future.
The first, ‘In search of fat’ (the title poem of his pamphlet) could however, be a story common to many developing countries who have endured authoritarian rulers, whether by colonisers, or as with Ethiopia by their own leaders, often aligned to one side in the Cold War. So in the poem Bewketu directs his ire at fat cats throughout the world.
In search of fat
A multitude of thin people, all skin,
call out like rag and bone men,
“Where’s our Fat?” They rummage
every mountain, stone and huddle-huddle,
search in the soil, search in the sky.
At last they find it, piled up on one man’s belly!
The second poem, ‘The door to freedom’ is a strong metaphor of how real change can only come about not purely by the end of imprisonment, but when people/countries ‘break through the wall’.
The door to freedom
If tortured spirits
who have lived in chains
are suddenly called to freedom,
the door of their cell thrown open
and the guards sent home,
they will not feel truly free
unless they break through the wall.
Then the third poem, ‘In search of peace’ concerns attempts made for positive change after such rule, where, after the Derg regime ended in 1990, ‘the new government instituted a policy of melting down as much of the old military hardware as possible to make agricultural implements’, hence the line, ‘Our hands bend iron for sickles’, with a twist of revenge from the heart.
In search of peace
Our hands bend iron for sickles,
but the heart starts to imagine
our enemies’ necks as grasses.
These sequence of poems from Bewketu’s collection In Search of Fat (published by Flipped Eye, under the defeye series), starkly show the plight poor people face in Ethiopia today. Sadly, although there have been certain improvements in rates of mortality and education, political and human rights are still very bad in Ethiopia; there is little in the way of press freedom, and the country still ranks as one of the poorest in the world.
The cover of In Search of Fat has a drawing by Bewketu of a person with their hands up, with a large catapult tied to each wrist. It is a great image and is so resonant to the situation in Ferguson, USA, where the protesters hold their hands up, as Michael Brown is reported to have done when fatally shot by police.
Here is Bewketu performing his poems in Manchester, England (with translation).
Bewketu Seyoum is a popular young Ethiopian poet and writer (he is also a comedian) from Makusa in Gojjam, north-west of Addis Ababa. He has published three collections of Amharic poetry, two novels, and two CDs of humorous stories. In 2008, he was awarded the prize for Young Writer of the Year by the President of Ethiopia. In June 2012, he represented Ethiopia at the Parnassus Poetry Festival in London.
In Search of Fat is translated by Chris Beckett, for whom I am very grateful for suggesting Bewketu to be included on the site. Chris is a poet himself who grew up in Ethiopia; his latest collection Ethiopia Boy (published by Carcanet), is based around a series of praise shouts and laments for his childhood friend Abebe.