20 Of The Best Poets And Poems of Ethiopia (Qene included)

20 must read poems ethiopian poets

Some Of The Best Ethiopian Poems and Poets


Ethiopian poetry comprises of one of the many unique and amazing secrets held dearly by the people of Ethiopia.

We are all aware of how little is known by non-Ethiopians about the countless rich and varied aspects of Ethiopian life.

What's known is mostly acquired from scant and fragmented media reports about famine, poverty, social unrest, and so on.

But this has only painted a weak representation, which falls far short of portraying a fascinating people, their country, and their history in their true likeness.

The following poems of Ethiopia provide a small glimpse of an aspect of Ethiopian life that has had little, if any, external exposure.

Amharic poetry could prove to be a modest but laudable contributor towards enlightening the masses.

It is almost impossible to get the proper translation of the many Ethiopian poems composed throughout the country's long and culturally rich history.

Qene, is a highly regarded form of Amharic poetry, although the word is also used as a general term to describe all poetry.

True Qene uses double meanings of Amharic words and metaphors to provide one with two entirely different views of the subject.

The first one is the obvious and easily comprehended meaning, while the second is hidden from the reader/listener, who has to go through the process of uncovering its mysterious subtext.

These two meanings are commonly known as wax and gold or "sem ena work", with the obvious one being wax, while the hidden is gold.

Qene is utilized in a variety of ways and circumstances, from secretly criticizing someone while appearing to make a simple joke to expressing one's love to another while insulting them.

This makes translating them extremely difficult, but all said and done, there are many magnificent poems about Ethiopia that have been translated satisfactorily.

Themes ranging from African identity crisis, nature, problems facing educated individuals, the fate of the present generation, social criticism, and more, are recurrent in these poems.

The following are 25 poems by Ethiopian poets and foreigners with the subject generally being about Ethiopians and Ethiopia.


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1. Tsegaye Gebre-Medhin: Nile


ethiopian poet tsegaye gebre medhin

Tsegaye Gebre-Medhin, a poet, playwright, translator, essayist, and art director was also Poet Laureate of Ethiopia and elected to the United Poets Laureate International.

Nile

I am the first Earth Mother of all fertility.

I am the Source, I am the Nile, I am the African, I am the beginning!

O Arabia, how could you so conveniently have forgotten,

while your breath still hangs upon the threads of my springs?

O Egypt, you prodigal daughter born from my first love,

I am your Queen of the endless fresh waters,

who rested my head upon the arms of Narmer Ka Menes

when we joined in one our Upper and Lower Lands to create you!

O Sudan, born out of the bosom of my being,

how could you so conveniently count down

in miserable billions of petty cubic yards

the eternal drops of my life-giving Nile to you?

Beginning long before the earth fell from the eye-ball of heaven,

O Nile, that gushes out from my breath of life

upon the throats of the billions of the Earth's thirsty multitudes,

O World, how could you so conveniently have forgotten

that I, your first fountain, I your ever Ethiopia

I your first life still survive for you?

I rise like the sun from the deepest core of the globe.

I am the conquoror of scorching pestilences.

I am the Ethiopia that "stretches her hands in supplication to God".

I am the mother of the tallest traveller on the longest journey on Earth!

My name is Africa, I am the mother of the Nile.

O Nile, my prodigal daughter in the wilderness of the desert,

bringing God's harmony to all brothers and sisters

and calming down their noises of brass in their endless nakednesses,

O Nile, you are music that restores the rhythm of existence

into the awkward stampeding of these Middle Eastern blindnesses,

you are the irrigator that cultivates peace

from my Ethiopian sacred mountains of the sun,

across to nod on the East of Aden and across Sinai,

beyond Gibraltar into the heights of Mount Moriah,

O Nile, my chosen sacrifice for a universal peace offering

upon whose gift the heritages of Meroe and Egypt

still survive for the benefit of our lone World.

You are the proud daughter, O Nile, who taught

the ancient world how to walk in upright grace!

You are my prodigal daughter who saved and breast-fed

little lost Jacob whose brothers sold for food,

you, who nurtured, fed and raised

the child prophet called Moses on your cradle,

you, who stretched out your helping hand and protected

the baby Christ from the slaughtering swords of Herod,

O Nile, my infinite prodigal daughter

at whose feet mountains like Alexander bent

their unbendable heads to drink from your life-giving milk,

O Nile, at whose feet giants like Caesar knelt,

conquerors like Napolean bowed

their unbowable heads to partake from your imortal bounty.

O Nile, you are the majestic blood line of my African glory

that showers my blessings upon the starved of the world,

you are the eloquence that rings the Ethiopian bell across the deaf world!

You are the gifted dancer of graceful rhythms

that harmonize with your sisters Etbara and Shabale,

with your brothers Awash and Juba,

to fertilize the scorched sands of Arabia.

O Nile, without your gift Mediterranean shall be a rock of dead waters

and Sahara shall be a basket of skeletons!

You are Africa's black soil that produces life.

You are the milk that quenches the thirsty multitudes.

You are the messenger of my gospel, O Nile,

that brings my abundant harvest to the mouth of the needy.

You are the elegant pilgrim of my mercy.

You are the first fountain, you are the first ever Ethiopia.

You are the appeaser of the lustful greeds.

You are the first Earth Mother of all fertility,

Rising like the sun from the deepest core of the globe.

You are the conqueror of the scorching pestilence.

You are the source, the Africa, the Ethiopia, you are the Nile.

*Note: Written in English, August 1997



2. Solomon Deressa: Poem to the Matrix


ethiopian poet solomon deressa

Solomon Deressa was born in the western part of Ethiopia and is an essayist, poet, and screenwriter. "L'jnnet" or Youth was his first book of poems and it was said t have been a turning point for modern Ethiopian poetry.

Poem to the Matrix

image and syllable part like the Eritrean Sea

Somalia disintegrates at the tight end of unity

highlanders, eyes shut, chase a cat's-tail atonement

dreamer and dream now live and die lives apart

Sabean images gone, the syllabary stays behind

going this way, then that, before deciding on left to right...

leeching first on prophetic sleight-o'hand then on parting waves

then on redemption, here as elsewhere, shorn of compassion

arcane allusions separate lofty brow from dancing feet

in-bred decorum licks the door to primal mystery -----

only the occasional song leaks between door and wall

to repeat what we've heard thrice before

the poem, rebus, sound, vow to the para-verbal

speech rooted in wombs adjacent to the Seat of Power

the Egzi-O, the Ill-la-Hu, the Wy...Wy...Wy, the Ouh...Ouh...Ouh,

the Om Ah Om

repeatedly re-incarnates. Or is not born at all

the Seat of Power, ever present at the play of light and

shade, crumbles where table, picture, printer, petals, lips or cheeks intrude,

& lovely time rides in on a whiff of baking bread, the softness of skin

And the sweetness of breath. Ah! how separation harbours yearning...

love, the first begotten of pulsating light tells a harsh story

(Lucifer's?)

tells of separation and infinite yearning, turns being into cadence...

in anxious confinement apes masturbate against panic (improper)

with order abstraction, we side-step the moment (immoral)

& rhythm becomes time...and matter moves...streaming

& speech reaches to image beyond expedient abstraction...(a poem?)

we, who have been fragmented by serif and sound-bite

who've covered our tracks back to the silence before the first scream

whose tongues can no more move the weight of jaded words

wait, though no one knows we are waiting (why?)

frittered sounds of Oromo, Amharic, Tigrinya, Somali

and the fourty-four fourty-four other tongues...(wherefore?)

how long pretend that life and death did not trade places

& this, the redemptive crucible and not the crotch-point of choices?

store the scream of fourty-four tongues tearing? (how?)

mind your syllables! my shattering is organic, marrow deep...

lie with me in pieces or do not speak at all

replicate the howl of the torture dungeon or say no more (poem?)

the learned barely glimpse their own noses

burnt-face Marxists have proved that, if proof there need be

extrapolating the future out of a past not worth the inventing

as if the past can be counted upon to count!

the past is merely the present limping (did I say that?)

(it takes more than good-will to walk backward straight)

The past has no dimensions, the past cannot see, cannot hear

barely be seen, barely heard - and heard to grant what we already have

later is now unlived, half-arse fantasized, a shadowless dark-alley trick...

(would you hire the dead & the unbegotten even as boundary markers

time's territorial response to panic, a dog's scattered piss

presence cat-napping and coming-to in fits and starts?)

why else would tectonic plates collide, stars implode (panic?)

and the acorn leave eternal encapsulation to stand millennia at best

(talkf of perverse ego!) and the bitch carry a yelping litter to term

when mother and pup will turn to everywhich master for love?

so the epistasis begins at the still point

and spreads in swells as the heart sinks:

beaches, Goddesses and Gods, disoriented whales,

kings and queens, priests and priestesses, all manner of demons,

dictators and controllers and toe-suckers and rulers

and attendants to their divinities and majesties and sanctities

for like the pup they insist they be attended to...

holy shit! all this radiance, all this horror, out of panic!

et la gloire de dieu n'aura pas lieu

just like you

I too am born of this...like you the shattered star

like the tectonic itch inching toward the rapture in the colossal rub

one pup in a litter burning with the ardour of an inflated galaxy...

like you like her like him like it like us like them

in panic I left...and in panic I launch me home

be it no launching be possible for the present be already here

impenetrable to aggression piety, yearning or to seduction...

it is hard core

the saint and the hero are unwelcome here (did I tell you that?)

their ulterior motives are a given

they lack the blinding speed that curls into immobility

the no-mind of the sperm, the ovum's hospitality...

the drying river, the crumbling mountain, the sand that rides the wind

and the twice fourty-four tongues of the Horn do not recognise them...

they speak of ancestral glory, and tomorrow's promise to the millennium

unaware that though they utter every name, there will yet be

unuttered names...

always. And tongues of flame will lick again

words like wet-land weeds will reach for the sun

the young women will smile for no reason at all

and silently ask, how did this all begin?

*Note: This English version by the author first appeared in "Silence is not Golden: A Critical Anthology of Ethiopian Literature", edited by Tadesse Adera and Ali Jimale Ahmed (Red Sea Press, 1995).


3. Kebede Mikael:The Nature of Man


ethiopian poet dr kebede mikael

Dr. Kebede Mikael is considered one of Ethiopia's best 20th century authors and thinkers. He wrote a total of twenty-six books, and his many translations from a variety of languages includes Amharic versions of "Romeo and Juliet" and "Macbeth". In 1990, he received an Honorary Doctorate from Addis Ababa University for his unequaled excellence in literature, and for inspiring generations of Ethiopian authors and thinkers.

The Nature of Man

Once upon a time, God ordered all the animals

to gather in a field: all birds and mammals

created from His breath, from mighty strongbones

to the smallest gnat sat down before his throne.

He called Monkey to account: "Look, Monkey,

here are all my creatures from humble Donkey

to the haughty Lion, tell me if you think their beauty

exceeds yours, don't be afraid to speak truthfully,

I will correct whatever you see as your defect."

But Monkey answered like a shot: "Defect?

My face is ruggedly appealing, my chest is manly

and my hands and tail are simply heavenly!

Why should I beg you for a change, when here I stand

on two of the shapeliest legs in the land?

If you are looking for a project, Lord, I'd begin

with Hyena's slanted back, his foolish grin!"

Hyena sidled up to answer the same question.

He simpered that he knew his education

was a little basic but his dusty spots

could tie a young hyeness' heart in knots.

Much better, in his lispy view, to overhaul a beast

like Elephant, whose ears could use a cut and paste

and stick the trimmings to his scrawny tail!

So Elephant appeared to wails

of laughter, everyone expected he would rush

to ask the Lord to wield his broadest brush

and re-invent him. But all he did was praise

our Great Creator for his delicate greys:

"I never saw a single fault in my appearance!

It's Whale who waddles through the sea and flaunts

her shapeless bulk, why not remodel her

and put a stop to all our laughter?"

But Whale was just the same.

Every animal thoroughly enjoyed to name

the flaws in others, to snicker, scoff

and pride themselves as superior stuff.

So God dismissed them all. As I do now,

but I would like to show you how

we can be different: by telling our defects

as humans, examine how imperfect

our paper generosities, lush-sounding words,

when look! we are such small mean lords

pumped up with self-importance,

empty and rude-fingered sycophants!

We humans should tell the Earth and Sky

how cruel we are, but it comes as no surprise

when our strutting tongues collapse

and will not say a word. Our mouth-traps

open for gales of mockery: liars laugh

at blind men, who hear well enough

to snigger at peg-legs, and peg-legs like to jeer

at baldies, baldies at the stutterers who leer

at pompous clerks who themselves ridicule

the hatless customer, and hatless makes a fool

of silly face and silly face laughs at ugly

and ugly mocks a leper for his leprosy -

and who will the leper find to criticise?

oh yes, a cuckold racked with jealousies!

Man, strange being, uncorrectable,

two-faced but strangely simple,

continues his own bad example.

Generations come and go, we stay the same,

like passengers on a commuter train.

We're all alike in this, just different

in superficialities. We were always meant

to give ourselves a long hard stare

and see the library list of imperfections there.

That's why I think it would be so much better,

if we all agreed, not to laugh at each other.

*Note: Translated from Amharic by Chris Beckett, who grew up in Ethiopia


4. Adeleke Adeite: Pride of the Motherland


ethiopian poem by adeleke adeite

Pride of the Motherland

This poem won seventh place winner in "African's Pride" Poetry Contest in June 30, 2010.

Riding an elephant

Down the narrow trail looking triumphant

Scanning the golden landscape

Like Hannibal with enemies in flight

Sight from a lofty height

King of the jungle moving

With lioness by his side


Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro

Guides by my side with packs on their backs

Some paths steep with rocks

Boots slipping below our tired feet

Beautiful birds in unison flight

Moving with terrestrial light

Stunning sunlight summit on the peak


Praying in an Ethiopian Church

Preserved in rocks built by humans’ hands

Never touched by conquest plans

Protected from the invaders’ footsteps

Queen of Sheba and Solomon’s nest

Touched by Arch of the Covenant

Mary, Joseph, and Jesus once slept


Eating yam, sipping palm wine, and tasting milk

Freshly squeezed by experienced hands

Taste of life in the mosaic grassland

Sustaining and soul refreshing

Cradle of humankind adorning

Invaded for its gold, riches, and human capacity

Birth of life on earth with tenacity


Respecting its living and arduous journey

Essence of life once was and is again to come

Riding a camel across the hot Sahara sand

Once wet now dried, exported gold from Mali...

Treasures from the hearts of once African empires

That which was, is, and shall forever be

Africa the birthing Motherland

We still love and respect thee!




5. Alem Hailu Gebre Kristos: Welcome White Dove


ethiopian poet alem hailu gebrekristos

Welcome White Dove

Welcome, welcome

White dove

The hatred wall

That estranged cousins

Have begun to fall

When love

Incarnated in white dove

Started to fly high

Over Ethiopian- Eritrean sky.


Welcome, welcome

White dove

You are an antidote

Border dispute to solve.


Welcome, welcome

White dove

Ethiopia's port problem

Eritrea's financial-return

Challenges

You are sure to dissolve.


Welcome, welcome

White dove

Tourism and trade

Must spur ahead.

So to wipe out

Dislike's filth

Let us put a glove.


Welcome, welcome

White dove

To make up for

Lost resources and chances

Also the two cousins

From dislike to absolve.

*Note: Ethiopia and Eritrea have finally resumed friendship after twenty years of a no-war-no-peace stalemate.


6. Mengistu Lemma: Longing


ethiopian poet mengistu lemma

Mengistu Lemma was a poet and playwright. He was socially committed to popularizing Ethiopian indigenous culture; this is best seen in his notable work ‘Yabbatoch Ch’ewata’ (Pastimes of the Forefathers), a collection of poems.

Longing

The train hauled me out of London -

out of the smoke, the smog, the grime,

the filthy mix of soot and dust -

while the train spun fog from the fabric of steam,

clothing the land with its garment

of blessings and punishment,

Yizze kataf, yizze kataf, goes the powerful weaver.

Isn’t it amazing? Life’s a miracle:

coal smoke set free through the power of coal!

The carriage was big enough for ten,

but no-one was brave enough to open the door

I’d shut fast to keep in the warmth.

Instead, they huddled in the corridor,

unwilling to share the warmth with a black man -

even though coal is black, even though

the wealth of England was forged by black coal.

The train whistled like a washint flute;

haystacks dotted the distant fields,

just like the straw roofs of houses in a village at home.

And in the blink of an eye, I turned into

‘a traveller of God’ in the meadows of England...

‘Greetings to your household!’ I cried,

‘I am your “black”, your unexpected, guest:

your kindness to me will bring you God’s blessings’.

‘Welcome, come in!’ the head of the household replied.

Then his wife brought a bowl of warm water,

and kneeling down happily to wash my feet,

‘Don’t be shy, my friend,’ she said.

First my mouth blessed that tulla beer of Gojjam,

then a bowl arrived, and my empty stomach began to fill

as I licked the linseed oil of Gondar from my fingers;

next, chicken stew rich with curds. Contented,

I yawned. Sleep overcame me as I lay down

on fine cotton and was covered with wool...

Dimly, I heard the door slide open — but was fully awake

by the time it slammed shut. I jumped,

but then calmed myself down,

glowering at the reckless young man,

the brave one who’d dared to enter my den as I slept.

But his spotless shirt and neat matching tie

made me laugh: he was so amazingly clean!

*Note: Translated from Amharic by Martin Orwin, Sarah Maguire and the Poetry Translation Centre Workshop.


ethiopian poem longing mengistu lemma



7. Gebre Kristos Desta: Solace


ethiopian poet gebre kristos desta

Gebre Kristos Desta, was born in Harar, Ethiopia. He was an accomplished poet, artist, and teacher. Late in life, he established himself as an independent artist in Addis Ababa, and his work was exhibited both in Ethiopia and abroad.

Solace

Work in progress

growing continually

whiling away the days.

A small room,

shelter from the world’s ills.

A small chair

that hugs

that braces.

Old clothes

worn out comfortably

thread-bare.

Old shoes

that have served

that have worked.

A decanter, a plate, water

water to wash in.

A towel, rough.

A stove, charcoal fire,

fire, warmth.

A crumb of bread,

milk in a bottle

fruit on a plate.

A cigarette,

half gone,

smoking.

A letter,

a note-book of memories,

a newspaper.

Kinsmen in a frame,

photo of a friend.

A bedside lamp,

on the wall shadows

a picture.

Books,

books,

books

(to lean on, to run to, to hide in)

that are company,

that teach,

that bait a dialogue.

A bed, a mattress, a pillow

a bed to sink into

repose.

Sleep,

sleep,

sleep.

Also others,

also many

many others.

Provide solace.

*Note: Translated from Amharic by Solomon Deressa.


8. Walt Whitman: Ethiopia Saluting The Colors


ethiopian poem by walt whitman

World famous poets Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson (The Ethiop within) both used an image of an Ethiopian in poems they authored in the 1860's.

Ethiopia Saluting The Colors

WHO are you, dusky woman, so ancient, hardly human,

With your woolly-white and turban'd head, and bare bony feet?

Why, rising by the roadside here, do you the colors greet?


('Tis while our army lines Carolina's sand and pines,

Forth from thy hovel door, thou, Ethiopia, com'st to me,

As, under doughty Sherman, I march toward the sea.)


Me, master, years a hundred, since from my parents sunder'd,

A little child, they caught me as the savage beast is caught;

Then hither me, across the sea, the cruel slaver brought.


No further does she say, but lingering all the day, 10

Her high-borne turban'd head she wags, and rolls her darkling eye,

And curtseys to the regiments, the guidons moving by.


What is it, fateful woman--so blear, hardly human?

Why wag your head, with turban bound--yellow, red and green?

Are the things so strange and marvelous, you see or have seen?


9. Alexander Pushkin: I loved you...


ethiopian poet alexander pushkin

It is widely believed as fact that the great-grandfather of the greatest Russian poet Alexander Pushkin (1799 – 1837) came to St. Petersburg, according to some, from northern Ethiopia. His name was Abram Hannibal (1696 – 1781), and he was brought to St. Petersburg and at the age of 8 or 9.

I loved you...

I loved you, and I probably still do,

And for a while the feeling may remain...

But let my love no longer trouble you,

I do not wish to cause you any pain.

I loved you; and the hopelessness I knew,

The jealousy, the shyness - though in vain -

Made up a love so tender and so true

As may God grant you to be loved again.


10. Paul Laurence Dunbar: Ode To Ethiopia


ethiopian poem by paul laurence dunbar

Paul Laurence Dunbar was an African American poet, playwright, and novelist in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Ode To Ethiopia

O Mother Race! to thee I bring

This pledge of faith unwavering,

This tribute to thy glory.

I know the pangs which thou didst feel,

When Slavery crushed thee with its heel,

With thy dear blood all gory.


Sad days were those -- ah, sad indeed!

But through the land the fruitful seed

Of better times was growing.

The plant of freedom upward sprung,

And spread its leaves so fresh and young -

Its blossoms now are blowing.


On every hand in this fair land,

proud Ethiope's swarthy children stand

Beside their fairer neighbor;

The forests flee before their stroke,

Their hammers ring, their forges smoke,

They stir in honest labour.


They tread the fields where honour calls;

Their voices sound through senate halls

In majesty and power.

To right they cling; the hymns they sing

Up to the skies in beauty ring,

And bolder grow each hour.


Be proud, my Race, in mind and soul;

Thy name is writ on Glory's scroll

In characters of fire.

High 'mid the clouds of Fame's bright sky

Thy banner's blazoned folds now fly,

And truth shall lift them higher.


Thou hast the right to noble pride,

Whose spotless robes were purified

By blood's severe baptism.

Upon thy brow the cross was laid,

And labour's painful sweat-beads made

A consecrating chrism.


No other race, or white or black,

When bound as thou wert, to the rack,

So seldom stooped to grieving;

No other race, when free again,

Forgot the past and proved them men

So noble in forgiving.


Go on and up! Our souls and eyes

Shall follow thy continuous rise;

Our ears shall list thy story

From bards who from thy root shall spring,

And proudly tune their lyres to sing

Of Ethiopia's glory.


11. Alemayehu Gebrehiwot: OK, let’s be exiled!


ethiopian poet alemayehu gebrehiwot

Alemayehu Gebrehiwot, born in 1962, studied drama at Addis Ababa University, then worked for the Ministry of Culture before emigrating to the US, in 2000. His Amharic translation of Oscar Wilde’s play "Lady Windermere’s Fan" was staged at the Hager Fikir Theatre in Addis Ababa. His collection of poems in Amharic, "Etalem: Sebseb Getemoch" (The Endeared Sister) was published in 2006.

OK, let’s be exiled!

Yes, let’s be exiled,

far from our families,

our beloved country,

our villages, our rivers.

Let’s go! let’s rush!

yes, let’s be exiled,

Mary did it, trudging

over the deserts

with Jesus in her arms.

Then

let’s forget refuge forever

and start thinking of going back!

Let’s build imaginary houses

for our hearts to settle in advance

and fill them with wealth and blessings,

until the cows come home.

Yes, let’s return!

Let’s never get too comfortable!

*Note: Translated from Amharic by Getatchew Haile.


12. Amha Asfaw: Silence/A Candle in a Jar


ethiopian poet amha asfaw

Amha Asfaw, born in 1949 and later moved to the United States in 1974. He is a physicist at the University of Missouri, Columbia. He has translated Langston Hughes poems into Amharic and his latest collection is called "Yilalla Denebo", the title of a funeral lament.

Silence

Silence is golden, say my countrymen.

A bug would not enter a closed mouth, say my countrymen.

They have not seen America,

a land where silence is synonymous with laziness

and a quiet man is considered ignorant.

A Candle in a Jar

Do not deceive yourself

that you are a candle in a jar:

a candle gives off light.

Do not deceive yourself

that you are a glowing ember:

embers burst into flame.

Do not deceive yourself

saying “we are the ashes left by a fire”:

you never burnt like a fire.

You do not have the fuel.

You do not have the oil

which is the source of all light.

You do not have it in you.

*Note: Translated from Amharic by Getatchew Haile.


13. Alemtsehay Wodajo: The Soul Has a Message


ethiopian poet alemtsehay wodajo

Alemtsehay Wodajo, born in 1955, is an accomplished song-writer, poet, and actress. Most of her poems are based on traditional war songs, which women sang for the purpose of inspiring soldiers in the field of battle. Two notable poetic collections of hers are ‘Marafiya Yattach Heywot’ (A life that has no resting place), published in 1996, and ‘Yemata Injera’ (Evening Bread, 2009).

The Soul Has a Message

From the time she arrives, until the time she leaves her borrowed body,

the soul has a message, a role to perform and the means to perform it:

she creates the things she likes, but also works for others

and plans for the future, spinning comforts like a thread.

The soul has a message, she is entrusted with an assignment.

There are those who are dead even while they live,

who have erred and disappointed the soul,

who have carried her without benefit and paid no attention to her,

who have passed away despised, who let their soul pass away despising her.

To the likes of these, she should not have been given.

To those who, carrying the soul, have no soul.

*Note: Translated from Amharic by Getatchew Haile.




14. Lena Bezawork Grönlund: Mercato, Addis/Addis Ababa/Close


ethiopian poet lena bezawork gronlund

Lena Bezawork Grönlund, born in Addis Ababa but was raised in the northern part of Sweden. Lena has a master’s degree in Library and Information Science from Uppsala University and a B.A in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Montana.

Mercato, Addis

red bicycles

blue houses

red bicycles

I dream

of blue houses

red bicycles

Addis Ababa

This city

wakes with the mosques

that begin their days

praying, closing its eyes

to the sound of drums

echoing from the churches

out into the night.

Close

Beza, this is

dust

this is

seventeen

years

of

dust

at this market

yet

everything

here

carried me


15. Alemu Tebeje Ayele: The Saucepan and the Cabbage/At the Departure of My Best Friend


ethiopian poet alemu tebeje ayele

Alemu Tebeje Ayele, is a poet, journalist, social worker and internet campaigner residing in the UK. His poems were published in the anthologies ‘Forever Spoken’ and ‘No Serenity Here’, featuring twenty six poets from twelve African countries.

The Saucepan and the Cabbage

One day, the ghosts of two dictators

bump into each other in the Palace:

Mengistu: I found a cabbage

BIG as Ethiopia!

Meles: I found a saucepan

BIG as Ethiopia!

Mengistu: Well, what will you do with it?

Meles: I will cook your cabbage in it!

Our country is that saucepan

and we are the cabbage,

still cooking on the fire they lit.

At the Departure of My Best Friend

My best friend has died

and my grief is a fire that burns even my tears.

I miss his honest smile,

his goodness keeps me company.

Now the mourners walk away

and do not see me burning for my best friend.

He is far from life now,

burnt out of his life by the flames of yellow fever.

*Note: Translated from Amharic by Chris Beckett.


16. Hama Tuma: Of Guilt


ethiopian poet hama tuma

Hama Tuma, lives in Paris, France and is considered to be an influential Ethiopian political activist, as well as, a poet, and author of satirical articles/short stories. Notable of all his works are his first collections of stories: ‘The Case of the Socialist Witch Doctor and Other Stories’, which was published by Heinemann London in 1993.

Of Guilt

The man ran after his fart

to slap it back

and erase the shame.

The stink lingers.

Today’s love is tepid, almost cold,

won’t dry a hankie,

no heat at all.

Time has subdued my countrymen,

they pass history twice and

leave no shadow behind.

The frog in the pond

laughed itself to death, the owl is blind.

In the Waldiba monastery, forever silent,

noisy festivities are held.

Time moves on grinding all,

changing all,

but the crocodile has no teeth

and the Ethiopian no guilt:

everyone’s heart is lost.


17. Bewketu Seyoum: I Won’t Climb a Mountain/The Door to Freedom/Fool’s Love/In Search of Fat/Elegy/Prohibited!


ethiopian poet bewketu seyoum

Bewketu Seyoum is a writer and poet from Mankusa in Gojjam. His father is an English teacher and his mother comes from a family of Orthodox priests. He published three collections of Amharic poetry, two novels and two CDs of short stories. Bewketu was awarded the prize for Young Writer of the Year in 2018 by the President of Ethiopia and in 2012, he was chosen to represent Ethiopia at the Poetry Parnassus festival in London.

I Won’t Climb a Mountain

I won’t climb a mountain

to touch the clouds,

I won’t lift the frown

of a rainbow into a smile,

I won’t borrow

Tekle Haymanot’s wings

or Jacob’s ladder -

when I want to climb,

the sky will come down to me!


አልወጣም ተራራ

አልወጣም ተራራ

ደመናን ልዳብስ

ቀስተ ደመናውን፣ ሽቅብ ልቀለብስ

አልዋስም እኔ

ካ’ቡነ ተክሌ ከንፍ

ከያዕቆብ መሰላል

እኔ መውጣት ሳስብ

ሰማዩ ዝቅ ይላል፡፡

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.


ፍኖተ አርነት

ተበዳይ መናፍስት

ታፍነው የኖሩ

ወደ አርነት ዐውድ በድንገት ሲጠሩ

ያለጠባቂ ዘብ ተከፍቶ ሳል በሩ

የወጡ አይመስላቸው ቅጽሩን ካልሰበሩ


Fool’s Love

For him

she is not just a woman:

she holds the stars in her body,

the earth in her soul.

Even if he spends his life running away,

he will not get far.


ሞኝ ፍቅር

ለሱ

ሰው ብቻ አይደለችም

ጠፈር ናት ባካሏ

መሬት ናት በነፍሷ

ዕድሜ ልኩን ቢሮጥ

አያመልጥም ከሷ፡፡

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!


ኅሰሳ ስጋ

እልፍ ከሲታዎች ቀጥነው የሞገጉ

“ስጋችን የት ሄደ?” ብለው ሲፈልጉ

በየሽንተረሩ በየጥጋጥጉ

አስሰው አስሰው በምድር በሰማይ

አገኙት ቦርጭ ሆኖ ባንድ ሰው ገላ ላይ፡፡

Elegy

The fall of every leaf diminishes me,

so when I hear a rustle

I send my eyes out of the window

to look at the trees in the yard.

Alas! where there were woods,

I see flag-poles standing.

Men have swept nature’s nest away

to build their cities.

The melody of the nightingale

has lost its immortality

and I am sitting on a dead land,

writing an elegy in the sand.


ሙሾ

ያንዲት ቅንጣት ቅጠል መውደቅ እንደሚያጎድለኝ አውቃለሁ፣

ኮሽታ በሰማሁ ቀጥር፣

ዐይኖቼን በመስኮቴ ማዶ እወረውራለሁ፣

በጉዋሮዬ ያሉትን ዛፎች ለማየት ፡፡

እነሆ ዛፎች በነበሩበት፣

የባንዲራ ምሶሶዎች በቀሉበት፡፡

ሰዎች የተፈጥሮን ጎጆ መነጠሩ፣

ከተሞቻቸውንም ሠሩ፡፡

እኔም ፣የሽመላው ማህሌት፤ ህያውነቱን ሲያጣ እያየሁ፤

በሙት ምድር ላይ ቆምያለሁ፤

ባሸዋ ብራና ላይ የሙሾ ግጥም እጽፋለሁ፡፡

Prohibited!

Smoking is prohibited!

Whistling is prohibited!

Peeing is prohibited!

The whole wall made up of prohibitions.

Which one is right??

Were I blessed with a piece of wall, a little piece of power,

my slogan would be:

Prohibitions are prohibited!


ክልክል ነው!

ማጨስ ክልክል ነው!

ማፏጨት ክልክል ነው!

መሽናት ክልክል ነው!

ግድግዳው በሙሉ ተሠርቶ በክልክል

የቱ ነው ትክክል?

ትንሽ ግድግዳ እና ትንሽ ኀይል ባይለኝ

“መከልከል ክልክል ነው!” የሚል ትእዛዝ አለኝ፡፡

*Note: The translations were done by the author in collaboration with Chris Beckett and Alemu Tebeje Ayele, except for ‘Prohibited!’, which was translated by Bahrnegash Bellete.




18. Zewdu Milikit: Year of the Spider/The Few/Ripe and Raw/The Fashion of Silence/Wood’s Story


ethiopian poet zewdu mikilit

Zewdu Milikit, born in 1958 on the shores of Lake Tana in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, studied languages in Addis Ababa University and is now a lecturer at Gondar College of Teacher’s Education.

Year of the Spider

Animals symbolised years

since the olden days,

but animals are old hat now,

insects are the way to go

in the year of the spider -

everyone’s weaving a ladder

of cobwebs, and trying

to fly when they’re falling.


የሸረሪት ዘመን

አየተመሰለ በእንስላት ዘመኑ፣

ብዙ ዓመት ታልፎ ነው የደረስን ካሁኑ፡፡

አለፈበትና ምስለት እንስሳቱ፣

ቀስ አያልን ደረስን ከምስለ ነፍሳቱ፡፡

ሆኖ የሸረሪት ምስለት ዘመኑ፣

ሰዎቹ በሙሉ በማድራት ተካኑ፡፡

አድርተው አድርተው አንዴ እንደሞከሩ፣

እንደሸረሪቱ ሸረር ብለው ቀሩ፡፡

The Few

Who in their hunger find a sort of bread,

joy even in what they dread,

a maybe in never.

Who, being few, do not envy others

and whose works, like brothers

you can count on one hand, count forever.


የአለም ጥቂት ሰዎች

ርሃብ ጥጋባቸው፣

ደስታ ሃዘናቸው፣

ፍቅር ጥላቻቸው፣

ሁሉም ጥቂት ሆኖ በጥቂት ያልቅና፣

ጥቂት ስራቸው ግን ቢሰፈር አያልቅም በዘመናት ቁና፡፡


Ripe and Raw

Something ripe and something raw,

when cooked together, go to war.

But that’s not all, there’s more:

as raw gets ripe, the ripe burns down,

so ripe might just as well be raw!

Mix your feelings up together

and however fast you stir and stir,

the fresh ones turn out nice and brown,

but older passions end up sticking to the pan.


ብስልና ጥሬ

ብስልና ጥሬ ባንድ እየተቆሉ፣

ሁሉም ክስል ያሉ የጨሱ መሰሉ፣

ሰካስ እንዲያ አይደለም ወዲህ ነው ምስጢሩ፣

ጥሬው እስኪበስል ብስሉ ነው ማረሩ::

ደግሞ እንዲሀም አለ ብስልም ጥሬ መምሰል፣

አብሮ እየተቆሉ

እስኪያሩ መማሰል … መማሰል … መማሰል …

መማሰል ሲበዛ ጥሬው በሰለና፣

ብስሉ አራራ ሆኖ ምጣድ ላይ ቀረና::

The Fashion of Silence

He used to let his beard

grow long

and never comb his hair.

“Little’s all I need”, he’d say,

his pants as thin as hermits

under an itchy coat.

He loved a fierce discussion

for the sake of it,

the rip of one opinion

being torn

from all the talk around.

But that’s long gone:

today his hair

is short and smartly

trimmed, his handsome

new persona boasts

a wardrobe of fine clothes:

shirt and t-shirt combos!

jackets and their matching ties!

tailored trousers

loose enough to bag

a thousand private thoughts -

such quiet quality,

whispery as a woman’s dress,

whispery as him.

The temper of the times

has changed,

no talk of so, so many things,

no fierce discussion,

clashing views -

today the House of Learning

wears a fashionable hush.


የዝምታ ፋሽን

ጺሙን አጎፍሮ፣

ፀጉሩን አንጨፍሮ፣

ዓለም በቃኝ ያለ፣

መናኝ የመሰለ፣

ሱሪውን አጥብቆ

“በሳሪያ” ኮት ታንቆ፣

ማውራት መነጋገር፣

ብዙ ብዙ ነገር፣

በጥብቅ መወያየት፣

መፋጨት መጋጨት፣

በሃሳብ መናጨት፣

እንዲህ ነበር ድሮ፣

ዛረ ተቀየሮ፣

ፀጉር ባጭር ባጭር፣

ከርከሙ የሚያምር፣

መልከን የሚያላምር፡፡

የላይ ልብስ መብዛ፣

“ሸሚዙ ቲ ሸርቱ፣

“ኮቱና ጃኬቱ::”

ሱሪው ያልጠበቀ ሰፊ የሚያዝናና፣

ሽፍኖ የሚይዝ የራሰን ገመና::

አይ ሱሪው ስፋቱ!

እቤት ደስ ማለቱ፣

ጥሩ ቀሚስ መስሏል ምትለብስውን እቱ::

ደግሞኮ ፀጥ ነው፣

ፀባይ ልዩ ነው::

ማውራት መነጋገር፣

ብዙ ብዙ ነገር፣

በጥብቅ መወያየት፣

በሃሳብ መጋጨት፡

ያያ ዛሬ ቀርቷል፣

የዝምታ ፋሸን “ከምሁር” ቤት ገብቷል::

Wood’s Story

Wood burned and heated Metal.

Metal melted into Axe

and cut down a whole family of Trees.

But when the mother of all Trees

cried out for justice,

Axe felled another forest,

and Wood fell for his own tricks,

by changing his name to Handle.


የእንጨት ነገር

እንጨት ነደደና ብረትን አጋላ፣

ብረትም ጋለና አይሆኑውም ሆነ፡፡

ብረት ተቀጥቅጦ ምሳር ሊወጣው፣

የእንጨትን ዘር ሁሉ ቆራርጦ ጣለው፣

ምሳር ቂም ሊወጣ ሲቆርጥ እንጨትን፣

እንጨት አጋዥ ሆነ ቀይሮ ስሙን፣

ራሱን አታሎ ራሱን ሸንግሎ፣

ራሱን ቆረጠ እጀታ ነኝ ብሎ፡፡

*Note: Translated from Amharic by Chris Beckett and Alemu Tebeje Ayele.


19. Liyou Libsekal: Riding Chinese Machines/Momentum Lives in the Foothills/Childhood was Mud-Play and Dirty Fingernails/Agar/Sorry, We Are Busy Growing/Regrets as Long as Fishing Lines


ethiopian poet liyou libsekal

Liyou Libsekal,, born in 1990, grew up in several countries of East Africa. She moved to the US and received her BA in Anthropology in 2012 from George Washington University. After a brief stay in Vietnam, she returned to her homeland of Ethiopia and in 2013 began writing about culture and the environment for Ethiopian Business Review. She received the Brunel University African Poetry Prize in 2014.

Riding Chinese Machines

There are beasts in this city

they creak and they crank

and groan from first dawn

when their African-tongued masters wake

to guide them lax and human-handed

through the late rush

when they‘re handled down and un-animated

still as we sleep, towering or bowing

always heavy

we pour cement through the cities

towns, through the wild

onwards, outwards

like fingers of eager hands

stretched across the earth

dug in

the lions investigate

and buried marvel rumbles

squeezed for progress

Momentum Lives in the Foothills

here, the mountains sit heavy while their children buzz

under, around and in between them

ambitious, soles in cycles

feet snug in cement-dusted leather

we build and the air smells of movement

of hope-soaked bodies and chemical dirt

we watch creaking teeth smash concrete

unaffected operators; friends at their feet

they move through creatures

missing shirking heads and quick limbs

Childhood was Mud-Play and Dirty Fingernails

I was born to a woman whose hands are washed with ritual

balancing act

temperatures and tempers

home grown versus raised afar,

cleansing finales

this, always with translucent crowns on blushing fingertips

I thought her magic lay in age-

in mine,

the earthworms slipped beneath the dirt unsexed and unbothered

simply hydrated to form

and the heart-red soil had to follow suit

under muted hose and desperate hands

Agar

I remember a yellow scarf fashioned every which way

and beautiful bones that peaked at the cheeks. Mounted proud

“young mother” in eyes mourning a daughter left behind

Families don’t speak of shame

and hindsight lives in layers.

She was pieces of you strolling tall, slender and curved

but you were with me as she cocooned and rolled and stretched.

Always in a flowered dress, always drenched in fate

you sit, a lakeside lullaby

a picture of youth then, and forever and forever

I gnaw on whether you knew near the end

but with age as authority, we lived in darkness

why expect more in death?

My anger lives in layers

un-abandoned, if only for my sake.

Sorry, We Are Busy Growing

Before I left the neighborhood, the city and so on, our mad man was simply a boy. Settled in thoughts until he had to chase taunting children from his lost mother’s door; until he found himself in dust-covered green, keeping time with short sharp steps and an extra arm. Sixteen years and his rambles announce his arrival. His steps still sure on our still rubbled paths, parted quick of boisterous kids who run to whisper behind the skirts of busy women or the makeshift seats of idle men. And all watch like the shabby dog who guards his weathered sleeping spot, eyes speckled with suspicion Our mad man’s words are strung without beginning or end, missed by blocked ears hot with fear of the glazed look that sits on a body born to hurt, on a face that betrays the dearth of a nation concerned only with numbers.

Regrets as Long as Fishing Lines

I dreamt we were made of sand

trickled from the mouth of a catfish

(and I remembered pulling two out of Langano)

when this mother was done spilling us into form,

she coughed up a coil of bronze

and sunk it into each of our foreheads

then, beginning from her whiskers

she cracked into a pile of sheer shells

so I carried them nestled in my hair

to the edge of a shoreline

wanting to bless her with rest

but her pieces had melted in the sun

leaving my strands soaked in liquid gray




20. Fekade Azeze: Addis Ababa


ethiopian poet dr fekade azeze

Born in 1950, he attended Addis Ababa University and later, Sheffield. Fekade has had 5 collections of poems published in Amharic, a book on famine poetry, 2 books on folklore and numerous articles about Ethiopian literature. He is currently an associate professor of Ethiopian literature and folklore in Addis Ababa University.

Addis Ababa

I walk your streets, but make no strides:

your shops and kiosks crowd my eyes

ENTs and dentistries

music stalls

drug shacks

photo booths

jumbled!

chaotic!

so many loud bars competing to make the most noise

how can so much thunder come

out of shops as small

and cluttered as gravestones?

this flow of people that never stops

pushing, storming, elbowing

measuring the chaos of your streets…

I walk your streets, but make no strides:

dinginess and squalor

poor rag-dirty men

all men, sleeping rough

in your abundant filth

on every corner

keep piercing my eyes,

I stop and glance, not long enough to see

if they are alive,

I march forward, like everyone else

we all march forward.


I walk your streets, but make no strides:

your population is so dense

there is no space to walk!

your bodies look so pale and shrunken

discoloured!

slack!

I ask myself, do they have food?

do they have a roof over their heads?

is everyone sleeping rough on street corners

lying in make-shift tukuls?

piled on top of each other like planks?

I walk your streets, making no strides,

hands stretch out and hold me back, begging every step:

thousands of fathers and mothers!

hundreds of babies and young girls!

crowds of skinny old men and teenagers

with no one to care for them

all searching for scraps, a living out of scraps.

I walk your streets, making no strides:

a naked boy runs past me

another clutches a stone or stick

others a flower or a rag

or a paper

long black hair locked in dreads

skin burnt to charcoal

shouting in the squares where other people call them

insane!

but there is always some truth in what they say

they have nobody to care for them

but they are your decorations, Addis, your beautiful jewels!

I walk your streets, but make no strides:

how can I avoid playing football with your children?

your streets are a playground

a nursery where you bring up your young

your little shoe-shine boys

lottery-ticket hawkers and cigarette touts

q’olo corn sellers, gum sellers, paperboys

children doing nothing

children begging

look! it is World Childrens’ Day

they are performing a show for everyone to see

about survival

they have made your streets into a stage.

Yes, I have walked your streets, I have made no strides.

Your secrets are endless, Addis! I will give in now, I will rest.

*Note: Translated from Amharic by the author, in collaboration with Chris Beckett.


Extra: An Assortment of Q’ene/Qine/Kine Ethiopian Poetry


ethiopian poems qene qini

Born in 1950, he attended Addis Ababa University and later, Sheffield. Fekade has had 5 collections of poems published in Amharic, a book on famine poetry, 2 books on folklore and numerous articles about Ethiopian literature. He is currently an associate professor of Ethiopian literature and folklore in Addis Ababa University.

‘We do not respect an angel for his wings…’

We do not respect an angel for his wings

or because he covers his face with his wings.

After all, birds and insects have wings.

We do not respect an old man for his white hair.

After all, wood may turn white in cold air.

We respect a man for his wisdom, not his white hair.

Liqoo Kefle Yohannes, translated by Chris Beckett.

‘One teacher bows to another…’

One teacher bows to another.

Finger and thumb are unequal brothers.

Author unknown, it is an ancient Gondar "Gubae Cana”, translation done by Chris Beckett.

‘Mount Tabor’

Mount Tabor, though it could make men quake,

could not explain God’s secrets.

But the cloud, so insubstantial, spoke.

Author unknown, it is a Zeamlakye Q’ene from a Gondar scholar, translation done by Chris Beckett.

‘Since Adam…’

Since Adam/your lip did eat of that Tree,

The Saviour/my heart has been hung up for Thee.

Author unknown, it is a "sem ena work" (wax and gold) q’ene where 2 subjects are placed side by side and the second line puns on the verb, "tasaqala", which can mean "is crucified" or "is anxious to be near". This poem is deals with Christ atoning for the sin of man, but its second meaning is that of a sensual love poem. The translation was done by Donald Levine.

‘What use is tella? What use is tejj?’’

What use is tella? What use is tejj?

When you see the enemy, serve him coffee!

Author unknown, Tella is a form of watered down beer, while tejj is a much more stronger wine made of honey. This is a "merimer q’ene" which plays on 2 meanings of a phrase, in this case "buna adargaw" (give him coffee) and bun adargaw (burn him to ashes), so the "work" (gold) of the second line is: When you see the enemy, burn him to ashes! The translation was done by Donald Levine. reference: themissingslate