Yirga Gelaw Woldeyes – Leaving Behind Two Africas

Bread & Butter is a monthly dinner and storytelling event designed to make you think deeply about social issues. A new storyteller every month shares a personal story with 40 guests in the dining room at the Centre for Stories.

Yirga Gelaw Woldeyes was born in the holy town of Lalibela, Ethiopia. He is a writer, researcher and poet and has had a book of his poetry – Yeteraroch Chuhet, The Cry of Mountains – published. His poetry uses his native language of Amharic to reflect on Ethiopia’s history of loss and resilience. On 25 April 2019, Yirga shared stories of his homeland and the confrontation of being a black man in Australia at Bread & Butter.

[Transcript]

Thank you so much, I really would like to thank Centre for Stories. Had it not been for this Centre, I don’t think I would have been able to publish some of the stories that I published and have for this platform to talk to you, so it’s really an incredible Centre. Thank you Caroline and your team.

You know, thinking about this story I wanted to tell you some things about myself, as you can see, I am a black person, I’m black. I’m from Africa and I’m from Ethiopia and you might know that Ethiopia is a poor country so, I’m a person, a black man from Africa. But these states of who I am were not as clear as they seem to me now, especially when I grew up as a young person. I never knew that I was black. I didn’t know I was a black man before I came to Australia. In fact, when I was quite young, about the age of eleven or twelve, my father’s friend came to visit us in the house and he looked at my siblings and my friends and he said ‘Oh! You guys is black.’ And I say ‘No, I’m not black, I’m brown.’ I said that because sometimes I get in argument with my friend, is where we do plays. In the play in Ethiopia we would have three types of colours for people. You have red or black or brown. So, in a play red and black are considered to be enemies to each other, and brown is a kind of mediator a judge, so I always want to become brown and judge my friends when they fight each other. That’s why I said I’m not black, I’m brown.

You see, this was the level of consciousness that I had about colour when I went to university to study law. At freshman, when I went there, there was this African-American professor. She was young, she wanted to teach the laws of Ethiopia and she called us to meet and talk about her idea. Her idea was to promote black consciousness among Ethiopian students. She was so disappointed, so angry, so frustrated because she felt as that Ethiopia should be the leader in the movement of black people for liberation. She told us, “You people, Ethiopians, the world thinks Africa does not have history. Ethiopia has a history that dates back 10,000 years. The world thinks Africa does not know how to write their stories. That they don’t have literature. But Ethiopians were writing books before the British had their alphabet, or before many Europeans even know how to write. The world thinks Europeans brought Christianity, Christ, to Africa. But Ethiopia was Christian before Europe, it was mentioned in the bible even more than forty-four times. The black world especially sings for Ethiopia, both madly sing for Ethiopia. The Back-to-Africa movement, every black people celebrated Ethiopia, but you people here, you don’t even know that you are black.”

So, we are so confused, there is great things about our country but why is she relating these things to only one side of the population. How about the red ones? How about the brown ones? And even a friend of mine who was doing mathematics, because she said, you know, “My black skin is a source of mathematics, of science in Ancient Egypt, and so on”. And she raised this and said, “Do you think it’s also possible to create a collab for red consciousness because some of us are good in maths.”

That was the level of understanding of colour that I had in Ethiopia. But many years later I turned up in Australia and slowly I started to understand that there is actually a subtle meaning of what black people are. So, through the immigration process, through work, there is that usual phrase, “Ah, you are from Africa? You must be very happy, you must be very lucky!” So, this reminds us of a certain narrative about blackness with which I struggle. So, the questions that I sometimes struggle with; okay, I haven’t experienced a blackness in my life, I was a brown person when I grew up in Ethiopia. Do I defend it as my identity, because it is not me, or do I reject it? Because if I do so, the world understanding me as a black person thinks there are certain consequences for doing that. That is a story of me about being black—the fact that I didn’t know I was black before I came here.

I’ll tell you another story about poverty as well. Everybody knows that Ethiopia’s a poor country and I come from a poor place, and so on. But the thing is, I never knew poverty from my experience. I didn’t know that I was poor. Never. I grew up in this place Lalibela, there are so many mountains around Lalibela. Some of the mountains go as high as 4000 metres above sea level. Around the mountains there are trees, there are forests. From the age of eight, we are allowed to walk through the fields with our friends, with the cart, the sheep, and goats, and so on. So, we’ll be running around all day playing without any restriction, jumping from one gorge to another, climbing a mountain and going down, and singing all kinds of songs as children. And Lalibela is also famous for its Rock-Hewn churches. Nine-hundred years ago, an Ethiopian Emperor called Lalibela wanted to create Heaven on Earth so that these people experience spiritually, a sense of living in Heaven. So, what they did was there was this massive mountain, like massive rock, as big as a suburb and they chiselled out, they carved out eleven churches out of that rock. They started from the roof, chiselled at the rock and created tunnels underground. Us children, we are very happy to run around, hide and seek in the tunnels, and so on. Sometimes the priest or the monks would call us and tell us, “Do you see this?”

“What?”

“Do you see that?”

“Oh yes, that is a church.”

“No, no. Do you see something else?”

“No.”

“There are angels here, there are thousands, you may not see them, but there are angels hovering, flying everywhere, with their wings, they have swords in their hands, they are sent from God to protect this place. Now, if you children are running around and doing all kinds of noises you might get into trouble. You have to be respectful.”

That was the kind of advice we would get from the elders. So, what we do sometimes, we go to the churches. We study songs, and we take those songs through the forest to the field and sing with our friends. And also, we go to school. That period was a period of transitioning Ethiopia, where a new government came by removing 1700-year-old monarchy through violence. So, they were revolutionary songs, there were spiritual songs in the church. We get songs from everywhere, for example, in the churches, there is this song. It goes like this…

Yirga sings.

This is a song that says that, lets love each other before we die for the world will pass like a shadow. These are the types of songs we bring from the churches. And there are other songs we would bring from, the revolutionary songs as well. There was this song, for example…

Yirga sings.

This is a type of song that glorified the murdering of people who are against the revolution of the time. But we never questioned the contradiction of the music tradition, we just get everything and sing along with our friends, and so on. That is how I grew up. I never knew that was a life of poverty. Of course, sometimes we’d have fetch water from far-away places but that was a mere inconvenience for us or an opportunity for an adventure. We’d go far away for half of the day, playing around to fetch water from a far-away place.

When I become a year-ten student, I wanted to work, and I wanted to become a health assistant. I was trained for one and a half year, as a health assistant. I was assigned to work in a remote rural clinic in Ethiopia as a mini doctor. So, what did I do? I stitched wounds, I administered medicine, antibiotics for people, help women to deliver, and do all kinds of those things. And I start to enjoy that life. I remember one story where a woman came to the clinic to give birth and she had a problem with labour. The amniotic cycle had a problem. So, what I did was I took a sharp object and carefully not to hurt her, I pierced the amniotic sack. When I did that, a gush of amniotic water splashed on my face and I retreated. When that happened, she held my hand and said, “God bless you forever and thank you.” And I felt such gratitude and I still remember that response from that lady. So, I administered and did many other things. We are circumcising people, young men, before the time of their weddings, depending on the tradition-hood and their way of giving service.

And also, I start did something else. I started to write poems. I started to write my experience, the experience that I see, using words. And I collected a large collection of poems, and finally I decided to go to university. You know, to be successful, to get to somewhere, I have to go to university and study more. I went to the Addis Ababa University, and I went to the literature department. I found out there’s a professor who is quite educated. I wanted to talk to him and I went and knocked at his door, and he said, “Come in.” I entered and then he asked me to sit. I said, “No, I just want to stand while talking to you.”

“Ok, what do you want?” he said.

“Look, I’ve been writing poems for a long time and I have collected them and I have them here. I really, really want to know if I have a chance to become a great writer. I really want to become a writer and I want to join the literature department, if that is a possibility?”

And then he took my book—I gave him the poems—and he, again, invited me to sit. I sat.

He flipped through the pages of my poems and said, “Ha! So, you want to become a famous writer?”

“Yes, I want to become a famous writer.” And then he said, “Have you heard anything about Shakespeare?”

“No.”

“Have you heard about John Milton?”

“No.”

“Have you read any of their work?”

“No.”

And he carries on mentioning names after names, and each time I say, “No, no, no.”

“We may help you to become a writer in the future, but this is not a time for you to think about writing. Just go and join the department.”

I felt so disappointed, so discouraged and I immediately went out from his office and decided to not join the literature department. And I started to look at other options. I felt like I should study law because I remember my father was very interested in the law. He was very careful in writing legal documents, he used to help people who come from rural places to Lalibela and he would write them legal applications carefully, and sometimes he would ask me to read those applications. And I felt like law is closer to me, so I went to the law department.

I went there and I found out that, although Ethiopian law is practiced in Amharic, local language, although all the codes are written in our local language, law in the university was taught in English. I didn’t understand why, I look over all the other departments—geography, history, biology—everything is taught in English. Ninety-nine percent of Ethiopian’s do not understand English. Why is this happening? I didn’t know. So, I went to the Dean of the law school one day and I wanted to ask him, “Why do you think we are studying in a language that we wouldn’t use and practice when we go out and graduate?” And he looked me in the eye and said, “You don’t know why?”

“No, I don’t know why.”

“It’s because of poverty. We are poor people. What can we study from our language, from our culture, from our history? In order to develop our country, we have to learn from the West. We have to learn their language, have to learn their education, we have to bring their size, their investment, to develop our country.”

That was the day when I learned the meaning of poverty. Poverty is not what you don’t have in the world, but actually a belief that you need something that other people, successful people, have. Sometimes people think poverty is lack of water, lack of food, and so on. That is not poverty, that is destitution, or that is hunger. Poverty is actually a political and ideological project that is implemented to make countries like Ethiopia feel dependent on developed countries.

I came to this country after some years. I studied a PhD on the Ethiopian education system and I ended up writing a book called Native Colonialism. It’s a book that says how Ethiopia is colonised by foreign ideas and institutions that are not its own history, its own culture. Now when I reflect about my experience I always feel like there are two types of Africas. Now we think about Africa but there are two Africas. One Africa is the Africa where I grew up, as a child playing with my friends, an Africa where people live and experience life. The second Africa is an imagined Africa, the Africa that lives in the minds of people. The Africa, the blackness, that you know without talking to black people—by simply listening to views that is broadcasted through the media, and so on. There’s real Africa, which is based on people’s experiences, and there’s the imagined Africa, which is based on ideas, assumptions, and opinions that people have. And to be an African sometimes, is the struggle, to really maintain where to belong in relation to these two Africas. Thank you.

Copyright © 2019 Yirga Gelaw Woldeyes

This story and corresponding images have been licensed to the Centre for Stories by the Storyteller. For reproduction and distribution of this story/image please contact the Centre for Stories.

© 2019 Centre for Stories / Site by Super Minimal