The poet-artist with an “unconquerable soul”?
Last week, Meron Getnet, the extraordinary young Ethiopian actress, put out on Youtube a powerful Amharic poem entitled, “Hagere, Hizbe, Kibre” (My Country, My People, My Honor).
The last time I “saw” Meron was this past September in a video clip intended to be a promotional for the film DIFRET (COURAGE), a film based on the true story of an Ethiopian teenage girl who killed her abductor and rapist in a barbaric cultural practice known as “marriage by abduction”. That abominable practice continues today as the ruling regime in that country turns a blind eye. In DIFRET, Meron played the role of an indefatigable lawyer who successfully defended not only the liberty of the teenage victim but also her honor and dignity as a woman.
The premier screening of DIFRET last September in Addis Ababa was cancelled seconds before the film was scheduled to be screened in the theater. In a bizarre turn of events, the film’s director, Zeresenay Mehari, took the stage and apologetically announced to a stunned audience, “We were just told by the police that we have to stop this film because there is a court order on it… This is obviously an attack on us…”
It was a manifestly humiliating moment for all who participated in the production of that which had been awarded the 2014 Audience Award at the Sundance and the Berlin International Film Festivals. It must have been particularly mortifying for Meron Getnet who manifestly yearned to share her pride in a film that had brought so much prestige to her country and artistic honor to herself and colleagues. I wondered (but not for long) in total dismay why the ruling regime in Ethiopia that describes itself as the Tigrean Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) would stoop so low to snatch such a beautiful moment from the enraptured young performance artists. I renamed the TPLF as the “Schadenfreude Regime”, a regime whose leaders get a thrill witnessing the pain, suffering and misfortune of others.
Watching Meron in that video clip, I deeply felt her pain and public humiliation. I could not bear watching the video clip as she tried to make sense of the last second cancellation of the premier in what could have been a most glorious moment for her country, for her people and for her honor. This was how I described her demeanor in that promotional video clip:
… The beautiful young actress Meron Getnet sat stunned and speechless. She is visibly shocked and confused. She looked around in total disbelief trying to get someone to tell her what she has just heard is not true… In her seat, Meron clasps her palms in the traditional praying position as if to implore God’s intervention to save her and her country from such cruel public humiliation. An unidentified interviewer asks her how she feels. (How does one really feel when one’s heart is yanked out before the entire world!?) Meron is visibly brokenhearted. But she puts on a calm and brave face. She is struggling to hide her outrage and fury. She is fighting tears; but she does not breakdown though she is manifestly broken-hearted…
Honor lost, honor regained
After watching the downcast and crestfallen Meron in the DIFRET promotional clip last September, I grudgingly accepted the fact that the criminal TPLF regime had indeed succeeded in shattering Meron’s artistic spirit and possibly even psychologically crippling her. But after listening to her recent poem “Hagere, Hizbe, Kibre” (My Country, My People, My Honor), I realized that I could not have been more wrong. Meron struck back with poetry of defiant protest. She spoke up with steely COURAGE (difret) against those who tried to bludgeon and crush her artistic spirit. In “Hagere, Hizbe, Kibre” (My Country, My People, My Honor), I saw Meron’s head bludgeoned but unbowed. I saw her soul smitten but unconquered. I saw her face the menace of tyranny, but found her and shall find her unafraid, to borrow phrases from the poet William Ernest Henley. In “Hagere, Hizbe, Kibre” (My Country, My People, My Honor), I found MERON, INVICTUS! (Meron, the Unconquered!)
If words are windows to a person’s character, the words in “Hagere, Hizbe, Kibre” (My Country, My People, My Honor) show that behind Meron’s charm, elegance and grace is personality made of carbon fiber, ten times stronger than steel. Her words in “Hagere, Hizbe, Kibre” (My Country, My People, My Honor) slice like a clay-tempered Samurai sword and pound away like a jack hammer. Each word flays the political chicanery of the TPLF. Each phrase hacks right through the TPLF hypocrisy. Each verse cleaves TPLF’s inglorious duplicity. “Hagere, Hizbe, Kibre” (My Country, My People, My Honor) unmasks layer by layer the mendacity, corruption and human rights violations of the TPLF.
“Hagere, Hizbe, Kibre” (My Country, My People, My Honor) as anti neo-apartheid protest poem
The sublime beauty of poetry is that it allows the reader and the listener to mine the words and phrases of the poet for deeper meaning and broader understanding. The poem once birthed by the poet immediately begins a life of its own completely independent of the mind that gave it life. The poem takes up residence in the mind of each reader and listener. It prostrates itself on the surgical table of the poetry-phile’s mind to give up its hidden secrets, to shed its mystery and to surrender its riddles. It is the duty of the poetry-phile to discover the latent meanings, to reveal the truth behind the intimations and innuendoes and to unmask, uncloak and unshroud the intended and real meaning of the poet.
As an autodidact in a variety of literary genres and deeply steeped in American “liberal arts education”, I have acquired a modicum of skills useful in interpretive literary analysis. My personal analysis of “Hagere, Hizbe, Kibre” (My Country, My People, My Honor) is that it is quintessentially an anti neo-apartheid protest poem.
Apartheid in South Africa was a system of racial domination in which a minority Afrikaner white population imposed its absolute political rule on a majority black population while completely monopolizing the economy. The South African apartheid system was founded on a system of bantustans (homelands) and strict racial segregation and stratification. The minority Afrikaners in their inflated nationalism felt they were superior because they had ascended to power through military conquest and could cling to power indefinitely through the ruthless application of violence against all who opposed them. In apartheid South Africa, there were five classes of citizens. The first-class of citizens comprise of National Party leaders, their wealthy supporters and their cronies. The second-class citizens include ordinary Afrikaners. The “coloureds” were third-class citizens. The “Indian/Asians” were fourth-class citizens. The majority black Africans, the nobodies, were fifth-class citizens.
Like apartheid South Africa, the political leadership, the bureaucracy, the police, security and military institutions in Ethiopia are totally dominated by the TPLF. Like apartheid South Africa, the vampiric TPLF regime and its supporters have total control of all economic sectors including banking, construction and cement production, mining, transportation, insurance and the import-export sectors. Like apartheid South Africa, the first-class citizens in Ethiopia are members of the TPLF aristocracy. The second-class citizens comprise of rich TPLF lackeys and supporters of the TPLF. The third-class citizens include those generally known as “hodams” (opportunists) who care only about their personal benefits and the so-called foreign investors. The fourth-class citizens include the so-called EPDRF behind which the TPLF hides to project the illusion of being a multiparty pluralist institution. The fifth-class citizens which include the nobodies (the rest of Ethiopians).
Like the National Party of the Afrikaners, the leaders and members of the TPLF feel they have a birth right to rule forever because they seized power by military conquest and can cling to power through the unrestrained use of violence. Like apartheid South Africa, Ethiopia has been reduced to an aggregation of kilils (the exact conceptual and policy equivalent of apartheid bantustans). Like apartheid South Africa where the majority black population was rendered landless, all Ethiopians today are rendered landless (and their land auctioned off for pennies to TPLF and international land grabbers) because the state owns all land. Who is the state in Ethiopia? The TPLF!
Black Africans in apartheid South Africa over two decades ago and the vast majority of Ethiopians today share one thing in common: an overwhelming feeling of “countrylesssness”, decitizenization and dishonor. Thus, Meron cries out for the whole world to hear: “Hagere, Hizbe, Kibre” (My Country, My People, My Honor).
As a political protest poem, “Hagere, Hizbe, Kibre” (My Country, My People, My Honor) defies literary categorization. In an extraordinary way, it embodies traces of a variety of poetic forms. It has elements of symbolism, yet it is uncompromisingly realistic and even exhortatively didactic. The poem resonates with passion and irony, yet plainly speaks truth to abusers of power. It employs allegory, allusions, alliterations, puns, metaphors and even personifications, yet it is a poetic narrative with dramatic monologue and piercing and mesmerizing verses. As impressive as the technical construction of “Hagere, Hizbe, Kibre” (My Country, My People, My Honor) is, I was most struck by the sheer intensity of political protest and defiance embedded in the words and phrases.
(Note: The English translation of selected verses from Hagere, Hizbe, Kibre” (My Country, My People, My Honor) herein is my own though others have made significant contributions. Translation of Amharic poetry laden with symbolism and strapped with literary and cultural complexity is an exceedingly difficult task. The English translation I have provided below aims to approximate the essential content of Meron’s poem.)
At first blush, listening to the Youtube audio of “Hagere, Hizbe, Kibre” (My Country, My People, My Honor), I thought it was a sealed criminal indictment against the TPLF and its late godfather Meles Zenawi. The words resonate as though a prosecutor is reading charges against a band of criminals accused of theft of a whole country, decitizenization of a whole population and robbery of the dignity of the people. Of course, the poem does not mention the TPLF by name, but the allusions to a variety of high crimes and misdemeanors illuminate the singular identity of the criminals.
“Hagere, Hizbe, Kibre” (My Country, My People, My Honor) is constructed around the basic themes of loss of citizenship rights, denial of human rights and dignity, abuse of power, corruption, the illusion of development and income inequality in Ethiopia. It is a powerful poem that taps into many national issues, digs into deep emotions and forces the listener to virtually taste the bitter realities of oppression and dehumanization in Ethiopia under the TPLF regime.
In my interpretation, “Hagere, Hizbe, Kibre” (My Country, My People, My Honor) echoes the silent voices and depicts the quiet desperation of the millions of Ethiopians who have been so marginalized in their own country that they not only feel that they have become invisible but also find themselves as human rejects, nobodies. Meron’s passionate outcry for the marginalized nobodies of Ethiopia reminded of Eduardo Galeano’s poem, “The Nobodies”: “…/ The nobodies: nobody’s children, owners of nothing./ The nobodies: the no ones, the nobodied, running like rabbits,/dying through life, screwed every which way…/The nobodies, who are not worth the bullet that kills them/…/
In my interpretation, “Hagere, Hizbe, Kibre” (My Country, My People, My Honor) carries different messages for the different classes of Ethiopian society today. To the first-class citizens who are members of the TPLF aristocracy, it sends a message of censure. To the second-class citizens comprising of rich TPLF lackeys and supporters who benefit enormously from their association with the TPLF aristocracy, it sends a warning to beware. To the third-class citizens, generally known as “hodams” (opportunists) who care only about their personal benefits and the so-called foreign investors, the poem expresses contempt. To the fourth-class citizens including the so-called EPDRF behind which the TPLF hides to project the illusion of being a multiparty pluralist institution, the poem unveils the deception of the unholy alliance. To the fifth-class citizens which include the nobodies (the rest of Ethiopians), it sends a clarion call to wake up, stand up and stand up for their rights.
The poem begins as Meron dramatically narrates her deep regrets for having urged her countryman a long time ago not to abandon his country and people and go into exile. Meron has found out much too late that honor and full citizenship rights are given not to those who stayed behind to build the country but to those who left the country and came back wealthy. One must travel and stay abroad for years and return with money just to have their citizenship recognized and dignity honored. Those who stay behind to build the county are condemned to be ignored and marginalized. In her first line of verse, she laments ruefully: “Do not go! Do not go!/I cried out to you raising my pen/ Out of love of country and your people/ Knowing that our country cannot survive without our sweat/…/ I tried my best to stop you from leaving/…/ Though we walk shoeless on roads full of thorns/ Do not say ‘I will let it be, I am leaving’/ Let us clean it together./ I was wrong and caused you to do wrong by badgering you to stay…/ If the pen I wrote those words with could see me now/ It would hold me in shame/…/
Meron’s countryman stayed in his country which no longer belongs to him, which has disowned him. She describes his plight, “… As you struggle to live on your country’s soil/ There is no one to see you toil…/ Your futile sweat is replaced by a dollar/… When you cry for your country, they measure your sincerity by how much you have profited/…/ The people worship foreign values/ Their hearts are kneeling/…/
Meron’s countryman has no country, no honor and no rights. Should he stay or go, go to a faraway land to regain his honor, gain citizenship and have his rights respected and return to get the same in his own country?
“Hagere, Hizbe, Kibre” (My Country, My People, My Honor) conveys an overwhelming feeling of deciticizenization, a feeling that is rare even among expatriates who have lived abroad for many decades. The poem forces the listener to feel what it means to be countryless, propertyless, powerless, helpless and defenseless in Ethiopia. In my interpretation, the poem could just as easily have been about dispossession, oppression and exploitation under colonial occupation and rule. Could it be a poem about the internal colonialism of Ethiopia by the TPLF?
“Hagere, Hizbe, Kibre” (My Country, My People, My Honor) speaks of the arrogance and imperiousness of the rulers and the humiliation, degradation and deciticenization of the ruled. It wails for those dispossessed of their country, their homes and land and their dignity and honor. It screams out for those whose country is stolen. The poem reminded me of Jeremiah’s Lamentations: “Our inheritance is turned to strangers, our houses to aliens. We are orphans and fatherless, our mothers are as widows. We have drunken our water for money; our wood is sold unto us. Our necks are under persecution: we labour, and have no rest…”
“Hagere, Hizbe, Kibre” (My Country, My People, My Honor) is the wail of the dispossessed, the millions of Ethiopians who are evicted from their mud wall homes (and farms) so that their land can be given to those who can build shiny multi-storey buildings. The poem speaks of the massive removal of poor people in the name of urban renewal and “development”. It is an indictment of the TPLF tycoons and their foreign accomplices who gobble up the land as homelessness, starvation and poverty gobbles up the poor. Urban and rural land is gobbled up at such a frightening rate, the poem expresses fear that there may not even be patches of ground left for the poor and dispossessed to be buried.
Long-suffering citizens who wait to get their promised “government” apartments are suddenly bumped off the waiting lists and their apartments given to those who pay fat bribes to officials. “Joy, Joy, Joy to all the poor who live here/ To those who love their country with all its failings/ To the poor and oppressed/ Multi-storey buildings are being built for you/ You hold the lottery ticket for your house-to-be in prayer/You wait, and wait and wait for years/ Then when you are ready to get your house/ You cannot afford to pay the bribes/ You must wait again until some other developer comes and clears out the neighborhood/ …/ It is better to be thankful/ No use in moaning/ Not even a patch of ground may be left in the country in which to be buried/…/
“Hagere, Hizbe, Kibre” (My Country, My People, My Honor) poses a pointed question about the deprivation of basic human dignity and rights in Ethiopia. “What is the value of being a citizen?/ What is the value of being a citizen?/ There is plenty of land available/ But you get the land for free only when you bring money you earned from a foreign land/ So much is your value/… / How ironic that those who have made their wealth abroad, the non-citizens who flout their wealth on the poverty-stricken Ethiopians, should get everything, but the poor citizens who have toiled and continue to toil to build their country are ignored, forgotten and decitizenized!
“Hagere Kibre” is also about a society that has gone deaf and mute. Those who stand up and speak up against the injustice, abuse and corruption are treated with apparent indifference and silence by the community. There is no one to listen. They are all asleep. The crying voices against injustice in Ethiopia are falling on the deaf ears, but the whispers of those abroad, in the Diaspora, are heard as calls for change. “You stand in the heart of the country/ You stand in the heart of the country/ And cry out for your country/ There is no one there to listen/ It is only when you are abroad that the power of your whisper changes things/…/
“Hagere, Hizbe, Kibre” (My Country, My People, My Honor) is a protest against the devaluation of education and rule by ignoramuses (a regime manned by individuals who have barely completed grade school and others who have bought degrees from internet diploma mills). “You may spend your lifetime and earn advanced degrees/ You may earn a Master’s or a Ph.D./ Let me tell you the truth/ In my country the paper that tips the balance is a three-month (cadre) training certificate/… /
“Hagere, Hizbe, Kibre” (My Country, My People, My Honor) is a complaint against official incompetence and dereliction of duty. The kebele chief (local administrator) who deals with the daily official business of the neighborhood is never to be found in his office. His job is not to serve the people but to hang around and tail the big bosses who spend their time meeting and talking. “Have you ever been to a kebele office to get service?/ To obtain an identification card to show that you have valid residence?/ There is no one in the office, only an empty chair/ You are told he just left to have tea/ Wait for 2 or 3 hours until he returns from tea/ Shut up, sit and wait/ He won’t be here tomorrow because he will be tired/ He will be on vacation/ He is sick one day/He forgets another/ He left the office without signing the papers/He is at a meeting/ He is doing work/ What does he really do?…/ He is at meeting today/ Tomorrow he is tagging along his bosses?/…/
“Hagere, Hizbe, Kibre” (My Country, My People, My Honor) is a poem “Hagere Kibre” about preferring life in exile than to be a stranger in one’s own. Why should anyone stay in their birth country when they are treated as fifth-class citizens? “Let them be/ Let me tell you/ It is better for you to leave (the country)/ If there is no one who recognizes your existence/ Why not leave your country? / If there is no one who recognizes your existence/ Why not leave your country?/…/
The poem advises those whose country has been stolen to go abroad for a few years and return with a new hairdo and money. Then as moneyed Diasporans, they will be greeted with open arms and welcome words by the busy minister of state. Those who stayed behind to build their country are unable to see the lowly kebele chief. “If you go to some country for three years/ And return with a new hairdo/ You won’t have any problems/ No evil eye will look at you/…/ When you return/ It will be the honorable minister that will hear your problems…/ He will ask you what kind of monument shall be erected for you in public/ So that the coming generation could follow in your footsteps/ That’s the campaign they will have for you…/
“Hagere, Hizbe, Kibre” (My Country, My People, My Honor) tells of the effects of privation on the institution of marriage. The young girl whose hand in marriage could not be had in the past through the intervention of traditional elders today is given away by her impoverished mother to those with money. The lack of opportunity and staggering poverty in Ethiopia has forced respectable parents to give away their daughters to those who can afford to go abroad and make a living. “The beautiful young lady you could not get by sending elders/ Now you can snatch her at your pleasure form her mother’s bosom/ You get the girl loved by children and adults alike/ Is it not because you have gone abroad and become (rich) an exile?/
“Hagere, Hizbe, Kibre” (My Country, My People, My Honor) is also about self-blame for not being aware of things as they really are and for blindly loving one’s country and people. The poem recognizes the fact that the central policy aim of the regime is to push out and exile as many Ethiopians as possible both to reduce the level of potential opposition and as a source of revenue through remittances and investments. The moneyed Diasporans who return to spend their money are respected more and lionized while those who stayed in the country with little income toiling to improve it are ignored. “I looked at myself/ I looked at myself/ I am ashamed of myself/ For having cheapened such an important idea/…/ What good is it for you to have a thankless country/ Those who have left are permitted to stay/ And those who stay are banished/ What good is it for you to have a thankless country?/…
“Hagere, Hizbe, Kibre” (My Country, My People, My Honor) is about the disappearance of wise and learned people. The poem uses the personification of a big oak tree to represent the slowly vanishing intellectuals who are moral leaders and pillars of the community, leaders of public opinion and the consciences of their society. They are cut down and felled like the big oak tree whose leaves provide a canopy of shade. In the place of the community oak trees are thickets of ignoramuses who could barely write their names. “When you don’t have wise people/ It is country that suffers/ It is the people who suffer/ It is the flag that fades/ It is the song that loses its notes/ That was what I told you back then/ So that you will not leave the country/ There is no country left/ There is no spirit left/ There is a shortage of the wise/ The big tree no longer provides shade/ Dignity has lost its honor/ What big tree?/ What big tree?/ Best to use a good axe on its trunk/ Give the land and wood to the developers to build houses/ To march for change/ Dress up and go to town/ What good is knowledge when the thinking (of those in power) is zero?/ The current fashion is to build rock upon rock and multi-storey buildings/ Therefore, I take it back/ I take back what I told you about not leaving/I have cancelled it/ Just call me so that I can leave with you/ But I do not doubt/ I will be back for I have drank the water (of Ethiopia)/ I will be back after changing my name/ Then, then my people will accept me and fill me with love/ Hizbe, hagere, kibre (my country, my people, my honor)/
“Hagere, Hizbe, Kibre” (My Country, My People, My Honor) is about fighting despair with the purgative powers of poetry. It is a poem that fights despair with poetry, with words that slice and dice lies. It is a poem that liberates the listener from self-delusion, self-doubt and self-deception.
“Hagere, Hizbe, Kibre” (My Country, My People, My Honor) is a poem for and about those Ethiopians who feel countryless, propertyless, powerless, helpless and defenseless. It is a poem that cries out, “I can’t take it anymore! I can’t live in a neo-apartheid system anymore! We can’t take it anymore! We can’t live in a neo-apartheid system anymore!”
“Hagere, Hizbe, Kibre” (My Country, My People, My Honor) is ultimately a clarion call to action. It calls on all who have been decitizenized to muster courage and take back their country. To me, “Hagere, Hizbe, Kibre” (My Country, My People, My Honor) simply means there is no honor without country, no country without people and no honor without country and people. It announces that there is a limit to human endurance beyond which there is no acceptance or forbearance. “Dripping water cracks the rock/ Let us all keep on shouting until the people wake up from their slumber./ Until the country rises up/ I told you so back then/ How little did I know/ They will ignore the gold and covet the brass/
“Hagere, Hizbe, Kibre” (My Country, My People, My Honor) is a poem about gratitude to the Almighty, He who sees evil doers with patience until he visits his wrath and vengeance upon them without warning.
Life imitating art
Meron Getnet has touched us all with her words “Hagere, Hizbe, Kibre” (My Country, My People, My Honor). I have received countless comments in appreciation of Meron’s poem. Those who have listened to the poem tell me that Meron made them feel what it is like to live with a feeling of having no country, no people and no honor; how it feels to be a fifth-class citizen; how it feels to be a victim of ignorant arrogance, oppression and exploitation; and how it feels to be dispossessed, powerless, helpless and defenseless under a vicious thugtatorship. I feel the same way.
Oscar Wilde, the Nineteenth Century Irish writer and poet in his essay “The Decay of Lying” argued, “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life. This results not merely from Life’s imitative instinct, but from the fact that the self-conscious aim of Life is to find expression, and that Art offers it certain beautiful forms through which it may realize that energy.”
As I ponder Meron’s role in the film DIFRET and her poem “Hagere, Hizbe, Kibre” (My Country, My People, My Honor), I am astonished by the manner in which her life has imitated her art. In the film DIFRET (Courage), Meron played the role of a tenacious Ethiopian woman lawyer who stood up for a young girl who was abducted and raped (another meaning of the Amharic word “difret” is rape) by a hapless young man, who is himself a victim of barbaric culture. In “Hagere, Hizbe, Kibre” (My Country, My People, My Honor), Meron reprises her role as the real life defender of another woman called Ethiopia who has been abducted and raped by a gang of ruthless thugs for over two decades. In DIFRET the film, Meron defended the honor and dignity of a young rape victim. In “Hagere, Hizbe, Kibre” (My Country, My People, My Honor), Meron defends the honor of her country, her people and her own honor. Meron showed courage (difret) in her cinematic role, and today she showed the world her extraordinary difret (courage) in her poem “Hagere, Hizbe, Kibre” (My Country, My People, My Honor).
Meron has spoken for the millions of Ethiopians, particularly her generation, who have been condemned to silence and lives of quiet desperation and the millions more who slumber with their eyes wide open to see the crimes that are being committed against them. Her courage (difret) to speak out and shout out in her poetry should inspire all Ethiopians, particularly the younger generation, to muster courage (difret) to stand up and speak out. Meron is right, very right: “Let us all keep on shouting until the people wake up from their slumber/ Until the country uprises /…
“Hagere, Hizbe, Kibre” (My Country, My People, My Honor) is a special poem for me. It resonates my own outrage against a regime of ignorant thugs who have sacrificed an entire generation of young Ethiopians just to cling to power. But I shall always stand proudly with Ethiopia’s young people.
As I reflect on Meron’s “Hagere, Hizbe, Kibre” (My Country, My People, My Honor), these words keep ringing in my mind: “You stand in the heart of the country/ You stand in the heart of the country/ And cry out for your country/ There is no one there to listen/ It is only when you are abroad that the power of your whisper changes things/…/
Meron should know that we have heard her cry loud and clear. We are here to listen. We will not whisper; we will shout, cry and scream with her.
“Hagere, Hizbe, Kibre” (My Country, My People, My Honor) reminds me of Tilahun Gessesse’s “Ode to Ityopia”. The great Tilahun Gessesse was the first to teach my generation the meaning of hagere, hizbe, kibre” (my country, my people, my honor). I shall always sing… “Ityopia! Ityopia!”
Ityopia, our bulwark (shield)
Our motherland, Ethiopia
Our motherland, Ethiopia
Ityopia, our bulwark (shield)
Our motherland, Ethiopia
Itiopia, the land of paradise…
Ethiopia shall rise from the depths of hell and once again become a paradise!
(To be continued….)