By Arefaynie Fantahun
It was a pleasure to talk to the revered journalist and author, Negash Gebre-Mariam. He is an imposing presence and he looks vigorous for a 90-year-old man but prostate cancer is weakening him these days, he says. It probably shows in his dark rings under his eyes.
He leads a quiet life in the east of Addis Ababa in a house that he shares with his wife and his two children. A bachelor for many years, Negash didn’t marry until he was forty, something he came to regret. “You know, it is better to have kids when you are young and active,” he says. Negash, a newspaperman at heart worked at the Ethiopian Herald for a year and edited the Amharic daily Addis Zemen for four years, the paper that had been run by church educated people for the previous 20 years. With his four years journalism training in the United States, Negash had to undertake the task of upgrading the layout, story placement, headlines and introducing the idea and coining the Amharic word for “editorial” consulting a renowned Geez scholar, Leke Seyouman Aklilu. After Addis Zemen, he would leave to serve as assistant manager of the radio and television department and later as general manager of the Ethiopian News Agency.
Negash also tried his hand at playwriting with a drama titled “Yedil Atbiya Arbegnoch”, which is based on the theme of the Italian occupation. Yet it was his second play, “Ye Azawintoch Kebeb” (Senior Citizens’ Circles) that brought him wider recognition and fame. It was also financially rewarding, fetching him 33,000 birr which obviously is considerable compared to the previous one, only 4,000 birr. He also wrote an Amharic novel, entitled Setegna Adari (Prostitute) which was described by the literary critic Thomas L.Kane as “clearly superior to the average Amharic prose story.” In this work, Negash focuses on the cause and possible solutions to prostitution in Ethiopia.
Negash grew up in Mechara Jilbo, Harar. He was brought up by his grandfather, hailed from Wolo, who understood the value of education. Young Negash and all the other children in the family were taught alphabet by priest hired by his grandpa. After reciting alphabet, Negash left with his elder brother who was often on the move because of work. His brother, Assefa Gebre-Mariam who was five years older than him already attended mission school. “He had a strong wish for me to get minimum education too and he sent me to a modern school in Asebe Teferi,” Negash recalls. His brother moved to Addis Ababa and Negash followed him. After three years in elementary school in Teferi Mekonen School, he joined Teacher’s Training School just opened by the British Council. When he finished there, he headed to Jima to teach at a mission school, which he did for a year. He came back to Addis and joined Kotebe Secondary School to complete his education, which he did only in three years.
The school produced share of distinguished students such as Minase Haile, Girmame Niway. Ten of his classmates were selected to go to England for higher education. But he didn’t get the chance. Instead, he joined the former University’s College in Arat Kilo, the only college then existing in the country.
Negash says he nurtured an ambition from early on to become a writer following in the footsteps of his brother, Assefa Gebremariam who authored one of the noteworthy novels written after the war, Ende wetach Keretch. He was aware that journalism would prove an avenue for him to fulfil his lifelong ambition. While working for the US Information Service in Addis Ababa, he was given a chance to go the United States, a chance that he seized upon readily. He proceeded with his journalistic training in earnest at Montana University.
On his return from the US in the early spring of 1957, he started working for the Ethiopian Herald edited by David Talbot. With Ayalew Wolde Ghiorgis, also trained abroad and Yakob Wolde-Mariam, they formed a board of editors, which lasted a year. Yakob was later appointed acting editor of the Herald and Negash would move to Addis Zemen (New Era), a paper founded by the Emperor upon the restoration of independence and edited for many years by Blata Wolde Giorgis Woldeyohnnes. “When I started my career as editor of Addis Zemen in 1961, I was told by the erstwhile editor that on the front page only the Emperor’s pictures and news related to him should appear. This was something that naturally against journalistic principles that I was taught at school. Instead of declining the offer, I chose to accept hoping that in the process the challenges and censorship would minimize,” he says. “It was often a case of two steps backward, one step forward. The censorship prevented me and my colleagues from utilizing our full potential. For instance, upon the break out of cholera in the neighbouring Somali, I once wrote an editorial urging the government and the public to do the necessary preparations. For this, I was summoned before the Council of Ministers and given a last warning,” he says.
Once he decided to omit his name from the newspaper because his boss, Shamble Atinafu “didn’t seem to like my editorials that I was writing. Since I couldn’t tolerate his tampering with my writings, I decided to do so,” he said. He said it was extremely spirit-crushing.
Negash’s most memorable moment at the paper was the interview he held with Emperor on the occasion of his 80th anniversary of his birthday. “A group of journalists made out request to be granted the permission to ask the Emperor some questions in connection with the birthday. But as required by the palace protocol, minsters had first to see the questions and pass them on to the king for him to see them. Having been granted the permission to conduct the interview, I went along with the team of five journalists to the palace. The Emperor was waiting for us, sitting dignified on his throne. I caught a glimpse of a paper with our questions written on it, on his desk. After my colleagues presented their respective questions each in their in turn, it was now my turn and I mustered the courage to pose my questions: “Western writers who praise your Majesty’s greatness and far-sightedness often end their volumes with a question; what is to become of the country after the Emperor. Could you comment on this?” Negash recalls. The Emperor skilfully shrugged off the question in his response, indicating that it was all put in the constitution. Negash says there were some who were urging the Emperor to take measure against him but the Emperor reportedly responded it was him who gave him the permission. Negash used to give on-the-job training for the reporters in the evenings. Many of his colleagues bare testimony the on-job training they used to receive from him, was instrumental in helping them improve their skills.
After Addis Zemen, Negash became acting head in the radio and television department, working under the head of the department, Niguse Habtewold. Upon the Derg’s takeover, the head was arrested and Negash was asked to fill the vacancy. He refused saying that he wasn’t interested in administrate position. He instead was made general manager of the Ethiopian News Agency (ENA), while Gedamu Abraha became head of the radio and Samuel Ferenji head of television After the dawn of the revolution, Baalu Girma who had been editor of Addis Zemen, came to ENA to be Negash’s deputy. “He used to do some translation and reporting,” Negash says. At the time, the then Derg chairman, Mengistu was looking for a ghost writer and one of his confidants, Fisseha Geda was coming to ENA as emissary. “He would ask all the working journalists to craft a speech for Mengistu. Most of us did but it was Baalu’s which was selected. When I asked Baalu about it, he light-heartedly told me he found easy to get into his style. “You just have to speak their language.” Thereafter Baalu has had a hand in every speech Mengistu has done until the Red Star campaign, Negash says. Baalu was appointed as the head of the Ethiopian News Agency, and Negash was sent to the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development as head of the public relations department and there he worked for about two years.
One of the bitter memories of Negash during those times was the twenty six days that he spent in prison for allegedly hiding weapons. “My experience was harsh. The guards alternated between me, shackling me for hours,” he recalls.
During those times, the pressures on journalists have multiplied with “senseless and crude censorship,” Negash says. Some paid with their lives. Negash particularly recalls Worku Tegegn who used to work as reporter at the Ethiopian News Agency. “He was a fine writer whose skill was known by every colleague of his. When the Derg explained the reason for the execution of the then Derg chairman, Col Atanfu Abate, it was him who wrote the report. But he wrote about the subject in a way that implied the Colonel should not have been executed. This was not something the Derg officials were likely to find endearing. Anyway, just within two days of the publication of the article, we heard that Worku was killed by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party, one of the competing parties.”
In 1977 Negash was asked to retire at the age of 52, after he was accused of being “a reactionary who couldn’t keep pace with the official line.” He could draw comfort from the fact that he left the press with his reputation still very much intact.
So Negash left government service, and he had no other place to go other than spending his day at certain café located in Meshuwalekia area, not far from where he was living. “Many people used to come to this café, brokers, solders, spies and retired people like me. I became close with some of them and we started discussing about what we could accomplish as educated persons. Some of them were discouraged but some suggested starting a business or opening café,” he recalls. He was already forming in his mind and his notes the outline for the play- one with this place as setting which later became “Ye Azanwintoch Kebeb”. (Senior Citizens’ Circles) It was performed at the National Theatre in 1980, produced by Debebe Eshetu. It was a tremendous success and it was later filmed and transmitted on the Ethiopian Television.
Despite all his literary success, his happiest times were on his newspaper job. Explaining his disinclination then to follow the traditional career path of moving to management, he says: “I didn’t have an ambitious bone in my body in terms of being a superior commander.”
He served as part time lecturer at the Addis Ababa University for a year and later edited Ayat Real State’s magazine for three years. He is full of admiration for some new recruits to the profession, but shares concerns that the problems of financing aspect of the industry. “The industry is relatively small and investment is more or less non-existent” noted the veteran Negash. “For things to change, we need to set in place highly developed circulation and distribution mechanism.”
He described some of the defunct private newspapers as of “of low quality, antagonistic to the establishment and full of political scandals.”
Negash is described as “formidable” by almost everyone who remembers him at the Addis Zemen, but they also talk of his meticulous attention to detail and the way he made fun of himself. Mairegu Bezabih calls him “the father of modern Ethiopian journalism”. Mairegu said he had always had a great deal of respect for Negash, describing him as modest and talented. “He never boasted, never tooted his own trumpet,” he said. “As former classmate of mine and as playwright to boot, Negash was extremely capable man. At school he was fond of story-telling and later in life he had proved himself to be a competent writer of articles and plays,” another veteran journalist Yacob Wolde-Mariam wrote in his memoir.