DTW Home      Introduction      Resources     
Senamirmir Projects: Interview with Ato Girma Getahun

Up-Close and Personal
Aleka Desta's Life
Aleka Desta's Work
Aleka Desta's Legacy

Senamirmir: Thank you so much for accepting Senamirmir's invitation for this interview. Can you introduce yourself briefly?

  • KG = Memhèr Kèfle-Giyorgis
  • KWK = Aleka Kidane Wold Kifle
  • DTW = Aleka Desta Tekle Wold
  • KBT = Kissate Birehan Tessema
  • AYMQ = Addis Yamarènya Mezgebe Qalat

Ato Girma Getahun:  Thank you for inviting me. The pleasure is all mine. My name is Girma Getahun. I live in the United Kingdom, where I went to university. I was born in Addis Ababa, in the area known as Ras Hailu Méda, where the Abebe Bikila stadium now stands. My earliest alma mater was Medhanéalem School on the Arbenyoch Road.

Senamirmir: Have you ever attended Kasse-Gedam-Oriented Schools? If you have, in what way that experience has affected you?

Ato Girma Getahun:  For children old/fortunate enough to go to school in the 1950s and 1960s, was there any other starting point except going to the local qés tèmrt bét? So like all other kids I went to one, and then to another. I was a precautious child, and the qés tèmrt bét was a big shock to me. I still remember a room crammed with little kids, shouting the syllabary at the top of our voice, lest the indiscriminating (alenga or artchummé) of the (memmèré) falls upon our ears. Normally a kid with advanced literacy level point to the printed characters of the fidel with (a sebez or sènt’èr), and two or three others sitting beside him/her repeat the sound of the characters after them swaying their heads forward and backward rhythmically. Because kids of varied levels of literacy study side by side the din of noise was incredible.

I stayed with the first qés tèmrt bét only for a week or so. One day I came home with patches of my skin off from the thighs where Memmèré X pinched me repeatedly. My father was furious. He took me to another qés tèmrt bét (but not before he reproached the priest thoroughly). In the second qés tèmrt bét where the (yenéta) was addressed as (Sèbuh, a Gèèz term to mean ‘he who is praised or exalted’), I had a relatively easy time. I realized the only way out of such schools was to learn how to read as soon as possible. So, I made the effort to master the alphabet quickly. As soon as I began to read the short passage in Gèèz which begins with ‘epistle of the Apostle John, son of Zebdee’ (printed in the middle of the fidel gebeta), my father decided to send me to a modern school, thus sparing me from a long stay in the traditional school. Normally a completion of the initial qés schooling includes a repeated reading of Wengél (St John’s Gospel) and Dawit (the Psalms) in Gèèz.

In short, a dirt floor, overcrowded and poorly lighted/ventilated room, cruel and mostly undeserved corporal punishment are some of my indelible memories of qés tèmrt bét.

Senamirmir: What is your research or work interest?

Ato Girma Getahun:  Broadly speaking Ethiopian history (especially of the 18 and 19 centuries), and Amharic language and literature. More specifically, I am interested in the unpublished manuscripts of Aleqa Tekle-Iyesus Waqjèra on Ethiopian history and the genealogy of the notables of Gojjam. Amharic lexicography, etymology and orthography also form a big chunk of my obsession.

Senamirmir: How did you develop an interest for writing and languages?

Ato Girma Getahun:  Interest in reading is perhaps the main reason. A desire to express opinion and concerns is another. The 1974 revolution and my political awakening, along with tens of thousands of Ethiopian youth of the period, was definitely a catalyst for becoming active member of literary circles which were being formed within qebelé youth associations. Clandestine pamphlets of the EPRP (notably Democracia and Abéyot, recorded or printed protest poetry) and published materials (such as Teramaj Mezgebe-Qalat and the monthly magazine Goh) kindled my interest in Amharic language and literature. Mekuriya Tegeny, (a brilliant friend who was brutally beaten to death by murder squads of the Derg in 1977) was instrumental in encouraging me to write sometimes in collaboration with him.

Senamirmir: Who is your inspiration?

Ato Girma Getahun:  For poetry Yohannès Admasu, Yoftahé Nègusé, Tesegayé Gebre-Medhèn (who sadly passed away on 25 February 2006); for devotion to the development of Amharic language and literature, the aleqas Kidane-Weld Kèflé and Desta Tekle-Weld.

Senamirmir: If you have written or published books or planning to do one in the future, can you tell us about it?

Ato Girma Getahun:  An edition and translation of select chapters of Aleqa Teklé’s chronicle is awaiting publication. The chronicle is a rich source of historical accounts, especially on stories of the Gojjam aristocracy. Historians, linguists and other writers and academics, such as Tekle-Tsadéq Mekuriya, Alemayehu Moges, Prof. Taddese Tamrat, Roger Cowley and Reidulf K Molvaer used the manuscript extensively. The first two did so without proper/due acknowledgement to the author (at least until the 1980s). It is only proper the entire or greater parts of author’s work should be published in his own name.

I have also a plan to publish an edition and translation of the genealogical document by the same author. The second document, albeit less known, is even more original and invaluable to academics.

A spin off from work on such projects was a compilation of Amharic-English dictionary which was published in Germany (Advanced Amharic Lexicon: A Supplement to Concise Amharic-English Dictionaries, Lit Verlag, Munster, 2003). It is designed as a supplement to the popular concise dictionaries of Dr Amsalu Aklilu and Prof. Wolf Leslau.

Senamirmir: Who was Aleqa Tekle-Iyesus Waqjèra? If you can introduce him to us briefly? You used the term "translation"; he must have written his work with Ge`ez.

Ato Girma Getahun:  Aleqa Tekle-Iyesus (1868-1936) was born in Albasa, Kutay, in northeastern Wellega, to parents Waqjira and Gelené. He was taken captive at the age of six in a raid by Dejjazmach Elémtu Goshu, the uncle of King Tekle-Haymanot (1875). His captor-cum-guardian brought him up with church education having sent him first to his own father confessor, and later on to the monastic school at Dima Giyorgis. It was when his guardian had him baptized that his original name, Negero, was changed to Tekle-Iyesus. Tekle-Iyesus, Oromo by birth, grew up with strong Gojjamé identity and devoting a huge part of his life to record its regional history and its ancestral traditions. His artistic talent earned him fame and royal patronage. Admired for his illuminations of manuscripts, for church murals and for engravings to the court and churches/monasteries of Gojjam, and created as Aleqa with the benefice of the church of Zebéch Iyesus, he was at the height of his fortune in the last decade of the 19 century. But his fortune declined after the death of King Tekele-Haymanot, and his later years were by and large devoted to writing the chronicle, a work whose significance as source material gained him posthumous recognition outside Gojjam. He lost his sight toward the end of his life, and died at a very anxious time months after the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, but before the disastrous battle of Maichew in May 1936.

Aelqa Teklé’s writings are in Amharic. The translation in the preceding response refers to an English version made from collated texts of manuscripts copied from the Amharic original. It was carried out as part of a thesis for a DPhil submitted to Oxford University in 1991.

Senamirmir: Many people may not be aware of about your book Advanced Amharic Lexicon --> mentioned above, can you tell us more in what way it is different from other dictionaries and if readers wish to obtain the book, where can they get it?

Ato Girma Getahun:  The lexicon is a supplement not a complete dictionary. It complements the popular concise Amharic-English dictionaries by providing additional definitions to words wholly or partially ignored by the latter. The supplement being no less in size than the dictionaries it complements, this perhaps constitute one unique feature. A second unique feature may be its ‘eclectic-ness’.

Its system of word entries and orthography adheres to KWK-DTW convention, only digressing from it: (a) to follow the ha-le-ha-me alphabetic order; (b) to group together homophone letters of the Amharic alphabet; and (c) to give precedence to etymological spelling than to pronunciation based spelling. These digressions were made first of all for ease and convenience of the average user, secondly for the sake of clarity of meaning, and thirdly to indicate the emphasis on some geminated terms, especially of derived stems.

The entries and subentries are also furnished with extensive contextual examples from published and unpublished sources. The examples together with transliteration and contextual translations is another notable feature.

I believe these and similar other features perhaps add up to give the lexicon its peculiarities.

Senamirmir: You have written a piece titled Amharic Orthography and Homonyms; a compelling work for the continued need of the three "ha" , two "se" , two "a" , and two "tse" . Can you tell us more about the work and what has been the reaction to it?

Ato Girma Getahun:  The discussion paper you referred to and which you have kindly posted on this website tries to draw attention to a neglected concern in the debate for and against alphabet reform. This concern is to do with homophone characters of the alphabet, more specifically with the failure of the debate to address an issue of their phonemic significance, i.e., their crucial role as bearers of the meaning of words. The reformists have been either unaware of the issue or seem to be unconcerned by it, assuming that this role of the ‘redundant’ homophone characters is negligible. Those who oppose reforms also seem to ignore them instead of articulating their importance in support of arguments against reduction of the characters in proposed alphabet reforms.

The paper challenges this assumption and gives a list of Amharic homonyms in which the use of one or another homophone character changes the meaning of a given word. The list is not comprehensive; yet it was large enough to highlight the significant phonemic roles of homophone characters.

The paper also tries to raise public awareness that consistent usage of homophone characters based on etymology is helpful not only to enhance the clarity of meaning but also (a) in validating Amharic’s affinity with Ethio-Semitic and non-Ethio-Semitic languages; and (b) in establishing standard orthography.

The paper did not manage to elicit any critical or complementary feedback. I sent hard and electronic copies to few interested parties (mainly to friends and editors of Amharic newspapers and magazines). It has also been posted on this website since 2004. If I remember correctly by the time the paper was distributed the language department or centre of the AAU had already taken a unilateral decision to adopt a minimal alphabet for Amharic script. Hence no response may be expected from that institution. To be fair the paper is not published in academic journal to reach many concerned academics and other people both at home and overseas. Only such paper could perhaps expect scholarly response, if at all.

Senamirmir: Do you have any working relationship with higher institutions back home in your interest area? If not, why do you think that is?

Ato Girma Getahun:  I do not have any working relationship with higher educational institution in Ethiopia. There is no one definite reasons. After the Derg’s Red Terror campaign (1977-78), few were lucky enough to survive it and reach the safety of western countries. For them the chance to return home in the foreseeable future seemed remote at the time. For a long time such an outlook may have worked as a deterrent, at a subconscious level, from cultivating relationships with academics back home. Tentative attempts to establish correspondence may have also proven frustrating for academics on both sides. The dramatic change of government in the early 90s failed to dispel the perception. In fact by firing scores of highly experienced academics the new government reinforced the view that it is equally intolerant of dissenting opinions even within the confines of a university campus. For me a personal decision to pursue academic interest unaffiliated to tertiary institutions is perhaps a major reason.

Senamirmir: Are you involved in computer software development related to Ethiopic? If you are, tell us about it?

Ato Girma Getahun:  Not at all. My knowledge of computers hardly goes beyond basic skill to use a word processor.

Senamirmir: You are involved in a project called HaHu Books. What is the purpose of this project and its future?

Ato Girma Getahun:  HaHu Books was a publishing initiative a friend and I started to address the lack of good quality reading/teaching materials for Amharic speaking children born/being raised overseas. One project of the initiative was publishing Bukaya, a children/family magazine the first issue of which came out in December 1999. Since the first issue fifteen other issues of the magazine came out until March 2004: the first 12 as a series of volume 1 and the last four as a series of volume 2. To achieve its professed aim of providing entertaining and culturally informed reading materials to children and families in the diaspora, Bukaya carried in its issues folk-tales, nursery rhymes, myths and legends, and a variety of word games. In the last five issues it also carried reviews of books published for or about Ethiopian children. The contents were designed for children and parents to spend quality time together. Another unique feature was that all its texts were prepared to introduce users to KWK-DTW orthographic convention.

The publication of Bukaya is now suspended for lack of sufficient interest from the diaspora communities, and for lack of resources as well as entrepreneurship on our part.

HaHu Books also launched a website http://www.hahubooks.co.uk to introduce Bukaya and other planned products to a wider audience. Again lack of interest, technical constraints and the suspension of Bukaya stalled its updating since 2004. We hope to revive Bukaya and the website in near future.

The desperate need for quality reading materials for children in Ethiopia and the diaspora is apparent. Unfortunately the awareness of these needs by parents, educators and community oriented investors is very low. Many Ethiopian writers and artists do not give sufficient importance to writing stories or to doing illustrations for children’s books. These and many other interrelated problems makes small isolated initiatives like our HaHu Books a frustrating experience. But such projects must have a thriving future if our children are not to lose their language, culture and Ethiopian identity.

What is required is the pooling of resources for long term investment by concerned parties to raise awareness on the issue and to produce/promote books and magazines for children. There are signs of increasing awareness among parents. So all is not doom and gloom.

Senamirmir: Are you involved in a standardization activities related to Ethiopic? For instance, there is a draft proposal as we speak now by World Wide Web Consortium on Ethiopic list order. Furthermore, the Unicode 4.1 standard, it now includes what it calls "Ethiopic Supplement" and "Ethiopic Extended" It was a contribution of individuals who were interested in the area. However that is, a large number of linguists with a wealthy of knowledge haven't participated and Unicode is not to be blamed for that, but it shows that we are not even in charge of this kind of effort. What is your view?

Ato Girma Getahun:  Standardization in Ethiopic requires I would have thought, prior knowledge of other standards such as ASCII, ANSI, Unicode, a background in ICT, expertise in linguistics, or a good command of the languages concerned.

Aware of the existence of organizations such as ECoSA (the Ethiopian Computer Standards Association), ESTC (the Ethiopian Science and Technology Commission), QSAE (Quality and Standards Authority of Ethiopia) and the experts in ELRC (the Ethiopian Language Research Centre of the AAU), I was under the impressions that these bodies were qualified and active participants of the standardization effort. As an outsider by contrast, I never considered myself qualified to make a meaningful contribution.

Presently a project is being carried out by the ELRC on behalf of EICTDA (the Ethiopian ICT Development Agency). The project is to establish standardized Amharic, Oromifa and Tigrinya glossaries for ICT terms. Proposals of terms have been posted at this link: http://www.aau.edu.et/ictglossary/index.php and alternative suggestions to the proposed terms are invited from the public. Similar consultation with experts had taken place, I had assumed, prior to the Unicode standardization of Ethiopic.

From the point of view of end user the development of Unicode standard for Ethiopic and the supplements being included have been of immense significance. For tens of thousands of users it means the end of dependence on a variety of expensive non-standard Ethiopic fonts which caused frustration owing to their limitations. Of course, had their been a concerted and articulated effort by all stake holders say in the 1980s or early 1990s, perhaps Ethiopic standardization could have been achieved sooner in a way which suited Ethiopia’s interest better.

The importance of the additions to the basic Ethiopic set is apparent. With increasing extended sets all Ethiopian languages can have Ethiopic-based scripts. However, it makes me wonder whether the principle underlying such adaptations is sound. My layman instinct would have me choose to approach the provision of script to a non-written language by adopting the original set of the alphabet to represent, as far as possible, all the sounds of a non-written language. For instance,

  • instead of creating new characters to represent Sebat Bét Guragé labiovelars (sounds such as mwé, absent in Amharic/Gèèz) it could have been easier to adopt a combination of characters from the basic set (for example ); or
  • instead of using the entire fidel characters for languages which were non-written hitherto it could have been possible to adopt a script based only on the lét’a fidel, the original consonants, an idea Prof. Getachew Haile proposed for Amharic a long time ago (Dialogue, Vol.1 No.2, 1968, pp.61-66).

Senamirmir: What activities do you enjoy the most besides your work?

Ato Girma Getahun:  Communing with ancestors in museums, archeological sites and historic buildings; going out for walks preferably in the countryside or along scenic routes.

Senamirmir: Finally your favorite quotation on any subject?

Ato Girma Getahun:  For pertinence to one of the underlying messages of this interview, a shrewd observation of Dr Johnson, the compiler of the first English dictionary, comes to mind. Affirming the self-sufficiency of his native tongue, against the prevalent attitudes of his learned peers, he said:

"To make the way to learning either less short or less smooth, is certainly absurd; yet this is the apparent effect of the prejudice which seems to prevail among us in favour of foreign authors, and of the contempt of our native literature, which this excursive curiosity must necessarily produce. Every man is more speedily instructed by his own language than by any other; before we search the rest of the world for teachers, let us try whether we may not spare our trouble by finding them at home." ---(Dr Samuel Johnson, Idler, No.91, 1760)

He said it long before English became the dominant global language of science and technology, of the Arts and commerce. The remark, which was made well over 240 years ago, could be said today to the attitude of our compatriots towards their native languages.

Up-Close)   Aleka's Life)   Aleka's Work)   Aleka's Legacy)   Resources)  

© Senamirmir Project, 2006