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Senamirmir Projects: Interview with Ato Amha Asfaw


Senamirmir:   Your first poetry book was "Yelala Denebo", which was published in 1995. Starting from the title can you briefly describe the book for us?

Ato Amha Asfaw:   "Yelala Denebo" is a "musho" (a burial song and dance performed on the way to the cemetery in Minjare). The book is a collection of poems I wrote since the 1960s. It is dedicated to my sister who died after a long struggle with epilepsy. I guess "yilala denebo" was my "musho" for her. I do not cry much in public so all my tears are in my poems.

Senamirmir:   In "Yelala Denebo", one of the poems is about to Ms Ford. Would you share with us more about her?

Ato Amha Asfaw:   I attended her school as a child. I never appreciated her dedication while I was in Ethiopia. It was only after living for some 20 years in this country that I realized how great her love was for Ethiopia and Ethiopians.

Ms. Ford was a very athletic person. I used to see her playing tennis at a near by school (Asfaw Wessen). We used to think that she was old but she probably was in her early 40s at the time.

I brought this up to tell you a poem written on the rest room wall at PZ (read as P-Zed. That was how we used to call princess Zenebe werq school). There was an assistant director called Bekele, who we did not like much. Anyway, here is the poem.

             Bekele temama misis ford gobata,
             Tinish qen qertognal ke p-Zed lewota.

As I said above, Ms Ford was very athletic and not "gobata" at all. It was a cruel imagination of kids.

Senamirmir:   In "Yelala Denebo", you said to the effect that we lack an interest and appreciation to our own literary works. How true is this? Can you elaborate on it?

Ato Amha Asfaw:   I believe I have answered this question previously so I will leave it alone here. However, I like to point people in the direction of a relevant article.

Prof. Tecola Hagos wrote a few days ago about our state of confusion between modernization and westernization. It was posted on It is a good reading on the subject. I encourage Ethiopians to get their hands on it. Its exact title is: "Paradigm of Poverty and Humanism: Undoing Ethiopia's Modernity".

Senamirmir:   Your second book is an Amharic translation of Langston Hughes poems. What made you decide to do this book?

Ato Amha Asfaw:   The poems of Langston Hughes are short and for reasons I do not know they stir my emotions. I like such poems. He dose not write poems for the sake of filling pages nor for financial benefits but to store and share his feelings at a particular time. He also wrote about Ethiopia. You can tell from his poems that he liked Ethiopia and Ethiopians.

Senamirmir:   Your third book is "Bercha" and what is it about?

Ato Amha Asfaw:   "Bercha" is a collection of short stories and essays. Most of them were published on The Ethiopian Register. It was called "Bercha" because the stories are not related to one another. It is like topics that we used to discuss on "chat" chewing ceremony called "Bercha".

Senamirmir:   Your poems have their own peculiarity in style and form. They are short, but dense and rich. How did you develop this style?

Ato Amha Asfaw:   I do not know what to say here. I certainly do not agree with attributes such as "rich" , "dense" etc ... given to a work of art. All a person can say about an art work is that he likes it or not. To try to explain the beauty of things using concepts like "style" and "form" is futile. To answer your question, I really donít know.

Senamirmir:   In your latest book titled "Yikrta", your apology to Dr. Taye Wolde Semayat (leader of Ethiopia Teachers Association) in the form of a book dedication is an extraordinary fit. Can you comment more on it?

Ato Amha Asfaw:   "Yiqirta" should be asked only once. I hope you will understand if I donít repeat it here.

Senamirmir:   As an author, why do you think there are only very few books published by Ethiopians?

Ato Amha Asfaw:   Again there are 2 or 3 reasons for this. As I mentioned earlier we do not have a culture of reading and we do not want to spend money for the purpose of buying books. We can add to the above the lack of a responsible government. The problem probably can be solved if all schools in Ethiopia are required to buy 20 or 30 books written in an Ethiopian language each month. However, such a project requires a Government that is concerned about the development of the Ethiopian culture.

On the other hand, if every Ethiopian living in the US buys 2 or 3 books written in any Ethiopian language per month, we would be able to live through the golden age of Ethiopian literature.

Either way it boils down to buying and reading books written in Ethiopian languages.

Another practical solution is (this was actually suggested by Prof. Getatchew Haile): If we get 30-50 people who are willing to raise a total of $1000 every month, we can get one good book published each month. There are two advantages of this plan. It relieves the author from worrying about the cost of publication and the book can be sold at a lower price.

Senamirmir:   The two books that were published by Prof. Getatchew Haile, namely "Bahra Hassab" and *YeAba Bahriye Dirse-toch" are urgent reminders of how important Ge'ez is about ourselves. Years back, you were involved in a project to promote Ge'ez. What is the state of that project?

Ato Amha Asfaw:   It was a long time ago. It is understandable that you remember only half of the story. I do not remember the details myself. We could not raise more than 600 or 700 dollars. At the end with the permission of those who contributed, the money was donated to LMCC (Lucy Mother and Child...).

We had other projects after that. I think it is appropriate to mention it here. Prof. Amha Tume Lisn, DrDr. Aschalew Kebde (he has two PhDís :)) and myself formed a group called "Mhbere Henok" and collected $3000.00 from friends and relatives. We gave our first grant of $3000.00 to Prof. Baye Yimam in recognition of his excellent work in the field of Amhairc grammar. We hope to raise money to show our appreciation in a meaningful way to another hard working Ethiopian. I hope you will help Mahiber Henok in its next project.

Senamirmir:   Would you grant permission to Senamirmir to publish five of your favorite poems?

Ato Amha Asfaw:   No problem. I will attach a word file with the five poems you requested.

Senamirmir:   If readers want to purchase or access your books, where can they get them?

Ato Amha Asfaw:   The books are now in PDFpdf formats. One does not really need to own Brana or its fonts to read, copy or print them.

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