Finding Haile Selassie

FROM CONQUERING LION TO DUSTY RELIC

His Majesty Haile Selassie I, “Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah,” Emperor of Ethiopia – the absolute monarch of a feudal kingdom for nearly 44 years – had been dead for almost 40 years when I returned to Ethiopia for my first visit since returning to the United States in 1967 after three years as a Peace Corps teacher at Tafari Makonnen School in Addis Ababa.  The Emperor had been deposed by a group of military officers known as the “Derg” in 1974 and was most likely murdered in 1975 by the Derg, which under the brutal dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam began a reign of terror that resulted in the deaths of over 500,000 Ethiopians – many of them educated youths – by the time Mengistu fled Ethiopia in 1991.  When I arrived in Addis on May 15, most of the obvious signs of Haile Selassie’s long reign had disappeared.  For example, the former Haile Selassie University was now Addis Ababa University; Tafari Makonnen School (named after Ras Tafari Makonnen, Haile Selassie’s name before his coronation in 1930) had become the Entoto Technical and Vocational Education Training College; Jubilee Palace, which the Emperor had built to commemorate the silver anniversary of his reign, now housed government offices; and, of course, the once ubiquitous photographs of  the Conquering Lion no longer graced the walls of countless offices and homes.  In 1967, Haile Selassie had seemed the very embodiment of the proud spirit of this exotic, never-colonized kingdom, but on my return I found His Imperial Majesty a dusty relic of ancient history to the great majority of Ethiopians.

ENCOUNTERS WITH THE EMPEROR IN ADDIS

Haile Selassie might be largely forgotten now, but during my ten-day visit, my Ethiopian friends Berhane and Tesfagiorgis and I encountered him often as we traveled around the sprawling capital city of over 4 million, even though we hadn’t consciously set out in search of the late Emperor.  We met His Imperial Majesty:

  • At the Institute of Ethiopian Studies at Addis Ababa University, where Ato Mammo Haile, who’d been a member of the Emperor’s household staff and was now in his 80’s, proudly showed us uniforms that Haile Selassie had worn and where Tesfagiorgis and I posed for the camera before a photograph of the Emperor at his most majestic.
Looking at Haile Selassie Uniform at the Institute for Ethiopian Studies
  • At the former Tafari Makonnen School, where we were pleased to find that a handsome bust of Ras Tafari Makonnen had been re-installed in the foyer of what had been the main administration building during my teaching days there.
Ras Tafari Makonnen Bust at Former TMS
  • At the beautiful Kiddist Selassie (Holy Trinity) Cathedral, which Haile Selassie completed after the Italian occupation and where an elderly Ethiopian Orthodox priest who had seen the Emperor worship at the cathedral many times showed us the tombs of Haile Selassie and his wife, Empress Menen, and the ornate thrones where the Emperor and his Empress sat during Mass at the cathedral.
Plaque at Kiddist Selassie Cathedral
Tesfagiorgis, Doug and Priest on Tour of Kiddist Selassie
  • And at the main gate of the former Jubilee Palace, where as we walked and drove by Berhane, Tesfagiorgis, and I could see in our mind’s eye the Emperor emerging in his Rolls Royce for a drive around his capital city.

VIVID MEMORIES OF HIS IMPERIAL MAJESTY

Every encounter with His Imperial Majesty during my visit brought the Emperor vividly

back to life in our minds, so he was very much with us in spirit during those ten days, which isn’t surprising when you realize how large he’d loomed in my and my Ethiopian students’ lives back in the1960s.  I’ll never forget first encountering Haile Selassie in my modern history course at the University of Illinois-Urbana, when I read his stirring address to the League of Nations in 1936 after the Italian invasion of Ethiopia.  It wasn’t much later that I saw the Emperor in person for the first time – in November 1963, walking beside French president de Gaulle, who towered over the diminutive ruler, and other world leaders in President John Kennedy’s funeral procession to Arlington Cemetery.  Standing on the street that sad day in Washington, watching the procession pass, I thought to myself, “Haile Selassie is a lot shorter than I imagined, but I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a man who cut such a dignified and regal figure; this is a king if there ever was one.”  So when, having joined the Peace Corps my senior year at Illinois, I learned that I’d been assigned to teach in Ethiopia, whose face came immediately to mind?  The Conquering Lion of Judah, of course

Berhane and Doug Looking at Haile Selassie Throne at Kiddist Selassie 

ASSESSING HAILE SELASSIE’S REIGN

Since Haile Selassie I was such a constant and vivid presence as Berhane, Tesfagiorgis, and I toured Addis and sat at the table enjoying traditional Ethiopian meals of  injera (a very nutritious and delicious kind of flatbread with a tangy, mildly tart taste and rubbery texture ) and wat (a variety of vegetable and meat stews), we naturally spent a lot of time talking about the still-mysterious, endlessly fascinating ruler who’d sat on the throne of Ethiopia for almost a half century – pondering his place in Ethiopian history and his contribution to Ethiopia’s economic and social development.  As I think about our discussions over those ten days, some highlights stand out in my mind.  First and foremost, the Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah was not only a masterful politician, he was also a true statesman, in the sense that he was genuinely and passionately committed to Ethiopia’s modernization – certainly technologically and economically speaking, although his commitment to social and political development is far less certain.  However, we agreed that it would be a mistake to idealize or romanticize the Emperor, who was, in fact, an absolute feudal monarch who didn’t brook dissent and never hesitated to have opponents of his regime imprisoned and hanged in public squares.

Haile Selassie and Empress Menen Tombs at Kiddist Selassie

But in stark contrast to Mengistu Haile Mariam, who was a brutal and systematic destroyer of human capital responsible for the imprisonment, torture, and execution of thousands of educated Ethiopian youth, Haile Selassie made a tremendous investment in education, which of all development tools was probably closest to his heart.  Tesfagiorgis and Berhane along with many of their compatriots will never forget receiving their university diplomas from the hands of the Emperor himself.  As it turned out, Haile Selassie’s deep faith in education and the high priority he placed on expanding educational opportunities in Ethiopia are somewhat ironic, since many, if not most, newly educated Ethiopians had by the mid 1970s become vocal critics of the feudal monarchy and  certainly played a major role in bringing the Solomonic line to an end.  And what most saddened us as we reflected on the Emperor’s legacy during our many long discussions during my Addis odyssey was Haile Selassie’s failure to lay the foundation for an orderly transition to some kind of representative government after his death.  In the end, apparently, he was so enmeshed in the absolute feudal monarchy that he was incapable of reaching out to, and building an alliance with, the new educated class that he had created and that might have led a peaceful, post-monarchical transition.  Instead, the Emperor became an isolated, out-of-touch leader, leaving a vacuum that the astute Mengistu Haile Marian so adroitly exploited, at a horrific cost to Ethiopia..

Note:  The Associated Press Wire Photo of Emperor Haile Selassie I walking with other world leaders in President Kennedy’s funeral procession appeared in the November 25, 1963 edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

©Douglas C. Eadie  All Rights Reserved

Addis Ababa Homecoming

GOODBYE AT BOLE AIRPORT – MAY 2012

Goodbye At Bole Airport

Three Ethiopian friends accompanied me to Addis Ababa’s Bole         International Airport the evening of May 24 to catch my 10 p.m. flight back to   the  States after my ten-day visit – my first since leaving Ethiopia in 1967 after three years there as a Peace Corps teacher:  Berhane Mogese, an attorney in private practice whom I’d met my first week in Addis in 1964; Tesfagiorgis Wondimagegnehu, who had lived with me and my housemates for two years while studying at Tafari Makonnen School; and Tesfagiorgis’ wife, Almaz Aklog.  It’d been such a busy last day in the Ethiopian capital – including my filming a half-hour video clip of Tesfagiorgis talking about his two years in prison almost 35 years ago after the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie – that I hadn’t really had time to feel sad.  We were certainly a lively group on the drive to Bole, laughing about Tesfagiorgis’ getting lost two or three times as we walked around Addis, his native city, about Tesfagioris and I getting left in the dust by our friend Tesfamichael on our long trudge up to the top of Entoto Mountain, and Berhane’s heartfelt devotion to his always ringing cell phone.  But it really hit me as I was hugging my three friends goodbye in the parking lot at Bole that we might never see each other again; after all, this was our first reunion in almost 50 years, and we were now in our sixties. When I turned to wave to my friends standing in the parking lot before walking into the terminal, tears were running down my cheeks.

REUNITING WITH BERHANE AND TESFAGIORGIS

Berhane, Doug and Tesfagiorgis at the Institute of Ethiopian Studies

I hadn’t returned to Ethiopia to see the sights as a tourist, although I’d love to go back some day with my wife Barbara to introduce her to this beautiful and exotic country.  The primary reason I’d returned after my near half-century absence was to spend concentrated time with Berhane and Tesfagiorgis, whom I’d said goodbye to in 1967, so I hadn’t made plans to venture outside of Addis Ababa, now a sprawling city of over 4 million.  You see, I’d been out of touch with Tesfagiorgis and Berhane since the mid-seventies, when Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown by a military group called the Derg, and the brutal dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam soon killed his way to power.  It’s estimated that over 500,000 Ethiopians were killed during Mengistu’s reign of terror, the great majority of them educated youth, and as the years passed, I assumed that Tesfagiorgis and Berhane were among the victims.  However, over the past year, learning that Tesfagiorgis and Berhane were alive and well, and reuniting with other former students now living in the States, including Abe Abraham in Washington and Tariku Belay in Minneapolis, I felt powerfully called to make my first trip back after almost fifty years.

To be very honest, on my 13-hour Ethiopian Airlines flight to Addis on May 14, there were moments when I wondered if  I’d taken leave of my senses.  Doing the tourist thing would have been a no-brainer; re-visiting Axum, Lalibella, Gondor, Harar, and Lake Tana would, with a couple of days in Addis, have very nicely filled the time. But here I was about to spend the full ten days with two fellows who’d been only 17 or 18 when we’d last seen each other.  What did we have in common after living our adult lives totally apart?  I recalled my time with Berhane and Tesfagiorgis fondly, but I couldn’t possibly know who they’d become over the past 45 years.  In Tesfagiorgis’ case, we’d carried on an extensive email correspondence over the prior nine months, and had talked by phone twice, so I knew a lot about major milestones in his life, but the person I would soon reunite with was yet a mystery.

THREE VIVID IMPRESSIONS 

My heart said I was doing the right thing, but, believe me, in my head, I was less certain, and I was feeling pretty apprehensive as I walked out of the terminal at Bole International Airport the morning of May 15 to our reunion in the parking lot.  As it turns out, I needn’t have worried; I knew in our first hour together that my heart had been a trustworthy guide.  I plan to write several blogs about my Ethiopian trip over the next few weeks.  I’ll also be sharing photos and video clips.  For now, I’d just like to share three vivid impressions from my 10 days with Berhane, Tesfagiorgis, Almaz, and their friends:

  • Walking through the new Red Terror Martyrs Memorial Museum near Meskel Square with Tesfagiorgis and Berhane, looking at the hundreds of photos of young victims, including many from the school I taught at, Tafari Makonnen, really brought home the tremendous cost of Mengistu’s reign of terror, in terms not only of shattered lives and immense human suffering, but also of the arrested development of an already desperately poor country.  The cost to Ethiopia of losing over half a million educated young people is incalculable.  A deep sadness came over me and my companions as we scanned those photos covering the walls, but anger as well.  Such a pointless and tragic waste of Ethiopia’s most precious resource!
  • Both Tesfagiorgis and Berhane suffered under the Derg, but their spirits weren’t crushed, and their lack of bitterness and their gratitude for the lives they have lived since those dark days under Mengistu are testimony to the resilience of the human spirit – and to their strength of character.  As we passed those ten days together, I realized that what had drawn me to my two Ethiopian friends originally, back in the mid-1960s, and what had kept them in my mind so vividly during our separation, was their fundamentally life-affirming natures.
  • And, finally, on a somewhat poignant note, as we made our way through the Addis Ababa Museum looking at the fascinating photos from the city’s early days and strolled by what had been Emperor Haile Selassie’s Jubilee Palace, reminiscing about how exciting it was to see his Rolls come through the palace gates, we realized that our still-vivid recollections were only ancient history to the great majority of Ethiopians.  Time does inexorably march on!
Goodbye Feast Of Injera And Wat

Enough for now.  Stay tuned for more on my Addis Ababa odyssey.

©Douglas C. Eadie  All Rights Reserved

Welcome to my Entwined Lives Blog

Berhane Mogese, Doug Eadie and Tesfagiorgis Wondimagegnehu in Addis Ababa, May 2012

“Entwined Lives” is my first really personal blog.  It’s the direct result of my return visit to Ethiopia in May 2012, for the first time since returning to the States in 1967.  A couple of years earlier, I’d discovered that one of the Ethiopian students who’d lived with me and my Peace Corps housemates in Addis, Tariku Belay, was alive and well and living in Minneapolis.  Then, a year or so later, the day before I flew to Minneapolis to reunite with Tariku, I learned that another former student who’d lived with me in Addis, Tesfagiorgis Wondimagegnehu, was alive and living with his wife Almaz in Addis.  I had been out of touch with both of them since the mid-1970s, when the regime of Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown and a reign of terror began under the dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, and I assumed they’d been killed, along with hundreds of thousands of other young Ethiopians. Finding the long-lost Tesfagiorgis in March 2011 got me to thinking seriously about returning to Ethiopia after almost half a century.  And seeing old friends from my Peace Corps training program at UCLA and reuniting with a former Ethiopian student now in the States, Abe Abraham, at the Peace Corps fiftieth anniversary festivities in Washington in September 2011 sealed the deal.  I was definitely going back.

Tariku Belay today

Having spent a wonderful two weeks in Addis on my homecoming trip, getting reacquainted with Tesfagiorgis and another former student, Berhane Mogese, and meeting many of their friends and family members, I came back to the US determined to write about  my Peace Corps and Ethiopian experiences and about the lives of former Ethiopian students and my fellow Peace Corps colleagues.  Thus was “Entwined Lives” born.

The first five blog posts you will read here originally appeared at a less accessible site, so they are being re-posted here at Entwined Lives in the order they were originally posted.

Tesfagiorgis Wondimagegnehu today

©Douglas C. Eadie  All Rights Reserved