Last weekend I visited the Red Terror Martyrs Museum. This is a new memorial space, opened in 2010 to commemorate those who lost their lives during the period known as the Red Terror that followed the Ethiopian Revolution in 1974. An extremely dark chapter in Ethiopia's history, the 'Red Terror' was the bloody initiative of the country's then dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam as a means of weeding out those 'counter revolutionaries' who were attacking the military regime that had assumed power (and corrupted the aspirations of student revolutionaries, etc.) Theatrically smashing vials of pigs blood in Meskel Square (then Revolution Square), Mengistu announced that a 'Red Terror' would defeat the 'White Terror' of the dissenters. Many, many people lost their lives - young, old, male and female. I was shown around the museum, the collection of which ranges from examples of publications to torture materials, by a man whose name I now, appallingly, forget. He told me he had served 8 years in prison for his acts of dissent; the museum includes a display of photographs, in which he is shown participating in protests with other students. As he told me, he is lucky to have lived.
It was in the first room that I spotted a still photo from the 1973 documentary by Jonathon Dimbleby originally entitled 'The Unknown Famine' and made for Thames Television to expose the ravaging famine in rural Ethiopia on the eve of the revolution. When I asked my guide about it, he told me that he loved Jonathon Dimbleby, that he was a hero. This is not the first time I have heard this whilst I've been in Ethiopia. Several older people at the school have said as much - the name 'Jonathon Dimbleby' still brings smiles to peoples' faces. Indeed, he remains a hero. The reason is because his documentary was brought back to Ethiopia in 1974 and shown on screens throughout Addis on the night before Emperor Haile Selassie deposed. For many Addis Abebans it was their first exposure to what was happening outside of the city - and Jonathon Dimbleby is celebrated as the man who opened Ethiopians' eyes to the plight of their countrymen. What is more remarkable is that most Ethiopians do not seem to know that the version of the famine film that was shown in Ethiopia in 1974 was a re-edited version, and one retitled 'The Hidden Hunger.' If Dimbleby's original film was designed to be a humanitarian consciousness-raising film that did not want to point blame directly at Emperor Haile Selassie, 'The Hidden Hunger' deliberating accused the Imperial regime of neglect; Dimbleby's film was interspersed with shots of the Emperor feasting and feeding his lions. So Dimbleby is celebrated not just as the man who exposed the famine, but also as the man who took the decisive stance against Haile Selassie's excesses.
One day last August my mother and I drove down to Devon and I interviewed Jonathon about this film, his perception of its legacy and his opinion of how it had been used in the Ethiopian Revolution. Over bowls of delicious soup he told me all about how the film had been made and how he had found himself as a slightly reluctant hero of the revolution. Today, on a hot, dusty day in Addis, I walked all the way down Churchill Avenue, a massive street with a row of trees down the middle which, Jonathon half-joked last year, the Derg (the post-rev ruling committee) had wanted to re-name 'Dimbleby Street.' Having met so many people who tell me how much they still love him, its not hard to imagine that anecdote to be true.
I am hoping very much that I will get to see 'The Hidden Hunger' (the re-edited version) before I leave Addis in 8 days time. Twice this week I have visited Ethiopian Television, only to be told that the person who has to give me permission to see it isn't available. I have another appointment for next Tuesday, so fingers crossed it will work out. Of course, it is thanks to Deju that I even got a chance to approach ETV. His dear friend Ermias has been responsible for taking me there and making the appropriate introductions in Amharic (I'm certainly not that good yet!) Ermias is a wonderful guy who speaks both English and French and really loves the latter! He hosts a twice weekly French radio show that addresses women's issues, but aspires to be an economics journalist. He promises we will have lunch at the Alliance Francais (the French cultural institute) next week...but my schedule for the final week is starting to look a little crazy with last minute meetings, research etc.
So the rest of my week has been at times frustrating as various meetings fell through, or people I was supposed to meet were unavailable. I'm acutely aware that one month is far too short a time to achieve anything very much. That said, I did meet two great people this week: Bekele Mekonnen and Konjit Seyoum. Bekele is the head of the School of Fine Arts and an extremely friendly man! We have been in email contact since my Courtauld days, but this was our first meeting. Over macchiatos (of course) he told me about the school, the influence of Russian cultural specialists and his own time as a student in the USSR. He was encouraging of my research and I'm looking forward to working further with him. The same could be said for Konjit, perhaps the most prominent gallerist in Addis (owner of the Asni Gallery) and an occasional historian / writer on art and the Ethiopian Revolution. She gave me some great ideas and a lot of encouragement, and affirmed my suspicions that many people wish to dismiss the period of the revolution as a stagnant, propaganda-riddled period of which little of substance can be said. Contrary to the latter, she reeled of a range of resources, from artists to interview, to archives she personally has. I hope, very much, that I will be able to develop my work in cooperation with her.
Besides missed appointments, inexcusable numbers of macchiatos and confessions of love for Jonathon Dimbleby, the week has been filled with language learning and a little teaching. On Tuesday I attended Deju's intermediate English class and was interviewed for 45 minutes in Amharic (eek) before engaging the students in various practice English scenarios. As soon as I mentionned my brother supported Liverpool, every guy in the class wanted to come up and tell what team they supported and why they were better than Liverpool...apart from one guy who came and uttered 'You'll Never Walk Alone'! One girl came up and wanted to talk to me about how gorgeous Thierry Henry was...naturally, I concurred! It was all in the name of helping them practice their English.
The final notable event of the week was the 'Ladies' Day' I had with Christine, the 61 year old teacher who I mentionned previously has fallen in love with an Ethiopian. Well, our day consisted of two hours of gossiping about said Ethiopian in Tomocka, the best coffee house in Addis, followed by lunch at the Green Valley Hotel with Michele (an Australian volunteer with whom I'm off to Lalibela this weekend) ..and finally a spot of jewelry shopping followed by more coffee. It was so nice to have a day not thinking about Marxist propaganda and how little research I'm doing! Plus, I hooked Christine up with the services of my favorite computer programmer in the world - Goodwin is going to help build the website for her education NGO.
Well, I should go. I'm meeting Michele for dinner and then we're flying up north tomorrow. I'm ridiculously excited about seeing Lalibela...although slightly nervous that Ethiopian Airlines won't provide my required medicinal G&T at 7am...so it could be a white-knuckle flight over the Ethiopian Highlands.
I am really enjoying reading your blog and keeping up with your adventures in Ethiopia. Sounds like you're having some great experiences and learning a lot. :) I'd love to see you soon when you get back to CA and hear more about your travels and research! Hope all's well -- wishing you the best for a safe and fruitful rest of your trip.
Anonymous 433 days ago
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