Tsegaye Gabre-Medhin Robba Qawessa, from an Oromo and Amhara family, was born in Boda, near Ambo, Ethiopia and his mother was an amhara from Northern Shewa. While still at elementary school he wrote a play called "King Dionysus and the Two Brothers" and saw it staged in the presence, among others, of Emperor Haile Selassie.
Tsegaye later attended the prestigious British Council-supported General Wingate school – named after British officer Orde Wingate. He subsequently attended the Commercial school in Addis Ababa, where he won a scholarship to Blackstone School of Law in Chicago in 1959. In 1960 he travelled to Europe to study experimental drama at the Royal Court Theatre in London and the Comédie-Française in Paris. Upon returning to Ethiopia, he devoted himself to managing and developing the Ethiopian National Theater – which institution staged an impressive memorial for its former director.
During this time Tsegaye travelled widely; he attended the UNESCO-organised First World Black Festival in Dakar, Senegal, and the Pan-African Cultural Festival in Algiers. In 1966, at the age of only 29, he was awarded his country's highest literary honour: the Haile Selassie I Prize for Amharic Literature – which earned him the title of Laureate, by which he has ever since been known.
Following the Ethiopian revolution of 1974, Tsegaye was appointed for a short time as vice-minister of Culture and Sports, and was active in setting up Addis Ababa University's department of Theatre Arts. In 1984 he wrote an extended, and very poetical, essay "Footprints in Time", which appeared with photographs by the Italian photographer Alberto Tessore, as a "coffee table" book. It traced Ethiopian history from the prehistoric time of Lucy, the first-known hominid that had recently been found in the Afar Desert in eastern Ethiopia.
One of Tsegaye's passionate interests throughout this time was in the struggle to regain Ethiopia's looted treasures. A close friend of Chief Segun Olusola, the Nigerian Ambassador in Addis Ababa, who was a fellow poet, Tsegaye was present when the ambassador agreed to throw his diplomatic pressure behind the national demand for the return of the Aksum obelisk, which had been taken on Mussolini's personal orders in 1937. The chief's support marked a turning point in the Aksum Obelisk Return movement. Tsegaye was no less insistent that Britain should return the manuscripts, crosses, tents and other loot taken from Emperor Tewodros's mountain citadel. Much of this loot is currently in the British Museum, the British Library, and the Royal Library in Windsor Castle.
Tsegaye always believed in the unity of the Ethiopian people and felt that this by far transcended purely political matters of the day. In later years he concerned himself increasingly with questions of peace, human rights and the dignity of humanity. He was elected to the United Poets Laureate International, and received many international awards – the last of them from Norway.
Although unable to return to his native land, which lacked the dialysis facilities on which his life literally depended, Tsegaye remained in close contact with the Ethiopian diaspora. Tsegaye died in Manhattan, where he had moved in 1998 to receive treatment for kidney disease. He was buried in Addis Ababa in the national cathedral where the body of Emperor Haile Selassie lies.
Tsegaye was proud of Ethiopia's long history of independence and of her unique cultural heritage. He insisted emphatically that his country needed heroes, and used the theatre deliberately to teach his compatriots to respect the Ethiopian heroes of their past. One of the most widely acclaimed of his plays, "Tewodros", commemorates the life of the Ethiopian emperor of that name. Considered a pioneer reformer and moderniser, the emperor committed suicide in 1868 rather than fall into the hands of a hostile British expeditionary force.
Another of Tsegaye's plays, "Petros at the Hour", tells the story of Abuna Petros, the religious figure who had accompanied the Ethiopian Arbegnoch in their struggle to resist the Italian fascist occupation. Captured by the enemy on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, the prelate was executed after a show trial. A third play, "The Oda Oak Oracle", a tragedy about Ethiopian country life, also enjoyed great popularity, both in Ethiopia and abroad.
Besides these compositions, Tsegaye translated Shakespeare (Hamlet and Othello being the most popular of these works), as well as Molière's "Tartuffe" and "Le Médecin malgré lui", as well as Bertolt Brecht's "Mother Courage".
His poems, both in Amharic and English, were also widely read. A score of them, including Prologue to African Conscience and Black Antigone, were published in the Ethiopia Observer in 1965. Another poem, in Amharic, castigated the European nomenclature for the waterfalls of Sudan and Egypt – which totally ignored those of Ethiopia, and caused Tsegaye proudly to refer to the Ethiopian Tissesat, or Blue Nile Falls as the "Zero Cataract".
"walk in the footprints of his ancestors. This land is a museum of man's ancient history. The American has gone to the moon and found dust, he's going farther away to look for other planets, very good. But know thyself first. That is what I would tell my American friend"
—interview on what Ethiopia means to average American
- Collision of Altars [Drama, 1977]
- Oda Oak Oracle [Drama, 1965]
- Runoko Rashidi. POET LAUREATE TSEGAYE DIES AT 69, NEW YORK. cwo.com
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