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 Research in Fiction: Outtakes (Part 1) by Mihret Sibhat

As part of research I’m conducting for an autobiographical novel, I spent a month in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, this winter, looking at old newspapers from three decades ago. This trip was part of a broader research project I’m undertaking to gain a better understanding of the social and political milieu of 1980s Ethiopia, when the country was still under a socialist dictatorship. My time in the archives was as entertaining as it was enlightening. I spent most of it going through old issues of the state-owned daily Addis Zemen, which has been around for 78 years, serving whoever is in charge. Full of propaganda language, the editorials and “news” articles read like great satire. But my most favorite were the Letters feature, which came out on Sundays, carrying messages (almost all complaints) from the citizenry.

I found these letters entertaining at first because of how petty the contents seemed to me: so many people were writing to a national daily complaining about movie ticket prices, undelivered mail, and buses transporting more passengers than they should. But when I thought about the political context of the time, the Letters section took on a darker meaning. I’m sharing a few of the letters here (translated from Amharic by me):

Not For Sale

The government has been purchasing coats for security guards at various government agencies, sometimes spending up to 200 birr*, in order to keep them from suffering in the night cold and morning frost. However, some security guards have been seen selling these expensive coats for cheap. Since the coats were given out for use and not for sale, it would be good if government agencies were to oversee the use of these coats they are purchasing.

 

— Janka from (Addis Ababa, 6 December 1977**)

 

The Riddle of the Beer

There is a serious shortage of beer in the city of Bahir Dar. When beer deliveries arrive once a month or every other month, the bars would give us a bottle each and tell us they only received two crates and that one of them sold out before they even managed to take it inside. Whenever we hear that deliveries have arrived, those with enough money can go from bar to bar and get enough. But everything is gone within twenty-four hours and the only people who can get beer are loyal customers or those with a special relationship with bar owners.

 

 

Although it isn’t a basic need of the working masses, considering the growth of the city and the expansion of state and public organizations and projects as well as increase in construction, we find that beer is important.

 

 

In general, is the source of this talk of no beer and no deliveries a shortage issue or distribution issue or lack of city oversight? We might understand the origin of this riddle if the concerned parties explain it to us.

 

                        —Tilahun (Bahir Dar, 1 June 1977**)

From 1974 to 1991, Ethiopia was under a brutal military dictatorship that repressed speech. If people were given the chance to truly express themselves, they would have been complaining about being forced to pay for the bullets that killed their children, about terrible economic policies, and the general atmosphere of fear. Deprived of the chance to do that, they could only express “petty” local concerns that didn’t implicate the government. This served the regime in at least two ways: first, the Letters section became a propaganda instrument that sent the false message that citizens were allowed to express themselves when, in fact, there was a limit to what they were allowed to say. Second, the section also functioned as an arm of the surveillance state by encouraging people to tell on each other (“Not For Sale”) and on lower level officials (“The Riddle of the Beer”). Every week, the Letters section arrived bearing a two-headed unwritten message: 1) you can gain national fame by telling on someone; 2) whatever unacceptable thing you are doing (which is not always clear), someone will tell on you. So, readers of that section were either hopeful or afraid; or hopeful and afraid—either way, exactly where the regime wanted them.

 

While the first two letters were straightforward in their purpose, the third example below (“Before It Takes Root”) was doing more in that, in addition to telling on others (new musicians), it showed the author’s anxieties about old and new cultural forces.

Before It Takes Root

We have been seeing posters announcing the arrival of new music and musicians at record stores, public squares, and on fences and walls and utility poles. We are witnessing an increase in the number of new vocalists. On the one hand, the situation indicates growth, so it is pleasing. On the other, the new songs neither seem to have a clear identity—traditional or modern—nor are they giving considerations to the listeners’ tastes. Instead, they seem to have only been measured by the singers’personal will and desire. There are many songs coming out but no one seems to be paying attention to quality. I suppose the growth of the music business has contributed to this phenomenon. It appears that anyone, regardless of musical talent, can put out whatever he wants and take his earnings home. There is no argument that this is denigrating the respect art has gained since the start of our revolution, so the association of artists, itself a fruit of the revolution, must do all that it can to stop this trend.

 

—Elizabeth Tesfaye (Arat Kilo, 1 June 1977**)

To understand this letter, it’s important to know that performance art wasn’t respected in dominant Ethiopian cultures prior to the socialist revolution of 1974. Musicians outside the church, for example, were derided and looked down upon. Nobody wanted their children to become musicians or to marry musicians. The revolution brought about radical change in this area because performance art became a critical aspect of the new regime’s propaganda operations. It wasn’t only encouraged but also forced upon the masses from the capital city to the smallest towns—young people had to join bands, drama clubs, and dance troupes. The taboos around those professions were largely crushed. But the author of this letter clearly feared that if something wasn’t done about the “denigration” of the arts by new unmoored artists, old hatreds for the arts might return.

 

*At the time, 200 birr would have converted to about 83 USD.

**These dates are according to the Ethiopian calendar.