According to legend, in the year 950 BC, the Queen of Sheba returned to Ethiopia to give birth to Solomon's son David, later called Menelik I. Thus began the dynasty that would last until the year 950 AD, a culture rich with oral literature and legends.
Legends lead to written literature and Ethiopia has the distinction of being the only country in Africa to develop a written language (Geez) prior to contact with Europe. There are still many books on the subjects of history, morality and law in the Geez language. Today the language is primarily used in the liturgy of the Ethiopian Church.
One of Ethiopia's three primary vernacular languages, Amharic, also developed an alphabet long before European influences. The oldest extant Amharic manuscripts date from the 1300s, but it is certain that written Amharic literature existed long before that. It's also believed that the Bible was translated into Amharic during the fifth century.
Due to recurring political conflicts, Ethiopia's literary development was periodically halted. However, following an era of intense political turmoil, there was a flourishing of literary writing around 1270. But it wasn't until the 1900s that a body of literature began to take form. These novels and poetry were intentionally didactic and morally instructive; they glorified Ethiopia's past.
Ethiopian writers-like those in many countries around the world-were changed by the events of World War II. One of the more obvious changes was the influence of the English language. Among the first writers to choose English over or alongside Amharic was Ashenafi Kebede (born 1937), with his novel Confession. Other prominent writers during that time include Sahle Selasie, Abbe Gubegna and Daniachew Worku. The latter aroused much attention with his novel The Thirteenth Sun. In his book Worku criticized social injustices and corruption under the rule of then governing Emperor Haile Selassie.
Most of the poems, plays and novels of this era are deeply patriotic in tone, and wrestle with memories of the Italian Occupation and Fascist rule. For synopses of some of the works that exemplify this period, see Richard Pankhurst's The Ethiopian Patriots.
In 1951 the United Nations decided that Eritrea would enter into a federation with Ethiopia. Haile Selassie continued to work toward complete annexation of Eritrea, and in 1962 Eritrea became the 14th province of Ethiopia. However, a iberation war had already begun. To heighten the conflict, both the US and USSR had vested interests in the outcome. And student and union groups within Ethiopia began aggressive protests, as the rich became richer and the poor became poorer under Haile Selassie's rule. When the 1972 drought killed 200,000 people, the Emperor tried to keep the disaster concealed, an act that prevented foreign aid from reaching the suffering communities. In 1974, the military put the Emperor under house arrest, and he died a year later. A military junta, the Derg, established a socialist state.
During and immediately following the liberation war, few works of literature crossed the borders from Ethiopia. The Derg regime had a policy of strict censorship.
In 1991 the liberation war was ended and Eritrea became a sovereign state. The Derg regime was also ended in 1991 by a coalition of rebel forces, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). Democratic, multiparty elections were held for the first time in 1995.
Until very recently all writers were self-published. Now there is an emergence of small publishers, with equipment to mass-produce affordable books and the resources for distribution. Despite the fact that the literacy rate is only 42.7%, there is a market for local books. Unfortunately writers in Ethiopia are still restricted by censorship . Often it is government censorship, but in some cases it is a matter of self-censorship as well.
Journalists and publishers, on the other hand, are severely and consistently restricted by government censorship and often imprisoned for exercising their freedom of expression. At one time Ethiopia imprisoned more journalists than any other country.
Ethiopia is in conflict now with neighboring Somalia and Eritrea, and Ethiopia's political situation with Kenya and Djibouti is tense, complicated by US anti-terrorism groups.
Recently there have been allegations and investigations into the government's blocking of internet websites . While officials claim that these blockings are due to technical problems, the NGOs researching the situation have remarked that the sites continually affected by these technical problems have in common frequent articles critical of the Ethiopian government.
Today the International City of Refuge Network (ICORN) has one Ethiopian journalist awaiting placement.
Of all the countries in the world, Ethiopia has the fewest citizens with access to the internet. Remarkably, there is a profusion of blogs by Ethiopian writers, within and outside their homeland.
Recently Ethiopia's Poet Laureate, Tsegay Gabre-Medhin died. Tributes have been written and passed around the internet by family and admirers.
There are attempts to encourage the growth of freedom of expression. One tactic is to promote literacy. Ethiopia Reads, founded by former political refugee Yohannes Gebregeorgis, is one program that aims toward a more literate future.
* Ethiopia was occupied by Italy from 1936 to 1941.
Main source for the information presented in this article:
Achehoug og Gyldendals Store Norske Leksikon.Achehoug og Gyldendal: Oslo, 1997.
© 2007 ICORN, babel webzine