Home > poems > Of Memories and Dreams in Hama Tuma’s”Of Spade and Ethiopians ‘

Of Memories and Dreams in Hama Tuma’s”Of Spade and Ethiopians ‘

September 20, 2006 Leave a comment Go to comments

    By Kumlachew Fantahun        

                     ‘The struggle of the writer is the struggle of memory against forgetfulness.’ 

                                                                                                                       Milan Kundera

Many critics are of the opinion that Ethiopian literature in English is a closed book. Apart from a few novels, poems and plays, one can find scattered here and there; writing in English is not the norm in Ethiopia. 

Ethiopia boasts of an ancient writing tradition and unique alphabet in Africa and accordingly it has a rich Geez and Amharic writing heritage. But when it comes to English, it lags very far behind other African countries.For example, our neighbor, Kenya far surpasses Ethiopia in the amount of literary production in English. The reason of course, is not far to seek. Debebe Seifu in his master’s thesis ‘Ethiopian Literature in English’ has the following to say about the dearth of writing in English. ‘Looked at from the point of view of the hoary Geez and Amharic literature creative writing in English is a baby tradition in Ethiopia…. It has brief history of only two decades. When we look at the amount of English writings produced in some other African countries, the output in Ethiopia strikes us scanty intermittent and not very encouraging.’

The reason for this paucity of creative writing in English are the following, according to Debebe

  1. Ethiopian writers have a strong background in Amharic that disallows them to resort to or at least give an undivided attention to writing in English … And, English has never been the first official language in Ethiopia.
  2. English has not been given emphasis in Ethiopian schools; hence, lack of adequate mastery or command of the language inevitably barred those who might otherwise have as pined to write in English

In I  In particular, English poetry is a rare phenomenon in Ethiopian. There are notnotnot many writers trying their hands at poetry.

 ha   Debebe’s theses treat only two poets writing in English, Tsegaye

Ge    GebreMedhin and Eyasu Gorfu.

E      Nowadays, the situation appears to be improving with many writers

incr   increasingly trying thier hands at poetry English.Hama Tuma ‘s poetry  pc   collection, ‘Of Spade and Ethiopians,’ (Free Ethiopian Press, 1991) is a cas     a case in point.

The predominant theme in Hama Tuma’s ‘Of Spade and Ethiopians’ is that of cultural memory and an attempt to make archeology of wrongs and cruelties of the Red Terror, and infamous phenomenon that followed in the wake of the misdirected-1974 Revolution. It seems that those who survived through those dreadful days are nowadays looking back and putting the memory of this Ethiopian Holocaust to writing, there by redeeming the lost, if only in imagination. They reminiscence on the horror and heinous acts of the ‘inhumanity of man against man’ wrought by the then rulers. Fictional and non-fictional works that are coming out bear testimony to this tendency of invoking the past and reminiscence on it. Kiflu Taddisse’s ‘That Generation’ (in three volumes), Dawit Woldegiors ‘Red Tears ‘ and Babile Tola’s ‘To Kill A Generation’ are some of the salient historical accounts. In the field of creative writing, Hama Tuma’s ‘The Socialist Witchdoctor’,’ Massacre at Day Break’, and Nega Mezlekia ‘ Out of Hyena’s Belly’, have something to tell us about those nightmarish days. 

 Himself a significant actor in the EPRP and with first hand experience, Hama Tuma often dwells both in his fiction and poetry on the horrendous acts perpetrated by the architects of Red Terror. We read of such appalling cruelties as cutting the penis of a man and make his mother eat it, women’s genitals ripped open by hot iron, bottle of wine filled with sand hanging by thread on a person’s penis. In particular, his poems, ‘Of Spades and Ethiopians’, “To Bury a Brother’, ‘No Wine Bottles please!’ ‘Voice of the Dead’, ‘The Grader and Dreams. ‘Responsibility’, ‘Breaking the Monoculture Economy’, ‘Some Threads from History’ deal with those evil days and the attendant atrocities.

 In ‘Of spades and Ethiopians’ the poet not content to write about the events says 

What I need is not a pen, but  

 A shovel with which to dig the dirt  

And throw it down the garbage can of non-history’s  oblivion. 

 A country of  ‘an ignorant mass, backward and more’, though blessed with ‘a modern king far sighted to the core’ was still wallowing in misery and poverty until the monarch’ successor took the throne and assert  “it pulled Ethiopia out of the middle ages in just a handful of years.” by introducing land to the tiller, Soviet style democracy and mass-organizations. Since the country is lucky enough to have the privilege of being governed by this ”cool, intelligent, wise and determined leader’ in order for his noble objectives to be achieved and for the country to remain safe, nobody should be-allowed to tamper with the progress of the revolution. The mighty wave has to go untrammeled, sweeping everything that stands in its way to reach its destination. 

 All revolutions devour their sons                                   

  be they French or Russian 

Why do you want an exception in the Ethiopian one? 

 Reminiscent of the communist saying, ‘revolution is not a dinner party’, the next stanza gently reminds us of the sorry but ineluctable choice the revolution was faced with;  

 So don’t exaggerate the Terror bit

 For the enemy must be hit  

 Too bad if a generation dies 

Revolution means trying times 

 As is the case with his brilliantly ironic stories, his poems also are full of wry humor and subtle irony. The laughable silliness as well as the slavish servility of the revolutionary leaders are portrayed very vividly and also mocked.

 If Brezhnev hums a tune,

Mengistu will sing it loud 

The stupidity that results from total allegiance to an alien creed is brought out in the following sarcastic poem;

I have been to Russia and even Georgia

But the worst Russian I’ve ever met lives some where in north Ethiopia

He thinks Stalin’s death is an imperialist plot directed against Ethiopia.

 Some of the atrocities of the red terror were so horrible that any question as to appropriateness and rationality of the actions could be silenced with a resort,’ it also happened in Russia.’

Human life was rendered so cheap amid easily expendable that towns were turned into killing fields where minions off the powers that be could shoot people at will and with impurity, so eyewitnesses tell us. The Red Terror people were busy killing and with so many people to shoot they eventually run short of bullets, which therefore had to be retrieved from the corpses and be paid for by any one who came to claim the bodies of the dead. The following lines depict this gruesome picture; the lesson ostensibly being in a worthy revolution nothing comes gratis.

The soldier outside

counted the bullet holes

 in my brother’s corpses.

I paid the price

got the receipt

and took my brother away.

Away from the pile

forgotten already

I still had a burial to pay.

Here we are faced with the irony of paying for having for brother killed for the sake of revolution, which promised better days.In ‘No wine bottles, please’, the poet relates the gory spectacle he witnessed in the third police station. A wine of bottle filled with water is hung with a nylon thread on a penis of ‘anarchist recalcitrant’. In case some find this too horrible to contemplate, the poet adds some mitigating remarks, which implies that this manner of torture pales in comparison with other crueler ones;

A torture to make you holler

But some say it is bland

 And not so bad

Compared to other threatens they have had.

 In ‘The voice of the Dead’, the personae of the poem confronts its implied readers with penetrating and piercing questions to which, one has to give satisfactory answer or be tortured with guilt feeling. It seems that the one to whom the question is posed won’t able to escape unless he can account for what course of action that he took in relation to the massacre.

Where were you?

When you brother screamed for help

When young girls got raped

And mothers went mad seeing their children butchered

Right in front of them.

In another similar poem, those who felt it unwise to be engaged and dirty themselves with realities of the day are castigated and brought to task. The crude and absolutely deeds were such that, the poet seems to say; it would be a crime to simply stand and watch, unengaged and non-committal.

When the knife entered

                    your brother’s heart,

You simply watched

worse still,you walked away

without a protest or a shout.

 The tragedy of the Red Terror was not only physical. It killed bodies yes. But it did much more than that. It killed and buried a nation’s beautiful dreams and hopes. The student movement which helped to overthrow the centuries old feudal system gave rise to hopes of better future and emancipation. But no sooner was the monarch ousted than a new and more sinister leader took his place, there by dashing the hopeful expectations of the people by snuffing out the lives of the educated youth who with enthusiasm and verve were trying to inaugurate democracy to the nation.

The short poem, ‘The Grader and the Dream’ deals with this poignant loss,

The ditches are filled

The burial complete

no speeches are made

no epitaphs planned

 no building rises up

It’s only dreams

of a fair tomorrow

only the nation’s hope that is getting buried .

However, though the revolution is chiefly to blame for the dashing of hopes and dreams of the nation, the poet points out that we Ethiopian as a people are not much given to dreaming and imagination. He seams to attribute this paucity of imagination and incapacity for being visionary to moral cowardice and pursuit of ephemeral pleasures. 

 In “An empty cry” he deplores what he takes to be his fellow countrymen’s myopic vision and inability to transcend inconsequential hedonistic pursuits, He asks rhetorically.

Are we born so wretched

                           that our dreams

 got only as far as a woman’s thighs.

as to clap for the boots

which crushes the flowers to dust.

The poet seems to imply that our fear of change is such that it would amount to visionary quixotism to dream of an Ethiopia free of war and famine. Of course, when a people are so accustomed to a succession of misfortunes, it would take courage of utopian scale to ever imagine a radically different future. This appears to be the idea contained the following lines, suggesting incredulity at the thought of an Ethiopia bereft of strife.

Who knows what will happen

If Ethiopia finds peace.

Will the world turn upside down?

Or will is stay the same

The point, of course is not lost on the reader. A peaceful Ethiopia is almost impossible to imagine. Their phonetically similarity nonetheless, Ethiopia and utopia are poles apart. Hama Tuma says facetiously to dream of utopia in Ethiopia is crime, a treachery because it would threaten its pact with its plight. In a supremacy ironic poem, ‘I love my nightmare’, the poet echoes the observation many writers have made about the Ethiopian (and African) fear of change.

Last night I had such a dream

an utopian unEthiopian dream

I thought I saw famine gone

 He goes on to relate a bright scenario he envisioned, people smiling “with their hearts and eyes; a noise of festive drums, well-fed peasants, mothers going to church to praise not to pray. But somewhere along the poem, the poet tells us that he wakes up from his dreams in-fear for having such ‘a terrible dream’ because he saw the future and it was not… bleak’

I woke up in fright

 scared the kebeles might jail me

as a dissident not content

with his nightmare present

and dreaming like those in forest.

 As the above sketch attempted to show, memory and dream are the salient features of Hama Tuma ‘s poem.  

Categories: poems
  1. Fofi
    September 20, 2006 at 3:27 pm

    HAMA TUMA isn’t an Ethiopian name,is it?

  2. Daniel Gezhagne
    September 21, 2006 at 9:31 am

    I think Hama Tuma’s poetry are great.I wish they’d
    be less political.
    Otherwise, he writes in a simple langugage and he makes his point straight.
    He doesn’t go around the bush.It is nice nice to see young people taking interests
    in his writings,(assume you’re one.).The people who were in the other camp apparently won’t like what he says.But I think they should take some courage to come face to face with this greatest tragedy of this country.I know it is still hard to read and write about it.Going away from it won’t take us anywhere .

  3. H Y
    September 21, 2006 at 12:58 pm

    I was fascinated by this writing. I really liked the poems and I wondered who Hama Tuma was (Maybe I’m not supposed to say this if everyone knows him.)

    This is what I found when I searched for him (In wikipedia : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hama_Tuma ) incase anybody wants the same information:

    Hama Tuma (1949) is an Ethiopian poet and writer of the Amharic language born in Addis Ababa. He studied Law in Addis Ababa University but was expelled in his last year because of his student activism. He became an advocate for democracy and justice. This has caused him to be banned by three different Ethiopian governments. This situation sharpened his use of satire and he is known as one of Ethiopia’s greatest satirists. He has travelled widely but currently lives in Paris with his wife and daughter.

  4. Nafkot
    September 21, 2006 at 3:16 pm

    Hama Tuma is a pen name for Eyasu Alemayehu, who had been a leading man in EPRP.I’ve read his Amharic novel, Kedaa Chereka, which I think is a must read for all Ethiopians.

  5. Max
    September 22, 2006 at 2:20 pm

    To be honest, I won’t read poetries like this, if i do I will start to get depressed.

  6. Blogger
    September 28, 2006 at 6:49 am


  7. Martha
    September 29, 2006 at 10:51 pm

    I have difficulty of catagorizing anything in English as an Ethiopian Art work. the further we start to use other language the sooner we can lose the identity. some of us forget that language a very powerful tool for our existance and identity.

  8. alem
    September 30, 2006 at 12:58 am

    Eyasu, it might be depressing to read, but it has to be told because its a true story. Huma Tuma that is a brilliant work thank you!

  9. Senayit
    October 14, 2006 at 1:21 pm

    I agree the state of English in this country is not satisfactory.I think it is the price that we have to pay for our independence.

  10. To Senayit
    October 22, 2006 at 11:50 am

    Why should it be considered a price? Sperking our own language is a natural course of action.
    We should keep on doing that.

  11. Tedi
    November 18, 2006 at 12:17 pm

    If this guy is writing such good poems, how come is not famous?

  12. M.B
    December 28, 2006 at 1:38 pm

    I’m a little late in commenting, but I realized that I never did tell you that I bookmarked this post because I liked it so much. I was a English Lit major at AAU but feel like an imposter, like I know nothing. I plan to read Hama before long. Thank you for writing this!

  13. sudhashree
    April 29, 2008 at 9:25 am

    I was looking for info on ethiopian literature in english and your journal came in handy.This article is useful for teachers and researchers alike.Kudos,Keep it up!

  14. Joe C
    April 24, 2009 at 12:24 pm

    An excellent review!

    Two small points:
    “The predominant theme in Hama Tuma’s ‘Of Spade and Ethiopians’ is that of cultural memory and an attempt to make archeology of wrongs and cruelties of the Red Terror, AND infamous phenomenon that followed in the wake of the misdirected-1974 Revolution.
    ? Is the AND really supposed to be ‘AN’ ?

    2. The title “Massacre at Day Break” is authored by Befekadu Bekele WoldeMariam. ( 2003, Addis ) Is Befekadu Bekele W/Mariam a pen name for Hama Tuma, which is already a pen name?

    Thanks and regards,
    Joe C

  15. June 17, 2011 at 5:30 am

    I came across this site while browsing for some other subject and became real fascinated to read the page in detail as it had some thing to talk about the book I authored titled ‘Massacre at Day Break’. If I shall be permitted I would be happy to answer Joe C’s question above that asked ‘Is Befekadu Bekele W/Mariam a pen name for Hama Tuma, which is already a pen name?’ Befekadu Bekele is not a pen name for Hama Tuma or for that matter for Eyasu Alemayhu as described above. In addition to the book I wrote under the title Massacre at Day Break I have also had my English poems published under the title Gloomy Visages. I am ready and willing to furnish any person with information penitent to the above. Thank you Befekadu Bekele W/Mariam

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