Will Menilek, please, stand up?
A century ago as much as two-thirds of the entire population of Ethiopia died during the Great Famine of 1888-92.Prof. Richard Pankhurst in his book “The History of Famine and Epidemics in Ethiopia” wrote that the reaction of the then Emperor Menilek to the emergency was “one of the few bright spots in an otherwise gloomy picture”. Here goes an excerpt.
A pious, practical, and courageous man, he devoted himself to prayer and charity, urged his people whatever the difficulties to cultivate the land, and supplied the leadership required for them to carry on when all seemed lost. He did everything he could, Wurtz says, to comfort his people in their time of trouble.
The sovereign’s chronicler, Gabra Sellase, who affords us many a glimpse of events at court, says that almost immediately after the outbreak of the cattle disease in Shawa his royal master “filled with the spirit of wisdom” issued the following prophetic proclamation: “Men of Shawa gather yourselves together, all of you in your churches and utter to God the cry of Egzio (a prayer) because you know full well that if the oxen disappear there will be no more grain and that if there is no grain there will be no men.”
Menilek and his consort Taytu, according to the chronicle, prayed frequently day and night in their private chapel, in the company of the clergy. Chiefs and soldiers, having heard their sovereign’s proclamation, likewise went to their churches to appeal to God. The population at large was also mobilized. Wurtz says that Menilek ordered public prayers for two whole months and that at six o’clock each evening the entire population of the capital left their houses and prayed in the open.
The Emperor was no less determined to encourage his people in the material field. Wurtz relates that Menilek opened his granaries to the destitute. Large numbers of famine victims “believing.” Gabra Sellase says, “The palace to be full of grain, poured in from the four corners of the realm.” Alaqa Lamma says some came from as far as Tegre. Entoto which was still more or less the capital, despite the establishment of Addis Ababa a few years previously, was said by the chronicler to be “full” of paupers and famished people. They were so numerous that the gateways and houses adjacent to the three main churches of Maryam, Raguel, and Urael were soon overflowing. The chronicler says it was “impossible to count the number of starvelings,” the town being “full” of them. The Emperor and Empress, unable to bear the sight of so much suffering, erected an additional saqala, or rectangular building, to the right of the church of Maryam, to house refugees. The Chiefs also assisted in the good work, each taking five or six paupers to their own dwellings and feeding them throughout the emergency. (It is perhaps not surprising that all the buildings of Entoto were subsequently burnt to the ground in an attempt to eradicate the diseases which accompanied the famine).
Menilek’s charity seems to have the popular imagination. Afawarq Gabra Iyasus in his life of the ruler relates that Menilek went out of his palace every day and was not happy unless he personally distributed alms to the “thousands and thousands’ of paupers who flocked around him. The Emperor himself handed out enjera, or bread, and was often exhausted: the people who saw him engaged in this charitable work in the heat of the sun cried, we are told, while the sweat poured from him, bathing his clothes as with rain.
Appalled by the famine and determined not to enjoy himself while his people were in misery, Menilek decides upon a policy of austerity at court. Afawarq Iyasus relates that the Emperor, grieving and tormented by these events, forbade the eating of beef, and himself abstained, saying:” if I have prohibited it to others, I myself will not eat” The British traveler, Capitan M.S. Wellby, who more or less confirms the above account, declares:”I was told that for three years the emperor ate no beef, for he argued, ‘Why should I enjoy plenty while my people are in want?” Wellby’s comment is revealing:
“I doubt,” he wrote,” if any European ruler would have denied himself to the same extent for a similar cause?”
Could Emperor Menilek be twisting and turning in his grave over the apathy of the present leaders to the of indifference of the current famine?