Memorial for Dejazmatch Zewde
On January 1, 2009 the Institute of Ethiopian Studies organized a memorial service for the late Dr. Dejazmatch Zewde Gebre Selassie at the Addis Ababa University’s Ras Mekonen hall. Tributes poured in on the occasion, friends and families sharing their reminiscence of the nobleman and historian.
Prof. Bahru Zewde spoke of a historian and public intellectual who he said stands out for his unwavering commitment to his Ethiopianess.
“He has abundantly made it clear both in his publications and deeds,” Prof Bahru said during the memorial. “We celebrate him, not because of his ethnic affliction, but because of his lasting commitment to the idea of Ethiopia.”
Dr. Heran Serke Berhan brought recollections of time they spent together, particularly about a night when he joined her while she was playing kirar at an Ethiopian restaurant in America. Calling him a mentor, she narrated how he helped her in providing valuable information and editing some parts when she was writing her theses. Admiring his remarkable capacity to remember, Dr. Heran told the audience about an occasion when she telephoned Dejazmatch Zewde and asked him an information on the subject she was researching. She was stunned when he told her the page number of the book where she could find the information, which she did.
The service included the reading of condolence letters from friends and acquaintances.
In an e-mail dispatch, Chambreason who did his Ph.D dissertation on Adwa remembers their meeting in Oxford after the then young scholar asked him to help him with his long-awaited doctor of theses.” The following half-month was one of intense work and intellectual stimulation. I sat down with Zewde almost every day, taking notes on what he was telling me about the history of his forebears, in particular Empeor Yohannes writing up materials so that he could use them for the chapter he was composing at the time.”
In another an e-mail message, Paul Henze said that the passing of Zewde Gebre Selassie is indeed a great loss. “All the more so because, he never, as far as I know, managed to write a memoir encompassing his remarkable experiences, ranging from serving as a provincial governor at the age of 16 to serving the service of foreign minister and UN representative, along the way acquiring distinguished academic degrees.”
Prof. Richard Pankurst who was present in the service, in a speech delivered by his wife recalled that he first had the privileges of meeting Dejazmatch Zewde sixty years ago when they were both studying in Post-war Britain. “He in Oxford and I at the London school of Economics. I learned much from him about his country. And more immediately about the aspirations of Ethiopian students in Britain at that time. That was the beginning of a learning process about Ethiopian history, society and culture which continued throughout my long friendship with him,” he said.
Prof. Pankurst described Dejazmatch Zewde “as a man of deep integrity and generosity, ever ready to share his vast knowledge, unreservedly with anyone, Ethiopian or foreigner, interested in the country’s history and traditions. He carried his immense learning with both humility and humor and could laugh at his own misfortune, such as trying to get his pensions from several institutions, several of which had ceased to exist. He was above all a patriot who has served his country over many years in a determined effort to assist its advance into the modern world,” he observed.
Rita Pankurst added an observation she made when Dejazmatch was mayor of Addis Ababa. “And we were all excited to see the various plans that he had. We went to see him at his father’s house in the middle of the lovely tree-covered park. I think it was Sunday. He was working on his own shirt-sleeve at a large table covered with a map of Addis Ababa and it struck me then, here was somebody who didn’t only do his work on weekdays on his office but also in his home on holidays.”
Rita said she and her husband knew Dejazmatch Zewde as a meticulous scholar with many other wonderful qualities and virtues. “He was also a very loyal friend. He will be sorely missed by everybody,” she concluded.
According to the biography distributed in the ceremony, Zewde was born in Jeldu town of the former Jibat Ena Mecha province to his father, Dejazmatch Gebrelssie Arya Geber and his mother, Princes Wolte Esrael Seyoum. He moved to Jerusalem with his family in 1936 during the Italian occupation. He begun school in Jerusalem and continued in Cairo where he learned Arabic. He also did Geez after he returned home.
Zewde was only 14 when his grandfather Leul Ras Seyoum Mengesha named him Dejazmatch and made him governor of Shere. It a post that he wasn’t so much interested in. He rather preferred to come to Addis to do his high school studies at the newly opened Kedamwi Haile Selassie secondary school. He was one of the first graduates of the school. In 1948, he headed to England and joined the University of Exeter and received a diploma in English literature. He later undertook graduate study in philosophy, political science and Economics at Oxford University. He rounded out his education, adding the study of French and Italy.
He had worked at several institutions over the years, taking up important posts including Mayor of Addis Ababa, Minster of Justice, Ambassador to Somali, foreign minister and representative to the UN. He has also done extensive research, writing in the fields of history and on current affairs.