Honoring the Distinguished Ethiopian Poet Laureate Tsegaye Gabre-Medhin

Honoring the Distinguished Ethiopian Poet Laureate Tsegaye Gabre-Medhin
by Elijah Eugene Cummings

Honoring the Distinguished Ethiopian Poet Laureate Tsegaye Gabre-Medhin



Monday, May 15, 2006

Mr. CUMMINGS. Mr. Speaker, I rise today to honor the life and work of Ethiopian Poet Laureate Tsegaye Gabre-Medhin who passed away on February 25, 2006 at the age of 69 in his New York home.

Mr. Tsegaye Gabre-Medhin left behind a legacy of poetry and literary works that continue to inspire generations.

Tsegaye was born in 1936 in the town of Boda during the Italian invasion of Ethiopia. As a youth, he showed great promise as a writer. In elementary school he wrote and produced "King Dionysus and the Two Brothers," a play that was attended by Emperor Haile Selassie.

Tsegaye grew to become one of his country's most prominent literary figures and an international voice for African culture and peace. A prolific writer, he created more than 30 plays and numerous poems. Many in Ethiopia have claimed him to be that nation's "Shakespeare". For Tsegaye, poetry and theater were paths to inspiring hearts and condemning violence.

After completing secondary education in Ethiopia, he attended Blackstone School of Law in Chicago where he graduated in 1959. But, theater, not law, was his lifelong calling. In 1959 and 1960, he studied experimental drama at the Royal Court Theater in London and the Comedie-Francaise in Paris.

Tsegaye revolutionized theater with his portrayals of the poor and the forgotten, war, imperialism, human failings, and courage. While his work delighted the public, 18 of his 33 plays were banned by one government or another. He put into words what many could not say. Tsegaye's poem, "The Day's Hunger Consumed," voiced an Ethiopian public's outrage at the news of famine raging in the north.

From 1961-1971, he was artistic director of the Ethiopian National Theater. In 1964, "Oda Oak Oracle," a play written in English about Ethiopian country life and lore was produced around the world thrilling audiences in Africa, Great Britain and the U.S.

In 1971, Tsegaye was awarded a fellowship to the University of Dakar to study African cultural antiquities. That research led to a Fulbright Scholarship which enabled him to tour the U.S. lecturing on Ethiopian art and literature. During the 1970s, he helped found the department of theater at Addis Ababa University. He also worked as an Oxford University Press editor and in 1975 served as Vice Minister of Culture and Sports.

Tsegaye's contributions to art and history are recognized worldwide. In 1966, he was awarded Ethiopia's highest literary honor--the Haile Selassie Prize for Amharic Literature. Other awards include the Gold Mercury Ad Personam Award in 1982; Fulbright Senior Scholar Resident Fellowship Award at Columbia University in 1985; Human Rights Watch Free Expression Award in New York in 1994. In 1997, the Congress of World Poets and the United Poets Laureate International conveyed on him the title of Poet Laureate. The Norwegian Author's Union, along with the Royal Norwegian Ministry of Cultural Affairs, conferred its Annual Freedom of Expression Prize on Tsegaye in 2005.

Poet Laureate Tsegaye held membership in many distinguished organizations, including the African Writer's Union and the African Researcher's Union. While Tsegaye received many honors, one of his most prized was when the African Union selected one of his poems for its anthem. In the poem, Tsegaye wrote, "Let us make Africa the tree of life."

Ailing health forced Tsegaye to leave his beloved Ethiopia in 1998 to move to New York for medical treatment that was not available in Ethiopia. Undeterred by illness, weakened eyesight, and an exhausting regimen of medical procedures, he continued to educate and inspire through his art, his unwavering social consciousness, and his sense of purpose and humanity.

Through his literature, Tsegaye's pride in Ethiopia and love for Africa will live with us forever.

I close with one of Tsegaye's more famous quotations, "I crave for knowledge. I envy tolerant, peaceful folks. I am frightened by ignorance. I loathe violence."--Tsegaye Gabre-Medhin

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).