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Ethiopia seen through letters
Art

Ethiopia seen through letters

Ethiopia is a unique land with a long history. As being one of the few lands that has its own alphabet, people forgot how unique it is. According to sources, Ethiopia is the only country in Africa with its own distinct alphabet, which uses the system of Abugida.

Zeradawit Adhana, Ge’ez lecturer at Addis Ababa University says that Ge’ez is a very unique and developed language. He told The Reporter that Ge’ez is much more than just letters, it tells a lot about Ethiopia’s story. Ge’ez letters are not influenced by any other language showing Ethiopia’s independence. It was created from a scratch by visualizing Ethiopians day to day social life, Zeradawit explains. For example, looking at the horns of a bull, looking at wheat etc., Zeradawit told The Reporter.

One common misunderstanding among many is that Ge’ez is only for priests or used in churches. Which, according to Ge’ez scholars, is not true. Ethiopia’s ancient’s civilization and history is written in this language. Additionally, Ge’ez shows the sovereignty of Ethiopia. Zeradawit advices that Ge’ez should be learnt since early age because it can help us discover Ethiopia’s ancient history, civilization and wisdom. Ge’ez is Ethiopia’s treasure and a symbol or an emblem of freedom, he told The Reporter.

Yves-Marie Stranger approaches Ge’ez letters in a different manner. He mentions there is a love for letters in this country, as can be seen anywhere you go in Addis by the huge letters posted on the doors of every shops or even in taxis there are a bunch of quotes posted inside the taxi or on the outside of cars.

The Abyssinian Syllabary by Yves-Marie Stranger spelled out the history of Ethiopia through a series of 33 biographical vignettes of emblematic Ethiopian lives – with each life corresponding to one of the main 33 symbols of the Abyssinian syllabary or also known as Abugida.

Stranger told The Reporter that his recent exhibition portrays fictional and realistic characters through short stories attached to the Fidelat (letters).

Yves-Marie Stranger worked and lived in Ethiopia for 15 years. During his time in Ethiopia he wrote books, owned a horse trekking company and did translation as well as journalism. He wrote a lot about Ethiopia. Stranger’s previous work includes some that are written in English and French including “Ces pas qui trop vite s’effacent” and “The Abyssinian Syllabary of Cornu de Lenclos”. He has also contributed to “African Train: The Djibouti-Ethiopia Railway”.  One of his latest work, “Ethiopia Through Writers’ Eyes,” is an anthology of writings from 2000 years including Herodotus to Edgar Allan Poe, by way of Dervla Murphy and Prester John.

This Abyssinian syllabary is a text that he wrote as part of a tribute for a friend who passed away. It is to honor a friend, “we had often discussed the possibility of writing something, a story of Ethiopia seen through the life of different people,” he told The Reporter.

One of the problems of Ethiopians and foreigners is that when they write about Ethiopia, they write what they think is true or what they want others to know, he notes. Stranger lists the poverty story, the Queen of Sheba story and political transformations stories as some of the narratives that are often cited in relation to Ethiopia. “Those are some of the stories but many do not tell the stories of what makes Ethiopia tap into your soul,” Stranger tells The Reporter.

He asserts that there is beauty in Ethiopia and terrible things as well. Stranger outlined that it was an attempt to give a portrait of Ethiopia that is true, which is why he choose the 33 main Fidelat and that was to make it Ethiopian. To use the beauty of the letters shapes, characters or syllabus and then it was an attempt to show all of Ethiopia. Stranger explains that is why the life stories include a king, a monk, beggars, outlaws, queens, slave and women of ill reputation. So, it is really trying to portray the incredible variety of Ethiopian lives that is usually burnt down to be a very simplistic version when it presented on the media or by books or films.

He explains that in his exhibition there are two introductions and there are 33 life stories and one conclusion. It ties it all together with a hidden message. Stranger explained why he tried to use the syllabary to The Reporter by saying, “Can you portray Ethiopia in English? Yes, you can. However, until recently Ethiopia has existed in a lot of languages but not in English. And English is a different medium. Ethiopians are changing fast, they are globalizing, they are losing some of what made them Ethiopians and they are taking stuff from outside and creating something else. Globalization and modernity as well. So partly I tried to pull in the syllabary to reconcile or mix those levels of reality.”

It was first written in French and then translated to English. “As it was a memoir for my friend, I tried to write it in what I imagined is his voice,” Stranger told The Reporter. He stated that he was able to accumulate the information through different ways by reading different texts and also by learning the language. “Ethiopia was always a subject of great fascination to me from the very begin after I came here. But I didn’t understand Ethiopia. I came from a complex background because I was from a French and English family. There are so many paradoxes here. I spent many years trying to understand it and trying to interpret what they are saying and part of this fictionally story in its mess of complexity angles, it is an attempt to show that complexity.

Stranger told The Reporter, “Now I think I understand Ethiopia possibly even better than most Ethiopians. Because first I am a foreigner, so I have an outside opinion and secondly, I wasn’t outside either. I was not working for NGO or some other big organization. I was surviving and lived simply and mingled with the day to day society and learned the language as well.”

Yves-Marie Stranger hopes that foreigners and especially Ethiopians will see his work. Even though many Ethiopians do not read even when they can, they have a deep respect and love for the written word. “This show the deep fascination for the written word,” he told The Reporter. Stranger said he will publish his text as a book this coming October. “When people read my text, I want them to be stimulated, angered, irritated and ask questions as well as for people to be intrigued, hoping that it leads for discussion,” he said. Stranger hopes it will be distributed in Amharic as well.

Contributed by Sesina Hailou