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Senamirmir Projects: Interview with Ato Girma Getahun

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Aleka Desta's Life
Aleka Desta's Work
Aleka Desta's Legacy

Senamirmir: Do you know Aleka DTW in person? What was he like?

  • KG = Memhèr Kèfle-Giyorgis
  • KWK = Aleka Kidane Wold Kifle
  • DTW = Aleka Desta Tekle Wold
  • KBT = Kissate Birehan Tessema
  • AYMQ = Addis Yamarènya Mezgebe Qalat

Ato Girma Getahun:  No; not in person. I was introduced to Aleqa Desta Tekle-Weld through his famous dictionary, whose comprehensiveness, consistent orthography and a wealth of additional anecdotal information impresses me to this day.

Senamirmir: Can you briefly share with us about his up-bringing; where and how he was educated; if he ever attended any modern school?

      Ato Girma Getahun: From the few autobiographical accounts it appears he had only a traditional church-based education. He began his studies at Gosh Wèha Giyorgis, the parish church of his nativity in Wegèdda, northern Shewa. He then studied Geez and Qèné at Debre-Libanos (the monastery founded by Abune Tekle-Haymanot in the 13 century), and Zéma at the Trinity Church in Addis Ababa. His mastery of Amharic and Geez, along with considerable knowledge in the scriptures, doctrinal literature and religious poetry must have made him a formidable scholar in the traditional system of education. Blaténgéta Hèruy and Aleqa Kidane-Weld Kèflé were so impressed by his mastery of Geez and qèné they offered him jobs straight away. This suggests his attainment of extraordinary depth and range of knowledge as allowed by traditional church education. We know also he has at least some working knowledge of colloquial Tigrinya, Arabic and Oromifa which he may have learnt later in life. However, there is no evidence to suggest that he had modern education by attending evening class/extension programs, or by studying correspondence courses.

Yet, lack of modern education did not seem to deter him from benefiting from the lexical works of distinguished lexicographers and linguists such as August Dillmann and Ignazio Guidi and others such as Isenberg, D’Abbadie and Baeteman when he compiled his dictionary or when he edited Aleqa Kidane-Weld Kiflé’s Geez-Amharic dictionary.

Senamirmir: He lost his father when he was 7 years of age; more importantly, he was raised almost with out parenthood which seems to be normal with kids who are rendered in Kasse-Gedam-Oriented Schools. What was his feelings and reflection in this?

Ato Girma Getahun:  This is very hard to say. In the absence of introspective diaries, autobiographical notes or narrative records, any attempt to answer this question will be exercise in pure conjecture. However members of his family or colleagues may have some records, anecdotes or memorized remarks which can throw light on the subject.

Senamirmir: Who were the people who influenced his life? How much do we know about them?

Ato Girma Getahun:  Again the paucity of recorded sources makes this question very difficult to answer with acceptable degree of certainty. There is however a hint in a recorded interview kindly posted by Ato Welé that his master at the Debre-Libanos monastic school had a lasting influence on his formative years. He attributes his knowledge of Geez and familiarity with religious and other manuscripts to this teacher. Unfortunately, we know nothing of this master, except that he was a native of Menz; that he was educated from a young age at the Debre-Libanos monastery; that he remained there to become a knowledgeable monk and popular teacher; and that he had great access to monastic manuscripts. We don’t even know his name.

KWK was perhaps the other most influential person in his life. In all probability it was whilst working with KWK for 16 years that he was exposed to the works of western scholars of Ethiopian languages, and with it to the importance of the concepts of etymology through knowledge of local and foreign Semitic languages. KWK had lived in Palestine for 30 years. There he studied Arabic and Hebrew, and was the acolyte and student of Memhèr Kèfle-Giyorgis (KG). These had provided him with ample opportunities to have a good understanding of philology, etymology and lexicography not only for their relevance to biblical translation and interpretations, but also for two other important missions in his life: establishing standard orthography and compiling lexicons for Gèèz and Amharic. These tasks being the main preoccupation for the rest of his life KWK must have been very keen to impart his knowledge to DTW, the highly receptive and disciplined acolyte and torch-bearer.

Last but not least were his patrons, Blatta Ashèné Kidane-Maryam and his wife Weyzero Belaynesh Gobena. DTW was ever so grateful for the couple for the kindness and protection they accorded him. Unlike the previous two however the influence of the couple appear to be more of a personal/emotional (than of intellectual) nature.

Senamirmir: What did he do for living?

Ato Girma Getahun:  For most part of his life he worked as editor and proof reader of religious b ooks for printing presses, Bèrhan ènna Selam, Artistic (both in Addis Ababa) and Alazar (Dire Dawa). His longest service was his last employer, Artistic PP where his major works were published.

Senamirmir: Did he ever travel outside of Ethiopia?

Ato Girma Getahun:  I do not think so.

Senamirmir: Besides his work, what did he enjoy the most?

Ato Girma Getahun:  I have no idea.

Senamirmir: How many languages did he speak? If he has spoken other than Geez and Amharic, where did he learn them?

Ato Girma Getahun:  I believe he had some working knowledge of Tigrinya, Arabic and Oromifa. For Arabic and Oromifa perhaps his long residence in Dire Dawa/Harar provided ample opportunities.

Senamirmir: What was his view of Emperor Haile Selassie I?

Ato Girma Getahun:  His works hint on admiration for the emperor. In the early period of his rule (as regent and then emperor) HSI was one of the most enlightened minds in the country, not just a modernizing monarch. It was his initial commission and patronage which started off serious work on the compilation of KWK’s dictionary. Many other religious texts and secular works were published under his patronage. For this and other reasons DTW must have shared the admiration which many young progressive people had for HSI before the Italian invasion.

One must note also that DTW was one of only few Ethiopian winners of the prestigious Haile Sellassie I Prize, a fitting reward for a recognition of his monumental dictionary and other works. He must have felt grateful to the emperor for the recognition as well as the financial reward which must have helped during his retirement.

Senamirmir: Was he a lonely man? How was his relationship with fellow country men?

Ato Girma Getahun:  My impression is that modern scholars and authors, especially linguists, did not engage him both on personal and academic levels. His dictionary is cited in bibliographies but I am not sure if there is a body of literature which attempt to provide a critical appraisal on his monumental work or on the rest of his literary outputs. This exhibits in my view scholarly disinterest in him as a person, and in his works which are regarded as products of traditional church education. The low esteem accorded to Amharic language and orthography in the modern education system also made his efforts to sound like lonely voices heard in the wilderness. His works lament this disinterest. From these one gets the impression that he was a disappointed and lonely man, despite being the winner of the prestigious HSI prize. However all the above is a personal impression which may be far from the truth.

In relation to this it is also interesting to note the remarks of his wife to R.K Molvaer: Talking of her husband just a few days before his death, she said, “he had no friends; his books have been his only friends” (Black Lions, 1997, p. 160-161).

Senamirmir: How was he affected by the 1974 revolution?

Ato Girma Getahun:  When the revolution began in February 1974, DTW was 72 years old. I could only imagine that he was retired then. In terms of loss of job, property or any other material benefit, the revolution may not have affected him a great deal, if at all. Yet, the revolution affected people in so many ways than just material possessions. The radicalization of politics, the indiscriminate attack on the values of the old social order, the disestablishment of the monarchy and the church, and last but not least the massacres of the youth by the Derg during the reign of terror may have been to him the cause of a great deal of sadness, worries and fear.

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© Senamirmir Project, 2006