Første åpne forfatterkonferanse i Etiopisk PEN, Addis Abeba, 25. februar 2012
Vertskap: Italienske kulturinstituttet i Addis
Ett minutts stillhet for å hedre nylig avdøde Tsegereda Hailu, medlem i etiopisk PEN som nylig døde i barsel.
Velkommen ved Solomon Hailemariam. SH understreket at for å styrke den egne, litterære kulturen i Etiopia, er det av stor betydning å utvikle og styrke leseferdigheter og å gjøre flere bøker i amharisk og andre etiopiske språk tilgjengelig for folk flest i Etiopia
– Hva er grunnen til at vi ikke er i stand til å publisere millioner av bøker?
Hovedtalere: John Ralston Saul, president i PEN International og Elisabeth Eide, nestleder i norsk PEN og sterk støttespiller i etableringen av etiopisk PEN.
Spesielt invitert var prins Bede-Mariam, barnebarn av keiser Haile Selassie. Prinsen, som nå lever av hotelldrift i Addis Abeba, arrangerer månedlige poesilesninger, hvor diktere framfører egne ting. På grunn av at prinsen tilbrakte 17 år i fengsel under Mengistus kommunistregime, til dels sammen med mange av statsminister Meles Zenawis nære medarbeidere, nyter han en viss respekt under dagens regime. Poesiarrrangementene på hans hotell sentralt i Addis er svært populære, trekker stadig flere, og dikterne blir stadig dristigere i temavalg og formuleringer. På grunn av den levende, muntlige forteller- og diktertradisjonen i Etiopia, eksisterer lite eller ingenting av det framførte på trykk. Prinsen frykter likevel at myndighetene en dag skal sette ned foten og påføre ham en eller annen skatteinspeksjon, økte avgifter, hotellstengning eller andre former for sanksjoner. Prinsen ønsker ingen profilert rolle i dagens Etiopia eller i etiopisk PEN.
Fra Norsk PEN deltok også eksilforfatter Abera Lemma, som var tilbake i Etiopia for andre gang siden han måtte forlate landet.
PEN International markerer i 2012 90 årsjubileum. Konferansen i Addis er første konferanse i regi av Etiopisk PEN og for første gang i PENs 90-årige historie er PENs internasjonale president i Etiopia.
PEN eksisterer nå i 104 land, med 145 PEN-sentre. PEN Etiopia er blant de yngste.
Fra innlegg og debatten under PENs forfatterkonferanse: (referert på engelsk)
John Ralston Saul:
There is a positive tension around PEN – sometimes governments don’t love the work of an organization based on the idea of freedom of expression.
Ethiopia has a culture with more than one culture and more than one language. PEN understands societies which live with a multitude of cultures.
The Christian principle of the tower of Babel tells us that people cannot live with more than one language. What is the religion of PEN? It is worship the tower of Babel. The civilization of many languages, many cultures. Pen defends not only writers – also readers, viewers, listeners. The public is the key and It is not replaceable. The public crave for knowledge.
Most of PENs members are not Europeans. 25 centers in countries where Islam is the dominant religion. PAN – PEN African Network has 18 centers. Largest problem in many countries is the lack of reading and writing among large groups of people. And therefore not partakers in public debate. Not educated in any way.
The more creative citizens, the better the development of a country. Access to ideas makes way for development. Government and businessmen can experience independent ideas as troublesome and challenging. In China the authorities are challenged by openness and creativity. But at the same time many see that the best way to get rid of undermining corruption is through transparency, new thinking and the possibility to reveal corruption.
Some of the most brilliant ideas and methods in the work against global warming and sustainable environmental methods are not bred within western languages and definitions. Many indigenous peoples have their own philosophical and practical solutions developed within their own culture, knowledge and traditions.
Honorary diplomats, and dignitaries, Prince Bede-Mariam, dear respected President of Ethiopian PEN, Solomon Hailemariam Erba, dear board members, dear friends and colleagues.
First of all, a heartfelt Thank You for this invitation. It is a pleasure to be with you all and to feel the hospitality and friendship in this conference based in a country with a proud and ancient culture of the word. Global friendship between people who live, play, create, and fight with their pen, as John Ralston Saul said, is of special importance.
I am here primarily to listen and learn. As the late great playwright and poet Tsegaye Gabre-Medhin once said, “To humble themselves before the ancestors, not to be arrogant, that is what Ethiopia means.” And furthermore, he added: “You don’t start from Europe, because Europe started from Africa”.
But as I have been asked to address this forum, I would like to share with you some of my inspirations as a novelist, journalist and academic, and to try and envisage how these three somehow speak to each other.
For me writing has become increasingly transnational, as I have lived abroad, mostly in India and Pakistan and going frequently to Afghanistan, and most of my novels are inspired by this experience. During my travels I have tried to see the world, not least the European part of the world, with the eyes of a non-European. The late Pramoedya Ananta Toer (1925-2006), one of the most famous writers in Indonesia, has been an inspiration in this respect. His main work, the Buru Quartet (1981-1990), four novels from the time of Dutch rule in Indonesia, earned him nominations for the Nobel Price of Literature, although he never received it.
His main character Minke grows up under this foreign rule and through the colonial school (run by some liberal women), as well as by his personal experience learns how to oppose colonialism. The books have strong female characters too, women whose fate is decided by the rulers, who consider them their property.
Toer started writing, or rather inventing and telling, these novels at a time when he was imprisoned and deported to Buru island; thereby the name of the series of novels. He did not even have a pen, and he was denied paper for seven years during the Soeharto dictatorship, but every evening told stories which were later written down, to his fellow inmates. They adored him for his skills, and decided that he should be relieved of the hard labour – they would do it for him – to enable him to develop his phantasy. After seven years, he was granted a typewriter and some paper by some missionaries, and some years later was released, but still in house arrest under Soeharto, who had to step down in 1998. I met Toer in 2004. He was then a free person who could speak his mind; he was ailing, but happy, and somewhat optimistic about the future. Sadly he died in 2006, but his literature is alive and his experiences tell how the oldest and most wide reaching literary tradition, the oral storytelling, helps people survive under harsh conditions. One of his fellow prisoners at Buru island, said after some weeks of listening, that when he was out in the forest labouring, he thought of himself as Minke, Toer’s main character in the Buru quartet. This is another feature of good literature, a writer making his or her readers feel, reflect and identify with the fictional characters.
Toer’s literature travelled to the Holland and to Dutch readers, who would thereby learn and reflect more about their long colonial past.
From another corner of the world, Afghanistan, I learned how George Orwell’s book, Animal Farm, deeply inspired by the oppressive Soviet system, also travelled widely. Animal Farm was translated into Pashto, one of the major Afghan languages, and smuggled into the Soviet-occupied Afghanistan of the 1980s (an occupation that lasted from Dec 1979 to Feb 1989). Orwell (1903-1950), himself a transnational writer born in Bihar, India, would no doubt have liked that Afghan intellectual creativity had he lived to witness it. But Orwell had another less known ability, that of investigative journalism. In his Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) he built on his own experience. In the early 1930s he was himself poor and destitute, and thus able to identify with the poorest sections of the two European capitals, and for a while shared their lives, as another famous writer. Jack London (1876-1916), an earlier writer had done this before him in his The People of the Abyss (1902). So here we experience another level of identification, as these writers identify deeply with their oppressed brothers and sisters, often ignored and rendered invisible in the public sphere or reading circles. And both London and Orwell did this by somehow giving voice to the voiceless (also part of the ethics of journalism); in both cases the people of the slums, and by their writing these people’s fate were brought up into the open.
People do not always agree on literature: not on its quality, nor on its function in society. That is not the point either; literature can and should be a meeting point for different interpretations and fruitful exchanges. Take Joseph Conrad (1857-1924), himself a transnational figure, of Polish origin, but a migrant to Britain. He was an adventurer who travelled the river Congo and described in his Heart of Darkness (1899) how European colonizers developed their brutality, clearly depicted in the character Kurtz, whom the novel’s storyteller Marlowe, finally finds after a long quest. The Heart of Darkness has been praised as one of the best European novels, not only of its time, but also transcending age.
But Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe thought differently about the novel. Not that he did not respect Joseph Conrad and felt he was a friend, a fellow writer. No, maybe precisely for that reason he criticized the novel for the way in which Africa and the Africans are represented, “as wild and passionate uproarers”, an Africa as “the Other world”; this continent as an antithesis to Europe and therefore to what was in Europe defined as civilization. In my opinion Achebe’s critique is important and worth paying close attention to.
UK writer Caryl Phillips (author of “The European Tribe”, 1989), of Caribbean origin, finds Achebe a bit too harsh, in an exciting interview, but all the same, the two seek common ground when discussing the novel. This goes to show how literature develops and reveals new interpretations in the mindset of people who love to read and write, and how the variety has to do with where you are grounded, and with the way in which history develops.
Margaret Mitchell’s (1900-1949) famous and award-winning novel Gone with the Wind (1936), inspired by the American Civil war (1860s) portrays Scarlett O’ Hara; a daring white woman from a slave owner family, who much later became an icon for American feminists. Albeit she did not harvest as much admiration from African American feminists, since they were more concerned with the way in which Mitchell (and the film based upon the novel) represented the two slaves, Mamie and Prizzie, in a rather simplified and degrading way. Thus as with the Heart of Darkness, the novel came under new scrutiny; a timely one indeed. This is what the late Edward Said would call contrapuntal reading, inspired by his thorough musical experience.
Literature can sound like music.
I have had the pleasure of listening to the music of Persian language poetry in Afghanistan through our sister organization, Afghan PEN. Many Afghan writers also demonstrate their transnational feelings by telling us that they are the daughters and sons of Russian Fodor Dostoyevsky. Many of them also adore the poet Rumi (1207-1273, also known by the names Maulana, and Jalaludeen Balkhi), who lived 800 years ago. Rumi would perhaps have laughed if he today saw how people of three nations, Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey, all are striving to recognize him as theirs. The collections of this Mystic, liberal, Sufi-inspired Muslim poet are among the most sought-after and sold books of poetry in today’s United States and also elsewhere in the so-called West. This demonstrates how literature transcends not only geographical borders, but indeed also centuries.
Rumi was a great poet. But there are many unknown poets. A story I learned about in Afghanistan, goes like this: An Iranian traveller came to a village in Afghanistan, as he was told that many good poets resided there. First he came to the shopkeeper, and said he had heard that he was a good poet. – That might be true, said the shopkeeper, but you should rather visit the blacksmith, as he is a better poet than me. Off the Iranian went and asked the blacksmith to share some poems with him. The blacksmith also hesitated, he admitted that he was indeed a poet, but he advised the traveller to go to the riverside and find the ferryman, since he was an even better poet. So the Iranian went to the riverside and found the ferryman. – I have heard that you are such a brilliant poet, he said. – The ferryman, leaning on his oar, responded thoughtfully, that yes, he was a poet, and loved poetry: – But really, you need to go and check with the man who is tilling the earth over at the other bank, he is a very good poet.
The story goes on, and here is recounted with some of my flavour, as is the way of the oral tradition. This story to a certain extent corresponds to a Norwegian fairy-tale about a traveller who comes to a rather large farm. He wanted to stay for the night, and approached the first man he met, who said he could not help; he’d have to address his father. And so the tale goes on. He meets with one ailing and older father after the other, until he is finally presented to the seventh father of the house, still surprisingly alive, but so shrunk by age and small that he is placed in a hollow horn hanging on the wall. However, by this father he is granted a bed for the night, and a sumptuous dinner.
The old, Norwegian fairy-tales were transcribed and collected in the 1840s, after having been handed down by generations of storytellers. We do not know how well they will live with the new generations to come.
What is writing about? We translate literature, we promote it through libraries and schools, we teach it, to the extent it can be taught, and we write as we twist our creativity to find our personal reflections on the human condition; on how people – in their likeness and difference – live, harvest their experiences, and survive. As fiction, journalism, is oftentimes about drama, and about conflict; but at least at its best and profoundest also about the way in which people find ways of survival, of preserving their dignity and their rights as human beings, including the right to free expression; as individuals and as peoples. We also witness how people around this ever more globalized world, become increasingly interdependent; climate change – or global warming – is one powerful example of this. In Norway, we should take the opportunity to think of how our energy-consuming practices may provide other people with “remote-controlled sufferings”, as they contribute to worsening of the climatic conditions in for example Bangladesh and Ethiopia.Journalists, writers, and academics try to tell some truths about their own time and society. They are, however, not always understood at the moment of publication. This is rather normal. Recognition is far from always immediate. So it has been with several of our Norwegian writers. Even the world famous playwright Henrik Ibsen faced problems. When his A Doll’s House was to appear in Germany, he was compelled to change the end scene, where Nora leaves her husband Helmer, for several good reasons. In the early German stage version, she returned home. That was then, only for a short time. Not any longer, of course. Although Ibsen had his fierce critics, he was by and large also recognized in his own time, which is of course the hope of any writer hoping to influence society.
Finally, it is with a profound feeling of hope and expectation that I address this assembly of people invited by Ethiopian PEN. I look forward to learning more about your literature, about your writing, in the not too distant future. Many writers tend to recognize and read each other globally, but they also remain the conscience of their respective nations. Ethiopia can be proud of this conference. Best of luck in your future work, all of you, and especially Ethiopian PEN.
Abraham Alemu, teacher at Addis Abeba University (AAU)
Students are not used to read newspapers in class. Africans are not good readers. Oral tradition is strong. Quoting Heraklit, who wrote about the ancient Ethiopian culture. Ethiopians are inventors of festivals, sacrifices, and other religious ceremonies. Because they are born under the sun they are ripened earlier than other men.
Why is our reading ability so poor – as one of the oldest written cultures of the world?
During the Derg military junta (1974 – 1987) Ethiopia was poor in many things, but good in literacy campaign. 9 million copies of books were distributed around the country
Music group promoted literacy. Now the NGO Code Ethiopia has opened libraries and supplies books around in Ethiopia with support from donors from abroad.
Not usual to buy newspapers and read them at home, in private. Most people rent newspapers from bookstores, read them and return them for new costumers to read. In Europe you’ll find free newspapers on trains and metro stations. Ethiopia has poor economy and are faced with reuse of newspapers. Ethiopia is poorer than other African states in reading because it is so difficult to get hold of newspapers and books. This is why Ethiopia has a poor written culture.
Reading experience is poor because there is no public support for private publication. Public publishing is very selective. People can’t support the cost of publishing books privately. Information is thus transferred orally.
One newspaper costs 7 Br. Therefore people rent, not buy newspapers and thus newspapers do not stay in the homes. Poor reading culture affects the country in many ways.
Censorship hinders people in reading. Strict censorship enslaves art.
Development opens up new possibilities. But with poor traditions in written publishing and reading, young people turn more to visual media. Ethiopian PEN must warn against a cultural development based on international images and not on our own written culture.
Once I was lecturing in a class. I asked the students which Ethiopian books have you read? By which author? Not one spoke. Then one blind student had heard a book read on radio. A very famous book in Ethiopia, which was read on radio. No other students in this class of literature said anything.
This should be a focused national question. The ability to read is vital for a country. If reading culture does not develop, new students cannot graduate from university.
The low level of reading has a great impact and is the other side of our poor habit of writing.
Comments and debate:
Ethiopia has a long history of writing religious texts. Religious texts goes back 1.500 years. Reading culture was not developed in Africa. An old proverb says: “Hide something from Africans – put it in a book”. We have more of an oral society. Still the writing culture goes back to early centuries before Christ. We have inscription on stones.
During the Derg era literacy campaigns enhanced reading capabilities. Now not enough reading material is being provided. This is a lack in both private and professional institutions. Reading clubs and literary clubs are being started. The aim is to enhance education. The challenge is illiteracy, which is still 35,9% in Ethiopia.
Ethiopians are a people who love to listen to narratives. Previously reading was associated with whichcraft. To be able to read something on a paper were seen as mysterious.
In Ethiopia today there are only 10.000 copies of newspapers for 8 million people.
Authors’ rights are another problem.
We must encourage children at early age to read and write. Challenge them to write about their day to day life. This can help them improving reading and writing habits. There will be no progress in an illiterate society. Access to reading and writing is an important task of both the government, the civil society, NGOs and the local reading communities. Censorship hampers reading and writing.
Priests are seen as powerful. They have the ability to read and interpret texts. Reading and writing belonged to the religious and elite people. Reading and writing were seen as mysterious work of the powerful and gifted.
Vice president in Ethiopian PEN: Getnet Gessesse comments:
Litterature is under pressure of the government. Ethiopian literature must be liberated.
Civil society in Ethiopia is an oral society. This hinders development in reading habits. Another problem is the tradition of burning of old school books because the books are worn and curriculum changes. Those old books are burned instead of given to people to be read by many in their homes. Media should have a role in developing reading. Today books which are narrated to radio are no longer so interesting. People are more into the visual impressions through tv.
There is no system to transform the oral traditions into written literature.
There is an ongoing discussion in journalism: To attract reader you must tell a story. So there is an interaction between storytelling and writing.
And: How to define literacy? There is the instrumental way with statistics. A more profane way is to measure media literacy. This is about understanding what you are being told and having a critical attitude to what media presents.
During the Derg regime the old books were burned. Revolutionary books were printed and distributed. Now the old books must be remade.
This government does not want people to read. Ethiopia needs help to develop better reading culture. Maybe Ethiopian PEN could play a role here?
State broadcasting uses lots of air time on concerns for the future of the daughter of Whitney Huston. Why worry about Whitney Huston’s bank account? She was a millionaire. We should worry about all the children growing up in this country without learning to read or write.
Ethiopia has an oral church language older than Amharic. But this language is at present not able to be studied for even a bachelor degree in our universities. Government must secure our own cultural knowledge and awareness of language, reading and heritage. See how much Europeans are paying attention to their culture.
In Africa there are lots of hidden cultural treasures. But we are not able to make use of it. In Egypt fourth grade student can tell a lot about the Nile. You will not find the same ability to tell about our own history in this country.
Teachers are too few and with too little resources. There are too many students in each class. So the teacher can’t control or follow up the learning of the individual student.
The quality of the curriculum and teaching system is deteriorating. The development is scary. The government has prioritized material development, not intellectual development. But without knowledge how are we to make use of all infrastructure and workforce?
Many are too scared to tell the facts under the current censorship. Storytelling is a very useful tool in teaching students to read and write.
Today the books published by the Ministry of Education are not integrated in the school’s curriculum. In old days under the regimes of Selassie and Derg the curriculum and publication of books were correalated. Now books are so costly that schoolteachers lock them up at school to protect them from being torn and worn. Thus books are not being used and do not serve their purpose.
Cultural values are the backbone of Ethiopia. People are used to be without food and clothes. We have experienced severe difficulties. Still Ethiopia has never been abolished of their cultural values.
Oromo language and other minority languages are developing languages. To give studies in different Ethiopian languages, while the use of the official Amharic is not developing. This does not help literacy. We must give studies to women in different languages to support literacy.
Other voices: We should not only blame the Government. If we work ourselves, the reading and writing capacity can improve. We should not politicize everything.
Teferie Negussie v/ Addis Abeba University
Ge’ez and Amharic were the original languages of Ethiopia. Ge’ez is religious texts and translations of Christian religious writings.
In 1991: Freedom of Expression was proclaimed by EPDLF. In 1992 we got Press law. Today there are published five- seven books a week.
Oromo language: Originally Islamic religious manuscripts were written in Oromo language using Arabic letters. This is called Ajam in Arabic
1840 – 1876 Christian texts and dictionary in Oromo. 1899: Oromo-Swedish dictionary
Tigrinya: Dates back to 13c – written books from 15c.
1858: Swedish missionaries translated New Testament to Tigrinya. The first Tigrinya novel was published in 1942.
The Derg regime:
Before the 1974 revolution illiteracy rate was 90%. 68.4% literacy of 2004. 25.5% in 1995.
There is a lack of reading culture in Africa. This is not just a stereotype. One of the reasons is that orality and quality of education are connected. People ask what is in the newspaper, instead of reading it themselves. They want to be told the stories of books instead of read it.
Ethiopia lacks a strong publishing industry.
High printing cost. 151% rise 1988 – 96. Book prize 2birr in 88 – 10 birr in 96.
Fragile ties between regional education and book publishing and a weak book distributing system.
Other factors: Low income, poorly developed infrastructure, lack of libraries and transport links. A domination by expatriate book distributors.
Low level of literacy: UNDP2011: 35,9%. Ethiopia is number 117 of 183 counties. The least in East Africa. Below Somalia.
Millennium Development Goals: extinct illiteracy by 2015.
Limited purchasing power: There are 8000 schools in Oromia, but only 25000 books produced every year. Not enough for schools alone – given they buy 4 every year.
Libraries have historic mission fostering literacy and learning. See an old shabby house in town: Don’t hesitate – it’s the public library. Workers in libraries does it as punishment for misconduct.
Cut tax on paper for books.
Attention to libraries.
Promote reading culture.
Teach and motivate students
Develop cultural policy supporting literacy.
Publish audio books – a good tool in an oral culture.
Addis Abeba, February 2012