N.B. This is my first article published in the Ethiopian English private weekly, The Reporter, back in 2001.
Ethiopia, as a country of ancient history, has a long tradition of literature. Much of its pre-twentieth century literature is dominantly characterized by translation with a taste of originality. Moreover, Ethiopian literature took much time before dealing with the socio-politico-economic conditions that had been prevalent in the country. The country embraced Christianity during the fourth century A.D. since when Christian morality has been dominating the literary scene.
For ages, therefore, our literature had to embark on a smooth, unbroken move. In fact, the static nature of Ethiopian literature still seems to stand out against this world of dynamism. However, the twentieth century may justifiably be said to have made a move up-ward with the coming into view of some creative writers, among them Dagnachew Worku. The change he has brought forth to the realm of the country's literature is believed to be more significant than that of many writers of his time, and perhaps his contribution still remains unprecedented.
Dagnachew Worku was born in 1944 near Debre Sina in North Shoa. Molvaer (1997) attributes Dagnachew's drive to writing his earliest poems to his mother's folk tales that he enjoyed listening to. Besides, the artist was lucky enough to have a father exposed to western influences. As a result, he was sent to school early in his life. In school, Dagnachew read the works of the then prominent writers like Kebede Mikael and Makonnen Endalkachew. With the pressure put by his mother, he also went to church school and learned Geez. He attended high school at Kotebe in Addis. Then he obtained his diploma in teaching from a teacher-training school. Dagnachew was not only a "…born a writer…" as he describes himself to Molvaer (1997'292) but he was also born so lucky that, after acquiring his B.A. from University College of Addis Ababa, he received a three-year scholarship and studied creative writing at Iowa University in the U.S.Dagnachew picked up literary courage as early as when he was thirteen by staging his own play at Debre Sina. His early publication is a play entitled "Sew alle biyye" (1966). When he was a teacher in Harar, he staged another un-published play: "Seqeqenish isat". Later, when he was a lecturer at the Addis Ababa University, he came up with a play of better techniques entitled "Tibelch" staged at the Creative Arts Centre and Haile-Selassie I Theatre in 1964. The author got more sophisticated and technically elevated with his novels "Adefres" (Amharic) and The Thirteenth Sun (English) published in 1978 and 1981 respectively.
Although Dagnachew wrote a lot more than the aforementioned ones, including, according to Teklu (1983), more than a hundred unpublished short stories, we find his name well established through his pioneer work, "Adefres" to which this piece of writing gives more emphasis.
Molvaer (1997) reports that Dagnachew called himself "a one-work author" attaching great importance to his Amharic novel - Adefres. When he was reading for his Master of Creative Arts, he minored creative photography. This seems to be the main reason why Dagnachew succeeded in giving splendid backgrounds to his descriptions and dialogues in the novel. The novel begins with a unique description of the setting in which the whole story takes place. The scenery of the setting with full of ups and downs, the complex feature of the intermingled society there, and the cultural values, etc. are well depicted through listing down of details. Immediately after such a picture a long dialogue between a symbolic landlady of intricate character and a tenant who comes to her to borrow some grain is presented. This technique of magnifying a character in the background of relevant (but unique) description is argued to be original to Dagnachew.
The description is made in a manner so that we harmoniously see the area and the people living in it. It may not be surprising here if a society with a "once-upon-a- time" sort of narrative culture finds Dagnachew's depiction difficult. Many agree, however, that the author has shown magnificent technical and stylistic excellence. By listing down the names of many kings who reigned from Ezana to Menelik II, he shows the historical significance of the setting. By listing down names of churches, he indirectly reveals that the area (Yifat) is highly Christian dominated. Through the splendid dialogues between characters behind deliberate backgrounds of class, cultural richness conflicting with corrupt change devoid of understanding established old Ethiopia; he mirrors the agony of necessary reform in the face of the revolutionary tendencies of the time. All in all, in “Adefres", Dagnachew sometimes communicates more things through new techniques than he does through words. Fekade (1990) stresses that the ideas Dagnachew communicated by way of techniques are numerous and the technique as a whole should be recorded as a new appearance to the culture of writing Amharic novel.
A closer look into the novel seems to be an essential requirement to see the background he gives to depict characters and the situation they are in. Weizero Assegash, for instance, is sort of filmed behind a background of complex scenery. By the same taken, the lovely, simply flowing conversation between Gorfu and Roman is made colorful with the beautiful sounds that cock-roaches, houseflies, frogs and bees make.
Socio-political forces also influenced Dagnachew as a writer. Most post-war (post-Italian aggression) writers of Ethiopia are said to be widely exposed to world literature Dagnachew was not an exception in this respect. As a result, he makes significantly spirited effort, a long leap from' Araya, by Girmachew T. Hawariat to Dagnachew's Adefres attributing a new literary trend to the latter. "Twenty-one years after the publication of Girmachew's "Araya", there appeared a writer of another generation with a novel entitled "Adefres" (1970) on the scene of Amharic literature" wrote Fikre Tolossa in his PhD dissertation.
Adefres, according to Fikre, "comes to the fore in an atmosphere of Ethiopian students, unrest." However, he argues that the heroic character, Adefres, and the progressive students, adhering to Marxism, are characterized by fighting against feudalism. Adefres, on the other hand, "...is not against a monarch." In addition, unlike the progressive student, "...Adefres thinks that the fact that the people of Ethiopia "love" their Emperor is a positive quality in them."
Dagnachew's description of Adefres slightly differs from Fikre’s assertion that he made in an interview with is slightly different. "Adefres is progressive - but he should be progressive with other people. He rationalizes too much. He is not a practical person. Rationalization is good but with limitations. He is like people we have today. The revolution [he means the 1974 revolution tries to awaken people overnight, but that cannot be done although I wish it could be done. There was no other way (out) for Adefres than death. He was too superficial. He could not see reality around him. He speaks one language and people around him another. That is why we fail this revolution. We are like Adefres (Molvaer,1997: 298).
It should be noted here that Dagnachew was highly taken up by the politics of the time. Nevertheless, he said he was not a Marxist. He tried, in his way, to suggest a reform rather than a revolution. Who knows if it would have been better that way?
Dagnachew opens his eyes wide to see social values. One of his marvelous contributions comes from his conscious and deliberate employment of proverbs, tales, legends ("gadles") and lyrical poems for their technical significance. Studies cite that proverbs are effectively used in depicting characters, tensioning conflicts and developing techniques and contents. The tales are said to be symbolic manifestations of what comes against the love affair between unequal caricatures, namely Gorfu and Siwone, The legends (gadles) tighten the conflict between forces of tradition and modernity. The lyrical poems (in the love letter of Belay to Firewa) give relief to the reader as they are read amidst a goring address by a certain monk (Abba Yohannes). Symbolically. Firewa throws the letter into the water to foreshadow that their love won't be sustainable. In short, Dagnachew is believed to have developed his techniques through a conscious use of folklore. He may be regarded as the Ethiopian Chinua Achebe.
Dagnachew is also admired for his originality of language. Assefa (1981), for instance, agrees that the onomatopoetic words used in Adefres are quite original and indicate the author's creative effort in his diction. Instead of telling us in his own words about the sounds created by the cock-roaches, houseflies, frogs and bees, he makes us listen to them.
To do all this, to describe nature, feelings, to reproduce the conversation, the author has attempted to overcome the limitations of present-day Amharic lexical resources by creating a vocabulary “original to himself in which meanings of words have been stretched, adaptations freely made of roots often into … forms unattested elsewhere” (ibid).
Let us finally wind up this piece by noticing how Dagnachew Worku emphasises society and its values in the interview mentioned earlier. We have created certain values and certain society where are contributed. This (culture) is what makes me tick. Without this, life does not make sense to me… We are still backward and developing and we must change but what we have achieved in 3000 years cannot be replaced easily. Spiritually we have developed but not otherwise. Artistically and aesthetically we have not yet opened our eyes. (Molvaer, 1997:298).
More on Dagnachew Worku at http://www.adefris.info/index.html