Ethiopia: Eulogy of a Poet


(A bit about Solomom Deressa, 1937 – 2017, via his Brother’s mouth Berhane Deressa)

In deference to Solomon’s Minnesotan friends and caregivers, who do not speak our language, I am obliged to speak in English. You have heard close family members, friends, and the media eulogizing about Solomon. Mine, however, will be a simple human story – a small talk about the last days of the long journey of a big man (ትልቅ ሰው) In this context, I would also like to pay deserving tribute to those who surrounded him with love and care, during his final months. I have a very difficult time to pull myself together to say anything about my late brother but, I will try to say it in my own way.

Before going further, let me express the profound gratitude of the family to those who stayed with my lonesome brother and helped him, while we were away. Solomon fell ill in mid-2015 and his heath condition gradually deteriorated since. The onslaught of cancer along with a congestive heart failure and diabetes took a heavy toll on him. This was further aggravated by his style of life. Solomon spent years without Medical Check-ups, although he was fully insured by the University, where he taught. When the physician at the emergency section of the hospital asked about his last check-up, Solomon responded “when I was 10 years old.” The doctor then ordered his immediate admission to the hospital. Solomon spent most of his time immersed in books that he often forgot to eat. As a result, his well-built frame started giving up on him gradually.

I returned to the U.S, from Ethiopia, as soon as I heard of Solomon’s deteriorating health condition and was planning to drive from Washington, DC to Minneapolis, MN. A friend, Feseha Dawit Gebru, seeing my state of mind offered to accompany me on this family emergency. He stayed on to help with Solomon’s initial days at the hospital. Later on, my step-daughter Dina Bekele also joined the nucleus team of care givers. For that, I am truly grateful to both.

Solomon’s former high school mate and old friend, Dr. Gizaw Tsehay, an accomplished surgeon, who also served his country as Minister of Public Health, was always there to keep him company. He just mentioned a few names of people who were around to help Solomon. But there are many other men and women of valor who came to his aid. As a writer and a poet, for Solomon words have their own place of importance and should not be used as interchangeable commodities.

Whereas the youth of today seem to be more amenable to the casual diffusion of culture though various forms of expression, be it physical or verbal. For example, I believe that the current excessive use of the phrase “chigir yelem,” is a mimic of the Spanish “no problemo” which the Cubans popularized in Ethiopia, during the Derg time. Likewise, the phrases “selam neh?” and “teregaga,” owe their currency in modern day Amharic, to the experience of the post Derg era, when the question of peace and stability was on everybody’s mind. In any event, this generational clash of linguistic culture made life so miserable for my ailing brother that I had to, very reluctantly, ease out the young lady, who by then, had grown fond of Solomon and was eager to help. This unfortunate lack of communication defeated the purpose.

Our nephew, Abel Tesfahun, along with his wife Etayenesh Abebe, hardly knew his uncle, Solomon, before he fell ill. Yet, Abel played the role of Solomon’s go to person and assisted with countless tasks. His sister, Meron Tesfahun, a mother of two, and her husband Sylvester from Zimbabwe, with whom Solomon instantly connected, were also always at hand. Furthermore, on behalf of the family, I would like to thank all three siblings (Abel, Meron, and Mahi) for bearing most of the nourishment provided for all of us here today.

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Quite a lot has been said and written about the multilingual poet and writer, my brother, the late Solomon Deressa – may his soul rest in peace. Solomon wrote poetry in Amharic, in Oromifa, in French, and in English as if all these languages were his mother’s tongue. Actually, only Oromifa is his mother’s tongue. Yet, when he spoke French, it came from the bosom of his heart. When he would speak English, you would think that it was his mother’s tongue and not of those who live in the birth place of Shakespeare and the Beatles. His Amharic was impeccable and, in my opinion, would put a debtera (a learned man) from Raguel to shame. I recall, our father, Deressa Danki Tufa, once said “Solomon’s grasp of the vernacular of Menz would make Blatengeta Merseahazen Woldekirkos turn in his grave.” I guess, he meant that the spirit of the renowned Amharic Grammarian would be highly gratified to know of the mastery of his art by an authentic Oromo boy. In light of this, I ask, which region would have a rightful claim to Solomon, the poet? Would it be that of Wollega, Menz, England, or Normandy of France… ? I would say, the artist belongs to all the people of Solomon’s ancient motherland–ETHIOPIA!

When he was at Wingate high school, there was an exam that came from London that every Ethiopian student had to take and pass, in order to go to college. It was called the General Certificate of Education Exam, GCE. Solomon was the only Ethiopian student in his year, from the entire nation, to pass the English language portion of the exam. It says a lot about my brother and also perhaps a bit about the teachers we had, in those days. But this is the honest truth.

On the day of his departure from this world, I immediately took to the phone and notified his other surviving sibling, Sister Ejegayehu Deressa, who after visiting Solomon, had gone back to Virginia and was obviously waiting for the turn of events. Her sons and their spouses – Samson and his wife Mariam, Aklilu, beya (Menelik) Tadesse Abebe, and his wife Elleni, all called and spoke to me subsequent to that.

I then notified the late Sister Wubayew Deressa’s children and spouses, Sirak and Gelila, Abraham, Mike and Serkaddis, as next of kin. Finally, I called my cousin Sofia Yilma Deressa, in Addis Abeba, so that she would notify the rest of the family and friends there. Sofi was not only his cousin but also a former colleague at the Ministry of Information, when Solomon was working as Director of Television and radio programs, in Addis Abeba. She was also an avowed reader of Solomon’s written work, especially his articles in the fledgling magazines of Addis Abeba of the 1960’s. Furthermore, Solomon had looked after Sophie’s son, the late Yared Tegegne, when he first came to the US to go to school in Minneapolis, MN. May he rest in peace.

Exactly two hours after Solomon’s passing, the Voice of America (VOA), Amharic Program, called me for an interview. Given the radio station’s constraint of time, it was quite a lengthy interview. Yet, it was too compact for me to unload the heavy burden of my heart. There were also two other radio interviews that day. One, from Washington, DC, and another from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. These interviews were then followed by numerous other local and international telephone calls from family, friends, and admirers of the late poet. They all talked about the wide coverage, the sad news of his death, received in the Ethiopian media.

The purpose of my talk today is not to repeat what I’ve already said. It’s also not to provide a critic or analysis of his literary work. That’s for others to do. So, my aim is to first and foremost, say thank you to all our benefactors. Secondly, it is to simply provide a chronological record of events, of the last days of my dear brother. I shall simply talk about Solomon, who he was, and what he meant to his family and friends. I would like to get it off my chest, and hopefully, you can all bear with me.

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Solomon meant a lot to his family. I was happy to listen to the eulogy delivered by his daughter, Galanne and step-daughter Eva. In Solomon’s heart, there’s hardly any difference between the two, they both grew up, as my daughters Aida and Saba did, under Solomon and Nan’s close supervision and care.

As far as I am concerned, he was not only my brother but a friend and counselor with whom I bounced many of my ideas, be they good or bad. He was a receptive listener and we often had lengthy discussions when together and via Skype when apart; I, in Ethiopia, and he, in the US. Although we earnestly consulted each other, Solomon and I often times took different paths concerning critical social and political matters. Nonetheless, we shared a common bond of friendship and mutual respect. Solomon was a loving and caring brother. The best way I can describe him is as a mountain in view. You can choose to go to it or not. If you decide to go and dare to climb the mountain, you will get a panoramic view of life. If not, the mountain will always remain in place. If I may sum up with a borrowed phrase from Shakespeare, I would say, that Solomon was “as constant as the northern star.”

Solomon was my window to the world of art and literature, and to our family history and lineal descent. He had an elephant’s memory and could recite our ancestral names back to 40 generations, on both sides of the family three. How can this be possible, you might ask. Believe it or not, this was a cherished tradition of Oromo oral history that he picked up from our grandfather Blata Deressa Amente. Blata Deressa Amente was a scholar, historian, and a statesman, in his own right. He served his country as a governor, a judge in the Imperial Court of Appeals, as a Senator and Deputy Prime Minister under Emperor Haile Sellasie. Like his grandson Solomon, Blata Deressa also had a knack for the written word. In the early 1920’s, he was a regular contributor of articles, on governance and development issues, to the first and only Ethiopian newspaper of the day- “Aamero.”

Solomon was also always rooting for the underdog and downtrodden, including animals that were abused. I remember the last time he came to visit Ethiopia and

witnessed in Bishoftu the harsh manner in which the coachmen (ጋሪነጂዎች) were mercilessly whipping the horses. Heartbroken, Solomon took it upon himself to contact the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) to bring medicine for the treatment of the abused horses along with pamphlets on the humane treatments of animals.

He had translated the documents into Amharic and Oromifa. Solomon then held a series of public meetings with coachmen and donkey drivers (አህያነጂዎች) of Bishoftu, to educate and distribute the goods he had brought. Interestingly, at one of the meetings, a charming lady, sitting in the very back, with a patch on her right eye and a sprained wrist, slowly managed to raise her hand and in a shaky voice pleaded with Solomon to “kindly extend this education to our husbands.” Her remark led to a tumultuous applaud from the other ladies and their sympathizers. My brother was simply dumbfounded.

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