Tribute to Ethiopia Scholar Don Levine: Reflections & Photos

Prof. Donald N. Levine signing his book at Tsehai Publishers journal launching ceremony in Los Angeles — November 27, 2006 at Ramada Hotel / Culver City. (Photograph courtesy of TSEHAI Publishers)

Tadias Magazine
By Tadias Staff

Published: Tuesday, April 7th, 2015

New York (TADIAS) — Professor Donald N. Levine, who passed away on Saturday, April 4th at the age of 83, is being remembered by his friends in Ethiopia and the Diaspora as a beloved Ethiopianist, educator, sociological theorist, author, collaborator, advocate, mentor, sensei and friend.

In addition to his well-known credentials as a respected scholar of Ethiopian studies, Levine was also an Aikido sensei and the co-founder of the first Aikido dojo in Awasa, Ethiopia.

Below are reflections and photos sent to us from Don Levine’s friends in the U.S. and Ethiopia. Feel free to send us your own reflections at staff@tadias.com. We’ll keep this page updated.

From Tesfaye Tekelu
Aikido Ethiopia Awasa Youth Campus

“Don was a mentor, a teacher, a sensei and in many ways a father figure to me. I have known him for more than 12 years and he has taught me, trained me, supported me like a father would a son. He was the architect of our project. He helped me found Aikido Ethiopia and the Awasa Youth Campus (Action for Youth Community) and supported and guided us until the last day of his life. He loved our country and the people, and he was talking about Ethiopia days before he passed away. We will cherish his work and continue working on what we started in our country. Rest in peace, Ethiopiawiwu ye Selam Arbegna.”

From Dag Andargachew
Washington, D.C.


Dag Andargachew and Don Levine. (Courtesy photo)

I’ve known Don’s work for many years and had the pleasure of meeting him 15 years ago when he was in the Bay Area for a meeting. We kept in touch since then and got to hang out again in 2003 when he came back to California to visit an Ethiopian that was imprisoned. Afterwards we went to Yoga Mandala in Berkeley for their 1st anniversary yoga session which was my first ever yoga class!! After that day I was a regular student at that studio till I left the Bay Area and have been hooked on yoga ever since! Thank you Don!!!!

Fast forward a few years and I was living in Addis for a couple of years and had the honor to help Don with administrative staff – organizing meetings, meet and greet events etc. when he came to Ethiopia in Jan 2008, to meet with human rights activists leaders as well as recently released journalists. I also had the privilege to organize a meeting for him with Gash Mesfin (Prof. Mesfin), who had also been recently released from prison. It was an awesome opportunity for me to sit amongst these two giants and listen-in to their conversation, debate and old stories.

I have driven with Gash Liben to Awasa to check out AYC’s overall progress as well as the setup of the dojo and saw him in action in his beloved Aikido.

It was a pleasure to be around Don and to see him interact with ease with the young, not so young, important officials/diplomats and not so important people attentively and with respect!

Interestingly I found out that my Dad was an undergrad student at AAU when Don first came to Ethiopia and was one of the people that taught him Amharic. I’m glad they got to hang out after so many years in Chicago when my Dad was visiting, and again in Addis when Don visited last.

Don is a true sensei in the whole sense of the word!!

From Mel Tewahade
Denver, Colorado


Don Levine (second from right) with Menze family in Amhara region of Ethiopia. (Courtesy photo)

I am blessed to have known Dr. Don N. Levine. The God that created heaven and earth is pleased in this Easter day, to receive his servant and our friend into his kingdom. May his writing and teaching touch many lives forever and ever. He has willingly accepted and loved being Ethiopian. He dedicated 55 years of his life studying, writing, teaching, advocating and praying for Ethiopia and Ethiopians. He encouraged all of us to dig deeper into the spirit of Menze and Shoa. He also showed us to live our lives with abundance. He reminded me that Queen of Sheba took gold and incense when she visited King Solomon in Jerusalem. He motivated us to develop our skill of negotiation that our ancestors had once mastered. He showed us how to express what we want with class and dignity using what our ancestors called Wax and Gold. He wanted to show Ethiopians not to be ashamed of our history and heritage. For that alone I am eternally grateful. Gashe Liben, as he is called by his Ethiopian name, We will continue your work and be true to ourselves. May you rest in peace.

From Elias Wondimu, Founder of TSEHAI Publishers
Los Angeles, California


(Courtesy of Tsehai Publishers)

I was blessed enough to work with Gash Liben on several initiatives. To mention a few, he was an editorial advisor and author of TSEHAI Publishers, editorial board member and regular contributor of the International Journal of Ethiopian Studies, and a founding board member and senior scholar of the Ethiopian Institute for Nonviolence Education and Peace Studies, but most of all he was one of the few people who took time to answer any questions that I may have. For me, I lost a mentor, a major supporter, and a collaborator on all of my projects, and an author extraordinaire that I had the privilege of publishing his very last book (Interpreting Ethiopia) among other writings and his classic book: Wax and Gold.

The reaction of our people from across international borders is not due to one or few of his successful writings, but it is due to his life-long engagement with Ethiopia and his advocacy to her citizens’ dignity wherever they might be. What we lost today is not only an acclaimed scholar, but a dear friend of our people and a citizen of the world who cares deeply for its future.

From Professor Ayele Bekerie
Mekele, Ethiopia

Professor Donald Levine, the Ethiopianist Insider Remembered

It was June 2004 and the Honorary Doctorate recipients for the 2004 Addis Ababa University Commencement were assembled in the Office of the University’s President prior to our march to Genet Hall of the Sidist Kilo Campus where the Commencement ceremony took place. Among the recipients were Professor Donald Levine, the Late Professor Ali Mazrui and Professor Ephrem Isaac. I accompanied Professor Ali Mazrui to the event from the US. As we passed the Ras Mekonen Hall, Professor Levine looked up the door of the Hall and excitedly pointed the motto of the University posted at the top. He asked us if we know the meaning of the motto written in Ge’ez.

Kulu Amekeru Wezesenaye Atsneu,” Professor Levine read the motto loud. He then quickly shared with us the meaning as if to free us from the instant question he posed to us. The motto, which translates to “Test everything that is said. Hold on to what is good,” was known to Professor Levine since his time as a Professor in the then Haile Selassie I University over fifty years ago. The motto became part of our conversation as we marched to Genet Hall. This anecdote typifies the nature and personality of Professor Levine and his extraordinary immersion into Ethiopian history, culture and society.

Professor Levine has always maintained an insider view, that is, he studied the language, assumed the position of being empathic with the culture and looked at the history and culture of the people Ethiopia from the inside out. Professor Levine was so intimate with the field of Ethiopian Studies that he was able to produce, as most agree, two outstanding and classical books on aspects of Ethiopian culture and society: Wax and Gold: Tradition and Innovation in Ethiopian Culture (1967) and Greater Ethiopia: The Evolution of Multiethnic Society (1974).

While Wax and Gold demonstrates the extent and depth of Professor Levine’s understanding of the nuances and complexities in Amharic language and the people who speak it, Greater Ethiopia expanded his scholarly reach within Ethiopian Studies and he ably argued in favor of Ethiopian multiethnic identity. These two books are by far widely quoted and referenced works in the field of Ethiopian Studies. Of course, Professor Levine wrote 5 books and a hundred journal articles. He successfully conducted scholarly works in Social Theory, Ethiopian Studies and the Martial Arts.

Professor Levine to many Ethiopians at home and abroad is known as Gashe Liben. This is an earned name. He earned the most gracious and affectionate title as a result of his remarkable accessibility to Ethiopians and their organizations, be it in social, cultural, educational and political settings. Gashe Liben prefaced many books authored by Ethiopian or Ethiopianist scholars. He contributed a great deal of articles for various journals in Ethiopian Studies. He organized international conferences and gave many media interviews. Gashe Liben helped several Ethiopians with their immigration cases.

More importantly, he always offered his advice, critical but balanced, with regard to current issues of Ethiopia. He always cautioned fellow Ethiopians to seize the moment and get engaged with the modernization of Ethiopia informed by tradition. He urged us to stop missing opportunities.

To me, Professor Levine’s seminal contribution in the field of Ethiopian Studies was his definition and articulation of what he calls the Ethiopian national epic. The professor argued that Kebre Negest is a national epic or mythology. A people with national epic, according to him, are a people with deep-rooted identity. A people confident of their identity are capable and willing to defend it. True, the mythology has to be expanded and should include the multiple mythologies of our people. But as a tribute to Professor Levine, we should all agree that our multiethnic identity is founded on a great epic of a great people.

From Kidist Tariku, Coordinator of Ethiopia’s Long Live the Girls program
Hawassa, Ethiopia

We are very sad to lose such a loving and intelligent man. His name and work always remains in our organization’s history. He is our founder; he will always be respected and loved for what he did for our community. May his soul rest in peace.

Long Live the Girls is a girls’ empowerment program through creative writing initiative founded in 2012 through a partnership between Action for Youth Community Change Break Arts: International Arts Education Collaborative. Using creative writing to spark the imagination and see the world as if it could be otherwise, our model for engagement is unique — we create safe spaces for girls and women to speak and write with freedom, often using both political and poetic documents as the springboard for conversation, writing performance.

From Dr. Theodore M. Vestal
Professor Emeritus, Oklahoma State University


Ted Vestal. (Courtesy photo)

A Tribute to Professor Donald Levine

Ethiopia lost a stalwart friend, scholar and benefactor of the common good with the death of Professor Donald Levine this week in Chicago. His books about Ethiopia, especially Wax and Gold and Greater Ethiopia, are classical studies of the society, history, and culture of the Land of Prester John that so fascinated him. His many articles and public addresses about Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa leave a profound legacy for Ethiopians to ponder in the years to come. His thoughts about Ethiopia and prescriptions for its future were informed by his life as superbly trained American academic and public intellectual.

Don came to Chicago fresh out of high school and took advantage of the University of Chicago’s accelerated degree program begun during the university’s presidency of Robert Hutchins. In a seven year span from 1950 through 1957, he completed his B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees in Sociology and went to Ethiopia to undertake field work. He resided in a rural Manz, an Amhara area and learned firsthand about the people and their ways. He studied Amharic and could converse with the subjects of his research. He then became a professor at Haile Selassie I University where he was teaching during the attempted coup in 1960. Levine joined the faculty at his alma mater, the University of Chicago, in 1962 and rose through the academic ranks to become Professor of Sociology and holder of the endowed Peter B. Ritzma chair. He also served as Dean of the College in the 1980s.

Levine’s teaching, speaking, and writing about Ethiopia reflected his grounding in the Chicago method of higher education characterized by independent thought and criticism that is created in the interest of the progress of society. In his continuing dialogue with and about Ethiopia, Don was open-minded and welcomed different points of view. In the process of doing this, he extended the bounds of understanding and wisdom about that ancient land. He epitomized the great professor of cultural studies: one who lived and worked among the people, took part in their festivals and celebrations, learned the language, and studied the literature and great books of their tradition. This “Dean of Ethiopianists” as I fondly called him, set a high bar for those who aspire to study and understand Ethiopia.

I met Don for the first time when we served as international election observers in Addis Ababa during the 1992 general elections. As a two-man team, among other things, we visited several precincts and noted some concerns about electoral activities that were included in the African-American Institute’s An Evaluation of the June 21, 1992 Elections in Ethiopia. We subsequently met in Ethiopian-related meetings all over the world, and he was a pleasure to be with. His devotion to searching for the truth about Ethiopia was inspirational. He will be missed.

Related:
Friend of Ethiopia Don Levine Passed Away

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