Abbiye Mengistu’s “Tizita”
Contributed by: Eskinder G.
This marvelous poem depicts the racial attitude -the ‘white superiority complex’ that was prevalent in the England in the late 40s and early 50s by contrasting it with the open and sincere hospitality of the ‘illiterate’ but civilized Ethiopian peasants towards aliens/strangers. It seems to be based a racially-charged encounter Mengistu himself had when he was a student in England at that time. (Mengistu was studying at the London School of Economics then).
This poem is a deep critique of the racial treatment Mengistu experienced while he was traveling by train in England (probably in the late 40s.) The incident occurred in the cold, snowy winter, Mengistu says–he was sitting in one of the cars/rooms of the train (furgo). All the other cars of the train were crowded except for the one in which Mengistu was staying. People were crammed in the other rooms, many were standing outside, shivering in the cold, but Mengistu was sitting alone, with ‘plenty’ of seats in his room (clearly because the white people did not want to seat in a car where a black man was sitting). It is an irony, Mengistu says, why the people hate ‘black stuff’; the foundation of British wealth is also black (referring to coal–England’s industrial economy was then based on coal which was the main source of energy before and even after the advent of HEPand other alternative sources of energy).
Surprised (and it seems disappointed) the racial attitude of the other passengers Mengistu-sitting alone in that room, starts to think and- in a way to fantasize- about the hospitality of Ethiopian peasants–the way they threat a stranger who has to travel for days from one part of that vast country to another (probably on foot or horseback–as there was no other means of communication then in rural Ethiopia)–how a peasant household would treat with great kindness, compassion and respect the stranger/traveler who goes to their cottage because he has no place to stay at night(there are no lodges or motels in rural Ethiopia, so you have to spend the night in one of those peasant huts).
In his imagination, Mengistu becomes the stranger who goes to the peasant’s house and narrates how the peasant and his wife received him warmly and made him their ‘honored guest’. The humble and truly sincere wife of the peasant was on her knees washing the stranger’s feet (feminists might be seriously concerned about this, but it is the tradition in rural Ethiopia that the wife has to serve her husband, and this service includes, among others, washing his feet when he comes from the fields in the evening.
This privilege is extended to strangers/passers by voluntarily by the wife or the elder daughter of the family as an expression of respect and hospitality)- and served him the most delicious Ethiopian dish (doro wat-ethiopian bread with spicy chicken sauce) which he ate till his belly was full. Mengistu was also enjoying himself drinking the best locally brewed beer (ye gojjam tella), and playing gebetta (a traditional Ethiopian game which roughly is similar to poker) with the head of the household. When Mengistu wanted to rest, they took him to the warm and comfortable bed they prepared for him. (Even the head of the family/the peasant would not enjoy such treatment in his own house-a guest/stranger is treated far more better than the owner of the house himself. Mengistu’s ‘fantasy’/imagination ends when one ‘brave’ white young man barges into the room/the car and takes the seat next to Mengistu.
Menigistu was really surprised, seeing, above all, how clean and tidy the youngman was, wearing a white shirt and neat tie. Probably this character would be representative of the progressive/liberal British intelligentsia at that time who stood in opposition to the diehard racially charged conservative ‘folks’ who chose to shiver in the cold outside the car rather than sitting with a black stranger. Like the other works of Mengistu, this breath-taking poem vividly illustrates and admonishes the racial prejudices which pervaded the then British Society. The poem parallels Mengistu’s poem/comedy, ‘Basha Ashebir Be America’.
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