“You need courage to step on a stage and bare your soul,” says Hanna Haile after some thought. Every month that’s precisely what the Ethiopian poet invites people to do. Together with a couple of friends, she has set up “Poetic Saturday”, an open stage at the Fendika Cultural Centre in the heart of Addis Ababa. The stage is open to everyone, whether they want to present something in English or Amharic. All forms of storytelling are welcome – poems, jokes, song lyrics, and even dance is possible. Everybody has five minutes to grab the audience. “I don’t expect everyone to love what I’m saying. But everyone is listened to. That’s a good place to start,” says Haile, referring to the only rule for taking part.
The rows of seating are full, on this rainy Saturday afternoon in August, with people of all ages. Outside the room the crowd’s pressed close together, drinking honey-wine tea, eating lentil-filled samosas and trying to catch a glimpse of the invitingly spotlit stage through the open doorway. Many of those going on stage are women. That’s by no means to be expected, says Haile with regret. “Most of the voices that are heard in Ethiopia are still male.” She confidently delivers a poem, which the audience listens to, enthralled. At the line “You should be pleased that women are demanding equal treatment and not revenge,” from every corner come murmurs of assent and fingers being clicked in agreement.
It was shows like this that encouraged Selome Shimeles. “I’ve always just written for myself. Without women as an example I would never have believed in myself! At my first performance four months ago I was shaking like crazy, so much so that my voice kept breaking off,” the 30-year-old tells me. Her texts deal with love, motherhood, with her body and sexuality – in other words, topics that aren’t normally discussed publicly in Ethiopia. “Sexuality is a taboo. But in my poems I dare to dress these up in words. I describe what an imaginary ‘you’ thinks about my body, my breasts, my eyes. Sometimes it gets quite explicit,” she says with a playful laugh. On this Saturday Shimeles takes over the stage with her melodious voice, in which you can hear every emotion. “I’m a different, more powerful woman by the time I leave the stage,” she says.
“Many of the female poets in the Fendika Cultural Centre are part of Ethiopia’s small but active movement for female rights, which doesn’t just battle for its place on the stages of Addis Ababa.”
The women poets in Fendika are building on a centuries-old tradition. “Poetry in Ethiopia has always been used as a way of extolling all its beauty, but has also been used to critique it,” says Daniel Assefakas. The Capuchin monk counts himself an expert in the country’s poetic traditions. He’s been travelling around rural regions for several years with his team, seeking out traditional poets and recording their verses, which have often only been spread by word of mouth. According to Assefakas, the art of poetry in Ethiopia has been institutionalised across the world in an unparalleled way. Before Emperor Haile Selassie introduced an education system on the British model at the beginning of the 20th century, teaching had been organised by the church. The Orthodox Christian church, the country’s official religion since the fourth century BCE, making Ethiopia the world’s oldest Christian land, ensured that a third of all pupils sought, after primary school, courses in poetry at secondary school in order to become church poets. Elaborately constructed verse forms an integral part of every sermon. The art lies in the improvisatory way in which rhymes are jammed and conveyed by means of melody. The challenge is in finding the most sophisticated rhymes possible while veiling any deeper significance in ostensibly harmless sounding metaphors. “When you first listen to it, a poem may be talking about flowers, an eagle or the Sun. But that’s just the surface. The real meaning is very critical of political and social systems,” Assefakas explains.
There are still traditional schools of poetry to be found in rural areas, but their significance is dwindling. It’s a source of regret for Assefakas. “We Ethiopians seem so committed to copying the west that we’re losing a part of our own traditions. The creativity and diversity of our traditional poetic skills is being forgotten.” But he’s even more happy that young poets are adapting the old forms in a playful way, to put forward critiques of social and economic conditions. Orthodox Christian traditions also feed into poetry with a feminist slant.
Many of the female poets in the Fendika Cultural Centre are part of Ethiopia’s small but active movement for female rights, which doesn’t just battle for its place on the stages of Addis Ababa. With success, as the career of poet Billene Scyoum Woldcycs shows. Initiator of the blog “AfricanFeminism”, she became the press secretary of the prime minister Abiy Ahmed. She is one of the initiators of the legislative proposal for a 50/50 gender share in Ethiopia’s governing cabinet, to enhance women’s voices.
And the female poets aren’t fighting the battle on their own. On this Saturday, a male poet finishes his verse with “No means no. And consent is non-negotiable.” Selome Shimeles nods eagerly as she joins in the burst of applause. “I’ve never heard such a thing coming out of a man’s mouth in two years.” The poetic harvest is bearing fruit.