Tales of a storyteller
ETHerald 24 Apr 2017
Tesfaye Sahlu, otherwise known as Ababa Tes‘ faye, was born in 1923 to Egerssa Bedane, a conﬁdant of Ras Mekonnen, and his mother Yewenzwork Belete. His birthplace is called Kedu, in Bale province, south—eastern Ethiopia. For the last four decades, Ababa Tesfaye has been a celebrated children story—teller on Ethiopian Television. He is renowned for his absorbing children stories that are accompanied by his characteristic fervour and unforgettable facial expressions.
Ababa Tesfaye is a household name in Ethiopia. In his long career, Ababa Tesfaye has entertained and ediﬁed an inestimable number of children, most of whom have now grown up with recollections of Ababa Tesfaye forever in their minds. Above all, his famous Amharic adage, dehina nachihu lijoch; yezarea abebawoch, yenege ﬁre woch (literally meaning, ‘How are you children? today’s ﬂowers; tomorrow’s fruits) is etched in the memory of an entire generation.
Even though his tales are always amusing, none of them ended without a moral note in the last part of the story. He touches on various important subjects such as patriotism for one’s country, knowledge of national identity and history, cultural values, table manners, respect for elders, and other social etiquette. Ababa Tesfaye started formal education at the age of ﬁve and came to Addis Ababa when he was10. Throughout his childhood, Ababa Tesfaye grew up listening to folktales and fables. His parents were moving administrators for various localities including‘ Ginir, Elkere, and other remote areas in southern eastern Ethiopia. As was the custom in those days, community elders and traditional judges travel from place to place to arbirtrate disputes, settle family feuds, and pass judgments.
While traveling with his parents, little Tesfaye used to hear them conversing in proverbs and practical examples. He constantly heard contemporary tales and legends from the past. His parents and other elders used their folktales and parables to convince disagreeing parties and conflicting ideas. But, Tesfaye recalls that the tales used for mediation of personal and social conﬂicts are different from those told while traveling or by the ﬁre at night.
When he was five, Tesfaye was sent to Goba, the capital of Bale, to learn the Amharic alphabet. It was in Goba that he learned Amharic characters under the feet of a local priest, who also used proverbs and anecdotes as a teaching methodology. Despite the fact that his father was a revered individual in the society, he did not allow Tesfaye to get spoiled in character and wanted his son to be a disciplined, respectful, and sociable person. His father used his trademark method of discourse proverbs and folktales to inculcate such values and norms in the mind of young Tesfaye. One of his words of wisdom was: “If you become a judge, an administrator, a farmer, or any thing else, you can learn the ways of a people or community only by living among them.” Tesfaye’s father always wanted him to seek out knowledge and he took him to Harar so that he can study French. “Son; if you are educated, you will be a successful person and you will not be forced to wander from place to place like me,” he used to tell him.
Then after, Ababa Tesfaye was brought to Addis Ababa for further formal education. His father made sure that his son would live with a relative and Arc Menberework Hailu became his custodian. He joined Kokebe Tsebeha School and completed his advanced French studies. As it happens, Ato Menberework was a French instructor in Kokebe Tsebeha.
Ato Menberework was close to the royal court and Tesfaye used to hear him and his friends, Ato Desta and Arc Yoftahe Nigussie, Poet— Playwright considered by many as the father of modern drama in Ethiopia, talking about conﬁdential issues. However, Tesfaye kept those discussions secret, all because of his father’s guidance on the importance of trustworthiness. Then came the Italian invasion. Since the Italians ﬁrst came through Ogaden, his family, who were living around Bale and Harar, fought against them. Unfortunately, they were all killed and Tesfaye was tormented by the continuous news of the death of his parents and relatives. And later, his guardian Ato Menberework and Arc Desta, who both joined the resistance, were killed. Tesfaye had witnessed the bizarre hanging scene of Arc Menberework which he still remembers. Yoftahe Negussie soon left Ethiopia and Tesfaye was all by himself. Nevertheless, after he ﬁnished a medical treatment in Menelik Hospital, he continued working for the Italians in the hospital. He then became skilled at giving ﬁrst aid and other undemanding medical services. Instantly, he became a Favorite health assistant for the Italians.
Later on, Tesfaye came across another Italian who offered him to work as a waiter in his hotel. Subsequent to this occupation, he was hired in Etege Taitu Hotel, the ﬁrst modern hotel in Ethiopia. That was when he first saw Italian actors at Cinema Empire. Before long, he began imitating their acts and words; and, intentionally or not, he opened a new career path in his life. Tesfaye became a professional performer After the Italians were ousted. Ababa Tesfaye continued acting and later took part in his ﬁrst play, Afework Adafere’s Yearbegna Mist (Wife of a Patriot). But, the only role left was that of the wife; and amazingly, Tesfaye was adamant and took the challenge.
For some years to come, he kept on playing many more female characters. Besides Yearbegna Mist, Ababa Tesfaye has acted in several plays including Afaieshign, Gonderew Gebremariam, Yedem Dimits, Mekentoan Tifta, Arbegnoch, Ethiopia, and others. He has played such world famous characters a
s Pontins Pilate, Iyago, Tiresias and many other heroes, kings, and clowns. On Sheraton tribute organized by two young admirers who grew up listening to his tales, Getachew Debalke, veteran stage actor and biographer of Ababa Tesfaye, said, “Gash Tesfaye is a talented person. Most of us are his students, directly or otherwise. Even though it is difficult to chronicle his life and works in a single book, we are working on his biography, which would surely be such a guiding light for generations to come.” Gash Tesfaye is not only a great actor, he is also known for his solo comic performances on stage and is highly praised for his masterful mimicry of the legendary comedian Charlie Chaplin. Besides, he is a professional magician and a member of an international association of magicians.
Ababa Tesfaye was also part of Ethiopia’s military contingent in the Korea Wars. While in Korea he was acquainted with Charlie Chaplin and Marlboro. Back home in 1965, he met Blata Gimachew Teldehawariat, professional playwright and dramatist, who was then in charge of Ethiopian Television. Tesfaye proposed to start a Children’s programme on TV. He was given the green light and became the storyteller we now call Ababa Tesfaye, literally meaning father Tesfaye. Currently retired, Ababa Tesfaye has already published books of folktales and children stories. Meanwhile, Ethiopian Books for Children and Educational Foundation (EBCEF), a nonproﬁt organization based in California, had announced the creation of the Ababa Tefaye Storytelling Award. “Ababa Tesfaye was honored with the presentation of a certiﬁcate and a small’ monetary award recognizing his great talent and contribution to the storytelling tradition in Ethiopia,” said a statement from EBCEF.
Once on the same Sheraton event referred above, the late Abate Mekuria, Theatre director and a close friend, noted, “Gash Tesfaye is born before his time. He has completely dedicated his life for art. Only few performers can act on stage so diligently without a break for hours; but, he did that. He can take any role on stage. As Pele is for soccer; Gash Tesfaye is for Ethiopian theater. He is a great person we are all proud of.” That wouldn’t be saying too much for a person who entertained, educated, and enlightened a whole generation of Ethiopian forty years of his life.
BY SELAMAWIT BEKELE ETHerald