Ababa Tesfaye to Host New Show
Tesfaye Sahilu was among the first ETV hosts who started his television career when ETV was formed in 1965. It was due to an unfortunate sudden decision that Tesfaye left ETV following his long-time service, without the due respect and honor he deserved. Tesfaye Sahilu is a talented and well-rounded artist who performs storytelling, singing, acting and magic shows. He has also published many songs and children’s storybooks.
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From Our Archive- Ababa Tesfaye’s Great Journey
He had been the background sound for Ethiopian children for the past forty years. Fired from his work, he makes a living by selling his books. Tamrat Negera had a chat with Ababa Tesfaye.
Why did you start narrating fairy tales for children?
Ababa Tesfaye: I started narrating tales for children because stories had significance in my upbringing. I was born at a place called Kedu in Bale province. My family was involved in administration works. So they used to move around very often, and I would move around with them. In time of conversation, they usually would relate stories and parables. When they gather in a meeting and address each other they do so in stories and parables. When I was five, I went to Goba to learn Amharic characters, and there our teacher used the same device to teach us.
My family still used to move around places like Ginir and Elkere and many arid regions. In the evenings, when they entertain one another, they do so in stories; when people quarrel and when they want to reconcile the two parties, they do so with stories. In fact stories for such occasions are very special.
Even though my father had a good standing in the society, he never wanted to spoil me. I was never encouraged to say “I was so and so”. He tried his best to make me able to live with every one. He would say, “One day you might be an administrator, a judge, a teacher, a farmer, and you will know the reality if you live with others.” He tried to show me the path of being a good person. He conveyed these messages through stories. The old ones–they were never short of stories.
You then learned French.
Ababa Tesfaye: My father took me to Harar to get me learn French. He said: “If you learn, you will attain high status; you will not waste your life roaming the country as I do.” Then, I was brought to Addis to have more education. My father passed me over to a care taker. In Addis, I joined Kokebe Tsebeha school around Kebena. It was there that I learned advanced French properly.
My care taker, Ato Menberework Hailu, was very well versed with languages. He was a French teacher at my school.
That led you to meet prominent people.
Ababa Tesfaye: Ato Menberework was a confidant of the king’s court. His friends, Ato Desta and Ato Yofthe Niguse, would talk about court affairs in my presence. They would say, “Today the king said so and so. The queen said this.” But because my father had raised me telling the values of trust, I kept those conversations I heard to myself.
The Italians came, and everything changed.
Ababa Tesfaye: Yes, Italians came to Michew, and the war broke. They first came through Ogaden. My family was around Bale and Harar. My family members fought against Italy to defend their country, and were all killed.
My care taker, Ato Menberework, left me around kebena before joining the resistance. I was sick and he told to the people in the Menlik hospital to take care of me very well, and he warned them not to underestimate me. He thought I was mature beyond my age. I met Ato Desta at the train station before he also joined the patriots, and I never saw him after that. Ato Yoftahe Neguse left the country. I was virtually all alone.
After getting my treatment, I started working at the Menelik hospital. I was assisting the Italians by simply holding lamp. They then started training me step by step. I learned first aid and other clinical practices. I became their favorite health assistant.
They encouraged me to continue in medicine. I followed my father’s early advice strictly. He used to tell me not to spurn any opportunity to learn even from the enemy. I spoke French, and that helped me to understand Italian better–one of the reasons for the Italians liking me.
The war was a personal tragedy as well.
Ababa Tesfaye. The news was getting worse and worse. All that I could hear was the deaths of my family members; my uncle, mother, sister, and father. My only hope and caretaker, Ato Menberework Hailu, was hanged by the Italians. I went to see him hanged at Ras Mekonen Bridge. He was handsome, light skinned person. Ants were all over his body. He was standing on a stone and the rope was on his neck. It was not tight. He was alive.
I pleaded with the Italian to allow me to get closer to him. I told them that the man was my father. They let me. He saw me and shouted in protest. He didn’t like that I was near him when he was being hanged. But he was also requesting for water, and I got him a cup of water. After he put that in his mouth, I left. When I came back in the morning, he had passed way. It was one of the most tragic moments in my life.
What happened after that?
Ababa Tesfaye: With no family, I got serious about medicine. The Italians decided to vaccinate the city, and I assisted them. In those days you prepare the medicines by mixing chemicals yourself. The Italian doctor showed me how to do it. I started mixing chemicals and making medicine. In the mean time, another Italian saw me at the clinic and told me that I was a civilized person and shouldn’t labor there. He took me to his hotel, and made me the waiter.
I became good as a waiter as I was good as a health assistant. That was because of the advice my father gave me. “Be good at what ever you do,” were his repeated advisory words. After working with the Italian, I was hired by the Etege Taitu hotel. I had a reputation as one of the best waiters. While working at Taitu hotel, I saw Italian actors who come to entertain the Italians in places like cinema Empire, and started mimicking them. They were amazed. They enjoyed my shows. It was encouraging. I think I liked acting and became good at it because I had seen entertainers amusing noble men around our house.
Tell us about your progress to an Ethiopian iconic status after the Italians were defeated.
Ababa Tesfaye. After the Italians left, I decided to continue acting. Prince Ras Mekonen wrote a recommendation to the city hall theater saying even though I wasn’t noble like my family, I had various skills. At the city hall, they told me the only post they had was for an actress. Since I had the motivation, I insisted that I could act as a woman. They gave me a chance. I had to play as a wife of a patriot who seduced an Italian. It was a success. And for the next few years, I kept playing a woman’s role.
Then you started the children program on ETV.
Ababa Tesfaye: In 1965, all actors and musicians were preparing for the reception of Queen Elisabeth II. I was a singer and an actor and was training for the occasion when I met Blata Girmachew who was in charge of ETV. Ethiopian Television started the same year, and I asked him whether they had considered children show in the programming. I liked children show. I used to broadcast children stories in Radio series. He said he had no idea, but promised to check it with the English man who was in charge of programming. It was that English man who brought TV to Ethiopia. The man told Blata Girmachew that they had none, and would like to have one if there was a person who could do the job. He brought me to the English man.
The Englishman took me to the studio, and heard me relate a story. He was flabbergasted. He seemed to think that I was wasting my time in Ethiopia. He told me that I was too good to stay in Ethiopia. I said to him that my people should benefit form my skills. That happened on November 10, 1965.
That was how you end up a story teller on the national TV.
Ababa Tesfaye: Pretty much. A child can only be brought up rightly if he knows how to tell right and wrong. We beat children to make them do that. But why? Why not inform them with stories that they can relate to? I had a lot of stories to relate. I asked an assistant to draw paintings which illustrate my stories, and started mixing tales with pictures.
We heard that you had once told the story of his majesty Haileselassie and Lij Iyasu on TV and something happened. Tell us about that.
Ababa Tesfaye: I was live on TV, relating tales. I started with, “once upon a time, his majesty and Lij Iyasu were sailing on boat with other noble men on Lake Alemaya…” and continued to tell the story. There was a legend that Lij Iyasu, who was physically stronger and well-built than his majesty, taught Haileselassie how to swim. He was rough, and would hurt his majesty when he taught him how to swim.
When I started the story, the manager of ETV, Samuel Ferenj, thought I was going to tell that legend, and he came down wagging his fingers. He couldn’t step into the studio because it was being broadcast live. So he wrote “Woe for you!” on the window with a chalk.
Did you do start telling that story deliberately?
Ababa Tesfaye: Yes. I did it deliberately. Anecdotes are very necessary to tell a moral tale. My father used to tell me to use examples from experience. But you have to be careful how you finish it because you shape a person with that.
So how did the Haileselassie story end up?
Ababa Tesfaye: I said that the boat started sinking. The noble men who were on the shore started jumping to the lake to save the king. They had carried swords and belts with 100-150 bullets. They had no swimming skills, and with the water getting in their mouth, they started sinking. But they managed to escape death. Haileselassie saved Liji Iyasu, and after that his majesty ordered all noble men to learn how to swim. That was the time many children were sinking in the lakes and I related the story to educate them that acquiring swimming skills were important for survival. Samuel Ferenj was so relieved with the improvised twist on the story. I found out that his majesty had called and warned him about that.
So you invent new stories. You don’t only relate old ones that you heard from past generations.
Ababa Tesfaye: That is right. That was how the old ones told me to do it. “Drop the advice at the end of the story like a medicine.” That was how they used to tell it. Story telling needs credibility, and stature. A child could know better or more than some old people. So you need to get his trust.
When you educate a child, you don’t start by hitting or pinching him. You tell him that the spank comes if he doesn’t change. For the child, the first responsible institution is the family. Schools come after that.
It is conventional to praise you for your story telling ability and success. But what is you take on it. Do you think you are as great as we think you are?
Ababa Tesfaye: Oh God, I did it, and every body liked me. Children who grew up listening to my stories are now living in Europe and America and they still call me and encourage me. My father used to say if you take a heed to my advice, you would be someone important. He was not educated, but he knew a lot.
And you have published a book.
Ababa Tesfaye: Yes, I wanted people to get my stories. I have published three books but I have more to publish; many more. I started publishing after a journalist came and did my story just like you are doing now. His story on me ended with; “After all of this years of Ababa Tesfaye, no one even published his book.”
A lady called W/O Aster Nega was filling gas when this was broadcast. She heard it in the car. She found me, and told me that she would sponsor the publication of my books. It was a miracle. I now make a living by selling the books. I would like to thank this lady for what she has done for me and children of Ethiopia. God bless her.
You don’t seem happy about a lot of things these days.
Ababa Tesfaye: After living these many years, and having passed through all the experience, I couldn’t keep quiet when my brother perishes. Why should you? You know I have a serious concern.
We don’t get the point. What is your concern?
Ababa Tesfaye: I see these people making millions here and there. They buy expensive cars for their children, and let them be what they want. The kids don’t know how to handle themselves. They get addictions; alcohol, drug and so on. They crash their cars. These are no good for the country, or their family.
You have to be worthy for your country. You must develop some skill or knowledge; be a farmer, an engineer or doctor; something that is important and worthy. You know if we haven’t persecuted blacksmiths, potters and craftsmen, we would have been the ones too reach the moon first. We still can do that. Today you can see many children left without care on the street. It is because they don’t get loving and caring parents. My purpose was to prevent these. Whether you are poor or rich, you have to teach your children. That was what got me into telling stories– my early upbringing; the conviction of my father and my mother that a child can be brought up properly if you inform him early. That was my inspiration.
Do you think this generation has lost the tradition of tales, folklores and allusions?
Ababa Tesfaye: Definitely! It shouldn’t have been so. But now we can’t turn the clock backwards. This is the age of computers, and I advise people to follow the age. But tales can be told on computers, or allusions could be made to modern technology when one tells stories. We have seen Ferenjs flying without aid in movies. In the old days, we used to have stories parallel to that; like people walking on clouds, disappearing on thin air. Where the hell do you think the Ferenj got the tales? The fire is still within us.
What is your last word?
Ababa Tesfaye: We should stop fighting one another, and focus on how to live with technology.
Ababa Tesfaye, it was great talking to you.
Ababa Tesfaye: God bless you.