With full of energy that is his signature, acclaimed poet/playwright Lemn Sissay controlled the stage to read one of his finest poems, “There’s a Rhythm.” A standing ovation was in order from his audience; it followed each of his performance as he went on presenting one piece after the other from his recently published book “Gold from the Stone” on Saturday, December 2nd, 2017 at the Hilton hotel here in Addis Abeba.
Lemn’s mesmerizing stage presence at the Hilton and beyond cannot be complete without a sober search for his roots; but it is also something that can never be told enough.
About a year after going to England to study in 1966, his mother, Yemarshet Sissay, gave birth to Lemn while she was on her studies. With the intention of staying focused on her studies, she contacted a social worker to facilitate a temporary foster care for Lemn. Unfortunately his mother would not see her son until he turned 21 when he located her in Gambia.
Delving into what happened between the time Lemn was given to the foster care and his first eye-to-eye meeting with his mother is like diving into the deepest part of an ocean. A lot has been written about it, ( Our favorite one is this) and a lot more can be found in any of his books, around half a dozen in number. Lemn has since then been honored by the Queen of England as MBE for his service of literature; he was the official poet of London 2012 Olympics; and was elected as Chancellor of Manchester University.
At the publishing hours of this article, Lemn is in Addis Abeba, his second trip in two and a half weeks. He is here to launch Equity and Merit Scholarships , a scholarship for selected master’s courses to applicants from Ethiopia. It provides fully funded study opportunities for specific courses in engineering, environment, health sciences, development, education, textiles and law.
During his trip to Addis Abeba in the first week of December, Addis Standard’s Samuel Bogale sat down with Lemn Sissay for an exclusive interview.
Addis Standard – How does Lemn Sissay, the poet and playwright that the world knows about today, connect himself to the one from a foster family or the children’s homes he grew up in?
Lemn Sissay– I think I’m trying to make change happen so that foster children throughout the world can feel pride in who they are. I think I’m trying to make people realize that Moses from the Bible was adopted, Harry Potter was fostered, and Superman was fostered. All these characters in real life and in fiction, they are brilliant and heroes.
AS – A follow up to that question: have you overcome the foster family/children’s homes memories and moved out? Or do they still inform and shape part or whole of who you are as an acclaimed poet/ playwright?
LS – We are set a series of challenges in our lives and in my childhood I was set a series of challenges; I have my family stolen from me, I didn’t know I was Ethiopian, I grew up in a little village of England, Lancashire, I was cast away, I was held in children’s homes with some of them were like prisons. This challenge is to live my life the best way I can as an adult and I take that with relish. I’m a proud Ethiopian, and I think this proves how strong we are. If you can take a child from Ethiopia, place him thousands of miles away and change his name, he’ll return. There is a line in the Bible, Bob Marley quoted it, it’s: “The stone that the builder refused shall be the head corner stone.”
AS – You are referred to by many in England as “the nation’s best-loved voices”; you are a successful poet/playwright who is honored by the Queen; voted as Chancellor of Manchester University; and have been the official poet of London 2017 Olympic, among others. What is the contribution of who you were while growing up to who you are today, to this Lemn?
LS – This Lemn has traveled the world, has been to Gonder, the Semien Mountains, Addis Abeba, Hawassa and the many parts of Ethiopia. This Lemn is a prouder Ethiopian, proud to be Chancellor, the first Ethiopian chancellor of a university in Britain. I’m proud to make the connection between the Pankrust family and Manchester, and Manchester and Ethiopia. We will be launching a scholaship
AS – But have you ever thought what your life would have become had you been raised in the care, warmth, love and affection of your father and your mother? You probably wouldn’t have the name “Lemn”, but what else? How else would your life be different from what it is today?
LS – My father was a pilot for Ethiopian Airlines; my mother was an amazing woman; my brothers and sisters on my mother’s side went to international schools in Paris and Belgium; my brothers and sisters on my father’s side went to universities in American states; so who knows what I would be, my name would be Yohannes or something. If I was a shepherd boy in the mountains, I would be happy with my family.
To me what matters is that you have your family in your childhood, this is the important thing. So whether it was a village outside Addis or whether it was international school I don’t care. I think having your family is the most important thing.
AS – You are here to participate in the launching of your latest collection of poetry book called “Gold from the Stone”. Does launching it here bring you closer to Ethiopia? Is this one of your ways of reconnecting to you roots?
LS – Yes it is. I’m so proud that Book World and Shama Plc would bring the magic of books to the nation, so it makes me proud to be part of that. I’m very proud that they have brought my books here and that my books will be available here people.
AS – You have reconnected with your lost family after many years; your sisters, brothers, nephews and nieces and what not. But you came bearing a name “Lemn”, which literally means “why”. Doesn’t that leave a chapter open, a chapter that you have struggled so much to close when you searched and located your family?
LS – I think all of our names have a story. We may name our children after a family member who isn’t around anymore, after somebody from the Bible and after a story. Yes I bring the question ‘Why?’ and hopefully we all throughout our lives should ask the question ‘Why?’. We should ask it of each other and seek the answer. May be we’re all searching for answers in one way or another.
AS – How did Lemin Sissay change between “Gold from the Stone” and “Rebel without Applause”, a collection that many say has “started everything for you?
LS – This collection, ‘Gold from the Stone’, includes poems of mine from the age of 17 to now. So it has got poems from all of my books from 17 years of age right to now. It’s really a good collection to be the first book to be launched here in Ethiopia, because it shows different poems from all of my books.
I think that ‘Rebel without Applause’ is a book of anger may be it is a good thing; I started before that though. My first book was called ‘Perception of Pen’, and then ‘Tender Fingers in a Clinched Fist’, ‘Rebel without Applause’, ‘Morning Breaks in the Elevator’, ‘Listener’ and finally ‘Gold from the Stone’.
AS – Beyond tracing and locating your blood relatives, what did reconnecting with Ethiopia, as a country, and the people of Ethiopia as fellow countrymen and women, mean to you? How did that change you as a person? To what extent did that shape your identity or who you are in general?
LS – Wow. We’re from such a rich culture. We’re from such a rich culture that I can now spend the rest of my life discovering the culture of Ethiopia. We’re rich – from the scarves to the religion, to the complexity of the different tribes in Ethiopia, to the political systems, the religious, and the artistic life here.
I’m constantly inspired by Mulatu Astatke, Ana Getaneh, Aida Muluneh, I regard them as friends. This country is full of inspiring people who make change happen, who promote Ethiopia but also who work for the betterment of Ethiopians. These people are teaching me how to be Ethiopian. I met Afework Tekle four days before he passed away, he came to my event at the British Council. I’m inspired by the artists of Ethiopians, by poets Bewuketu Seyoum, Ephrem Seyoum; by the painters and the photographers. Alula Pankrust and his mother Mrs. Pankrust are incredible people with great love for this country. If I can learn from them and grow to be half of what they are, then I’ll be happy.
I have many friends here and very little family members. I now identify as Ethiopian; the world knows me as Ethiopian but I’ve to learn as well. I feel honored to be here and I feel proud because we’re a very strong people.
AS – There are hundreds, if not thousands, of Ethiopian kids who are or were going through and have went through similar experiences like that of yours. What would you say to them if you were performing in front of them tonight? Which one of your poems would you read them?
LS – I would say to the Ethiopians adoptees to come to Ethiopia and listen to the people. I’m listening to the Ethiopians. It’s very difficult for many adoptees to come back to Ethiopia as there’s a lot of pain, because they can’t find their families and etcetera. But I would say come back and learn and listen from Ethiopia and Ethiopians, and share. I get much more from Ethiopians that I could never give. I tried to give as much as I can in what I do, but I get much more back. ‘Gold from the Stone’ would be the poem I read them.
AS – You probably heard that Ethiopia has recently banned foreign adoptions all together. What was your reaction to that news?
LS – You could say that the son of Emperor Tewodros, Prince Alemayehu, was the first contemporary adopted child, because he was stolen from Ethiopia, taken to England and he died at 18 years of age. His remains are buried outside the Windsor Castle where Prince Harry and Meghan Markle will be married. He was taken from Ethiopia in a similar way that many of the children were taken from Ethiopia to England.
I’m pleased and I’m proud that the government and the people are stopping the children being taken from Ethiopia in adoption.
AS – If there is one thing you would like to do what would that be?
LS – There’s something. In England, at the queen’s residence Windsor Castle, there’s an Ethiopian prince who is buried in the ground. In my lifetime, I want to see his remains brought back to Ethiopia so that he can be laid to rest in his own country, just like the Ethiopian adoptees should return to Ethiopia.
We should have the remains of this Ethiopian child who was stolen from Ethiopia and who is buried in England. He should be back here. The only way that this is going to happen is if the Ethiopian youths demand for the return, and as proud Ethiopians we need to be aware of it.
It’s my ambition in my life time to make this happen but I can’t make it happen without the people from here starting to think about what it means for a child to be taken from their country and buried in England.
Some people say to me “Yes but we won’t look after him well here.” Well, he isn’t looked after well there. He doesn’t even have a name on his gravestone; he doesn’t even have a gravestone. Because he was Ethiopian and black, they wouldn’t bury him in the crypt, so they buried him outside with unmarked grave.
Prince Alemayehu is buried in England, where he was taken by force from the battle of Maqdela. His father was killed, his mother died and her clothing is in British museum. I need Ethiopians to say “No we want him back; we want our son back and be buried here.” I can’t do it alone. I need people to be aware of it.
This prince died in England at the age of 18. How did that happen? We need to start asking questions. What was the captain who was looking after him doing to him? We need to get emotional about it and we need to get him back. Symbolically it’s very important. If there was a British prince buried in here, wouldn’t the British be going crazy? AS