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Book Review: A legend’s life & tragic death revealed

A New Book peeks into the life, works and mysterious disappearance of Ethiopia’s beloved author Baälu Girma, reveals a shocking secrete

Kalkidan Yibeltal

Towards the beginning of Endalegeta Kebede’s captivating yet, perhaps unduly, long new book, Baälu Girma: Life and Works, we find the young Baälu apprehensive and estranged, in a garments shop at the heart of Merkato, Addis Abeba’s marketing hub, waiting to meet his father. He was brought there from Suppe Borru, a small town 642 km southwest of the country in what was then known as the Illubabour province , by a few travelling merchants. It was early 1940s and the commotion of the city was unlike the tranquil he knew in his home town. Neither did he speak Amharic, the language on everyone’s lips, (his mother tongue was Afaan Oromo). And with the merchants gone to their businesses handing him over to an employee at the shop, his only touch with familiarity had vanished.

A predominantly coffee growing area, Suppe Borru attracted quite a number of traders back in the day including Arabs, Greeks and Indians. One such trader was Baälu’s father, an Indian originally from Gujarat, who had fallen for a local woman, Yadene, a woman he had met on his business trips. However, their ill-fated marriage had come to a halt only a couple of years into its existence as it was revealed that the husband had another marriage and family he needed to be with in the capital.

Despite his curiously light skin complexion and strikingly curly hair, Baälu had a very ordinary upbringing, at least for the first decade of his life, which in no way seemed to had been tarnished by the absence of his father. But Yadene, perhaps rightly, thought it’d be better for him if he lived with his well off father as a bigger city entails greater opportunities. Accordingly, she arranged for the travelling merchants to take him to his father’s shop.

The father, though, was not happy to see his son from, as far as his culturally conservative background was concerned, an illegitimate relationship. Thus, he resorted into yelling at his employee who, against his better judgment, decided to receive the befuddled boy from visitors unbeknownst to him. The employee, Girma, whose name Baälu would later adopt, was quite certain of the boy’s lineage as he looked exactly like his now very angry boss. Yet he didn’t shove his reason down his superior’s throat. Instead he took the boy home and raised him as his own.

In the coming years Baälu would join Princess Zenebework (now Mrs. Ford) School. He would then master Amharic to the point of eventually becoming one of the most prominent novelists in the language. And at the pinnacle of his career in journalism, he would hold a high office in the Marxist Dergue’s regime in the Ministry of Information as editor-in-chief of Ye’Zareyitu Ethiopia, a weekly Amharic newspaper owned by the government. Baälu left an unmistakably impeccable footprint as a journalist until his mysterious disappearance in the early 1980 due to, what many believe was his fateful last novel, Oromay, (“The End” in Tigrigna). In Oromay, a novel for unsuspecting reader, Baälu detailed one of the Dergue’s decisive, yet futile military campaign to eradicate the then guerilla fighters (today’s power holders) in the Northern tip of the country, in what is now an independent Eritrea.

Ostentatious life

“It matters not how a man dies but how he lives,” writes James Boswell in his seminal biography of Dr. Samuel Johnson. “The act of dying is not of importance; it lasts so short a time.”

The problem with Baälu’s end is, though, no one seemed to know for sure how, when or whether it even happened. That’s probably why for many years most of the discussion surrounding Baälu’s life has ultimately been about his death. Countless theories have been woven about how he was murdered or even how he escaped prosecution and is still living incognito.

But as Endalegeta, who spent four years in reconnoitering Baälu’s life, finds out Ethiopia’s beloved novelist had, in fact, never been short of riddles. “It’s not only his disappearance; there are several stories, tall tales and unverifiable fabrications about his childhood [and] about his professional life passing off as truisms,” explains Endalegeta sitting down with this magazine. “I challenge many of them in this book.”

 Mysterious death no more

For Endalegeta the distinctive interest in the mysterious disappearance of Baälu partly stems from the nature of the Marxist regime. “The Dergue had never been ashamed of their killings and arrests and tortures. They declared it on stamped documents. They announced it to the public on the radio, on Television, on newspapers they owned,” he says. “But when it comes to Baälu, there was this cover up. Nothing was acknowledged. It’s as if there was embarrassment inside the system. That was unprecedented, probably leading some people to believe ‘maybe the Dergue did not kill [him after all].’”

The other reason that the story of “Baälu’s death is very much alive in the public consciousness all these years is because it accentuates, if I may say, his works.”

“Like Moses nobody will know where I’ll be buried,” a character in one of Baälu’s novels proclaims. For Endalegata, a PHD candidate in Folklore Studies at Addis Abeba University, this is a statement that prophesies its writer’s lot.

His portrayal in his tenth book (Endalegata has written nine books) presents a flamboyant, daring, slightly reckless Baälu, who nonetheless was intent on addressing the (mal)functioning of the system he served.  “He could not publish that work but he did. And for that he paid the ultimate price.” But it is an ultimate price whose details were not known to Ethiopians for three plus decades until the publishing two months ago of Baälu Girma: Life and Works. by Endalegata. In it Endalegata acutely (and beautifully) demystified details of accounts in the life and tragic death of Baälu.

Endalegata, whose penultimate book Ma’aqab (Amharic for ‘embargo’ or ‘sanction’) chronicles censorship in three of the last regimes in Ethiopia: the Imperial, Dergue and EPRDF regimes sees Baälu as an emblem for all those before and after him who had to go through enormous suffering for the simple reason that they dare say or write something.

“You know, when a cop in full uniform slaps you in the face, it’s not just his hands that hit you,” he said, “There is a stamp of the system he serves on his palm. And it’s that system smacking you.”

He is also a novelist and a short story writer. “Baälu Girma: Life and Works,” is his tenth book.


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