The Unheeded Call of a ‘Servant of Ethiopia’: In honor of Prof. Donald Levine (Yared Tibebu)
Please read Yared Tibebu’s introductory remark at the Annual SEED gathering to honor Professor Levine, Ambassador Zewde, and kids who are leaving for IV League colleges. Prof. Donald Levine is an American sociologist, educator, social theorist and writer. Levine is widely considered as a central figure in Ethiopian Studies.
The Unheeded Call of a ‘Servant of Ethiopia’
Good evening Ladies and Gentlemen,
I would like to begin by extending my sincere thanks to the man of the hour, Professor Donald Levine, for selecting me to have the distinct honor of introducing him tonight.
Since Professor Levine’s written work will speak to posterity, I will focus on those studies that give direction to our political life today, and describe what his life and work has meant to Ethiopians of my generation.
I discovered Professor Levine’s works in 1987 just after I immigrated to the USA. I was soul searching and reflecting on my experience as a veteran of the Ethiopian revolution looking for answers to help me understand what went wrong.
I read Professor Levine’s Wax and Gold and Greater Ethiopia, two books that challenged & made me reconsider my understanding of the history and politics of my own country, and made me wonder which path I would have taken if I had read these works before my own engagement in the revolution.
Professor Levine warned almost 10 years before the 1974 Ethiopian Revolution that “the experience of history has demonstrated the futility of attempting revolutionary implementation of a clear and distinct ideal in human society…the most productive and liberating sort of social change is that built on continuity with the past.”
I had the good fortune of meeting Professor Levinein person when I interviewed him for my TV talk Show “MeweyayetMelkamመወያየትመልካም”. Then my wife and I became guests at his home in Chicago, and saw that Don and his wife Ruth, whom he lovingly introduces to guests asWeizeroHirut, havedecorated their living room, complete with Ethiopian musical instruments and art. The ambiance is highly reminiscent of the Ethiopian home we all would like to have, but have failed to achieve. Had it not been for his deep rooted love for Ethiopia, he could have surrounded himself with mementos of his Jewish heritage or American landscapes, but he chose to remain Ethiopian at heart time and again.Don signs his letters and emails as “LibenGebre Ethiopiaሊበንገብረኢትዮጵያ”, fully cognizant of whatGebre Ethiopiaገብረኢትዮጵያrefers to,the servant of Ethiopia.Not a simple choice by any measure, it is deliberate, heroic, and noble to say the least.
In his book “Greater Ethiopia”, LibenGebre Ethiopia draws upon the testimony of classical Greek historians like DiodorusSiculus from the first century B.C. and Placidus from the sixth century so that we can feel at home with our past. He writes:
“Certainly [the Ethiopians] are loved by the gods because of justice. This even Homer indicates in the first book by the fact that Jupiter frequently leaves heaven and feasts with them because of their justice and the equity of their customs. For the Ethiopians are said to be the justest men and for that reason the gods leave their abode frequently to visit them”.
A few weeks ago when Oromo students went on protest at Ambo University, 1300 non-Oromo students had to seek refuge at an Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahdo Church compound for three nights fearing violence from their own classmates. My heart bled when I heard this troubling news, and felt this may be one of those moments when we need the gods of Homer to break bread with us and tell us the justness of our forefathers so that we live in harmony. We need people like ሊበንገብረኢትዮጵያ(LibenGebre Ethiopia) to help us mend the social fabric that we have been adorned with as Ethiopians for millennia, for it has fallen through hard times, been imperiled by our misdeeds. Tonight we are gathered here to honor ሊበንገብረኢትዮጵያ (LibenGebre Ethiopia) and wish upon the celestial deities, for the effort he made to call Jupiter as a witness to our remarkable past, and help us in our arduous struggle to strengthen our unity through a shared vision of Ethiopia for a better and enduring future.
ሊበንገብረኢትዮጵያ (LibenGebre Ethiopia) had the following words of wisdom and a fair warning regarding Ethiopian studies being conducted in the area of ethnography. He said:
“To see Ethiopia as a mosaic of distinct peoples is to overlook the many features they have in common and the existence of discernible culture areas, and to ignore the numerous relationships these groups have had with one another. …it leads to the erroneous view that before the conquests of Menelik II in the late nineteenth century the other peoples of Ethiopia had lived independent and self-sufficient lives… the image of Ethiopia as a collection of distinct peoples neglects what these people have in common, how they interact, and the nature of Ethiopian society as a whole.”
According to Professor Levine, the people of Greater Ethiopia before 1300CE consisted of well over fifty separate societies. Had this continued,he surmises:
“Ethiopia today would indeed be no more than a museum of peoples, and would doubtless have succumbed to European rule in the nineteenth century. As it was, a small number of these groupshad the motivation and capacity to expand. Two of them, the Amhara and the Oromo, laid the foundations for Ethiopia’s transformation into a poly-ethnic national society.”
In “A Revised Analytical Approach to the Evolution of Ethiopian Civilization”, Professor Levine debunks the 100 year history and notion of Ethiopia being a ‘prison of nationalities:
“Far from the multiethnic Ethiopian state being the late 19C creation of an Amhara elite, as Prison House model proponents suggest, the Ethiopian state is of ancient origin and was multiethnic for most of its history. Known in antiquity first as the land of the Ag’azi, at some early point-probably as early as the 5th century CE-it became known as Ethiopia. … Only the coalition of battalions from the numerous regions and ethnic groups made possible the landmark defeat of Italian colonialist forces at the famous battle of Adwa in 1896.”
Professor Levine, attesting that Ethiopia developed a sense of national community that transcended the limitations of mono-ethnic nations elsewhere in the world argues:
Just as Jewish Diasporans never forgot Jerusalem, and the Europeans never ceased to revere Athens, so Aksum remained an object of devotion throughout Ethiopian history… Although the headquarters of Shoan and Gonderine royalty usually stood far from Tigray, Ethiopia’s Christian elite regarded Aksum as the right place for the coronation of kings. Royal chronicles record at least four Amhara monarchs-ZeraYa’qob (1434-68); SersaDingil (1563-97), Susneyos (1607-32), and Iyassu I (1682-1705)-journeying to Aksum for the ceremony.”
In a study he presentedto the Oromo Studies Association (OSA)ሊበንገብረኢትዮጵያ (Liben Gebre Ethiopia) advised:
“Although many Oromo occupy senior positions in the government and seem to be proud of this connection, part of the Oromo people remains obsessed with being an “oppressed” people. Without gainsaying Oromo hardships, fixation on victimhood has kept many from asserting themselves constructively and playing the enormous role in shaping Ethiopia’s future for which they are destined.
To make that contribution, the Oromo would be well advised to define their situation in a broader historical perspective, one acknowledging the many positive contributions Oromo groups and individuals have made over five centuries. Oromo groups invited themselves into vast areas–from Harar to Gojjam, from Hadiyya to Tigray–in many cases, no less aggressively than Amhara and Tigreans were to do against Oromo and many other ethnicities during the reign of Emperor Menelik. Once settled in those areas, many of them affiliated with the Ethiopian center.”
In 1992, in “Greater Ethiopia Reconsidered” LibenGebre Ethiopia ሊበንገብረኢትዮጵያ” warned us that “continuing to follow the Soviet model, as the USSR breaks up into increasingly fractious and hostile ethnic polities, promises further harm”.
ሊበንገብረኢትዮጵያ (LibenGebre Ethiopia) says the following remarkable words in his book Wax and Gold “It is spare vision to regard the Ethiopian past only as a matrix of primordial loyalties whose only issue can be discord and disruption. The Ethiopian past can be a source of identifications which are associated with specific virtues of national significance, and which Ethiopian cultural leaders can draw upon to help define for their country its unique composite character.”
An accomplished black-belted Aikido Master, and a warrior for non-violent conflict resolution, LibenGebre Ethiopia has time and again argued “ …if only part of the courage required to take up arms and fight authorities were converted into non-violent public discourse about societal problems, Ethiopia would have the beginnings of a truly productive and fruitful change.”
While the Ethiopian elite look for external models to solve Ethiopia’s problems, ሊበንገብረኢትዮጵያ(Liben Gebre Ethiopia) always guides us to search deep into our own traditions.He said:
“Dewey finds the template for American democracy to be the town meetings of New England. In that perspective, one could say that Ethiopia is exceptionally well endowed for forming a national public. Nearly all local traditions in the Greater Ethiopian culture area exhibit some form of public action, through which persons display habits of communal concern, mutual respect, effective conflict resolution, and public problem-solving. Their levels of communal responsibility and civility of conduct might put to shame many modern urbanized Ethiopians, at home and in the Diaspora–not to mention members of the United States Congress.”
LibenGebre Ethiopia time and again has reminded us the importance of forgiveness to lay the foundation for a shared future. He took the lead in asking us “in a country where nearly everyone counts as ‘ye-tewegga’, what is to happen?” And in response to that question he composed a “little gitim” in Amharic:
“Ye-weggabiressa “While the attacked may forget
Ye-teweggaayresa” The attacked one forgets not”
Endetebaleirgit new; Is an old saying, to be sure;
Ine gin yemilew: but I would like to say:
YiqirtakalgebbaWithout bringing in forgiveness
Selamimaygebba.There can never be peace.
Ladies and Gentlemen, even now,this tireless 83 year old son of Ethiopia has surprises for us. Tsehai Publishers is soon publishing his new book, “Interpreting Ethiopia – Observations of Five Decades”, a comprehensive book covering topics ranging from ‘Menelik and Oedipus” to “Savoring Ethiopia’s Past, Co-creating her Future”. Follow the release of thesenew reflections on our nation’s history, I urge you to read it, study it, and discuss it. It may help provide direction to us in moving forward to resolve the predicament we are in today.
“As a distinguished scholar and for his lifelong contributions to the advancement of Ethiopian History, his unique ability to promote “Ethiopianness” (ኢትዮጵያዊነት), and his remarkable dedication to preserving the history and culture of Ethiopia and Ethiopians through his writings and the higher esteem he is held in the Ethiopian community; SEED has elected to honor ሊበንገብረኢትዮጵያ (Liben Gebre Ethiopia) as the recipient of the 2014 SEED award.”
Ladies and Gentlemen, please join me in welcoming to the Podium Ethiopia’s son par excellence and most distinguished Professor Donald Nathan Levine, ሊበንገብረኢትዮጵያ (LibenGebre Ethiopia).