Interview with Ethiopian philosopher G.E. Gorfu

Ethiopian Liqawoont
Poems, G.E Gorfu

Senamirmir:   Can you tell us briefly about the Ethiopian philosophers Zera' Yaekob, and Wolde Hiwet? What is their contribution to philosophy?

G.E. Gorfu:   Zera' Yaekob, according to his own wrintgs, is a cleric from Axum, who was persecuted for his brilliant mind by jealous contemporaries in the Ethiopian Church, and he fled into the forest. There, he started to live alone like most hermits live in our country, and began to observe the workings of nature. He came to see the hand of God in nature, and started to use that as the measure for everything that he believed in, and considered holy. From there, he wandered into the land of Bege-mdir, Enferaz, where he entered the service of a wealthy farmer and met his future disciple, Wolde Hiwet. His greatest contribution to philosophy, I believe, is in giving us the basic outlook that we should evaluate everything on its own merit and its place in nature, and not accept some old scriptures as if it came down from the mouth of God. All scripture, according to Zera' Yaekob, is the work of men. And it has some noble, and some not so noble, contents in it. Without any fear, Zera' Yaekob examined the teachings of Mosses in the Bible and the teachings of Mohammed in the Koran, and found good and bad in them. This is unheard of in that era. Even in the West, for many philosophers before and after Hegel, and including him, philosophy was discussed only in the light of what was revealed in the Bible. One never dared question the authority of the Bible. That was regarded as blasphemous. So, for Zera' Yaekob and Wolde Hiwet, two simple clerics, children of some Ethiopian peasants without any university education, to have dared to critically examine the scriptures, accepting some parts as good and rejecting other parts as 'lies and intrigues, woven by the human beings... ,' is an unparalleled boldness and originality, and the first of its kind in world philosophy. That is their contribution.

Senamirmir:   What has been the influence of Zera' Yaekob's and Wolde Hiwet's philosophy in Ethiopian society?

G.E. Gorfu:   Sadly enough, very little. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church is still found tethered to its dogmas, traditions, and fables. The same Church that persecuted Zera' Yaekob, also persecuted my great grandfather, Haleka Tewolde Medhin Gebru, and then my father, Zemenfes Kidus Abraha. There might be a few individuals in the Church who, exposed to the teachings of Zera' Yaekob's philosophy, might have found mental and intellectual liberation. Other than that, I can't say much about the Ethiopian Church or the general society being influenced. But the fact that European philosophy was touched and deeply influenced by Zera' Yaekob, cannot be denied. It is clearly apparent in the development and history of Western philosophy. Even Professor Claud Summner, I have been told, has intimated as much in his treatise on Zera' Yaekob.

Senamirmir:   You met Aleka Desta Tekle Wolde, and have spoken about him in your interview with the Ethiopians. Can you tell us about him and his impression on you?

G.E. Gorfu:   Aleka Desta was a very humble man, down to earth, and totally unassuming. My impression is that he lived alone, and craved intellectual company. Unfortunately, I was in my early twenties, and not in his league either in age or in the linguistic expertise and lexicon to afford him any meaningful companionship. But, I must have told him over and over, that I greatly respected and admired his intellectual accomplishment. He had a keen mind and sharp eyes. He would take an Amharic word and conjugate it into its multiple parts, then he would bring its synonym in Tigrinia and conjugate it in the same way, he would then move smoothly into Geez, Oromigna, Arabic, into Hebrew..etc... I was simply mesmerized by the depth, and wealth of his mind. He was a walking genius.

Senamirmir:   What a year 1955 was! Aleka Desta Tekle Wolde edited and published "Metsehafe Sewassewu Wegiss Wemezigeb Kalat Hadis," written by Aleka Kidane Wolde Kifle. In the same year, another dictionary titled "Mezigebe Kalat Tigriyna-Amarina" was published by Aba Yohannes Gebre-Egiziabehare. Are you familiar with Aba Yohannes and his work?

G.E. Gorfu:   Over the years, I believe I have come across this famous dictionary, and might even have used it a couple of times, or so, but I never met Aba Yohanes Gebre-Egziabher, and my knowledge of the dictionary is rather sketchy, to say the least.

Senamirmir:   Your father, Zemenfes Kidus Abraha (Gorfu), was a writer, who had published various books in several languages. Please tell us about his work. Have you written about him? If not, why not?

G.E. Gorfu:   Speaking of dictionaries, among many of his books, my father did publish the Geez Dictionary and Book of Grammar by the noted Ethiopian intellectual, Haleka Taye, to whom he referred in the book as: My Teacher! His most 'revolutionary' book, however, was: "Tegsatsna Mikir," the title in English: 'Advice and Reproof.' It exposed the corruption and many of the non-biblical traditions and practices of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. For that, my father was arrested, and his book confiscated and banned for five years. He had to stand in the Imperial Court of Haileselassie and defend the contents of the book. The Emperor freed him and granted the book to be sold openly. I have written a brief biography of my father in Amharic, which appeared last year serially in Addis Admas, a newspaper published in Addis Ababa. My father authored about half a dozen books in Geez, in Amharic, and in Tigrinia. He was a very religious person.

Senamirmir:   This is a question we asked some of our guests before. Why is it that we know so very little about our writers, philosophers, thinkers, historians, Inventors...? We don't even know who invented our writing system, who designed and built Lalibela, and so on.

G.E. Gorfu:   What you say is very true. Sadly enough, we too suffer from a worldwide disease called: European-ism or Western-ism. Many small, poor, backward nations like Ethiopia, appear to be doomed by this juggernaut, - the West. Regardless of how old, sophisticated, or beautiful these cultures might be, many nations like ours might not survive the onslaught of Western culture, which is being pushed and distributed through books, films, music... etc. Archeological research too, needs to catch up with our past and inform us on what is still hiding just under the surface. Much needs to be done in this area. Compared with say, Egypt and other colonized parts of Africa, Ethiopia in many aspects, is still a virgin. Very little has been done to revive our past.

Senamirmir:   Many of Ethiopia's ancient artifacts, including its priceless manuscripts, are being smuggled out of the country and are ending up in private hands, collectors, and art dealers. Are we not loosing our history?

G.E. Gorfu:   The new generation seems to be focused on the 'technologically' superior and instant culture, and what is profitable for today, no matter how foreign it might be to our country. This needs to be corrected. Business profits and technological advances are very important, - I am an engineer by training and by profession. But who said we must discard our culture and our heritage? We should beware that we don't pay too high a price for modernization. If we loose our history and our identity as a people, no matter how wealthy we may become materially, we will always be miserably poor as a people.

Senamirmir:   It seems that no language other than Ethiopic (Ge'ez) can tell a significant portion of our history. And yet, Ge'ez is a forgotten language in this age, completely neglected by this generation that needs it the most. Is there any hope that it would revive in our educational system?

G.E. Gorfu:   Sadly enough, this is true. If some changes don't take place to retain some aspects of Geez, already, the end is in sight. In the West, Latin continued to survive because it still finds application in modern scientific terminology. If Geez must die, at the very least, the Universities in Ethiopia in collaboration with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the various monasteries, must work in the translation of as many Geez books and manuscripts as possible before it becomes too late.

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