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Interview with Dr. Getatchew Haile

Senamirmir:   In your latest book, titled Bahre Hassab , you wrote about your father, that it was from him you learned "Bahre Hassab" or the system of fixing the movable feasts and fasts of the Church. Would you share with us what you know about him and his work?

Dr. Getatchew:   My father was a son of a priest who was feared and revered like a saint, not only by my father and his siblings but also by the people of the village. He was schooled in his village called Tute, in Shenkora, and grew up serving in the church established by his father, my grandfather. I never asked him where he learned the basic rules of arithmetic but he was very good at it and at solving basic mathematical questions with ease. With this knowledge and a fine handwriting (both of which he tried to pass on to me), he got employment at the Ministry of Agriculture as tax collector. In 1935 one of his legs was incapacitated, maybe because of a slipped disc (from which I too suffer) that affects the sciatic nerve. He was therefore unable to join the resistance against the Italian Fascists. He gave his gun to one of those who could, and we moved to Entotto Kidan Mehret, north of Addis Ababa, believing its famous holy water (tebel) would heal him. There I pursued my elementary church education at the school attached to the church, and my father the art of composing qinie poems under the famous Nebure Id Mekariya Abbiyehoy, who happened also to be there at that time. Artist Afework Tekle was one of the students at my school. My family suffered from lack of basic needs so it soon broke, with my mother returning to our homeland taking all the three children with her. My father stayed at the tebel , which did not help him. I was then given to my uncle, a painter and a poet in qinie , so that I might pursue my education. It did not work. However, the time I spent with fellow cattle herders gave me the opportunity to learn Oromigna and be fluent in it like my father.

When the Italians left, I came to Addis Ababa where I found my father in the compound of the old Trinity Church in one of the one-room shelters built to protect a grave. (I never asked who was the guy on whose grave I slept for several years before we moved out. His people never came to disturb us.) This was the time when my father taught me the basic church learning. My father was a keen reader. He was fortunate in that he could recite by heart whatever he read from the books. The commentaries on the Praises of Mary (Weddase Maryam); the Four Gospels; the Three Monastic Writings (Aregawi Menfesawi, Mar Yisehaq and Filkeseyus, in one binding); the Anaphoras (Mestihafe Qeddase); and later the Psalms, and the Books of Ezekiel; the three wisdom books ascribed to Solomon (Proverbs, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Song of Songs, in one binding); the Acts, Epistles, and the Revelation (in one binding); and the Pauline Epistles are part of the works he knew by heart from repeated reading during the plenty of time he had. I was so fortunate that my sisters sent these books to me (to America) when our father passed nine years ago, not that copies of these could be unavailable to me here but because they were my father's with his notes and thumb prints on many of the pages. One needs to know the magnitude of the bondage between us to understand what anything that is his means to me.

My father was one of the few logical thinkers I ever met; yet his belief in every statement that came from the religious books, including the miracles and dersanat of the saints, was beyond my comprehension. I remember him holding to his Dersane Mikael and reciting the Archangel's melke' whenever one of his children was gravely sick. I do not know when and from whom he learned the calculation of the "Bahre Hassab," but it was definitely from the same Nebure Id Mekuriya, who also had his own copy.

As I said, I received my elementary education, including the four rules of arithmetic, from my father while we were in the shelter at the graveyard and later when we were out of it. I was my father's son not only biologically but also in outlook. I think it was in 1943 that he saw a doctor, after the Italians left. At Bethesda Hospital (in Siddist Kilo) he received some treatment that enabled him to join the workforce, first as an archivist at the Church's Central Administration and later as one of the judges -- the church had its own court which dealt with the church affairs.

Senamirmir:   From your own experience of receiving traditional studies, what do you think of the modern schooling system that seems to abandon it all?

Dr. Getatchew:   You are asking a question which touches upon an Ethiopian tragedy. I do not know who to blame, if there is one to blame in the first place. When Ethiopia introduced the Western system of education, it was like putting the table upside down, or changing the rules in the middle of the game. Today we speak of Ethiopian revolution of the 70s and its consequences, but that revolution and its consequences are nothing compared to the effect of the quiet but fast-moving revolution of introducing the Western educational system. You can say it was a coup of a system, the new system overthrowing the ancient system. The consequence was devastating. We introduced it before we were prepared to receive it. We were unskilled to handle that fire. It burned the nation that ignited it to enlighten it. We were cut off overnight from our past. Children who just graduated from the elementary school suddenly treated those who spent half their lives pursuing their education in the traditional school as ignorant. The curriculum of the traditional school was indeed religious in nature. Therefore, there is no point that we stick to it in this twentieth century. But some of the traditional thought processes should have been transmitted from father to child. Change is less painful and less damaging if it takes place gradually and unnoticed. Continuity in that manner is what makes people one and ancient nation. You will have a soft spot in your heart for what you grew up experiencing. We were taken out of the society and, "blindfolded" not to see the traditional education, we were put into boarding schools. We became strangers to our own society, with little sympathy to our educational culture when we were "released" and came back. We would have revered and modified our tradition if we had grown up in it. I think this is why I love my country, my people and my culture, despite the hardship I went through while growing up. I lived on alms for several years while those who wanted to destroy Ethiopia grew up with shoes on their feet.

Senamirmir:   During your school years in Egypt, what was the thing that strikes you the most in relation to Ethiopia?

Dr. Getatchew:   The realization that Christians could be a minority in a society, and how they have to give up many of their rights just to survive. That was not what I, as a Christian, experienced as I grew up in Ethiopia. The irony is that I learned from my days in Egypt how to be sensitive to the rights of minorities in Ethiopian society.

Senamirmir:   What was the primary influence that led you to become Semitic-studies scholar?

Dr. Getatchew:   My personal observation that among the languages I know some are related to each other while others are not. The relationship between Ge'ez and Amharic, the two languages I knew since early in my life, is very clear. I was struck to see Arabic, the language spoken in Egypt, has also features shared by Ge'ez and Amharic. On the other hand, Oromigna, in which I was fluent, English, Greek, Coptic and Latin, to which I was exposed in school, are neither similar to Ge'ez, Amharic and Arabic nor to each other. Why are some languages similar to each other and others (at least the ones I know) not? I found this phenomena intriguing and worth pursuing. Then, as a student of theology, I was required to take Hebrew, one more language which I noticed is related to the group whose relationship fascinated me, Ge'ez, Amharic, Arabic. It puzzled me, and therefore, I found the phenomena worth pursuing.

Senamirmir:   Your association with St. John's University, in particular its library, the Hill Monastic Manuscript Library (HMML), dates to mid 1970s. What is the mission and achievement of HMML with regard to Ethiopia?

Dr. Getatchew:   HMML is a research institution, microfilming original sources, that is, manuscripts (handwritten, not printed, sources) to make them available to whoever wants to do research. Ethiopia is just one of the many countries HMML is interested in. Its mission in Ethiopia is not different from the mission it has in general. HMML has microfilmed thousands of manuscripts from Austria, Spain, Germany, England and other European countries. From Ethiopia alone it has microfilmed over 8,000 manuscripts from different churches, monasteries, and private collections. Microfilm copies of the manuscripts in the Vatican Library are also housed here. Microfilming in Ethiopia was interrupted when the Derg government misread the motives of an American institution as "taking out of the country our Ethiopian heritage." Yet, HMML is a gold mine for scholars interested in doing research in Ge'ez literature.

Senamirmir:   Is there any cooperation or joint operations between HMML and the higher education institutions in Ethiopia?

Dr. Getatchew:   As I said, HMML is a research institution, microfilming the sources to make them available to whoever wants to do research on his/her own or in connection with his/her institution. This was done in Ethiopia as a joint project between Saint John's University (in Minnesota) and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Actually, the initiative was to preserve the manuscripts on microfilm of His Holiness Patriarch Theophilos. HMML gives copies of whatever it microfilms to the library of the original manuscripts. Therefore, copies of manuscripts filmed in Ethiopia are deposited at the Institute of Ethiopian Studies of the Addis Ababa University, the Ethiopian National Library, and the Library of the Ethiopian Church Central Office. HMML has no other types of relationship with any higher institution in Ethiopia or any other country.

Senamirmir:   It seems that Ethiopia is being stripped of its antiquities with the assistance of few fellow citizens, and the absence of public outrage facilitates the loot. As a researcher who is deeply associated with Ethiopia's antiquities, your thoughts on this would be invaluable.

Dr. Getatchew:   Poverty and necessities for survival are as bad as greed. They are the enemies of self-respect. People are tempted to steal and to sell what is dearest to them when they face death by starvation. Poor Ethiopia is doomed unless something is done to raise the economic and educational standard of its people. One cannot sink lower morally than stealing and selling tabots with the connivance of the custodians. In the present state of affairs, there is no way for the country of controlling the greedy and the endless needy. On the other hand, as sad as the situation is, I get solace when I see some of these artifacts are treated well in their new countries, in fact, heralding our cultural contribution. What is more, it is easier for me, as a researcher, to get a copy of a manuscript, for example, from the British Library than from Debre Damo, or even Debre Libanos.

Senamirmir:   Are HMML's resources accessible? If readers wish to learn more about HMML and its collections, where would they go?

Dr. Getatchew:   Yes, they are accessible. One can come to the Library and read any manuscript one likes, even order microfilm or print copies. We publish catalogues describing the manuscripts in order to help scholars know what we have. For more information, HMML can be visited at its web site
Senamirmir Project, 2001