Interview with Ethiopian philosopher G.E. Gorfu

Ethiopian Liqawoont
Poems, G.E Gorfu

Senamirmir:   Let us begin this thread with this question: what has been the response of Ethiopians to your book?

G.E. Gorfu:   I must say I was very pleasantly surprised. So many fellow countrymen and women expressed their joy and pride in my book. I have received many letters and e-mails of support and encouragement from many people all over the world. For a philosophy book, which is a rather narrow niche, this was far beyond my expectations.

Senamirmir:   The number of new books published by Ethiopians may amount to be a couple dozen or less in a year. As a writer, you have a first hand experience on the subject. Why such a small number?

G.E. Gorfu:   Generally speaking, most publishers are interested in the profit margin of what they publish, and not in much else. If one writes for the American or European market, one needs to write works of fiction filled with sex and violence. These could hit the best seller's list in a short time. Another area of interest: books on cooking. So, because of the limited market, it is very difficult to find publishers for serious books.

Senamirmir:   As of 2001, Ethiopia is said to have only 1 ISP, and 2500 dialup subscribers to the Internet out of 59.65 million people. Neighboring country, Kenya boasts 34 ISPs and 35000 dialup subscribers out of 29.01 million people. To the east, Somalia has 1 ISP and 250 subscribers out of 10.63 million people. Sad to say, our progress is not encouraging! What do you think?

G.E. Gorfu:   This could have two reasons. One is the state of our country's economy and the grinding poverty of our people. But a second possible reason could be the fact that English and the Latin alphabet are not used in Ethiopia to the extent that they are used in the colonized countries like Kenya, Sudan and Somalia. Furthermore, the fact that the present government has curtailed education in the English language until after one gets to the Secondary school level does not help matters much either.

Senamirmir:   What is your view on a complete abandonment of traditional schooling in favor of Western centric educational system?

G.E. Gorfu:   To a great extent, isn't that what we have today in the educational system of our country? And I have no doubt that this is not so good. We need to go back to our root, Geez. Without some basic Geez, our grasp of our history and our languages: Amharic and Tigrinia, is rather shaky. The loss of our language is a precursor to loosing some of our history.

Senamirmir:   Students, from our traditional schooling systems, give back to the society by the way of rendering their services and in most cases by dedicating their lives to their institutions. One would have expected of people who earned their education from Addis Ababa University and other higher educational institutions would give back to the society by way of alumni associations, scholarship programs, and other means. In reality, there is little happening. What does this say about us?

G.E. Gorfu:   Ethiopia, like most developing nations, suffers from 'brain drain,' where its educated children flock outwards at every opportunity they get. This is sad, but it is to be expected. When the educated young people find it difficult to get gainful employment at home, they have to leave the country and look for other opportunities to make a life for themselves. The sad thing, however, as you quite correctly have put it, is when they do not give back something in return to their own people and the institutions that gave them so much. Let me tell you of a very sad moment in my life when I went back to Ethiopia last year after twenty eight years abroad and saw the grounds and buildings of the one time EEC, Ethiopian Evangelical College in Debre Zeit. The Derg regime had taken over the site and expelled the missionaries, and left the place in a very sad state. I want to take this opportunity to invite all former graduates of that college to contact me by email, so that we can revive and bring it back to life. I can be reached at: We need to start an alumni association and rebuild it. If a few heads get together, there is no reason why it cannot be done.

Senamirmir:   To quote from your book, Gorfu Contra Nietzsche: "...Though seemingly week, they [the masses] have carried and supported the strong on their shoulders. They were the ones who made the essence and heat of the fire of life..." How timely this statement is to us! There seems to be a strong tendency to the idea that central authorities are the key to solving every problem. Is it not finger-pointing? Your comment on this: "Those who dream of saving and liberating the masses far too often turn into dictators themselves and are, in reality, wolves in sheep's clothing..." How can we defend ourselves from these wolves?

G.E. Gorfu:   This is the raw material for the tragedy of many liberators. We saw it in the Soviet Union, where the Communist Party - a party that came to liberate the masses from the abuses of the aristocracy - became a separate class all its own, and the most corrupt in that society. No matter how noble the initial idea of rising up against oppressors might have been, it is in the nature of man (as well as in animals) to exploit the weak and the defenseless. It was not from any kindness of his heart, but due to insurmountable world economic pressures and the relentless demand by the masses that Gorbachov was forced to introduce Glasnost, and to open up the Soviet Communist system. I see this as one of the possible ways for the future political development in our country. Unless the basis and foundations of a government are forged in democracy, it does not come in one year or in one decade. It is going to take a long time to get there. And when one party, like the Communist Party, or one institution or group, makes all, or most of the sacrifices in liberating the masses, it naturally turns into the next dictatorship. This is a sad, but natural historical process that we observe in nations and governments as well as in many private companies of the world. Corporate mergers and takeovers are rife with similar examples.

Senamirmir:   In your article published on Ethiopian Review, in 1991, you were critical of Menelik. Now, seeing and observing what has transpired since then, and in previous decades, does it look like we have learned a lesson from him?

G.E. Gorfu:   Criticizing our former kings and emperors is very essential if we are going to learn anything from history. Many Ethiopian historians and intellectuals, however, go with blinders all their life. They will criticize all kings and emperors, but if they are from Showa, they will say: 'Oh, but don't touch Menelik.' If they are from Tigray: 'Oh, no! Never touch Yohannes.' And if they are from Gondar and Bege-medir, they say: 'Oh, yes, but don't touch Tewodros.' This is ethnic affiliation that needs to be overcome. We need to be fair and impartial in our criticism of our past history, and rise above narrow ethnic nationalism. I, being from Tigray, have a great respect and admiration for Emperor Yohannes, for his sagacious leadership, for his diplomatic role in defending our country from invading Turks, Italians, and finally even sacrificing his own life in the battlefield, fighting the Mahdists in Metemma. But I condemn his cruelty against many Ethiopians of Gojam and Wello, especially those of the Islamic faith. I don't condone his religious fanaticism, which rendered him vulnerable to many elaborate intrigues of the clergy, and caused him to be exploited to the hilt by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Why is it that intellectuals and scholars fail to criticize and examine everything in their country and their leaders: the good, the bad and the ugly? We should be able to stay fair and impartial regardless if this or that king or emperor happens to be from our nationality.

Now, when it comes to Menelik, there is no question that he was a great Ethiopian Emperor, the one and only great African leader, who defeated a European colonizing power in Adwa. That puts him in a class all his own, and no one can take that from him. I have great respect and admiration for Menelik. But we need to criticize his fatal decision in halting his army from crossing the Mereb and 'throwing the Italians into the sea.' Many of his generals, including Ras Alula, who wanted to retake his former city, Asmara, begged him to allow them to march forward. Menelik refused and ordered a 'Halt at Mereb,' and even ordered those that had crossed over to retreat. This is unheard of in the history of any victorious army. You never give an order to halt when you have soundly defeated the enemy, and you got him fleeing for dear life.

Menelik, as we have come to learn, had two reasons for this. First, he had entered into secret negotiations to give Eritrea away for a cache of arms. Couldn't he have demanded all the arms and weapons he needed in return for the lives of the captured generals and their soldiers? Secondly, he wanted Tigray and Eritrea split into two parts in order to get a better grasp on the rest of the kingdom. That was based on a political expediency for which we are paying dearly today. I would have given him greater credit if he had risked his throne, even his own life, for the sake of a united Ethiopia, even as his predecessors, Tewodros and Yohannes, had risked and even paid with their own lives. Menelik seems to have calculated that Eritrea and Tigray united in a single province under Mengesha Yohannes,? would be a deadly combination, and would not let him stay on his throne for very long. (To its demise, the Derg proved the truth of this calculation a century later!)

One time, I was discussing this issue with one of those 'intellectuals' that go around with blinders on, when he retorted saying: "Don't you know that we have a saying in Amharic: 'Keras belay nefass...'? Why should Menelik," The 'intellectual with the blinders on' continued. "Why should Menelik have risked his life or his throne for the sake of Eritrea?" That, precisely, is the crux of the matter! Why, indeed?

If you would allow me to bring in Nietzsche's philosophy here, he too, stated: "If self interest is lost, everything is lost..." And we see today, 'Self interest,' 'National interest,' and similar glowing words of greed and self-aggrandizement have taken the center stage in world politics. But this is a doomed principle. As long as this principle continues to be the modus operandi, do you think the West can ever solve the problems of the Middle East, or any problems of that nature? Of course not! It is like treating a cancerous wound with a Band-Aid. Self-interest, in fact, often is the crux of the problem. If self-interest is removed, often enough the problem is resolved.

Once or twice in their lives, great men of history are called upon to do great and historic things that transcend temporal events. For this, they need to go beyond self-interest. The corollary to: 'Keras belay nefass...' is: '"Kemotku wodia serdo aybkel," Alech ahiya.' Any common Ethiopian soldier knows that national pride and national honor are of far greater value than mere, self-interest. Isn't that why every common soldier marches into battle, willing to shed his blood, ecstatic and happy to sacrifice his life for a piece of territory of the motherland? The common bee and other tiny insects know the truth of this. When a bee stings, it leaves its intestines behind, and soon dies. But, its death is a sacrifice for the continued life of the hive.

We see the result of that erroneous decision today. Many Eritrean's who never saw themselves as separate, or different from the rest of us before that split, came to think of themselves as a totally different species of people since then. Even though Haileselassie rejoined the province some sixty years later, many who resided in Ethiopia continued to think of themselves, and to act as foreigners and outsiders among us. I knew some from Eritrea, studying in Addis Ababa University, who went around saying they were there as 'scholarship students.' The sixty years of colonization by Italians, and then the British, had taken their toll, and alienated the hearts of many Eritreans. How can that be repaired?

Even in today's politics, there are those who call for the return of the Port of Assab, and for restoring the Afar people back into the Ethiopian fold. We see now the seeds Menelik planted a century ago coming into full fruition. That is why I criticized Menelik. But criticizing him does not mean that I don't recognize his greatness! I only see how much greater he could have become had he decided to chase the invaders all the way into the Red Sea, even at the personal risk of losing his throne and/or his life. And if he had died attempting to do that, he would have become a far greater hero in death than he became in life, - as all martyrs do, and saved us all the present mess that we have on our hands. His sacrificial death would have saved the lives of all that died in the last thirty or forty years, and perhaps for many more that might yet will die in future, defending that border.

Self-sacrifice is the duty of every good shepherd. When wolves come to attack the flock, the good shepherd does not back out at the most critical moment. (John 10: 11) Isn't it written that the good shepherd gives his life for the sake of his flock? As far as Eritreans are concerned this shepherd abandoned them to the wolves. Now perhaps, we might begin to see and understand the depth of anger, shame, and resentment felt by Eritreans in accusing us, Ethiopians, of betraying them and of selling them off. Yes! We did, - and for thirty pieces of silver! (Or a cache of arms?) And that betrayal is at the bottom of all our troubles with Eritrea today. How can that ever be rectified? Only time will tell.

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