Historical Event that Transcends Fiction

Part of the popularity of the recent superhero movie, Black Panther, exported from Hollywood to Ethiopia, is the view that it tells the story of Ethiopians. Wakanda was a fictional African country that was never colonised by European powers, as Ethiopia was never colonised. But the latter's history is noteworthy in its own right and needs no embellishments, writes Ambessaw Assegued (assegued@anfilo.com).

Although Zeleke Belew, a refined, slender and white-bearded man in his eighties, always clad in traditional white garbs, perennially claimed to be a veteran of the Battle of Adwa, no one in the neighbourhood really believed his story.

The neighbourhood, just above Afencho Ber in Addis Abeba, along Weizero Yohanis Road, was then mainly settled by the landed aristocracy. Zeleke’s vivid and flowery recounting of the march to Adwa and the events of the battlefield were enjoyed by most because his stories were part and parcel of the community.

His tale of following Ras Mekonen from Harar to the battlefields was doubtful, but his stories evoked true and captivating images of warriors and their followers passing through the narrow mountain passes, crossing flooded rivers, charging cavalries, engaging in quick tactful skirmishes, and sniper-firing breech-loader rifles. The story of the battle of Adwa is a story fit for the giant silver-screen if Ryan Coogler, director of “Black  Panther”, ever needs an original film idea.

In the meantime, there is no need to fret about the fairytale movie “Black Panther” telling an Ethiopian story without giving credit to Ethiopia. “Black Panther” is a soothing narrative for people robbed of their history and land. Our story is still intact. Regrettably, however, and unlike Zeleke of Afencho Ber, some of us have grown shy and forgetful of the past, and present-day storytellers are fearful and selective in the telling of stories.

No amount of Hollywood’s embellishments and special effects will ever emulate the story of the Battle of Adwa, though. The obvious comparison between Wakanda, the fictional country in the movie, and Ethiopia is that Ethiopia has evaded colonialism successfully and has remained independent throughout its long history.

Perhaps, as a February 27 article by the Washington Post writer, Paul Schemn, seems to suggest, it was Emperor Haile Selassie’s 1966 visit to the United States, a “spectacle of African royalty claiming centuries of lineage,” that influenced “Black Panther” creator Stan Lee. Whatever the case might be, the critique of some that “Black Panther” does not give credit to Ethiopian history is puzzling.

The movie, according to Schemn, is “a big departure from the usual Hollywood action films showing here, with their white heroes saving the day.”

But that is not the story of Ethiopians and Ethiopia.

Why agonise over a fanciful construction of an imaginative story that bears no relevance to the real thing?

The tale of a peasant army marching to meet its colonial enemy needs no embellishment and enchantments from Hollywood to turn it into an epic narrative. The story of an enlightened and just Emperor issuing a simple call to arms is the stuff of legends, not fiction.

“O! people of my land, I do not think that I have been unjust to you before, and neither have you failed me,” read the proclamation of Emperor Menelik II, calling his countryfolk to join him in his fight against the Italian invasion of 1896. “An enemy has crossed our God-given frontiers with the aim of destroying our country and altering our religion. Now I ask all of you who are able and strong to come and help me. If you are sick and infirm, give me your support for the sake of your children, your wife, and your faith. But if you connive and stay behind, you have quarrelled with me, and I shall show no mercy to you.  I swear by the Virgin Mary that I shall accept no intercession for you.”

The Emperor calls his nation to arms, and an exodus of people joined him at the appointed place. Menelik’s army was made up of the wives, children, servants and families of his warriors who walked north on their march toward the battlefield.

Here is a movie script of passion, strength and truth by a real people and a real Emperor. This is a story made for an epic tale and needs no staging of the facts. The story of Ethiopia’s victory against a coloniser at the battle of Adwa is not clad in caricatures of mysticisms; it is the real thing.

Despite all the attempts by storytellers and commentators to cast the victory at Adwa as an African narrative, it remains an entirely Ethiopian story that has relevance only in the national context. This does not necessarily mean that the spectacular event at Adwa does not have global consequences beyond the borders of the country. It may well be true, as well, that it has encouraged the Pan-African movements of Marcus Garvey and the freedom struggles of Nelson Mandela.

Be that as it may, the great glory and triumph of Menelik is an Ethiopian ethos that has moulded and shaped characters, worldviews and sensitivities in the modern era.

No people can arrive at history and nationhood simply through the lenses of movie cameras like “Black Panther.” It takes the toil and sacrifices of ancestors to bestow upon the people a free and clear entitlement of land. What is bequeathed is not only the territories, the waterways, and all the resources upon the land, but also the stories of legends, told and retold by generations.

Zeleke, the great storyteller of Afencho Ber, was part of that tradition of oral storytelling. His counterweight in the neighbourhood was a certain Zenebech Kassa, the proprietor of an Ariqe Bet, a pub that serves a traditionally distilled alcoholic drink, who kept his stories in check. The banter between the two would often result in heated arguments that spilt out into the street, drawing everyone around into the squabble. The great march to battle and the triumph at Adwa were never in dispute, though, only Zeleke’s role in it.

By Ambessaw Assegued

Published on Mar 10,2018 [ Vol 18 ,No 932]



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