Every nation has its heroes and heroines to celebrate, whereby it instils pride and self-respect in the mind of its people. Ethiopians also have national icons that they revere most.
Some were kings or queens in the past who led the country in good and bad times; others were brave fighters and military generals who sacrificed their life while defending the country from foreign invaders, or revolutionaries who fought selflessly for democracy, justice and equality. The statues we erect in the capital and regional cities witness this fact.
Ethiopians claim to love bravery and have an enduring affection towards those who have died bravely. Reading or listening to stories of national heroes and heroines has the power to unite, to increase emotional strength, and to motivate one to fight with courage and perseverance for freedom and for what is right.
Since the history of the country has been dominated by internal and external conflicts and wars, most of the time, bravery and heroism are the words people use to mention figures in connection with politics or war only. But, there is something which is missing; something that is worth the highest recognition and which can shape generations for good.
It is about those who questioned and challenged the centuries-old cultures and beliefs, like the 17th-century philosophers – Zera Yacob and Walda Hiwot.
Why forget those who bravely brought reason, scepticism and enlightenment into this land by the time one had to choose sides or put his life in peril of death?
Are they not heroes? Do they not deserve statues on squares?
Are their thoughts not as sharp and as important as the history of the swords of the kings and warlords?
One can find the statues of Confucius in China, a statue of Rene Descartes in France, or a Statue of Immanuel Kant in Germany. But in Ethiopia, there is none. People do not honour those who dare think.
Today, a child can say some words when asked about Emperor Tewodros II or Alula Aba Nega, which is good in itself, but may know nothing about Zera Yacob or Walda Hiwot.
Clearly, for some, Zera Yacob and his disciples’ philosophy may not be the best subject to sympathise with, or one may not have the motivation to read their treatises, but iconising these philosophers can motivate generations to labour on their thoughts and embrace rationality.
It would be essential to pay particular attention to those Ethiopian scholars. First, it would help learn how to be a sceptic and how to use reason to investigate whether something is true or not. Zera Yacob’s systematic inquiry had started with doubting all that was written in the Holy Scriptures he was reading. He said, “What will tell me other than what is in their hearts?”
Therefore, he started his investigation as he concluded, that “No man can be relied upon.” “Their heart is curdled like milk … because they assume what they have heard from their predecessors and they do not inquire whether it is true or false,” he added.
Second, it can help embrace hard work. In his meditation, Zera Yacob had always told himself, “I ought to work to the best of my ability for the things necessary for my life – prayer alone is not enough.”
Third, from the story of Zera Yacob, people can learn about voluntary marriage and love and respect to women. When Zera Yacob asked to marry the maidservant of his master, the master agreed and said, “Hereafter she is not my maidservant, but yours,” to which Zera Yacob replied;
“I do not wish her to be my maidservant, but my wife; for husband and wife are equal in marriage.”
Fourth, it might be important to take some lessons about how to live a prudent life. From the treatises of Zera Yacob and Walda Hiwot, one can see that their lives were full of love, honesty and happiness.
In his treatise, Walda Hiwot eloquently puts about how to live wisely with love, a good name and avoid calumnies, anger, and foolishness.
Their wisdom could be a source of enlightenment, and their statues a source of national pride, and could sprout an era of reason.
I conclude by quoting Walda Hiwot’s timeless wisdom: “As a mouse spoils with its teeth fine vestments of great value, but is not nourished with them, likewise the human tongue, that destroys a good name with calumnies gets no advantage from the calumny … as hail destroys the corn, but as soon as it falls loses its violence, so does calumny which falls from the mouth of men: at the same time it disgraces one’s fellow man and ruins the calumniator.”
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