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Saturday, March 11, 2006

Passing of a Poet Laureate

Tsegaye Gabre-Medhim, Ethiopia's poet laureate, died on Feb. 25 in Manhattan at the age of 69.

A fascinating man, Tsegaye passionately believed that literature could change lives of both people and countries. His poetry and plays promoted a respect for cultures and a desire for a national unity that would bring about stability to his homeland of Ethiopia.

Tsegaye began writing at a young age and wrote his first play at 13, a play that was performed at his school and which counted Ethiopia's final emporer as one of its audience members. Later in life, he would be the artistic director of the Ethiopian National Theater and would found the theater department at Addis Ababa University.

"It was Tsegaye who initiated a new style for Ethiopian drama," says Jane Plastow, a former professor of theater at Addis Abeba University, in an interview with Ethiopian Review. A style that was "serious, highly poetic, but most importantly, no longer concerned with Church morality and the exploits of the aristocracy, but with the evils of life as experienced by the poor."

Because his poetry was often political in nature, it was often banned by political groups in Ethiopia and he was once thrown in prison without charges.

He wrote more than 30 plays all of them in Ethiopia's official language, Amharic. He also translated such writers as Shakespeare, Brecht, and Moliere. He was fluent in many African languages and in English.

In 1998, he moved to New York to receive treatment for kidney disease.


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