Yes to Geez please, again

Godofai Tgiorgis
June 29 2010

Thanks to many of you who sent me an encouraging letter and suggestions to continue advocating for the return of Geez. I am glad to learn that there is still an audience that is concerned with preserving the culture, the traditions and the language that we overlooked as oldies. Although we have lost many without knowing they are valuables, the fact that we have people who work to prevent that instills hope that we can manage to retain those values that are on the verge of disappearance through our united and concerted efforts. All we need to do is start the initiative which I hope is possible at the universities.

As I expected, I also have gotten many responses and comments that suggest otherwise. The river of the cynics is full of cynicism that most of them are entrenched on the impossibilities. Immersed in the dark all they want you is to share and foster their dark thoughts, that it is impossible and that it is not acceptable. Some objections come from those who believe that Geez is too incomplete and too old. Others come directly from those who believe and see themselves as completely alien to Ethiopia and consequently, Geez. And the echo one hears from both corners is that it is impossible. I will come back with replies at another time to the first group but for now it is to the second, that is, those who object Geez based on hate and imagined fantasy that I am set to confront. I want to show them that Geez, as well as Ethiopia, is not as alien to them as they think it is. And that learning Geez is possible.

We need to bring back Geez and make it our official language before it is too late. As some correctly noted, it is a dying language, a dying heritage. We will have enough time for our rivalries but not for Geez because once it is gone, gone will be, with it and forever, the heritages we pride ourselves. That is, we cannot afford to sit idle while our timeless treasures are disappearing in front of our eyes. Therefore it is important that we realize the urgency and act now while we have the time and opportunity in our hands. At least we will have and be able to pass it on to future generations.

Why do the naysayers object retrieving back or making Geez an official language? They are saying no not because Geez has no merit or it fails to fit in as an alternative. They are saying no not because it lacks the qualities we attribute to other languages. They are saying no because of one and only one reason: HATERED and MISTRUST they have on one another as a tribe or a region. There is no particular culprit to point at. All who play and played a regional and national role in Ethiopia and Ethiopian politics are included here.

Hatred is the reason but behind the root cause to all the clauses of hatred also lies the malpractice of our administration and politics and their institutions. Political and administrative inconvenience that each group experiences are the hub of all the discontents we see now. The system was corrupt, the system was biased, the system was oppressive and it therefore gave and continues to give rise to resentment and conflict among these groups, which I believe is legitimate.

Injustice and inequality we suffer at the hands of the rulers is therefore the prima facie cause of our discord and that hampers our unity as Ethiopians.

The suffering and conflict are not limited to certain region or tribe as some want us to believe. With the exception of minorities that have small population the main ones had a day both to inflict and sustain a pain. Sometimes it is the South (mainly Oromo) and the Tigray People at the hands of Amhara, sometimes it is the Amhara and the Southern people at the hands of Tigrayans and other times it is the Amhara and Tigray at the hands of Oromo. The degree may vary and the power may shift from one to another but the rivalries remain still. And it is this conflict and rivalry and the hate that originates from it that has become an obstacle to our progress and also now the return of Geez.

This problem is prevalent in times of peace and when it comes to working and growing together only. Instead of cooperation, hatred that drive the rivals to the extreme and an isolationist view reigns. Simple things take huge place and therefore there emerge different sorts of fantasies. The separatist movement we saw in Eritrea, the liberation movement we saw in Tigray and Oromia etc. are the direct consequences of these charged emotions. The highly sought after facts that would justify such extreme hatred are not there but their artificial substitutes were and are effective enough to let us stand opposed and break the values and bonds we had and have in common. It is this hatred, this phobia of the other that we see spilling over to Geez also.

Otherwise the rivalries that hamper the united effort so much during peace time get overridden when the nature of the conflict change from internal to that which threatens the nation. When an external threat is imminent, all is forgotten and all is forgiven and the arch rivals huddle together and march to battle. The seemingly irreconcilable contradiction melts away mysteriously and the people fight side by side and give up their lives to guard their nation. The regional border that each demarcated as a hideout to fight the other now as barricade, as mutual fortress. Surprise? That is Ethiopia and that is how it went for centuries.

If asked whether we have conflicts of interests, I will answer yes. And different languages? Again, the answer is yes. But if asked whether that implies that we are sworn enemies, my answer is no because no matter how hard one tries, the facts are not there that confirm otherwise. I am not going to go to length to explain that. I will leave that to the elders and highly qualified scholars. But this much I can say. No matter how and to what degree we conflict, we belong to the same people, the same family who lived in the present Ethiopia for centuries. No matter how different we feel or look we are thus Ethiopians. This is a fact we have to underline.

Why are we chewing on our differences instead of working on what we have in common then? It is because we created and live in the world of our imagination, a different one that is, and we do not want to lose our sphere of influence of that region we consider our prerogatives. Because we value high what we enjoy as an individual, in our private world as chieftain, than what we do together as a nation, we thus, prefer to remain in isolation, surrounded by a hate driven mountains. And this mountains and borders perfected for personal protection are what has become a challenge to our unity and return to Geez.

Let us read Mr. Miftah Nurbenur’s comment quite a perfect guard of those mountains.

“Sir/Madam you are an extremely naive (which I hope!!) person who likes the best for his country or an extremely dangerous person who tries to trap innocents in to supporting his subliminal political/religious agenda.

Let's see each of them separately.

Case 1: naivety,

You seem not to really understand what it means to be an Ethiopian , for people who live in different part of Ethiopia and who grew with different ethnic , cultural and religious background. I am afraid, you are one of those Addis Ababan’s whose horizon of “Ethiopia” only extends up to the outskirts of the Capital city. With all due respect, I would say, you don’t understand what the Geez (Like Amharic) symbolizes for those in the deep south and deep west and east of Ethiopia. You consider this language the source of "pride" for "all" Ethiopians. You don’t seem to obviously understand how a Muslim/ Protestant Ethiopian feel about Geez. But most importantly you don’t understand which Ethiopian ethnic/religious group really claims to be the "owner" of not only the Geez language but Ethiopia itself. How can one trust a hyena, ones bitten by it so badly?

I am not an Oromo, but I understand how the Oromo's are trying to ascertain their conomic/political/ cultural existence by trying to make their language an official one. Just like you said, even the most illiterate Oromo would tell you that it is not about being the majority in number that Oromos are moving to make their language to have an official acknowledgement. It is b/c of the existing harsh realities of Ethiopia, not only in the past, but also even today there is a very dangerous threat from ethnic supremacists (especially Amhara) who regard their culture and religion is superior to other’s and it should be considered the Identity of the whole of Ethiopia. My friend, it is not that we the Southern, Eastern and Westerns Ethiopians (Benshangul, Gambella, Oromya, SNNP, Somali, Harar and Afar) hate "your" languages (Tigrigna, Amharigna or Geez) that we would not want to consider them as "our" own language. But it is "you" who are tramping/ abusing our dignity by making fun of our accents and by trying to dominate our cultural/economic/political benefits by taking advantage of the languages that we agreed up on to communicate with you just for the sake of our national understanding.

Case 2: Dangerous person.

if you are one of those Shoa-Amhara/Ultra-Orthodox supremacist dinosaurs, let it be clear to you. TPLF/OLF actually did not directly fought the Derg regime itself, they were fighting the supremacists and the Derg was merely the figure head!!! The next time you try to build back a political system and Hailesilase-style repressive government up on Ethiopians, which advocated for Ethnic& religious supremacy (Orthodox/Amhara),not only you will fail but you will end up tearing this country apart over night. We are not going to fight another 17 year of Gorilla fight!!!!

So, I think the best solution is that, Oromiffa should be another official language as long as the Oromos agree to the fact that we want the main federal Language (Amharic) will become an official language too in their own backyard (Oromiya). And let the Geez (our “pride”) rest in peace in those old Orthodox monasteries. The same thing works for Somali, Tigray languages ... etc..... That is the rule of Give and Take.... peace!!!”

The Oromos do not need an advocate for what they know is their right. They are well versed in finding a way for that. If they need one even, it is not going to be a fox in sheep skin. They need someone bold who speaks out in the open. But whether an Oromo or not Mr. Miftah’s point summarized appears like this: the Southerners do not need anything that is Northern. All they symbolize is repressions and pain. They are not welcome in the South because the South does not have hand in their generation whether this is culture or Geez.

Mr. Miftah's comment is not without merit however. Life in Ethiopia and for every Ethiopian has never been the same and equal. Some had the upper hand and controlled and manipulated the economy. Others were simply the sufferers. And those who had the upper hand were from the Central and North while the South not only did not have access but also were oppressed heavily by the apparatus. This, as I said earlier, is the direct result of the weakness of the administration no matter who controlled it. And I do not blame Mr. Miftah and others, who experience the problem first hand, if they harbor such emotion.

However, the question is, should this be a reason for the Southerners to deny anything that is Northern, and for some, that they are Ethiopians? My answer is no. Does the donkey, to use his terms, who is bitten by a hyena have to run away forever to nowhere for a shelter or face up the beast and be counted as one among its peers in a nation of multi animals? It better opt for the second because a stranger donkey in a stranger land is a sure thing to become an appetizer. We can fight for power or justice and demand what is legitimate and I do not have a problem with that. What bothers me much is disassociating oneself from what is one’s own. For me, this does not make sense. In fact it is foolish because instead of bringing a solution all it does is give the other party an opportunity to continue exercise its abuse.

We need to find a better a solution. And the first step to that I believe is to accept reality about ourselves. We have to accept that we are Ethiopians first. Then comes the fight for one’s right whether through violence or peaceful means. There is Ethiopia a framework to work with and then there is a cause to fight for, as citizens, regardless of the means. Mr. Tola Gemechu’s argument can be taken as a perfect example of this.

“I totally disagree with your suggestion of making Geez an official language of Ethiopia. Are you telling us to learn new language? Why? Let me tell you this: we all share the spirit of Ethiopia and we all are proud of being Ethiopian. But, Geez is not part of us all. I grew up in the south and the south has no clue of Geez. Geez is the sole property of Amhara and Tigray.”

This is one step forward to mutual understanding because the fight is not on who we are but on what we should have as a nation. And I am for that.

That said, Geez, as Mr. Tola pointed out, is the brain child of the north. It was born there. And I do not think it is something that one should be ashamed about. Quite the contrary. Ethiopia (including the South) should be proud that a language as refined as Geez is born in its soil. Geez is its mark, the fruit of its children, one that makes them stand tall all the times. The North is Ethiopian and anything that is Ethiopian also belongs to the South including Geez. Period. Not knowing Geez and not knowing Geez as an Ethiopian language is different. The first needs exposure and the second... Mr. Tola’s argument that South does not know Geez and therefore does not need it is invalid because it is up to an Ethiopian to know its roots including Geez.

As we all know, coffee and the use of coffee was invented in the south by the South. And if their arguments hold, I am told not to be proud of that coffee which is from South because I am from the North. I do not know if I am naïve or dangerous but I do not see any common sense in this. And as for me, I proudly tell anyone that I belong to the original Kefa coffee growers. I tell them that I am from the land of the origin of coffee. What else is there to be proud of other than being known as the pioneer by the remarkable discovery of one’s peer? I still tell them, with the at most air, I, both as an African and Ethiopian, am from the land of coffee and correct me if I am wrong.

I also tell the same thing to those who ask me about my relationship with the Oromos and the land of Oromia. I tell them yes Ormoia is in the South and has, of course, a language and dance style (which is very similar to Amharic by the way) that is different from the North. They did not have much to be happy about the past treatments as citizens but that aside, I tell them, there is nothing much that sets us apart. I tell them we are one. Yes there are some who want to be seen as alien but that is, I tell them again, the product of anger than a fact. Leave alone Ethiopia which is their land, I tell them Geez too, no matter how they want to distance it as alien, is their property, their byproduct, their language.

Thus I tell them that the argument of the Southerners against Geez from the premise that the South is not North or the South is not Ethiopia does not have an iota of truth because the fabric of the unity and oneness is more than hate can explain. The extremists can dig for more to prove they are the other. But, I tell them, what they will dig out from the soil of Oromigna and the soil of the south in general is the bones of the sons of the south and north mixed together. I am sure there are not going to be new surprises. That is what was there and that is what is there.

Again Mr. Tola and again back to Geez. “Why would the others take Geez as another new language? What is Geez to the Oromos, Sidamas, Kembatas, Somalis and many others? We already have Amharic, and for the sake of inclusiveness and rationality, we can add Afan Oromo as a second official language which I believe is legitimate. What do you think? Which is easier, teaching all Ethiopians Geez or making Afan Oromo the second language which already at least 25 million Ethiopians speak?”

Geez to the Oromos or Sidamas is as Oromigna to Oromo and Sidamigna to Sidamas. But if that is not the case then Oromigna likewise is nothing to the North, Sidamas and other nationalities in the South. And God knows if the minorities in the South are willing to accept Oromigna as their official language because it is from the South. That said what Mr. Tola and others did not understand is Geez is not about a language choice, majority or location. Geez is about a common will and common obligation. Geez therefore is not fit for any, be it from north or south, language comparison because it is about preserving our past and history which I believe is also the past and history of the Southerners.

Those sages who look at us down from high above the skies of Ethiopia, however, are sorry to see us fighting over Geez or any other Ethiopian language. Such fight is time spent for nothing because from their perspective what is good for Ethiopia is not Oromgnia, Amharic, etc, or Geez but English. Yes, English. According to Mr. Gudaye Tasisa and others English is the best pill that will cure the ills of Ethiopia. If I may add a rare one.

Hi Mr Godafi,

I read your piece in Aigaforum regarding what should be the national
language of Ethiopia. I have seen also a response to your suggestion.
I suspect you are really not serious in suggesting a dying language
that is hated by at least 2/3 of the population (all Muslims, and
members of the "Cushitic" ethnic groups). Geez could work for Tigres
and Amharas (though I doubt it either group will embrace it to any
degree). What Ethiopia should have used as an official language was
a language that doesn't "belong" to any of the ethnic groups-- such as

Here is another note from Gamsale embza for English. Just read.

“This I am sure will create a bad feeling to sneak it that way even though that may not be your intention at all; Note that how the Latin alphabet was introduced in Ethiopia in 1992 as a reaction to oppose Amharic. If you really believe in a peaceful-coexistence with less friction on languages why not suggest English which neutral even though not ours. It has a lot of advantages (good for future generations communicate with world, as neutral as you can get, very advanced for the sciences and expression in general); suggesting it is not likely to create any negative feeling from anybody.”

Finally we got people who cannot envision nationalities in the context of Ethiopia but have the vision to see Ethiopia in the context of the world. That is good and a step forward to internationalism because we too are the World. But cannot we be one with Geez? According to them, the answer is no because English is equated with peace and anything Ethiopian and Geez, with conflict. And anything that is marred with conflict is not fit for the world. Therefore any language that is Ethiopian, they tell us, should not become an official language. I do not know if this is a solution but I know for sure this is a no joke suggestion.

In Ethiopia where every native phrase or word is accompanied by English in every speech to show modernity, it will not be unusual if we see some of ‘the educated’ show a big heart for English. That is the only means they see will help them gain and retain a status as an “educated class”. But what took me by surprise was to see Mr. Chekol A championing the same argument. The surprise is not the claim but the energy and time he spent to validate the need for English in his community, the Agew/Awis.

In his article titled “English Instruction Medium for Primary Schools in Indigenous Agaw-Awi…” he has to say the following.

“… Awi primary education in the language of birth is hindered by several problems. The result of this ailing process is inevitably undermining ongoing rehabilitation, risking the survival of Awi as a distinct ethnic community. In order to evade the stated undesirable outcome, the Agew/Awi’s unique social context has to be taken into account, of course, ensure sustainable community rehabilitation. For that intension, the English instruction medium is favored in the present recommendation, first for the reasons discussed above, second not to use any of adjacently spoken languages as the instruction medium to minimize its negative impact on identity, third raise generation fluent in English for better academic performance, and fourth withstand hypocritical behaviors from any direction. At the same time, actions proposed in this recommendation section hopefully implemented to facilitate Awi language rehabilitation, so that it can develop to a higher level. For the stated objectives, I humbly recommend zonal, regional and federal government to take the following measures in collaboration.”

An Agew/Awi for English! An Agew/Awi that gave Ethiopia a gift of wonders forever for English! An Agew/Awi that gave Amharic so much to its dance and music styles treating Amharic and Geez as aliens! An Agew/Awi the very original of the origins who made Ethiopia, Ethiopia, opting for English! And all that because few from the Amhara, or any, made fun of the Agews/Awis! What a correlation? What a vision? That is me expressing my emotion but there are four main points Mr. Chekol stressed as reasons why he opts for English.

The first is the need to ward off influence, the second the need to rehabilitate and the third the wide access to resource and finally the promotion of good academic performance. Because of these four reasons Mr. Chekol advocates English be used as an official language at the local level among the Agew/Awis. If need be I will come back to these with more explanation but for now I believe the following short comment will suffice to show that his is not the right choice.

Yes the Agew/Awi has been mistreated badly by the ruling classes in the past. They have been treated as second class in a country that they built from scratch. Their language was weakened and often times they were picked for insult for speaking Amharic with accents. They did not have chance for education and other privileges that the country gave to the very few. They were almost forgotten and everyone with sober mind will admit the plight of the Agew/Awi was more than words can explain. Like the other ones this too is a grave sin of the past we have to atone as a nation.

Many things have to be done to redress past wounds and damages. The poverty has to be alleviated, the education has to be expanded, the language has to be taught in classes and encouraged to be used in offices, etc. Every right they have to have, every wealth the country produces they have to share. This is a must do if, as a country, we are to progress. The question then is do the Agew/Awi need English to have this? The answer is no.

English might be effective in warding off Geez as an alphabet And Amharic as a language but I really don’t see how it provide social cure. English, for that matter any language, has, as far as my knowledge is concerned, neither the ability nor the power to foster rehabilitation or understanding. It is the people, in this case, the Agew/Awis who have the keys. I am not underestimating the pressure minority languages face from the dominant ones. It is no less an enemy and is one of the biggest contributing factors that let minority languages decline. What I am saying is the solution to the development of Agew and the language of the Agews/awis (0r others) does not lie in the use of English but in Agew/awi and the Agews/awis.

Too many times people of a minority decent are picked for the language they speak, the feature they look, the cloth they wear etc. And this definitely creates a resentment that one cannot forgive easily. But this practice is however not case specific. Any Ethiopian, regardless where he or she comes from and to whoever tribe he or she belongs to, has a name. Everyone has something to say about the other and no one is immune here. Take the Tigreans for example. How many insults and vulgar comments do the extreme elites of Amhara shower them with on daily basis? It is countless. But the Tigreans did not and should not and will not renounce their identity because of that. Ethiopia simply is not the monopoly of the Amharas’.

To ascertain one’s independence and equality is not that easy. Where there is a lot of bias and corruption and tribal rivalry embedded in the institutions, there will always be injustice to witness which can come in different forms and degrees accordingly. Whatever form it comes as however we do not have to remain silent to it. We have to say no and we have to fight it. The fight can sometimes be ugly and costly but if that is what it takes then so be it. And to do that we do not need to borrow a foreign identity. The courage and morale we have as Ethiopians is more than enough to handle the challenges. And I don’t think the Agew/Awis lack this.

There is another objection to Geez that came from the corners of religion. Short of explicit language, some representing themselves as Muslims, tell us that Geez is not welcome by the Ethiopian Muslims because, according to them, Geez is only for the Church and Christians. The Muslims have nothing to do with it and therefore, they advise us, to keep Geez away from them and leave it to the monks and in the monasteries. Preaching for Geez to become an official language is an insult on the religions that are not Christian from their perspective.

Religious intolerance is not one of the characteristics that define Ethiopia. Take Judaism, Ethiopia has offered more than shelter to the Jews. To Christianity, Ethiopia has welcomed Jesus and the Mother. And take Islam, all we have to ask is the sons of the prophet or consult the Koran. To all Ethiopia has stretched its generous hands when they needed it badly. Thus, Ethiopia and the Orthodox faith that portion of the population follow transcend any kind of religious sectarianism. And Geez, being an Ethiopian, too transcends that sectarianism and has every right to feel at home among the Muslims. It is a home grown language of their forefathers. Ostracizing Geez as an alien and Christian only is therefore a fool idea of the fools who do not know how they got into Islam to begin with. Even without that, Geez is a national treasure and far and beyond what we believe in.

The idea behind objecting Geez as Christian by the Muslim extremists has another implication: courting Arabic to become their official language. The idea behind this idea is that not Geez but Arabic is the language of Muslims. It is here where their confusion starts and if there is anything to be clear it is therefore this notion.

One of the problems that we should not opt for Arabic is the same reason we put for English. We have plenty and we do not need to borrow. The other thing is that it is a threat to the culture and norm we grew up with. The Arabs care less for the other community of Muslims as Muslims than they care for the expansion of their language and cultures. That is what we need to be aware of. For those who believe otherwise, there is a hard fact they have to face. What surprises the Arabs is not that the African became Muslim but how a Muslim of an African decent (an Abid) can be named after the prophet’s. Added to this is that with Arabic comes not freedom but slave masters and servitude. If this does not sound right all one has to do is ask not the Kafirs but the Muslim brothers and sisters who made it safe home from the Middle East.

Having said that let me now comment on the last comment by Ato Getachew Reda. Worried of the complications and possible resistance by the Amhara community, he suggests Amharic to stay as an official language. Not only that I have also got some comments from the Amahara community defending Amharic, the status quo. They see the revival of Geez as the declaration of war on Amharic. Some even have suggested that the move for Geez is a deliberate war launched to maim the influence of Amharic. But that is not true. Amharic can stay as Amharic and Geez as Geez. And the question is not whether to destroy Amharic but whether we can bring back Geez. Hate should not have nor needs to have any place here.

Because of the biases and mal administrative practices people witnessed, it is difficult not to assume the existence of hate. It is therefore normal to see those emotions (hate) that spill over from it now and then directed against one another. The problem however is not to have hatred but the degree. It is going too far. And none of them are exception. And such attitude is killing not only our country but also our own unity at the local level. It is just a disease we have to find a cure sooner than later. We cannot simply stack with hate and hope for a progress. Poverty is our enemy but hate mongering is no less.

That said however, there is one thing that I want to remind those who could not feel anything but hatred. The hatred they unleash or are poised to unleash is not going to be easy cost wise. Unless they follow the virtuous path even to dismantle the things they hate, the consequences we will face as society will be immeasurable. There is no win win situation here. A slight misstep will only bring mutual destruction. Yes destruction not only to who are targeted but also to those who ignite the fires. No one is safe here.

There is one more thing they should understand also. As much as there were perpetrators of injustice from the North or the Center, there were also people who fought alongside the Southerners and shed their blood to dismantle that injustice. The fight of Southerners for freedom and right was not a one man show. It was and is the fight of all Ethiopians from every corner. Yes, it was the fight of all Ethiopians from every corner. That too is what we need to remember. That is what we should capitalize on. “The one who forgets who helps him during a storm does not remember the storm” says a West African proverb. And we do not need to be that.

This is not to say that the South does not have any role in Ethiopia and Ethiopian politics. Ethiopia did not make it this far because of the struggle and sacrifice of the Center and the North alone. The South too has always stood by Ethiopia’s sovereignty and its independence. The southerners are not strange to spilling their blood to defend the country. They have marched in every war Ethiopia fought and stood guard in every border. They have shined in every victory it secured. And this is not a charity or a generous alliance from a foreign born. It is a duty of a citizen. And this is what the extremists should have but failed to learn. And the same thing is true with Geez. Geez is the blood and bones of their ancestors.

We do not need to linger on old wounds embedded in the language, religion, region, etc., divide generation after generation. We have to bury those old memories once and for all and start fresh to a new destination with a new direction. And the argument for Geez should be seen from this perspective. But even the argument for Geez is only valid if we unite ourselves first as Ethiopians. Only if we do that can we say yes to Geez and also for all languages that are ours. Our problem is not language or the use of it but the bad ideas behind these languages. And it is these destructive ideas that we have to fight from start to finish. Only if we clear this do we see the need for our unity and also for Geez.