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“Yezare Abebawoch, Yenege Frewoch”

Farewell to an icon 

Renowned storyteller, Tesfaye Sahilu, a.k.a. Ababa Tesfaye passed away on July 31, 2017, at the age of 94. He died a week after he (through his daughter-in-law) received an honorary Doctoral Degree from Unity University – a recognition that is believed to be too little too late by many. For many, Ababa Tesfaye was a father figure, a teacher, an educator, an entertainer and a patron of good will in society, writes Samuel Getachew.

There is no personality in Ethiopia’s popular culture that has had more impact on generations of young Ethiopians than Tesfaye Sahlu a.k.a. Ababa Tesfaye. He was an iconic figure to millions and his influence was generational passed from one to the other. On his passing and a reflection of a life well-lived, his life was lived in the public arena and he was a fixture to youthful dreams and ideals. He will be missed.

During times when there was no alternative TV channel for children, he was the only and the right choice for every family to watch. His common words “lejoch yezare abebawoch yenege ferewoch dehnanachu lehoch” “Children today, flowers and tomorrow’s seeds!” is still engraved on the heart of every Ethiopian adult.

On his passing, he is rightfully being remembered positively by those who watched him on Ethiopian Television for four decades and more. Not just the last decade that saw him struggle and have his brand diminished from public view. But again, he made an impression in earnest and his memory to a significant number of Ethiopians – his gift to his nation was hard to forget. He was said to be heartened when he was fired from ETV, for not correcting a child on his popular children’s show, for using a word that was derogatory.

He should have. He was human. He made a mistake. But the punishment was too much to handle for all of us, who watched from afar.

Rightly, he was considered by everyone across the aisle as a person of high moral integrity and one mistake did not change the narrative of the man. When he talked on TV, many children assumed that the renowned story teller was actually talking to them as they were watching him on TV. He wanted his performance to be a conversation and he succeeded. He was considered as a member of that family to most. Every child tried to abide by his rules and parents saw him as a role model. Whenever a child misbehaved, there were parents who resorted to him for advice.

With little pension and savings, he became like the vast majority of Ethiopians, ordinary when he departed from ETV. He was not. He was an extraordinary gentleman. He personified what Jamaicans often say – “Walk Good”. He did walk like the lion he was, but there was a crack to the giant – as he could not sustain a fast dwindling life. The exceptional storyteller and occasional magician, he was laid to rest loved and respected in front of thousands of people, his fans and his children.

After learning of his passing, many said that they wished they had attended and bid their personal final farewell, but they did not. They should have. They needed closure from a rich childhood memory he provided.

The perfect orator, the 94-year-old Ababa Tesfaye was born in 1924 in Bale, in a small village named Kedu in the Oromia Regional State. He knew how to tell folk stories from the heart, and he hoped it was a great Ethiopian tradition worth preserving. Everyone agreed.

“These endless stories come from my family, community and deep love of my country. I had this great, urge in sharing stories with children,” he once said.

This made him a Griot in the African sense, which transferred Ethiopianist morality to the coming four generations. However, he lost his father, Ejersa Bedane during the Italian occupation and he was an adult even as a child. The aspiring artist was forced to mend for himself in earnest. He did all kinds of odd jobs but theatre became his gift, his calling.
However, even at a young age, he travelled throughout Ethiopia with his father.

In the historic Harar, he saw as local entertainers performed for his family. He was inspired and he loved what he saw. He wanted to follow in their footsteps. These local entertainers had a profound influence on him as a professional performer on his later career.

As an artist, he went to South Korea and discovered the great Charlie Chaplin and he understood his impact to children.

He became a pioneer in the theatre, taking part in more than 50 productions. He was in the Yoftaye Negussie, Afachechegne, Kermo Sewe, Othello, Tewodros, Ha Hu Be Sidist Worh, Yazawentoch Kebebe and he also played in the production of Oedipus the King and in dozens of productions at the National Theatre.

He was discovered by ETV, now named EBC (Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation), as one of its original members of a children’s program (YeLejoch Kifle Geze). He was a natural fit, as Hallelujah Lulie of the London School of Economics said; he became “our childhood’s greatest moral compass”. He sure was.

He spent almost half-a-century with ETV). For the last decade of his life, his life was shrinking. Fans saw him; as he sold books to supplement his income by selling books in the open – refusing any neither charitable gesture nor donations – and saw his quality of life suffer. He rented his house, as the pressure to live an ordinary life became a challenge and lived in a small compound at the back.

He repeatedly apologized for his shortcomings. The man that was once a larger than life personality mirrored inside a TV screen became a vulnerable citizen forced to sell books on the streets rather than the elder statesman citizen he was. He departed as a broken man. To a man who made us a better citizen that was our collective shame.

He was laid to rest at the Holy Trinity Cathedral on August 2nd. He is survived by three children and nine grand-children. During his life time he received Gold medal and gifts from Emperor Haile-Selasse I three times. In 2002, he was bestowed with a life time award and was recently awarded the ‘Bego Sew’ prize for his outstanding contribution as a multi-talented artist in theater, music, television host and for his rounded personality.

He deserved more.