46th Post: 4th ETHIOPIA – The Laureate of Ethiopia

[From contemporary African diaries]

Funeral in Addis Ababa

 1995 August: Wednesday

6 20pm: Hailu arrived. I set out the props and gave one last boom of speech in the restaurant to get the sound level right. It was a 9pm start but the audience would start arriving at 7pm. There was a buzz in the air from the hotel staff. Crossed fingers time.

Waited in the bedroom with Hailu. He had taken to calling me ‘Titley’ under the impression that this was my first name. A waiter came in to see if we needed anything. Hailu asked him how to work the TV. He fiddled with the controls for a while but the screen remained blank. The waiter turned with a disarming smile and shrugged his shoulders. He said that they were probably not broadcasting this evening.

8 20pm: Asked Hailu to leave so that I could go through my ritual half-hour of make-up, costume, voice gargles, etc. It was a very useful way of building up concentration for the show. The watch beside me marked the countdown to 9pm. Felt some first night nerves.

 9pm: (And now Africa entered the equation). Standing by the door, tensed and ready, twitching for the call. A knock on the door – it was Hailu.

“The audience haven’t finished their dinner yet. Can you wait till half past nine?”

Damn it!

“OK”.

Changed mental gear and re-tuned my head to 9 30.

9 15pm: Hailu burst through the door:

“It’s on now! Now! Quickly, Titley!!”

Tried to mentally adjust a second time. Hailu was hopping with anxiety, before rushing off again.

In full evening dress and cloak, I strode along the corridor. Reached the foyer and received a bow from the doorman. Positioned myself behind a screen and peeped through to the restaurant – about ninety audience. Took a few deep breaths and waited for the cue of ‘Cavalleria Rusticana’. The house lights dimmed and I tensed up.

Suddenly I realised that a tape of Stevie Wonder was still playing ‘For Once in My Life’ over the main speaker system. Bloody Hell! Peering through the darkness I hissed at a waitress to turn the damn thing off. Thankfully it died away.

Magoo Thatcher sauntered past and smiled. “Good evening. How are you?”

“Never been better” I grated, the nerves were definitely rattled by now. Still no bloody cue.

Then Hailu appeared. “How are you, Titley?”

“Marvellous. Get the tape on, for God’s sake!”

He looked vaguely puzzled, then nodded and disappeared again. Still nothing happened. The expectant hush of the audience had now dissipated and the hum of conversation had risen. A nuisance because it meant that I’d lost that opening initiative. Waited another two minutes. Then Hailu’s head popped around the screen again.

“Did you mean that you wanted the music right now?”

“YES!!!”

I resisted the instinct to throttle him. He disappeared. Then I realised, too late, that there was some sort of laser display screen contraption right over my stage area. It was sending out a non-stop advert message for one of the hotel attractions:

‘GOOD……..SAUNA………..ENJOYABLE……. .RELAXING. .. . CHEAP…….GOOD………SAUNA……..ENJOYABLE…..’

There was no way of stopping it – I was going to have to perform with that blasted thing flashing out over my head throughout the show.

At long, long last, I heard the strains of ‘Cav. Rust.’. Tightened up and strolled slowly out on to the stage. Reached the table, picked up the Oscar photo and bellowed out the first lines to silence the audience. The stage lights came up on time, thank the Lord. Looked around – oh hell – far from it consisting of the expected ex-pats, 90% of them were Ethiopian. Even worse, there were eight children in the front row – the worst possible audience members.

Trundled on through the first, hopefully comic, section. Not a twitch from them. No response at all. My voice was strained from the initial bellow. Also, with no laughter to punctuate the text, I automatically went faster, which in turn meant they had even less chance of understanding it.

Performed the ‘fire in the theatre’ story – usually a good laugh line. Here I might as well have been reciting a prayer for the dead. This was going to be a real bugger.

Out of the corner of my eye, caught a glimpse of the ‘SAUNA…..GOOD…RELAXING’ sign flashing on and off – in what was meant to be an 1890’s Parisian café.

Out front, the waitresses were delivering coffee to the audience – the only sound in an otherwise silent room. As I reached the ‘Narcissus’ story, I became aware that one of the waitresses was standing beside me on stage and offering me a cup. Well, I bet they never had this to contend with at the Royal Shakespeare Company. With a resigned smile, gave her a shake of the head and tried to get back to the script. Carry on regardless.

Suddenly, there was a half-suppressed snigger. Hallelujah, there was someone out there who knew what I was on about. Despite this, things looked grim. Not even the American stories got a laugh, apart from at one table at the rear stage left. I started to deliver the punch lines there.

Reached the tragic jail sequence – about five people decided that this was a good opportunity to visit the lavatory. However, I managed to get them still and attentive by the end. Got a couple of genuine laughs at the last two jokes. But still nothing from the large Ethiopian section. The stage lights faded for the final speech and I hit it rather well. Then fluffed the last bloody line – never done that before. Blew out the candle and slowly walked off stage. Subdued clapping as I took the bow. I returned past the desk receptionist – grimaced to her and drew my finger across my throat. She laughed.

Tigrean tribal gathering, Ethiopia

10 10pm. Bedroom. Well, I’d had worse. South Woodford, for example. But oh dear – oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.

Hailu walked in: “Too great”. (‘Too’ means ‘very’ in Ethiopian English.)

He looked downbeat – I thought it was because of the show but it turned out that it was because his bus was leaving in ten minutes and he couldn’t have a drink. Arranged to meet him the next afternoon and he left.

Magoo Thatcher arrived: “Too good.”

He asked if I would come with him to meet the owner, Moges Kifle.

Source of the Blue Nile, Ethiopia

We returned to the restaurant. Kifle was aged about forty, a smart, sophisticated, tough cookie. He had two advisers beside him – one was a broad-shouldered, muscular man who I thought was an accountant but doubled as a minder; the other was an ancient gentleman who one could quite easily imagine as a village elder squatting outside a mud hut. He was dressed in a wildly ill-fitting suit, but still clutched a long tribal staff. A quite bizarre group.

Kifle and myself eyed each other and talked – he was a world traveller who had been in Singapore, Cairo, and Bangkok all in the last six months.

Then Magoo Thatcher let slip the information that my show would have to start earlier tomorrow at 7 30pm as they had a ‘folkloric’ dance group performing here as well. Eh? Dear God – Africa.

Of course, nobody had mentioned that I was double-booked with an Ethiopian dance troupe before. In England this would be regarded as a major planning catastrophe – here, nobody turned a hair! Tried to explain that my audience would not know when the show started at this short notice. The Old Man of the Mountains shook his tribal staff and intoned solemnly:

“They will know.”

I fixed a compromise that I would start at 8 and perform through the latter stages of dinner. Jesus, how does anything get done in this country – two different time systems for a start!

Kifle said: “This is a proud moment. The first one-man show in Ethiopia.”

Well, I suppose it was – but what a bloody way to start. Mentioned that I was worried about the lack of laughter tonight. Magoo Thatcher winked:

“It will be all right.”

Hmm?

11 45: Kifle’s group stood to leave – much handshaking. Returned to the bedroom, sat amidst the debris of costume and make-up, and opened a beer. Just have to see what tomorrow would throw at me.

Africa – although it was temporarily irritating, I rather liked its nonchalant incompetence. I was going to have to take this whole trip one day at a time.

 1995 August: Thursday

6am: Woken by a sting on my arm by an unidentified insect. Damn. Dozed off again.

8 30am: Breakfast in the restaurant – nodded to Peter Lorre who was eating cornflakes in a corner. Slight hangover this morning, although I only had five beers last night. Glanced through the newspapers – Lullett Michael had written a surprisingly accurate article about the show in the Monitor, and had given me a larger spaced headline than that accorded to the political adventures of President Clinton or Prime Minister Major. Eat your hearts out, lads.

Checked out the other main paper, the Ethiopian Herald. This was the official government paper and exceedingly dull – mostly articles condemning corruption. There was a touchingly worthy feel to it though.

11 15am: Another reporter arrived at the Ibex – this time a small grizzled man with a pockmarked face. He was Aleneshet of the Herald, the very paper I’d just been reading. He was a bit over-intense, and I was feeling tired – could not really concentrate on manufacturing bon mots at this time of the day. Reeled out the usual spiel – in any case the article would not come out till after I’d left the country. He did give me some information on the local arts scene and said that I should meet Tsegaye Gebre-medhin, the Poet Laureate who was currently in town.

Noon: Bedroom – leaned out of the window sill and watched large buzzards circling on the air currents above the hotel. Christ, the show wasn’t THAT bad! Had lunch of pasta.

2pm: Hailu arrived with his cousin, a pleasant but silent man, aged about thirty. Together we found a taxi and drove along the Bole Road into central Addis, passing ramshackle concrete housing blocks and the occasional slab of government buildings. Only the odd house, usually an embassy, had any architectural style at all.

The city was crowded – drove along Ras Makkonen Avenue, then through Revolution Square, large and bare. A toppled metal statue of Lenin lay on its side half buried in mud – one leg and most of the torso had disappeared for scrap. Once more a case of ‘Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair’. Shelley sure nailed that one.

Jubilee Palace, Addis

We climbed out of the cab and started sight-seeing. Some of the objects decorating the main square sent mixed messages. On top of one building there was a Coca Cola logo. Fair enough, given the recent triumph of quasi-capitalism. But then in another corner of the square there was a building with a large Red Star on top. Strange that the capitalists had not removed such an obvious symbol of communism? Then in a further corner there was an aging statue of the Lion of Judah. Strange that the communists hadn’t removed such an obvious symbol of the Emperors? Maybe the Ethiopians were just sentimentalists?

Tsegaye Gebre-medhim

Hailu suddenly stopped and gave a shout of welcome to a man across the street. We walked over and I was introduced to the very person that the Herald journalist had told me about this morning. It was the Poet Laureate Tsegaye Gebre-medhim.

He was an odd looking character for Addis – mirrored shades, pork pie hat, very approachable, very hip – he would have fitted more into New York than here. We shook hands and he said:

“I know you are an actor just by the sound of your voice.”

We chatted on – this was a man I would have liked to get to know – his eyes were both sceptical and lively at the same time. He agreed to come to the show if he could.

As we walked on Hailu told me something of Tsegaye’s life. He was a star pupil who won a scholarship to the USA to take a law degree in Chicago back in the 1950s. Having visited and absorbed the atmosphere of the London and Paris theatre world, he returned to Ethiopia and became Director of the National Theatre in 1960. His heart lay mainly with the lives of the common people and, realising the usefulness of Shakespearean plays for making political points, he translated much the Bard into Amharic.

However, it was his own plays that got him into real trouble; firstly, upsetting the Emperor Haile Selassie, then Mengistu’s Marxists, finally the emergent capitalism of the present leader Meles Zenawi. Having been briefly Minister of Culture in the Empire, he ended up in prison under Mengistu. Tsegaye estimated that out of his 49 plays, 36 had been censored at one time or another. It dawned on me what an honour it had been just to have met him.

As we walked into the Central Post Office, we were stopped by armed soldiers. They frisked Hailu and his cousin, but not me. That was odd? Once inside, I asked to buy some postcards. The counter clerk looked puzzled but, prompted by Hailu, went off to shuffle through a drawer. He returned with eight dog-eared photo-cards of Addis circa 1960 – the only ones they had. Conclusive proof about how few tourists they were getting, even post-war.

Caught a people’s taxi back to the Ibex Hotel.

Village near Addis

Next week on Tuesday April 24 – an encounter with a Somali war lord – and a real surprise.

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