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Boeke | Books > Rubrieke | Columns > English > African Library

The Afersata – An Ethiopian Novel valid and resonant

Annie Gagiano - 2010-06-30

Title: The Afersata – An Ethiopian Novel
Author: Sahle Sellassie
Publisher: Heinemann Educational
Date of publication: 1969
Pages: 288
ISBN: 0435900528

Sahle Sellassie, whose full name is Sahle Sellassie Berhane Mariam, has written novels in both Chaha and Amharic, in addition to several in English, such as The Afersata, a slim text that was published in the Heinemann African Writers Series in 1969, copyrighted 1968 to the author. Dedicated to Sellassie’s father, the text, lively and eventful in style, is an unusual novel which conveys the texture of village life of the Gurage people of southern Ethiopia, rather than having a conventional narrative pattern. The style is episodic and presents the reader with a series of sketches depicting events and personalities, outlining something like a “calendar” of peasant life in this region – an area which is, after all, affected by the modernities of bureaucratic government as these filter down to village life. Despite this, the life of the villagers – tough, but relieved by occasional festivities and luxuries – goes on much as it did in ancient times. At one point, an urbanised relative employed in the national government and his friend visit the village. While speaking mainly in the voice, tone and diction of the rural villagers, the novel complements this with the sense that the deeply embedded, thoughtfully observed and carefully described local existence is being sympathetically interpreted to enable visitors like the urban-based relative, or the reader, to understand how this north-east African community functions.

Sellassie centres his text on the Afersata, an ancient type of communal court, in order to help us grasp the way social life is structured in the thirty villages of Wudma (the region in southern Ethiopia which is the text’s larger setting). An Afersata is called, it seems, in order to try and determine who the perpetrator of a crime is in cases where the villagers have been unable to catch the offender on the spot. It is thus something of an exercise in detection as well as a test of the communal sense of responsibility, rather than a criminal court hearing. Attendance is obligatory for all village men; fines are demanded of absentees, whose absence is regarded as suspect. Villagers are questioned one by one after swearing a binding oath, and the council to whom they give evidence consists of seven elected elders, overseen by the sub-governor of the region as well as his local representative and tax collector (known as the Cheka Shum). If the gathering ends before all the evidence has been heard, a follow-up meeting (and, if necessary, a subsequent gathering) is required – as happens in the novel.

Sellassie’s perspective on what he evokes is rather interesting. While the narrative voice is never condescending or intrusively ironic and distancing, there is an open-eyed, balanced quality to the observations that suggests, simultaneously, a wry awareness of the methodological weaknesses of the investigative process and an implicitly poignant recognition of its vulnerable premodernity and communality. The possible efficiencies of a police force and a judiciary seem dauntingly impersonal by comparison and are, of course, as open to abuse and corruption as the Afersata is. We learn that the villagers fear denunciation by a jealous neighbour which might unjustly name them as guilty of the crime under investigation; on the other hand, since all the locals form one large social web, there is a kind of safety net in the process of checking the testimony of witnesses (who are heard singly and separately) against that of others.

Indeed, the series of Afersata gatherings depicted in Sellassie’s text ends inconclusively, but the reader is persuaded that the final decision is appropriate and just. Even though fingers are pointed at one man (Beshir) known to have committed other, petty thefts by stealing the odd goat from a relative to feed his family, no one is willing to perjure himself by claiming that he saw the act being committed, or was able to provide actual evidence that would conclusively link this man to the crime. As the cover image depicting the village crisis illustrates, the Afersata is summoned because a villager’s hut is burnt down one night, and arson is suspected – as well as the theft of a considerable sum in gold coins, previously secreted by the hut’s owner. The complicating factors are numerous, however. One sensible woman points out that arson has not been proved and that the fire might well have started accidentally; the owner is convinced that his savings were stolen, but is afraid of being exposed as a miser and is hence reluctant to reveal that and where he had buried the money; furthermore, the chief suspect’s sudden increase in prosperity also provides the alibi for his absence from the initial Afersata hearing: he had gone to Addis Ababa to borrow a considerable sum from his uncle (a man who is in government employ). While Namaga (whose hut was burned down) cannot prove that a theft took place, and since no thief has been found among the villagers, the verdict of the Afersata (after it has heard all available evidence and the compilation of a report by the seven elders), voluntarily assented to by the gathered villagers, is that since no arsonist/thief has been identified, all the men in the assembly will be required to contribute a small sum each to compensate Namaga for his losses. This is described as the villagers’ shared penalty for their failure to track down the perpetrator, but is willingly accepted by them as a communal responsibility and as a practical way of avoiding obligatory attendance at an endless series of inconclusiveAfersata gatherings! While enjoying the drama of these assemblies, the villagers do not relish the interruptions to their work caused by these meetings. So, like the novel itself, the affair is satisfyingly concluded, even though it ends inconclusively.

What does Sellassie’s text show us about the life of the Gurage people? We learn about their livestock, which includes cows (providing milk for coffee and butter – drunk in cupfuls or used as “gravy” to meat dishes – as staples); zebu cattle; donkeys; goats and chickens that need to be grazed and fed and protected from marauding hyenas. We also learn about the design of the leaf-walled homes or one-roomed huts in which they live; the crops they grow; the times of endless-seeming rainstorms, and the beautiful, flowery springtime. But nowhere is there a sentimentalisation of rural existence lived (for many) at subsistence level; Sellassie consistently exhibits both the drawbacks and the advantages of rural life. The passage below may be taken as an illustration; it describes the pitch dark time before the first glimmerings of dawn when

... the river snakes, according to children’s tales, were feeding on the shimmering stars, their tails attached to hedges and their heads reaching out towards the heavens; when the village thieves were active digging under the leaves of the mud-huts; and when criminals were killing their own kind and looting their properties. (2)

Both the beauty of the natural setting and the distinctly non-arcadian wickedness of men are noted in this evocation of life in the country. The narrator’s paradoxical, sympathetically detached stance can be discerned in his apparent endorsement of the villagers’ belief that if in any burnt-down hut its central pillar remains upright, the arsonist will be caught. As we know, this belief is disproved despite an immediate, diligent search of the burnt hut’s surroundings as well as the eventual and prolonged Afersata process!  

Early in the novel we learn how uncertain the village information process is and how gossip and mistrust coexist easily with acceptance of authority wielded by the ironically suspected person. The main administrator of village affairs claims a rather illustrious ancestry for himself, widely thought to be a provably bogus autobiography, yet he has quite steadily maintained his village position for more than twenty years. On top of this, he is an outsider from elsewhere who may even have collaborated with the Italian invaders of earlier times! What solidifies his position are his (in this context, rare) literacy skills and his rhetorical gifts; schoolboys (who are taught to write in both English and Amharic), in the view also of the narrator, never attain his level of penmanship. Letters petitioning high officials, as the villagers believe, must be written with a fine flourish. Immediately after seemingly inviting us to smile at quaint village customs, the narrator adds the following, quite tart comments:

The age-old system known as the dedje tenat or asking for favour, an institution that has benumbed the creative spirit of the people, has always been common not only in higher circles but also in the lower echelons. [This] calls for loyalty on the part of the favour-seeker and benevolence on the part of the giver. So as a result a person’s sense of achievement and reward, as well as his initiative and his creative spirit are crushed. (11)

Even theAfersata itself, the narrator suggests, functions as a type of mimicry of genuinely democratic social participation. It allows the under-appreciated artisans – the woodworkers, leatherworkers and blacksmiths, who are referred to as the “submerged class” (15) – to believe that their contributions to society are appreciated, without giving them real powers. The narrator suggests that “material progress stagnated” in Ethiopia precisely because these people – “the creators of material civilization” – were “despised” (15).

None of the women featured in this text is identified by her own name, only by reference to her husband or his role, even though the intelligent way in which several women run their households or manage their husbands is noted. Is the author revealing a bias of his own, or exposing another type of under-valuation that weakens this society? One suspects it may be the latter, but if so, this is indeed subtly indicated.

Another interesting aspect of Sellassie’s novel is how sympathetically he portrays Beshir, the suspected arsonist. On the one hand an improvident sponger, Beshir is also a proud and quite spirited man who refuses to be cowed by the weight of communal suspicion and disapproval. In fact, by allowing us to “overhear” his explanation (to his uncle, a minor government official in the capital, the one whom Beshir visits in order to borrow money to pay his taxes) why he does not practise cultivation more assiduously so as to get more money to pay his taxes and meet his expenses, since generating more income would merely increase the required amount for tax and rent, we gain respect for his shrewd good sense.

Indeed, it is this point of Beshir’s that leads directly to the important, central debate of the novel between Beshir’s uncle and the latter’s friend and colleague concerning the social and economic faults of the Ethiopian land endowment, tenure and tenancy system. First we have a fairly early passage in the anonymous narrator’s voice:

The tenants had no written contracts with their landlords. They did not even have a formal oral contract. The present tenants as well as their ancestors had lived in the villages generation after generation for the past hundred years or so. So the land was sold and resold at various times without the knowledge of the tenants and they were even ignorant of their real landlords. They knew only the agents who lived there and collected the annual irbo [land tax]. (30–31)

It’s a vicious circle: because evicting a defaulting tenant would require the landlord to compensate the tenant farmer the standing crops, “he exacted as much as he could short of chasing the tenant away” (31).

Although Beshir’s uncle makes a few token disapproving noises before lending him money, he understands the problem since he, too, comes from a poor village background.

The uncle, who is named Melesse, yields when a colleague who is also his best friend begs him to take him along on a visit to Beshir’s village. They arrive unexpectedly, yet the friend (who had been prejudiced against the Gurage people, being from Addis Ababa and previously from northern Ethiopia, where a different culture prevails) is impressed at how well Beshir’s household is run. Elsewhere we have been given to understand that this is so primarily because of his unnamed wife’s efficiency! However, the two visiting “dignitaries” (as they are regarded by the villagers) soon begin arguing about the constraints which prevent the peasant farmers from progressing. Melesse (whose passionate eloquence may indicate that his position is the one closest to the author’s own) emphasises how ruthlessly yet insidiously the landed peasantry in Ethiopia have been dispossessed of the plots they continue to farm – not by colonialism, but by class domination and land-grabbing, land-claiming practices allowed and endorsed by the rulers and governors. Melesse declares ringingly: “This country will never become prosperous without a proper land reform [policy/practice]” (53). He argues cogently that establishing industries and factories from which the locals do not benefit – because products are exported for foreign markets and the landless poor cannot afford to purchase them – will not aid or increase local development. His friend hereupon accuses him of harbouring “foreign ideas” (56). Melesse’s counter is to state that so-called interference in government affairs (another accusation his friend levels at his call for radical land reform) is the duty of all responsible citizens.

Again, like the novel itself, the discussion ends inconclusively; yet important points have been made and, significantly, articulated within a peasant hut by someone who has moved away from village life yet not severed his links with and his concern for the villagers.

The next chapter again shows rural life in an attractive light when, during the ancient, pre-Christian (but now “Christianised’) Thanksgiving feast, the Maskal Festival held annually in mid-September, Namaga generously shares out the meat of a large zebu he had bought for this purpose.

The final chapter, which is titled “The End of the Aftersata”, has already been broadly described, but I want to end this account of Sellassie’s novel by citing from this concluding chapter. The quotation I cite is followed by the same speaker (who is the leading elder among the seven chosen to conduct the Afersata) lamenting what he sees as the increase in social breakdown in their villages. He proclaims: “Our villages have become a hiding place for thieves, and for other criminals”, yet that things will only get worse, since they (the villagers) “have totally failed” to track down the arsonist who burnt down Namaga’s hut (89). This dire warning notes a decay in communal morality, but is offset by the beautiful, ritual invocation (actually a non-denominational prayer) spoken by the same elder before he announces the sensible compromise that will bring the present series of Afersata meetings to an acceptable end. In a society which (as the author, through the narrator, has noted) includes not only Christians of various denominations, but pagans and Muslims as well, it strikes an inclusive and benign note in its beautiful words:

May the tongue tell truth. May God give issue to those who have none. May the young ones grow up to be adults. May the adults live long to be elders and to be wise. May the bright day give place to a peaceful night. (88)

This wish may be ironicised to an extent within its setting (both the novel as a whole and the Afersata), as it is in so many other parts of our continent and our world, but its wholesomeness and value as a humane aspiration remain valid and resonant.