I left my office around 2:00 o’clock in the afternoon a little earlier with the intention of attending the funeral service of Artist Tesfaye Sahelu. When I hurried to the Trinity Cathedral positioned around Arat Kilo, the churchyard was flooded with a number of mourners dressed in black head to foot. I could not struggle to control the tears struggling to breaking away from my eyes upon seeing their mournful looks. The left, right and centre of the church were outpouring with mourners who came from every nook and cranny of the capital irrespective of age, sex, religion, race and political point of view. The funeral atmosphere was heartbreaking and tear-jerking.
Most of Ababa Tesfaye’s fans were housed in the church for the love of seeing him off once and for all since most of them have benefited from the legend. More to the point, some of the mourners were hanging around Ababa Tesfay’s pictures around their necks. Some of them were holding a range of motivational quotes in their hands.
As all of us might be aware, most of Ababa Tesfaye's stories and allegories revolved around different animals. His presentation skill was beyond everyone's imagination. More often than not, he played a part in children's programme imitating the voice of different animals as well as making comical sounds and thus he was in the habit of attracting attention with no trouble. He was able to teach a lot of valuable lessons from his stories through his educational stories. This being the case, he taught Ethiopian children how to be good citizens. Without exaggeration, his famous, inspirational and influential works had helped shape and change the Ethiopian children psychologically, socially and emotionally.
Likewise, I kept on patrolling in the churchyard here and there. Meanwhile, when I went to the other side of the church, I came across a middle aged woman sitting burying her head in her hands. She was crying her eyes out. She was less interested to exchange her ideas with anyone. Her situation was tear-jerking. She was shedding tears. In fear and trembling, I approached the woman and stood by her. Though I tried all I could, she was not able to look up. I waited long-suffering until she pulled herself together. As lack would have it, she asked me “What are you looking at?” I did not hesitate for a moment or two to explain everything. In fact, I asked her what her feeling is like following the death of Ababa Tesfaye.
“He was selling his folktales wandering here and there in the capital to eke out a living. He did not have anyone that he could call his own. Whenever he passed by the place where I was working, I bought his folktales over and over again for the love of helping him. He did not deserve this kind of ill-treatment of life as he has contributed a lot for the nation in shaping the entire generation. In due course, after he had passed through many ups and downs, he was able to get different assistance from different bodies. I have the nerve to say, it was too late. I am deeply saddened by the loss that Ababa Tesfaye's family have encountered.”
After we concluded our conversation, I melted into the crowd of people sheltering themselves on the right hand side of the church. Fortunately, I bumped into somebody shielding himself under the church’s cedar. In fact, I could easily read to what extent his heart was broken. Then, I requested what he felt following the death of the legend, Ababa Tesfaye within the shortest time possible. He is a teacher by profession. After we exchanged greetings, he described Ababa Tesfaye in the following ways:
“My name is Gelawdios. I grew up watching Children Programme hosted by Ababa Tesfaye. He has shaped the mindset of almost three to four generation through his folktales. As the Ethiopian television was the only media at that point in time, he was able to make countless children differentiate the sheep from the goat. We were not able to detach ourselves from the TV show no matter what the cost may be. We were nurtured socially and psychologically, among others. He has nurtured many professionals serving the country in different profession through his constant advice. I have the courage to say, he is a movable library and the dish of our knowledge. May his soul rest in peace in the Garden of Eden, near the throne of whom he seeks and loved.”
When I looked around overhearing a scream and whoop de do, I saw from afar Ababa Tesfay’s coffin coming to the cathedral accompanied by a lot of motorbikes and a great deal of mourners. When his coffin entered into the churchyard, everybody was persistently shedding tears. The moment was really emotional. The mourners were expressing their feelings in different ways. I could read remorse from the mourners' face.
When one of the artists read the obituary of Ababa Tesfaye, the reaction of the mourners was heart breaking. Some of them made an effort to swallow their tears while others failed to control their tears rolling down over their cheeks. To cut a long story short, the reaction of the people in the churchyard was tear-jerking.
In fact, the gifted Artist, Tesfaye was born and raised in the then Bale Zone at a place called Kedu in 1916 Ethiopian Calendar. When he reached school age, he successfully attended his primary school there. As fate would have it, when his parents moved to Harar, he ended up joining a certain French school. Then, he came to Addis Ababa at the age of 14 and joined Kokebe Tsiba School. He was working very hard with the purpose of becoming somebody especial tomorrow.
One fine day, he grew to be sick and hospitalized in a certain hospital. As he was a very sociable person, he was able to make a number of friends. When he became well again, he did not want to distance himself from the hospital given that he learned everything with no trouble. He was always eager to learn new things and achieve the intended target. In the fullness of time, he set in motion taking care of patients. He interrupted serving there facing different kinds of problems in the hospital. After that he started working as a waiter. At that point in time, he was excellent at imitating people. He also discovered his talent for a ventriloquist, acting by imitating people.
Evidently when fascist Italy marched into Ethiopia, they were slaying countless Ethiopians as they were as cruel as death. Among them, Ababa Tesfaye’s mother and father were one of them. As he lost his parents at an early age, he was forced to pass through many twists and turns to make ends meet. Life was an uphill battle for him without his parents. Fortunately, the Addis Ababa Cultural Centre was recruiting talented artists. He was dreaming of joining the art world ever so often.
As luck would have it, Ababa Tesfaye got the chance and made his dream come true in a little while. To everyone’s surprise, he was able to win the hearts and minds of the general public in a little unleashing his miraculous talent. As a child, he was fortunate enough to be in different parts of the country and was able to learn the culture and folklore of the different nations, nationalists and peoples of Ethiopia.
By the same token, after he joined the National Theater, he had played a part in a number of stage-plays. Above and beyond, Ababa Tesfaye was able to act in more than 70 theaters such as Hahu be sadist wer, king odious, Alula Aba Nega, Dawit and Orion, Othello, the Ugly Girl and so forth. He had a long successful journey. He served his country as well as the general public for many years in his profession. He had a deep affection for his
profession more than anything under the sun. He spoke about arts from time to time.
More often than not, he was in the habit of saying, “Art is my father. It is my king and my bread. I am revere art. I have a high opinion of art. I am a captive of art. I am a prisoner of art. Nobody could detach me from art. I only distance myself from the art world only when I close my eyes never to open them again.”
He was a vocalist, dance teacher, television programme host, song writer, an artist and what not. He as well was excellent at playing the Begena, flute, kirar, Mesnko, Piano, Accordion and Trumpet in addition to producing five story books for Ethiopian children.
At the time when the Ethiopian television was established, he came up with the idea of incorporating children's programme for all Ethiopians and got the go ahead. His efforts soon began bearing fruit within the shortest time possible as his approach was entertaining. His presentation skill never ceased to amaze citizens.
Ababa Tesfaye speaks different languages such as Amharic, Oromigna, English, Italy and French and what have you. In the history of Ethiopian drama, he had well played the character of a female for some years given that there were no actresses at that point in time. He was able to play female characters in a number of stage plays such as Gonderew G/Mariam Afageshign, Tele Shachuwa, and Yetegibet Asalafi and many more. To the amazement of many, he took care of the cosmetic work by himself.
Ababa Tesfaye did not get a financial return. But luckily he was showered with the public love. He has been to Korea, Egypt, Japan, German, Sudan, and other countries to this point. He has been awarded a gold watch three times from Emperor Haile Selassie on different occasion.
When Unity University graduated its 34th batch on 29 July 2017 at the Millennium Hall, it awarded Ababa Tesfaye Honorary Doctoral Degree taking in to account the contribution he had made for this country in his less-trodden walk of life. As he was on his deathbed he received the degree through his daughter-in-law Woinshet. She was one of the attendees at that point in time. The instant she received the award, she hurried to Ababa Tesfaye who was waiting for her. Vying with the angel of death she got into the house and put the medal around his neck within the shortest time possible. She only wanted to please Ababa Tesfaye. He did not utter a word for sometime. He kept quiet. The pleasure he felt defy description.
Sooner or later, Ababa Tesfaye said, “My children! I am very happy at this moment in time. I am the happiest person under the sky today. I am sure this is going to be the last prize in my life. I could not get any other by any means. You know, by our very nature, after we human beings discharge our duties and responsibilities on the planet earth, we go to meet our maker. It is mandatory as no one is immortal.”
Regarding the honorary doctorate degree everybody was very happy. Nobody expected Ababa Tesfay would depart this life all of a sudden. At the end of the day, he closed his eyes never to open them again at the age of 94. He was laid to rest on 2 August 2017 E.C.
Words cannot describe this writer's feeling. He tenders his condolences to the entire family of Ababa Tesfay!
BY ADDISALEM MULAT