A moment with a veteran journalist

Yacob Wolde-Mariam, a renowned journalist, has been in the business since the middle of 1959. Though he went to London to study electrical engineering, he quit this and came back home to become a teacher here in Addis Ababa and Naqamte, his birthplace. Following his career as a teacher, he joined the media sector and eventually served as the first Ethiopian Editor-in-Chief of The Ethiopian Herald. Yacob, who took a two-month journalism course in Budapest, Hungary, also served as editor of the monthly Menen magazine, the Voice of Ethiopia, and the weekly Addis Reporter, Yekatit quarterly and as senior advisor to the Ethiopian Herald. Currently, he is working as a senior editor at The Reporter where he has been based since the inception of the newspaper. For this 20th anniversary special edition of The Reporter, Neamin Ashenafi sat down with Yacob at his home and discussed a range of issues with him. Excerpts:

The Reporter: Let's start our discussion with your childhood; where you were born and grew up, your elementary schooling and so on?

Yacob Wolde-Mariam: I was born in Naqamte on June 19, 1929. My father had gone to Debre Libanos and to Zequala. He was educated there, and returned to Naqamte with the first doctor to work there. That is Doctor Erik Soderstrom. My father was sort of an interpreter for him and he was well educated for his time. He was church educated and he taught me Amharic at home when the Italians arrived here. After the Italians came, and around 1937, I joined an Italian mission school. Since I had already learnt Amharic, I just ran away from home and joined the school. I was educated at the Italian school and stayed there for some three years, and when the Italians left I had to restart again and there was an evangelical mission school established in 1941. I joined the school then. I was there from 1941 to 1944 but then the government didn’t want the mission school to operate and they ordered the schoolchildren to join the government school. It was called the Teferi Mekonnen School, and I joined that school. Before long there was an examination coming from Addis to join the first secondary school which was opened in Addis Ababa in 1943 by the Emperor. The school was called Haile-Selassie I Secondary School (Kotebe). I passed that examination and came to Addis around March 1945. I joined the school the same year until October 1950. Having passed the London Matriculation Examination by September 1950 with distinction I was sent along with seven students from my school to London. That is about my childhood and education.

Was being raised in a rural area and moving to the capital difficult and challenging? How do you recall your first days in Addis Ababa? 

Even electricity was new to me as we were living in darkness there and flashlights were introduced by the Italians. Electricity was not there and the telephone was not operating, although during Menelik's time there was a line installed in most of the provinces of Ethiopia. The first light I saw was in Ambo. You know it used to take seven days by truck to come from Naqamte to Addis particularly when it was the rainy season. And I spent that long journey, of course, in the company of students. So I was not traveling alone. But the first time I was brought here was by my own cousin. He brought me here, but during the vacation we used to travel together with Li j  Fikreselasie (later Dejazmatch) and his party who were members of  a feudal rulers of Wollega and sometimes it took us from three to seven days to reach Naqamte. And then the Italians had built a road from Addis Ababa to Sire, something like 50 kilometers from Naqamte, and the track will take us there and from Sire we used to walk the remaining distance to reach Naqamte. That is how life was at that time. Now you can leave Addis in the morning and get there at noon.

Why were you sent to London for tertiary-level education since the University College of Addis Ababa had already started?

The University College was opened later in February 1951.

After passing the London matriculation examination with distinction you told me that you went to London. What were you studying?

I started studying engineering; some of the brightest students especially from our school were sent to study engineering because Ethiopia was lacking in educated people, especially engineers. For those who have been sent to London to study electric engineering, the scholarship was paid by the Ethiopian Electric Light and Power Authority. That is how it was financed. So I went there, and to be enrolled in engineering one should first pass an examination called advance level and I was then registered at the Kingston-upon-Thames Technical College in South London. I studied there for two years and passed the advance level in mathematics, physics and organic and inorganic chemistry. Then I joined the Imperial College of Science and Technology in 1952 to study electrical engineering proper.

From engineering to journalism. How did that happen and what was the turning point?

After I entered the Imperial College of Science and Technology I faced some difficulties. Coming from really primitive part of Ethiopia where we were not familiar with mechanical things it was difficult for me to get accustomed to things. Engineering involves so much work with machines and so on and I found it very awkward. I was studying only theoretical subjects and I was disappointed and all my efforts were directed to reading and I read a lot of books and my interest shifted to literature. So I ignored this engineering course and I stayed for some two years at the college. I couldn’t do it and they told me to come back to Addis Ababa. There was an appeal to the emperor so that I would go back to continue my studies in another field and they promised me they will send me back to study theoretical subjects like physics, mathematics or something like that. They said that if I study theoretical things, I will be coming back and will start teaching. So they suggested that I should practice teaching. By then Amha Desta School was a model school taught only by Ethiopians. So I joined the school, but one day I went to the Director General of the Ministry of Education and said I needed some money. That was before I got employed. They used to give us pocket money, something like 300 birr. He asked me what I did with the money and I said I drink and also smoke. He then asked me why I smoked and drank. They were under the illusion that I was sick or something like that. They called a certain Swedish missionary who knew my father and was also at the meeting. I got angry and I just banged the door on him and went out. He hated the resentment against him. So from that time on I was dropped from the scholarship list. They said: “You are still sick and wait for another year.” After that whole incident, I got married and spoiled my own chance of going back to London.

So you did not go back again?

No I didn’t go back. I taught at Amha Desta for two years and asked to be transfered to Naqamte. My parents were there and I went there and taught for two years. I also had some problems there with the authorities. At that time Prince Mekonnen Memorial Hospital was being built and they were asking for monetary contributions. Somebody was sent to Naqamte and we were called to a meeting with the governor and they said we have to contribute money to build the hospital and indirectly they were saying that we should contribute our whole salary. I said I would give only 10 birr. “What do you mean by 10 birr?,” the officials asked furiously. They said that I was conspiring against them. I didn’t like the reaction. So I immediately came back to Addis. I knew some electrical engineers here with whom I had studied. I had a talk with them and they said that my study in London was financed by the power company and that I should come and join them. Subsequently, I submitted my resignation to the school and that is how I joined Ethiopian Electric Light and Power Authority.

You were in London for some time, trying to study engineering, getting back home and you became a teacher both here and in Naqamtee. How did the young Yacob turn out to be a journalist?

I used to read a lot of newspapers, the best newspapers in London. There was The Observer and The Daily Telegraph – the later was a Conservative paper. There was also a very good paper called The Manchester Guardian at that time, now known as The Guardian. There was also a magazine called Post and on top of that I used to read a lot of literature: Shakespeare, Russian and French literatures. By the way, one of the tests I took to ioin London University was French (and not Amharic). I also used to read books about journalism and whenever I read a story I asked myself how it was really written. That was how my interest in journalism started. When I came back and became a teacher at Amha Desta School I started a newspaper for the school, and at Kotebe we also had a magazine called The Spark. It was half in French. The first article I even wrote was in French. We had a magazine printed in English and in French but I used to contribute in French. So what I mean to say is that I had an interest in journalism even from my days at Kotebe. And then there was Ms. Silvia Pankhurst and her New Times and Ethiopia News. She had started this paper during the fascist aggression of Ethiopia. I also contributed to and had written an article for that newspaper. I remember it was during the so-called Mau revolt in Kenya and a British really were committing atrocities that and the theme was that the civilized country shouldn’t perpetrate such atrocities in Africa. So I started a newspaper at Amha Desta and I went to Naqamte and started a newspaper for students there.

How did you join The Ethiopian Herald?

I joined the Ethiopian Herald by accident. I was in Jimma in 1959 stretching electric lines, high-tension, five thousand volt electric lines along the road. There were trees on either side of the road and there are electric poles, steel poles, to be fixed and then there are shops and when trying to fix somebody complained that it is on his doorsteps. “Why do you spoil my freedom to trade?” And then I went to the other side and the other side was the governor-general’s office which is just near the road and I told them to cut down the trees because the trees and the electric lines could not go together so that electric poles could be erected there. The moment we started somebody from the governor-general’s office came down and said, “You just leave this place and go to the other side”. I couldn’t move because once you move it then somebody else would come and complain. So when they couldn’t do anything about it, they complained to Seifu Mahetemeselasie in Addis Ababa, and he said, “You must come back immediately to Addis on board the next airplane”. I came and he asked why I did that. I said I had instructions, and then he said that I was a strong-headed man and ordered me to leave everything and come back to Addis. When I came back I had friends who knew David Talbot who was the editor of The Ethiopian Herald. It was a time the newspaper was turning to a daily paper at the end of 1958 and it was looking for journalists. Until 1958 the The Ethiopian Herald and Addis Zemen were weekly papers. They became dailies because of the establishment of United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) here. My friends said go to Dr. Talbot and ask him for a job. I went there and he said that he will give me some examination and suggested some subjects and said that I should go home and write an article and come back with it. I said I will write it down right there. I started writing and he also gave me a French version of Yezareytu Ethiopia and told me to translate it into English. He was very happy with the result and immediately told me that I was employed. That was how I joined the Herald.

After joining the Herald, how was the vibe, the working condition, the newsroom and your interaction with other journalists and who were the prominent journalists in those days?

There was Dr Talbot who came to Ethiopia to help it with some Afro-Americans in the early 1940s. Ethiopia had no educated people then. He came here and he was at first a teacher at Harar; at that time the editors of the The Ethiopian Herald were a British citizen and then an American. Finally he came here and became the Editor-in-chief of the Herald after they had left. So when he became an editor of the Herald it was a weekly. When I became the editor of the Herald, it was a daily and the prominent journalists were Negash Gabre Mariam, Ayalew Wolde-Ghiarghis. Seyoum Ayele and Ghion Hagos. These were the four prominent journalists at that time. The last two were reporters, very good reporters. So those were the prominent journalists in the Herald at that time. Of course, there is not much to be reported at that time but once they did it they were reporting in style. They report about the Emperor. Mostly the reporting was connected with the activities of the Emperor. I worked there for two years and some months. I joined it in August 1959 and left it in November 1961. By the way Negash and Ayalew, two fresh graduates in journalism from the US had joined the paper in the middle of 1959 and they both agreed that I should be chairman of the board of editors. In September 1959, Ato Made-Mikael Desalegn, the vice. Ministre of Information, who had loved my writings appointed me officially Acting Editor-in-Chief of the paper. 

Why did you leave?

It was immediately after the attempted coup d'etat by Brigadier-General Mengistu Neway. After the Emperor was restored to power rumor was circulating that General Jagema Kello was going to stage another coup. So people were rushing to schools to pick up their children. They were frightened. And I wrote an editorial in the Herald saying that if the government had disseminated the correct information properly then all these rumors would not have circulated. At that time, Dejazmach Girmachew Teklehawariat was the Minister of Information. There was Homer Smith,  the editor of English section of Menen magazine. He was also an African-American. He quoted this editorial of the Ethiopian Herald and sent it to the Associated Press and said that the cause of the rumor in Addis was lack of information, according to the paper. AP circulated it all over the world. So Dejazmach Teklehawariat was furious and said that I was blaming the ministry for not giving proper news. He was a kind person. However, he told me that I was dismissed not because I lacked the ability but because I refused to follow orders. By that time Tegegn Yeshawerk came to replace me. Of course, I have written so many anti-American and anti-colonial articles and the embassies were not happy, especially the Americans. I believe they were behind the effort to remove me from the Herald and to plant their own man there in the person of Tegegn Yeshawerk. He was pro-American and that was how I left the Herald. But later one day, Dejazmach Girmachew, who happened to be an honest man, met me at a car parking lot at the ministry and said, it was Smith who  was responsible for all the trouble and said that I should go and work with him and after six months he will be sent home. I went there and worked with him for six months and he was eventually sent home. He went back to America and I became the editor of Menen magazine. And then in 1978 Bealu Girma was head of the Ministry of Information. We met there and said we should establish a regular quarterly magazine. They suggested it should be called Yekatit. Gedamu Abreha was the person who suggested that the name should be Yekatit. And it started around February 1978. That magazine has been there until the 1990s. I was the head of the English section. So I became an editor of the magazine until I left the Ministry in 1993. And then I went to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I was transferred to the Ministry by Negaso Gidada (PhD). Negasso wrote a letter which said that I should be transferred to that Ministry. But before he wrote that letter, Tekeda Alemu (PhD), from the Ministry, summoned me to his office and said that they wanted me to come to the ministry because they wanted to start a magazine. He asked me if I was willing to work with them and I said that I was. Then Negaso wrote the letter that transferred me to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. By then I was only about nine months from my retirement. So I worked there until June 1994 as a regular employee of the ministry. Finally the time for retirement came. I was to leave public employment because I had served ten more years after retirement age. I worked till I was 65. So they said that I should be working there on a contractual basis and I worked there for five additional years and in 1999 the contract expired and higher authorities refused to renew it.

What was your role at the Ministry?

Editing diplomatic articles, which were written by experts. I just correct the language. That was my only role. I didn’t write anything else. I just edit articles submitted by officials there.       

How did you start working at The Reporter?

I was still working at MoFA when the organization was established; originally it was not only Amare Aregawi who established it. Meaza Birru and her husband, Abebe Balcha, jointly owned the paper. When it was located in Wello Sefer they disbanded and took their share leaving Amare with the paper. So she suggested that I join the newspaper. At that time the English was terrible. The computers were new to the people, the spellings were really terrible because people were not used to typing English and had so many difficulties but nowadays things are almost perfect. The office of The Reporter was near the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, just behind supermarket in Kazanchis. It would take me some ten minutes or so to edit something and go back to the ministry. That is how I started and then I used to contribute weekly articles. Though I was not initially an employee, I was a contributor and editor of articles submitted by reporters.

If you were there from the inception of The Reporter, how do you evaluate the evolution of the paper in the past two decades?

At that time it was such a small paper, full of mistakes but you can't believe how much it developed over the last two decades. It is really a miracle because nowadays you have very good writers and it is edited by others as well and it is unbelievably a big newspaper. The contents are very good. For example, your interviews, longish and substantive articles are up to standard. In addition, the editorials are always suggesting something. However,  newspaper should not only focus on criticizing the government; it should also suggest ideas. The only fault I find is that they are only concerned mostly with what the government is doing wrong. It could be done better.

You were working with three successive regimes in Ethiopia as a journalist, starting from the imperial regime. How do you evaluate the evolution of the sector in these three regimes?

When the Emperor was around you cannot criticize the government. What you can do is take a paragraph and write what the emperor says and through what the emperor said criticize judges and officials. This was what the emperor wanted and should be done in such a way, you suggest. You can’t criticize the imperial system. During the rule of Mengistu Hailemariam, it was unimaginable to say anything that does not go in line with the ideology of the party. But that doesn’t mean you can’t write anything. If you go through Yekatit magazine, you realize that I was writing on different issues. I mean you don’t have to write about communism; but you can write about so many things around you. Now you are relatively free, but sometimes the freedom is abused and it is no wonder so many newspapers have ceased to exist. You must be able always to exercise your freedom responsibly. I was writing various articles in The Reporter saying, “we must not be our own hangmen and executioners,” quoting the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who was obsessed with the acquisition of power.  I was referring to newspapers, certain newspapers that were acting irresponsibly. Unless you handle your freedom responsibly, then catastrophe is bound to strike. If you don’t handle the press responsibly, you can create chaos in this country. This is a multi-lingual, multi-religious and multi-social country.

Have you ever met the Emperor or Mengistu in person?

Never! Always with other journalists at a reception or in their office for work.

 

Journalists many times face confrontation with leaders and politicians of the system. Were there any confrontation or challenges that you faced while you were working as a journalist both during the imperial and the military rule?

No, because first of all they transferred us from the press to other departments. People who were working at the Ethiopian Herald were transferred to the News Agency, some of them to the radio and the radio people became editors. It was not their field. There was no confrontation. I continued writing articles. Even when I was transferred to the publication department, I continued to write articles for the Herald. Wherever I went, I used to write articles even when I went to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. A writer could be anywhere and could write from any place.

You have been working with prominent Ethiopian writers like Sebhat Gebregziabher and Bealu Girma. What type of journalists were they?

Particularly Sebhat Gebreegziabher was a very good writer. He used to contribute articles to Yekatit. He wrote a lot of articles for Yekatit. One can’t call him a journalist but he was a very good writer. He used to write anecdotes about ancient Ethiopian history, folklores, and humor in the highlands. He wrote very entertaining articles. Bealu Girma once, as a punishment, was sent to work under me. He was glamorizing prostitution in the magazine; he used to be the editor of the Amharic Menen magazine and giving a lot of publicity to prostitutes and prostitution and therefore the magazine was seized and burnt. It was burnt twice. The second time, he was sent to me to the Voice of Ethiopia by Minase Haile (PhD) to work under my own instruction. He worked with me for some time, that is the only time he worked with me. Then he was also at Addis Reporter. He was one of the people who started Addis Reporter. While he was there, he was very irresponsible and after six months or something like that they dismissed them all and they made me the editor of Addis Reporter. So we didn’t even work together in the Addis Reporter. I didn’t much appreciate his writings as a journalist.

You were the editor of the Ethiopian Herald during the Ethiopian student movement. What kind of editorials were written and published at that time?

I was only writing articles from 1974 onwards. I had my own views about the students. Changes were taking place in Addis, and at one time, I called them a “national cancer” in an article. That was creating a big problem here. In fact they had gone to the Derg. They wanted to crucify me, but nobody touched me anyhow. In that article I said changes are coming. Why do you cause all this trouble? You can’t seize power by only throwing stones and using sticks. If the regime has to be removed the military definitely have to step in. You can’t remove Haile-Selasie and then ask the students to form a government. I wrote articles under my own name. I was also praising the Derg at the beginning because they were removing the deadwood from Ethiopia. In my second article I said that there was no such a thing as a purely military solution to the political problem of a country. Eventually, the military have to give power to civilians.

What do you feel about communism? Are you a communist at heart?

I see nothing wrong with communism. I have never seen anything wrong with it. In fact I used to read the communist newspaper called the Daily Worker in London regularly. But the problem here is that you can’t establish a communist society in a primitive-communal society. In Ethiopia it is absolutely impossible because the people are very religious. It is fit more for an industrial society. Otherwise, there is nothing wrong with communism. It’s only where it is applied. It should be applied in an industrial society.

Allow me to take you back to your personal life. In your autobiography you have stated that “smoking and drinking were once almost killing me”. When did you start smoking and drinking and how did you quit them?

When I was in London for two years I didn’t smoke, but everybody around me was smoking, and some Ethiopian came to the hostel where I was staying. He was my neighbor and he was always smoking and I picked it up from him and started smoking in 1952. That was terrible. Finally, I quit in 1989. I quit drinking alcohol around 1972, then beer was terrible and that one also I quit. Nowadays, I don’t drink, sometimes when they make tella at home I drink two glasses when I am having lunch. There is also very good wine called Girar in this country. It is very good; it is even better than the wine I had tasted in Europe. And on occasions I take half a glass of this wine with lunch – of course only when festivals come around.

The renowned author and poet, the late Mengistu Lema, was your close friend. Can you tell me a little about your friendship?

We attended the same school at Kotebe, but he was my senior. He was one of the first students to be sent to London to study at the London School of Economics. He was already a mature man even when he studied at Kotebe. He used to be sort of a priest there and every Sunday he preached. But we were not very close here and even in London we rarely met. While he was at the London School of Economics he developed tuberculosis (TB) and was hospitalized for a long time. He came back without finishing his education. We developed our friendship here. Back then we were staying at the same villa in the Menelik School compound. After we left the compound, he was working at Ethiopian Airlines and I was working at Amha Desta School. Then we rented the same house and lived there. We even bought furniture jointly. When I got married he was visiting Canada, and when he came back I was with a new wife. He left every furniture to us and found his own home and since then we had been always friends.

Can you please tell me about your marital life?

I first married on October 1, 1955. The bride was very young, and she had an Ethiopian mother and a Yemeni father. She was 16 and was not mature enough. Anyhow, we manage to stay together for nine years. Later, she abandoned us all and left us for good.  Finally, I heard that she became a Muslim in Yemen. She was the only surviving child of her father. I think her father had some property in Yemen and she went to Yemen to claim that property and she died there some two years ago. I had one daughter and four sons from her. Two of them have died. That was all about my first wife. And then in 1970 I got married to another woman. She is a good woman from Yifat. I wouldn’t have lived this long if she hasn’t been around. She has really been a great woman for me. My survival largely depended on her effort. She really weaned me from so many evil things. I have a son and four daughters from her. One of the daughters, the eldest, died shortly after delivering a boy who is now in America.

What is your favorite book and author?

Unfortunately, I never read Amharic books. Where were no Amharic books during my schooldays. At that time so I was only focused on British literature. I used to read British books and there is no English book that I haven’t read from Geoffrey Chaucer in 1400 to Bernard Shaw who died shortly after  I arrived in London in October 1950. I have virtually read everything in British literature. I have read virtually everything in the best French literature. I am also familiar with Russian literature in translation. I was only interested in European literature – not even in American literature. And, of course, Shakespeare is my favorite author of plays. He encompasses in this writings the whole gamut human experience. I have never come across a writer who is so familiar with human nature like him.

How about your musical preference? Do you listen to Amharic music?

Only classical music by composers like Mozart, Beethoven and Baach. I also listen to some popular music but my favorites are classical music, balleys and operas. Regarding local music, I mostly like those accompanied by Kirar, Maseuko and Begena, or something like that. Not this hip-hop, it is terrible. Really, they are like sounds emanating from animals or something like it. It reminds me of cattle when I was in Wollega. It is not human sound.

Do you have any regrets in life?

I don’t think I regret anything. Especially when you are in the press there is nothing you regret. I don't even regret quitting my studies in London. It’s good to remember that divinity must have shaped my life. I am happy that I didn’t go through electrical engineering. Otherwise I would have missed so much in my life. I would have missed journalism if I had become an engineer. So I don’t have any regrets.

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