Why there were no Christmas trees in Gondar
This is a Christmas story, but it is an Ethiopian Christmas story.
A few days ago, in mid-December, Wossenseged failed to show up for class. He never misses school so this was notable, disturbing even in these notable and disturbing times. For nearly two years, Grazamatch Hailu and Weisero Zawaditu had sent this their youngest among several sons for schooling at the Gondar International Elementary School; every school day he would arrived in a Land Rover accompanied by a guard with a rifle held so it was visible to everyone they passed.
Wossenseged has grown tall now. He is a big boy for seven, with a serious disposition, an expressionless face, protruding eyes and rather pale skin and a real flair for math. He is the youngest child of his father’s old age, and comes to school in scrupulously clean clothing, worn with washing, carefully patched and mended. I have wondered at Wossenseged’s demeanor and dress. Because he is the youngest in a large family of a traditional aristocrat — a Grazmatch — and his mother has the prestigious position of President of the Gondar branch of the Haile Selassie I Women’s Welfare Association, he is probably being raised by loving servant women, and cash may be a lot scarcer for such traditional Ethiopian families, no matter how respected they are, especially if you are the youngest of many. On the other hand, I sometimes wonder whether there is an effort to send Wossenseged out into the world very plainly clothed so as not to attract attention, gossip or jealousy from his father’s enemies. Whatever the case, Wossenseged contradicts the adage that the dress makes the man, for all the other boys in the class — there is only one girl in the group of 10 — look to Wossenseged for leadership.
The next day, our principal, Sara Rajan, tells us teachers that Wossenseged’s mother and father have been arrested and jailed in Gondar. At the International School someone recalls how, after nationalization last year, the revolutionary government in Addis Ababa assigned officials to every municipality in the country and started checking into management of the royal lands. Grazmatch Hailu is in charge of the Princess Tenagnework Vegetable Farm here in Gondar, and maybe there are some irregularities. But would Wossenseged’s mother be jailed for farm management problems?
A few days before Christmas, Ruth and I both come down with infectious hepatitis and are too weak even to stand so we climb into the big waterbed together. We have been unable to get a live Christmas tree as yet this year so Yemeseretch, Ruth’s schoolmate who is living with us for a few months, surprises us by making a four-foot-tall tree from green crepe paper on the divider in the living room. But even if we had not gotten sick, we probably would not have managed a live tree this year because the Provisional Military Council, known as the Derg, ordered that no trees may be cut or sold for Christmas without permission. In Addis Ababa farmers have always made extra money by bringing a couple of fir trees to town to sell to foreigners, but now households will be held responsible if we buy trees from unauthorized dealers.
Clark tried to learn if the local Princess Tenagnework Vegetable Farm was designated as an authorized Christmas tree dealer, but then he decided to keep quiet about the whole thing when it was announced that the unfortunate Princess Tenegnework, along with the other 13 princesses, her sisters, were now under house arrest in Addis Ababa.
Making an already sensitive situation worse, it’s being said that people at the Princess Tenegnework Vegetable Farm enabled our Provincial Governor, just recently appointed to the post by the Emperor, to escape arrest by troops of the revolutionary army, and that it is Wossenseged’s father, Grazmatch Hailu who executed the escape.
The tangled tale began earlier in December, while the country was still in shock over Bloody Saturday, the night radical elements in the Derg marched into Central Prison and shot 54 prisoners imprisoned because of their allegiance to the Emperor. News arrived that 200 troops were passing through Gondar, on their way to the battlefront in Eritrea. Suspecting they carried orders for his arrest, the Provincial Governor, Gen. Nega Tegegne, managed to get out of town on the night before the troops arrived. When the soldiers reached his palace, they were told the General was very sick, too sick to welcome them, and for the next 36 hours the General’s escape was covered by a loyal servant who carried meals into the Governor’s chambers, ate a part of the food himself emerging with partially empty trays, each time announcing that his Excellency was still too sick to receive visitors.
We hear the rest of the story about Wossenseged’s parents and General Nega’s escape from Colonel Assis who once served in the army with the General, then returned to a bit of land in Gondar received for faithful service at retirement. General Nega was born, a very poor boy, on the high plateau in the village of Debre Tabor not far from Lake Tana. He is well liked by the army, is a highly trained commando experienced in guerrilla techniques, and a veteran soldier from the United Nations forces that fought in the Congo.
It is Grazamatch Hailu, Wossenseged’s father, who helped Nega escape from the governor’s palace in the vegetable farm truck with the General buried under piles of Swiss chard. After this escape, Nega headed straight back to his home region in the Dembia Plains around Lake Tana. There, renegade groups, which had never been loyal to any national government, took him deep into the countryside where the Derg’s army could not go.
One sly, clever servant holding off 200 of the revolutionary government’s finest; one proud general, bouncing long distances beneath a pile of vegetables. Gondarie love a good story, especially one that makes fools of the powerful and the rich, and eventually this story is told all over town.
This is why there are no Christmas trees in Gondar, December 1974. We have been unable to learn what happened to Wossenseged or his parents, but we teachers at his school hope that somehow they escaped, perhaps slipping back to their home village to hide there safe from prosecution and from the many battles that overtook the whole Gondar region. – Barbara Olson (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Barbara Olson is a writer in Springfield, Ill. This story is one of five Christmas tales from a book she’s writing about her experiences in Ethiopia, in the early 1970s, just as that nation was rocked by revolution. Since the publication of another of her Christmas tales, in 2007, she has reconnected with former students who have shared their memories of that turbulent time.