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Seleda Negarit

by Amare Abebe

I grew up listening to vendetta being romanticized as justifiable homicide. Stories such as a mother that sent out her only son, who is barely off age, to avenge the blood of the father he never got a chance to know. The man was murdered while his unborn child was still in his mother's womb. The dutiful wife would never give up until she sees justice done. She keeps the memory of a slain husband alive and burning until such a day arrives. Bidding for an opportune moment to execute the traditional justice, beqel, so that demu demE kelb hono indaiiqer. The vulnerability of a pregnant mother, the injustice of the premature loss of a loved one, the determination and resolve shown by the women, and the inherent quest for justice are what would be appealing to most that pass the story around. Avenging the death of a loved one overshadows the extent of culpability of the guilty party, and the Old Testament concept of justice demanding an eye for and eye is not totally lost to this part of our world. Not to mention the inadequacy or - more aptly put, for all intents and purposes - the non-existence of a functioning justice system in Ethiopia.

What is peculiar about vendetta is that the homicide is not committed as a spur of the moment criminal act perpetrated in a state of temporary insanity. Rather it takes place far removed in time and space from the original predisposing criminal act. People who might or might not have an immediate stake would plan and execute the revenge with detached efficiency guised as family honor.

I never pondered over the contemporary relevance of such stories as I viewed it through my personal urban prism. I would easily relegate such knowledge to a historical aberration or, maybe, to the less enlightened culture of my people in the far remote corners of the country. A Robin Hood type of folklore told to reinforce our sense of pride and honor however anomalous.

Soon enough, though, I had a rude awakening in a cultural collision asserting the undeniable reality regarding the heterogeneity of the Ethiopian cultural landscape.

Some two decades ago my friend and I had decided to travel to Dabat, Gondar, to visit his cousin there who was yemeserte tmihirt zemach. One evening we were settled in the all-purpose tukul that was lit from a masho, the shiro we'T simmering over the gulcha while we imbibed the lifter Tela. This was quite an exciting Agerhin iwoq adventure to us and we were quite positive or, you might say, oblivious to the scarcity surrounding us. We were just like enthusiastic little kids out on a camping trip. It was amidst such a jovial atmosphere that Mandefro, the second zemach, who was assigned from the local high school in Semien Awraja, walked in to join us.

Mandefro was a tenacious gentleman, serving his community with zeal and looking ahead to attend college. He actually confided to us that his dream was to become a teacher.

That evening Mandefro appeared subdued and less inclined to idle chat. After a little prodding and coaxing from us he finally agreed to tell us what seemed to be bothering him. He started, "Today was the same like any other day. I walked to my classroom and found my students readily assembled for class as usual. They invariably like to start quite early so that it allows them enough daylight hours to tend to their farms after classes. The customary greetings were exchanged and we resumed from where we had left off yesterday. I was in the middle of one of the sessions when a melikteNa walked into the room unannounced and whispered in my ear that one of my absentee students had asked to see me in private after class. Soon after we finished class, I walked some 5Kms to the village where Ato Anberber lived. I arrived at his house and was ushered in by his wife who offered me the medeb to rest and also poured me traditional Tela to quench my thirst. Later, Ato Anberber walked in and began by asking me if I have any relatives that reside in Hamusit. "No," I answered. "I met two suspicious looking Segure lewitoch this morning who approached me and asked if I know a zemach by your name. They said they were heading to Maksegniet to sell the cattle they were herding and dropped by to inquire about you claiming to be kin. I denied that we have a zemach named Mandefro and they left. That is when I sent out for you in order to warn you," explained Ato Anberber. I thanked him for this crucial information and hastily left.

"So many things ran through my mind but I had no doubt regarding what this is all about. Ayachu, some 15 years ago my father - nefsun yimarewina - was involved in a Tej bEt brawl and murdered a man who he said has disrespected him and his family. I was a toddler then and did not know much about the affair. I later learned that my father had never stopped looking over his shoulders ever since the incident. The detail of the story was told to me when I started junior high. It was not long after he told me the story, that my father passed away from natural causes. Looking back, I guess he must have sensed his demise and felt obliged to warn me of the eminent danger that might await me. According to the tradition, I, the first son, became the prime inheritor of his sins upon his death. Therefore the relatives of the victim are now coming after me for biqela."

We were listening to the story totally mesmerized. The first question we uttered in unison was, "So what are you going to do?" (Call 911?) He shrugged and said in a matter of fact fashion, "I have to go home and retrieve my father's mawzer. It has been hanging on the wall ever since I care to remember and it needs some cleaning and oiling."

We didn't get it. "Why?" we asked.

Mandefro glared at us. "SyqedmuN liqedmachew."

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