Mine to Win: A Novel

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10-2-2017 Arefayné Fantahun

Mine to Win: A Novel

The long standing educational system in Ethiopia, known as Ye Kolo Timher Bet, run and managed by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in order to educate its clergy might be less visible today than in the past. The schools that are often located in far-off monasteries and churches in the northern part of the country seem to be losing their standing in Ethiopian society. This is occurring partly because of the increasing presence of modern state schools and that the church schools tend to favour boys over girls.
Ethiopian memoirist Hiwot Tefera who received an acclaim for her first book, A Tower in the Sky, 2013, a novel tracing the early years of Ethiopia’s revolution and the turmoil of the Red Terror came up with her second novel Mine to Win, a coming-of-age tale set in 1860’s in such schools, exploring this world of highly structured centre of learning, which attracted seekers of knowledge from far and wide. Narrated in the first person, the hero is Tewaney, a herder from a small village called Nech Gedel in east Gojjam, who would run away from his native village to pursue his education to Debre Worq Mariam after several days of trek. There he met and mingled with like-minded young people, with some of them that he came to forge strong bond. Nonetheless he doesn’t sentimentalise his life there. As he describes it, “School life was not easy nor was meant to be. Besides regulating our voices, life was hectic and demanding. Singing drained us and we had to eat whatever was available.” He adds he was “taken by surprise by the perseverance of the students who led a difficult life but continued their studies with incredible tenacity. They were crowded with tiny huts. Their sleep was tormented by lice and other bugs. They rose early for their sessions and tirelessly hummed through their texts. Often enough, they died of diseases which they brought back from the community during their outings in search of food.”
With compassion, the story depicts Tewaney and his friends as they struggle with their education, which consists of learning and committing to memory the Praises of Mary, Acts of the Apostles and the Psalms of David, begging their food, confronting with barking dogs every day, fetching water and firewood for their teacher. The constant state of apprehension, the assessment of staying there or going back to one’s parent— these elements are intensely vivid and felt. “I had that hideous scar on my calf, a reminder of those nasty dogs and the pain that I will have to endure. It was no one but I who had lived through that agony. It was my stomach that rumbled with hunger, my skin that flaked because of itching and scratching.”
Tewaney was no quitter. Rather, he would come to display determination and resilience in those situations, “there was yet an unflinching self buried deep within me. It was that boy, the boy whose staying power I had often doubted, who nonetheless had the grit to go on.”
Eventually, he moved to another more reputable church school, Washera where he found a wider sphere of influence than his former teacher could offer. There he would study under Liqe Liqawint Berhan Seregela, “the best qene teacher and has the largest gubae that we know of.” (qene is a poetic composition).“My observations of the world around me, and my own place in it, deepened further. The broader community became the storehouse from which I plucked ideas for my qene. It gave me insight into social norms, customs, human behaviour, and the natural world, staples for qene composition.”
One of the novel’s vivid characters is Yayneabeba, a young girl that the narrator first met in the village Debreworq. By then, a beautiful young woman, would come to Washera to join the world of qene. She became “like an ornament shining amongst us, and our eyes were riveted it upon her.”
Love was in the air, as the narrator keeps wondering why she chose to come there. “I was too timid to ask. I noticed that my heart jumped every time I saw her. I made sure I sat next to her at our sessions though many others pulled and shoved to sit beside her.” The longing for love, grounded in a religious life that feels at once intriguing yet Tewaney would have a love-affair with Yayneabeba, who passed away, giving birth to his son, which provide some of the book’s most poignant moments.
For Tewaney, this is summed up in a passage where he meets his six-year-old boy for the first time, “I ran toward the boy, picked him up and held him close to my chest. He wrapped his arms tightly around me. I wept as I had never wept before in my life. At that instant, the tears washed away the pain I had thus far gone through.”
Towards the end of the book, the novel highlights a council at Boru Meda in Wollo in April 1878 which was organized by the then Emperor, Atse Yohannes to resolve the religious controversy raging in the country, which was attended by Tewaney and his teacher Berhan Seregela. As we come to learn, Emperor Yohannes rallied his antagonist king Menilik of Shoa for the council and invited learned scholars of the church to discuss about “the nature of Jesus Christ- how divinity and humanity existed in him.” For Tewany, attending this council was an eventful moment that changed the direction of his education, instilled in him to change his mind and study the New Testament rather than the books of Liqawint.
This book is an important contribution to enriching our understanding of the various stages of the church schooling, and the historic council at Boru Meda. It is rich in local color, facts, folktale yet it does not seem to reach an affecting emotional pitch like the author’s first novel.

source: Ethiopia Observer