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International Reflective Writing


Yilma Tafere Tasew

Yilma Tafere Tasew was born and grew up in Ethiopia. He was a teacher by profession. He left Ethiopia in 1991, to exile in Kenya Refugee camps. While he was in Kenya, Yilma was a refugee community leader. He has done a lot of advocacy for the refugee community. He has also worked as a social worker for the Lutheran World Federation at Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya. While he was in Kakuma Camp, he established the first refugee news bulletin. Then in 1995, with the collaboration of two Australian students who came to visit the camp, he managed to publish a book called Tilting Cages, an anthology of refugee writing, which is a collection of poems and stories from twenty-eight refugee writers, including Yilma. He now lives in Wellington, New Zealand.




Can You Tell Me?

The shining moon
Surrounded, guarded by twinkling stars
Can you tell me?
How my Mum is doing? Is Mum hungry
Thirsty? Sick? In agony? Naked?
The shining moon
Surrounded, guarded by twinkling stars
Can you tell me?

Our small cottage
Is it strong like before, or tilting?
The shining moon
Surrounded, guarded by twinkling stars
Can you tell me?

Is my Mum’s hair full of grey?
Her face wrinkled?
Strong enough to collect firewood?
Has she planted cabbage, pumpkins, potato like before?
The shining moon
Surrounded, guarded by twinkling stars
Can you tell me?

Is my brother alive
Who was forced to join the army ‘National Service’?
Is my sister who eloped coming back to visit Mum?
The shining moon
Surrounded, guarded by twinkling stars
Can you tell me?

What’s my Mother’s income?
Is she brewing local liqueur, beer, ‘Tela Arecki’?
The shining moon
Surrounded, guarded by twinkling stars
Can you tell me?

Our neighbours,
Emama Fatuma, Ababa Tolcha
Emama Aselefech, Ababa Zerayie
The rest, are they alive or dead?
The shining moon
Surrounded, guarded by twinkling stars
Can you tell me?

The green fertile field where I grew up
Playing, looking after cattle
Shaded by acacia trees
Does it exist?
The shining moon
Surrounded, guarded by twinkling stars
Can you tell me?

The attractive rivers of the village
Springs: Tegona, Tercha, Dekisa, Melebo
Are they really flowing like before?
Across the village, towards uneasy distance
The shining moon
Surrounded, guarded by twinkling stars
Can you tell me?

Is Alamirew still there with his ‘Washint’ 
Entertaining the village
Or deceased, like my uncle?
And the other strong, sentimental people of the village?
The shining moon
Surrounded, guarded by twinkling stars
Can you tell me?

Are there social gatherings?
Evening campfires?
Coffee ceremonies? Story telling?
That harmony – is it there?
The shining moon
Surrounded, guarded by twinkling stars
Can you tell me?

The folklore, the riddles, the games I played
With friends of childhood
Are they in existence?
Or are they replaced by new ‘Play Games’?
By federalism, democracy, tribalism
Being imposed on the villagers to be played
The shining moon
Surrounded, guarded by twinkling stars
Can you tell me?

Are people punished who don’t play this ‘new game’?
Like before, like the time of ‘fashion play?
‘Socialism – Communism’
Are they arrested, killed?
The shining moon
Surrounded, guarded by twinkling stars
Can you tell me?

Do you know if Mum is alive or dead?
Joined my father?
The shining moon
Surrounded, guarded by twinkling stars
Can you tell me?

Do you know Mum’s feeling about me?
Her flesh, blood, elder son
Her hope, support when she ‘retired’
Whose name is changed in time
Who expects charity of twelve beans?
Two weeks rationing
Who is pushed to the edge of this planet?
Who is buried alive under the sandy desert?
The shining moon
Surrounded, guarded by twinkling stars
Can you tell me?

Whatever happened to Mum?
Sadness or joy? Tell me!
Let me know, I am dying to know
But no energy for grief, no drop of energy
Good to know, to burn to ash
Knowing, Burning! Burning, knowing!
For ‘normal’ life
Knowing is a choice for refugees
To throw away
Dry leaf. Dry stream of draining life
Tear one chapter of hope
Destroy every time
To cool down the desert heat
Save haemoglobin
Of last breath
No shock! No surprise!
All feelings drained away
By the scorching sun
Been long
Since I drained
The shining moon
Surrounded, guarded by twinkling stars
Can you tell me?


Ethiopian Refugee Camp


If I Could

If I could go
Wherever I want
Across the mountains
The rivers, the oceans,
And the borders, boundaries

If I could…

Fly - travel as I wish,
Without passports, visas,
Any identification
Without being interrogated,
Afraid of persecution
Prison, torture and execution

I could have come home

If I could

Mum, Dad, Bro, Sis
Friend, fellow
I could have been 
Home with you
Whenever I feel 
I miss you

If I could

Fly without landing,
On airport, airstrip
Without asking 
Anyone permission

Without being interrogated
Asked where I am from 
Which race, nationality
Ethnicity, clan,
I belong to

If I could

Disguise myself
Externally, being
You, not me
By miracle or demon
I wish I was
You, with a wing
Without nationality
Tribe, ethnicity, race

If I could

Say, arriving home
It’s me - Mum and Dad
Bro, Sis
I come to see you,
Give me a hug
A kiss
Don’t you miss me? 
For decades
Hi, it’s me!

If I could

I could fly now
Leaving today, 
Yesterday behind
Where my heart is
Which all tears,
Words, sorrows,
Rages can’t explain

If I could

I can’t wait to open
My heart, 
To show how lonely,
I am 
Without you
Visualising you

If I could

If I could fly
Without being labelled
Accused of which 
I am not
If I could return 
To my homeland,
Village, city
Which I’ve missed 
For decades

If I could

If I could
Change my appearance
Having wings to fly
If I was you
Physically I could have 
Flown, home
To Mum, Dad
My homeland village

If I could

If I could
If I could 

18 April, 2004, Wellington, New Zealand.



Let me be,
In Peace,
Myself, others
Let me reconcile

Let me live
With false
To move on
Not off
Let me reconcile

Let me swim
Quickly, hardly
Out of trauma,
Out of anger
With the support of
My counsellor
Walking stick
My pen,
Let me reconcile.

Let me put 
The gloomy 
Past, present
Fantasy of
Bright future
Bringing from 
A better place,
Let me reconcile

Let me create
Even though for
The moment
That wishful
Let me create
My own
Aesthetic, artistic
Let me reconcile.

Let me drug
For a while,
With imaginative 
Void happiness
Whether it helps
Or not
Let me reconcile.

When watching 
From on top
Of Mount Victoria
The shining city
And its
At night
Let me feel
Myself with
Imaginative hope
Against bleak
Present, past
Lighting its fake
Let me hunt
Let me reconcile

Not yearn 
For my homeland
Across the oceans,
Let me swim 
With temporary
Imagined orchestra
Pie in the sky, 
Let me reconcile.

Let me wear 
Has happened,
Is happening,
Will happen,
Like the pleasure 
Of frost,
Which disappears
With daylight
Let me create
Inside my dark
A light of glass
Let me reconcile.

I am fed up,
Staying inside
My traumatic
Shell, ghost
Let me come
Make a living
Avoid surviving
Let me wake up
From life time
Be powerless
Hug cuddle
Defeat, despairing
Let me give up
Say ‘goodbye’
To life time
Trauma, stress
Victims’ rage
Let me reconcile.

Let me create
A ladder 
Of cooked
Let me try
To climb
On top of
Cheap success
Let me be
Mad, crazy
Out of myself
Let me reconcile.

With my contradictory
Let me create
Breakable Peace
Which finishes,
Ends me
To ash,
Let me fake
Change, Peace
With everyone
Let me reconcile.

Let me create
Chain of hope
Out of 
Spiders’ web,
Let me drink
Out of my 
Whether it helps
Or not
Let me create
Peace of 
Let me reconcile.


Sunday July 27, 2003,
Wellington, New Zealand


Dinaw Mengestu: The African Narrative

Born in Addis Ababa in 1978, Dinaw Mengestu moved with his mother two years later to Peoria, Ill., to join his father, who had escaped Ethiopia's Communist regime just before his son was born. Mengestu calls his childhood "quintessentially American. Riding my bike, going to Sunday school. Ronald Reagan and solid American values."

Mengetsu's first book, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears (Riverhead, 2007) won him prizes and acclaim. The New York Times lauded his tale of an Ethiopian immigrant who runs an insignificant corner store in a dying D.C. neighborhood as "a great African novel, a great Washington novel, and a great American novel."

Today Mengestu lives in Paris, a city he fell in love with on a brief visit after a bruising trip to Darfur. He arrived in France knowing no one and not speaking the language. Mengestu spent mornings writing and afternoons wandering aimlessly along city streets, his loneliness spawning a new novel, , How to Read the Air.

Jonas Woldemariam, the narrator, echoes a brief but significant journey that his Ethiopian immigrant parents took 30 years before. Retracing their American road trip allows Jonas to distort the truth in ever more complicated ways; according to Mengestu, Jonas "doesn't want to deal with life's hardships and lies his way out of it." But it's the lies that Jonas tells at work, first as a writer for a humanitarian organization dealing with African refugees, and then as an English teacher, that let Mengestu infuse the novel with a specific type of fabrication: the "African narrative."

Four years ago, when Mengestu voiced frustration at the Western media's handling of Darfur, Rolling Stone sent him to investigate. "The narrative had been spun to not show any politics... but just the overwhelming humanitarian tragedy. There are political elements to it, and the only solution is going to be political. If you can't talk about that, then you're only talking about your own desire to help poor Africans," he says.

Mengestu has just returned from a trip to the Congo to profile a militia involved in the Rwandan genocide. This militia, he argues, has been able to regroup in eastern Congo because of the West's utter ignorance of what was actually happening there. 

The truth is important to Mengestu. His need to embrace its complexities and his continued exploration of the uncomfortable areas where the African narrative and the American narrative collide infuse his books with a melancholy specific to the immigrant's experience.

In How to Read the Air, the lies that Jonas tells, both professionally and personally, eventually isolate him from almost all human contact. His crisis comes to a head one week when, deviating drastically from the syllabus, he captivates his students with an "African narrative" of his own: the story of his father's escape from Ethiopia. Most of it is made up, invented out of a mix of desires: to feel closer to his father; to open his students' eyes to real suffering; to give the audience what it wants. As Jonas weaves his narrative, moving his father from Addis Ababa to a dangerous port in Sudan, then a small shipping crate on a boat bound for England, this remarkable invention becomes the dark, complicated soul of the novel.

Mengestu is worried about how people will take a book built, more or less, on lies, and says he never felt that it was finished, "even when the galleys were in my hand." But then the New Yorker chose him as one of their "20 Under 40," writers who "dazzlingly represent the multiple strands of inventiveness and vitality that characterize the best fiction being written in this country today."

"It helped me feel settled," Mengestu says. His wife enters the room with their 10-month-old son, speaking French, making Paris feel like home. For now.

Source: The Oracle Group


The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears 

Joseph's already drunk when he comes into the store. He strolls through the open door with his arms open. You get the sense when watching him that even the grandest gestures he may make aren't grand enough for him. He's constantly trying to outdo himself, to reach new levels of Josephness that will ensure that anyone who has ever met him will carry some lingering trace of Joseph Kahangi long after he has left. He's now a waiter at an expensive downtown restaurant, and after he cleans each table he downs whatever alcohol is still left in the glasses before bringing them back to the kitchen. I can tell by his slight swagger that the early dinnertime crowd was better than usual today.

Joseph is short and stout like a tree stump. He has a large round face that looks like a moon pie. Kenneth used to tell him he looked Ghanaian.

"You have a typical Ghanaian face, Joe. Round eyes. Round face. Round nose. You're Ghanaian through and through. Admit it, and let us move on."

Joseph would stand up then and theatrically slam his fist onto the table, or into his palm, or against the wall. "I am from Zaire," he would yell out. "And you are a ass." Or, more recently, and in a much more subdued tone: "I am from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Next week, it may be something different. I admit that. Perhaps tomorrow I'll be from the Liberated Land of Laurent Kabila. But today, as far as I know, I am from the Democratic Republic of the Congo."

Joseph kisses me once on each cheek after he takes his coat off.

"That's my favorite thing about you Ethiopians," he says. "You kiss each other on the cheeks all the time. It takes you hours to say hello and good-bye because you're constantly kissing each other. Kiss. Kiss. Kiss."

Kenneth pours Joseph a scotch and the three of us raise our cups for a toast.

"How is America today, Stephanos?" Joseph asks me.

"He hates it," Kenneth says.

"That's because he doesn't understand it." Joseph leans closer toward me, his large moon-pie face eclipsing my view of everything except his eyes, which are small and bloodshot, and look as if they were added onto his face as an afterthought.

"I've told you," he says. "This country is like a little bastard child. You can't be angry when it doesn't give you what you want."

He leans back deliberately in his chair and crosses his legs, holding the pose for two seconds before leaning over and resting both arms on his thighs.

"But you have to praise it when it comes close, otherwise it'll turn around and bite you in the ass."

The two of them laugh and then quickly pour back their drinks and refill their glasses. There is a brief silence as each struggles to catch his breath. Before either of them can tell me something else about America ("This country cares only about one thing..." "There are three things you need to know about Americans..."), I call out, "Bukassa." The name catches them off guard. They both turn and stare at me. They swirl their cups around and around to make sure it looks like they're thinking. Kenneth walks over to the map of Africa I keep taped on the wall right next to the door. It's at least twenty years old, maybe older. The borders and names have changed since it was made, but maps, like pictures and journals, have a built-in nostalgic quality that can never render them completely obsolete. The countries are all color-coded, and Africa's hanging dour head looks like a woman's head wrapped in a shawl. Kenneth rubs his hand silently over the continent, working his way west to east and then south until his index finger tickles the tip of South Africa. When he's finished tracing his hand over the map, he turns around and points at me.

"Gabon." He says it as if it were a crime I was guilty of.

"What about it?" I tell him, "I hear it's a fine country. Good people. Never been there myself, though."

He turns back to the map and whispers, "F*** you."

"Come on. I thought you were an engineer," Joseph taunts him. "Whatever happened to precision?" He stands up and puts his large fat arm over Kenneth's narrow shoulders. With his other hand he draws a circle around the center of Africa. He finds his spot and taps it twice.

"Central African Republic," he says. "When was it?"

He scratches his chin thoughtfully, like the intellectual he always thought he was going to become, and has never stopped wanting to be.

"Nineteen sixty-four? No. Nineteen sixty-five."

"Nineteen sixty-six," I tell him.


"But not close enough."

So far we've named more than thirty different coups in Africa. It's become a game with us. Name a dictator and then guess the year and country. We've been playing the game for over a year now. We've expanded our playing field to include failed coups, rebellions, minor insurrections, guerrilla leaders, and the acronyms of as many rebel groups as we can find—the SPLA, TPLF, LRA, UNITA—anyone who has picked up a gun in the name of revolution. No matter how many we name, there are always more, the names, dates, and years multiplying as fast as we can memorize them so that at times we wonder, half-jokingly, if perhaps we ourselves aren't somewhat responsible.

"When we stop having coups, we can stop playing," Joseph said once. It was the third or fourth time we had played, and we were guessing how long we could keep it up.

"I should have known that," Kenneth says. "Bukassa has always been one of my favorites."

We all have favorites. Bukassa. Amin. Mobutu. We love the ones known for their absurd declarations and comical performances, the dictators who marry forty women and have twice as many children, who sit on golden thrones shaped like eagles, declare themselves minor gods, and are surrounded by rumors of incest, cannibalism, sorcery, and magic.

"He was an emperor," Joseph says. "Just like your Haile Selassie, Stephanos."

"He didn't last as long, though," I remind him.

"That's because no one gave him a chance. Poor Bukassa. Emperor Bukassa. Minister of Defense, Education, Sports, Health, War, Housing, Land, Wildlife, Foreign Affairs, His Royal Majesty, King of the Sovereign World, and Not Quite But Almost the Lion of Judah Bukassa."

"He was a cannibal, wasn't he?" Kenneth asks Joseph.

"According to the French, yes. But who can believe the French? Just look at Sierra Leone, Senegal. Liars, all of them."

"The French or the Africans?"

"What difference does it make?"

* * *

We spend the next two hours alternating between shots and slowly sipped glasses of Kenneth's scotch. Inevitably, predictably, our conversations find their way home.

"Our memories," Joseph says, "are like a river cut off from the ocean. With time they will slowly dry out in the sun, and so we drink and drink and drink and we can never have our fill."

"Why do you always talk like that?" Kenneth demands.

"Because it is true. And that is the only way to describe it. If you have something different to say, then say it."

Kenneth leans his chair back against the wall. He's drunk and on the verge of falling.

"I will say it," he says.

He pours the last few drops of scotch into his cup and sticks his tongue out to catch them.

"I can't remember where the scar on my father's face is. Sometimes I think it is here, on the left side of his face, just underneath his eye. But then I say to myself, that's only because you were facing him, and so really, it was on the right side. But then I say no, that can't be. Because when I was a boy I sat on his shoulders and he would let me rub my hand over it. And so I sit on top of a table and place my legs around a chair and lean over and I try to find where it would have been. Here. Or there. Here. Or there."

As he speaks his hand skips from one side of his face to the other.

"He used to say, when I die you'll know how to tell it's me by this scar. That made no sense but when I was a boy I didn't know that. I thought I needed that scar to know it was him. And now, if I saw him, I couldn't tell him apart from any other old man."

"Your father is already dead," I tell him.

"And so is yours, Stephanos. Don't you worry you'll forget him someday?"

"No. I don't. I still see him every where I go."

"All of our fathers are dead," Joseph adds.

"Exactly," Kenneth says.

It's the closest we've ever come to a resolution.

From The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu. Copyright © 2007 Dinaw Mengestu, Published by Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), all rights reserved.


Children of the Revolution

Sepha Stephanos owns a newsagent and general store in a rundown Washington, D.C. neighborhood that is on the verge of gentrification. Seventeen years ago he fled the Ethiopian revolution after his father was killed. His life now is quiet, he spends his days reading Russian classics, serving the few customers he has and every Thursday evening he meets with his two friends, Joseph and Kenneth, drinking whisky and making jokes about Africa's long line of dictators and revolutions. When a white woman named Judith moves next door with her mixed-race daughter Naomi, Sepha's life seems on the verge of change. His fragile relationship with them gives him a painful glimpse into the life he could have lived and for which he still holds out hope. In an astonishingly assured debut, Dinaw Mengestu writes with powerful understatement of one man's longing for the American dream, and of the tenacious grip of the past across continents and time.

Dinaw Mengestu's first novel, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, earned the young writer comparisons to Bellow, Fitzgerald, and Naipaul, and garnered ecstatic critical praise and awards around the world for its haunting depiction of the immigrant experience. Now Mengestu enriches the themes that defined his debut with a heartbreaking literary masterwork about love, family, and the power of imagination, which confirms his reputation as one of the brightest talents of his generation. 

One early September afternoon, Yosef and Mariam, young Ethiopian immigrants who have spent all but their first year of marriage apart, set off on a road trip from their new home in Peoria, Illinois, to Nashville, Tennessee, in search of a new identity as an American couple. Soon, their son, Jonas, will be born in Illinois. Thirty years later, Yosef has died, and Jonas needs to make sense of the volatile generational and cultural ties that have forged him. How can he envision his future without knowing what has come before? Leaving behind his marriage and job in New York, Jonas sets out to retrace his mother and father's trip and weave together a family history that will take him from the war-torn Ethiopia of his parents' youth to his life in the America of today, a story-real or invented- that holds the possibility of reconciliation and redemption.




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