THE FOLKLORE OF IDENTITY THEFT: Restorying Abebe Biqila
Asafa Tafarra Dibaba*, Indiana University, USA
Now four years back, this brief Article I wrote to correct one historical folly and in so doing to deconstruct similar neo-Abyssinian discourses and unveil the forced “social invisibility” upon the Oromo. In any case, it was sad to hear in July 2010 the sudden death of my long time college friend (27 years back at Kotebe College of Teachers Education in 1985) and colleague at the AAU, Berhanu Gebeyehu, whose entry to the Encyclopedia Aethiopica Vol. I on Abebe Biqila, shallow that it is, initiated this Article.
The purpose of the article is twofold: one is, to pin down with some greater accuracy the life history of the legendary Abebe Bikila Waqjira. Second, to pay tribute to this Olympic Champion who suffered from cerebral hemorrhage, a complication related to the accident four years earlier, and gathered to his ancestors with his failed narratives in 1973. The right to write our life stories is a natural extension of the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Equally important, the right to feign others’ life history as we please inflicts serious pains. In a society not valuing individualism, may we, also, say and write what we please when we engage in self-narration? Or, do we misrepresent people in a caricature or comic DVDs for cheep popularity? Not necessarily! Not, unless we are prepared to suffer consequences of considerable gravity.
It generates a flood of condemnation in the public and press for apparently mercenary self-exposure (in the case of self-narration) or egotistical ascription in narrating others’ at the expense of one’s reputation and trust, propriety and wholesomeness. No doubt to say, we are judged by what we tell and how we tell it when we tell the stories of our lives and others. This judging, always taking place, manifests itself most strikingly when memory loss and other disabilities prevent our performing self-narration, or performing it at all, and this chance, be taken by others witty to make benefits out of us, is a fatal hard luck. Berhanu Gebeyehu’s Article,1 a biography degree-zero, I would say, is a case in point. If Berhanu argues Abebe Bikila’s failed narrative reflects a failed identity, it is amateurish—unprofessional debut!
I argue that while we may well have the right to tell our life stories, or narrate others’, we do so under some constraints: we are governed by rules, and we can expect to be held accountable to others for breaking them. These rules are tacit because many a daily performance we carry out is done under such a strict but implicit moral code and decorum, that we live to violate or abide by or both.
Based on the data obtainable from primary and secondary sources I refute Berhanu’s work to be reckless and unprofessional. It is total identity theft. In the Article Berhanu commits a fatal mistake unreliably to compose a biography of Abebe Bikila in Encyclopedia Aethiopica vol. i.. This can be observed on two levels: one, he must have concocted legend best suits to him and to his likes out of chauvinistic myopia. Two, despite the countless up-to-date information on the Athlete, the author must have limited his article only to a few ‘heralds’ & ‘observers’ out of sheer meanness.2 I have come across a handful information about the Athlete based on primary and secondary sources: people, i.e., family and professionals, and the Internet. There are also books, articles and newspaper reports on the athlete and his achievements: Tsige Abebe Bikila’s Triumph and tragedy: a history of Abebe Bikila and his marathon career (1996), inter alia, Paul Rambali’s The Barefoot Runner (2003). More recently Giorgio Lo Giudice and Valerio Piccioni also published a book in Italy in 2003 titled Un sogno a Roma – Storia di Abebe Bikila.3 These and perhaps many others are books and accessible sources the author deliberately shoved aside to consult and to update his work. When the athlete died in 1973, he survived by four children with his wife. These are all reliable living sources the author must not have disregarded.
Like so many of those who make up the historical fabric of Abyssinians and Abbyssinianists, no wonder to say, Berhanu Gebeyehu tactically feigned a wrong but quick-to-last narrative of Abebe Bikila’s short life and enduring work. The author is my colleague now for over twenty-three years now from Kotebe College in 1985 and ’86. In so far as he has any philosophy at all, it is this: if a Man has come to be of some Great Success, s/he must be Habasha. Even more, sometime, for my friend, I remember, the Axum Obelisk was an absolute form of a surplus labor; and Pyramids, the margin of Death in the horizon—as it were.
Let me first reiterate what the author has to say in his article, before I proceed to the general account of my critique:
A. B. [was] born [on] 20 November 1927, [at] Wayyu warada, Debra Brehan awraja, in Southern Shawa (emphasis mine).
A. B. was named after his Godfather ato Bikila, who took care of him as his real father had died before he was born.
These are the two points make the kernel of the present article: that Abebe Bikila was born at Wayyu near Debre Berhan, Southern Shawa, and that Bikila is Abebe’s benefactor, not a biological father.4
Let’s observe the first premise: that Abebe was born at Wayyu, Debre Berhan, Southern Shawa.
Of those different assertions about A. Bikila’s date- and place of birth and his background, one states that he was born on August 7, 1932 in a town called Jato, about 130 km from Addis Ababa, in the district of Nya’a Dannaba of the Tulama Oromo branch in North-east Show. His parents were Widnesh Menberu and Bikila Demssie—though Yetinna-yet Abebe witnesses Abebe’s father to be Bikila Waqjira.5 Abebe is said to have spent most of his childhood as a shepherd while also playing traditional game like ‘ganna.’ At the age of 12, he completed the traditional “Qes” schooling. In 1952, the young Abebe was hired by the Imperial Body Guard, where he participated in both athletics and “ganna” game. In 1954, he married Yewubdar W/Giorgis with whom he fathered four children.6
In line with this, another author, Paul Rambali, in his book The Barefoot Runner (2003) confirms that Abebe was born on August 7, 1932 in the village of Jato, located 9km outside the city of Mendida, Ethiopia, to a shepherd Bikila Waqjira. Abebe decided to join the Imperial Guards to provide support for his family and walked to Addis Ababa to start privately athletic business. Later he was spotted as a potential athlete by a Swede Couch Onni Niskanen.7
There is this another excerpt: the Ethiopian track and field athlete, Abebe Bikila (1932-1973), was the first black African to win an Olympic medal, and the first man ever to win two Olympic marathons. Known for his grace and stamina, he was considered the most perfect example of a naturally talented distance runner. This author recognizes Abebe Bikila to be such a celebrity but with a modest family background: ‘he was a son of a shepherd born in the mountains of Ethiopia.’8
Needless to say, there are unsolved tangles of confusions and untied knots of desires and passions to know A. Bikila’s birthplace so much as I try hard to find out Abebe’s Biological father. For example, a certain Tony Marelich, from San Francisco, asks:
I have seen Abebe Bikila’s birthplace shown as “Jato” on the Ethiopians.com website. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) also lists A. Bikila’s birthplace as “Jato,” yet I have also seen it listed as ‘Mont Province,’ ‘Mont,’ and ‘Mout.’9
As if to curb his curiosity, the same person justifies himself as saying,
because the Ethiopians.com website maintains such a comprehensive list of Ethiopian athletes, and because the IOC is such a prestigious institution, I have been left to conclude that the town name of “Jato,” not Jatu, is in fact Abebe Bikila’s true birthplace.
He correctly locates Jato as near Debre Birhan, northeast of Addis Ababa, which Berhanu dislocates it to be Wayyu, Southern Shawa. The person says that he has seen so many different town / village names in various places on the Internet and in publications. And, “Mont” seems to be quite a frequent attribution, yet he could find none of those towns / villages on any current or older maps of Ethiopia, nor within Google Earth or Encarta Atlas, as he says.
Was Abebe Bikila really born in “Jatu”? Could you help me understand these apparent discrepancies regarding Abebe Bikila’s birthplace?
Someone addressing Tony as Toneman, reacts thus:
The confusion, I think, comes from the distinction between village names, county names (we call them Woredas in Ethiopia) and the so-called Qeyih name (something like sub-county division).
From all the evidences that I see, I conclude that Abebe Bikila was born in the village of Jato, which is in the district of Nea Deba and the sub-province of MouT, which itself lies in the Tegulet and Bulga Awraja.
This village is about 130 kilometers Northeast of Addis Ababa.
Hope this helps…
Ethiopian Athletes Fan ET_Fan10
Thanks to the Editors’ meticulous overlook, lets excuse Berhanu for his misplacing the locale, namely, Wayyu, near Debre Berhan, Southern Shawa as an oversight and unintentional, but can we forgive him for his attempt at curving out an imagined identity for the Athlete? This leads us onto the second premise, that ‘[Abebe] was named after his God-father, ato Bikila.’
Where was this life story from? Was it chiseled into Abebe’s loins, as he was already disappearing stuffed into his own unheard voice—with his untold success stories for good as the Myth had him do? Who knows, we all have our life stories cut into our loins, and who knows, who ever will feign out of us a wrong narrative to tell the World instead of the right deeds on our behalf? Maybe we have forgotten how we die precisely the same way as we had forgotten how we be? And, this is my own view, that we must start to learn how we die when we stop learning how to be!
An academic article that abuses or hides sources invites a problem to itself and is greeted with less credibility or hostility like a political rally than an academic event. What is more irritating about the Article is that the Editors—some are University Professors now—pass such misinforming Article as Berhanu’s inattentively, if not deliberately. I am of the view that if someone has the theory which involves a radical departure such as this from what experts have professed, one is expected to defend his position by providing evidence in its support. I, on my part, thanks to the existing data, have found out that Bikila Waqjira, born and bred in Jato, northeastern Shawa, is Abebe’s biological father.11
There is a lot to learn for our living Oromo athletes: Darartu Tullu, Turunesh and Ejigayyoo Dibaba, Berane Adare, Gete Wami, Fatuma Roba, Qananisa and Tariku Bekele, Selashi Sehen, Marqos Genati, and many more, while bearing Habasha flag high on every track. They have to learn from this Abebe Bikila Waqjira’s (and many other Oromo Legends’) Habasha-made bogus stories and maintain their identity, document their success and failure and pass it on to the young generation with greater care and concern. The sooner the better, I believe!
I have done this Article just out of morbid curiosity if nothing else: who is Abebe’s father if not Bikila? Berhanu tells us nothing in the Article. In this aspect, if Abebe were an animal, he would already be extinct. I thought a man of his intellectual distinction does not do what Berhanu did. But this happened: to betray ones identity is a disgrace to one’s people, and to alter others’ identity out of the blue is equally a disgrace to one’s faith.
Why a classic image of the Athlete engraved in the minds of hundreds of millions of people on this planet is now made to blur is not very clear. It is this disregard, more than anything else, that urged me to excavate the facts beneath the unfathomed depth of many such Mythologies. For example, as school kids, who told us publicly Haile Silassie’s pedigree to be Oromo on his father’s line of decent and Guraghe on his mother’s? If my friend breathed it to me when we were in College now nearly 23 years back, I wouldn’t have been duped to believe the Emperor to be a direct elect of Waaqa (God) or a descent from the line of Judah and to be worshiped as God far away in Jamaica.
Thanks to my friend, Berhanu, he gave me a cause to chisel this elegy on A. Bikila’s tomb which he ascribed himself to this his tactical errors.
Now, to cut short the long narrative: 40 days prior to the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, during training near Finfinne, the Athlete started to feel pain, which he attempted to overcome but collapsed. He was taken to hospital where he was diagnosed with acute appendicitis. In 1969, during civil unrest in the country, A. Bikila was driving his Volkswagen Beetle back home when he had to swerve to avoid a group of protesting students. He lost control of his car and landed in a ditch, trapped in, the accident which left him quadriplegic. He was operated in England and his condition improved to paraplegic. According to Raymond Krise and Bill Squires in Fast Tracks: The History of Distance Running, A. Bikila talked about his automobile accident in an interview. He said,
Men of success meet with tragedy. It was the will of God that I won the Olympics, and it was the will of God that I met with my accident. I accepted those victories as I accept this tragedy. I have to accept both circumstances as facts of life and live happily.
In 1973 Bikila died from a brain hemorrhage.12 He was 41 years old and left a wife and four children. His career included fifteen marathon races with twelve victories.
In August of 2005, with the assistance of Isabel and Dave Welland, and Philip and Donna Berber of the organization A Glimmer of Hope Foundation, an Oromo school named Yaya Abebe Bikila Primary Village School was erected in Bikila’s honor by the local Mendida community. The school exists a few hundred yards from the remains of the village of Jato.
My friend, for old time’s sake, we have been so good remembering the Past. It is time we started foreseeing the Future now stuck in the Present. Whatever we say, whatever we write as educators, let us not forget that our words represent people who are not here yet, at present!
The broken-hinged Eagle is ailing and now won, not a word spoken, not even a single; all narratives failed, but murmured this to the Sky:
We run slowly
We too shall arrive!
1. See “Ababa Bikila” in the Encyclopaedia Aethiopica, vol. I (A-C), Siegbert Uhlig, ed., 2003, pp22-23
2. See the Article as above
3. See Tsige Abebe Bikila’s Triumph and tragedy: a history of Abebe Bikila and his marathon career (1996) and Paul Rambali’s The Barefoot Runner (2003).
4. See Encyclopaedia Aethiopica, vol. I, p22
5. Abebe’s son gave this interview.
6. Addis Zeman, Oct 26, 1973 http://www.ethiopians.com/abebe_bikila.htm; http://www.databaseolympics.com/players/playerpage.htm?ilkid=BIKILABE01 Database Olympics profile Barefoot Runner by Rambali, ISBN 1852429046 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abebe_Bikila#Background)
7. Tsige Abebe Bikila’s Triumph and tragedy: a history of Abebe Bikila and his marathon career (1996) (http://www.ethiopians.com/abebe_bikila.htm)
8. Encyclopedia of World Biography© on Abebe Bikila
10. Bekele Abebe, his guddifachaa son, and Lieutenant Kinfe Bikila, his brother, share the same view.
11. Victory Poem for Ababa Bikila
Born in 33
Reborn that 73
The foot soldier
Of forty years
Led Ethiopians to run.
This medal avalanche
Abe the shepherd boy
The kid of Jan Meda
First ran with the sheep
Ran with horses and mules
Too deep at heart
Until autos run over him
And this said he in silence:
We are the Ethiopians
Whose lions made to sleep
Need the ran twice as fast!”
This medal avalanche,
With short steady pace
Across boarders of Rome,
Troubling the heart of men
And made our flag to fly
Dead and gone Mussolini
Then and then,
Abebe Led Mamo followed
Made us friends among nations
Running for Victory
With that Abe’s Legacy.
October 27 1973
Written by Taddele G Hiwot and published in the Ethiopian Herald the day Abebe Bikila rested his victorious heart.
*Asafa Tafarra Dibaba is an Educator, Poet and Activist. His books include Edas-edanas (1997), Anaan’yaa(1998), Danaa (2000), Decorous Decorum (2006), and Eela (2009). He received his PhD in Folklore and Resistance Study.