VARIETY COLUMN

"...A column for Ethiopian culture, geography, History, literature, music, k'ne, humor, current affairs and the like...."

NUMBER 9 < < < < < For the EEDN community > > > > > > Date: 3-26-93


Selam wd wegenoch! Indemn keremaCu?

In this issue of "Variety Column", we will travel to that time of the History of our country where the buzz words were not "cellular phones", "fax", "e-mail", or "tele-conference" but "telegraph", "telegram" and "telefon".

The story of telephones in Ethiopia is that of skepticism, the perennial battle between the conservatives and the progressives and, like always, the triumph of technology. Menelik, who in most accounts, is probably the best technology-monarch Ethiopia ever had, faced enormous reservation and at times out right resistance from the clergy in his modernization efforts. This is a story of how the Emperor finally managed to introduce telephone to the Ethiopian empire a century ago.

The following was taken from a very interesting book by Chris Prouty entitled: "Empress Taytu and Menelik II Ethiopia 1883-1910", The Red Sea Press, 1986. Article taken with out permission.


"In Ethiopia they begin to speak by wire"

The laying of a telegraph line that was begun in 1897 and the completion of telephonic communication between Harar and Addis Ababa by 1899 were a triumph over superstitious resistance to any technological idea other than firearms or medical treatment. They were a breakthrough for Emperor Menelik.

In 1890, Ras Mekonnen had returned from Italy with a telephone apparatus. The French man-of-all- work, Stevenin, was called to the palace and asked to make it work. He hooked up a wire between the royal residence and the house of the imperial treasurer who had a "thunderous voice." The Sovereign, surrounded by his court at one end of the wire held the receiver and exchanged a few words with the treasurer. Stevenin described the reaction.

Suddenly Menelik stood up, leaving the receiver on the table and went out on the verandah to see if by any chance the treasurer was behind the window.

A group of priests suddenly arrived. They said "Cut it off immediately....that machine is inhabited by a demon!" Since I was the one who had made it work I was warned by a friendly cleric not to get mixed up in theological matters. Menelik exclaimed, "These priests are cretins ... the machine functions without diabolical interference of any kind. Those priests are raving." Nevertheless Ras Mekonnen urged the emperor not to make an issue of it for the moment.

Two years later the line was put into the house of the Afenegus, the emperor's chief justice, so as not to excite the priests. Unfortunately the Afenegus received a severe electric shock from the receiver one day and was stunned. The priests took away the set and burned it. It was promptly replaced and eventually the clergy calmed down. Until lightning rods were placed at intervals of 10 to 15 meters, the line between Addis Ababa and Harar frequently did not work because of damage from storms in the rainy season. By May 1904, Addis Ababa was linked to Tigray and through Eritrea to Massawa. In 1905, a line was connected from the Capital to Gore, Illubabor and to Jimma, Kaffa. Telegraph messages could be sent from the capital to Asmara and Massawa, Harar and Djibouti, but the telephone was much preferred, as many customers believed that telegram messages were fabricated by the clerks. The ability of Menelik and his governors to communicate in a matter of hours that which had formerly taken weeks and months contributed more to the centralization of power in Addis Ababa, both in respect to trade and politics, than any marital links arranged by either the empress or the emperor.