‘Woyanes’ in Addis, the People of Asko and ‘Yekatit’ 11 (1984 E.C.)
It was February 18, 1991 G.C. (‘Yekatit’ 11, 1984 E.C.), a year after –to be exact, 7 months after- EPRDF had toppled the Derg regime out on May 28. The place is the western outskirt of Addis Ababa, Asko where three government factories are found with close proximity. The then EPRDF’s nucleus party, TPLF, was celebrating its anniversary of the day it had been founded, for the first time after victory . As it had been the case then, TPLF fighters, who were otherwise called ‘Woyane,’ were stationed in each of the three factories to guarantee peace and security –one is reminded of the time when organized crimes and armed robberies, that were rampant in Addis during the transition, were done away with by the uncompromising measures of the new government.
As a token of unconditional Asko sociability, therefore, the ‘Woyanes’ formally invited the workers of all the three factories –Gulelle Soap Factory, Gulelle Garment Factory and Tikur Abbay Shoe Factory – and distinguished members of the society. A few young children of Asko, including me, had been generously allowed to be part of the celebration. Looking back after 24 years, on that eventful day of ‘Yekatit’ 11, 1984 E.C., I witnessed one of the most delightfully touchy experiences of my life.
In the first five months before ‘Yekatit’ 11, the ‘Woyanes’ appeared to be aliens to the society. The first impression was created by the way they looked: with their unkempt Afro style of hair which they were epitomized by Derg, there was nothing civil about them. Most of them were young, slender, composed with an air of unswerving determination. Their uniforms were made up of khaki shorts, if not trousers, and shirts. Add to that rubber flip-flop as a shoe and a long garment of many colours as a scarf, and you can bet it was a ‘Woyane’ even if he –by no means with the exclusion of a ‘she’- was not carrying his signature fire arm, the Kalashnikov.
It was no wonder that the way they went about their business within each factory was more like what it had been within their military camps during the war. While on duty of some sort, they walked in line without casting a single eye on the onlookers. They used to sit in a circle, in an open air, to have a meeting as though they were about to march on an operation to avert a present and clear danger. I don’t think anybody has seen them on dinner time, and I don’t clearly remember when they had a decent meal for their breakfasts and lunches other than breads distributed out of a big sack. The only other thing with that being a cup of coffee for breakfast and a small can of tomatoes for lunch. When they were not having meetings, breakfast or dinner, they were either washing their khakis or cleaning their weapons.
Around two months before ‘Yekatit’, things began to change. For starters, they were allowed to talk to each other in the presence of us –civilians of Asko who had thought the ‘Woyanes’ were not allowed to talk in public since nobody had seen them do so. Thanks to Tigirigna speakers from the factories, we saw them engage in brief conversations to demonstrate that they were not incapable of sociability as the society had deemed them to be. The big gesture towards sociability came when some of the ‘Woyanes’ started speaking good Amharic while the rest picked up some Amharic phrases with their Tigirigna.
What everyone found difficult to accept was that the term ‘Woyane’ was not an insult, and that these TPLF fighters were proud to be called the same. Then most people agreed that these ‘Woyanes’ were not all bad as Derg depicted them. They were not as hostile as they looked. The only problem was considered to be the fact that they were so fresh from the battle fields that they needed some time to learn social life in the cities.
For children of my age, early teenage, there was something novel about the songs of ‘Woyanes’. Gathered in the public TV centres of the county, -not many people in Asko had coloured TV sets then –we used to enjoy the songs during the newly started Tigirigna TV program. It wasn’t that we hadn’t known war songs during Derg regime, but that we discovered that there were many good Tigrigna songs about the war. The way the TPLF artists rendered these songs brought the message close to heart though hardly anyone of us had a clue about Tigrigna language. That these songs meant the whole world to the ‘Woiyanes’, however, we all understood. We even learned the names of some of the singers later and picked some lines from the lyrics. In short, Tigrigna war songs were like a new phenomenon at the time.
Then it was ‘Yekatit’ 11 (1984 E.C.). The workers from all the three factories had been formally invited for the occasion. It was the first public event arranged by the ‘Woyanes’ in Asko. Everybody was curious because of the number of oxen slaughtered and the caskets of beer delivered –these people had never had anything other than bread and tea for themselves.
The venue was the spacious staff meeting hall of the shoe factory. It had been decorated with the best things the ‘Woyanes could come up with. The ceiling was decorated with chains of tissue papers which luckily shined with the light from the fluorescents. The walls were covered with branches of palm tree, TPLF’s flag and, of course, the national flag. The tables were set in meticulous order. The floor was simply full of green grasses of all sorts enough for children to play acrobatics on them. A large kitchen at the rear of the hall was proudly filled with abundance of meat and beer. And finally, there was the stage and one of TPLF’s music bands in the north tip of the hall.
Cognizant of the ‘uncharacteristic’ punctuality of the ‘Woyanes’, the invited guests started to arrive in great numbers and on time. With division of labour characteristic to the ‘Woyanes’, some were joyful receptionists, many were ‘professional’ cooks and many more were untiring waiters. For a combination of reasons, the people of Asko were happy starting from the idea of the invitation itself. Upon arrival, ‘the host’ and ‘the guest’ were greeting like comrades typical of TPLF fighters. By the time the lunch was half way through, the mood of happiness of ‘the guest’ was already high above and beyond the roof of the hall. ‘The host’ was still serving, tending and cheering ‘the guest’ with unflinching military discipline. Alas! It was only an irresistible pang of music from the stage that dissolved the iron clad discipline of the ‘Woyanes.’
The music from the stage started and made all the difference. At first it was a surge of the string instrument ‘kirar’ with all the memories it could invoke. Then the rhythmical drum followed enticing one to be drawn into its flow. The first singer from the band –he was either one on the TV or nobody from ‘the guest’ could tell the difference- poured a melody reminiscent of the ordeal TPLF fighters must have suffered during the war. The war songs we usually watched on the TV were right here and in the presence of the very ‘Woyanes’. We all could see that what came from the stage was irresistible for ‘the host’. They must have fought their feelings to remain as ‘the host’ of the event. Within no time, however, they surrendered to their own song. Every one of ‘the host’ serving as a receptionist, waiter and cook left his post and one by one joined the stage. ‘The guest’, half of whom were yet to come, were left to their own. The first song was very long; so was the second, the third . . .
It was a spectacle to see the emotions of these TPLF fighters. There was smile; there was tear. There was happiness; there was grief. It was hard to tell which was it, but it was surely a strong force of emotion like a burning fire. I had never thought a Kalashnikov could be a good input while dancing in grace, but there it was! In the meanwhile, the women folks of ‘the guest’ had to go to the kitchen, and the men to serve as waiters and receptionists for the late comers. No member of ‘the host’ left the stage and reported for duty for the next one and half hour. Many were still crying while dancing gracefully. After one and half hour, the distinguished members of Asko society approached the stage and urged the TPLF fighters to take rest and have lunch for themselves. They were not allowed to be ‘the host’ anymore. In a word, ‘the host’ and ‘the guest’ reversed roles, and it was the talk of the county in the following days.
I still have a vivid image of the emotion embodied in the persons of those TPLF fighters. The nagging question I had then was ‘who are these people?’ and ‘why do they feel that way?’ ‘Why were these ‘Woyanes’ having these touching emotions while they were supposed simply to feel happy for victory?’ I had to wait more than a decade, read a lot of books and live with the people of Tigray who bore those TPLF fighters to fully answer that question for myself.
Endashaw Letera (05 August, 2015)