Ethiopians have a tradition where loved ones, who have passed on, are remembered on various occasions by their family and friends. One of those occasions is the seventh anniversary of their death, where family and friends gather together to remember the lives and works of those who have passed on. Going according to tradition, it is thus fitting to add this page marking the Seventh Anniversary of my father's death.
I will begin by presenting a piece that was written by Ato Ayalew Mandefro titled "Farewell! Ketema Yifru."
Farewell! Ketema Yifru (January 1994)
By Ayalew Mandefro
It was in the late fifties and sixties that "the wind of change" began to blow strongly across the continent of Africa. The sixties was a special decade because the torch of freedom and independence was cascading rapidly from one African country to the other, as the shackles of colonialism kept crumbling. Indeed, the spirit of that decade is alive to this day and continues to do so until we all witness the burial of the last vestige of colonialism in South Africa. I am deeply saddened by the fact that one eminent Ethiopian will not be around when Nelson Mandela will soon be extolled at the helm of Independent South Africa. This Ethiopian is none other than Ketema Yifru, a great Ethiopian and an avowed Panafricanist, who passed away last week in Addis Abeba. Ironically, some thirty years ago, when the white South African police apprehended Nelson Mandela, two articles were confiscated from his pocket: one was the memento from Emperor Haile Selassie and the other was a small photo of Ketema Yifru which Mandela kept from his days in Ethiopia.
Ketema's death may evoke many different memories in people around the world who remember him. Those of us who closely followed the path of his career and worked with him remember him most for the brilliant achievements he garnered both for himself and for Ethiopia when serving his country as Foreign Minister for more than a decade. After all, that was a decade during which a generation of African leaders were enjoying great respect for their achievements and visionary thinking, both domestically and internationally. Those were the days when all Africans were in an up-beat mood, many of them dazed with exuberant celebrations on the occasion of their newly acquired independence. Dignitaries of all shades from every African state were criss-crossing the continent, first time for most of them, to attend these celebrations.
It was because of the very causes leading to these happy events that Ketema should all the more be remembered. It was he, more than any other Ethiopian Foreign Minister in memory, who diligently supported African freedom movement fighters during their trying periods of political struggles en-route to independence. Taking arduous trips throughout Africa, it was Ketema's unending diplomatic initiatives in Africa, not to mention his other efforts outside Africa, that helped Ethiopia achieve a most successful foreign policy during the eventful period of the sixties. His work schedules at headquarters attested to no lesser task. A typical monthly activity might include meetings with Amilcar Cabral, Neyrere, Kaunda, Kenyatta, Mandela and so on as the retinue of distinguished African leaders visiting Ketema's office kept on coming.
For Ketema, these series of meetings with his African counterparts were important as they served him well in shaping Ethiopia's foreign policy. It was the cumulative experiences he gained from such meetings that helped him most in playing a leading role in the African political landscape of the sixties during which Ethiopia was crowned to seat the headquarters of the Organization of African Unity. It was an enviable prize with which Ketema was closely identified after competing with oil rich Nigeria, mineral wealthy Zaire and French backed Senegal.
Needless to mention, Ketema's diplomatic performances and participation in the U.N. non-aligned movements and in the Group of Seventy Seven are not to be underestimated, for his contributions to their respective deliberations, be it in New York, Belgrade, Bandung, Cairo, Montevideo, etc. In fact, for a long time Ketema Yifru was a household name that appeared daily with high regard and affection in the news media throughout Africa. At one time, even figures like J. Wachuku, the ebullient External Minister of the Nigerian Federation, had gone to the extent of refusing to greet any Ethiopian he met after hearing the news that his friend, Ketema Yifru, had been detained by the Derg.
It was under such background that Ketema's professional talent and his individual character as a person came to the lime light of outside observers. To begin with, he was a great communicator both socially as well as in official capacity. Apparently, his Ethiopian schoolmates recognized this in early times at Michigan and Boston Universities where Ketema received his higher education. In the late fifties, serving for three years as Vice Minister in the politically charged post of the Ministry of Pen, Ketema distinguished himself with exceptional political acumen in Ethiopia's intricate domestic politics. He used to say how important his work in this Ministry meant to him by way of grasping first hand knowledge that he felt to have missed in his youth and about which, his uncle, Ato Teklu Degen, used to narrate to him on the unique traditional system of administration practiced in the Ethiopian Imperial Court. During Fascist occupation of Ethiopia, Ketema lived in exile with his uncle and other Ethiopian refugees, first, in Menchasein, Somaliland, and later at Taveta, Kenya.
As a person, Ketema always behaved in a humble and disarmingly simple manner with a special knack of imparting a relaxing gesture even to officials who are noted to personify stiff protocol. At times, his behavior may give some what of an impatient if not flippant impression to someone who encounters Ketema for the first time. This perception, however, is a superficial element and eludes a lot of his enduring qualities. His colleagues have watched Ketema chair large conferences or special political committees in ten to twelve hour marathon sessions without budging one bit and in perfect control of the conduct of those meetings. Ketema has also been known as an avid reader of history. His friends could hardly cope supplying him with reading materials when he remained under detention by the Derg for eight years. Incidentally, in spite of being robed eight years of his productive life and the separation from his family, Ketema came out of detention more mellowed and with no vengeance to speak of. He just looked fresh and ready to resume serving his country. However, the prevailing circumstances in Ethiopia did not offer him such an opportunity. His wealth of knowledge and experience would have served well in the need of present day Ethiopia. Instead, Ketema opted to serve the African people by joining the World Food Program of the United Nations Agency, first, at the headquarters in Rome and later in Nairobi where he worked as an international civil servant until his retirement last October. Three months ago he returned to his home in Addis Abeba where he fell ill and died on January 14,1994 of pancreatic cancer at the age of 64.
I would like to express deepest condolences to his wife, Rahel, his sons, Mulugetta, Yohannes, Michael and Makonnen. May God rest his soul in peace.
(Ato Ayalew Mandefro is a former Ethiopian Ambassador to the United States)
In Memory... Page 2