Friday, February 3, 2012

The Visionary Reformer and His Hilarious Encounters with the Traditionalists!

Menelik II was one of the beloved emperors Ethiopia has ever had. He unlocked the country’s door for technological advancement and brought about so many reforms of his time (but only at the sacrifice of harsh criticism and harm that was inflicted upon him). Among these fundamental improvements, the introduction of telephone was one that caused him much confrontation among his own conservative people, especially the clergymen. The humorous disputes that went on between this farsighted leader and those against his modern changes, and the incidents that took place as a result, are the center of today’s piece. According to the legendary Ethiopian journalist and prolific writer, P’awlos ňo ňo, who wrote As’e Menelik /Emperor Menelik/, and a popular historian and writer, Tekle Tsadik Mekuria’s, As’e Menelik Ϊna yə Ityop’ia andΪnet (Emperor Menelik and the Ethiopian Unity) the first ever land line telephone, also known as "plain old telephone” was installed in Menelik’s palace in 1889 (perhaps much ahead of even some European countries). (I wonder, though, who he was talking to in it, for it was only one piece). This news caused annoyance among many clergymen who resented the new technology. Eight representatives of the clergy, then approached Menelik and appealed to the Emperor that the telephone in the palace was, in fact, the work of səyt’an (the Devil, Satan) and that it should be removed from the palace and destroyed in public. Concealing his fury at the request, Menelik informed the delegates that their concern was 'legitimate' and he will get back to them the next day. Subsequently, he called up his nobility and the Patriarch and bitterly complained that the clergy is interfering in his vision of growth for his country by claiming that the telephone technology is the work of səyt’an, the Devil. He also firmly stated that the priests were bent on sabotaging his work and were, in the process, forcing him to even consider abandoning the Orthodox faith just to distance himself from the backward clergy. Upon hearing such a shocking declaration from the Emperor, the nobility and the Patriarch rushed to assure the Emperor that they will calm down the priests and begged him to stay with the Orthodox faith. Another funny incident that occurred, in line with this ever first installation of landline telephone, was at one of his top aide’s residence. Two years after Menelik set up telephone at his palace, a second one was fixed in the home of AfənΪgus /spokesperson of the king/ Nessibu, the then minister of justice. One Sunday afternoon, however, the telephone apparatus developed a short-circuit and brought a minor electrical shock to the AfənΪgus as he was chatting on the phone. When the clergymen heard of this incident, they seized the opportunity to publicly declare that this is a clear sign that the device was indeed the work of səyt’an and pronounced unfit for the country and its people. Later, they grabbed the telephone set and publicly burnt it.
In 1899, eight years after the burning of the AfənΪgus' telephone-set by the clergy, however, the Emperor stuck to his wish and vision and was able to inaugurate the Harar-Addis Ababa telephone line. We know that we are now found in an era where even the service of mobile phones has exceeded that of the traditional residential landline phone (at least in Addis and some big towns). Nontheless, Menelik’s hunger for tech, his will and determination to press forward with his development vision (almost 120 years ago) despite major stumbling blocks, eventually paid. It’s a testimony that good will always prevail over ignorance. Ethiopians owe him for such a valor. What a brilliance and resolve to advance his nation!


Wub G said...

Very interesting! We need leaders like Minilik!!

Solomon Abate said...

Thanks Wub,
I do believe so.