1984 – Ethiopia – Martha Kumsa1984
Martha Kuwee Kumsa- Ethiopia

Martha Kuwee Kumsa was born in Dembi Dollo, Ethiopia. During the 1974 Ethiopian revolution she was a university student in Addis Ababa when, following the end of Haile Selassie’s rule, a Soviet-backed Marxist military junta, the ‘Derg’, established a communist state. The junta closed all universities, leading Kumsa to train as a journalist at the Lutheran World Federation in Addis Ababa.

Under the dictatorship of Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam in a period which became known as the ‘Red Terror’ (1977-78) those deemed as enemies of the state were arrested, tortured and executed, among them hundreds of Oromos . Kumsa’s husband, Leenco Lata who was one of the founders of the Oromo Liberation Movement, was arrested and tortured on four separate occasions, after which he fled the country.

In 1980 Martha Kuwee Kumsa was herself arrested at the office of the Oromo newspaper where she worked. This followed an article she had written calling for Oromo women to reclaim their cultural heritage and encouraging them to speak truth to power.

Kumsa was imprisoned without charge and subjected to physical abuse and torture. Despite the harsh conditions she was able to teach and learn in the prison school established by fellow inmates. While she taught many courses, she cherished how she taught herself French and gave classes to fellow inmates. PEN and Amnesty International campaigned for her release and on September 10 1989 she was freed as part of general amnesty for prisoners.

Following her release she was re-united with her children, however living in Ethiopia was still unsafe and she eventually escaped to Kenya and then was granted asylum in Canada. She has since gained a PhD at the University of Toronto and now teaches at the Wilfrid Laurier University.
Writing Sample:

I was released in September 1989 after a decade of torture and incarceration. Even though my imprisonment was limited to the radius of the prison compound – Ethiopia itself was a giant cell.

Life outside became stranger than what I lived behind bars. I did not have a home to go back to. Worse still, I was conscripted into the military.

If I refused conscription, I would be hunted down as a fugitive and killed. If I accepted it I would be eliminated in the training camps. It was death either way. With the “rebels” closing in from all directions, the country was coming apart and unraveling fast. It was a moment of chaos. I couldn’t decipher between friends and foes. I could not trust anybody. I knew the regime was coming down but I did not want it to take me down with it. I decided at that point that if I had to die I would die running for dear life. I dragged my three kids out of school and ran. We hid in the bushes by the day and ran by the night. My heart skipping beats at every twist and turn and at every rustle of leaves, I wondered if I made the right decision taking all my children with me. What if we were caught? What if they killed us all? I had to leave them behind with my baby brother.

I had to leave my children behind, do you understand? So, please, please, can you help me? Can you help me bring my children to Canada?

But, what is home and what is exile? Oh, I enjoy home in exile, when you are rendered homeless at home.

In my homeland, Baby Brother, in my homeland,
The grass shades me from the scorching sun;
but in exile, Baby Brother,
the sun burns me in the thickest shade of the biggest tree.
In my homeland, Baby Brother, in my homeland
The meat of a flea feeds a multitude;
but in exile, Baby Brother,
Two friends fight over the meat of an elephant.

Excerpt from The Taxi Project a play about exile written by four authors, including Martha Kumsa, and performed in Canada on a number of occasions. These excerpts are based on Kumsa’s own experience. (not yet published)

For More Click Here:

Oromia Times feature on Kumsa

Image from York University, Canada website