Birth and Early Life


The rains had begun in Harar that July day—great clouds were again massing on flat-topped Kondudu. A few miles out from the town the Governor had his country villa at Ejarsa Gore on the Kombolcha road, a wattle and daub house with a certain Indian appearance about its outside veranda. The forecourt was crowded with guests from near and far.

When a woman is in travail, other women will go to her and salute her, saying: ‘Didst thou pass the night well? May Mary keep near thee!’ When the travail is over they will wish her well, saying: ‘May Mary restore thee with honour.’ Then, when the child is born the women may raise the cry of joy.
The glad father will fire his rifle, if such is found, and drawing his sword will stretch it across the door for a space, while the old women raise up the babe to watch it. Before an hour has passed one will have placed butter in his mouth, and the mother will lie tight swathed in a length of cloth, lest her back ail her. ‘But Mary is hearkening, nor will she need much aid.’1

Some such scene we can imagine in that country house near Harar. The arrival of woman after woman to give her loyal greeting, and to gather round the mother’s bed to discuss how soon the babe will be born and to give sympathy, encouragement, and help.

After some weeks comes the ceremony of baptism. In the Ethiopian Church the babies are brought to the church in the very early morning if it be on a Sunday, so that, as soon as the actual baptism is over, they may receive their first communion. The name is given four times over by the priest: at the revolving, when the child is turned to the four points of the compass; at the aspersion with holy water, after the words: ‘I baptize thee for the Father, for the Son, and for the Holy Ghost’; at the tying of the neck cord of five cotton threads which all Christians wear; and at the anointing, when the babe is anointed on forehead, cheek, chin, and breast. Then the child is carried by the deacon to the priest, who will place in his mouth the consecrated bread dipped in the wine. Then the godfather takes the child again and restores him to his mother and they go home.

A male child is raised up to Christianity on the fortieth day, a girl on the eightieth. Twenty months later, on 14th March 1894 (Amharic date 5th Megabit 1886), Waizero Yeshimabeit died in childbirth—and the child Tafari was left to the care of his father.

The houses of even the great men of that period were far from luxurious. Though fine carpets and rugs have always been in the possession of the nobility—and frequently carried about with them when they were in camp, or moving from one country house to another—their houses were usually empty of much other furniture than tables and chairs. The baby would be handed over to some of the many women servants of the household, and much care would be taken to see that he was safeguarded from too much exposure to the sun: he would be kept mostly indoors, and carefully veiled when taken outside.

There is no mention of the small boy having been seen when Count Gleichen writes his description of the arrival of the Mission to Menelek in 1897. They visited Ras Makonnen in Harar:

Then through more narrow streets [he writes], lined with soldiery, till at last we drew rein and turned our mules up a couple of steps into the narrow courtyard of Makonnen’s house. Here there was once more a guard of honour for us, dark warriors with rifle and silver shield, dressed in cloaks and silks of all colours of the rainbow. Up the wooden stairs and on the landing there were more of them coiffed with a strip of lion’s mane to denote their valour—and then we found ourselves in a little room, so dark after the sunlight without that at first we could hardly distinguish Ras Makonnen sitting by the window, and pointing graciously to eight cane chairs arranged along the walls.2

So even if there was no luxury in his upbringing the child would from the first be accustomed to the pomp and ceremonial attached to his father’s position. The natural dignity of his own carriage may well have been founded in these early days, when a child notices and remembers everything.

His first lessons in the Amharic script and language would surely be in his own home, where the ‘confessor’ of the household, Aba Walda Kidan, or some priest closely connected with the family, would teach him to read. Every Christian family in Ethiopia had this confessor, or ‘soul father’ as his title goes, and early religious instruction would naturally come from him. Ras Makonnen was present at the coronation of King Edward VII as representative of the Emperor Menelek, and this visit abroad had strengthened his conviction that education was an absolute essential to the progress of his country. He applied it to the upbringing of his son, now a boy of ten. On his return in September 1902 he arranged that Lij Tafari should begin lessons in French with a Dr Vitalien, a native of Guadaloupe whom he had himself brought to Harar to open the hospital which bears his name. But as he was a very busy man the doctor could not spend more than an hour a day with the young boy, and so Ras Makonnen asked Aba Andreas (later Monseigneur Jarosseau) of the French Mission in Harar to send him a young lad who was well educated and could speak French, to act as companion tutor to his son. Aba Samuel was chosen and was engaged by Ras Makonnen for this purpose. He proved an excellent choice. Meanwhile in the house Lij Tafari would be under the care of his guardian Fitaurari Quollach. In his father’s absence Fitaurari Banti, Ras Makonnen’s deputy, would also be responsible for the boy’s safe keeping. His companions during these years were his cousin Imeru Haile Selassie, later to become Ras, and Tafari Belaw. Lij Tafari remained at Harar under instruction for the next five years, though we hear of a visit to Addis Ababa with his father in 1903 when the Emperor Menelek expressed a wish to see the boy. A few years afterwards he created him a Dejazmach (November 1905).

So passed his early life until his father’s death in April 1906 when Dejazmach Tafari was thirteen years old. Ras Makonnen was on his way up to Addis Ababa and was at his country house at Kolobi when he was taken ill and died after a few days’ illness. Bishop Jarosseau speaks of the general grief and sense of loss, of how many of the nobles arrived, surrounded the young Prince Tafari who was there, kissing his hand, his head, his feet. He was actually governor of the district, for just before his death his father had raised him to the rank of Governor and the title of Dejazmach then given him by Ras Makonnen was later confirmed by Menelek, together with an appointment as Governor of Solali. At the same time Ras Makonnen appointed him his heir, despite the fact that there was an elder son by a former marriage.

He was, however, too young to be in charge of so large and rich a province as Harar, which a little later was given to the elder brother, just mentioned. Dejazmach Tafari himself was summoned to Addis Ababa by the Emperor Menelek, who had seen the rare qualities of the boy. Here he lived, as so many of the young nobles did in medieval England, the life of an esquire at the Court, watching the routine of the Court, hearing the talk on men and politics, picking up the latest information on the affairs internal and external of the realm. On the other side they also could be watched, their character estimated, their abilities tested. He was appointed Governor of Solali in May 1906 and a year later Governor of Ba’Aso.

So the boy found himself in the midst of men and affairs—to earn at once the attention and approval of the ageing Emperor. For the latter detected in the son those abilities which he had tested and valued in the father. The result was that the young Dejazmach found himself sent back to school to further his education, and enrolled in the new Menelek School which had been founded in the city and put in charge of an Egyptian, Hanna Bey Saleb, while his province was governed by proxy. He remained there for the next three years, when at the age of seventeen he held his first real office. Speaking many years later of this first secular school to be founded he has said:

The Emperor Menelek II after ruling for many years in accordance with the traditions of our country, on initiating relations with foreign states recognized that the educational system of our country was insufficient and that it was necessary to bring it into line with theirs. He therefore established this school to meet the immediate need for foreign languages. As an example to the clergy and people he caused all the boys who had, as relatives and connections of his, been brought up at the palace, to enter this school. I myself was one of the boys who were there at the start, when this school was founded.3

1 Walker: The Abyssinian at Home.
2 Op. cit., p. 45.
3Speeches of H.I.M. Haile Selassie I, Part I, 21 July 1927.

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