Teddy Afro: The invincible messenger

By Abebe Gellaw / October 14, 2009
Teddy Afro There are some people blessed with an unbreakable spirit. They can turn adversities into triumph and setbacks into progress. These kinds of people have a deeper understanding of life as a rollercoaster with ups and downs, turns and twists, gains and lose, defeats and victories…. They take times of sadness, grief, illnesses, falls, trials or tribulations with grace and resurrect themselves against all odds. After all, true heroes and heroines are not those that kill enemies with the arrows of vengeance and hatred, but those who defy the darkest hours of life and come out shining.

Tewodros Kassahun, widely known with his stage name Teddy Afro, was supposed to come out of jail a broken man, dejected and depressed cursing his fate and Almighty God. During his trials and tribulations in those filthy dark jails infested with scary rats and bugs, he was supposed to forget his songs, rhythms, lyrics and his messages of love, unity and change. He was supposed to turn into a zombie unable to do anything worthy of recognition. Indeed, he was supposed to take the back seat of history and disappear into oblivion.

But true starts never die. From the farthest and darkest corners of the universe, they continue to shine defying the dominions of darkness. Teddy Afro has just proven this fact just a few days after he came out of those cruel jails that have broken the spirits and faith of so many courageous men and women.

“Heroes take a journey,” says the poet and writer Carol Lynn Pearson, “confront dragons, and discover the treasure of their true selves.” Teddy also confronted the unjust dragons of Kangaroo courts that turned what should have been an ordinary trial into a widely ridiculed farcical circus passing harsh verdict and punishment even before the evidence was gathered and the charges were filed. And yet, not only did he come out unscathed and unbroken, but also found more of the treasure of his true self that has remained to be the foundation of his success as an artiste that pumps powerful messages into our inner souls of conscience.

Teddy’s latest single, which was released just a few weeks after he walked out of jail, is another testimony to the fact that he is an artiste with a cause to resonate the heart beats and pulses of millions of voiceless Ethiopians. The charity single, Sew, touches a raw nerve in our psyche and disturbs our emotion as he smoothly sings about the plight of the majority of Ethiopians who are suffering from abject poverty. He brings closer to our hearts a hard to ignore message about the forgotten millions who have no shelters, food, and clothes to cover their naked indignity.

In the 21st century where much of the world has been making great strides, divided and fractured Ethiopia is still a country caught in an endless cycle of unimaginable agony as year after year it stretches its hand to beg food and alms from afar. Beggary and famine have become trademarks to a once proud nation dubbed the “bread basket” and “water tower” of Africa. TPLF’s so-called double digit economic growth has even failed to translate into food for the hungry, but it is visibly fattening the new ethnocentric elite. Even in Tigray, where the Endowment Fund for the Rehabilitation of Tigray [EFFORT] brags about accumulating wealth beyond our imagination in the name of the people, millions are on food safety net walking on a tightrope that stretches between survival and death.

Mortality is an early calling for the majority Ethiopians whose life expectancy is below 40 years. Maternal mortality rate is one of the highest in the world. Children born in Ethiopia have a greater chance of dying before the age of five as a result of malnutrition, hunger and diseases than anywhere in the world. Despite the fact that the TPLF has been claiming to be too busy fighting poverty, famine and pestilence, it has invested nothing in democracy, equality, justice and real growth and change, the people’s clarion call that Teddy beautifully echoes putting himself in harms way and in a collision course with a vengeful elite out to punish and silence every little critics.

TPLF has done too little to extricate the nation from rain-fed agriculture. It is rather selling up virgin and irrigable lands to rich oil barons, including Saudi investors led by Sheik Mohammed Al Amoudi, who has been engaged of late in gigantic mechanized farming to produce food for the Middle Eastern rich in a country eternally facing the fangs of hunger year after year. When Ethiopia will soon turn into the bread basket of Arabs exporting Ethiopia-grown food to feed Saudi and Gulf States, it will continue to beg food as millions have no prospect of escaping from the cycle of hunger. That will definitely be another perplexing paradox!

In the nation of endless paradox, Teddy’s latest song reminds us of the suffering of tens of millions of fellow Ethiopians who are dispossessed, hungry and diseased. Unfortunately, there is no clear strategy to end the burden of being Ethiopians for these unfortunate people in a land of plenty whose eternally flowing rivers have been feeding neighbouring countries.

A few weeks before Teddy was released, NPR journalist Gwen Thompkins filed a story from Addis Ababa, a city gripped with fear and suspicion because of the level of repressions of a paranoid regime. “Whether Afro can or will continue his career in Ethiopia remains a question. Recent laws in the country have further restricted free speech. And human rights groups contend that the government could easily use the nation’s new anti-terrorism law to move against its critics. A top government leader has strongly denied that claim. But nearly everyone here is uneasy about Teddy, about the future, about the price of saying too much,” she reported.

Teddy Afro should continue to echo the heartbeats of his people. If I have a wish list of new songs for Teddy, on top of the list will be a melodic tribute to prisoners of conscience like Birtukan Mideksa whose only crime is wishing freedom and the best for their people suffering under a tyrannical regime. Those who are on the wrong side of history never stop worrying as they know full well that tyranny is has never been a permanent fixture in history.

In Movement of Jah’s people, an article the Economist published right after Teddy’s release from his 16-month long incarceration, it noted: “The worry for the government is that the release of Mr Afro will now throw the spotlight back on its jailing of Birtukan Mideksa, a charismatic young opposition leader, judge and single mother. Ms Mideksa had already spent 18 months behind bars before she was jailed again earlier this year for denying that she had asked for a pardon. Her supporters say she has had to spend much of the year in solitary confinement.” In fact, it is incumbent upon us to sing and pray about those who have lost their freedom for the sake of their people.

Under the brutal dictatorship of Meles Zenawi, there is indeed a huge price to pay for telling the truth. And yet, trying to kill the messenger makes the message more popular. The reason why Teddy’s trial and tribulation created so much uproar and outrage was not because he was tried in a law of court, it was rather due to the fact that there was and still is an obvious intent to break the spirit of inspirational Ethiopians like Teddy. Fortunately, Teddy has emerged a much more powerful voice who will take his transformative and inspirational messages far and wide… There is no message as subversive as the truth and there is no messenger as credible as a true believer with a passion for freedom. Teddy Afro is undoubtedly a powerful voice that has proven to be irrepressible and invincible.

In the end, there will inevitably come a day where everyone will fearlessly sing… “Free at last, free at last…Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.” Those songs of slaves will eventually be sung in Ethiopia, a country that has been proud not to have been colonized and occupied by external powers and yet has never enjoyed the true meaning of independence and liberty.

The writer can be reached at abe.gelaw@gmail.com
Teddy's new song on YouTube