Dessie; a City of Imagination
"ደሴ እገባለሁ ስል ኮምበልቻ መሸብኝ
እተወዋለሁ ስል ደግሞ አገረሸብኝ"
I sat in front of a small river, as small as a creek, which seemed like it was left with one more day before it completely dried out. Like a baby struggling to walk for the first time, I watched the river as it desperately tried to move forward. The faded water and the rocks look like they are partners dancing around the valley - with the melody of the slow water waves playing as their music.
Many stories and folktales about Borkena and Dessie sparked within me, an imagination of a city that was a melting pot of cultures, and a magical river that would take my breath away at first sight. As I sat in front of what was left of Borkena river, I realised that the reality was a whole different story. The river bank had washed up so much dirt, as many children were using the river to wash themselves and their clothes. The trees surrounding the bank seemed like they were dying, and you see birds as they scout through the dirt washed up by the water. Even though I came to Dessie to remember what the city might have looked like in its early days, I couldn’t help but feel disheartened by the social and cultural transformations it had undergone.
How was Borkena ever majical? How could Dessie ever have been a melting pot of cultures? I was so disappointed by what I experienced that I decided to visit the ‘non touristy’ locations such the local marketplaces (chisachis gebeya) and spend time talking to students and other residents of the area, as I found solace in their kindness and hospitality.
I came across a huge field known as Hottie (ሆጤ) Meda, also priorly known as Watte, which means ‘a place that can swallow many’. During the old days, ceremonies such as timket used to be held there. Now it has turned into a sports field, and I wondered, where were the likes of Mulugeta Kebede and Fidaiga (most prominent early-day football players)?
From my other travel experience of the fast and complex life in other cities such as Adama, Butajira and Hawassa, I had high expectations for Dessie. I came to understand from the residents, however, that the city seemed to be suffering from unemployment, lack of good governance and poor infrastructure development.
"የቦርከና ውኃ እባብ ያንሻልላል
ያንቺልብ እንዴት ነው የኜ ይዋልላል"
'The Good Old Days'
The year 1882 was a turning point in the history of Dessie. Ras Mikael emerged as the sole governor of Wollo, annexing the territories of his contender Abba Watew (as written by Assefa Balcha, former student of W/ro Sihin). With the advice of Menelik, Ras Mikeal left Tenta (Were Himano) in favor of Kuru Amba (at Hara Wobelo) around Gerado area, which was a few kilometers from Dessie. After some time, Ras Mikael came to Dessie and constructed his permanent residence (Ghibi) at the northern tip of the Jemmie hill. Ras Mikael’s settlement at Jemmie, which amounted to Dessie’s foundation, was a critical decision. In the early 1900s, Ras Mikael built his palace as well as a large banquet hall that became known in history as Ayteyefe Addarash (‘The Hall of No Segregation’).
Ras Mikael’s selection of Ayteyefe in Dessie as a seat of his regional government, which amounted to the actual foundation of Dessie, was partly due to its strategic location. Even though Dessie was not an important urban center back then, a major trade route passed through it. The route from Addis Ababa to Massawa, passed through Wore Ilu, Borumeda, Samale, Magala, Adwa, and finally Asmara. There was another major trade route passing through Dessie to Tajura. So the need to control the trade routes and trade centers was the major factor in Ras Mikael’s choice for Dessie. In effect, Dessie fulfilled what Ras Mikael was looking for. His decision to come to Dessie during the late 19th century demonstrated his farsightedness and personal wisdom.
After settling in Dessie, Ras Mikael founded the Segno Gebeya weekly market in the southern part of town. After that, people came to Dessie and settled around the market. Several merchants from Awassa, Tigray, Shewa, Gojjam, Gondar, and Yejju came to Dessie to settle permanently as well. Not only did the number of traders and inhabitants increase as a result, but the scene of the rising town began to demonstrate tangible socio-economic changes.
"ምንድነው ነገሩ ይሄ ደሴ ማለት
ሲያበቅል ውብ ብቻ ፍልቅልቅ ሰውነት"
Under 'Tossa’s' Mountain
Dessie is located northeast of Addis Ababa, 400km via Debre Birhan – Kombolcha route. It is 475km from the main capital of the region, Bahir-Dar. There are numerous tourist sites in and around the town including Ras Michael Palace and Ayteyefe Adarash, Enda-MedhaneAlem Church, Dessie Museum, Shewaber Mesjid (mosque), and more. My choice, however, was to be among the Arada marketers.
Markets are regarded as fundamental, long-standing economic, institutions, yet various anthropological perspectives regarding them are often overlooked. T. C. Bestor (2011) argued that anthropological attention focuses on patterns of individual and small-group exchange relationships within specific markets, on institutional structures that organize markets, and on the social, political, and spatial hierarchies through which markets link social classes, ethnic groups, or regional societies into larger systems.
I love markets. In Dessie, the peoples’ beautiful language and colorful clothing in the markets of Arada or Segno Gebeya will redefine your imagination of the city. Multiculturalism is also very evident this traditional ጭስ market (ወሎ ጭሳጭስ- ወይባ፣ ቆልዲ፣ ቡክቡካ፣ ቅጥቅጥ፣ ደውሌ፣ አርቲ፣ ቆቦጭስ፣ ሶርሳ፣ አሽኩቲ፣ ጠጀሳር፣ ሚጢ...) where you can truly see Wollo’s diversity, and experience genuine conversation, with many extra products (mireka) from the sellers on top of what you already purchased from them.
During my stay in Dessie, I also saw a big old store, known as Mugad, at the center of the city. According to Assefa Balcha, Mugad means ‘a place of fire.’ It was the place where the bonfire was lit during the annual celebration of Mesqel. After the end of the Italian rule, the area surrounding the modern shopping center for Italian nationals (now Gumruk or Mugad market) had to become part of Arada. This building has been used as a center for exchanging various goods, languages, thoughts, beliefs and cultures for the past 80 years.
Markets are social institutions, often located in geographically distinct places, which encompass specific social, legal, and political processes that enable economic transactions, but also extend far beyond them. Plattner (1989) makes a useful distinction: ‘market’ [is] the social institution of exchanges where prices or exchange equivalencies exist. ‘Marketplace’ refers to these interactions in a customary time and place. … A market can exist without being localized in a marketplace, but it is hard to imagine a marketplace without some sort of institutions governing exchanges (p. 171). I felt the same as I whiffed different types of ጭስ. The vibrant colors, beautiful faces, and hospitality of the people made me feel truly happy and optimistic.
አይጠየፍ ሆኖ ይታያል ከሚሴ
ፍቅር ያልገባው ሰው ምን ያደርጋል ደሴ?
City of Joy
I briefly visited other cities such as Dawido, Areb Genda, Dolfin, Ager gizat, Menibre tsehay and others. I had the opportunity to meet lots of people from different backgrounds. Many shared a common worry for the current instability in their city as well as the country.
At the end of my trip I realised that even though Dessie is one city, there are two versions of it; the Dessie of our imagination, and the Dessie of reality. Regardless of the conflicting features of the two, Dessie is a place that is easy to love. It may have no beautiful lakes, well built sidewalks, or great restaurants like other cities. But the people of Dessie, however, make it what it truly is. They are the real attraction of Dessie. They make the city special and unforgettable.
In one of his visits in 1883, Emperor Yohannes IV spent some time on the high grounds of Dessie. Being excited by what he saw, he is said to have named the place ‘Dessie,’ meaning ‘my joy.’ Even today, in spite of all the changes it has undergone, Dessie fills my heart with joy.
"እንደ ቦሩ ሜዳ እንደ ሩጋ ዳገት፣
እንደ ቦርከና ወንዝ እንደ ጦሳ አቀበት፣
መገን የወሎ ሰው፣ ደግነት አያንሰው፣ፍቅር አያልቅበት"