The victory at Adwa is an important achievement that represents Ethiopian unity. However, the virtues that historic battle — unity, freedom, equality and justice — seem to be eroding. Guzo Adwa is trying to reinvigorate the Ethiopian public through an annual journey to the battle site. EBR’s adjunct writer, Meseret Mamo explores how the annual trip inspires Ethiopian youth to learn from the heroes of Adwa.
Among the few events that have brought Ethiopia to the attention of the world, none are as significant as the victory at Adwa. The outcome of the battle led the country to achieve special importance in the eyes of people all over the world, especially those living under colonialism. The credit for the victory goes to more than 100,000 Ethiopians who set aside their differences to defend their country from a foreign enemy. Under the leadership of Emperor Menelik II, they marched to Adwa town located about1,000 kilometres from the capital, Addis Ababa.
The call for total mobilization came on September 17, 1895. Following the announcement, men and women from all corners of the country travelled for two months to reach Adwa. They crossed rugged mountains and roads on foot to humiliate the superior Italian army on March 2, 1896.
The significance of the victory and the sacrifices made by those brave men and women has gradually diminished in the eyes of successive generations. Though the day is still celebrated as a national holiday, the struggle that culminated with the Battle of Adwa, the moment in history that led to the foundation of modern Ethiopia, and the values for which the heroes of that battle sacrificed their lives, is, in the current political climate, fading from the minds of the general public.
Instead of celebrating this day like any other public holiday, some Ethiopians are trying to remind their fellow citizens of the true meaning of Adwa, and its legacy. The lessons from this battle and the victory are pertinent to the major social, political and economic problems Ethiopians are now facing. Yared Shumete, renowned filmmaker, is one of the organizers of Guzo Adwa, literally translated as ‘Journey to Adwa’.
Guzo Adwa began five years ago, and allows people to commemorate the Battle of Adwa by taking, on foot, the 1,000 kilometre journey from Addis Ababa to Adwa town.
“Adwa means a lot more to us. It is a sign of unity and bravery and fosters a feeling of nationality, identity, it is a source of pride,” says Yared. “We started this journey because people are forgetting the true essence of the victory.”
A total of 31 people have participated in the four trips that have been made. The number of people taking part in these expeditions has grown each year. While five people participated in the first trip, the number grew to six, then 12 in the consecutive years. Last year, eight individuals joined the trip. Out of the total number of travellers in the past four years, 10 were women.
“When we planned the journey five years ago, we wanted it to be a trip that allows participants to feel the challenges faced by the heroes of Adwa,” explains Yared. “Intensive reading is also part of the journey to make participants aware of what exactly happened. In this way, we try to fix the erosion of our unity.”
Biruk Haile, who took part in the third trip, remembers how difficult the journey was for him. “The journey was very difficult and it was a mind blowing one; it forced me to admit how ignorant I was,” Biruk recalls. “Although many people know about the victory in a nutshell, its significance for the current generation, which fails to show that same unity, is lost.”
Many scholars and studies indicate that one of the virtues of Adwa is its ability to create a sense of unity among Ethiopians. For instance, a book entitled Reflections on the Battle of Adwa and its Significance written with the contributions of scholars like the late Richard Pankhurst and edited by Paulos Milkias, indicates that Ethiopians from different corners of the country participated in the battle regardless of ethnicity, class, religion, gender, and age. In fact, the book underlines even youngsters were involved.
“The divisive politics that are being practiced in the country contradict this historically founded Ethiopian unity,” asserts Mesfin Araya, one of the contributors of the book. Nowadays, abject poverty, ethnic politics, and the exclusion of the majority of Ethiopians from decisions that affect their present and future conditions of life have chipped away at these values.
Yared argues that to reverse this situation, a historical awakening is needed. “[Adwa was] not just a victory for Ethiopians, and black people in general. It represents the shared identity, and values Ethiopians once had, such as tolerance, helping each other and an enduring shared desire of living with freedom and dignity.”
Yared believes that some of these qualities are still embodied by society, and should be nurtured. “While travelling, we receive a warm welcome from the people living in the area we settle in to rest. They accompany us a certain distance out of respect, and guard us all night long while we sleep in the fields.”
Yared Eshetu, who was part of Guzo Adwa two years ago, still remembers the hardship he faced during the trip. “The journey was so difficult that I lost some weight. But, this is nothing compared to the sacrifices made by our fathers and to the lessons I gained from the trip.”
Organizers of the Guzo Adwa didn’t deny that the journey, especially the first one, was incredibly difficult, but things have improved. They have more knowledge now about the routes, and the environment. The organizers told EBR that the journey is carefully planned to minimize the risk of physical danger. Though the travellers go by foot, all their belongings and necessary materials are loaded onto cars that accompany them throughout the journey.
The journey doesn’t only resemble the actual march to the battle, but participants try to discover and follow the exact same route the fighters used over a century ago. “We consider this a way of rediscovering the truth about the battle and learning from it,” explains Yared. “The route from Wukro to Enticho, which is 90 kilometres long, is one of the actual routes we discovered during the first trip we took.”
Places like Angolela—located 10 kilometres away from Debre Berhan, where Emperor Menelik II was born—and Koremash in Northern Shewa, (used to store weapons during the battle) are visited by the travellers.
After exploring such places, the organizers of the journey also make an effort to preserve historical sites by talking with officials in the area. For instance, Koremash reopened for visitors after the organizers informed officials about the significance of the site, while the area where Emperor Menelik II was raised is now fenced.
A health centre built in honour of Emperor Menelik II has now started to give service while Debre Berhan University has named one of its campuses after the Emperor. “These things were achieved through the efforts of travellers and organizers,” says Yared.
Another significant accomplishment of Guzo Adwa is the opening of a museum in the same place the Italians built their fortress in Mekelle town. “Skeletons of Ethiopian soldiers were visible in the area,” Biruk remembers. “While the Italian government collected the remains of its soldiers, it was painful to see the scattered remains of Ethiopian soldiers.”
But things are now changing. Mekelle University took action immediately and collected the skeletons and put them in a museum constructed after it received a letter from organizers of Guzo Adwa. “We appreciate the management of the University for their immediate action,” says Yared. Organizers of Guzo Adwa are also planning to rehabilitate the spring Ethiopian soldiers blocked to cut access to water to the Italians.
Participants and organizers believe that Adwa still has many secrets to disclose and the journey will help to unlock some of them by opening an opportunity for public exploration, discussion, and debate. Since the idea of being Ethiopian was what brought the fighters at Adwa together, modern Ethiopians, who face all the ills that come with a divisive system can learn a great deal from the battle and maybe even save the values this country once held.
6th Year . February 16 – March 15 2018 . No.58