Guzo Adwa Creating a Historical Awakening

The victory at Adwa is a significant achievement that represents Ethiopian unity. However, the virtues that historic battle — unity, freedom, equality and justice — seem to be eroding. Guzo Adwa, a movement that started in 2013, aims to bring a unique way to commemorate the sacrifice paid for freedom by our brave forefathers as they set out to defend their motherland from the yok of colonial aggression, is trying to reinvigorate the Ethiopian public through an annual journey to the battle site. EBR reprints an updated version of content published in edition 58 by an adjunct writer, Meseret Mamo, who explored how the annual service inspires Ethiopian youth to learn from the heroes of Adwa.

Among the few events that have brought Ethiopia to the world’s attention, none are as significant as the victory at Adwa. The battle’s outcome led the country to achieve particular importance in the eyes of people worldwide, 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, a town located about 1,000 kilometres from the capital, Addis Ababa.

The call for total mobilisation 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 significant social, political and economic problems Ethiopians are now facing. Yared Shumete, a renowned filmmaker, is one of the organisers of Guzo Adwa, which means ‘Journey to Adwa’.

Guzo Adwa began in 2013 and allows people to commemorate the Battle of Adwa by taking, on foot, the 1,000-kilometre journey from Addis Ababa to Adwa town. This distance takes 46 days of travelling from Addis Ababa to the battlegrounds of Adwa, where the titanic African history was made at a great altruistic sacrifice.

“Adwa means a lot more to us. It is the sign of unity and bravery and fosters a feeling of nationality and 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 first four trips. 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. Of the total number of travellers in the past four years, 10 were women.

On the morning of January 16, 2018, 25 individuals wearing yellow T-shirts printed with the map of Africa and the phrase “Guzo Adwa” and holding white flags started their 1,010-kilometre journey to the historical battlefield on foot just as their forefathers had done more than a century ago.

“When we planned the journey five years ago, we want 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 a mind blowing one, which 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 group. The book underlines even youngsters were involved.

“The divisive politics in the country contradict this historically founded Ethiopian unity,” asserts Mesfin Araya, one of the contributors to 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 values Ethiopians once had, such as tolerance and humanity as well as collective identity, helping each other and an enduring shared desire of living with freedom and dignity.”

According to Yared, 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 settled 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, part of Guzo Adwa in 2016, still remembers his difficulty 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.”

Organisers of the Guzo Adwa didn’t deny that the journey, especially the first one, was arduous, but things have improved. They have more knowledge now about the routes and the environment. The organisers told EBR that the journey is carefully planned to minimise 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 resembles the actual march to the battle, and participants try their best to discover and follow the 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 Wukroto Enticho, which is 90 kilometres long, is one of the actual routes we discovered during our first trip.”

Places like Angolela—located 10 kilometres away from Debre Brihan, where Emperor Menelik II was born—and Koremash in Northern Shewa (used to store weapons during the battle) are visited by travellers.

After exploring such places, the journey organisers also try to preserve historical sites by talking with officials in the area. For instance, Koremash reopened for visitors after the organisers informed officials about the site’s significance, 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 Birhan University has named one of its campuses after the Emperor. “These things were achieved through the efforts of travellers and organisers,” says Yared.

Another significant accomplishment of Guzo Adwa is opening a museum where 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. Debre Birhan University took action immediately, collected the skeletons, and put them in a museum constructed after receiving a letter from Guzo Adwa organisers about the situation. “We appreciate the management of the University for their Immediate Action,” says Yared. Organisers of the journey are also planning to rehabilitate the spring Ethiopian soldiers blocked to cut access to water for the Italians during the time.

Organisers believe that Adwa still has many secrets to disclose, and the journey will help unlock some of them by opening an opportunity for public exploration, discussion, and debate. Since the idea of being Ethiopian 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 save the values this country once held. EBR

12th Year • February 2024 • No. 126


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