Surviving the sting of my father’s nettle switches

Surviving the sting of my father’s nettle switches

Poet and playwright Mengistu Lemma came from a prominent clerical family. His father Aleka Lemma Haylu Wolde Tarik (1868- 1967) was an important head priest who commanded respect and admiration and was a stern disciplinarian who imposed strict rules on his children and punished them severely for any infraction of his rules. The following extract translated from the autobiography of Mengistu Lemma entitled Demamu Beregna (Gle – Tarik), evokes one of those incidents when the future author lined up with his brother to be disciplined, which meant being beaten with a nettle switch across his legs.

I was only a small boy then. I remember the event like in a dream. It happened in Addis Ababa, in the Trinity Church, which was then made of thatch. On Sundays, we were taken to the church by our mother to take Holy Communion. After taking the Blessed Sacraments, we would head home with our mother, draping Kuta (large shama cloth with an embroidered stripe on each end) loosely around our heads and with our mouths shut, breathing through the nose. That was the rule required for children who took the Holy communion. We were not supposed to spit; it was forbidden. The reason why we had to cover our mouths was to prevent the flies or insects from getting into our mouths and profane the Holy Communion. Likewise, it was forbidden to spit to avoid letting any particle of the Sacrament escape from our mouths with the saliva and end up in the dirt. On the way back home, we used to see a crowd of men and women sitting on the road to receive alms. We used to brush our way past hundreds of them. My mother would stop to give alms to the crowd but our father preferred doing it discreetly at odd hours, to avoid making a show of his generosity.

Portrait of Aleka Lemma Haylu done by Afewerk Tekle

One day, my brother came up with the idea of posing as beggars and collecting coins, to which I readily agreed. But we were afraid to do it on Sunday morning for fear our mother or father might see us. Thus we went in the afternoon, sat with the beggars, and lepers who were seated at regular intervals, and extended our hand for a change. The beggars and the lepers were not cross with us, in fact, they made space for us.

We waited for a long time, but no one dropped a coin on us, maybe because it was not a good hour. A few people passed us by without so much as a glance.  Suddenly, our father appeared on muleback, accompanied by the attendant, Chatula. They approached us and my father dismounted from the mule and handed over the key to Chatula so that he could open the bag and take out the money. Chatula started distributing the alms to each of the needy people, older and younger. I and my brother hid behind the beggars’ backs. Chatula was coming towards us. We stretched our hands, hiding behind the beggars, attired in dirty tattered clothes. When he reached us, Chatula stopped, looked startled, watching us with wide-eyed surprise but proceeded to give the handouts, telling us that “You two wait, I will come back.”He returned and immediately reported to our father that he saw us there. I heard my father with his menacing voice saying, “What the hell are these brats doing here? ”  He was furious beyond measure and said he would give us our due. “Not here, bring them home,” he ordered Chatula.

Once our father reached the mule, he mounted quickly and rushed home, like a leaf in the wind. Catching each of us by an arm, Chatula led us home. We cried all the way home, at the thought of our father’s angry hands. When we arrived home, we found our mother in the alley outside our house, looking anxious. “What have they done to me?” she asked. Because she knew our father’s violent hands at dispensing justice.

Chatula brought a patch of stinging nettles, the fiercest, and handed them down to our father. Father severely hit our legs with the bunch of stinging nettles until they were bruised and swollen. In fact, the sting was so hard that Mother beseeched him on our behalf. The pain was unbearable. We wept, our eyes were flooded with a well of tears.

Main Image: Mengistu Lemma interviewing his father, Aleka Lemma while he while he was in his twilight years

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