Pavel Mikeš, the Czech Ambassador to Ethiopia, studied African History and Linguistics at Charles University in the 1980s. Despite not being allowed to travel to the continent under communism, he managed to learn fluent Swahili and Amharic, the dominant Ethiopian language, along with English and French. After a long career in academia, he joined the Czech Foreign Ministry in 1999, and has since served as head of mission or ambassador in several other African countries. Along the way, he has written books on the history and geography of Ethiopia, and on traditional East African wisdom – collections of Amharic, Somali and Swahili proverbs.
During his recent trip back to Prague, I spoke to Ambassador Pavel Mikeš about the history and future of Czech-Ethiopian relations, including priority areas for cooperation and development set out by Foreign Minister Tomáš Petříček. But I began by asking him how and when his interest in Africa began, why he chose to study Swahili and Amharic, and to share some of his favourite proverbs from East Africa.
“I’ve been interested in Africa since my childhood. I grew up in České Budějovice, and one quite famous Czech traveller, Ladislav Mikeš Pařízek, was born in our city and lived there for quite a long time.
“I was inspired by him and also by two names known to every Czech ‘schoolboy’, no matter if he’s six or sixty, Jiří Hanzelka and Miroslav Zikmund.
“They made a spectacular trip around Africa in 1947 and 1948 and wrote a book, Africa, the Dream and the Reality, which became kind of a holy scripture for everybody who was interested in the outside world during the Communist era.”
You applied to study Africa at Charles University, and I understand that at the time, often you didn’t have such a choice as to which languages to take – they were sometimes paired. Was that the case with your studies of Swahili and Amharic?
“I was very lucky to be accepted into African Studies programme at Charles University, which was open only every five years. Swahili was the obvious choice – it’s the most studied African language at any university, be it in Europe, China, US… But why Amharic? Because it was difficult to find teachers of other African languages.
“There was a teacher of Xhosa, but he was not in favour with the Communist regime. So, the other option was Arabic, but it’s not a sub-Saharan language. But our teacher, who was a Semitist could teach Amharic. So, it was a little bit by chance. We couldn’t find any other African language teacher at that time, in the early ‘80s.”
Under the former regime, there were quite a few African students coming to study in Czechoslovakia. Did you have the opportunity to meet many?
“Yes, they lived with us in the student dormitories. And there were many Ethiopians, so we could practise Amharic with them. Also, at that time, quite a few radio stations were broadcasting in African languages. So it was possible to hear these languages even on Radio Praha, BBC, the Voice of America.”
Which is the more difficult of the two [Swahili and Amharic]?
“The answer is very clear. Swahili is much, much less difficult – it’s an easy language. Amharic is difficult for anyone outside of Ethiopia. You know, Ethiopians always ask how we find Amharic, and are surprised that we find it difficult. They say, ‘Why? It’s so easy!’
“There are 85 ethnic groups in Ethiopia. Somehow the structure of all their languages is similar. There is a work by the American linguist [Charles A.] Ferguson about the ‘Ethiopian language area’, which means that although the languages may not be related they still have something in common – in syntax, pronunciation and so on.”
“You can go almost everywhere and be understood. In every small village, the village head will speak Amharic. Maybe not in some remote areas, like in Gambella near Sudan, which was conquered by the Ethiopian emperors quite late, where they speak very different languages, the so-called Nilotic languages, such as Anuak, which are related more to the languages in Sudan and Uganda. And in some remote areas of the Somali Region... But in 99 percent of Ethiopia, if you speak Amharic you will have no problem.”
You’ve written a few books, collections of proverbs in Amharic, Somali and Swahili. Could you share an example or two of your favourites?
“Yes, I like collecting proverbs. Besides these three languages, now I’m writing a book on Ts’amakko proverbs with one Ts’amakko linguist – it’s a Cushitic language from southernmost Ethiopia. And I still collect Swahili and Amharic proverbs.
“To give you an example of a Somali proverb I like very much [speaks Somali]. It means, ‘A brave man is never left alone by God’. So, God helps the brave.
“And there’s an Amharic proverb – you know, the Amharic and Ethiopians in general are very patient people, maybe sometimes too patient, and they have many proverbs about patience. One goes [speaks Amharic], which means, ‘If you wait long enough, an egg will walk on two legs.’ The egg will become a chicken. It’s just a matter of patience.
“There are many Swahili proverbs. One that maybe offers good advice for life is [speaks Swahili], which means, ‘The medicine for fire is fire’. Use the same method or weapon as is being used against you.”
During your studies, did you have the opportunity to travel to Africa? I saw an interview with the head of the new Centre for African Studies in Prague, who said that under Communism, you may have been a Francophone but if there was a possibility to go to say, Ghana, you took it.
“During the Communist era, I was not able to travel. It was very difficult. Now it’s in a way funny, but at the time we didn’t think so. You studied Oriental languages, African languages, French, but they wouldn’t allow you to go to these countries because you might just stay abroad. Travelling to Africa, you pass through Frankfurt and who knows, you might try to escape Communism and never go to Africa.
“It was very, very difficult to travel – even to so-called Socialist countries in Africa, as Ethiopia was considered in that time. It was only after the fall of the Iron Curtain that I was able to travel to Ethiopia, in 1990. It was just a few months before their revolution – which was not a ‘velvet’ one as in our case. I witnessed the fall of Communism twice, which was a nice thing.”
On the Czech Embassy to Ethiopia website there’s a quite comprehensive summary of the history of Czech relations with Ethiopia. It notes that the first Czechoslovak settlers arrived in what was then known as Abyssinia in 1924. Was that connected with building an ammunitions factory, or what’s the story there?
“It was linked to our business relations, which consisted especially of importing leather, intestines to make sausage casings, Arabica [coffee] and so on – and also exporting arms, especially in connection with the Italian-Ethiopian war, when they were attacked by Italian Fascists [in 1935], we supplied a lot of weapons to help Ethiopia. This was never forgotten by any regime in Ethiopia, from [Emperor] Haile Selassie to the present government.
“It’s something the Ethiopians were very grateful for because not many countries helped them at that time. And if you go to the ethnographic museum in Addis Ababa, you will find a nice example of a machine gun with ‘Made in Czechoslovakia’ written on it.
“But our relations are older than that. Already in the 18th Century, Czech Franciscans, Catholic missionaries, went to the Imperial Court in Gondar, stayed with the emperor and wrote a book about their experiences, which is here [in Prague] in the archives of the Strahov Monastery.
“Then, in the 19th Century, a few Czechs travelled to Ethiopia. The most prominent is Antonín Stecker, a medical doctor, who served as the doctor for different Ethiopian emperors [in the 1880s]. He wrote many articles published in the prominent Czech newspapers in that time.
“Business relations, trade relations, continued in the 20th Century, and Czechs built breweries in Ethiopia, hydroelectric power stations, leather and textile factories – and most still exist and work.”
Going back to Czechoslovakia’s support for Ethiopia or Abyssinia, I read that in 1935 Edvard Beneš, who was then foreign minister and chairman of the League of Nations, was very active in advocating support for Haile Selassie.
“Yes. Our support for Ethiopia was actually in two directions. One was military, practical, on the ground, but even before, during and after the war, Edvard Beneš provided great support to the Ethiopian cause. I think Haile Selassie met him a few times, and expressed his deep gratitude to our president because Beneš was one of the few supporters of Ethiopia at the League of Nations. His speeches during this conflict are famous.
“He didn’t succeed, because the sanctions that should have been imposed on Italy were inefficient and not respected by the great powers of that time. But I think our president did his duty and did it very well – supporting an independent nation and member of the League of Nations against Fascist aggression.”
Ethiopia has experienced some tragedies also in its recent history. There was a devastating famine in ’83 to ’85 that left 1.2 million dead, 2.5 internally displaced, 400,000 refugees, 200,000 orphaned. That was when you were doing your university studies. How was it presented in state media?
“At that time, it was very little was presented in the Communist media because the cause of the famine was not only the weather agricultural conditions but also the civil war, which prevented foreign countries from importing and distributing food for these people.
“And the regime didn’t want to say there was a civil war in Ethiopia – they were saying Ethiopia was governed by a very progressive Socialist regime. Admitting that there was opposition, even military opposition against that regime, was something that the Communist regime wanted to prevent. So were heard little.
“But of course everyone at that time was interested in music, which knows no borders, and Michael Jackson and others were taking part in Live Aid [concert to raise funds for famine relief], and through that we were aware of the situation in Ethiopia.”
If we can turn to present politics and policy, the Czech Republic is looking to allocate some 700 million crowns to African states in part to deter illegal migration to Europe (through humanitarian aid, stabilisation efforts and a contribution to the socio-economic development). Foreign Minister Tomáš Petříček named three priority countries: Ethiopia, Mali and Morocco. Why Ethiopia?
“It’s a very good question. There are many factors not just one, and it’s not that our development cooperation started with the migration crisis. When you start a priority cooperation, you look at the history of the relationship with that country, and there is a tradition of very good relations, be it in the political, economic or cultural areas.
“Our link with Ethiopia is centuries old. A lot of Czechs have been in Ethiopia as entrepreneurs, teachers and so on. So we accumulated a certain know-how. It’s better to go to well-charted land rather than to a country where we have no roots, no connection, where our cooperation wouldn’t be that efficient.
“So I think due to this tradition of good relations with Ethiopia – under all regimes – we decided it should be a priority country for our cooperation. Also because we have a lot of know-how in natural sciences and so on.
“We decided to concentrate our cooperation in a few areas only that are extremely topical in Ethiopia: environmental protection. So in soil erosion, deforestation, water management and sanitation. We concentrate on these areas.
“We believe that migration has many roots, and one is actually the degradation of the environment in African countries. If we manage through reforestation and soil erosion to help people stay in their villages, they don’t move to cities; and from cities, where they find no jobs, they don’t move further. We have to stabilise the population.
“We train people, show them how to do it, pass on our knowledge and in the process, we learn as well. Our experts learn more and more through contact and work in Ethiopia.”
“I think it’s good to learn from each other. Maybe we can learn one very important thing from them and that is religious tolerance. Ethiopia is the second-oldest Christian country and at the same time, it’s the second-oldest Islamic one.
“The first hijra [migration] was to Ethiopia. Muslims came to Ethiopia very early during the life of the prophet [Mohammed]. And it’s amazing how these religions live together, how they respect each other. That’s something we could learn from Ethiopia.”
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