The psychological pains of Ethiopian intellectuals

The desire to be absorbed into and consumed by the West, to find solace in its seductive promises, animates Robin Dimet’s film, “Sami’s Odysseys.”

Still from Sami’s Odysseys.

At the end of Robin Dimet’s documentary about Sami, an Ethiopian man who has spent 20 years translating Greek mythology into Amharic, this heartfelt dedication appears on screen:

To the illuminated loners,
To the fools who feed on books,
To the impassioned outsiders,
To the flayed alive smitten with poetry,
To the open-hearted and inept,
To the radiant and misunderstood.

Sami is all these things: open-hearted and inept, radiant and misunderstood, a man flayed alive and smitten with poetry. While Dimet follows Sami’s attempt to print his translations as a book, the documentary focuses on the many contrasts that mark his life and the country he calls home. This is a film that is as much about Ethiopia as it is about Sami, as we see people struggle within a backdrop of massive construction and development projects.

Sami is easy to warm to, a man who, despite his flaws, is gentle, intelligent and self-deprecating. He lives in a tiny room, the walls covered with mold and electrical wires hanging from the roof. Throughout the film, we learn some of Sami’s struggles. One in particular: the loss of his artist friend Mesfin Habtemariam, shows how Sami’s life is marked by trauma and heartache, but also buoyed by the connections he has made with others through art and literature. Enthusiasm for his translation project and a desire to contribute knowledge to his country are strong currents that run throughout.

The film is full of imagery that shows the bizarre intersection between Ethiopia and the West: Sami’s artist friend, Dany, paints Ethiopian hero Abichu in a European style; plays a piano that is out of tune, his song of choice resembles Ashenafi Kebede’s famous piece “The Shepherd Flutist;” the barbershop where he has his haircut is full of images of Western celebrities, such as Will Smith; and livestock meander around a sea of cars and construction sites. We see a number of paintings of naked women, a practice that is very much imported (naked women never feature in traditional Ethiopian paintings). It is startling, at times, to see artwork that is so very European, full of black bodies, in an African country that was never colonized. Yet, like so many other parts of this film, it speaks to the fact that Ethiopia has undergone native colonialism, a process whereby a country’s ruling elite utilizes Western epistemological, ideological, and institutional structures of power to govern their own people.

Sami shows fondness and despair in his relationship with modern things. They are near to his feelings but distant from his reality. The paintings, the piano, the laptop, the Greek stories, are things that have little to do with how most Ethiopians live. Yet, his community trusts and respects him. They issue him essentials on loan, polish his shoes for free, give him feedback for his translation (although some do so without reading the text fully), praise him with songs, and fundraise for his publication. Throughout the film we see others encouraging Sami to talk about himself, his difficult translation journey, and his motivations, despite his resistance at every turn.

Still from Sami’s Odysseys.

The film treats Sami very tenderly, but it does not delve into the source of his suffering. It depicts him as a passionate man struggling to achieve his dream despite the crushing poverty around him. It excludes so much of the complex ties that have woven his life with his community. Only viewers with a keen knowledge of Ethiopia’s history will be able to reflect on the invisibility of cultural destruction and war and the enduring threads of compassion and care people offer to each other. The history of the Derg (which governed Ethiopia after the fall of Emperor Haile Selassie and was overthrown in the early 1990s), the “Red Terror,”, and even the recent struggles with civil war and COVID are only touched on, with Sami refusing to go into much detail beyond saying that he lost his youth and that he is grateful to be alive.

Sami’s pain is seen in his gestures, his behavior and the way he seems to shrink himself, but he tries very hard to hide it. Director Dimet does not go deeper into this history to show why a man like Sami lives with such suffering, with poverty, and dignity at the same time. That being said, Dimet does handle the themes and topics in his film with care, and the continual framing of Sami’s life with Addis Ababa’s sprawl of unfinished high-rise buildings invites viewers to consider the noble people who are abandoned in the obsessive drive towards development.

Indeed, viewers may admire Sami’s creative and intellectual pursuit in the face of crippling poverty. As an Ethiopian myself, however, I see it as deeply indicative of the way in which Ethiopia as a country has been consumed by the West. As the film shows, Ethiopia is desperately seeking to emulate modern Western life through mass construction, new technology, English everywhere—and yet this kind of development leaves people like Sami behind.

At the end of the film, we learn that Sami is estranged from his son, but he hopes that when his son reads his book, he will understand why he was neglectful. Sami himself is so consumed by his translation project, believing that Ethiopians need access to this ancient Greek wisdom, that he sacrifices himself, his body and his family, similar to the zeal we see in Ethiopia’s Western educated elite, who seek to “modernize” the country at the expense of Ethiopia’s most treasured cultural values, experiences and wisdom. From this film, I see modernism as nothing but the desire to be absorbed into the West, to be consumed by it, to find solace in its seductive promises that require the sacrifice of one’s culture.

Sami’s sacrifice speaks to a deeper psychological pain many Ethiopian intellectuals face. Since the time when Sami was young, Ethiopia has been going through a radical change, especially in cities like Addis Ababa. This change was motivated by the desire to liberate Ethiopia from its “backward” traditions and “modernize” it through European knowledge and culture. Western education promoted the idea that Ethiopians were living in a pre-modern society, similar to Europeans in the Medieval period, and that by following Western practices, they would evolve into a “modernized life.” Based on this belief, educated Ethiopians justified their disconnection with their traditional culture and society. Separation from Ethiopia’s rich millennia-old heritage was, and still is, regarded as a necessary sacrifice for the modernization of the country. Sami is driven by the same impulse that is leading the country on a tragic and meaningless path to a world where people sleep in rooms full of mold as high-rise apartment blocks climb around them. Although this commentary may not have been Dimet’s intention, the film is shot in such a way that multiple readings—from Western and Ethiopian perspectives—are possible. (For a deeper discussion of modernist art in Ethiopia, based on the lives of Ethiopian artists, see Modernist Art in Ethiopia.)

This film offers a great many things to its viewers: a remuneration on the impassioned and at times self-destructive zeal of the artist; a story of the deep relationships forged between creatives; a reminder of the violence of development that is implemented without care for people like Sami; and a reflection on the very human desire to contribute something to one’s society, to live a life that leaves something behind.

About the Author

Yirga Gelaw Woldeyes is senior lecturer at the Centre for Human Rights Education, Curtin University, Australia. His book Native Colonialism: Education and the Economy of Violence against Traditions in Ethiopia was published in 2017.

Further Reading

A journey to Harar

In Mexican-Ethiopian filmmaker Jessica Beshir’s Faya Dayi, khat is more than an important export product in a capitalist economy; she captures khat’s roles and meanings in everyday Harari life.