The Songs of the Nile: from A’bay to the GERD

How the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance dam transformed the way Ethiopians think about the river.

Introduction

Abbay, as the river Nile is known in Ethiopia has been at the center of Ethiopian literature and popular culture. In fact, Abbay is an integral part of Ethiopian identity and embedded in its daily culture. As Damtew (2016, p.6) states: “The Ethiopians’ songs, poems and chants associate the river with different values, topics and situations” (Damtew, 2016, p 6). According to Yacob Arsano, songs, poems, and mythologies illustrate Abbay as a source of identity, life, holy water (healer), and a unifier of societies along its course (Arsano, 2007). The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) has further intensified the river’s central position in popular culture and imaginary.

In Ethiopia, the main narratives about the river Nile and also popular perceptions of it, changed with the beginning of the construction of the GERD. The dam has been under construction on the Blue Nile, locally also known as Tikur Abbay, since April 2011. Before the construction began, the lyrics of the songs about Abbay portrayed the river as a deaf river – which did not understand and respond to the sufferings of its people – and as a homeless river, which used to migrate to an alien country because of the absence of a bed to rest on.Thirdly the river was seen as a traitor which abandoned its people (Ayenalem et. al., 2020). It is clear that Abbay is at the heart of Ethiopian political, cultural, religious, aesthetic and emotional space. It has also strongly influenced Orthodox Christian and Islamic values and dogmas in Ethiopia (Damtew, 2016; Oestigaard, 2018). In Ethiopia, Abbay is “very closely connected to the spiritual and material life of the people” in addition to being a high political issue as well.(Arsano, 2007, p 77). It has been the source of the cosmos or the agent of a union of the divine realms in this world (Oestigaard, 2010).

Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam

Since 2011, the GERD has been a key topic in Ethiopia’s popular songs and the public space. Many songs have been released about the GERD and the river, all kind of languages by many different artists – – individuals as well as groups. From kids to legends and from amateurs to internationally renowned artists have sung these songs. In the last decade, songs have been used to mobilize support for the construction of the GERD as the dam is funded by the people and the government of Ethiopia. At every public mobilization and fundraising event, songs played a significant role in eliciting the public to buy treasury bonds and provide donations.

The songs about Abbay and the GERD reveal the emotions of Ethiopians towards them. The songs express what the dam and the river mean for people. These songs disclose why Ethiopians are building the GERD. Also, these songs reveal for whom Ethiopians are building the dam. Emotions communicated through songs are pride, self-esteem, optimism, and happiness. Indeed, songs are powerful in raising support from the public.

I grew up singing songs about Abbay, like any other Ethiopian kid. From these songs, Abbay-Abbay is one of the iconic songs about the river. It has been incorporated in the primary school curriculum, grade 5 music textbook.

In the next section, I will present narratives of songs about Abbay and the GERD. I have selected three songs. The first song, Abbay-Abbay, is the oldest fully dedicated track on the Nile, since the beginning of modern music recording in Ethiopia (Ayenalem et al. 2022, manuscript submitted which is under external review in 2021). This song is released before the beginning of the construction of the GERD in 2011, the other two songs are released thereafter . Understanding the lyrics of these songs enables me to understand how the perception of the people towards the river and the dam have changed.

Song 1: Abbay-Abbay by Addis Ababa University Choir

This song was released in the mid 1970s. It was played by the Addis Ababa University choir and some voluntary artists. The legendary artist Tesfaye Lemma wrote and conducted it, before he moved to the USA. This song is iconic, due to its presence in the school curriculum. All children in primary school chant this song because it’s in their 5th grade music book. Due to this it has become the most popular song. (A cover version of this song was played by the Zema Tesfa choir in 2020, check the link).

https://youtube.com/watch?v=TakLF-iCH28%3Fcontrols%3D0

አባይ አባይ Abbay, Abbay,
ያአገር ለምለም፣ The nation’s greenery,
ያአገር ሲሳይ፣ The nation’s treasure,
ያለአገሩ ዘምሮ፣ Singing outside of his nation,
ያለቅኝት ከርክሮ፣ It sang out of tune,
አባይ ያላሻራ ኑሮ፣ Abbay having lived without a benefit,

The main recurring themes in this excerpt are the physical beauty of Abbay, its sole belongingness to Ethiopia, and how it abandoned Ethiopia. Abbay was expected to alleviate Ethiopians from poverty, however, it did not put its fingerprint on Ethiopia’s economy. Abbay is portrayed as the lost river as it migrated to alien countries and never contributed to Ethiopia economically. Poverty and drought have been hitting Ethiopia recurrently. The people needed the river to uplift them from poverty and help them during droughts.

From all the Nile riparian states, Ethiopia contributes 77 billion cubic meters through different tributaries to the Nile river, which is more than 86% of the total amount of water that flows through the river (Awulachew, 2019). At the same time, the state has been struck by water insecurity and abject poverty whereas its population is growing by 2.5% (Kemp et al., 2018). Ethiopia is a country where access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation services is very low (Andualem et al., 2021). According to UNICEF, about 50% of undernutrition and 60-80 % of communicable diseases can be attributed to water and water related factors (UNICEF, 2018).

In the excerpt of the song above, Abbay is portrayed as a personified entity of masculine gender. Ethiopians never lostsaw the river in a cultural, aesthetic, religious, and mythological manner. But they did only from an economic point of view as it didn’t alleviate people’s problems. But they did consider the river as an economic actor that didn’t alleviate people’s problems. From an economic viewpoint the river is seen as a lost river, Ethiopians used to condemn, blame, and insult the river because of abandoning them when they were in poverty and hit by recurring droughts. Throughout the song, there is no mention of failure by the people to create economic opportunity out of the river. Abbay is to be blamed, not the people.

እስከ መቼ ድረስ ሲተረት ይኖራል For how long would the tale be told:
አባይ ማደሪያ ቢስ ግንድ ይዞ ይዞራል፣ That Abbay the homeless wanders: Not having a place to rest its debris
ለአገሩ ልጅ ባዳ ባይተዋር ይሆናል፣ Estranged from its compatriots, for how long would Abbay remain
ስንቅ ሳንሰንቅ እኸው ዛሬ ደርሷል። Look here! Time has come, yet again without us preparing the traveler’s rations.

In the above excerpt, the main narrative recurring in the song is the homeless river. Being homeless has made Abbay a migrating river. It is migrating to an alien place. Abbay appeared to be unable to adapt to an alien place. In the Ethiopian public space, the river has been portrayed as A’bay/አቫይ, which means in the Amharic language a traitor to its people and the country. Abbay even became uncomfortable to play music (as the fourth and fifth lines of the first excerpt state – “singing outside of his nation; it sang out of tune”). The river abandoned Ethiopians instead of contributing to their national economy and livelihood. Because of this, the emotions conveyed through this song are ones of lamentation, sadness, and regret.

Song 2: Abbay-Abbay by Etenesh Demeke and Assegid Eshetu

This popular song was performed in April 2011, right after the beginning of the construction of the GERD, by approximately 32 school kids, ranging from around 4 – 18 years old, from the Children and Youth Theatre. The group of kids was led by two youngsters: Assegid Eshetu and Etenesh Demeke.

https://youtube.com/watch?v=7ZUUcQJL698%3Fcontrols%3D0

Whenever there is a mobilization activity at a school, this song is the most popular. It has different styles; melancholic at the beginning, happy in the middle, and firm (marching) at the end. The main themes of the song focus on ending the lamentation, sharing of Abbay (with the Nile riparian states), building the dam together, and the importance of the dam for peace of mind. The dam was a generations-old quest. Ethiopians had to wait for more than 80 years before the building of the dam started. Before that they had remorse for not building the dam. The GERD answered the historical wish.

The intro of this song starts by repeating the first lyrics of the old song described above and also called Abbay-Abbay.. As in the old song, the beginning of this song is melancholic. Then the nature of the song transforms into a happy song. The narrative changes from portraying the river as the lost river into the thankful river. Abbay has started its journey back to Ethiopia to give the long denied benefits to Ethiopians.

እንጉርጉሮ ይብቃ ይገባል ውዳሴ Let the lamentation end, time for thanksgiving,
ጉዞውን ጀምሯል አባይ በህዳሤ Abbay commenced a journey in renaissance

The thankfulness of Abbay has come as a result of the beginning of the construction of the GERD. People were thankful for Abbay for returning home. The song portrays that with the beginning of the construction of the dam, the migrated river has started to return home (Ethiopia). The dam is the main reason for the change in people’s perception and emotion towards Abbay. The narratives change from portraying the river as treasonous and migratory to the one that listens to the people’s plea.

ትውልድ እንደ ጅረት የተቀባበለው Generations relayed it, like a waterfall (uninterruptedly),
ቁጭት ጸጸት ስቃይ ዛሬ ሊቋጭ ነው Quchit, anger and suffering got over.
ቁጭት ጸጸት ስቃይ ሀይ ባይ ሊያገኝ ነው Quchit, anger, and suffering got a listener.

(quchit is an Amharic word for an intense regret, grudge, and a feeling of being chagrined accompanied by a firm intention to reverse past happenings).

Ethiopians’ anger, regrets, and sufferings related to Abbay were relayed from generation to generation. The above excerpt affirms that the age-old negative emotions brought about by Abbay. were left unaddressed for centuries. Ultimately, they got a listener. The Ethiopians’ dream of constructing the dam became a reality with the beginning of the construction of the GERD. The GERD has answered Ethiopians quest and eradicated their negative emotions about the river.

The other main narrative recurring in this song is about sharing the benefits of the dam among all. In this song, the riparian states and/or neighbouring states are implicitly stated. The excerpt says:

እኛ ብቻ አንልም ጥቅሙ የጋራ ነው We don’t mean for our sake only, the benefit is mutual,
ወትሮም ባህላችን ተካፍሎ መብላት ነው Sharing is our very culture.
The song is portraying the dam not only for Ethiopians but also for other nations. This narrative asserts the importance of the benefit-sharing principle in the transboundary watercourses. In fact, this principle has been adopted by different riparian States to achieve an equitable sharing of the benefits, resolve water conflicts sustainably, and bring a consensus on the basin-wide management and development (Arjoon et al., 2016). At the end of the song has another message: it is calling all Ethiopians to contribute to the construction of the dam.

Song 3: Let us reach high accolades through work /ከፍ እንበል በስራ/

Thirteen singers – kids, youngsters, adults and retired artists from different ethnic groups – have performed this song in 2013. It is a happy song. The singers are singing with a sense of power, happiness, pride, and optimism. These emotions emanated due to the beginning of the construction of the dam and in anticipation of the cheerful post-dam era.

https://youtube.com/watch?v=lkcVWfITJWg%3Fcontrols%3D0

የኢትዮጵያ ግርማ ሞገስ For the Pride of Ethiopia
ከጥንቱ ቦታ እንዲመለስ To return to its previous glory.
ኢትዮጵያ ታላቅ ግድብ ሰርታ Ethiopia, having built a great Dam.
በአለም ትታይ በእራስ ተመክታ Let it (Ethiopia) be seen in the world being proud of itself.
ከፍ እንበል በስራ ከፍ እንበል በዝና Let us reach high accolades through work, let us get higher in fame
እንደገና ክብር ሞገስ እንደገና Let us reacquire respect and pride

The main recurring narrative embedded in the above excerpt is: the GERD is the gateway to Ethiopia’s renaissance, hence the dam’s name. The dam is the main agent to achieve the rebirth of Ethiopia’s past glory. When the singers are singing aboutthis old glory, the picture of the Axum obelisk (from the Axum Civilization), Lalibela Monilitic church (from the Zagwe dynasty), and King Fasil’s castle (from the Gonderian period) are shown in the video clip of this song. The GERD is portrayed as the project to show the world what Ethiopia can do itself without help from external funds. The dam is a self-funded: the government of Ethiopia and its people and diasporas are financing the construction as the state wasdid not able to secure external funds.

Most of the fellow African states and other developing countries have been unable to finance their big water infrastructures themselves (Gore, 2017). Therefore, the dam is not just a physical water infrastructure, emotional and symbolic representations are attached to it..

ሳይቀድም ዘመናት እንዳላስቆጠረ Although, it passed through ages.
አባይ ተግባር ሆኖ ዳግም ተፈጠረ Abbay become ‘action’ and was ‘reborn’
አወቀንበት እንሙት ማሳደሩን We have known what staying and surviving is
እየተለምንላት ደግ ደጉን By praying for her all the best

In this excerpt, Abbay is portrayed as the reborn river. The dam has changed the old narrative of Abbay as a lost river into a reborn river. In the popular imagination, the river came back to Ethiopia as the construction of the GERD became real. Ethiopians have been dreaming about how to bring back the river so that it would contribute to their national economy. However, they couldn’t materialize their dream, due to political instability, knowledge gaps, and economic problems. The dam is also seen as an answer to the thirst for wisdom of how to build a home for the river to rest. At the outro of this song, singers have been soliciting the audience to keep on contributing to the construction of the dam.

Conclusion

Popular songs are tools to communicate narratives (re)constructed around water infrastructure. In most cases, large water infrastructures are not just engineering products or development projects, they are complex, emotional and identity constructions as well. Representations of large dams like the GERD are deeply embedded in the popular and political spaces of society. Furthermore, dams have political meanings, aesthetic meanings, and historical interpretations.

As should be clear by now, Abbay is not just a river. It carries deep symbolic meanings in the minds of the Ethiopian people. The actual construction of the GERD changed the image of Abbay from a traitor/A’bay/አቫይ into the thankful river. Narratives like the physical beauty of the river, its masculinity, and its belongingness to the nation remained constant.

The GERD stands for hope and is portrayed as a symbol that rectifies past injustices and betrayals by the river.

I suggest water scholars, diplomats, practitioners, and decision-makers consider the cultural, emotional, and symbolic dimensions of the river and its infrastructures to deeply understand the attitudes and behavior in relation to a river and water infrastructures in order to achieve sustainable water governance.

References

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About author

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Abebe Yirga Ayenalem

Abebe Yirga Ayenalem is a water person trained at IHE-Delft, who is fascinated by transboundary water conflict, water diplomacy, environmental politics, and climate diplomacy. He works as a water governance researcher at the Blue Nile Water Institute of Bahir Dar University. Also, he is a lecturer at the Department of Political Sciences and International Studies at the same university.

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