Heruy Wäldä-Sellasé

Heruy Wäldä-Sellasé (1878-1938) was an Ethiopian writer and director of the government press who encouraged and significantly advanced the writing and publication of books in Amharic, Ethiopia's national language.

Heruy Wäldä-Sellasé was born on May 7, 1878, in Shoa. His early years are shrouded in mystery, but he probably was one of the gifted young men of humble origin whom Emperor Menilek selected for high civil service posts. Heruy's interest in learning and literature first showed in his catalog of the Geez and Amharic manuscripts in Ethiopia. The third book to be printed in Addis Ababa, it appeared in 1911-1912.

When Ras Tafari (later Haile Selassie) was chosen as regent in 1917, Heruy was appointed mayor of Addis Ababa and director of the government press. In this latter capacity he considerably increased the printing of books, which were mostly of a devotional or educational kind, but which also included praise poems in honor of the Empress Zawditu and Ras Tafari and anonymous pamphlets in verse advocating modernization of the country. Heruy himself contributed several volumes: a biography of Emperor Yohannes, a collection of funeral songs, and a volume of moral meditations.

During the early 1920s Heruy traveled widely in Europe and the Middle East, accompanying the regent on his journeys, of which he wrote the official accounts: this was an excellent way of bringing knowledge of the outside world to the semiliterate Ethiopian audience. Besides producing further volumes devoted to religion, practical ethics, and the history of Ethiopia, he published an important collection of qenè, the traditional hymns of the Coptic Church. In 1927-1928 Heruy set up his own press in the hope of stimulating the production of creative literature more efficiently than could be done by the government press.

After Ras Tafari's accession to the imperial throne as Haile Selassie in 1930, Heruy was appointed foreign minister. In spite of the duties of his office and of his travels to Japan and Europe, his literary activity continued unabated. In addition to his educational writings, he promoted the growth of Amharic prose fiction. The first novel in Amharic, by Afäwärq Gäbrä Lyasus, had been printed in Rome in 1909. The second was Heruy's Thoughts of the Heart: The Marriage of Berhané and Seyon Mogasa (1930/1931), a slight story designed to discourage the Ethiopian custom of child marriage. More ambitious was The New World (1932/1933), which deals with a young Ethiopian who has an opportunity to study in Europe; on returning to his native country, he meets almost insuperable difficulties in his attempts to eradicate obsolete customs, to purify the corrupt clergy, and to introduce such emblems of Westernization as the telephone and the phonograph. This story, somewhat crude and unappetizingly edifying, is probably the first treatment of an African's direct contact with Europe in African prose fiction.

One of Heruy's most significant works of the early 1930s was the chronicle of his journey to Japan, a country which held peculiar fascination for Ethiopia because of its success in resisting European imperialism and in assimilating nonetheless the technological civilization of the West.

After the Italian invasion and the defeat of Ethiopia in 1936, Heruy followed the Emperor to his British exile. He died in the monarch's residence in Bath on Sept. 29, 1938, after several months' illness.


Further Reading on Heruy Wäldä-Sellasé

A section on Heruy is in Edward Ullendorff, The Ethiopians: An Introduction to Country and People (1960; 2d ed. 1965). A detailed discussion of Heruy's writings is in Albert S. Gérard, Four African Literatures (1971).