Stories on Birhanu Nega's book from prison
Molla Wolde, a charming young man, used to work as a newspaper vendor around the Shola area. The closure of tens of private newspapers after the massive political crackdown in November last year by the Ethiopian government left him without a livelihood. He started to work as a barber in his village earning 8 birr a day. That is significantly less than that the average daily income he used to get when he was a newspaper vendor at the height of the election controversy.
When Molla heard the story of Dr. Birhanu's book changing hands in the city without reaching to book sellers, he thought it would make his day. He tracked a distributor through his former newspaper network and got hold of four hundred books. He sold them in hours at 45 birr though the cover price is 35, making him 4000 birr richer in a single day. "It didn't seem right to profit form this book. But I had played a role in making it reach to people and It wasn't bad either if I got some money out of that venture," claimed the confused vendor. Little did he know that the price of the book had hit triple digits in some areas of the city.
Birhanu Nega's book has already broken all kind of sales records before even reaching the book stores. According to sources, in four days, more than 10,000 copies were sold. The reaction was equally stunning. From people who passionately kissed Birhanu's picture on the back cover to those who stayed all night reading it and failing to appear on work the next day, moving stories abound. "I have never been so engrossed and so impressed with an Ethiopian political literature," a man working in one of domestic NGOs told me. "It is still amazing that Birhanu writes of love and compassion even after what they did to him. He is an incorrigible optimist." Another civil society member had a more egotistical reason to enjoy the book. "I had supported the prisoners. I had felt that they were the one with truth and justice in their side. I had given the prisoners all the benefit of doubt when other opposition members disagreed with and splinted from them. This book vindicated me," he proudly boasted.
Molla recounted the enthusiasm with which people are buying the book. "They thank me. They hail me, for bringing the book to them. They say they love Birhanu. One lady read the dedication when I gave her the book and cascaded into tears," Molla said. Discussion groups are being formed in different government offices. Prayers to the jailed have started in protestant churches. Young people talk about the book's content and its price in villages. Even in the Prime Minister office the book was being sold without the bosses detecting it. It shows the amount of detest the people have to EPRDF.
People sensed the humility of the author and its compelling moral message. Some called the reading process painful. They had a feeling of guilt. "I am not a kind of person who usually questions about the meaning and value of life," a slick and well-clad computer programmer told me. "When I read the book, I really felt ashamed of myself. I questioned whether my life right now was worth living."
A famous footballer was walking in the Legehar area when a vendor approached him with books to be sold. One of those books was Birhanu's. He learnt the price was 100 birr and complained. The vendor showed him a big book written about Emperor Haile Selassie and asked whether which book the player preferred. The player's choice was obvious. "You see I sell the book on Haile Selassie for 100. Should I sell Dr. Birhanu's for less," The vendor stated. It was as if the vendor was saying that he knew the value of the book and he would set up the price despite its cover value. The player bought the book for 100. He didn't want to regret for not having it in case it was unavailable in the market in the coming days.
Such enthusiasm was shared by Addis Admass. Since the November crack down, Addis Admass, the only paper unaffiliated with the government, was just struggling to exist. It stayed clear of political stories. Yesterday, Birhanu's book was given front page coverage. The editorial was also inspired by the book's optimism and argued for people to see light in the darkness like Birhanu.
If Birhanu wrote to share his memoirs and opinions, the book went beyond that. It had put life back to the struggle for freedom and democracy. Wonder what a single book can do.
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