Tomoka Coffeehouse, ten minutes walk from Piassa, is no Café Griensteidl. It is hardly well-furnished and spacious. There are no billiard tables or chess sets. Marble-topped tables usually strewn with newspapers plunk inches away from each other barely allowing a space to stand up and sip the small cup of coffee served on a steel tray. Yet Tomoka has an intriguing feel of a 19th century Viennesian coffeehouse. Its tables are as much a platform for ideas as coffee. It is where brilliant youth with precocious talents for analytical thinking and reasoning grapple with philosophy, politics and economics.
Professor Mesfin Woldemariam used to have, like Emmanuel Kant, a routine morning walk to Tomoka where he would be surrounded by the smart and fiercely combative young intellectuals, who weren't even born when his seminal works on famine and food security were published, and argue about everything on earth, from post-modernism and Derrida to Tomism . The spirit of Tomoka is Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto ; nothing human is alien to me. No debate, however, is without an Ethiopian reference. Professor Mesfin always raised the possibilities of the construction of a self one can be proud of; and where discussions on personal identity in the Ethiopian context lead is predictable: a heated exchange on ethnic politics. Mesfin was not an "in most things unity" Augustinian. As a universalist with a passion for individual rights, he wasn't an intellectual to make a call to arms in defense of ethnic politics of whatever kind. But in his young companions, he didn't look for conformity to his views. Instead he wanted to see the honesty of their views and the consistency of their logic. He, sometimes, pushed the perverse sides of the argument, brought up ideas totally contrary to his and defended them with the zeal of a devil's advocate. In that professor Mesfin's method appeared like the Socrates method on its head.
Of course, at the end of the debates Mesfin wanted to get as many youth to share his passion for individual rights and non-violence. It is these two positions that make him a gadfly in Ethiopian politics post 1970s which has been dominated by the revolutionary generation which grew up idolizing Che Guevara than Ghandi; Marx than Mill. He was vilified by the violent student protestors of early 1970s who counted their legendary teacher among them but felt betrayed when he rejected their "Fano Tesemara", a violent revolutionary slogan. Mengistu hated his steadfast liberalism, calling him a CIA agent. The TPLF who weren't used to the rigorous academism and intellectualism of the Mesfins demonized him when he dissected their half-baked Marxism and ethnic politics and laid it to its bare bones. Beyond academics, his staunch defense of human rights led him to create the Ethiopian Human Rights Council, procreating and initiating people to rites of the defense of liberty and equality. Where death was culture, he argued for the abolition of death penalty. Where government was supposed to be untouchable, he exposed with rigorous research the government's willful and wanton violations of human rights.
The influence of great dissenters will be felt when their ideas and views sip through the layers of time and reach the subsequent generations. Professor Mesfin has among other things saved the principles of non-violent struggle and the defense of individual rights from extinction in Ethiopia with an exemplary, frank and patient devotion. The youth in Tomoka and elsewhere are making it mainstream. Idea lives beyond the incarceration and death of its holder.
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