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Series: On Art and Artists
Ato Sebhatu Gebre Yesus – Gardening to Create the “Country Of Flowers”
Ato Sebhatu Gebre Yesus Tesfai, Ethiopia’s pioneer gardener, was born in the Bodji Dirmaj area of Wollega in 1920. The ninth son of parents who had studied with Swedish missionaries near the port of Massawa, his father died when he was only three.
Sebhatu came to Addis Ababa at the age of five and enrolled in the newly established Teferi Mekonnen School. He studied first in French and then later in English. At the time, he lived with his brother-in-law, Ato Beshahwered Habtewold who influenced Sebhatu in more ways than one.
Discovering the youngster’s avid interest in reading, Ato Beshwered introduced him to National Geographic and other periodicals, urging him not merely to look at the pictures, but to take notes on everything he read – be it about peoples or discoveries.
Later transferred to the Menelik II School, Sebhatu continued his studies to the eighth grade. They were bought to a sudden end, however, by the Italian fascist invasion of 1935-6.
Undeterred by the end of his academic career, he taught himself Italian, and opened a translation office. Thus, he was able to help many compatriots with the writing of numerous application forms needed during the enemy occupation.
Soon after the liberation of the country in 1941, the British recruited Sebhatu to the Police Force as interpreter-clerk. After the establishment of the post-war Ethiopian Government, he joined the Ethiopian Ministry of Commerce’s Foreign Trade Department, but later become a private businessman.
About this time, he developed a keen interest in flowers, and kept a small window-box in the house which he rented. He also spent much of his spare time visiting forests and formal gardens around Addis Ababa.
His first opportunity in gardening came at an Ethiopian Exhibition in Addis Ababa in 1955, where seven varieties of Ethiopian tree-seedlings from the Ministry of Agriculture’s Forestry Department were on display. He was so fascinated by this display that the Forestry Department agreed he could collect them at the end of the exhibition, asking him to pay the cost of the boxes. The deal sealed Sebhatu’s destiny as a horticulturist.
Immediately he began to look for a garden for his seedlings. This he found in Filwah, a former rubbish dump, rich with humus. The newly established gardener immediately expanded his hobby by starting to grow flowers. By trial and error, and reading books and periodicals, he taught himself the hobby that became his life work. He soon abandoned all to dedicate his efforts to growing plants.
His career turned for the better when Mezzedimi, the Italian architect of Africa Hall started work in Addis Ababa. Looking for someone to landscape its gardens, Mezzedimi visited Sebhatu’s garden and said he was the man for the job. Mezzedimi also taught Sebhatu how to make gardening a career. Until that time he had no idea of the consumer value of plants, and was surprised to discover that they could be sold for anything from 10 to 400 Birr each. When the landscaping of Africa Hall was complete, Mezzedimi advised Sebhatu to continue as a commercial gardener, and thus play his part in the development of Addis Ababa as the diplomatic capital of Africa.
By now firmly launched on his new career, Sebhatu proceeded to plan and design landscapes and plant trees, shrubs, and flowers for many of the capital’s institutions. Among them were the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia, Ethiopia Hotel, the Addis Ababa Hilton and Wabe Shebelle Hotels.
He was also responsible for establishing Ethiopia’s first botanical and commercial park, Behere Tsige, or `Country of Flowers’, in 1967. Sebhatu also made valuable contribution to the layout of Addis Ababa’s bole International airport. Besides planning its gardens, he was responsible for advising that its lawns be planted with ‘serdo’, a local grass that provides better cover than imported grass.
Sabhatu’s vision is by no means confined to Addis Ababa. He speaks of the scenic beauty of Arba Minch, the Omo Valley, and the virgin Ethiopian forests in the south west. He strongly feels that such natural resources should be protected and regarded as national heritage. Otherwise, if once lost, they could never be replaced. He places emphasis on the preservation of the existing park lands rather than reforestation.
Meanwhile, Sebhatu wants to create flowering park lands by selecting and planting the most interesting specimen of the country’s colourful and indigenous forests. He fears that many of them are gradually disappearing, destroyed by fire, drought, or expanding cultivation.
Currently President of the Horticultural Society of Ethiopia, Sebhatu gives many lectures on gardening and plant care. He is the father of eight children, four boys and four girls, by his late wife Alemitu Habtemariam, a lifetime companion of 48 years.
Whether tending plants, working in the creative arts or busy offices, Sebhatu believes that Addis Ababa must forever justify its century-old name: the `New Flower’.