The past holiday weekend had my mind racing back over four decades to the early 80s when watching a TV show was one of the quality time spent with my parents. A particular moment came to mind when anticipation filled the air at home. Every eye in the living room was fixed on the black-and-white 17-inch TV set as the intro music of a hit crime series played. The title of the three-part movie was "Yaltekefele Ida" (Unpaid Debt), starring the then-young virtuoso actress Alemtsehay Wedajo.

At the tender age of six, grasping the hang of the adult world portrayed in the plot was difficult. But, certain scenes remain vivid, like the moment when the heroine pointed a pistol at her pyjama-clad lover, who pleaded for his life. After what felt like an eternity of tension, she fired the shot and fled, completing her vendetta against her unfaithful and abusive partner. The overarching theme of avenging a lifetime of misery stuck with me.

The show became a sensation, rerunning two times due to popular demand on the sole TV station available at the time. Following its success, another gripping series titled "Yeabekyelesh Nuzaze" (Abekeyelsh’s Will) captivated audiences with its tale. I distinctly recall the legendary actor Wogayehu Nigatu's portrayal of a patient at the Amanuel Hospital, the sole psychiatric institution in Addis Abeba at the time. Both series were adaptations of crime novels penned by the esteemed detective story writer, Yilma Habteyes. A pioneer in Ethiopian crime fiction, he remains unmatched in his field, with 16 novels to his name, 13 of which are detective stories.

These TV adaptations left an indelible mark on my childhood memories. To date, I can visualise scenes from the series with remarkable clarity. My familiarity with Yilma's works deepened during a school break in my junior high years. A cousin of my father, studying at the university, inadvertently left behind a bag filled with treasures for my burgeoning passion: books. Among them, Yilma Habteyes' "Delalaw" (The Broker) and "Agatami" (Coincidence) stood out. With the whole winter to myself, I delved into Yilma's thrilling narratives, captivated by the action and intrigue that held me spellbound until the last page.

Yilma's life story is intriguing. He was born in 1938 in Addis Abeba, around Ras Desta Damtew Hospital area. Raised in a conservative family, he grew up to embody the quintessential urbanite, shaped by his surroundings in Arada. He attended the Lycée Guébré-Mariam, a renowned French school in the capital, where he rubbed shoulders with contemporaries like Fikru Kidane, who later became a sports journalist and an official in the International Olympic Committee. Yilma's formative years revolved around the old Piassa area, immersing himself in the era's zeitgeist. He pursued a laboratory technician course at the Louis Pasteur Institute, a collaborative program between the French and Ethiopian governments.

His professional journey began in Gonder town, Amhara Regional State, where he interned and honed his skills as a laboratory technician. It was during this period that Yilma's love for literature blossomed, as he devoured works ranging from Shakespeare to Agatha Christie. Little did he know, he would follow in Christie's footsteps, crafting gripping tales in his native Amharic language. The idea of becoming an author first crossed his mind when a friend praised his eloquent four-page letter, jokingly suggesting he could be a novelist. Taking the jest to heart, Yilma began contributing articles and short stories to magazines. Upon returning to his hometown, he continued his literary pursuits, garnering critical acclaim and cementing his place in Amharic literature.

Literary love transcends the act of reading or writing itself; it becomes a profound connection to the world of imagination and storytelling. For many, diving into a book is not merely an escape from reality but an immersion into new worlds, perspectives, and experiences. This deep emotional attachment to literature can spark a lifelong passion that extends far beyond the pages of any single book.

Exploring literary pursuits may lead to creating them. What starts as a casual hobby—perhaps writing short stories, jotting down poetry, or even just avidly discussing literature with friends—can gradually evolve into a central aspect of our identity. The journey from hobbyist to professional writer or scholar is a profound transformation. What began as a simple love for reading or writing grows into a lifelong commitment to honing one's craft, exploring new genres, and contributing to the literary world in meaningful ways.

However, even for those who do not pursue writing or academia professionally, the impact of their literary passion can be profound. It shapes the way they view the world, informs their understanding of human nature, and provides solace during difficult times. For some, literature becomes a source of inspiration, guiding their personal and professional endeavours.

Sharing literary passion with others is rewarding. Whether through book clubs, literary events, or online communities, enthusiasts find a sense of belonging and camaraderie among fellow bibliophiles. In essence, the journey from literary love to life's work is a testament to the transformative power of passion and curiosity. It demonstrates how a simple hobby can evolve into a lifelong pursuit that shapes not only individual lives but also the cultural fabric of society.

The establishment of publishing companies during the 1980s provided a brief respite for Yilma and his fellow writers. The Ethiopian Books Agency, in collaboration with the Oxford Printing Press, facilitated the publication of Yilma's later works, marking a period of peak production and recognition.

Despite writing over 16 books and selling over 110,000 copies throughout his career spanning half a century, Yilma remained dedicated to his profession as a lab technician until retirement. He always maintained that his writing stemmed from passion rather than financial gain, lamenting the nascent reading culture in Ethiopia that deterred many writers and publishers from pursuing their craft wholeheartedly. His commitment to literature mirrored that of Anton Chekhov, who famously described medicine as his "lawful wife" and literature as his "mistress."

Yilma's legacy as a master of crime fiction remains unmatched, yet he was not adequately rewarded financially for his contributions. His modest lifestyle was supported by a meagre state pension and minimal proceeds from his literature. But he continued to write passionately until his passing in 2017 at the age of 79. His works face the threat of obscurity, as his books become increasingly scarce.

I believe his crime novels possess the potential to be cinematic blockbusters, provided they receive the treatment they deserve, incorporating authentic narratives and language. The lack of recognition for his work tells the importance of promoting indigenous literature to preserve literary heritages. While foreign adaptations dominate the film industry, original works like Yilma's languish in obscurity. However, I remain optimistic that such works experience a resurgence, shining brightly once more, as they rightfully should.

PUBLISHED ON May 11,2024 [ VOL 25 , NO 1254]

Bereket Balcha works in the aviation industry and is passionate about fiction writing and can be reached at (

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