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The Weeknd’s gift to U of T brings Ethiopian language to life

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The Weekdnd, aka Abel Tesfaye, is performing at the American Grammy Awards on Sunday night, Feb. 12, 2017.
Photo Credit: David Fisher

By Carmel Kilkenny | english@rcinet.ca

The Weeknd will be entertaining millions tomorrow night when he makes his appearance on the American Grammy Awards in a performance with some other artists in what is sure to be a memorable mash-up of styles and sounds.

He is much loved and appreciated in his home-town of Toronto where the Ethiopian-Canadian community he grew up in, is very grateful.

His gift of $50,000 (Cdn) last summer to the University of Toronto’s department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, has allowed the ancient Ethiopian language of Ge’ez to come to life again.

Professor Robert Holmstedt began teaching the new course this past January. He says they’re five weeks into it now, and five very dedicated students just completed the assignment of writing a paragraph, something that would be akin to writing a paragraph in Latin.

“The study of this is important, it’s important for history, it’s important for a people, it’s important to understand the meeting of cultures.”

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The Weeknd’s gift to the university came out of a challenge by another professor, Michael Gervers, who was donating $50,000 of his own money to expand Ethiopian Studies. He challenged the local Ethiopian community in Toronto to match it, and The Weeknd came through.

The donation was announced at the first Bikila Award’s fundraising event, the Bikila Barefoot Challenge, which took place at the university’s new track at Varsity Stadium. This event is in memory of one Ethiopia’s first global superstars, Abebe Bikila, the famed long-distance runner who won Gold at both the 1960 and 1964 Olympics.

At the 1960 Olympics Bikila was given a pair of running shoes that were too small. He started out in them and endured the pain for 17 kilometres. Then he took them off and completed the race barefoot, and winning that first Gold medal.

This is recent history.

Professor Holmstedt says the study of ancient Ethiopia, its language and culture are so important. In this month of Black History, many people are unaware of the position of Ethiopia as one of the great civilizations of the past.

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They were trading with the Romans and as far as India. “This was a fabulous civilization… one of the four great empires of the world at that time in the first half of the first millenium, so they developed their own architecture, obviously they have this language Ge’ez and Emperor Izana converted to Christianity in the fourth century and they started translating bibilical texts into this language but they developed their own literature then, their own styles… I mean besides the trade relations and these incredible illustrated manuscripts that come from the medieval period that show their artistic abilities, they developed a whole set of literature and liturgies in their church contexts that you really don’t see anywhere else,” Holmstedt says.

There are just 5 students now, most of them of Ethiopian background,

The university is committed to offering the language every second year for now, but if the interest grows they will respond.

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“The study of this is important, it’s important for history, it’s important for a people, it’s important to understand the meeting of cultures.” Professor Holmstedt says.

As for the present, Professor Holmstedt only really discovered The Weeknd, and his music after hearing about the donation, he reluctantly admits, but he might be counted among his fans now.

‘It’s great that he pays attention to his roots both in Canada, and also his Ethiopian roots, and we are immensely grateful.”

As for the Grammys, Professor Holmstedt says he wouldn’t usually watch, being an early-to-bed person, but this year with what he feels is a “personal connection” he may just tune in to see Abel Tesfaye, aka The Weeknd, perform


  1. First of all, Bikila was not an Ethiopian. He was an Oromo first who the neftegna bandit king forced him against his will to run for the neftegna country. The neftegna bandit king Selassie found out that Bikila had attended one of the meetings of Mecha Tulema and told him that he must go to Rome and bring back nothing but a gold medal. Otherwise he would kill every close and distant relative of Bikila. Bikila did that just to save the lives of his relatives. The threat continued and when Bikila finally refused the bandit Selassie personally beat Bikila with heavy iron rods where he was paralyzed from waist down. This true and actual history was just uncovered by one of my well educated Oromo scholars currently a renowned professor at an ivy college(southern state) here in the USA.
    And also Ge’ez was the language we Oromos created as a secret set of codes to communicate confidential matter at our Palace around 500 BC(800 in the year of the Reconing of Our Creator Waqaa). Stop stealing away the history of my Oromos.

  2. This is detestable. I am appalled that Zehabesha fell for such a brazen lie. As Oromo myself I am embarrassed by Hordofaa’s wickedness.

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