34 days: One Poet Laureate, two Prime Ministers and a Princess.

The Duches of Cambrdige Kate Middleton and Foundling Museum Director Caro Howell.

The poet laureate of America Tracy K Smith  invited me to  Princeton University. I arrived on  February 15th. A melting  heart from Valentines day awaited me in the square of The Nassau inn.

An ice heart in the square at The nassau Inn in Princeton

A welcoming photo of Michelle Obama as a young smilng Princeton student.

Michelle Obama. A Princeton Graduate at The Nassau Inn.

Lunch in The Lewis Centre with a selection of the finest poets in America  from Patricia Smith to Sonia Sanchez.

Tracy K Smith holds welcomes the poets at a lunch in The Lewis Centre at Princeton University.

I talked to about my friend the South African poet Lebo Mashille and how we  had seen an electrifyiing poet who won The Grahamstown Festival National Poetry Slam  in  2014.  

National poetry Slam final 2014 at grahamstown Festival in Port Elizabeth.  (on my left is Lebo and on her left is Koleka)

Koleka Putuma leaned forward with a wide smile  “It was me” she said.  She had been invited by Tracy K Smith too.

Sonia Sanchez attended all the lectures and read at the Gala event at McCarter Theatre Center

“African Poets are the future” said Caribbean poet Kwame Dawes.  

I gave a talk in The Lewis centre for Drama Students.

After the conference on   17th February I travelled to  Potomac outside Washington DC to stay with my Godmother Ethiopia Alfred.

My Godmother Ethiopia Alfred in Potomac, Washington DC.

Just before catching a  plane to South Africa on 1st March I received a call “can you write a poem about the foundling museum to be unveiled by a VIP”  said the caller “Who is it for?” I asked  “I can’t tell you”  said the director. It was for The Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton.  I flew to South Africa  I love Cape Town.

The Onyx Hotel pool

I was to read the poem to HRH Kate Middleton on 19th March.   On March 3rd  I performed at  Artsacpe for Design Indaba.

Here are Four incredible Women who were also at Design Indaba including Lebo mashile.

left Koleka Putuma (best selling author and producer) top right Wanuri Kahiu (Kenyan film director currently taking Kenyan Board of Classification to court over her banned film ‘Rafiki’) bottom left Patricia Wangechi Kihoro (Kenyan singer, songwriter, actress, radio and reality television personality. bottom right Lebo Mashile (Co-host of Design Indaba Award-winning writer, presenter, actress and activist, Lebo is a South African household name. She has captivated audiences in 24 countries worldwide. Co-host of Design Indaba

It is a world class Design festival. This is Faith47 from Los Angeles

Faith 47 flew in from LA

This is Ane Crabtree the award winning costume designer for The Handmaids Tale.

Costume Designers Guild Award for Best Costume Design – Original Contemporary Television Series

This is Neil Harbisson. The World’s First Cyborg. He is “The man who hears colour”. He is completely colour blind. The camera attached to his head allows him to translate the sound he hears when he hears colour.

Neil harbisson at Design Indaba is completely colour blind.

With permission at design Indaba I used the artwork of International Ethiopian Photographer and Artist Aida Muluneh’s inspiring work

At Design Indaba I spoke of everyday acts of creativity Using todays example of  Aida Muluneh’s photograph to illuminate my “morning rhyme”.

The full Design Indaba crew from all over the world

Speakers & Producers of Design Indaba at the farewell meal.

My  second engagement was for the International Conference of The Young Presidents Organisation (YPO) at Cape Town International  Conference Centre. Trevor Noah flew in from America to headline. MoMa curator Paola Antonelli was another speaker.

The Tagline of The conference was “RE:”

“I just had to find him”

The audience was the largest gathering of CEO’s on earth with a combined wealth of over three trillion.

The T-Shirt says “Lit”

On stage at YPO reading a poem written for the occassion on the subect of “RE:”

I shared my story with a visual representations that I’ve never shown before.

The photographs show my event at The National Theatre in Addis Ababa Ethiopia and meeting the Queen at Buckingham Palace and the day I became Chancellor at University of Manchester.

Photographs of my family before I was born collected over many years of searching for them.

The presentation ended with  a standing ovation led by The Prime Minister of Rwanda.

I met the Grammy nominated Choreographer, dancer and philanthropist  Sherrie Silver who runs care for Rwandan children.

Sherrie Silver and me

I knew the late poet Laureate of South Africa Keorapetse William Kgositsile.  He died in September 2018. My friend  Lebo Mashile  should be the next laureate of South Africa and I told her as much.  By sheer coincidence  Lebo hosted both design Indaba and YPO.

Old friends young hearts

I left South Africa, a place I love and  flew to Ethiopia on Ethiopian Airlines..

Pilot to poet

In Addis I  stayed at the majestic Hilton Hotel which I dearly love

The Hilton Hotel was opened by Emperor Haile Selassie.

not least because of the staff and the warm natural spring water of the swimming pool.

Natural Spring water of The Hilton Hotel Swimming Pool marks it out from all other hotels in Addis.

Boeingcaused the Ethiopian Airline crash and plunged the country into mourning.Thanks for the many messages I received.  157 passengers and crew died. My father died in an  plane crash in the early seventies. Of both flights the airline was blameless.

I was pleased to see my Godson  at the new Hyatt regency Hotel in Addis.

My Godson Marcus

I was pleased to see him and his mother my good friend Meseret Fikru

My close friend Meseret Fikru.

On 12th March  I gave a reading for  Aster Zaude for a Celebration of Blind Women.

Aster Zewde. A very special woman. her charity was set up in the name of her late sister.

I love that the event was called a friendraiser. The idea for the name was hatched by  disability rights activist and national  treasure  Yetnerbesh Nigussie

A moment of silence and prayer for the victims of Ethiopian plane that crashed last sunday

A moment of silence and prayer for the victims of Ethiopian plane that crashed last sunday

The event  was in  a new restaurant overlooking Meskel Square.

A packed gathering in Addis at Lucy restaurant overlooking Meskel Square near the museum.

I took a new friend whom I met at YPO in South Africa. Her name is Anna Kim.  Anna was in the country for business.     Ethiopia loves Anna Kim.

Ethiopia loves Anna Kim

Yetnerbesh Nigussie is winner of the alternative nobel in Sweden and held court on the night. She is a national treasure.

I spoke of how we use blindness to describe the human condition  (“I was blind and now I see”)  and yet we are ‘blind’ to the needs of the blind.

Aster had the idea  the audience should be  blindfolded for my poem .

The blindfolds are the sleep masks from Ethiopian Airlines.

It was beautiful.

Closed eyes for a poem for the blind women.

While in Addis I did a lot more. I visited my friend Anna Getaneh:  Her  design wharehouse is on the outskirts of addis.  This is reception downstairs.

Supermodel, entrepeneur and philanthropist Anna Getaneh.

This is upstairs

Downstairs is a catwalk and display area and upstairs

Downstairs again

Anna Getaneh designer, businesswoman and philanthropist

Back in Addis I performed an impromptu set of poems at The Ras Hotel

This is a regular poetry reading event  in the centre of addis ababa at The Ras Hotel.

I visited The Girl Effect offices in Addis

Girl Effect Offices in Addis

DId an impromptu fast photoshoot with Bemnet Yemesgen

Attended the launch of Yegna  the first Television Teen Drama season on Ethiopia TV.

Launching yegna TV

Gayathri  is The Country Director of Girl Effect

Ethiopian Filmmaker and producer of Yegna, The ever cool Aida Ashenafi

Producer of yegna and Ethiopias finest film maker Aida Ashenafi

I had been making notes for the poem for The Duchess of Cambridge but it wasn’t easy.  I spent time with my compadre International photographer Aida Muluneh.

Aida Muluneh is the most famous international photographer in Addis. her work can be found at The Smithsonian and other galleries around the world.

The most moving part of my time in Ethiopia  was with a woman who knew my mother. Her mother was my mothers confidante.  My mother spoke with her mother about me when I was a baby.   I saw my mothers father and wife for the first time – my grandfather

My maternal grandfather and his wife

Yetnayet’s mum is Kassech Sisay Wubesheshet. She knew my mum  as a child.

March 24th the next morning  I received a message from The Prime Ministers Office through Meseret Fikru. Meseret knows everyone.   Was I available to come to meet the prime minister?   After a security check I sat in an ultra modern bright white room amongst other ethiopian artists including  Bewketu Seyoum.

First The prime minister’s aide spoke for ninety minutes. It was a transparent and open  explanation of how the government came to be. He outlined Dr Abiy Ahmed’s journey to become prime minister and his future vision for openess, dialogue and  democracy.  But  I didn’t inform his office that I couldn’t understand or speak Amharic.

Then we were chaperoned outside and around the grounds. For the first time  government is opening the palace  grounds to the public including The Majestic refurbished Menelik hall. “The 40,000Sqm palace has been undergoing a massive renovation with an investment of over two billion Birr. Its progress has reached 70pc, with a plan to finalise it early next Ethiopian year, according to people familiar with the project. When completed, it is expected to incorporate a zoo, a children’s playground, a museum, cultural villages and a public reading area.” all of which we saw. All of which will be open to the public for the first time later this year.

Does this symbolise The Prime minister of Ethiopia: to be open to the public for the public to be open to him?  His actions are clear. He acheived fifty percent gender parity in ministers.  He appointed a woman president, Dr Abiy brokered peace with Eritrea and  released all journalists and bloggers from jail. All this in his first year as prime minister.   Finally we met him in what I beleive was the cabinet office.

The new Cabinet office of The Prime Minister

We were  encouraged to ask a question.I did ask a question but it was the wrong question in the wrong language. The question I should’ve asked was “What more can I do to serve you by helping repatriate The Ethiopian Prince who is buried outside the crypt in a coffin at Windsor castle in England.”.  instead I asked about the possibility of an international literature Festival in Addis”.    I wanted to understand and speak  Amharic more now than ever.  The Prime Minister Dr Abiy Ahmed  was gracious and answered me in  English.

Dr Abiy Ahmed appointed fifty percent female Government ministers, freed Journalists and bloggers  from jail, a pointed a woman as president of Ethiopia and made peace with Eritrea. He is an example to the world of how to lead through dialogue and democracy.

We were there for five hours. He shook the hand of every single one of us. Meeting the prime minister of Ethiopia is a highlight of my life.  We will repatriate Alemayehu.

1 Hiwot Emishaw ሕይወት እምሻው 2 Bethlehem Haile ቤተልሄም ሃይሌ
3 Seada Mohammed ሰዓዳ መሐመድ 4 Azeb Worku አዜብ ወርቁ 5 Endale Geta እንዳለ ጌታ ከበደ 6 Lelisa Girma ሌሊሳ ግርማ 7 Meron Ermias ሜሮን ኤርሚያስ 8 Eyob Kitaba ኢዮብ ኪታባ 9 Bewketu Seyoum በእውቀቱ ስዩም 10 Meskerem Assegid መስከረም አሰግድ 11 Misrak Terefe ምስራቅ ተረፈ
12 Lulseged Reta ልዑልሰገድ ረታ 13 Lemn Sissay ለምን ሲሳይ
14 Teferi Alemu ተፈሪ አለሙ 15 Juneid Jemal ጁኔድ  ማል 16 Melaku Belay መላኩ በላይ 17 Dr. Bedilu Wakjira በድሉ ዋቅጅራ 18 Tigist Mamo ትእግስት ማሞ 19 Berhanu Semu ብር ኑ ሰሙ 20 Jorga Mesfin ጆርጋ መስፍን
21 Agenew Adane አገኘው አዳነ 22 Aida Mangstu አይዳ መንግስቱ 23 Rofnen Nuri ሮፍነን ኑሪ 24 Sewmehon Yismaw ሰውመሆን ይስማው 25 Abere Adamu

Back at the hilton hotel and two days before leaving  Ethiopia I  sent the poems to The Foundling Museum Director Caro howell.   Two four line poems.   We had 24 hours because the chosen one would have to be cleared by the palace.  I am not going to explain them. Once you understand the museum you understand the poems.

It is deliberate that there is no title. Each four line poem is about The Foundling Museum and the looked after child.

It is deliberate that there is no title. Each four line poem is about The Foundling Museum and the looked after child..

I flew back to England the next day on 17th March:  If a country is a family then its pilots and stewards are the daughters and sons. The chosen poems was being framed in London.

Ethiopian Airlines are the best nd this time of all is one to show them we love them.

I arrived back in England picked up a suite and two changes of clothes.  On 18th March I travelled to Brighton and stayed at my favourite hotel there – The Artists Residence

The Artists Residence in Brighton

On 19th March I awoke in Brighton to this view                                                                    I gave the keynote address at a celebration conference for Social Workers at 9am.

Social Workers need compassionate critique and support.

The taxi waiting outside raced me to Brighton train station at 10am and direct to London (12 noon) for The Duchess of Cambridge and  The Foundling Museum. But I left my blue suite jacket in the taxi!.  So I have a jacket and suite trousers and shoes. Alan Partridge casual.  Every other male was  in a suite.  This is Chineke!  artistic director Chi Chi who has recently become a fellow of The Foundling Museum. It’s great news.

Meanwhile Princess Kate Middleton met  care leavers working in other parts of  The Foundling Museum and spent time talking and workin with them. Wonderful

Duchess of Cambridge meets the care leavers on a training course at The Foundling Museum.

Duchess of Cambridge meets the care leavers on a training course at The Foundling Museum.

And then after touring the Museum The princess entered the room.

Princess Kate Middleton speaks to Chichi of Chinke! orchestra.

I read the poem to The Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton and the audience of trustees, artists and all The poem which had been finalised in Addis and hung on the wall behind me.

Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton and Foundling Director Caro Howell

Then the princess spoke  (excerpt)

The day when a member of the royal family shows concern for  looked after children is a day to remember.


Exciting news:  Superkids, my documentary on looked after children and poetry has been nominated for a BAFTA. The awards ceremony is on May 12th. I wrote this blog for my memory in lieu of family.

12 thoughts on “34 days: One Poet Laureate, two Prime Ministers and a Princess.

  1. What an interesting life you lead Lemn, with so many wonderfully artistic and creative people. And that smile- love it! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Proud to be there at the beginning mate (and you still owe me my mini baseball bat – souvenir from Toronto!!). Remember that egg and beans on toast on the Isle of Wight? The bottle of champers you bought us – the daughter it blessed us with (she’s a 27 year old psychologist now who works with the Lemn Sissay’s of the now generation).
    I just re-read the poems you presented to THE BEES KNEES again. They are still as good now. And you did it mate. You did what you said you would.
    This past two years I cared for my Dad through his Lewi Bodies Dementia. All poets end that way! The next journey for us….bon voyage matey!

    • Dear Gary, how wonderful. I can virtually hear the lilt in your voice with its hint of melancholy and sparkle of fun and generosity. I think I was a better poet then than I am now. Less rhyme to lean on and more fun and agility. Though it’s still there. It just has more coats. I remember the poem about doctor who and the telephone box. Didn’t one of the poets go on to be a children’s laureate? I’d love to know what I said I would do, all those years ago. It’s important to me that you reached out. I loved that time. Henry Normal went on to be a gazillionaire. I didn’t. Yes you are right. Your father sends out a lode star to show us where we are all going. We’ll graefully or ungracefully fall into our own metaphors with a startled wonder.
      Love to your father, to you and your family and the daughter who marks our time and love to the voyage into the open sea.

    • What’s most inspiring is the inevitability: Strands of different work weave together and this blog is a small fingernail section of a tapestry. I am not
      and never have been the loose threads in someone elses narrative. Within each strand is my DNA, within each project and each conversation. The difficult times
      and the easier times are all woven in. There’s anger, forgiveness, joy and pain. I blog in lieu of family to keep some form of relativity. This blog is skirting
      the surface, deeper inside it are lifelong freindships, quiet moments of reflection, tested nerves and deadlines. But I must say that had I been drinking alcohol
      I couldn’t keep up the work rate or the emotional level headedness necessary to enjoy it all and complete it.

  3. I have loved reading this as one narrative I saw most of those events on your fb page but seeing them in flow and as one helped see those recurring themes of creativity, connection, identity, loss, gain and more. The comments attached to this blog were also so enlightening Thank you for writing, for sharing and as witnesses to your life ( especially after the Report) we also become a small part of it. It happened. There is a shared remembering now. We are all connected.

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