The brief introduction to qene by Gebre Eyasus Gorfu is a detailed description of “an Ethiopian style of speech, where one says one thing while implying a different meaning at the same time and in the same sentence.”

Qene can usually be expressed in a poetic form or in a prose, containing the two parts of sem and werk (wax and gold), all within the same expression. The wax and gold analogy comes from the craft of the goldsmith during the making of jewelry. The image is first formed in wax, because wax is soft and pliable to carve. The wax is then covered with clay, plaster, or porcelain, which hardens. When the molten gold is poured into the plaster or clay, the wax melts away, leaving the gold, with the desired image. Thus, encrypting a hidden message in Qene is an ancient art of creating more than one meaning, where the apparent wax and the hidden, gold, are intertwined in the same sentence.

It’s a tradition going back to the fifth century, and was used against Ian Smith of Rhodesia in the ’60s:

That was when a certain Ethiopian cleric took up his Begena to express the following Amharic Qene in a song, as a form of solidarity with the people:
Ian Smith Teseyeme alu Kesiss
Be Englizu papas
Ejun zerega le-nechochu…
Meskelun le-tkurochu…

The Qene is hidden in the word meskel. It means cross: the cross on which Jesus was hanged, or the symbol of a cross priests usually carry, and would often use when blessing the people. But the same word, without any changes in stress, also means: to hang with a rope. The meaning of the poem then becomes clear:
Ian Smith
Was appointed a priest
By the English Bishop
(Ex Prime Minister Harold Wilson)
He stretched out his hand to the whites,
And his cross/his hangings to the blacks

I recommend the whole article, and I thank Pat Hall for the link.


  1. Very interesting, particularly the reference to Ian Smith.
    I was under the impression that very many African languages posess this quality of double meaning and allusiveness, although being no linguist I can’t say for certain. In Zimbabwe during the liberation struggle I have been told that the musician Thomas Mapfumo used just this quality in the lyrics of his chimurenga songs. A direct translation would not reveal anything particularly seditious so the song would not be banned, but the double meaning would be very obvious to anyone with Shona as their first language. Shona speakers themselves refer to it as “deep Shona”, which I think was a modern reworking of the initiate language mentioned in this article on Shona Folklore
    I also encountered something very similar in Malawi and Cameroon.
    I would be very interested if anyone knows more about this. A brief google didn’t reveal much, but I did chance upon this site which claims there are 200 words in Shona to denote “walking”. Perhaps the African equivalent of the Eskimo’s snow!
    (Sorry, I appear to have posted in your comments…. )

  2. I’m sure there must be plenty of English punning analogies: for instance, slightly altering the emphasis to pronounce “diarrhoea” as “dire rear”.

  3. qB, you can post as much as you like in my comments! I’m not surprised there are similar poetic strategies in other African languages, and I’d like to know more about them. (Punning, of course, is worldwide, but this is a more specific phenomenon.)

  4. This reminds me of the gnomes and riddles in the English and Norse tradition — something similiar is also seen among the Mongols. It seems to be characteristic of oral cultures. Besides sneaking past censorship, this sort of speech allows you to get the thoughful people thinking while not bothering the thoughtless ones.
    To go further, perhaps beyond reason, Chinese poetry often had coded political meanings. Taking something at face value can be fatal (to the reader’s understanding, I mean; if the censors understood the hidden meaning, that could be fatal for the poet.) Holzman’s Poetry and Politics isn’t really a fun read, but it tells you what’s happening in Chinese poetry.
    Mandelstam was finally arrested based on a poem, they say.

  5. Yes, but Mandelstam’s poet had no hidden meanings. His problem was that he read it only to 10 friends, and one of them betrayed him.

  6. Some corrections on my last comment:
    I meant to write “poem” not “poet.”
    And there may be hidden meanings, but I meant that the literal reading of the poem was enough to get him arrested.

  7. This reminds me of…
    Yep. Although I appreciate, as languagehat says, that the Qene is a particularly focused tradition, I don’t see it as unique. Pardon the scatological nature again, but a number of Western humorists, such as John Waters and Steve Coogan, have exploited the near-identical pronunciation of “our souls” and “arseholes” for satirical effect that many listeners never noticed.

  8. Another hypothesis re Thomas Mapfumo’s texts factors in the formidable quantities of dagga people say he was smoking at the time.

  9. There’s no doubt Thomas Mapfumo likes his spliff, but I think we’ve got slightly off the track… Qene isn’t merely punning or wordplay at that level, and neither are the ways of using language I’d like to know more about… a highly symbolic language.
    Another example is the Malawian poet Jack Mapanje. It was only when the second edition of his book of poems Of Chameleons and Gods appeared that he was arrested. It is thought that it took that long for the authorities to unpick the layers of meaning for which his poems were so popular in Malawi, but which were hidden beneath a relatively innocuous facade. There is an interesting discussion of it here.
    What we really need, though, is the man himself!

  10. Maureen says:

    There are some songs which alternate lines in English and Gaelic. In the one I know of, the English lines, for the benefit of the English soldiers, are very like an English folksong about soldiers. The Gaelic lines make the whole song an insult against them.

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