Did you know – a young soldier’s afro almost prevented him from getting treatment for malaria?
Jagama Kello, middle, left home at just 15 to fight Italian invaders
In an episode that illustrates a typical incident in his life, just after the Emperor’s return from exile in the United Kingdom, Jagama, then still a young man, was hit with a severe bout of malaria. The disease brought him almost to death’s door. However, the proud soldier ran into difficulties when seeking treatment at a hospital in Addis Abeba. The British doctor refused to treat him if Jagama did not cut his hair.
This was unacceptable to the soldier, who turned around and went home. The afro was a source of pride to him; it had made him look wild and dangerous when fighting the Italian troops in the bush, and besides sporting a gofere was a symbol of patriotism, a mark that the person sacrificed their time, and lives, for their country.
It took the intervention of Emperor Haileselassie to compel Jagama to cut his hair and finally get the treatment that would save his life.
Jagama was one of the last old guard of patriots, people who took to the bush, and the battlefield to defend their country from the Italian invasion of 1935. They were turbulent times, when the Emperor was forced into exile in Europe, and the Italian army managed to advance all the way to Addis Abeba. People from all walks of life, from farmers to nobles, picked up whatever weaponry they had in hand to mount a resistance.
When Italian troops came into Ethiopia, the 15 year-old left home with his older brother and joined the campaign of guerrilla warfare against the invaders.
Born into the family of a wealthy landlord, Jagama was not what is thought of as the typical guerrilla fighter. But a childhood filled with stories of his brave ancestors fighting in various wars made him more than willing to leap at the chance to emulate them when the Italian army invaded.
He had no rifle at the time. Only his older brother had one. But that did not stop him from helping turn the tide of the war against the Italian invaders. One of his campaigns was at Seyoum Mariam, around 55Km from the capital. A surprise attack on a group of Italian soldiers resulted in the deaths of 72 Italian soldiers, and the capture of 3,000 rifles.
When the Emperor eventually returned from his exile on May 5th 1941, Jagama did not go to the capital for the ceremonies. The Emperor instead made the trip to Gimchi, in Shewa, Jagama’s home town, where the fighter put his troops on parade to greet him.
A distinguished military career would await the young guerrilla who started without a gun. After the war with Italy was over, he remained in the military, and eventually rose to the rank of Lieutenant General. In what seemed like an extension of his former glories, he eventually became instrumental in crushing a rebellion in Bale, in the 1960s. His reward was being appointed provincial military commander.
Surviving a helicopter crash, taking part in several battles, and being wounded multiple times was not enough to slow him down, even in his nineties.
According to some who knew him, Jagama also had a fondness for gambling, and especially card games, playing until the end of his life. Still others described a man who was a dedicated patriot, deeply committed to his country.
He even had a foray into politics, following the fall of the Dergue in 1991, when he became one of the founders of the Ethiopian Unity Party.
Jagama Kello (Liu. Gen.) passed away on April 7, 2017, in Addis Abeba. He was 96 years old.
Following an infection that had him hospitalised at Addis Abeba’s Armed Forces Hospital, Jagama Kello passed away. He is survived by his wife Aster, his five daughters (his son unfortunately passed away earlier this year), five grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.