Zeleke Bekele ’50 died on January 31, 2022, Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
(The following was provided by the McInnis and Holloway Funeral Home on January 31, 2022)
Our beautiful father, Dr Zeleke Bekele of Calgary, Alberta, passed away on Monday, January 31, 2022, at the age of 91 years. He took his last breath listening to Tizita music and holding his son’s hand.
Zeleke was born in Yeka, now a subcity of Addis Ababa, on May 19, 1930, to parents, Bekele Teferi Seifu and Askale Wolde Tsadik. His mother, Askale, hailed from Bulga, Soah Province, Ethiopia, and his father hailed from the area around Abune Hara Dengil in Gondar Province, Ethiopia.
Zeleke was first educated within the ecclesiastical tradition of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, but this early education was often interrupted due to the Italian occupation of Ethiopia from 1935 to 1941. During the war, Zeleke worked as an errand boy for various government administrators, including as an assistant to an Italian photographer. After the war ended and out of sheer self-will and determination, Zeleke enrolled himself in Teferi Mekonnen school—one of the first secular, public schools in Ethiopia.
At the age of sixteen, Zeleke won a scholarship and attended the high school attached to the American University of Cairo (Egypt). Two years later he won a scholarship to Bowdoin College in Maine, USA. After graduation from Bowdoin, Zeleke did a year of extra study at Columbia University in New York, and then enrolled in the medical school at SUNY Downstate. During his time at Columbia, Zeleke met and married his first wife, Maisie Tomlinson, who was a Jamaican woman, also studying in New York. Together, they became interested in socialist and Black politics in New York and internationally. Zeleke’s political interests would soon lead him to Belgrade, Yugoslavia, where he completed his medical studies. Zeleke practiced medicine for many years at Menelik II Hospital in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. However, in a country where access to doctors was reserved for the privileged few, his true passion lay in public health. He helped set up the first modern hospital in Jijiga, Ethiopia and later, became the first Ethiopian to be the Dean of the Public Health College in Gondar, Ethiopia.
In 1968, Zeleke remarried Elleni Imru, with whom he had three children. In the 1980s and 1990s, Zeleke pursued a career with the World Health Organization that would take him to many countries, including being stationed in Guyana and Barbados.
Zeleke lived a gorgeous and generous life. What so many admired most about Zeleke was that he could move with fluency between a Ge’ez text, a public health problem, a Langston Hughes poem and a text from “uncle” Marx (as he would say). He read voraciously throughout his life and spoke multiple languages. On November 16, 2021, Zeleke called his daughter Centime and said: “I am going to die soon, but I suppose at some point separation must come for all of us, but if I die you will also die because we are intertwined, so how can you live in a world without me?” This is how he spoke all the time. He was a medical doctor but more so a poet-philosopher. To the very end he prepared us for life by asking questions.
Zeleke has been a most talented father. Rigorous, disciplined, and as such very playful. His entire intellectual disposition has been inherited by his children, especially in the way we ask questions. He always said thank you at the end of a phone call. We give thanks, indeed. The answer to the question that Zeleke asked on the phone in November 2021 is that his children are of course free souls connected to him through love and wisdom.
Zeleke asked that his body be donated to science, showing his commitment to public health to the very end. We give thanks and praises.
Zeleke is survived by his two daughters, Libby Zeleke of Kelowna, BC, and Elleni Centime Zeleke of New York, NY; two sons and one daughter-in-law, Guermame Patou Zeleke of Calgary, AB, Dereje Zeleke of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and Jennifer Zeleke of Calgary, AB; six grandchildren, Frehiwot Dereje Zeleke, Stephanos Dereje Zeleke, Bitelehem Dereje Zeleke, Joshua Zeleke, Sasha Zeleke, and Vivian Zeleke, and two great-grandchildren, Yosaf and Barkon. He was predeceased by his wife, Elleni Imru, his first spouse, Maisie Tomlinson, his brother, Tesfaye Bekele, and his sister, Debritu Bekele, as well as numerous nieces, nephews, cousins, and friends.