Ethiopia: through writers' eyes


Ethiopia: through writers' eyes


Hand-picked extracts chosen by Yves-Marie Stranger, a long time Ethiopia resident, trilingual interpreter and writer.

There are only a handful of destinations left in the world that have retained their ability to surprise the traveller and Ethiopia is one of them. This book offers the reader an opportunity to discover or rediscover one of the most fascinating countries on the planet, through a kaleidoscopic variety of authors.  The only country in Africa never to be colonized, ithas an extraordinary history and at the centre of this rugged, landlocked country lies the cultural hub of Addis Ababa.  This book is the perfect companion to any exploration of Ethiopia, be it in the precarious saddle of an Abyssinian pony, or from the folds of an armchair. As well as peopling the land with its own caste of priest kings descended from Solomon and Sheba, Ethiopia has long attracted the attentions of eccentric adventurers, Jesuit explorers, foolish would-be conquerors, as well as saints and sinners in equal measure.

Including: Herodotus, Edward Gibbon, Philip Marsden, Strabo, Abba Gregorios, Arthur Rimbaud, Edgar Allan Poe, Coleridge, Dervla Murphy, Wilfred Thesiger among others.



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Ethiopia: through writers' eyes

Edited by Yves-Marie Stranger
ISBN: 978-178060-077-2
Format: 375pp demi p
East Africa/Ethiopia/Travel Writing

Extract from Introduction

Jorge Luis Borges – who once wrote a fable called The Immortal that began and circuitously ended inside the margins of Ethiopia – set forth that ‘all good authors create their precursors’. In turn, following in his footsteps, one could venture to say that all countries worth their salt create their own geography – from myths, old maps and wishful thinking.

Today, we may be sure Ethiopia is a country in north-east Africa, but the country’s borders have not always been so well defined. Depending on the whims and knowledge of writers and geographers, Ethiopia was at times made up of all of sub-Saharan Africa – with a coastline that wandered from the Red Sea to the Atlantic Ocean – or was solely the area circumscribed between the northern reach of Egypt’s desert, the confluence of the Blue and White Niles and the Atbara river. In a later incarnation, the country became a saintly empire administered by an anointed priest-king, known as Prester John: an empire so munificent and kaleidoscopic that it was found in the Congo, in Mongolia, in Syria and, finally, in the Christian kingdom of the hinterlands of the Red Sea. The Greek Bible had the spawn of Shem, Kush and Ham go and multiply in Egypt and Aethiopia – a tale later reprised in a legend that has Axum’s first capital founded by none other than Ityopis, son of Kush. Later the Ethiopian Queen Kandace’s eunuch is converted by the Apostle Philip on the road to Damascus – and returns to convert queen and kingdom to Christianity. Research has revealed that biblical transcribers and interpreters had rendered Kandace from the Meroitic for Queen or Queen Mother. This title, in various guises and local languages, was used until the twentieth century to denote the Ethiopian queen.

It is this intertexual play carried out on a mind’s eye map, which is so fascinating to the amateur Ethiopianist, and to the visitor to Ethiopia. No country can be better grasped from the depths of an armchair, and a library is as good a place as any to make out the ancient contours of the land of Prester John, Mandeville and Rasselas, as well as the new outlines of a country that today is attempting with great vigour to shake off the modern myth it was saddled with – of Korem and the 1970s famine, of the Derg’s Red Terror, and of poverty and refugee camps. The BBC’s John Buerk and Jonathan Dimbleby’s pronouncements on Ethiopia have had as much, if not more, resonance in the modern era as all of the Classical and Enlightenment authors put together. And yet – when John Buerk began his famous intervention at dawn in Korem, he too harked back to the text and the myth, when he intoned on camera those now famous words: ‘Dawn, and as the sun breaks through the piercing chill of night on the plain outside Korem, it lights up a biblical famine, now, in the twentieth century.’

One could be forgiven for thinking that these references are so many worn-out palimpsests now lying unused by the young, and certainly never used by Ethiopians themselves. But one would be wrong. For however bland and annoying those references to biblical imagery may seem to be the epithet ‘biblical’ is etched on the land itself. For a country that has so many illiterates, the Ethiopians’ own knowledge of historical works, myths, and books referencing their country is quite astounding. As is their respect for the word, for rhetoric and their love of poetry. Since time immemorial, ‘magic scrolls’, consisting in wide-eyed angel sketches and verses from the Psalms of David, have been worn tightly rolled up in cartouches around necks to ward off the evil eye. And it is said that Emperor Zera Yacob (1399–1468) – himself a scholar who penned various religious treatises – so much believed in the power of the word that he pro- mulgated that all his subjects should have ‘I renounce Satan’ tattooed on their wrists.

Ethiopia likes to call itself a country of the Book and – from rustic magic scrolls to the carefully wrought Liber Axumae horse-skin vellum – the word is often seen as panacea as well as origin. Witness the practice of granting children names to tease out self-fulfilling prophecy: Kassahun (Be-My-Compensation); Afewerk (Mouth-of- Gold); Assefa (Expand-the-Borders). But, if a naturalistic novel such as Love unto the Grave, by the author and politician Addis Alemayehu (I-Saw-a-New-World, as his name can be rendered into English), is much loved, it is not so much because it has been read, but because it has been broadcast over the radio countless times since it was written after World War II.

Today, Ethiopia would like to shed some of its biblical imagery, at least when it comes to that stock phrase ‘a biblical famine’. A quick glance round a bookshop will reveal that most Amharic-language bestsellers today stray far from biblical exegesis: cheap translations of . . . Agatha Christie and Danielle Steel, although you can also find a book such as Anna Karenina. The themes and language of nineteenth- century Russia translate surprisingly well both into Amharic and into Ethiopian reality. And Anna Karenina has also been broadcast over the radio to great acclaim. But if Ethiopia is overwhelmingly religious and devout – and not just Christian, as the country has one of the oldest Muslim cultures in the world – Ethiopia, always a land of paradox, is a religious country that has been led by lay regimes for more than forty years, first by the avowedly atheistic regime of the military Derg junta, and today by the secular government of the Fed- eral Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. Although Ethiopia likes to portray itself as monotheistic and monolithic – both to itself and to the outside world – the reality is much more complex. Beliefs in spirits, good and bad, and possession cults are widespread throughout the country. Seers and oracles are consulted by Muslim and Christian alike (they often pay their respects in the same shrines), and adbars (trees that harbour spirits) are covered in clarified butter near to Addis Ababa to this day. There is also a special class of lay clergy in the Orthodox Church, the debtara (loosely translated as deacon), which specialises in writing out charms, and calculating people’s futures with numerology, often based on the Psalms of David. But an outsider would never know this: little is written on the subject, less is spoken. Jacques Mercier’s Asres (anthologised here), an intimate portrait of a seer, charlatan and wise men, is as good a portrait as you will find of this invisible but all-pervasive spiritual world.

All happy countries resemble each other, while all unhappy countries are unhappy in their own special way – Ethiopia, always idiosyncratic in its economic malpractices and a byword for famine, has now been at peace for over twenty years and has become a stabilising influence in East Africa. The building blocks for the country’s long-term stability and growth are rapidly being set up. The economy is booming, roads are being built, and the bulging population, now said to be around one hundred million, is vastly made up of youth hungry for change. Hydroelectric dams bisect all of the country’s great rivers, and the biggest dam of them all, the Renaissance Dam, is being laid across that river famous since antiquity, the Nile. This last dam is seen as a threat by Egyptians – a colonial-era, British-brokered treaty grants them close to 90 per cent of the river’s water – and as a cure to all their woes by Ethiopians, who feel aggrieved by such a markedly unjust treaty, and feel, rightly or wrongly, that if they harness their country’s water resources, prosperity and riches will come at last to their homeland, nay, will restore their country to its position of eminence among the world’s nations:


O Nile, you are the majestic blood line of my African glory That shower my blessings upon the starved of the world You are the eloquence that rings the Ethiopian bell

across the deaf world.

Tsegaye Gebre-Medhin* (‘Nile’)

Tsegaye Gebre-Medhin (1936–2006), Ethiopian poet, dramatist and writer. Also well known for his translations into Amharic of Shakespeare and Molière.

Fast-growing populations can be a bonanza, or a time bomb, so it is too early today to say if this new vision of a prosperous, water- powered Ethiopia will become a reality. But as the word renaissance implies, for there to be a rebirth, there must have been a first par- turition, and modern Ethiopian youth, with their Facebook pages and love of mobile phones, still hark back to a perceived manifest destiny for Ethiopia first cast by Greek writers looking up the Nile and along the shores of the Red Sea to a remote other – the ‘most distant men’ as Homer called them.

Contemporary young Ethiopians often wear t-shirts featuring the Emperor Theodore to mark their support for their national heritage. Theodore is the wild, unhinged figure of Ethiopian unity from the mid-nineteenth century. He would have industrialised his country by the force of his will, but ended up taking his own life on his mountain redoubt of Magdala rather than surrender to Robert Napier (later 1st Baron Napier of Magdala) and the British expeditionary force sent from India to bring him to reason.

The emperor is an obvious romantic icon. And his beautiful and delicate face, with its typical Ethiopian braids, is a common sight on t-shirts and bar murals in Addis Ababa. Theodore has the advantage of being shrouded in the mists of time, in a country that is diverse religiously and ethnically. His massacres and divisions have long been forgotten (Theodore had a particular inclination for throwing trussed-up prisoners off cliffs). Moreover, the noble hero featured on t-shirts lived in a time when photography had barely made its appearance on the scene, and had certainly not reached his mountain- top fortress. The quasi-official portrait that today’s Ethiopian youth like so much is in fact a line drawing made by an English newspaper artist whose editor needed illustrations for the increasingly popular articles on the Napier expedition. The artist’s remit was ‘to draw a noble Ethiopian emperor’. And this he did, with great success.

A similar artistic licence is the recent vogue for the name Rasselas – you can meet young people in Addis Ababa and Little Ethiopia in Washington DC proudly bearing the name – which although familiar to Western readers of Doctor Johnson’s The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia, should not really be a name in Ethiopia at all. Johnson invented the portmanteau moniker by combining the title Ras, an equivalent to Duke, and the name Selas, that he had encountered in his first literary endeavour: a translation (from the French) of Jeronimo Lobos’s Ethiopian Itinerário, in which Ras Selas features prominently as the brother of the Ethiopian emperor and a staunch supporter of Catholicism. It seems that this trope of substituting titles for names – calling the Hendeke Kandace, the queen Queen – is an Ethiopian speciality. Witness the name (and title) Ras Tafari, or Duke Who-is-Fearsome, Haile Selassie’s pre-coronation name, which gave the Ras moniker Rastafarians themselves often claim as mantle – an exodus to a promised land in which all men will be, if not kings, at least dukes . . .

But no matter – in today’s Ethiopia (a Greek word), you can meet young men called Rasselas (an English novelist’s invention by way of a translation of a book by a Portuguese Jesuit), proudly displaying t-shirts featuring a British newspaper artist’s vision of what an Ethiopian emperor should look like. Ethiopia continues to create its precursors with great energy. Vive la renaissance!