(To mark Black History Month.) This is written as a novel, but it’s the story of the author’s grandmother’s life in Ethiopia, a country which I always think of as being very interesting. All that rich history and culture. The Lost Ark stories (sorry, Indiana Jones, but the Lost Ark legend belongs to Ethiopia, not Egypt). The fascinating figure of Haile Selassie, the African emperor, claiming descent from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, who came to be seen as a messianic figure by a movement half the world away in Jamaica … and was friends with Sylvia Pankhurst. And, sadly, the many difficulties of recent times – the Red Terror, the famine of the 1980s, the war with Eritrea, and now the tragedy of both war and famine in the Tigray area.
The family in the book are how I thought of Ethiopia, i.e. Amharic-speaking and Oriental Orthodox. I was a bit wide of the mark there. Ethiopia has five official languages, of which the most widely-spoken is actually Oromo; the Pentecostal church has made significant inroads in recent years, and, because of the large ethnic Somali population, over a third of Ethiopians are Muslim. That was generally how it went as I read the book and looked things up: I’d got a general idea, but not the detail, and I hadn’t got it quite right. I knew about the Ethiopian Jews, but hadn’t realised just how significant a minority they were in this particular region. Obviously I knew about the Mahdists, but in terms of Gordon of Khartoum and Kitchener’s victory at Omdurman, not so much about their invasion of Ethiopia. Again, obviously I knew about the Italian invasion of Abyssinia, but not much about life within Abyssinia/Ethiopia during that period.
I didn’t know that slavery wasn’t abolished in Ethiopia until the 1940s, despite earlier British and Italian pressure. And I honestly hadn’t realised just how bad things were under the socialist junta of Mengistu & co: there are very distressing descriptions of some of the atrocities they committed. So I’ve learnt a lot from reading this – about the history, and also about the culture, the traditions, and the lives of women. It really is a very good book, and I would strongly recommend it.
Yetemegnu, the protagonist, was born in 1916 and died in 2012, and spent her life in and around the city of Gondar. So she wasn’t born until after the Mahdists were defeated, and after Ethiopia had gained territory in the Scramble for Africa – no, that wasn’t just about European countries. We follow her life through the Italian occupation, the Allied East Africa campaign, the ups and downs of Haile Selassie’s reign and the eventual end of the monarchy, and the horrors of the civil war and the Red Terror, through to the end of the 20th century.
It’s very much an Ethiopian book. No mention of the Rastafarians and no mention of Sylvia Pankhurst! But the author herself, brought up in Ethiopia by an Ethiopian father and a Canadian mother, says that she herself had to do a lot of research before writing it, partly because some things weren’t spoken about and partly because little had been written about culture, tradition and religious beliefs. There’s a lot of fascinating material about all those aspects of the life of an Orthodox, Amharic woman. Be aware that some of it, notably how her husband could get away with being violent to her, is quite upsetting.
But this isn’t the image of Ethiopia that might spring to mind to those of us who grew up in the 1980s. There are references to the famine, but it doesn’t really impact on Yetemegnu and her family. Her husband, although he eventually fell foul of Haile Selassie’s regime and was arrested, was a senior priest and later a judge. Her children attend boarding schools, and some of them travel abroad – the author’s father to work as a doctor in Canada, some of his siblings to Warsaw Pact countries. One major theme of the book is the family’s struggles to hold on to their land under communist nationalisation programmes, and we also see how, in the early years, they claim tribute from the local Muslim and Jewish communities.
It really is fascinating, and reading a book like this feels so much more positive than reading many of the books I’ve seen advertised for Black History Month, which seem to be largely focused on people accusing each other of racism.
There’s a lot of shouting and accusation and virtue-signalling going on at the moment about how schools should be teaching more black history, women’s history, LGBT history, etc etc. My school had an excellent history department, but, in the first three years, we had two 40-minute history lessons a week, and, after that, some kids dropped history completely. With the best will in the world, history teachers can only cover so much in such a small amount of time. There are books and other resources out there. A bit less moaning, and a bit more reading, would go a long way.
This is a great book!