The Wife’s Tale by Aida Edemariam

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(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!

Back to School with Alison Hammond – ITV

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This programme, shown as part of Black History Month, was very interesting, and a much more positive approach than that shown by certain other TV channels and certain newspapers.  It was also very encouraging to see a black history programme that didn’t focus on either slavery or the US Civil Rights movement: obviously those are important, but it was good to see other subjects being raised too.  Alison Hammond is a very engaging presenter, and the stories she investigated – including one about a trumpeter and one about a footballer 🙂 – were all fascinating in their own way.

The trouble is that schools only have a very limited amount of time in which to teach history, and it would be very challenging to incorporate modules specifically on the history of all under-represented groups into that.  As far as I’m concerned, PE and art lessons should be abolished and replaced by extra history lessons, but I’m not sure that the authorities would go for that.  Shame …

She started off by looking into the story of John Blanke, a black trumpeter at the court of Henry VII and Henry VIII.  He certainly sounds like quite a character: he even asked Henry VIII for a pay rise!   However, I think it’s quite hard to argue that lessons on the Tudors should be focusing on trumpeters rather than on the Reformation, the development of the “king-in-parliament” principle, the Anglo-Scottish Wars, etc.  Nobody’s trying to exclude John Blanke from history, of course note; but trumpeters, with all due respect to them, don’t normally get that much attention.

We also heard about Ira Aldridge, a black actor in Georgian and Victorian times.  Again, he sounded very interesting, but Alison Hammond and Adrian Lester, to whom she spoke about him, questioned why they’d never learnt about him at school.  We never learnt about any actors at school, in either history lessons or English literature lessons.  His story was probably a lot more interesting than some of the stuff about medieval monks which we did have to learn about, but actors are just not usually part of a school history curriculum, and I’m not sure why we were expected to be shocked that neither of them had been taught about him.  Fascinating story, but there are so many fascinating stories about individuals, and schools just can’t fit them all in in two or three lesson periods a week.

Walter Tull, however, was someone of whom I’d certainly heard – most football fans with an interest in history will know the name of one of the first non-white footballers to play in the then First Division (for Spurs), and know that he became an officer in the British Army during the First World War but was sadly killed in action.  But – very unfortunately – footballers, regardless of ethnicity, don’t feature on the school history curriculum.  Again, it was a great story, but I wasn’t sure why we were meant to be surprised that his name wasn’t more familiar.

The two most prominent people mentioned – although, TBH, I know more about Walter Tull than I do about Septimius Severus – were Mary Seacole, the Crimean War nurse, and Septimius Severus, Roman emperor from 193 to 211 AD.  I think the name of Mary Seacole is pretty well-known now, and that most people are familiar with her brave and wonderful work during the Crimean War.  We didn’t learn about her at school.  But nor did we learn about Florence Nightingale.  We didn’t “do” the Crimean War.  I wish we had, because my great-great-great grandfather fought in it, and I have actually been to Sebastopol and Balaclava.  But we didn’t.  It’s just not usually on the school syllabus.

Nor is the period from 193 to 211 AD.  We don’t actually know whether or not Septimius Severus was black: we know that he came from Africa, but it was probably from North Africa.  No-one really knows.  We do know that he died in York, and the fact that a Roman emperor – in fact, two Roman emperors – died in York isn’t well-known at all.  But it’s just not a period that’s covered in school history – as in all these cases, it’s nothing to do with racial prejudice, any more than the relative lack of women in history books, as Catherine Morland famously moaned about in Northanger Abbey, is to do with gender prejudice.

All in all, this was a very enjoyable programme, and each of the stories in it was fascinating, and told in an extremely enthusiastic way – Alison Hammond really is great, and always seems so interested in everything she’s talking about.   And, as I said, it was wonderful to see a programme on black history which didn’t focus on slavery or the Civil Rights movement, and which reminded us that “black history” in Britain goes right back to Roman times, and probably earlier.  But the issue is how you would fit that into a school history curriculum, especially bearing in mind that there are other groups who also feel under-represented in history teaching.  Personal histories are great, as the popularity of programmes such as Who Do You Think You Are and My Grandparents’ War shows, but I do think schools have to concentrate on major events, major developments, and the movers and shakers involved in those, regardless of ethnicity, gender, religion, sexuality or anything else.  There just isn’t enough curriculum time to include everything.

That’s a great shame.

Maybe we could scrap PE and art lessons, and have more history lessons instead  …