The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Lecture - Tuesday 4th February 2003

Ogres, Kings and the Hyena Women

Given by - Elizabeth Laird

Reviewed by - Tony Diggle


On Tuesday, 4th February, 2003, the Society was treated to a talk that was quite out of the ordinary. Elizabeth Laird, a writer of children's books, spoke on 'Ogres, Kings and the Hyena Women', folk stories, myths and legends in Ethiopia. She had recently travelled to every region of Ethiopia to collect such tales even risking driving through areas where banditry was rife in the quest!

Elizabeth began by explaining the origin of the project. Returning to Ethiopia in 1996 after a gap of 30 years, she was walking in the Entoto hills one day when she heard an old man telling stories about ants. Realising that this was fertile ground for exploration, at the next opportunity she 'bearded' the appropriate British Council representative about doing some work recording these stories. To her surprise, he suggested the much bigger enterprise of compiling twenty readers in English for use in education.

Thus began a task the methodology of which was complex enough in itself. Obviously, it was necessary to work through the proper channels, which meant first the Ministry of Culture, then the Regional Cultural Offices, then the local cultural bureaux. When all this had been sorted out and approved and she was on the spot, she then had to go out and find the storytellers. This had to be done on the hoof, and so a car became a necessity. So did translators. In Gambella alone there were five different language groups within the town. Frequently, translation was three-way, between English, Amharic or the main area language, and the local language. There were financial hurdles to be overcome: people wanted '100 birr' for a story! Storytellers could be in any walk of life, from groups of Somali midwives to Afar camel traders. The importance of the project was well-defined by the discovery that there were only seventy speakers of Birali left. If the stories were not recorded now, they would be lost for ever. Women on the whole made the best storytellers. Back in England, when all the stories had been recorded and translated, they had to be collated and illustrated, and it was very important to get local artists to give the right visual interpretation to particular stories. All in all it took three trips to Ethiopia before the books were ready for publication.

Of course, this was the just the start. Once they were ready for publication, the actual publication and distribution had to be financed and organised. The first few books were financed by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and the British Ambassador's Fund, but the money then dried up. Problems have also occurred with distribution. The perennial problem of the 'storekeeper' in a school feeling that it was more important to 'guard' the books than use them was very much in evidence. These problems are still ongoing.

But to the really important aspect of the talk: the stories themselves. As Elizabeth explained, as she got into the project it was like 'peeling an onion': she found levels of Ethiopia she knew nothing about. The stories turned out to be fantastic. The kernel of the matter was that no extensive writing culture has yet developed in Ethiopia. The father ploughed the fields all day, but when 'the cow is in the barn' it was story time. Another key factor was the geographical location of Ethiopia. At the junction between Africa and the Middle East, it had been strongly influenced by Christianity, Islam and Judaism. This was exemplified by the story, “When the world began” of which the following is a summary:

'When the world began, God said to all the animals, “Come to me when the cock crows tomorrow and I will give you all gifts.” Then he secretly whispered to the buffalo, who was his favourite animal, “Come when the morning star rises, and I will give you the best gift.” But the dog overhead and said to the man, “Run to God when you wake up disguised as a buffalo, and you will get the best gift.” The man did so, and God, thinking he was the buffalo, gave him the best gift, a spear. Then when the morning star rose the buffalo went to God, and said, “I am the buffalo and I have come from my gift.” God said, “The man tricked me: now all I have for you and the other animals is horns.” From that day onwards, man has had the spear, and has ruled the other animals.'

The parallels with the Christian story of Jacob, Esau and the birthright sold for the mess of pottage are obvious.

The folk stories are not, or not just, children's stories: adults discuss the meanings of the stories. They form an important part of how the culture debates how it should behave. Cynicism, caution and forgiveness are often attributes of the stories. The following story, “The Plough and the King” summarised below is a particularly interesting one:

'A merchant travelled regularly round Ethiopia. In one place, he came across a crowd watching something. It was a man who had another man yoked to his plough like an ox. “This is appalling,” said the merchant, but the man being used as an ox merely said, “Do not worry. Everything changes, everything passes.” Troubled, the merchant went on his way. A few years later, he returned and asked one of the locals, “What happened to the man who was being used as an ox?” “Everything's changed,” beamed the man, “he has become king.” Delighted, the merchant rushed to pay his respects, but when he found the king surrounded by worshipful subjects, the king said, “But this will pass. Everything changes, everything passes.” A few years later the merchant returned, and rushed to pay his respects once more. But he found that the king had died, and on his tombstone were written the words, “Everything changes, everything passes.” “At least this will not pass,” said the merchant. But when he next returned, the graveyard had been flattened, and a modern city of huge buildings stood on the site. “Truly,” he thought to himself, “everything changes, everything passes.”

To the present writer, the absence of the idea of progress and things getting better is particularly striking, it certainly tells us something about aspects of Ethiopia, and perhaps has lessons for those of us from “western” cultures today. The Ethiopian readers are not available in England, but Elizabeth Laird's book: “When the world began: stories collected in Ethiopia” is published by Oxford University Press at £7.99.

First Published in News File Spring 2003

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