The Anglo-Ethiopian Society
Lecture - Wednesday 7th March 2012
My Life and Times in Ethiopia
Given by - Richard Snailham
Reviewed by - Jean Broadbent
It is always good to see a large turnout of members at a lecture and better still with a good number of visitors mixed in. The room was full to bursting! This is exactly as it should be for an evening with Richard Snailham, long standing member of the Society, a former Chair and someone whose connection with Ethiopia is as multi-faceted as the country.
As the evening unfolded we discovered that Richard's association with Ethiopia had its roots way back in his earliest years and to now give a comprehensive report of the fascinating story is beyond the space available to me - it needs a book of its own.
How now to summarise the saga? With apologies to the Bard, perhaps 'The Seven Stages of Snailham's Ethiopian Affair' might serve us well. We must pass over the infant and commence the tale with the schoolboy, with his satchel, but there was no creeping like a snail unwillingly to school. Indeed Richard has devoted most of his life to education in the broadest sense. The satchel evidently contained a precious notebook used on frequent occasions on railway platforms to record train numbers. Now we have the first clue - the treasured notebook also contained meticulous lists of countries of the world and their capital cities starting with "A" for "Abyssinia" and "Addis Ababa". Add to the mix an interest in stamps of the world and already we detect a penchant for the exotic.
Passing now to the next stage we come not to the soldier but to the teacher of soldiers, and a tantalising coincidence. Whilst a young teacher at Exeter School, Richard had lodgings c/o Harry, 3rd Earl of Iddesleigh, who happened to have in his library a spear and helmet given to Sir Stafford Northcote, 1st Earl, by Lord Napier after the battle of Magdala, and which Harry gave to Richard as a farewell gift when he removed to join the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. It is here that the first Ethiopians join the plot, being military cadets, together with Royal Engineer Capt. John Blashford-Snell. The upshot being that very soon Richard finds himself on a military exploration of Ethiopia, with responsibility for the cash, running the bar and writing some articles or possibly a book. Given that on the first night in Addis Richard managed to have his jacket stolen containing his passport and all his money, things might have gone badly. Fortunately he excelled at his other responsibilities! Thus Richard embarked on several trips to various parts of the country and, most notably, in 1968 he participated in a 9 week expedition to navigate the Abay. The book followed - The Blue Nile Revealed, - and is a fascinating read (and still available from all good book shops).
Other trips followed but his growing interest in the country was necessarily interrupted by the Derg era, but once it was feasible to do so, Richard now in his fifth stage, returned to Ethiopia, if not as the justice, then certainly as the wise and knowledgeable advocate for the many interesting aspects of Ethiopia's geography, history and culture which he has shared with the many visitors he has accompanied over the last two decades. It has to be said that some of his tourist companions were evidently "interesting company" and clearly the tour with Lady Diana Cooper, star of stage and great socialite of the 1930s, left its mark! He recounted their exploits on that tour with great humour and obvious affection. Richard went on to lead many groups on the Historic Route until last year when he retired from this role.
And so to the sixth stage. Here we most definitely depart from the Shakespearean scheme of things for the future is still busy with planned trips to Ethiopia. Richard has still not seen enough of the country, learnt enough nor shared enough, and now a new experience awaits him - letting other people take the strain of organising everything, Richard will sample life as a tourist - very novel! However, we can be sure the explorer is still alive and well within and hope there will be opportunities to catch up with more stories of Richard's Ethiopian Affair at some later date.