The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Lecture - Wednesday 18th June 2014

Hansel and Gretel in Jijiga

Given by - Elizabeth Laird

Reviewed by - Helen Papworth


We all like to hear a good story and, for those who attended Elizabeth Laird's talk on 18 June, stories were in abundance. What surprised many in the audience was the link between tales told across Ethiopia and more familiar stories from the Bible, Koran, Aesop's Fables, Grimm's Fairy Tales and other collections.

Elizabeth first went to Ethiopia in 1967, teaching for two years in Addis Ababa. Then, almost thirty years later, she returned for a visit and met many people who she remembered from her teaching years. On this second visit, she thought it would be useful to gather oral stories from the regions and rewrite them in simplified English for use in Ethiopian schools. Eventually, in a project set up with the Ministry of Education and the British Council in Ethiopia, Elizabeth embarked on several journeys to the regions with drivers, facilitators, and translators, to gather the tales from men and women in each place they visited. A number of these stories were published, but Elizabeth was left with many more, translated into English in her notebooks, and recorded in mother tongue languages on cassettes. Ten years later she met Wolde Gossa Tadesse, a Christensen Fund Project Officer, who was able to facilitate a grant from the Fund, and gave much moral support, so that these stories could be made available through the internet. Elizabeth then worked with Michael Sargent, who had been the Director of the British Council, to prepare the stories, and the website, www.ethiopianfolktales.com, was eventually launched with written and spoken versions of the tales.

Elizabeth identified deep-rooted links between many of the stories she had heard and those from other sources, the bible in particular. In the Omo Valley, Gambella, and Sidama she heard translations of tales that sounded similar to those of the Old Testament, and occasionally the Koran. Other stories heard in Benishangul-Gumuz were reminiscent of fables from the Panchatantra, an ancient Indian collection of animal stories. From a woman near Assossa, she was told a story that appeared to be similar to that of the Hare and the Tortoise, but it was called 'The Tortoise and the Rabbit' and there was an obscene difference. In fact, this was not a story for children, and it had not been discovered through reading a book. One suggestion is that many of the stories spread by word of mouth across the lands to Ethiopia along the trade routes.

Within a lot of stories Elizabeth identified common characters that appear across the world in folk tales, myths, and legends, such as the jester, whose stories make fun of authority, and the tricksters such as Gambella's Achok, who is both naughty and lovable. There are also shape-shifters, such as the donkey man of Amhara, and river demons, not unlike the Scottish water kelpie. In many tales she found strong female characters such as in Jijiga, where one story closely resembled Hansel and Gretel with its themes of poverty, fear of being unable to feed children, and the wicked witch and stepmother. Tigray and Amhara had stories about clever women, able to solve problems. While in Somalia and Afar she found stories about naughty women. With almost all these stories there was a message - sometimes a moral.

Elizabeth recently published a book, The Lure of the Honeybird, which described her adventures and experiences travelling across Ethiopia to gather these tales in the late 1990s. She has now finished another book for children entitled The Fastest Boy in the World, which is also set in Ethiopia. During the last year she has been busy working on a new project, the development of a website to help children understand the Ethiopian folktales and provide graded English learning materials for teachers and carers.

The development of the website to help children understand the Ethiopian folktales is now finished and can be found at www.ethiopianenglishreaders.com.


First Published in News File Winter 2014

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