A Beautiful Story of Eritrea for Our Younger Readers

The Mangrove Tree: Planting Trees to Feed Families
By Susan L. Roth & Cindy Trumbore, collages by Susan L. Roth
Lee & Low Books Inc., 2011

Reviewed by Janet Lee (Emdeber 1974–76)

The Mangrove Tree is really two books in one.  A simple tale in cumulative verse in the fashion of The House the Jack Built or Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain graces the pages on the left in large type for beginning readers. On the pages to the right, older readers will find the story of Dr. Gordon Sato and his efforts to plant mangrove trees with local women in the small seaside village of Hargigo in Eritrea.  Finally, there is an afterword that provides autobiographical information of Dr. Sato, an American of Japanese descent who was held in the Manzanar War Relocation Center in California during World War II, and where Dr. Sato learned how to make corn grow in the dry, dusty soil. The book further relates the process of planting mangrove trees in seawater and provides an extensive list of definitions and further resources.

The collage illustrations are vibrant and leap from the pages as they follow the two stories side-by-side. Pieces of paper, cloth, and other materials are carefully placed on the textured background, providing images that are so real that the reader is tempted to touch the figures to feel the bumps and grooves and softness, especially of the figures of the goats and sheep as they eat the mangrove trees’ plump leaves.

In addition to being a beautiful story, The Mangrove Tree celebrates life, working together, overcoming adversity, and learning to adapt to the environment in which we live.  This book would be a cherished gift for young and old alike.

Two Substantial Volumes on Ethiopia and Eritrea Lead Off Africa Series

Eritrea (Africa in Focus)
by Mussie Tesfagiorgis G.
ABC-CLIO, 2010

Ethiopia (Africa in Focus)
by Paulos Milkias
ABC-CLIO, 2011

Reviewed by Janet Lee, (Emdeber 1974-76)

Eritrea and Ethiopia are the first two volumes in the Africa in Focus series published by ABC-CLIO. These comprehensive resources fill an enormous void about these two countries in East Africa, in particular about Eritrea. Written by noted scholars in the field, there is little that is not covered, from history to geography, sports, customs, languages, education, and literature.

There are numerous maps, charts, and black and white photos, and in case of the Ethiopian volume, the photos were taken by the author himself. There is an extensive list of references following each chapter as well as lists of common phrases in Amharic or Tigrigna as appropriate to each volume.  There are even recipes for popular dishes, although the black and white photos do not do the cuisine justice.

History, the economy, and customs and traditions are thoroughly covered.  Neither author hesitates to discuss sensitive topics. The chapters on women in each volume do not disguise the fact that there are still major issues for women, from early marriage, prostitution, female genital mutilation, to educational disparities.  There are a few typographical errors in the Ethiopia volume, the most glaring being a heading in which the Emperor Haile Sellasie was referred to as “Ras Safari” rather than “Ras Tafari,” the obvious victim of an overzealous automatic spell checker.

The volumes are encyclopedia, almanac, and travel guide all rolled into one, although a tad bit too heavy to toss into a backpack.  At $85.00 each, it is also perhaps too expensive for a home library.  Better yet, these volumes would be a good recommendation for the local school library or public library to purchase.  Librarians really do welcome recommendations from their clientele.

Horn of Africa Diaspora in the U.S. Northwest

Seeking Salaam: Ethiopians, Eritreans and Somalis in the Pacific Northwest
By Sandra M. Chait
University of Washington Press, 2011

Reviewed by Shelley Tekeste  (Mekelle 2008–10)

Sandra Chait, immigrated to the US from South Africa and received a doctoral degree in English from the University of Washington.  There she taught African literature and served as an associate director of the university’s Program on Africa. Through her interaction with Horn African students, Chait became very interested in the struggles and stories of Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Somali students. Wanting to give authentic voice to Horn Africans, she set out to talk to volunteers from each community, asking questions, recording participant’s words, as well as body language.

This book looks at the three communities of people from the Horn of Africa within Seattle, Washington and Portland, Oregon. Chait uses personal interviews to extract historical, the long running conceit each country has for each other and the underlying US, British and Italian agendas that have helped fuel conflict in the Horn of Africa for decades. Interviewees often point fingers and lay blame on evils that each country has done to the other, whether it is an issue of clan against clan, region against region or political faction against political faction, mourning the loss of family, friends and the “old” way of life destroyed by conflict has hurt all East Africans.

Here in the US, these three immigrant communities still carry grudges from their homelands, although they show no violence here, they separate themselves from each other instead of consolidating.  Chait notes that even within the Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Somali communities they still separate themselves between clans, religions and political groups. This book questions if these communities will ever let go and move forward together as they live and assimilate into American culture.

What lies ahead for those from the Horn of Africa in the Pacific Northwest? Several of the interviewees are working/heading organizations to strengthen the bond within the communities, as their children attend American schools together, as relationships change to an inter-ethnic blend, as women gain autonomy in the US.  One of my favorite sections talks about the ability of women from the Horn of Africa to adapt in the US.  Specifically, Chait found that Somali women work together to support each other by watching each other’s children, no matter what clan they are from.  The resilience of women that have lived through struggle is amazing.  Women do what is necessary to take care of their families, despite the past.

Chait does give a disclaimer in the beginning, as the book presents Ethiopia as the monster of East Africa.  While having served in Ethiopia, particularly the Tigray region myself, I do understand that governmental regimes do not always reflect the thoughts of the people, and that the people should not be blamed for the regimes actions whether it is/was Emperor Haile Selassie, Mengestu Haile Mariam, Meles Zenawi, Isaias Afwerki, or Siyad Barre. It is always the people who suffer and prolonging the finger pointing will not move these countries to peace. Chait has experienced Eritrean hospitality and it is my belief that she is a bit biased on that end. She has done extensive research both historically and culturally and provides an excellent bibliography, timeline and notes for the book.

Famines . . . An Act of Nature or Man Made?

Three Famines: Starvation and Politics
by Thomas Keneally
Serpentine Publishing, 2011

Reviewed by Michael O’Brien (Gerawa, Garamuleta, Harrar Province 1967-69)

Within our lifetimes, famine has killed millions of human beings. Despite advances in modern technology, agricultural science, market economies, world-wide communications and transportation networks, famine is occurring somewhere on earth today. How is it possible that a disaster described in the Bible could still afflict humans, with more people suffering and dying than ever before? Thomas Keneally’s account of famines in Ireland in the 1840s, Bengal during World War II and Ethiopia in the 1970s and ’80s provides insights into root causes common across time and nations. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the critical factor is human psychology. Personal values, perceptions and culture played a core role in the past and, despite progress, still do in our time.  Nature sometimes creates crop shortages, but famines are caused by the human response.

Our response to famine naturally focuses on relieving immediate suffering by providing food, health care and shelter to the displaced. Keneally’s book suggests that we try to avoid or mitigate future famines by studying and addressing the human factors of “war, oppression and civic mayhem.”

Keneally traveled in Ethiopia and Eritrea during the war, and witnessed famine first-hand, including the Mengistu dictatorship’s use of starvation as a weapon of war. He draws on historical research to describe the great famine, Gorta Mor, in Ireland in the 1840s, and in Bengal in 1943-45 during World War II.

Each of these famines had particular characteristics unique to the country. Ireland’s peasant farmers depended on a single variety of potato, so a crop failure was widespread. Bengal’s harvest failed while the Japanese were threatening to invade India. Ethiopia’s crop failure was initially hidden from the world as a local matter. Three Famines describes how in each case a solvable problem, an initial crop failure, grew into a catastrophe.

Keneally points out that societies in which farmers are marginalized and oppressed are more vulnerable to crop failures, because poverty leaves little margin to manage and survive shortfalls in harvests. Poverty also sets the stage for delayed and inadequate responses from authoritarian governments. Traveling in Ireland in 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “The population looks very wretched. Many wear clothes with holes or much patched. Most of them are bare-headed and barefoot . . . it is a frightening thing, I assure you, to see a whole population reduced to fasting like Trappists and not being sure by fasting of surviving to the next harvest.” As a Volunteer in Harar province in the late 1960s, this description sounds all too familiar.

Ireland and India were administered by the imperial government of Britain, and Ethiopia by Haile Selassie. These governments had no clear lines of authority and no plans in place to manage a crop failure, which hampered and slowed their responses. More importantly, the dismissive attitude of people in government toward the poor was within their respective cultural norms. Haile Selassie kept Ethiopia and Eritrea together like a medieval ruler, “by brutality and the application of want as an act of discipline.” He regularly used starvation and fear as policy, a means of bringing resistant tribes and subjects to heel.

This set the stage for Haile Selassie’s government to ignore the failure of keremt rains in Tigre and Wollo in 1972, which were followed by the failure of belg rains in 1973. The estimated crop loss was about 7% from normal, but the government’s initial response was mainly to suppress information and arrest protestors. Selassie commented, “Rich and poor have always existed and always will. Why? Because there are those who work and those who prefer to do nothing. Each individual is responsible for his misfortunes, his fate.” Relief agencies were not allowed in until a BBC documentary, The Unknown Famine, shocked the world.

The 1972–73 famine led directly to the overthrow of the emperor by the Derg, and to Mengistu Haile Miriam’s dictatorship. His murderous Maoist vision of “land reform” blossomed into the Red Terror — the arrest, torture and killing of thousands — and the collectivization of peasant lands, which made subsequent famine even worse. Mengistu lived in an unreal bubble of denial, avoiding contact with the starving, creating a hell for the living and trying to prevent assistance from outside or expelling organizations like Medecins sans Frontieres who criticized his government openly.

Meles Zenawi, current ruler of Ethiopia, continues the pattern of denial of food emergencies. Seeing this, even Keneally doesn’t know what to think. He ends by saying “It seems there is a virus in Ethiopian government that transfers itself from regime to regime.”

Some of the work we did as Volunteers in Ethiopia was undone by pathological governments. I wonder if the world should insist on creating a managed partnership that would align interests of international companies, governments and global organizations with the national government of Ethiopia to create a framework that supports local autonomy within a rule of law, while preventing diversion of resources to pointless war and repression. If we don’t, Keneally’s virus is sure to strike again.

An Engaging History by One of Our Own

Angels Of Mercy – White Women And The History Of New York’s Colored Orphan Asylum 
By William Seraile (Makele 63–65)
Fordham University Press,  2011

Reviewed by Floyd Davis (Gore 63 – 65)

William Seraile (Ethiopia II), Emeritus Professor of African American History at Lehman College in New York City, has written an engaging book about the establishment of the Colored Orphan Asylum in New York City over a century and a half ago. The “angels” in this work refer to a group of white women who came together in 1836 to establish this orphanage for homeless and abandoned African American children who were fending for themselves on the streets. The desire of these women to house, clothe and educate these desperate children took moral courage on their part although their call to action was steeped in the paternalism of the times that made it the duty of whites to uplift heathen races and teach them the tenets of Christianity, which was central to their civilizing mission.

The story of the establishment of the Colored Orphan Asylum in New York City (then only the borough of Manhattan) provides us a window into the condition of African Americans in the city after the abolition of slavery in New York in 1827. Seraile gives us a brief history of this period that goes a long way in explaining the circumstances that undoubtedly led to these homeless and abandoned children ending up on the streets. African Americans lived on the margins of society, facing indignities wherever they went. They had to stand in public conveyances or ride in separate cars, sit in the balcony of churches and ride on the decks of steamers, regardless of the weather. They often found themselves the object of random violence from whites who were hostile to their very presence in the city. Escaped slaves were hunted down and returned to their owners while free blacks were kidnapped and sold into slavery. This precarious existence of African Americans, made worse by competition from recent European immigrants for low wage jobs, did not lend itself to stable family units.

The Colored Orphan Asylum was established chiefly through the efforts of one Anna Shotwell along with other prominent white, mostly Quaker, women. They were connected to some of the wealthiest and most influential men in the city, among them John Jacob Astor, Rufus Lord and Anson G. Phelps. There were also men who worked directly with them in running the orphanage, handling the institution’s finances, budgetary matters and the institution’s investments. The presence of these men also served to deflect societal criticism of these white women who had chosen the unaccustomed role of becoming guardians of black children. The orphanage managed to survive the uncertain early days although the women had problems raising sufficient funds to put the orphanage on a sound footing, despite the best efforts of the men advising them. Financial security would become an intractable problem throughout the institution’s existence. Matters worsened with the Draft Riots of 1863 when roaming rioters burned down the orphanage on Fifth Avenue and Fortieth Street.  These riots went on for three days with white, mostly Irish immigrants, directing their anger at African Americans. The aftermath of this disaster sent the trustees of the orphanage searching out a new home uptown in Harlem.

The orphanage would change over the years, both as to the children it admitted and the people who ran the institution. It began to take in abused and neglected children and children from one-parent households (referred to as “half-orphans”). Soon these children outnumbered the orphans in the institution, which then made the institution an orphanage in name only. The children were routinely indentured to homes outside the city to work a specified period of time with families to prepare them for jobs once they left the institution.

The most persistent problem the orphanage faced was how to discipline the children. Corporal punishment was instituted for the most difficult children, then withdrawn, then re-instituted to be administered only by specific staff members. From 1879 to 1886 many of the institution’s children with the worst disciplinary problems were indentured to families out west where it was thought they would be less likely to present problems for these families. Eventually corporal punishment was ended altogether and in 1923 indenturing of children was outlawed.

The involvement of African Americans in the operation of the institution did not come about until the twentieth century. There were blacks in the housekeeping staff and James McCune Smith, a black doctor, served the children for some 20 years until his death in 1865. A scathing criticism of the orphanage by W. E. B. Dubois in The Crisis in 1913 led to the hiring of more black employees. However, it was not until 1939, over a century after the institution’s founding, that an African American was appointed to the board of directors. The 1940s saw more prominent African Americans such as Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Joe Louis and the Delany Sisters (Sarah and Elizabeth) become involved with the institution. Sadly it must be noted, in light of more recent events, that the institution became a target of medical researchers seeking unsuccessfully to use the children in testing a vaccine for tuberculosis, a reminder of attempts in the 1980s by medical researchers to use children in the foster care system to test an AIDS vaccine and also to use them as experimental subjects in the now discredited violence initiative program.

In 1907 the Colored Orphan Asylum would make its last move to the Riverdale section of the Bronx, a borough of New York City since 1898. A change of name to the Riverdale Children’s Association would follow along with the acceptance of white children, mandated by state law. An orphanage that started out as an experiment in charitable giving had long since become an established state-supported institution. But its financial problems along with changing placement options for children would catch up with it. In 1948 after dispersing its last remaining children to foster care homes, the orphanage closed its doors and sold its property. This action brought an end to the institution’s long history of caring for homeless, neglected and abused African American children.

Angels Of Mercy helps us better understand the lives of African Americans in New York during a period that is not often discussed. Seraile has kept his extensive research from impeding the flow of his narrative so that the book, written in easily accessible language, will interest both the general reader and the scholar. This book is a worthy addition to the history of people of African ancestry in America.

End of Issue 11 — 5/22/2012

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