A Master Chef Returns to His Homeland and is Inspired

Yes, Chef: A Memoir
By Marcus Samuelsson
Random House, 2012
$27.00 (hardcover)

Reviewed by Janet Lee (Emdeber 74–76)

“What are some of the modern cooking trends in Africa?” asked a “young black guy whose dreads were held in an enormous knitted cap striped with red, green, and black.” The question dumbfounded Swedish chef Marcus Samuelsson, a master chef in the culinary world and of Ethiopian decent. Raised in Sweden since he was three, he had traveled around the world, “chasing flavors” of many nations, but was at a loss to explain the tastes and aromas of his native Ethiopia let alone the entire continent of Africa to this young man during a seminar.  It was time to visit his country of birth.

Yes, Chef  is a fascinating memoir. Adopted by a stable Swedish couple, long before it became fashionable to adopt Ethiopian babies in the U.S., Marcus had a pretty typical Swedish upbringing, except for the fact that he was born Ethiopian. His Swedish father longed for a son and was willing to travel all the way to Africa to fulfill this desire. Some time earlier, Marcus and his sister Linda, both ill with tuberculosis, traveled a great distance with their mother to receive treatment in a hospital in Addis Ababa, only to lose their mother to the disease.  A hospital caretaker took the children in until they were matched with the Samuelsson family.

Marcus attended school, played soccer, developed friendships, and survived the occasional bully. He spent his summers fishing with his grandfather and cooking with his grandmother. Never much of a student, he chose to follow his passion for food rather than academics. This memoir chronicles the trials and tribulations, of which there are many, of becoming a world class chef.

As fascinating as his story is, the book came alive for me when he returned to Ethiopia and discovered this beautiful country with fresh and innocent eyes, and fell “in love a hundred times a day.” He saw his face “reflected a thousand times over.” Each time he saw a child street vendor selling gum or tissues, the child was a version of himself. As Peace Corps Volunteers, we can relate to the sensory experience of sights, sounds, scents as we, too, arrived in Addis Ababa or ventured out the first time to the Merkato, the largest open-air market in Africa.  Not surprisingly, he spent hours in the spice aisles, trying to decipher the ingredients in berbere. Who among us has not brought back packets of berbere, mitmita, or the powder for shiro to our villages or home to the U.S.?

He spent one afternoon at a teff terra and as a chef had to try his hand at making injera. How could he resist? The baker handed him the dented can she used for a ladle and he made his first attempt to pour the fermented batter onto the hot metad in a spiral motion and was humbled by the results. I remember my first attempt had more gaps than bread.

He later learned to make doro wat from a seventy-five-year-old woman named Abrihet, killing the chicken, plucking and gutting it, and soaking it in a brine of lemon, water, and salt. As it marinated, he chopped onion after onion with a “bad knife and a horrible cutting board” reminding him once again how spoiled he had become. The elderly Abrihet expressed a little discomfort in having a man in her kitchen, since it was not the Ethiopian way, but explained it away by the fact that he was not from there, and indeed was a ferengi, so it was OK.

In truth, his experience in Ethiopia is a minor part of his overall story, but the most powerful for me. He opens the book by describing his African mother, the one he cannot remember but comes to know through the recollections of others.  He describes her in ways that are most familiar to him, through food and spices:  shiro and injera and berbere, the easiest connection to the mysteries of who his mother was.  “For me, my mother is berbere . . .. I know she cooked with it because it’s in the DNA of every Ethiopian mother.” He further describes what he “knows” about his mother because of his observation of the women of the countryside whom he meets. She was strong because Ethiopian women walk everywhere. She would have a child on her back, and grip the hand of an older child next to her. She most likely had no shoes and would walk for hours to sell her wares in the market. She would bear a henna tattoo of a cross on her face because she could not afford jewelry. She had to be shrewd. How else could she maneuver the hospital system in order for her children to be seen and thus save their lives?

His descriptions bring back equally vivid memories of my rural village of Emdeber. The women stooped over under the weight of jugs of water or bundles of firewood at dusk, warning me, “Be careful.  Hyenas like women and children best.” Women, the beasts of burden of all of Africa.

As a teacher in that small village, I often wondered what these students could become given the right circumstances. Was there a Mozart who only lacked a piano or a da Vinci who only needed some paint? Marcus has shown that with love, stability, a modest amount of resources and a great deal of determination, every child has the potential to soar to great heights.

From Life on the Streets to Success

No One’s Son: The Story of a Defiant Ethiopian Boy and His Bold Quest for Freedom
by Tewodros Fekadu
Leapfrog Press, 2012

Reviewed by Shelley Tekeste (Mekelle 2008–10)

Tewodros gives a detailed account of his struggle for love and family while enduring a childhood filled with conflict during the Derg regime’s control. He spins a heartbreaking tale: the ultimate underdog story that details his longing for a family, home and happiness.

His Ethiopian mother’s innocence taken away by a highly respected Eritrean doctor, he was born a child whom no one seemed to want.  Shuffled between family members, between countries, young Tewodros learns early that he will have to forge his own way. Relying on the periodic help from Catholic clergy, distant relatives and friendships he has developed on the streets, Tewodros has many adventures, both disappointing and joyous.

As he comes of age, Tewodros manages to leave Ethiopia on several occasions.  His first international experience lands him in Cairo, Egypt. With the help of a friend, he is able to enter Japan, where he was arrested for working without proper papers and held in custody in the immigration detention center for three years. After a hard fought battle with immigration, he finally gets to Australia, where he now lives with his wife Anita. He returns to Ethiopia and Eritrea periodically to visit family and friends.

Tewodros does a wonderful job detailing the thoughts and feelings of a young Ethiopian boy during the Derg regime. He includes many historical references to the time. One of my favorite parts early on is when he gives a brief historical reference to Italy’s move on Eritrea, as though he were a football announcer. He details the changing of the Ethiopian flag and many of the small changes in Ethiopia as the EPRDF government starts to come into play. I also found myself feeling a little more compassionate for the street children in Ethiopia, a sentiment that took me quite by surprise.

Writing the Great Memoir . . . Should You Try It?

Peace Corps Experience:  Write and Publish Your Memoir
By Lawrence F. Lihosit (Honduras 75–77)
iUniverse, Inc., 2012

Reviewed by Janet Lee (Emdeber 74–76)

As a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, have you ever wondered if you should write about your Volunteer experience, perhaps the most important experience of your life? Lawrence Lihosit, author of Peace Corps Experience: Write and Publish Your Memoir not only responds with a resounding, YES, but gives you the rationale and the tools to do so.

Although you may have spoken of your stories and experiences to family, school groups and other interested parties, a memoir allows you to share your experience with a wider audience and these written memories will still be available for time to come. It becomes part of that larger mosaic of experiences of Volunteers, who went overseas and, indeed, did change the world.  A memoir hones in on a significant period of your life, allowing you to reflect on the experiences and people who changed your life. It is not an autobiography, but a selectively told story, based on personal experiences. Who better to write about these experiences than the Peace Corps Volunteers themselves?

Lihosit has an easy and folksy style, at times somewhat whimsical. He also takes his role as coach and mentor seriously and can be very direct, but in a good-natured way. “If you wish to change history, write a novel instead.” He understands the pressures that most writers are under and advises them to take that needed break by putting the project away for a while. He reminds us that there are no hard and fast deadlines; the key is to get started and that is where the fun begins.

Everyone will develop his or her own style in beginning this project. Lihosit likes butcher paper and colored crayons.  He advises the writer to collect letters, memorabilia, photos, emails, and blogs. And not to forget the not so obvious:  passports, shot records, training materials, and the group photo album.  It is also wise to conduct a bit of research on the history of the country to put these memories in context. He suggests writing style manuals to aid in making the memoir memorable and a pleasure to read and not merely a listing of dates.

He follows with practical advice with chapters: Polish, Format, Cover Design, Publication, Promotion, each describing in detail aspects of publishing such as fonts, parts of the book, paper quality and color, layout, print-on-demand, cover art, and promotion.  Helpful hints include something as specific as enlarging the size of the font on the cover title so that it is legible on booksellers’ websites.

Lihosit gives special mention to our own John Coyne and Marian Haley Beil for their extraordinary work on Peace Corps Worldwide, and recommends the author submit a review copy to Coyne for inclusion in the Peace Corps Worldwide website. My Colorado colleague, Jane Albritton, editor of the four volume Peace Corps at 50 series, enthusiastically encourages Volunteers in the foreword to share these memories, which are both individual and at the same time representative of a cultural memory. With Lihosit as your accomplished guide, it is time to write.

Where There is No Hope: A Study by an RPCV

Hope is Cut:  Youth, Unemployment, and the Future in Urban Ethiopia

by Daniel Mains (Goha Tsion 98–99)
Temple University Press, 2012

Reviewed by Robert E. Hamilton (Bahar Dar 65–67)

This book, based upon the doctoral dissertation Daniel Mains submitted to Emory University (“‘We Are Only Sitting and Waiting’: Aspirations, Unemployment, and Status among Urban Young Men in Jimma, Ethiopia”), is the first in a series edited by Craig Jeffreys and Jane Dyson that will focus upon “youth” — defined as those 10-30 years of age — and their experience of maturing and coping with a world of “global social and economic changes.”  Jeffreys and Dyson predict, “Mains’s study will soon become a landmark in its field.” This conclusion is premature if the case study of 28 youth in Jimma, Ethiopia, (population: 150,000) is expected to measure up to a sub-title purporting to be about “Urban Ethiopia.”  Over time, Donald Levine’s Wax and Gold:  Tradition and Innovation in Ethiopian Culture (1965) has become a “landmark.” Hope is Cut does not meet the Levine standard as yet.

“Hope is cut,” or “hopelessness,” derives from the Amharic expression tesfa qoretewal, which Ethiopians use “to describe the condition of urban youth” (page 1) experiencing an unemployment rate of about 50%. To understand how Mains studied this condition by interviewing, mainly, unemployed young men in Jimma, located 200 miles southwest of the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, (a useful map of the country precedes the “Series Editors’ Preface”) this reviewer recommends reading the “Introduction:  Youth, Hope, Stratification, and Time” as well as Chapter 6, “Conclusion:  Sustaining Hope in the Present and the Future,” before tackling Chapters 1–5. Combined, the Introduction and the Conclusion provide a clearer articulation of Mains’s argument regarding the response of some Jimma youth — generally secondary school graduates — to unemployment than the more prolix descriptions contained in the main body of the book. However, Chapters 1–5 contain the interesting details of the lives of those Mains studied between 2002 and 2005 in Jimma, including the entrepreneurial young men and women who found or created employment and compensation as well as those who were unemployed. Interestingly, when Mains returned to Jimma in 2008, as the global recession deepened, nearly all of the formerly unemployed young men had been forced by family financial and economic circumstances to take low-wage jobs they refused to take earlier.

Young unemployed men in Ethiopia — as well as in many other developing countries — face obstacles that prevent them from becoming “adults” and taking on the marriage and family responsibilities, which their parents assumed. Simultaneously, modern technology (e.g. television and cinema) presents images of a world in which other young men (and women) are meeting expectations, passing into the adult stage of their lives, and living well. In Jimma, “Youth are perceived,” Mains notes, “as both being hopeless and possessing unprecedented aspirations. These conditions are mutually constitutive rather than contradictory.  It is partially the elevated ambitions of young men that cause hopelessness.” (p. 3) They are stuck: Their “school leaving examination” test scores are too low to gain them admittance to the university; they cannot find “government work” (their ideal white-collar job) because public sector employment has been drastically reduced; and yilunnta (Amharic: a fear of the judgment of others) stops them from taking low-pay, manual labor employment unworthy of a secondary-school graduate.

Hopelessness and “lofty goals” characterize youthful men globally.  In some instances, this leads to “political unrest and violence.” (p. 3)  While Addis Ababa youth have exhibited fendata (Amharic: “explosive”) moments, “This book examines less visible, but no less important struggles of young men to find work, attain economic independence, and raise a family.” (pp. 3–4)

While some feel shame in extended unemployment, many do not, since the condition is so common. During the 2002–05 period of research, in less severe economic times, many of the unemployed young men were sustained by “gifts” from family (including sisters working in the Middle East or elsewhere as domestics who sent remittances home from abroad), family friends, and other members of the cohort group.  Mains’s informants explained and exhibited the importance of sharing and reciprocity: It was important to share whatever gifts of cash or other resources a young man might receive. Many informants tried to dress well to maintain their pride and exhibit the style of an educated, secondary school graduate. But, without work, they filled their mornings with street-corner conversation and a search for money to buy khat, and to afford a visit to the video house.  Khat, Hollywood, and Bollywood enabled young men to develop “imagined possibilities” for their future and thus restore “hope” to their lives.  The old drug and the new technologies combined are more than the Ethiopian folk tales, riddles, and stories, which preceded them as sources of inspiration or moral guides. Film, television, and the Internet depict modern life as it can exist and does exist outside of Jimma’s neighborhoods.  Mains views the khat house and the video house as “universities or think tanks,” which they patently are not as he offers no evidence that they resulted in positive plans or action to end unemployment. Rather, they are places of pleasant delusion, diversion, and distraction. The Ethiopian police and many adults believe that unemployed youth seek the anonymity and thrills of the video house because they are lazy and do not want to work; not being able to find a “government job” is their excuse for not seeking employment under any circumstances.

One alternative for unemployed young men was to migrate to the U.S., Europe, or the Middle East to find work. A second alternative was additional education.  Abroad, one could work as a manual laborer and not compromise one’s pride or embarrass one’s family. Thus, “space” could become a substitute for “time” as a measure of progress; Mains is constantly being asked to help young men fulfill this goal. None of his research participants succeeded in going abroad, but many left Jimma to work elsewhere in Ethiopia, earn enough money to share with family members, and learn new skills or earn new credentials (e.g. a driver’s license) to improve their opportunities for future employment.

In a section titled “Neoliberalism, Hope, and Social Theory,” Mains turns to Hirokazu Miyazaki for theoretical assistance because “I am interested in the relationship between space, time, hope, and social theory.” Miyazaki says “hope” is important in 21st century social theory. Lack of hope concerns social theorists.  “’Facing the collapse of socialist regimes and other apparent manifestations of the effects of so-called globalization, social theorists have deplored their inability to imagine alternatives to capitalism.’” (This quotation is from a 2006 article by Miyozaki in Cultural Anthropology:  “Economy of Dreams:  Hope in Global Capitalism and Its Critiques.”) How does this apply to Jimma, Ethiopia?  “In terms of their hopelessness, leftist thinkers appear to be similar to young men in urban Ethiopia.  With the fall of socialism and the rise of postmodernism, social theorists lack a narrative to galvanize their critical examinations of escalating global inequality, imperialism, and environmental degradation. It appears that social theory may also be mired in an undesirable present as a result of a loss of hope for the future.” (p. 15)

The more readable half of Hope is Cut is that devoted to the narratives of young men and women who are either unemployed or working. More complex is the half devoted to the theoretical context and Mains’s efforts to explain and critique scholars who critique “neoliberal capitalism,” which is never defined by Mains but to which he makes multiple references. General readers may roll their eyes at some of the tortuous arguments and descriptions before turning pages rapidly to locate again the human actors on the Mains stage and listen to them speak. A longer “life history” of each of the Jimma youth included in the field research, as well as more information about their families, would have made the study more appealing. The theoretical significance of the dissertation-to-book could have been incorporated in an article submitted to an appropriate social theory journal.

In his defense, though, Mains does a creditable job wedding case study to theory in the “Conclusion:  Sustaining Hope in the Present and the Future,” beginning on page 155. There, Mains helped this reader better answer a question resulting from the author’s point (and that of others) that “capitalism” or “neoliberal capitalism” is not “monolithic” and that the economic system associated with it globally, including Ethiopia, is a patch-work quilt of many systems. My question was:  Would unemployed Jimma youth be better served by more capitalism?  Would there not be more jobs — white as well as blue collar — if there were more capital available through the banking system, and more capital investment in Jimma and elsewhere in Ethiopia by both the public and private sectors? Or does Mains advocate less or no capitalism and a return to expanded ownership and management of land as well as the means of production by the Ethiopian government?

Capitalism can, obviously, co-exist with worker cooperatives; it need not be excluded and, indeed, may improve the worker cooperatives, which are established alongside it. It may also exist in the presence of a political system, which tolerates capitalism but does not publicly embrace it.  Some of the milky opaqueness of Mains’s argument is that he persists in simply arguing that he wants to understand how khat, television, videos and other technologies help “young men . . . see a way for them to move from the present to the future” and have “hope.” But, he does not tell us about the content of this “future” which his Jimma participants imagine. How do they, the subjects of his study, describe, analyze, and map their own way forward? How do they talk about “neoliberal capitalism” and its differential impact from one geographic site or region to another?

For example, stepping back from the book as a whole, one can praise it as a case study in which unemployed young men and women in Jimma, Ethiopia, figure out how to move from the “youth” to “adult” stages of life. (The book is really about Jimma, not all of “Urban Ethiopia.”) They either ignore the conventions of yilunnta (making money in a socially acceptable way and living a socially acceptable life style) and use small amounts of capital to financially succeed as an entrepreneur or small-scale business owner; or they migrate to where jobs exist domestically (e.g. large-scale construction projects in Ethiopia). A few use family money to return to secondary school and take the school-leaving exam again, or take university course work to become a professional (e.g. an engineer).

Rather than “explore the economic and discursive sustainability of hope,” Mains could have explored the economic “world view” of Jimma youth in their own words. We learn, in Amharic and English, what they do not like about the “’bad culture’” of Ethiopia which inhibits “progress,” but Mains does not tell us how the khat and videos result in a view of how the world economy is structured, where opportunity exists for unemployed youth to become wage earners, and what plan each has to benefit from the pockets or economies of capitalist opportunity, and thus restore or mend the hope that has been cut.

Instead, Mains says that his interest “is in the potential of neoliberal capitalism as an analytical category to function as a hopeful form of knowledge. Do analyzing practices and beliefs in terms of neoliberalism generate hope for the future? For the most part this exploration is an implicit rather than an explicit aspect of my analysis.” It would be interesting to see the three sentences above translated into Amharic and read to a group of unemployed youth chewing khat.  And then ask them, “What does that mean?”

Those interested in social theory and economic theory will want to read the concluding chapter, as will those who wonder whether Mains views Africa’s future with optimism. He does, reminding us yet again that the Jimma youth he studied believe in the value of “social relationships”:  the “zemed” (family and best friends) who were closer than “gwadenna” (friends).  Zemed could be called upon for greater, more frequent assistance; or they were the recipients of greater attention and gifts.  His subjects believe that money is necessary but not sufficient to live a full and rewarding life.

Furthermore, because “neoliberal capitalism” is finite in its reach, there is hope for alternative economies and social organizations, which meet human needs with greater positive emotional impact.  Mains explains his own position as one drawing upon but distinct from David Harvey, Richard Rorty, J. K. Gibson-Graham, and others.  Teaching now in the Honors College of the University of Oklahoma, Mains is continuing his research interests in Ethiopia and presumably will contribute to social theory as well.

In the next edition of Hope is Cut, the book would be enhanced by adding a “Glossary,” a simple matter as the Index includes already an alphabetized listing of Amharic words or terms followed by a definition:  For example, adegenna bozeni (dangerous/criminal unemployed youth); duriye (vagabond; hooligan).  Mains should define the meaning of “neoliberal capitalism.” This will help the reader understand whether it includes political-economic systems as different as those of China and the United States, both active in Africa. He should also add a longer description of the economy of Jimma within the larger macro-economy of Ethiopia.

Finally, Hope is Cut is, perhaps because it addresses both the story of individuals and the context of global social and economic change, a useful reference tool for an Ethiopian (or other) novelist interested in writing about the subject of unemployed young men and, to a lesser extent, young women. The imaginative short-story or fiction writer will find references to personal relationships and family life; angst in an urban environment; methods of constructing hope in the midst of grim economic reality; drugs; courageous risk taking; the sharing of meager income and gifts; unfulfilled dreams of becoming fully adult with a job, spouse, and children; the journey from home, friends, and family to a new community or country to search for work and, eventually, the return journey home to, perhaps, a hero’s welcome.  The index and the useful bibliography will make it impossible to claim “writer’s block.”  And, should you need further inspiration, do what Dr. Mains did:  go to Jimma and find Haile, Habtemu, Afwerk, Siraj, and the others and listen to their stories.

Robert E. Hamilton, Ph.D. is a consultant to medical and educational projects in Africa. His career includes university lectureships and as an outreach director for the Program of African Studies, University of Florida-Gainesville.  He has also worked as communications director of a coal mining company, strategic planner for a law firm, development manager of a communications company, stockbroker, and director of an NGO with projects in India and Tanzania.

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