Books

The Glory of the Kings

glory-kingsby Dan Close (Bekoji 1965–67)
The Tamarac Press
2013
402 pages
$19.95 (paperback)

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

We are all familiar with the outcome of the Battle of Adwa, and how valiant African warriors defeated a modern European army. There is a deeper history, in this wonderful book told through the experiences of two brothers, about the assembling of a great army by Emperor Menelik II, who turned feuding factions into a unified force, won a decisive victory, and launched the new nation of Ethiopia.

Two brothers, Chala and Bedane, sons of an Oromo farm family in the Rift Valley near Bekoji, join the forces being called together from all across the country to challenge ferengi invaders. Chala becomes assistant to the Bishop of Ba’le, a holy man who recognizes the threat that foreigners represent to the Orthodox church, while his older brother Bedane and their uncle Bedasa become warriors. As they travel north toward the occupying Italians, their adventures and encounters with people and places combine to paint a vividly lifelike portrait of Ethiopia. Much of the pleasure of these personal stories lies in their authentic details. One example, which may seem familiar to you:

Bedane looked at Egersa’s tough feet. Those Ethiopian feet could carry a man for miles; for days. Indeed, they had to carry him for his entire life. They could carry him through broken glass, or across a field of desert lava, or through a fire. They could carry him through three months of the rainy season without rotting away in the thick mud of the highlands. In old people the feet were so large and calloused and extended that they resembled huge hoes or shovels, covered with cracks from being too big and too old, but still carrying their owners on, slower and slower, until they were finally no longer needed and stopped, along with the rest of the person’s body.

If only the Italians could have seen Egersa’s feet, they might have begun to understand what they were up against.

Bedane’s story illustrates how young men, already excellent horsemen, become warriors, and how he and his companions trained to form a tight fighting unit. His brother Chala has a different path and his own adventures along the way to the battle. Chala meets the Emperor’s daughters, Helena and Mentuab. They entice him to try riding a bicycle, a novelty imported by their tech-enamored father. Sure enough, he crashes, and into the king himself. Thus begins an important friendship and Chala’s entry into the circle of officers and nobles around Menelik. Bedane and Chala act as our guides and informers as the army prepares to meet a great threat.

As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I knew some highlights of Ethiopia’s history with Italy, such as Haile Selassie’s emotional appeal to the League of Nations, but the story of Chala and Bedane made me curious — why did Italy invade Ethiopia in the first place? What was it they wanted? In my research, I discovered that Ethiopia was on the receiving end of a powerful lie, based in paternalistic fantasy and wishful thinking, that propelled Italy into a ruinous adventure.

In 1870, France had withdrawn from Rome, clearing the last hurdle to unification of the Kingdom of Italy. War had taken a toll on the spirits of the new Italians. Violent struggles among its own peoples as well as foreign invaders had alienated and demoralized many in Italy. And unification did not mean the end of bitter feuds between northerner and southerner, or authoritarian and democratic government.

Political leaders of the day, like Francesco Crispi, created a myth, a cause intended to rally the disaffected: the new nation of Italy would take its place among nations by restoring the grandeur of Rome and its once-vast empire. Italy, like its European neighbors, would invade and subdue weaker peoples, a colonial model that had already brought fortunes and glory to nations like Spain and Portugal. While some in Italy protested the idea, political rulers embraced it. Italy’s experience in Ethiopia was to prove this myth to be irresistible, despite its appalling cost in death and destruction to Italians and Ethiopians alike.

The initial foray into Africa, to occupy former Roman colonies — modern Tunisia and Libya — was outmaneuvered by France and Germany, leaving Italy frustrated. Their first successful venture was the landing of troops at Massawa in 1885. Italians soon got an inkling of the strength and determination of their “Abyssinian” foes, when 500 armed soldiers were killed in man-on-man combat with spear-wielding fighters led by Ras Alula at the Battle of Dogali in 1887.

In Italy, this defeat was transformed by journalists and politicians into a myth of native treachery against noble martyrs — a sneak attack, valiant resistance, and last words of “Viva l’Italia!” But the loss only hardened Italy’s intent to occupy and subdue Ethiopia, while suppressing growing internal resistance to colonization with an iron fist. Italy continued to underestimate Ethiopians’ fighting ability, extraordinary physical endurance and willingness to unite against an outside threat. One politician described Emperor Menelik II as “a cruel, hypocritical and bloody bandit.”

A second defeat for Italy occurred at Amba Alagi in 1895, when some of their isolated troops were surrounded and killed. Again, defeat only pushed the Italian government to vote more funds and more soldiers for the campaign. Italy seemed incapable of a realistic assessment of their own goals, abilities and limitations. Despite clear warnings, they continued their long march toward the disaster at Adwa.

As we follow the story of Chala and Bedane, we learn about Menelik’s vision, persistence and courage; the leadership of his generals, the heroism of the fighters, the support of farmers who fed an entire army, and the clergy who inspired their faith and confidence. At the end, Chala and Bedane receive green silk shirts from the Emperor, awards signifying exceptional courage and leadership. In a sense, the entire nation deserved the same recognition.

The climax of The Glory of the Kings is a description of the battle in which we, the readers, hover above the battlefield and listen in on both Menelik and the Italian generals. The two sides may have been more or less evenly matched — Menelik had an edge in men of fighting spirit, the Italians in arms and artillery, and both Menelik and general Baratieri understood the situation. If the Ethiopians attacked directly they could be wiped out by heavy weapons, while if the Italians left their dug-in positions they would be vulnerable. We learn that both sides were nearly out of food and supplies, and both Menelik and Baratieri were contemplating retreat. But — then the myth struck again! Just before the battle, general Baratieri received a chiding telegram from Prime Minister Crispi that concluded “We are ready for any sacrifice in order to save the honor of the army and the prestige of the monarchy.” So Italy attacked, Ethiopia seized on their errors, and destroyed an army.

After nearly 15,000 dead, Italy still did not give up their colonial dream. Chala, Bedane, and Menelik’s brave warriors returned to their farms and homes, leaving Eritrea occupied. A peace treaty was signed, and life began to return to normal . . . but the myth did not die . . . it smoldered on in Italy, until it flamed up again in Mussolini’s lies and the Fascist dream of restoration that led to — hopefully — the last invasion in 1934.

The Power of Citizenship

Why John F. Kennedy Matters to a New Generation

power-citizenshipby Scott D. Reich
BenBella Books
2013
304 pages
$24.95 (hardback), $12.99 (Kindle)

Reviewed by Danielle Hoekwater (Mekelle 2008–11)

“Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country” are some of the most recognizable words spoken by an American president. Although he was president for only a few short years, John F. Kennedy left a legacy.  Through The Power of Citizenship, author Scott D. Reich marks the 50th anniversary of JFK’s death by taking a look at the man he was and the need for service and participation in local and global issues to be embraced by future generations of Americans.

Throughout this book we are reminded that our privilege of being American citizens comes with responsibility.  We are encouraged by stories of people who inspired JFK and by the actions that he took during his life to play our role in making our communities, country and the world a better place. Reich wants to bring back the spirit of Kennedy’s days and emphasizes that we must find what we are passionate about and skilled in, and then do our part. It does not matter if we perceive our role to be big or small; the important thing is that we act. The final portion of the book provides numerous suggestions for taking action, some of which include recycling, helping your neighbors, mentoring children, serving in politics, and the list goes on.

The author uses the first two sections to discuss JFK’s early life and political career. Whether this information is new to you or not, reading about how he became the man who would be forever known as JFK will likely bring about some nostalgia. It certainly made me consider why I decided to apply to be a Peace Corps Volunteer about six years ago, something I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do if it had not been for his vision to establish the Peace Corps.

The Peace Corps is one of JFK’s initiatives that continues today, and it is certainly a wonderful example of how Americans can do their part. This book also had me reflecting a lot on my service. Looking back, I’m sure many of us can see how our backgrounds and experiences led us to serve in the Peace Corps and how our time as a Volunteer has shaped us into the people we are now. While Peace Corps Volunteers are a diverse group of individuals, it’s safe to say that overall we enjoy helping others and want to share our skills and time to make the world a better place. We’re dreamers and doers who are up for challenges and adventures. We love learning new things and sharing what we know. While things have changed a lot since the first Volunteers arrived at their sites, the Peace Corps is still a wonderful way for Americans to lend a hand and learn about other parts of the world. JFK would be proud to learn how many have not only thought about what they could do, but have answered the call to serve.

While those of us who are part of the new generation that Reich speaks of may not be as familiar with President Kennedy’s background or politics as those who were around during his presidency, I think we could all use a little encouragement and inspiration to be better citizens and better people. If you feel like you have lost some motivation or purpose, this book may be a helpful reminder that what you are doing matters, even if you can’t see how right now.

To order books reviewed here from Amazon.com click on the cover or the format of the publication, and Ethiopia & Eritrea RPCVs, an Amazon Associate, will receive a small remittance to support its RPCV Legacy Program.

End of Issue 17 — February 2014

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