Understanding Contemporary Ethiopia

Monarchy, Revolution and the Legacy of Meles Zenawi

understanding-contemp-ethiopiaGerard Prunier and Eloi Picquet, editors
Hurst & Co. London
416 pages
$29.95 (paperback), (Kindle)

Reviewed by Mike O’Brien (Grawa [Harar] 1967–69]

SINCE 1974 AND THE VIOLENT OVERTHROW of Haile Selassie, Ethiopia has altered radically, going through periods of Communist dictatorship, civil war, mass starvation, large-scale population dislocations, an authoritarian counter-revolution, a population boom and sweeping economic changes. For an outsider, or even for locals, it can be difficult to follow such rapid developments, let alone understand the origins and causes behind them. For this collection of essays, the editors Gerard Prunier and Eloi Picquet have assembled an exceptional team of historians, anthropologists, journalists, political scientists and researchers to provide a comprehensive and detailed analysis; one that covers political history and includes chapters on the reforms of Meles Zenawi and the current government, as well as overlooked topics like the Muslim community, the growing Pentecostal movement and recent urbanization. For a person new to the culture and history of Ethiopia, this book is a must read and an indispensable resource, to be returned to again and again as one becomes more familiar with the country.

As an aside, if you are familiar with the magisterial work, The Identity of France by Fernand Braudel, this book is a similar broad and comprehensive history of nation building from early times up to the modern era, in which generalities are well supported by thorough research and analysis. In other words, a classic.

The first half of this book describes in detail the many ethnic communities that form Ethiopian society, their governing structures and their principal religions, Orthodox Christianity, Islam, and Pentecostal Christianity. The second half traces political history from the mid-nineteenth century up to today, starting with the reigns of “king of kings” Tewodros, Yohannes and Menelik, from 1855 to 1913, characterized by nearly constant internal fighting while also addressing external challenges like European colonists. The chapter on Haile Selassie lays out his efforts to modernize Ethiopia while retaining absolute political power, backed by secretive and ruthless control — a contradiction that actually stymied progress and led to a revolutionary break. Of particular interest is the analysis of the educational and economic changes the Emperor did permit, that created a set of radicalized idealistic leaders who lacked actual governing experience, which led them to naively draw on failed Maoist models in attempting to create a socialist society. The Derg committee, the Communist dictatorship, like the Emperor before it, attempted to retain tight control over all decisions, to eliminate critics, and prevent development of independent sectors, like a free market economy. The particular genius of Meles Zenawi was to open up economic investment and offer some democratic progress while still maintaining strict control, more along the lines of modern China’s centralized economy.

As a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer of the late 1960s, this book clarified many aspects of Ethiopia that were heretofore sketchy and incomplete — for just one example, the whole history of how Haile Selassie managed to gain control of the Orthodox church hierarchy in Ethiopia from its earlier seat in Alexandria, in effect making him ruler of both church and state. Or, in more recent times, how the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) grew from its precarious start in Eritrea in 1975 into the Ethiopian Peoples’ Democratic Revolutionary Front (EPDRF), the coalition that leads the nation today.

In 1967 at our training program at the University of Utah, our Ethiopian mentors gave us another excellent resource, the book Wax & Gold [University of Chicago, 1965] by Donald N. Levine. This book is focused on describing Ethiopian society, particularly the Amhara, and on the psychology of individuals who grow up in a rural culture and are then exposed to urban life and education. As one example that changed my Peace Corps experience, Levine describes the role of the Western academic standards that the Ministry of Education imposed on schools, how the 8th grade baccalaureate exam became an all-or-nothing challenge that few students passed, and how failure could marginalize a person. Reading the book, I realized this meant that my own teaching of 8th grade science and mathematics would have to be directed toward passing that test. In math class, it meant drilling students in solving specific problems that would be on the test, whether they understood the concepts or not, and setting aside the official Ministry curriculum. With a Gestetner duplicating machine, I rewrote the Ministry textbooks to adapt them toward that test. Levine’s book was an important early push toward getting most of our school’s 8th graders to succeed on their society’s terms rather than my American norms.

On re-reading Wax & Gold, although published a generation ago, its insights into personal life and growth still seem relevant and a useful complement to the broader history of Understanding Contemporary Ethiopia, because the personality dynamics Levine describes can be seen as underlying many of the patterns of the larger society. Without oversimplifying too much, for me an example is Levine’s description of the world of the typical Ethiopian peasant as relatively isolated by terrain, independent to the point of self-sufficiency, and combative over control of resources like land. Peasants usually therefore did not experience community decision making processes that encourage collaboration and compromise (with some exceptions, like the Gurage peoples). Lacking this early experience, boys who leave the farm for the city may gravitate toward authoritarian political structures, are suspicious of competing ideas or people, and tend toward power and/or violence to resolve differences. I highly recommend reading these books as a pair.

For the scholar in you, Understanding Contemporary Ethiopia could be a rich vein, as each chapter lists numerous related books, essays, papers and articles. Unless you are already an Ethiopia specialist, just finding these might be a challenge, and if you intend further study, these sources could be invaluable.


Reviewer Mike O’Brien and his wife Vana were Ethiopia VIII (1967-69) Volunteers in Grawa, Gara Muleta District, Harar Province. Mike taught 8th grade math and science and Vana taught 3rd and 7th grade English. Today Mike is retired from his work as the City of Portland’s Green Building Specialist, while Vana maintains her therapy practice and remains a company member at Artists Repertory Theatre. Inspired by Ted Wells (The Old Man in the Bag:  . . . And Other True Stories of Good Intentions) and others, Mike and Vana are collaborating on a book about their experiences, combining photos, diaries and memories—some of the photos can be found online at Flickr.

Note: Read Mike’s earlier review of Ted’s The Old Man in the Bag

The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros

A Seventeenth-Century African Biography of an Ethiopian Woman

life-strugglesWritten by Galawdewos; translated and edited by Wendy Laura Belcher and Michael Kleiner
Princeton University Press
544 pages
$39.95 (hardcover), $24.99 (Kindle)

Reviewed by Janet Lee (Emdeber 1974-76)

THIS FIRST ENGLISH TRANSLATION Gädlä Wälättä P̣eṭros, here titled The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Walatta Petros: A Seventeenth-Century African Biography of an Ethiopian Woman, is a significant contribution to not only Ethiopian studies, but African studies as well. Previously translated from Ge’ez to Amharic and Ge’ez to Italian, this translation extends the reach of the hagiography of a revered figure and saint in the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. Originally transcribed by a novice monk, Galawedwos, in 1672–73, it dispels assumptions frequently made today of the inferior role of African women in society, the lack of a significant African literature pre-colonization, and the need to convert Africans to Christianity. Walatta Petros is one of 21 female Ethiopian saints among a host of nearly 200 saints. Written thirty years after her death, the original Gädlä Wälättä P̣eṭros is a collection of stories told by those within her community, a Gädlä being a genre of literature telling an inspirational story of a saint’s life. There are three parts to this particular hagiography: the story of her life, twenty-seven miracles attributed to her holiness, and two poems praising the saint.

Fundamental to her story is the role she played in thwarting the efforts of Jesuits from Portugal in converting her countrymen to Roman Catholicism, despite Ethiopians having embraced Christianity in the early 4th century. (It should be noted that I am both Jesuit-educated and employed at a Jesuit institution. I was aware of an early Jesuit presence in Ethiopia, but not familiar with why their influence did not take hold as it had so strongly in other parts of the world. I found this aspect of the hagiography most fascinating.)

Walatta Petros (her name, meaning the daughter of Peter, must always be written in full form) was the wife of a counselor of King Susenyos, who succumbed to the efforts of the Jesuits and converted to Catholicism. Walatta Petros left her husband, became a nun, and led the successful battle against conversion. To focus on this singular aspect of her life, would not do her story justice. Walatta Petros led an exemplary life, though frequently and unsuccessfully tempted by Satan as related in this story; performed a number of minor miracles; was a storyteller and teacher; and was beloved by her community.

What makes this translation so extraordinary? It is the result of the passion and care taken by translators Wendy Belcher and Michael Kleiner, evident in every aspect of the volume, from its sheer weight and quality of paper pages and magnificent reproduction of its color plates to the extensive notes throughout the text. The translators worked from a number of individually copied manuscripts that are housed in Ethiopia and in collections in Europe, carefully comparing words and phrases among the manuscripts with an eye toward accuracy in the context of the language and culture as understood during that time period. The preface, a substantive introduction to the text, a chapter on the manuscripts, and the introduction to the translation thoroughly prepare the reader for an understanding of the text. Although heavily footnoted (the notes sometimes taking more real estate on the page than the text itself), the story flows easily from page to page. The scholar or determined reader can check the notes to learn the definition of a word, context or history of a passage, or reference to a biblical passage.

This translation is not without its controversies. Other translations exist in Amharic and in Italian, but these according to Belcher, were based on a single manuscript. Belcher and Kleiner compared and utilized twelve different manuscripts to produce this definitive translation, as acknowledged by scholars. In this translation, there is a scene where Walatta Petros observes nuns being lustful with each other, indicating to Belcher that same-sex desire is not a

plate from the book: How Walatta Petros [made spring forth] "water while on her way to the wilderness of Waldeba.” From MS A, f. 148v © SLUB Mscr.Dresd.Eb.415.e,2

Plate from the book: How Walatta Petros [made spring forth] “water while on her way to the wilderness of Waldeba.” From MS A, f. 148v © SLUB Mscr.Dresd.Eb.415.e,2

phenomenon that was a recent Western import but existed in the 1600s. In addition, Walatta Petros was in a long-term friendship with another nun, Eheta Kristos. Since the two women were committed to celibacy and extreme asceticism, nothing more can be presumed other than a high level of devotion and friendship to each other. Belcher’s response to this controversy can be seen at her website.

The translators for this edition have strong Ethiopian ties. Wendy Belcher is associate professor in the Department of Comparative Literature and the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University. Michael Kleiner is a historian of Ethiopia and a translator. He has taught at the universities of Göttingen, Marburg, and Hamburg, as well as at Addis Ababa University. Belcher lived in Ethiopia as a young girl when her physician father served as a faculty member at a medical college in Gondar, having ample opportunity to visit the castles and monasteries in the surrounding areas. The college gatekeeper instructed her on the characters of an ancient Ethiopian script and she observed firsthand monks copiously inscribing texts on parchment, either translations or original texts used for worship. Such experience left an imprint that lasts to this day. Belcher is also the author of Abyssinia’s Samuel Johnson and Honey from the Lion: An African Journey. Her next work, The Black Queen of Sheba: A Global History of an African Idea, is in progress.

To order a book from that has been reviewed or mentioned here click on the cover, bold title 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 22 — January 2016

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