Category Archives: Reviewed: Books, movies, etc.

Reviewed: Books, movies, etc.

Documentary Review

If Only I Were That Warrior: A Documentary
by Valerio Ciriaci.
Awen Films,
DVD $12.99,  Video on Demand rental $4.99; purchase $12.99.

Reviewed by Janet Lee (Emdeber 74–76)

ioiwtw_poster_v5_1_medium_winner“OF ONLY I WERE THAT WARRIOR” is the first line of Verdi’s Aida, and one wonders throughout who is the warrior of which this excellent documentary speaks.

The documentary begins and ends with the voice of Mulu, an Ethiopian radio broadcaster who lives in Italy and is on a campaign to erase all trace from a newly dedicated memorial in the town of Affile, Italy in the memory of Rodolfo Graziani, the Italian Fascist general who was responsible for numerous war crimes and the deaths of thousands during the Italian Occupation of Ethiopia in 1935.  The documentary questions how Graziani, known by many as “the Butcher of Ethiopia,” can be honored by a public monument, especially in Italy where Fascism is constitutionally banned.

Through a series of interviews of approximately 20 people in Ethiopia, Italy, and the U.S., the viewer hears differing perspectives on honoring Graziani with a memorial based on personal memories, history books, or stories from their elders. One might expect that one group of people might lean for or against the memorial based on nationalities of that group, but surprising alliances are formed or indifference abounds. To some, the genocide is “ancient history” and to others a cause to ensure that history does not repeat itself.

Particularly moving, is a short segment of an elderly monk who as a child witnessed the mass slaughter of thousands outside Debre Libanos.

Also depicted is the unlikely alliance that arises when Nicola DeMarco, the American grandson of an Italian solider who fought in Ethiopia, and joins forces with the Ethiopian diaspora, in particular Kidane Alemayehu from the Global Alliance for Justice: The Ethiopian Cause.

If Only I were that Warrior was the winner of the Premio “Imperdibili” Festival Dei Popoli, 2015 and was an official selection to the African Diaspora International Film Festival, 2016, to the Italian Film Festival of Minneapolis/St. Paul 2016; to the Addis International Film Festival, 2016; and to the Africa World Documentary Film Festival, 2016.

Ethiopian historians and non-historians alike will find this documentary informative and thought-provoking.

End of Issue 26 — March 2017


Afan Oromo

a Guide to Speaking the Language of Oromo People in Ethiopia


arfan-oromoBy Abebe Bulto, Edited by Andrew Tadross (Endodo, Tigray & Mekelle, Tigray 2011–13)
May 2016
192 pages
$21.00 (paperback)

Reviewed by Janet Lee (Emdeber 1974-76)


AFAN OROMO: A Guide to Speaking the Language of Oromo People in Ethiopia rounds out guides to three of the major language groups in Ethiopia, two of which were co-authored by editor Andrew Tadross, The Essential Guide to Amharic: the National Language of Ethiopia and The Essential Guide to Tigrinya: The Language of Eritrea and Northern Ethiopia.

This guide follows a similar outline as the previous two guides, which serve the readers well. The primary difference is that unlike either Amharic or Tigrinya, the Afan Oromo does not use the Fidel (script), but rather an alphabet called Qubee that is visually comparable to the Latin alphabet with variations in pronunciation. A pronunciation guide provides both phonetic equivalent and examples, including the sounds of double vowels, common in Afan Oromo.

The grammar section is quite lengthy. Verbs are conjugated for both past and present tense. Future tense is the present tense modified by adding a temporal modifier such as “tomorrow” or “next week.”  Pronouns, pluralization, and negatives are more than adequately covered.

Following the basic grammar, the reader is introduced to common phrases such as greetings and displays of emotions, and also to basic words such as colors, numbers, the calendar, units of time, and days of the week. The remainder of the guide introduces vocabulary by categories such as parts of the body, medical terms, occupations, transportation, and other areas that would be important in day-to-day conversation.

The author and editor note that like most languages, there are regional differences in regard to vocabulary. Afan Oromo also has many words in common with Amharic and English, especially when it comes to new technologies.

The charts are clear and there are simple illustrations throughout.

At this date, there is not a Kindle edition available, but since both the Amharic and Tigrinya versions are available in the Kindle format, it is likely that a Kindle version will become available if demand warrants.

The guide is bound well, typical of print-on-demand titles, and should hold up as one travels around the Afan Oromo-speaking region. Whether the traveler is in the region for a week or two years, the guide will serve as a worthwhile investment and a very good introduction to Afan Oromo.

Click on the book cover, the format of the book you desire or the bold book title to order Afan Oromo from Amazon, and Ethiopia & Eritrea RPCVs, an Amazon Associate, will receive a small remittance.

End of Issue 24 — October 2016




by Edmund P. Murray
Crown Publishers, 1973
538 pages
from $1.98 for hardcover

Reviewed by John Coyne (Addis Ababa 1962–64)

THE TOWN OF KULUBI lies south of Dire Dawa in the Oromia Area of Ethiopia. It is famous for its church, St. Gabriel, which is the site of a massive twice-yearly pilgrimages, on July 26 and December 28, that draws thousands to this mountain town. kulubiThe present church was erected in 1962 by Emperor Haile Selassie, replacing one built by his father, Ras Makonnen. That church had been erected to celebrate the Ethiopian victory in the Battle of Adwa.

Some PCVs — not many my guess — have been on this brutal pilgrimage when they were in-country, and one American, not a PCV, Edmund P. Murray, wrote a novel about Kulubi, published in 1973 by Crown.

Murray, who at various times in his career was a media adviser to the Iranian military during the Islamic revolution (1978–79) when the Shah fell, and Ayatollah Khomeini came to power, and also worked as a journalist and contract CIA agent in Iran, Europe and the Middle East, as well as many places in Africa, including Ethiopia, where he was an adviser to the Ministry of Information for seven years. His personal story, I think, is much more interesting than his novel, which I first read in 1973, shortly after its publication. So, let’s begin with the author, not his novel.

I interviewed Edmund Murray on January 31, 2007. He was back in the U.S., retired, and living in New Jersey. He had been in Ethiopia, he told me, from July 1965 to September 1971, and then again from December 1971 to February 1972. He was one of five advisers to the Ethiopian government financed by USAID and under contract with RTV International. The head of their team was Dr. Sydney Head. My guess is that they were all CIA agents.

Murray said he got to Ethiopia, the source of his future novel, by chance, and that is an intriguing story for all of us who were PCVs in-country and wondering about other Americans in Addis Ababa, thinking “who are they and what are they doing here?”

Murray told me he had been working as a journalist in Washington, D.C., writing about labor issues, when one day in 1964 he spotted a help wanted advertisement in Editor & Publisher magazine that intrigued him. It was a job for a journalist to work in Africa. “I was always interested in Africa, so I answered the ad,” he told me. It was only when he was hired, and when he was boarding a plane for Addis Ababa, that he was approached and told his real job wasn’t quite the one he applied for in the ad. “I was informed that I had been hired by the CIA. I felt like I was being shanghaied. I didn’t know what to expect.”

Hard to believe that account? Yes, I would say so.

Murray continued to explain why he even went to Ethiopia. “I didn’t have a choice. My wife and I had both quit our jobs in Washington. We had no place to live. Even though we went with misgivings, we went. Luckily, the journalism job was real, but I didn’t expect the other side.” The other side was spying on Ethiopia for the CIA.

Murray was hired on a two-year contract. He would stay in Addis Ababa seven years. “I liked Ethiopia a lot,” he simply stated, explaining himself. His job in Addis was not so much journalism, but working for Haile Selassie’s government. “As we know, the media was controlled by the government. I worked with the Minister of Information; we did reports for Selassie. I got on well with the Emperor. He even gave me a medal.”

While receiving a medal for his fine work, he was also reporting to the CIA what he knew about the Empire. “I did have to keep my ears and eyes open,” Murray admitted. “Although there was no real apparent danger, you never knew.”

Besides working for the Ethiopian government, and spying for the CIA, Edmund was also writing his novel about Ethiopia, Kulubi.

When he finished it, he decided it was time to leave the Horn of Africa.

“I had an Ethiopian friend who told me that if anyone stays in Ethiopia for seven years, then they never want to leave. It was seven years, but I felt it was time for me to leave.”  Three years after Murray left Addis, the “creeping coup” took place and the Emperor was overthrown. “Haile Selassie was killed, as were 50 people who I knew very well,” Murray recalled. “Also killed was my good friend who told me I would never leave Ethiopia.”  Murray never returned to Ethiopia. When the regime changed, and the Derg was defeated he might have, but it was too late. He died in October of 2007, less than a year after I interviewed him about his Ethiopian novel.

In our last conversation, I also asked him where he had lived in Addis and he recalled, “We lived first in a house off the Jimma Road, then near the University, but for most of our stay we lived in an old chika bet next to the British Embassy. Also, for about six months, we moved down to Dire Dawa when I started working on Kulubi.”

Kulubi was Murray’s second novel. The Passion Players, set in Texas, was first (1968), then The Peregrine Spy, set in Iran during the Islamic revolution was published in 2004.

Now about the book

Kulubi tells the story of a wide variety of men and women, ranging from devout pilgrims to curious tourists, from a penniless peasant to Emperor Haile Selassie. Oh, there is also mention of several PCVs on this sacred pilgrimage.

The main characters include an Ethiopian journalist, Tesfaye Tessema, an American couple, Harry and Julie Comfort, and an artist, Baria Medhane Alem. All of them, plus tens of thousands of others, have undertaken the journey to the famed “miracle” church of the Archangel Gabriel at Kulubi, which is (if you haven’t been there) a small mountains village above Harar and Dire Dawa.

In many ways, the novel is a modern Canterbury Tales. It takes this pilgrimage to introduce a set of characters from America and Ethiopia, and tell their intertwined tales. It is a “talky” novel and not much happens until the end.

I am not sure the novel would hold much interest for readers who haven’t been to Ethiopia, who don’t come to the story with an understanding of what goes on in country. Murray assumes that the reader is prepared for the nuances of Ethiopia, not only the political situation, but the tribal, and the social motif of the society.

For example, within the novel there is the Emperor himself seeking support from the masses — this is set in 1969 — the Crown Prince is trying to identify his role in life,  a mad peasant is trying to lead his ox to the church, a famous madam and her friend who is waiting for a chance to betray her, and a half dozen other “characters,” all of whom are familiar to faranjoch who once had the good fortune to live in the land of thirteen months of sunshine and tried to make sense of the place and our role in it.

The focus of the novel is the couple, Harry and Julie Comfort, two quintessential Ugly Americans, with a liberal slant: rich, oblivious, and self-centered. Harry Comfort is struggling with his beliefs in God and seeking answers on this journey; his shill and demanding wife Julie is unhappy in her marriage and carrying on a dangerous liaison with Tesfaye Tessema, a brilliant journalist caught between his desire for his country’s modernization and his reverence for the old Amharic culture, who is sitting in the backseat of a Land Rover on this journey. Also in the back seat is Baria Medane Alem. We are given no reason to believe the claim that Baria is a good friend. In fact, I can’t figure out why she is in the vehicle, let alone the novel.

As the pilgrims cross the country from the Highlands to Kulubi, they encounter hundreds of others coming to fulfill their silent — their vow to Saint Gabriel— including the aforementioned mad peasant with his ox, and Haile Selassie himself who is trying to hold his Empire together as he pushes it forward modernization.

Add to these pilgrims of disparate backgrounds, conflicting values and dissimilar goals, you have a mix of personalities and events all culminating at Saint Gabriel and the feast of Kulubi.

It is a long novel, over 500 pages, and the pace is slow and even tortuous throughout, especially parts 1, “The Road to Kulubi,” and 2, “Let Us Crucify Our Minds.” The pace does pick up in part 3 and suspense is built and resolved as we learn of the various fates awaiting the characters.

It is not a book for everyone, but it is for those of us trying to understand the country, told from a man who clearly loved Ethiopia. But perhaps Murray said it best about what Ethiopia needs in his dedication of the novel. He writes:

The book is dedicated to all the Ethiopian authors who might have written it if such books could be published in their beautiful, sad country.

That is what we are seeing today, not only books by Ethiopians about their country, but also films, music and art.

It’s a new day. Ethiopians don’t need faranjoch to tell their own story.

John Coyne is co-founder (with Marian Haley Beil [Debre Berhan 1962–64]) of the newsletter Peace Corps Writers and Readers and now the blog He has published 26 novels, non-fiction and collections on a variety of topics. Long Ago and Far Away is his novel partially set in Ethiopia.

End of Issue 24 — July 2016


The Collected Works of Mildred D. Taylor (Yirgalem 1965–67)

Reviewed by Janet Lee, (Emdeber, 1974-76)

roll-thunderAs I was visiting the exhibits at a major library conference, I chanced upon promotional material announcing the 40th anniversary of the publication of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Ethiopia RPCV Mildred Taylor. Forty years.

I am not a children’s librarian nor am I a school librarian, but I have been touched by her work. How could one not be by her award-winning books? A Newbery. The Coretta Scott King Award (three times). The Christopher Award. The Scott O’Dell Historical Fiction Award. The inaugural NSK Neustadt Prize for Children’s Literature (University of Oklahoma).

I was also aware of the fact that Mildred (known as Millie by some of her Peace Corps colleagues) served in Yirgalem, from 1965–67. She taught English, as many of us did at that time, in a small rural school.  Little did her students know who stood before them.

On January 10th, I posted a note on the E&E RPCV Facebook page:


Some of the current Volunteers commented that although they had read her books, they were unaware that she had served in Ethiopia. We need to change that! In celebration of the 40th anniversary of “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry,” I would like to pay tribute to one of the great writers to come out of Peace Corps Ethiopia or all of Peace Corps for that matter.

Who is Mildred D. Taylor?

Mildred D. Taylor

Mildred D. Taylor

Mildred Taylor was born in Jackson, MS in 1943 and is the daughter of Wilbert Lee and Deletha Marie Taylor. Although born in the segregated south, she grew up in Ohio having moved north at the age of three months. She graduated with a BA in English from the University of Toledo in 1965, and an MA from the University of Colorado in 1969. She served in the Peace Corps in Ethiopia from 1965 to 1967 and was a Peace Corps recruiter from 1967 to 1969.  She made a living as a proofreader during the early stages of her writing career.

But those are facts. To begin to know Mildred Taylor, one must read her books and become immersed in the lives of the characters whom she portrays in the series of books about the Logan family, first made known in Roll of Thunder, Hear My Call. Despite her prominence as an author, she seems to be a very private person. I chanced upon a video interview produced in 1988 and distributed by the Films for Humanities in 2004.  I located a VHS copy through interlibrary loan and then had to hunt down a video recorder that still played VHS. Through this interview, the viewer gets a sense of the importance of stories, memories, and family in the books that have made her so well-known and made a mark on literary history.

Her family moved north when she was barely three months old after a racial incident against her father prompted the move. But the ties to the family in the South led her family on frequent visits back home.  “Picnics” of sweet potato pie and fried chicken delighted her and her sister as they traveled overland on these twenty-hour treks.  Only years later did they realize that their parents were protecting them from racist remarks and humiliation as they would be denied access to restaurants and hotels.  These memories were counter balanced by the love and care of her extended family who sheltered the children from the overt racism and segregation practiced in the neighboring towns.

Mildred became part of a “story-telling chain,” as she sat transfixed on the stories her father told.  Many of the stories were humorous; others were tragic and told with an element of pathos.  There was a sense of history in those stories that were told with gusto and great acting skills and she could visualize her ancestors as she stepped back in time.  These stories formed a history of the U.S. and the South that she had not learned in school, a history that she could expand upon by becoming a written storyteller herself.

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Call, the winner of the Newbery Medal in 1977, is the story of the Logan family as seen through the eyes of young Cassie, the daughter of Mary and David Logan, a black landowner and cotton farmer who subsidized his income by working on the railroad. The story, set in the depression era of the 1930s in the segregated South, tells of the joys and struggles of an African-American family.  Taylor does not sugar-coat the day-to-day experiences of the family, nor does she describe some of the brutality in overly graphic detail.  She does use language that would seem offensive today. She also describes what many history books do not:  a successful black landowner, a tight-knit family with hopes and dreams for their children, an educated school teacher, a relative who served in the military, and the uncle who prospered and is the proud owner of a late-model car.

In the video interview, Taylor does relate that these characters were fashioned after her family members. David Logan, the father, was reminiscent of her grandfather, a railroad man.  Mary Logan took after her grandmother, an outspoken teacher and role model.  Cassie’s brother Stacey took on the features of her father, and Cassie was a more outgoing expression of Mildred herself.  In so doing, the stories within each of the books in the series take on an authenticity that both make them believable, but also spurs the imagination.  The reader cannot but help but identify with the characters and be captivated by the stories, no matter their ages.

Mildred’s titles include:

Song of the Trees, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, 1975, 2003

Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry, 1976, reprinted 25th edition 2001, reprinted 40th edition, 2016

Let the Circle Be Unbroken, 1981

The Friendship, 1987, 1998

The Gold Cadillac, 1987

The Road to Memphis, 1990

Mississippi Bridge, 1990

The Well: David’s Story, 1995, 1998

The Land, 2001

If you have never read one of her books, now is the time. If you read them for school or as a teen, it is time to read them again and appreciate the historical context in which they were written and the lessons that can still be gleaned today.

Some interviews with Mildred D. Taylor that can be read on the Internet:

The American Library Association, 2006

The Brown Bookshelf, 2008

Kirkus, 2016

Click on the book cover, or the bold book title to order books mentioned above from Amazon, and Ethiopia & Eritrea RPCVs, an Amazon Associate, will receive a small remittance.


End of Issue 23 — April 2016



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


The Historical Ecology of Malaria in Ethiopia

Deposing the Spirits

historical-ec-malariaby James C. McCann (Burie 1973–75)
Ohio University Press, 2014; 2015
$75.00 (hard cover), $26.40 (paperback),
$14.39 (Kindle)

Reviewed by Janet Lee (Emdeber 1974-76)

JAMES MCCANN, PROFESSOR OF HISTORY, and Associate Director for Development, African Studies Center, Boston University is the author of the recently published The Historical Ecology of Malaria in Ethiopia based on over a decade of field research in Ethiopia funded in part by a five-year Rockefeller grant, a Fulbright-Hays Fellowship, and a Boston University start-up grant.

This highly readable work provides an in-depth overview of malaria, the most deadly and debilitating vector-borne disease in Africa. The author examines the major players, both good and bad, and the forces that have had an impact on the disease including the Italians and the Derg. He also discusses the impact of ecology on the disease, the effects of living in the highlands and the lowlands, as well as the introduction of maize as a contributing factor. And of course we cannot ignore the starring character, the mosquito.

McCann cites ancient Ge’ez texts for early references to the deadly disease and Italian documents related to Fascists Italy’s 1935–36 invasion of Ethiopia and its need to fend against the disease. He interviews local residents about the myths and traditions surrounding causes and local remedies and cures for malaria, the “shivering fever.” Throughout he gives ample credit to the work of his Ethiopian counterparts who are making strides in the prevention and treatment of the disease.

The author makes important scientific concepts understandable to the lay reader while describing cause and effect of transmission of the disease to humans. New land uses, migration of populations, and increasing resistance to sprays and drugs are contributing factors to the spread of the disease. Of particular interest was the introduction of maize, a New World crop, to the African ecosystem. Who would have thought that the pollen of an innocuous plant like corn could wreak such havoc in the health of a population?

Until reading this history, I believed that a mosquito was a mosquito was a mosquito. In the chapter, entitled “She Sings,” that is at times quite light-hearted, McCann describes the mosquito in all her strength and glory and the role that she plays in the transmission of the disease.

Despite best efforts to eradicate the deadly disease through the use of pesticides such as DDT, vaccines, or anti-malarial medications like chloroquine, malaria continues to rear its ugly head.

McCann’s prognosis for the future? Investments in control of the mosquito population, public education and monitoring the habitat will remain essential. Malaria will continue to be a local disease of place or ecology. High tech methods (biomedicine for a vaccine or a genetically engineered mosquito) may be less effective than high touch (commitment to public health, monitoring local outbreaks, and quick response to mini-epidemics.)

RPCVs of Ethiopia and Eritrea will find this a fascinating tome as they reflect on their own experiences with anti-malarial medications, bed nets, and DDT, then liberally distributed at the Peace Corps office. I look forward to picking up some of his prior works including the wonderfully titled Maize and Grace: Africa’s Encounter with a New World Crop, 1500-2000 and Stirring the Pot: a History of African Cuisine.

To order a book or film 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 21 — August 2015

Books and more

Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia — Revisited

photos by Hoyt A. Smith (Addis Ababa 1962-65)ethiopia-revisited
& narration by Theodore Vestal (Associate Director, PC/Ethiopia 1964–66)
October 2014
$45.00 (Click for more information and to order)

Reviewed by Alan Smith (Debre Marcos, Gojjam, 1971-73)


A PICTURE IS WORTH a thousand words. One hundred and ninety five pages, many with multiple pictures, are surely worth 195,000 plus words!

Hoyt’s pictures from his 1962/65 “Ethiopia I” PCV time and travels in Ethiopia fueled in me a flood of memories and a desire to review my own memorabilia from 1971 to 1973 in Debre Marcos as an “Ethiopia XVI.” His striking pictures showed not much had changed between our dates of service. When I received this Christmas present to myself, I sat down to view a few pages and ended up finishing the entire book! The beautiful people, artifacts and landscape photos capture the essence of Ethiopia. Hoyt’s photos helped me recall the red mud pulling at my rubber boots, the brilliant blue sky from 8,700 feet, the gathering of children as I walked through town or country side, the smells and sites of Saturday market, and the students gathering before the AM and PM sessions of school.

Hoyt’s revisited pictures “50 years later —2012” helped me, as someone who has not returned to Ethiopia, envision the different/same Ethiopia of today. Theodore Vestal’s introduction and historical text embellished an already stunning pictorial essay. My site of Debre Marcos has increased from 7,000 to over 70,000 in population, one secondary school to multiple institutions of higher learning, and a simple post office to satellite communications! Ethiopia has undergone many changes as shown in Hoyt’s pictures. Ethiopian Airlines 787 Dreamliners, high rise buildings, elevated light rail systems of public transport, satellite dishes on roofs, and multilane roads are a few of the changes recorded. However, his photos depict what has remained unchanged as well — small open markets, cows and donkeys in the streets, eucalyptus scaffolding, blue taxis and horse carts, and traditional tukuls. I see the resilience in the faces of a people who have endured turmoil, social and political change, and pressures from a modern world and have remained solidly Ethiopian.

I can easily recommend Hoyt’s book. His historical and modern photos are a good view into Ethiopia. It would be enjoyed by past, present, and now training RPCV/PCVs. Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia – Revisted as a coffee table book in my home has started many conversations with non-RPCVs about my time in Ethiopia. I shall personally revisit this book as an aid to maintaining my memories of my service!

Mellow Yellow – Dead Red

Bawdy Boutique Mysteries Book 3

mellow-yellowby Sylvia Rochester (Jimma 1964–66)
Whiskey Creek Press
304 pages
$3.99 (Kindle)

Reviewed by Mary Myers-Bruckenstein (Addis Ababa, 1968-70)


I JUST COMPLETED READING this quick mystery. It takes place in Louisiana, an area known to me from vacations, thus I was easily able to relate to both the lifestyle and terrain.

The book’s mystery is resolved with the positive cognition of ESP, feelings, visions and sights. Once these aspects are credited, the mystery is quickly solved.

Today, most people rely on “facts only” and skip the very real events that occur, a change in a person’s soul. We are all only souls living in a body.

The use of this aspect in criminal case mystery may make more aware of its true nature and use in explaining events that occur around us.

The book is direct in its organization. It is enjoyable. Well worth reading. I would read any other books written by this author, which include: The Corpse Wore Cashmere (2014) and Disrobed for Death (2013), both in the Bawdy Boutique Mysteries series.

To order the books mention here  from 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.

The Essential Guide to Tigrinya

The Language of Eritrea and Northern Ethiopia

essential-guide-tigrinyaby Andrew Tadross (Endodo, Tigray & Mekelle, Tigray 2011-13)
and Abraham Teklu
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
160 pages
$25.00 (paperback)

Reviewed by Janet Lee (Emdeber 1974-76)


THIS GUIDE TO TIGRINYA will surely meet a need for Peace Corps Volunteers in Ethiopia, members of the non-profit community and other travelers to this northern region in Ethiopia called Tigray. “It features over 3,000 essential words and phrases . . .” (back cover), is nicely bound on heavy paper and should hold up well in a backpack.

The authors, Peace Corps Volunteer Andrew Tadross and native speaker Abraham Teklu, provide an introduction to the basic background of the language of Tigrinya, regional differences within the region of Tigray and the commonalities with the Amharic language.

There is a detailed explanation of pronunciation including a pronunciation guide on the use of the Fiedel, the “alphabet,” complete with an explanation of vowel sounds, consonants, explosive consonants, and special sounds. This is followed by an overview of basic grammar including punctuation symbols.  Verbs are conjugated in present and past tenses.

As with all languages one cannot translate phrases directly from one language to another. The authors provide helpful hints on when to use or not use forms of a word or phrase, such as the use of pronouns. For instance, in most cases, pronouns are not needed because the pronoun is implied in the verb.

The charts are clear and illustrative of use:  English * phonetic equivalent * Tigrinya.

Finally, there is a lengthy section of useful words and phrases beginning with greetings and conversation starters and essentials such as numbers, telling times, days of the week, parts of the body and medical terms.  Business, transportation, occupations, and education terminology are each grouped together as are food, drink, and related activities such as the coffee ceremony. Occasional illustrations break up the text throughout.

Perhaps one day there will be an inexpensive Kindle edition that the Peace Corps office could purchase and distribute to all Volunteers serving in or traveling to Tigray.

To order The Essential Guide to Tigrinya  from 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.

A Heartwarming and Award-Winning,
Full-length Documentary Film


Melissa Donovan, cinematographer

Reviewed by Alice Gosak Gary (Harar 1964–67)


SOMETIMES THINGS HAPPEN BY CHANCE. Some would say they happen through miracles. The meeting of a small girl, a medical doctor and a cinematographer who was trailing him was either — or both.

Zemenework (“Golden Moment”) was 8 or 10 years old at the time Dr. Rick Hodes exited a coffeehouse in Gondar and saw her. She was small for her age, malnourished and suffering from kyphosis and tuberculosis, causing her to have a deformed back. Dr. Rick, a specialist in diseases of the spine, immediately recognized Zemene’s condition. Filmmaker Melissa Donovan, following Dr. Rick on another project, was drawn to the small trusting girl with a luminous smile.

Melissa accompanied Zemene and the girl’s uncle to the village of Belessa, where the grandparents who lovingly raised the girl, lived. Thinking she would pass the footage on to be made into a documentary by someone else, Melissa did not realize that she would spend the next five years with Zemene and make the documentary herself. It went on to win awards at the Boston Film Festival and others in the United States.

It would be a spoiler to tell how the film progresses and ends. Suffice it to say that it presents a cast of real and impressive characters. The interaction of Zemene’s family is not only a glimpse of life in a poor highland village; it is a look into the loving hearts of Ethiopians. The scenery around the village will make anyone who has once been dazzled by the green that follows the rainy season homesick for its beauty.

Learn more about this film and view the trailer at  The film will be shown at film festivals in Sarasota, Florida and St. Paul, Minnesota in April, at the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival in May and in Portland in September. (Note:  Zemene is not yet available on DVD)

Contributions can be made:

End of issue 20 — 4/24/2015