One of my goals when I started this project was to learn something about different countries through their literature. In some cases, this hasn’t been possible, as the only books translated into English by authors in certain countries aren’t necessarily about those countries. For example, the only English translation of a novel by an Andorran author that I’m aware of is set in ancient Egypt.
The book I chose to read for Ethiopia, however, taught me a great deal about a sad era in that country’s history. Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, by Maaza Mengiste, takes place in the mid-1970s, and the legendary Emperor, Haile Selassie, is about to be deposed. He has enjoyed an almost god-like status in Ethiopia for decades, not only because of his claim to be a descendant of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, but because of his stature in the international community.
At the beginning of this book, though, many in Ethiopia have begun to turn on him, and a famine that has killed tens of thousands of people in the northeastern part of the country appears to be the tipping point that will lead to the end of his regime. The author tells the story through the experiences of an upper-middle class family in the capital city of Addis Ababa. The father, Hailu, is a respected doctor at Prince Mekonnen Hospital, where his wife Selam, the soul of the family, is dying of congestive heart failure. They have two adult sons, Yonas, who is married and has a young daughter, and Dawit, a law student who is involved in anti-government protests. Dawit’s childhood friend Mickey, who comes from a poor family, has joined the military because he has no other prospects. This will cause tension between him and Dawit when a group of military officers, collectively known as the Derg, assassinates the Emperor, his family, and officials from his administration, and takes control of the government.
The Derg embraces communism, and their takeover of the country brings drastic changes to the lives of Hailu and his family. They are forced to give up part of their housing to a man who will ensure that they and their neighbors follow the new way of doing things, and they live in fear of being denounced if they don’t obey all the directives of the new regime. Dawit becomes increasingly involved in anti-government activities, adding further intensity to the family’s worries. The author does a superb job of making the reader feel the terror and anger that the characters are experiencing.
Moments of joy are very few and extremely far between in Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, but it held my interest and educated me to the horrors of that dark period in Ethiopia’s history. The author has a second novel, The Shadow King, and I’ll be sure to read that book too.
As most vegans probably know, Ethiopian cuisine is very vegan-friendly. So even though there were no particular dishes mentioned in Beneath the Lion’s Gaze that I wanted to make for this blog post, I had no trouble finding an abundance of recipes online for vegan or veganizable dishes.
The dish I decided to make was ingudai tibs, using a recipe from veggiebelly.com. This simple dish is basically a mushroom stir-fry mixed with tomatoes, onions, and bell pepper, and seasoned with an Ethiopian berbere spice mix. Ideally, it would be served with a spongy, fermented flatbread called injera, but I was afraid that trying to make injera would be outside the bounds of my culinary capabilities, so I just served the tibs over rice. Perfection!
There are so many worthy Ethiopian projects listed on the GlobalGiving website that I had a terrible time choosing just one. After reading several project descriptions, the one that touched my heart the most was Retrak, which helps Ethiopian street children by providing them with “food, medicine, shelter, education and everything they need to build a new life away from the street.” Beyond taking care of their immediate needs, Retrak works to figure out how these children became homeless in the first place and helps to restore them to a safe family environment. More information about Retrak is available at https://www.globalgiving.org/projects/reaching-out-to-street-children-in-ethiopia/.
NEXT STOP: FRANCE
(Originally published on March 14, 2019).
Pam Giarrizzo is a retired attorney who loves traveling, reading, and giving. She isn’t particularly fond of cooking, but she nevertheless reads, cooks, and gives for her armchair travel blog, The Booktrekker. Pam and her husband Phil live in Northern California, but they travel to Colombia often to visit their California-born son, their Argentine daughter-in-law, and their Colombian grandson. You can explore the world with Pam by following her blog at The Booktrekker or on Facebook at The Booktrekker | Facebook.
5 thoughts on “The Booktrekker: Ethiopia”
I loved the Shadow King, and I enjoyed my time in Ethiopia a few years ago. So pleased to read about this boook. I’ll have to read it soon. Thanks. Caroline
I’m glad you had a good trip to Ethiopia, Caroline — that must have been quite an experience. Clearly, I’m going to have to read The Shadow King one of these days.
I heard about Maaza Mengiste had to say about The Shadow King (improbably, since I live in Australia, via the Edinburgh festival which went online last year) and I thought it did just what you’re wanting…
I don’t think we can always expect that an author will write a book that introduces us to a country and a culture that we do not know, because it is not their job to educate us and they may have other things they are burning to write about (and sometimes they just want to write some kind of bestseller to pay the rent)
—but when it happens, as it does with books like Mengiste’s, it’s enriching.
I agree — it’s not the job of the novelist to educate us on every aspect of their country. If they whet our appetite just enough, readers can do their own research to fill in the blanks. I still have not read The Shadow King, but will continue my education about Ethiopia with that book one of these days.
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