Ethiopia: Review of Aida Edemariam’s New Book ‘The Wife’s Tale’

In this indelible memoir that recalls the life of her remarkable ninety-five-year old grandmother, Guardian journalist Aida Edemariam tells the story of modern Ethiopia. (Harper)

New Statesman

The Wife’s Tale: Aida Edemariam’s vivid portrait of her 95-year-old Ethiopian grandmother

When Aida Edemariam was a tiny child in Ethiopia, her grandmother shoved her and a cousin into a cupboard and stood protectively in front of it while the children crouched “among soft white dresses that smelled of incense and wood smoke and limes”. The country was at war, a tornado was roaring outside, and among the sheets of corrugated iron, hurtling “like dark leaves of paper through the tarnished sky”, were volleys of machine-gun bullets. Panicky teenaged soldiers were trying to kill “the devil in the wind”.

Lethal modern weaponry juxtaposed with ancient superstition, the fragrance of luxuries the first Ethiopian Christians would have enjoyed, harsh weather, a narrative full of sensuous detail and poetic imagery – the vignette, one of scores of comparable ones, encapsulates the character of this remarkable book. It tells the life story of that grandmother, Yetemegnu. The narrative begins in 1916 with her wedding, when she was eight years old. When the groom came to fetch her from her family’s house in the once-imperial city of Gondar, disease was killing people in the marketplace. While she sat silent in the hut where, if she’d been a little older, the marriage would have been consummated, on the other side of the compound the guests feasted on food that had taken months to prepare. There was dancing, and ululations, and a minstrel “tossed rhymes like spears into the crowd”. Only when the festivities ended, days later, did Yetemegnu lift her veil and see the man she’d married, and murmur astonished to the groomsman: “When I have children they’re going to look like that!’

She had nine children, five of whom predeceased her. That husband, Tsega, was a lowly priest when they married but, although a curse laid upon him by his father prevented him from writing, he was master of the oral art of qinè (sacred poetry). He went to Addis Ababa. After two years, he was invited to one of the empress’s banquets. She noticed he was fasting and, approving, invited him to speak. He declaimed his poem of praise. It found favour. “What can I do for you?” said the empress. He asked for Gondar’s venerable church of Ba’ata (destroyed by Islamists in the 1880s) and the wherewithal to rebuild it. “Of course,” said the empress. She awarded him an embroidered tunic, a gold-trimmed cape, mules loaded with Maria Theresa silver, and the title of aléqa (leader of the church). With the suddenness of magical transformation, Yetemegnu, still barely in her teens, found herself the wife of a “big man”.

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