I made a very poor fist of researching Ethiopia before I went last month and I only read Evelyn Waugh's Waugh in Abyssinia and took Dervla Murphy's book, In Ethiopia with a Mule with me.
Dervla Murphy's story is wonderfully inspiring because she achieved her childhood ambition, which Freud said is the secret of happiness, even though it was a crazy one.
“On my tenth birthday a bicycle and an atlas coincided as gifts, and a few days later I decided to cycle to India...However, I was a cunning child so I kept my ambition to myself, thus avoiding the tolerant amusement it would have provoked among my elders.”
She left school at fourteen to look after her sick mother and spent her twenties doing so. When her mother died, she was free to travel and 'like an elastic stretched to breaking point' as she said, she immediately set out from Ireland for India by bicycle. In India she met Penelope Betjeman in the street. Mrs. Betjeman was fascinated but this Irish colleen who had made such a remarkable journey, loved her postcards and persuaded her to write. Jock Murray commissioned a book. Destiny and a great example of how the universe conspires to make you succeed, if you remain true to your true ambitions.
It reminds me of the lines by Philip Larkin:
Sometimes you hear, fifth-hand,
He chucked up everything
And just cleared off,
And always the voice will sound
Certain you approve
This audacious, purifying,
Dervla (I can't call her Miss Murphy as I should) visited Ethiopia in 1966, when the Beatles were cutting records, England and Ireland had heavy pennies, shillings and half-crowns and other countries had small, lightweight decimal coinage. 1966 is a long time ago and a very long time ago in Ethiopia.
The Emperor Haile Selassie was on the throne, of course, and in the countryside when Dervla went 99% of the country people were illiterate. When I went, the children, even the barefoot ones, spoke to me in English and asked me to test them on the names of the capitals of the world. (They got every answer right.)
Sydney Greenstreet says to Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon, ‘By Jove, you are a character, sir!’ and by Jove so is Dervla Murphy. Her intention was to walk from the coast of Eritrea to Addis Ababa across mountainous and inhospitable terrain but her feet gave in at the outset and she was persuaded to take a mule whom she named Jock after her publisher. She has a keen sense of beauty and is observant and acute but it is her energy, courage and knack of getting herself put up in all sorts of unlikely kraals which make one read on.
"Within fifteen minutes I had been accepted by the settlement-as a most puzzling phenomenon, it is true, but also as someone to be fed, and joked with."
You do not read her for her prose style, although it is vigorous, clear and workmanlike. She is not a Fermor or an Evelyn Waugh. But you read her almost as much because of her as because of the places she visits.
‘It is not part of our culture to travel alone,’ an Ethiopian says to her and everywhere people try to provide her with bodyguards and guides. She represents, as the Irish sometimes do, an extreme example of Western individualism, whereas Ethiopia is a traditional society that thinks in terms of families, not individual fulfilment. I came to adopt the Ethiopians’ point of view. Why did she have to risk her life so often? One reviewer spoke of the ‘gothic levels of discomfort’ that she endured (often unnecessarily). One particular passage – she is on a narrow mountain ledge above a chasm with a reluctant mule - gave me vertigo just reading it, which shows she is a good writer but a foolhardy traveller. My unsympathetic feeling, after reading several accounts of difficult terrain, illness, exhaustion and unfriendly natives was – why not take the bus? In the end, after finding a man who was kind to his mules to adopt Jock, she does just that.
She was nearly murdered, while walking across a treacherous marsh, by some men led by a priest in full ceremonial robes and carrying a censer, who had made a career change and swapped the cure of souls for leading a gang of brigands. After being robbed but allowed to live (the priest had voted for killing her), she promptly almost died sinking in quicksand. The mule saved her by standing there (mulishly I suppose) while she clambered out pulling on his reins. This story ended happily. The police took her to the camp where the criminals were hiding and arrests were made - and beatings administered by the police about which she was very indignant. Evelyn Waugh would have had fun with this.
She hates the very faint signs of incipient tourism and complains about
"the corruption by Western superficialities of a non-Western mind which then quickly rejects its own traditions while remaining incapable of extracting any virtue from ours."Lalibela had just started to get a daily tourist flight when she went and her irritation that it had recently acquired a hotel (the Seven Olives, where she and I stayed) is understandable, I suppose. In the 1950s Thomas Pakenham had been told Lalibela received only four or five tourist visits a year. Now Lalibela has several hotels, but it is still not yet spoilt, though it is no longer innocent. It is going through its Lolita phase.
I wonder what Dervla would think if she returned. I wonder too how much she really understood but what is important is what she saw, rather than what she understood. D.H. Lawrence started writing about Italy as soon as he arrived and this was right. He was writing about the feelings Italy inspired in him and this is what interests us. As Mircea Eliade said, we travel to explore our unconscious mind. Ethiopians can write about how they believe things are and be right on details. They cannot know how things appear to an intelligent outsider from a more developed society.
The Ethiopia she saw was not today's Ethiopia of fast economic growth. And, of course, it is not Communism, which led to murders and droughts, but capitalism (in some cases it is true thanks to Communist China) that is changing the country. The villages remain the same but the peasants now often wear clothes made by Chinese political prisoners and mobile telephones are transforming their universe very slowly but surely. In towns, internet cafes came five or ten years back and are doing their trade, though often with internet connections that rarely work.
Dervla does not blame Hollywood or Western culture for the promiscuity she detects in many Ethiopians and this is a reminder that not all traditional cultures are chaste. I have read that in Africa before colonialisation, or even eighty years ago, men and women were sexually conservative. Africa is a big place and perhaps Ethiopia is an exception. It seems to be from Dervla's account. A priest, with whose family she lodged in a kraal, offered her his daughter for the night, thinking his guest was a man. When the girl reached under Dervla's clothes and found a mistake had been made, Dervla and the whole family laughed uproariously.
In her day almost all infrastructure that was at all well constructed had been built by the Italians between 1936 and 1941 (it is still somewhat similar in Albania) and she reports that everywhere Ethiopians speak well of what the Italians had built. It is hard not to draw the lesson that colonialism benefitted Africa and would in many ways have benefitted Ethiopia Other accounts of the barbarity of Haile Sellassie's Ethiopia bear this out, including the Emperor's own account. But Ethiopia is the fascinating country she is because, unlike the rest of black Africa, she was only a colony for five years. (Liberia, the other apparent exception, was in reality for 150 years ruled by American colonists, who happened to be black.) And alone in Africa, and one wonders if this is because they are Semites, Ethiopians have a long history, an ancient church and had until recently an even more ancient monarchy. A very old-fashioned, High Tory country (sex aside) and a fascinatingly strange one.