An illuminating book on Ethiopia as the country burns

Amhara Region militia man

An Amhara Region militia man, that combat alongside federal and regional forces against northern region of Tigray, poses in the town of Musebamb, 44 kms northwest from Gondar, on November 7, 2020.

Photo credit: AFP

 “In the spring of 2003, I went to Kabul, and I recall seeing these burqa-clad women sitting at street corners, with four, five, six children, begging for change. I remember watching them walking in pairs up the street, trailed by their children in ragged clothes, and wondering how life had brought them to that point. What were their dreams, hopes, longings? Had they been in love? Who were their husbands?

What had they lost, whom had they lost, in the wars that plagued Afghanistan for two decades? I spoke to many of those women in Kabul. Their life stories were truly heartbreaking… I met a little girl whose father had been paralysed from the waist down by shrapnel. She and her mother begged on the streets of Kabul from sunrise to sundown.”

These poignant words were written by Khaled Hosseini, the breakout star writer who now lives in America when he had visited his then war-ravaged country of Afghanistan.

In war, the media and government officials report people’s deaths as statistics but, as Hosseini describes it, the victims of war are real people (fathers, mothers, children) with dreams, hopes and longings that are suddenly shattered.

Sadly, since November 4, 2020, a war has been raging in Ethiopia that no one is talking about. The Ethiopian central government is waging a serious military campaign in the restive region of Tigray.

The Ethiopian government says that it is responding to rebels who have refused to toe the line. The country is on a razor’s edge; bullets are whizzing by and ricocheting, bombs are falling, shells exploding, and people are dying.

Summer noons

War, unfortunately, even when there are seemingly good reasons for it, is ugly. As Shakila Azizzada described it in the poem entitled ‘Kabul’, “If my heart beats for Kabul, it’s for the slopes of Bala Hissar, holding my dead in its foothills.

If my heart trembles for Kabul, it’s for the slow step of summer noons, siestas in my father’s house which, heavy with mid-day sleep, still weighs on my ribs/For the playful Angel of the Right Shoulder who keeps forgetting to ward away stray bullets.”

Like Kabul, the beautiful foothills of the Tigray region are unfortunately hurling clouds of stones, earth and sand into the air and are having dead bodies piling up.

And the angels have to ward away stray bullets in the Tigray region or many people will die. Already, a refugee crisis is brewing with United Nations reports indicating that about 40,000 refugees from the Tigray region have crossed into neighbouring Sudan and hundreds of people have died in the fighting.

Incidentally, the latest novel, The Shadow King by Ethiopian-born writer Maaza Mengiste, is a gripping story of war. The book had been shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize. It is a story set during fascist Italy's invasion of Ethiopia in 1935.

Maaza grapples with the issue of ethnic subjugation, a common problem in Africa (Kenya included). It is a story about ordinary people shocked by events happening outside their span of control. A character tells another: “This gun is important to me. Do you know a war is coming? The war is all that the cook and the servants…talk about.”

At least, in The Shadow King, people talk even if in whispers. In Yvonne Awuor’s Dust, another novel in the mold of The Shadow King but one that looks into the various crises facing Kenya (especially tribalism), most of the issues are glossed over.

Kenyans have a way of going around the edges of the real issues and not really addressing what really matters or bothers them; we tiptoe around issues in memes, laughing about issues we should be crying about but in the end leave the elephant in the room unaddressed.

Building Bridges Initiatives

In Dust, Awour goes for the jugular when she writes: “After Mboya, Kenya’s official languages are: English, Kiswahili, and Silence.” Silence is our official language.

We are now talking about the Building Bridges Initiatives (BBI) and there are issues some people want to say but our third official language of Silence kicks in; we’ll keep quiet and complain after a few years.

The Shadow King is a story about battles, bravery and fear and one of the most harrowing accounts of the terror of war like the one being waged in the Tigray region now.

 In The Shadow King, Maaza, just like Hosseini, sees the ravages of war in real people and it has been compared with the novels by Moses Isegawa who chronicles the ravages of war through the testimony of ordinary Ugandans rather than government officials who belittle the impact of war, reduce the death toll and glamourize war for political reasons.

Thanks to Maaza, we have a fresh reminder of the horrors of war. We hope that the Ethiopian government and the Tigray rebels quickly resolve their differences and stop the bloodletting before it is too late and many people die or suffer the indelible scars of war.


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