Hidden beauty of Ethiopia

26th May 2000 at 01:00
Elizabeth Laird always longed to return to Ethiopia. She had left in 1969, and in her years away the country's name had become synonymous with famine and refugee camps, writes Brendan O'Malley, international editor of The TES. The famine of 1973-4 was followed by more mass starvation in 1984-5. But this time the television cameras were there. The world seemed to gain a conscience when Bob Geldof's Live Aid campaign popularised the relief effort, but consciousness of Ethiopia's vibrant culture was lost amid the legacy of images beamed across the planet.

"The view we have of Ethiopia - perhaps of Africans in general - is terribly one-sided," Elizabeth says. I know how she feels. I remember visiting the refugee camps at Safawa across the Ethiopian border in Sudan in March 1985. I had expected a camp full of emaciated children with bones pushing through their skin, as every news bulletin had shown.

Instead I found a much more mixed picture and considerable anger among the nurses in the feeding centres. They were fed up with TV crews scouring the lines of gaunt refugees to fix their camera's gaze on the one child who looked like skin draped across bone - then disappearing while the child died during the night.

Every day 1,500 Tigrayans arrived after a gruelling 20-mile trek across stony tracks and dusty river beds from a reception camp. They clambered out of the cattle trucks in disintegrating rags, clutching nothing more than a metal plate for cooking unlevened bread. And they were deposited amid thousands of tents in a camp of 53,000 people and growing. It was poignant to watch men carrying the tiny bodies of their children wrapped in cloth and burying them in the dry earth on the edge of the camp - up to 15 of them a day. But most of those who died did not look like living skeletons. They died of simple causes - dehydration from diarrhoea, measles or chest infections - because their hungry bodies were too weak to fight infection. And as much a story as the deaths was the stoicism of the survivors, who had been forced on an epic journey after four years with no harvest.

I learned how they had given up on their land, sold all their possessions, slaughtered their last goat, and made the painful decision to set off for the border, leaving the old and handicapped to certain death.

Carrying their children, many had walked for up to four weeks in the baking sun to reach the promise of food and medicine in Sudan.

At Safawa, many of the adults wore a look of despair. Their future stretched out in front of them like a desert. But the plaited flat tops and mohican-style haircuts, and the intricate patterns on the fabric of their tattered clothes, suggested a thriving cultural past. "The TV pictures aroused our pity but did little to engender our respect," says Elizabeth Laird. "Yet Ethiopia has an amazing culture, an ancient written literature, artworks that go back 500 to 600 years."

She returned in 1996 to gather folk stories on a project funded by the British Council and the Department for International Development. In four journeys, she found a rich seam of oral literature and collected enough material to produce a series of 16 readers in simplified English for Ethiopian schools. Believing they deserved a wider audience, she also produced an illustrated collection for children, When the World Began, now published by Oxford University Press. "The regional education ministries gave me the most incredible help finding storytellers, translating stories and finding artists for the covers of the reader," she says.

Most of the stories have never been written down or translated before. Some are reminiscent of parables but with animal characters. There are creation myths, fables, fairy stories, erotic stories, elaborated jokes, tales of inheritance, of ogres, wizards and spirits in animal and human form, of cunning tricksters and clever women, and philosophical stories made all the more poignant by the plight of Ethiopians today.

An estimated 300,000 people died in the 1984-85 famine, which was compounded by internal conflict, as the northern provinces of Tigray and Eritrea fought for independence. Then Mengistu's government in Addis Ababa tried to force large chunks of their populations to move south. About 100,000 are said to have died because they were transported to a swampy area with a high prevalence of malaria and with no tools or aid.

The Tigrayans and Eritreans eventually overthrew Mengistu, and Eritrea declared independence. But a border war continues and the cycle of conflict and starvation made a comeback on our television screens this spring. After three years of drought,rain came early this month and may yet avert the widespread famine that was feared. It may be small comfort, but those who survive should get the chance to savour some of the treasures of Ethiopia's heritage in Elizabeth Laird's readers.

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