Land of plenty

26th May 2000 at 01:00
Elizabeth Laird is now a successful children's writer, but her first job was as a teacher in Ethiopia in the late 1960s. Thirty years later she returned on a mission to collect folk stories from a culture riven by famine and political conflict. She found that, as far as folklore is concerned, Ethiopia has riches to spare, and four journeys later is producing story collections for audiences there and in Britain.

I first came to Ethiopia in 1967 to teach sixth-form English at the Laboratory school, attached to the university at Addis Ababa. My students, all boys, had been selected from rural schools all over what was then Haile Selassie's empire. They were remarkable young men, very ambitious, extremely intelligent and so poor that when their Biros ran out they couldn't afford to replace them. They were to become leaders of the revolution. Many died in Mengistu Haile-Mariam's Terror, but some of the survivors became the present leaders of Ethiopia, ministers of state, diplomats and deans of the university, after Mengistu was overthrown in 1991.

Lalibela in the Central Highlands. November 18, 1996.

Berhanu is one of those I have managed to find again. He was a scrubby little boy when I first met him, wearing a little blue shirt that was much too small for him and a pair of ragged trousers. He and his friend Yohannes had appointed themselves my guides, showing me round the astonishing rock churches of Lalibela, 13th-century marvels cut into the rock up in the Ethiopian highlands. Now he is a middle-aged man I recognise only by the gap between his front teeth.

He had a tormented childhood of poverty and family breakdown, but survived somehow. When the famine came in 1985, he got a job with Save the Children.

"What was it like then?" I say, hardly daring to ask.

He shakes his head and sucks the air in through his teeth. "First we prepared their food. Then we cooked it. We gave it to the people. We fed them with our hands."

We say nothing for a while.

"I understand everything," he says, "but I can't explain. I have many doubts. I was afraid for a long time after those days."

"What were you afraid of?" "Of nothing, but everything."

He was ill, I think. He must have been traumatised. "After the famine was over, did you ever see any of those people again, the people you fed?" I ask, wishing and hoping for a good answer.

"Oh yes. Even now, they are living around here. I see them sometimes."

"How are they? Are they well?" "Yes. They are fine. You know, in the hungry times they were so ill, but after they had food for a while so many of them became better."

Later, I am travelling in a bus up the road to Korem, where the worst of the famine camps were. The passengers are quiet, tired after a long journey, and in my head I can hear the sonorous voice of Michael Buerk, and see again the horrors that so distressed the world.

The boy next to me taps my arm. "Here - there, you see this place? That was the camp. In the hungry time so many people came there for feeding. Approximately 100,000 people died here. It was very, very terrible."

I peer out of the window. Cows and goats graze here now, and heads of ripe red sorghum nod in the breeze. The sun is high, and the whole countryside is bathed in a golden light.

Flight from Addis Ababa to Makelle. November 19, 1996.

You can't travel anywhere in Ethiopia without talking to people. They'll devour you with curiosity, and tell you everything about themselves. In search of Tigrayan stories, I am on a plane, a little hopper flying up from Addis Ababa to Makelle. I sit next to a man in late middle age, a little older than me, whose bald head is fringed with cotton-wool puffs of white hair.

When the famine happened, he tells me, he was in England, a political refugee. "I couldn't stay away though," he says, "not then. I went to the Sudan, where I would be safe, to help in the refugee camps. People were pouring over the border in search of food."

He puts his head in his hands. "It was so terrible. Old men and women and babies. You wouldn't believe the sheer horror of it. I stood and looked at them. I was in a state of shock. And then an old man came up to me. He was skin and bones. He had nothing except a cloth tied round him, and a stick. 'You look tired,' he said to me. 'Do you want to lean on my stick?'" He stops, choked up.

"You see? He had only one thing, his stick, and he offered it to me, a young man. I talked to him. He said he had never, in all his life, left his home before. 'The first year of the famine,' he said, 'we ate our surplus food. The next year we killed and ate our animals. Now there is nothing.'" "What happened to him, that old man?" I ask.

He sighs. "I don't know. I didn't see him again. He was just one among the multitude."

Assayita, Afar region, north-east Ethiopia. March 13, 1997.

They're tough down here in the Danakil country, the hottest place on earth, and the storytellers are an unpromising-looking lot. There is Osman, a small man with a white embroidered skull cap, another wild-looking individual with unkempt hair and an orange shirt, a very dark-skinned man with a pink and green striped towel wrapped round his head who is slowly copying out Amharic letters in large, unformed writing into an exercise book, and finally Mohammed, our Afar contact, a slim, graceful, loose-limbed desert man with a broken nose, gold incisors, huge eyes and lashes that sweep his cheeks.

The men have been irritable and difficult all morning, and the reason becomes evident when they ask me to buy them some chat. They're all addicted to this drug, a leaf that is chewed non-stop in these parts and induces a sense of heightened awareness and euphoria, followed by a debilitating low. I send someone off to the market to buy some. They lovingly unwrap the huge, cloth-bound bundle and begin to chew and relax. Mohammed is in charge.

The chat slowly takes effect, and now he is smiling broadly, his gold teeth flashing, his cheek bulging from the wad tucked into it. His hands wave and slice through the air as the others offer him stories. He makes a decision, and it is on his nod that Osman stands up and picks his way across the floor through the limbs, discarded chat twigs, bottles of water, tiny coffee cups and ashtrays, to hold my little tape recorder up to the storyteller's mouth. I have nothing to do with it. All I can do is lounge on the cushions set against the wall, and nod intelligently as the stories are translated from Afaric into Amharic, knowing that later, much later, I'll be hearing them in English.

When at last I do, I am dazzled. The stories are amazing. There are La Fontaine-style fables full of political wisdom, sagas that could have sprung straight from the pages of Genesis, raunchy stories of lovers having their balls sliced off by jealous husbands and long episodic tales of noble princes and feisty women.

School in Itang, near Gambella, south-west Ethiopia, September 28, 1997 School visits this morning, and it is so depressing. There are never any books, maps or pictures on the walls, often not even any furniture. The teacher might have a table and chair but the kids sit on logs or stones.

In one school we sit in on a geography lesson. The teacher has written "environment" on the blackboard, which is more or less his only teaching aid. He is writing out a long definition which starts, "The word environment comes from the French word environnement, which means surroundings." The children are copying this into their books as best they can.

Unusually, this classroom is furnished with narrow benches, although there are no desks or tables. The benches are crammed with people of a variety of ages. Some are primary school age, around 10 or 11, but there are adults of 19 or 20, desperately trying to get themselves an education, and a woman with a baby tied on to her back, trying to write on her knee and cope with the baby at the same time.

(Schools in the Gambella region are now using the stories Elizabeth Laird has produced as readers, including tales she gathered on this trip.) Gambella. September 30, 1997.

We leave the lane and branch off through the fields. We walk through long grass for a while, then come on to a narrow path, beaten hard by bare feet, through small patches of planted maize. Brushwood fences on both sides surround the compounds of the village houses, and we come out eventually into a large space under an old, massively branched fig tree.

A crowd of women are sitting under the tree, perching on the high roots. They wear nothing but loincloths around their waists and strings of beads around their necks. Their feet are bare.

Ogota, the translator (a former guerrilla fighter and waiter from the Hilton hotel in Khartoum), greets them testily. This is his village, and he wants to show his authority. Our driver, a man from the highlands who thinks himself above these semi-naked people, sits at a distance, watching the scene with derision.

Ogota tells the women to start telling stories. They look at him and giggle. A chair has been brought out of someone's hut for me to sit on, but it is too far away and too formal. I kick off my sandals, walk over to the tree and indicate that I want to sit among the women. Two of them, giggling some more, make room for me on the cowskin they are sharing. I ask Ogota if he will translate an English story for them, so they will understand the kind of thing I am looking for. He agrees, so I launch into Little Red Riding Hood.

As I tell it, I realise what a cracking good story it is. The women love it. They suck in their cheeks and nod, savouring every word. When I have finished, the oldest one says, "What is the meaning of the story?" I allow myself a while to think. No one minds silence in Ethiopia. You're allowed to consider what you say. There is no need to look into the deep, psychological structure of Little Red Riding Hood. The surface meaning is highly relevant. Around us stretch miles of scrubby forest. Leopards still prowl in it, hyenas can be heard at night, and armed bandits sometimes molest stray travellers.

"Young girls," I say, "should take care when they walk alone in the forest, and they shouldn't wander from the path."

"Very true!" everyone agrees.

"And," I say, "it is is not good for young girls to talk to strangers."

That strikes an even stronger chord. A buzz of conversation breaks out, and a moment later someone announces that she is ready to tell a story. It is a lovely tale of a mother's sad deathbed, two poor orphaned children, a wicked stepmother, and a magic cow in the forest.

As the storyteller, Ajulo Okony, chants it out in a husky voice, I watch the hubble bubble, made from a gourd, go round. Everyone takes a draw of the strong, rancid-smelling tobacco. It makes them cough. We sit packed close together. A musty smell of skin rarely washed and untouched by cosmetics rises from the girl beside me. When the nearest water supply is two hours' walk away, and every drop has to be carried on a breaking back, washing comes way below drinking and food preparation in the family's priorities. I find the smell homely and comfortable. It isn't unpleasant at all.

When Ajulo has finished, I ask if I can take her photograph. She agrees, and goes to her hut to get ready. She comes out and poses with a solemn face. It would be rude to photograph the others. I have to store up in my head the picture they have presented: the dusty brown thatch of the huts, the woodsmoke curling up lazily through their roofs, the dappled shade of the tree, the close-packed group of women, the tumbling babies, the late afternoon sun slanting through the golden grass.

Flight from Gambella. March 19, 1997.

The Ethiopian airline bus is a 4x4 with a couple of benches in the back. It is crammed with people, including a couple of security guards with guns because of bandits on the road. Two civil aviation men in blue overalls carry the radio, and there are two other passengers besides myself. The drive isn't long but it is bumpy, and I am queasy before we arrive at the airstrip.

Once there, we wait under a grass-roofed shelter while the airline official opens the airport building, a corrugated iron shed. There is a yell and he comes out holding a snake on a stick. We crowd round to look. The man has broken its back with his stick, and I hope he'll finish it off. But he doesn't. He forces the end of his stick into its mouth, milks its fangs, then picks it up by the tail and flings it, still writhing, into the undergrowth behind the shed.

As is the way here, everyone has been asking me friendly questions. They soon find out I am interested in stories. But just as one of the security guards begins to get stuck into a legend his mother told him, the plane arrives. It is a horrid, bumpy thing, and I know I am going to throw up all the way to Addis Ababa. I do. The only thing that stops me from dying is screwing my eyes tight shut, wrapping my arms round myself and doing complicated mental arithmetic.

Harar, Harar region, eastern Ethiopia. October 27, 1998.

The view of Harar from the bend in the road is like a medieval picture map. It's still a walled city with few buildings outside the perimeter, so it appears as it must always have done, a perfect jewel of a place, set on the green side of a hill, with minarets poking up out of the low white and dun-coloured buildings.

Inside the city, a maze of lanes runs between high, whitewashed walls. I am guided through them and into a roomy old stone house, where the women are waiting to tell me stories.

They have been praying, but now they begin to kiss the palms and the backs of each other's hands. The prayers are over.

They turn their attention to me. First they argue about the stories, which ones to tell and who should tell them. Then I am beckoned forward to sit in the middle of this brilliantly coloured throng, and told to hold the tape recorder to the mouth of a large, old, but still beautiful woman. She is ready to begin.

We are jammed so close together on the sitting platform of this old Harar house that I can't move my legs. I feel the fluttering of their scarves and skirts, and the satin sheen of their leggings on my skin.

The storyteller wears a floating scarf over her head and shoulders, underneath which is a velvet skull cap edged with sequins. Her face is pale and plump, her forehead high, and her neck wrinkled with age. Her ears are pierced with several small rings, and from behind them dangle two large velvet balls enclosed in gold netting. Her dress is made of heavy white satin dotted with green flowers, and round her neck hangs a string of amber beads the size of plums, and another of white beads the size of coffee beans, which look like ivory.

The story begins with the proper antiphonal chant: "Riori." "Minteri, Mintesami." "I see something." "What do you see? What do you hear?" Then, as she begins delivering her story in a sing-song voice, and eliciting rhythmic responses from the women all around her, I feel the hairs rise on the back of my neck.

Though I can't understand the words, I can see that she is a wonderful storyteller. She uses her voice like a musical instrument, changing the timbre, the speed and the rhythm, and her hands fly about as she speaks, often threatening to knock the tape recorder out of mine. Once or twice, other women try to interrupt her, but she brushes them aside and surges on, until the story comes to a sudden end, and she subsides.

She has been so magnificent, and the whole scene so colourful, that I want to take a photograph. She doesn't want me to. I feel a kind of panic, that I won't be able to capture and hold it all in my memory, then I think how absurd that is. We have become tyrannised by the camera and can only look as if through a viewfinder. It's a peculiarly Western kind of greed, a wish to have and to keep. When the story is eventually translated, it turns out to be a thrilling tale of incestuous love between a brother and a sister.

Jigjiga, Somali region, eastern Ethiopia. October 29, 1998.

Moge, my contact from the Somali education authority, takes me to the house of a relative. In the corner of the compound is an old Somali nomad hut, no more than a large basket turned upside down with a tarpaulin pegged over it. Beside it is a decent-sized, square mud house. Moge pushes aside the curtain over the door and we go inside into the complete gloom.

Five or six women, most with babies, are sitting on mats. They turn on the electric light and we are invited to join them.

Men crowd in after us, and soon the stories begin to flow. They are excellent - lovers and tricksters, sheikhs and princesses, trysts by wells and lions who turn into men. Trying to understand Moge's translations above the increasing hubbub, though, is exhausting.

I try to encourage all the women to tell stories, and they do so, first one, then another, and finally a little girl, whose mother pushes her forward. She clears her throat repeatedly, then begins to relate a long tale in a sing-song voice, which turns out to be a haunting, beautiful cousin of the story of Hansel and Gretel. I keep looking round, trying to imprint everything on my memory. The women wear brilliant colours, the walls of the room are hung with floating cloths, the mats we sit on are stridently bright, and the floor beneath is covered with dazzling red and green linoleum squares.

More and more children keep crowding in, to be shooed out when the noise becomes too much to bear. They hover by the doorway for a while, jostling for a view, then slip back in as soon as they think they won't be noticed.

The mistress of the house serves us coffee in the ceremonial style, with an incense burner in front of her. She keeps throwing more incense on to it and, after two or three hours, the room is so dense with smoke that the brilliant colours fade into a misty blur and I am half asphyxiated.

At last I can stand the heat and noise and suffocation no longer, and stand up and say rudely that I have to go. I will regret it bitterly, as wonderful stories are still being told, and I'll never have the chance to hear them again.

Beni Shangul, western Ethiopia. November 1999.

Mesfin is our guide and translator on the western Ethiopia trip. He is a national personality, a telly star, the Frank Muir of Ethiopia, a middle-aged charmer with a smoker's husk in his voice, a fondness for gin and a love of epigrams and poetry. He wears a terrible old black suit. White stitching shows through the breaking seams on the collar, there are frayed holes at the knees, missing buttons and dusty, rusty stains all over it, but he wears it with such an air that it could be off the peg from Armani. Under it he sports a pink cotton shirt, a shiny plastic belt, plain black socks and patent leather loafers (holed). He oozes a raffish glamour.

We spend days and days together cooped up in the car as we drive all over western Ethiopia. We swap life histories, tell stories, argue about politics and recite poetry.

"I will sing you a song," Mesfin says.

Oh good, I think, hoping for some classical Ethiopian music.

"It is from Marilyn Monroe." And he launches into "I wanna be loved by you".

It is nice to have someone of my own age in the car. Usually, the translators are distressingly fit young men. Mesfin has the kind of problem I can understand.

"Good morning, Mrs Elizabeth," he will say. "Did you sleep well?" "No. I had indigestiona headachehad to go to the toilet too many times."

"I slept badly too. My haemorrhoids, they are too painful. They are the size of chickpeas. Believe me."

I nod enthusiastically. "Haemorrhoids? Tell me about it! After the children were born I was a martyr to them."

"Yes," chips in Dires, our local mentor. "For ladies, it is well known, haemorrhoids are..."

"No, no!" Mesfin isn't going to have his glory snatched away. "I tell you, mine are like chickpeas! No, like grapes! Like tomatoes even!" "Well you're in luck," I tell him. "I happen to have some suppositories in my bag. You can try one if you like."

I get them out, and they are passed round with great curiosity. The next morning, Mesfin is very pleased. The suppositories have done the trick.

When the World Began: stories collected in Ethiopia, is published by Oxford University Press pound;14.99 on June 8.

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