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Summer special

A changing country

by Rebecca Renz

In brief

Soldiers and students cheer for  the Communists in 1977. There is proof that they where paid to do so.

Soldiers and students cheer for the Communists in 1977. There is proof that they where paid to do so.

Today most foreigners’ idea of Ethiopia is one of hunger-suffering people, though the country actually has a rich, but troubled history. Ethiopians are proud of a 3000 year long monarchy as well as of fierce resistance against the Italian occupation in the Second World War. Later there was the “Red Terror” and a civil war, that most foreigners are not aware of either. Maaza Mengiste, born in Ethiopia but currently living in the USA, dealt with both in her debut novel “Beneath the Lion’s Gaze”. This contribution is part of our Summer special in which we recommend holiday reading in our In Brief section. By Rebecca Renz

Maaza Mengiste was born in Addis Ababa in 1971, when the country was haunted by drought and people protested against Emperor Haile Selassie. The military organised a coup against the monarch in 1974 and established a Communist dictatorship. Mengiste illustrates those grim years with a stirring family story.

As many Ethiopians did, Maaza Mengiste and her family left the country in 1975. After short stays in Kenya and Nigeria, they settled in the USA. In 2010 Mengiste published her first novel “Beneath the Lion’s Gaze” after obtaining a degree in creative writing from New York University.

Mengiste tackles the deep divide in Ethiopia’s population in the 1970. Her protagonists are a well situated family. The father is a doctor and royalist, and the youngest son, Dawit, is a revolutionary. The father denies the problems the country has and tries to hold his family together. Dawit seals himself off, joins an underground movement and distributes protest pamphlets.

Mengiste’s depiction of historical figures such as Emperor Haile Selassie is close to the historical truth. He ignored the people’s problems of hunger and inequality, and readers easily understand the people’s anger. Mengiste portrays the Communist regime, which called itself “Derg”, in an equally realistic way. The Derg came to power in 1974 and further ruined the country for 17 years.

Rejoicing at the monarchy’s overthrow did not last long. The Communists put Addis Ababa under strict curfews. They created a net of spies who reported prohibited “anarchist” behaviour. Opponents were tortured, and for deterrence, their dead bodies were laid out on display on the streets. Regional liberation movements fast emerged. In the novel, Dawit plays a major role in one of them.

Until today, there is no official death toll of Ethiopians during the Derg regime. International aid organisations estimate that half a million people were killed. In Men­giste’s novel, this turbulent history unfolds. She shows what it meant for the people, giving voices to simple farmers, loyal royalists, freedom fighters, rebels and frightened civilians. The British newspaper The Guardian considered “Beneath the Lion’s Gaze” one of the 10 best novels of 2010.

Rebecca Renz

Maaza Mengiste, 2010: Beneath the Lion’s Gaze. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Comments (1)

Ethiopia #

I am studying history at the university and we have just had a lecture on Soviet Union. It seems that there are a lot of countries having its own “Derg” and almost every time it causes the destruction in the country. Thank you for such an interesting article: now “Beneath the Lion’s Gaze” is the next number in my reading list. I have friends also studying at New York University and I will recommend it to them, especially taking into consideration Mengiste graduated from it.