Excerpt: A Gallop in Ethiopia: Wax, Gold & the Abyssinian Pony

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Yves-Marie Stranger came to Addis Ababa in 2000, planning to stay a few months. He stayed for fifteen years, working as a book editor, interpreter, and translator and as an owner of an equestrian stable, leading horse treks in the Showan highlands. Yves has edited an acclaimed book (Ethiopia through writers’ eyes), and authored a fictionalised history of Ethiopia, The Abyssinian Syllabary (available as a podcast). In his latest work, A Gallop in Ethiopia: Wax, Gold & the Abyssinian Pony, the author lovingly but candidly offers an unvarnished picture of the country and narrates many tales of his friendships with notable Ethiopians. This excerpt, a sketch of the great Ethiopian writer, Sebhat Guebre Egziabher, offers a taste of this riveting read.

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Every Saturday afternoon, we went to Ashenafi’s Book Club, a tin shack on the border of Sengeterra and the Birhawi Teatre. In this metal can, eager teenagers crowded on benches of split eucalyptus trunks, to read out the poems they had composed, under the watchful eye of the writer Sebhat Guebre Egziabher. Sebhat, who himself had just finished his bundle of qat, had laughing eyes, and a very red mouth set off by his white beard. The great writer, between two gulps of fiery arake to nurse his qat descent (the mirkana), would sometimes concede to make a remark or two, on the rhythm and the number of syllables, of such or such a metric line. Sebhat, a native of Adwa, was one of the most prominent contemporary writers in the country. He had a sulphurous reputation (Ethiopian Airlines’ Selamta Magazine was to later refuse me an article on Ethiopian literature for including his infamous name), a distinction he took care to stoke with his weekly columns in the newspaper Addis Admas, and with novels such as Addis Nights. If I did not understand a single word of the poems themselves, I could readily make out some of the names the master inserted like beacons in the otherwise unmarked territory, when Sebhat explained literature to his eager audience, in the tin shack of Sengeterra: ‘Chesterton’, ‘Orwell’, ‘Maupassant’ and so many other names, acquired, despite Sammy’s best attempts to translate the impromptu master classes, forms that scintillated with exotic reflections.

Later, I would take part in the qat sessions at Sebhat’s residence. A motley crew would assemble there every weekend, sitting in concentric circles around the master who sat scribbling notes for his next article, giggling at his puns. We compared the Amharic translation of Orwell’s Animal Farm with the original version, we bantered about politics, egged on by the influence of the green amphetamine. Time expanded, time stood still. I believe it is at Sebhat’s that I heard for the first time the story of the Ethiopian to whom God appears, to tell him that he will give him whatever he wants, but with one caveat— whatever he asks for, God will grant double to his neighbour. The Ethiopian goes away to think this over very carefully, before returning and asking God—to be made blind in one eye! (with the understanding that his neighbour will therefore be completely blinded). I say I think that’s where I heard this story for the first time because I was later told this story several more times and ended up forgetting for sure where I had heard it for the first time. It didn’t matter that the tale may originally have been Russian—or perhaps Sebhat had picked it up in one of his readings, in Hilaire Belloc or Paul Morand, who knows? But it mattered that Sebhat thought it meaningful. With the repetition of the parable, I understood that my Ethiopian friends were trying to make me understand something—that Ethiopia was first and foremost a land where resentment prevailed.

I do remember Sebhat very well (he was smiling mischievously, at my disbelief), chiding me for granting importance to the death of demonstrators in the street, after the 2005 election. ‘Nothing at all will happen, it will settle down very quickly—Meles knows very well that if you give enough rope to an Ethiopian, he will hang himself!’

I may have remembered upon this occasion that Sehbat was a Tigrayan, and that he harked, like Prime minister Meles, from the city of Adwa, and that it was quite natural, after all, to close ranks between people of the same village. But I ended up realizing, much later, that the sentence that had shocked me so much was not so much Machiavellian, but simply a form of realism, of Abyssinian realpolitik. The writer Senedu Abebe, present that day, created a diversion, with a hybrid qene of her conception: ‘Do you know’, she asked us, ‘what we call globalization in Ethiopia?— Gedelisation!’ Senedu answered herself, without giving us time to think, giggling, and forging a new word for the occasion, by interweaving the English word globalization with the root of the verb ‘to kill’ in Amharic ግደል (gedel). I still remember Senedu’s jaundiced laughter that day—it was the colour of gold, the colour of wax.

Sebhat Guebre Egziabher was moonlighting in his old days as a translator from French into Amharic, and one of the last times we saw each other was in the office I occupied at Shama publishing. We fell out afterwards, due to a minor misunderstanding. The old man of Ethiopian letters certainly had a knack for provocation. I took my friend, Solomon Demeke, one afternoon, to chew qat with him (Solomon would later be best man at my wedding, together with Sammy Asfaw). Their conversation went like this:

Sebhat: Do you speak French?
Solomon: No.
Sebhat: Then you are not civilised. (End of the conversation for the day)

Oh, well. Back then, we were still on speaking terms and Sebhat would come every day to my Shama office, to advance his Amharic translation of Raymond Queneau’s Zazie dans le métro at Shama’s. At that time, I was making the corrections to the memoirs of Taffara Deguefe, the former central banker of Haile Selassie (and of Mengistu, for a short time, before being imprisoned for many years by the latter). Ato Taffara’s ‘Minutes of an Ethiopian Century’ is a detailed account of much of the Ethiopian 20th century, told from the viewpoint of a prominent witness. I remember in particular a scene in which Taffara, at the time a young bureaucrat wet around the ears, submits a report on demography, in which he demonstrated (with figures to back it up), that Ethiopia would ultimately go over a cliff with its rapid demographic growth (the zealous young man was promptly told to file away his report). Lost in my corrections of Ato Taffara’s manuscript, I had completely forgotten Sebhat when I heard a more regular breath in my back. The great writer was taking his nap, lying on the floor. Sebhat Guebre Egziabher kept this habit until the end of our collaboration, doing his two or three daily sheets, followed by an invigorating snooze, before leaving for his daily qat sessions. Although ultimately we did not see eye to eye, I retained my fondness for Sebhat till the end.

(Text published here with the permission of the author, and picture of Sebaht courtesy of Senedu Abebe).

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