Discovering the real Ethiopia

Yves-Marie Stranger
Yves-Marie Stranger

A French-English translator and writer, Yves-Marie Stranger grew up on the family farm in the French Pyrenees. After leading horse treks in the Showan highlands, in Ethiopia, where he lived for 15 years, Yves-Marie Stranger now lives in France.

Yves-Marie Stranger is the author of Ces pas qui trop vite s’effacent, The Abyssinian syllabary of Cornu de Lenclos, and a contributing author to African train, the Djibouti-Ethiopia railway. His next book, The hornbook of Pêro da Covilhã, is a retelling of the life of the Portuguese ambassador to Prester John in the 16th century – and the discoverer of the route to the Indies.

His new book ‘Ethiopia Through Writers’ Eyes’ which will be on sale starting Monday November 21, an anthology of close to eighty authors – from Herodotus to Edgar Allan Poe, by way of Emperor Theodoros – covers 2,500 years of Ethiopia’s distant past and near present. With cultural and historical introductions, Ethiopia Through Writers’ Eyes gives precious insights into Ethiopia’s making, and a foreshadowing of the country’s future. Capital’s Groum Abate talks to him about his new book. Excerpts;

Capital: Tell me about your book, what are the major themes?

Yves-Marie Stranger: It is an anthology and collection of 80 different texts about the last 2,500 years of Ethiopian History. It begins with the very first text about Ethiopia which was written by the Greeks and then it continues through Roman and Greek historians, the Bible, the Quran, and people  who either came to Ethiopia or wrote about it. Their descriptions of the country run from the medieval period  through modern times including Portuguese, British, French and Italian Explorers, Arab writers and Ethiopians. I have written six introductory chapters which to set the scene and describe what was happening during that period. I’m hoping to get the average person interested in Ethiopia.

Capital: What is the significance of this book?

Yves-Marie: I think Ethiopia is unknown to many locals and foreigners alike. There are many myths which have some basis in truth including stories about famous people like the Queen of Sheba or King Solomon I think it’s important to put this story in context for foreigners and Ethiopians. And simply if everybody knows the story of Sheba and knows the Portuguese came here and helped build Gondar depending on who we ask but because the texts are difficult to find and most don’t read them, much of what we know is based on hear say. The book collects these stories in one place. The source material for many of these stories is difficult to find. The book also attempts to portray how Ethiopia functions.  It is a county surprisingly unknown. Adwa, the Italian Invasion, the story of Menelik, the 1974 revolution, even today in 2106 the world has very little knowledge about what makes Ethiopia tick-the culture. There is really a lack of understanding on the part of foreigners, their knowledge is very superficial which is partly due to the language partly due to the fact that Ethiopia retained a very strong national language-was not colonized, as everybody likes to remember, so therefore they did no English, they did not get French which is neither good nor bad but it means those two world languages did not become prevalent until recently,  until modern education. I also think foreigners have relatively little accesses to the country and Ethiopia likes to retain a strong self identity. If you compare  the media coverage of Ethiopia to Zimbabwe or Kenya, Ethiopia remains unknown and I would like the world to know more about Ethiopia.

Capital: What motivated you to write the book solely on Ethiopia ?

Yves-Marie: I lived in Ethiopia for 15 years and I have run businesses here, learned Amharic, I have explored the country, and I have been in most places of the county, I have read many books about Ethiopia, I have talked to many people, I have Ethiopian friends, I have Ethiopian employees. I was very fascinated with the culture and history as many foreigners are from the very beginning and I tried to understand it. I am not sure I managed but I certainly tried and so I started studying the language when I first came here and I found Ethiopia to be very provocative intellectually and I simply could not understand it when I asked  the people I saw that many of them did not seem understand it either which I found tricky. Some things seem to have been invented.

Capital: Which parts of the book interested you the most?

Yves-Marie: I have a great fondness for the Portuguese and their letters because it tells who ruled the country who lived where and who administered it and the situation that was happening at that time, and I like  the Jesuit era, the beginning of the Gonder era that is a very beautiful period that was very attractive. I like these whole periods  between 1500 and mid 1700 when Gondar was built, all the castles were built.  I like the time when you have a very strong central Abyssinian state at the end it starts going back down but you have a really a lot happening  and it was a very fruitful period. I also am very fond of the Axum period and the obelisk.