Not a Dumb American: Ethiopia Edition

My Africa reading project is so fun and great that it’s confusing to me it took me three-quarters of the year to reconvene it in 2016. There is nothing not good about it, except I guess the shortage of histories of African countries written by African authors in English and available at my library. But guess what, y’all. That is exactly what I got for Ethiopia, and I couldn’t be more pumped about it. Bahru Zewde’s A History of Ethiopia, 1855-1974 gloriously fulfills all my conditions. It is also real short, which meant that I read each section with extra-heightened attention to detail cause it is hard to remember a ton of dude’s names when you know they’re only going to be around for like three more pages.

Anyway. The funnest and greatest thing about my Africa reading project is the moment when new facts learned in my African history books connect up to existing knowledge that I already have. For example, this: In the mid-1800s, Egypt began encroaching upon Ethiopian land,1 and Ethiopia appealed to the nations of Europe like “You’re Christian, we’re Christian, let’s be Christian together and not let the Muslims take over our Christian land.” This didn’t work because, spoilers for all of human history, everyone actually cared way more about money than they cared about religion.

I know. Stunning news.

(Egypt had the Suez Canal.)

BUT. Here’s the part where it joins up to my knowledge of history: Then there came the Mahdist Uprising, which was this whole sort of charismatic revivalist Muslim situation wherein the Sudanese rebelled against their Egyptian rulers. You know the one. Where General Gordon was the general and he called for help and no help came? And he was brutally slaughtered by the Mahdists along with all the other people besieged with him at Khartoum?

So anyway, at this point the British really needed Ethiopian support, because Ethiopia borders Sudan, and they came hat in hand to the emperor, Yohannes IV, and made a treaty with him that Ethiopia abided by and Britain did not. Hashtag colonialism.


Another place where the book nearly, but not quite, joined up with my knowledge of history was in its dealing with Eritrea. Bahru Zewde seems quite down on Eritrean independence (unless I misunderstood? also possible?), and I don’t know if that’s because Eritrean independence was a bad idea, or because at the time this book was written, Eritrea was not yet independent, and we tend to think that the existing boundaries of a country are the Correct ones. Which I am realizing right now is kind of weird. Like, we don’t want a country to split in half, but if a country has split in half in the past, we’re all like, Yeah! Eritrean independence!

I do recall, however, a protest that occurred when I was a teenager where a bunch of Eritreans wanted the US to help stop the Ethiopians from doing a thing they were currently doing that the Eritreans wished them to desist from. I had a classmate whose parents were Eritrean (that is how I came to hear of this protest), and my classmate was nice so I have always assumed that Eritrea had the right idea.

By the way, the above two paragraphs are exactly why I convened this Africa reading project. A brief googling is able to tell me that this must have been during the Ethiopian-Eritrean War, but what about all the wars where I did not have classmates whose parents were from those countries? I DO NOT EVEN KNOW ABOUT THOSE ONES TO GOOGLE THEM.

Somewhat to my surprise, Bahru Zewde was quite down on Very Famous Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie.

Interlude: Haile Selassie is so famous that I am confident all of you have heard of him. Even if you are currently saying to yourself, “no, I definitely have not heard of him,” you are actually mistaken. You have heard of him and you just don’t know it yet. See, because before Haile Selassie took on the emperorship and the name Haile Selassie, his name was Tafari Makonnen and his title was Ras, so hence, Ras Tafari. Which is where the name Rastafarian comes from because Rastafarians worship Haile Selassie. So there you go. You have heard of him.

Anyway, Bahru Zewde is down on Very Famous Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, and this was of interest to me because I had the distinct impression that we as a global community were quite up on Haile Selassie. But apparently (says Bahru Zewde) this was kind of Haile Selassie’s thing: He went traveling all over the world being stupendously popular with heads of state, and what happened was that he FELL FOR HIS OWN HYPE (never a good idea, ahem Joss Whedon ahem ahem) and didn’t really attend to the the fact that he wasn’t going to live forever. And that is how come (says Bahru Zewde) you ended up with power very consolidated and all the circumstances in alignment to produce the 1974 revolution.

I know. You are turning the metaphorical page breathlessly right now. What about the 1974 revolution, you are saying anxiously?

Well, the bad news is that this book ends in 1974. I learned a lot about old-time Ethiopia, but for modern Ethiopia — which it sounds like has crammed a lot of history into the last forty years — I will have to read a second Ethiopia book.

Onward! I have now done six African countries, and you may follow my progress (cause I know you are like totally enthralled with my ongoing geographical education) at the main page for my Africa reading project. Next up is Equatorial Guinea — confusingly, one of three African nations with “Guinea” in the name, but we will sort it out together, friends. Also my Equatorial Guinea book isn’t going to be so much about Equatorial Guinea but rather about the peoples and histories of the area of Africa that now includes what we call Equatorial Guinea. So. Promises to be not confusing at all.

  1. Truth: It’s sort of relaxing to read about countries I am in no way descended from doing shitty imperialist things.
  • Akilah

    This was delightful. Also, I enjoy your goal! Makes me think of some reading I could maybe be doing myself to learn more about this world I live in.

    • Thank you!! I enjoy my goal so much — my favorite books so far have been about Congo and Lesotho, and I love how the project is making me a huge partisan of all these different African countries. 😀

  • I’m glad you are able to keep it all straight because I am pretty sure African history is WAY more confusing that English history with all of that Tudor/Plantagenet crap which I still cannot keep straight no matter how much I study it.

    • Hahahaha, I am pretty okay on the Tudor/Plantagenet situation because I was obSESSED with Richard III and Elizabeth I when I was a teenager. But with African history, I don’t have a semi-basic framework of knowledge about any of these countries, so it’s reeeeeally hard at first to keep people straight.

  • This was a marvelous post even though I am woefully underversed in this history. Although I know who Haile Selassie is BUT, weirdly, only just (like, this summer) learned of his connection with Rastafari (I somehow knew about his other work in Ethiopia but missed this!). Anyway, I love geeks geeking out, and I love this post.

    • Hahahaha, “geeks geeking out” is probably what I should put in my Twitter profile. That’s like 90% of my whole life. 😀

  • Just RIVETED by this review. I do not know enough about non-Eurocentric history. It’s a real short coming in my life.

  • Stefanie@SoManyBooks

    Wow, in the last few minutes I have been both entertained and learn an incredible amount about Ethiopia. Thank you for both.

    • You’re welcome! I wish I could have included even MORE Ethiopian history information — I’m hoping that when I circle back and do Eritrea, I’ll also get some more info about modern Ethiopia.

  • Alley

    I enjoyed this VERY much as I know pretty much nothing about African history (a shame) and the gifs, which is how I learn best.

    • Hahahaha, yes, only the best of African history in gifs. That is what the people come to this blog for. :p

  • Citizen Reader

    Wow, Rastafarian. All this stuff I don’t know. When I did actually go to classes in high school, why was I bothering, really? I can’t believe they left ALL OF AFRICA out of my curriculum. Thanks for bringing my attention to this book.

    • I KNOW, like, looking back, I learned astoundingly little about world history. There was a European History class that I took as a senior in high school, but a lot of that information was already in my brain from past years — like, what about a World History class or even dare I say it an African History one? I dunno. Would have been nice.

      • Faye Griffins

        YES! I took AP European History in high school and we learned a lot about colonialism but only from the European perspective. There should have been an AP African history class as well, which I don’t think even exists?!? Looking at the AP course list on wikipedia the only history classes are European, World, and US; everything else is under Language and Culture. So I guess if your not Europe or the US you’re part of the World? Bad excuses are bad AP, get it together!

  • You know I should really print out all your Africa-related posts cause either I don’t know anything about it or have already forgotten it all! I can never remember history stuff other than in very very general someone oppressed someone!

    • There’s still only a few of them! Which makes me sad — I wanted to read at least four this year, and I am super not on track to make that happen. I’m downgrading my estimate to two for this year, or possibly three if I end up being ambitious.

  • I have totally heard of the Mahdist Uprising (NOT!). And please, read a second book about Ethiopia really quickly, because I need to know what happened in and after 1974. Or maybe *I* should read a book about Ethiopia…

    • I discovered there’s a new edition of THIS book that goes through I believe the early 1990s! But that still doesn’t get us up to the present day, so I’m hoping to find a book that deals with the full modern Ethiopia/Eritrea history.

  • I read a little bit (like Wikepedia and a few articles) about Haile Selassie last year when I was reading Marlon James’s Brief History of Seven Killings and learning about Bob Marley and Rastafarianism. I had picked up on the fact that he’s not universally loved, but I had missed (or maybe forgotten?) the connection about his name. So thanks for that! There’s so much stuff I don’t know about, especially in Africa.

    • Oh, what did you learn about his unbelovedness? I’d like to know more! Like I said, this book is great but it zips through so many years in such a short span of pages that I feel like there’s still so much I don’t know.

  • Heather

    I like this project – do you read fiction and non-fiction? I feel like I can get on board with this thing. I mostly read European stuff, which I get great enjoyment from, but I do want to spread my wings a bit more.

    • So, for this project, the game is to read one good history of every country in Africa. Nonfiction only. However! I read as much African fiction as I can get my hands on — it’s just not part of this Official Africa Reading Project. It’s unrelated. :p

  • I do love this project of yours, it’s a history lesson in a blog. I feel like I should do something similar.

  • I *am* totally enthralled! With both your project and this post. It makes me want to join in (except that I don’t have time)! I learned some stuff, reading this, and had some knowledge connections of my own. I really don’t know enough about world history. The contemporary world either, come to think of it.
    Question: Are all your African project books non-fiction? A novel I read called Sweetness in the Belly (Camilla Gibb) is partly set in Ethiopia around 1974-ish. And it was good.

  • What Naomi said! This sounds awesome. I’m currently not doing a great job on intentionally reading things for challenges I set myself though, so I don’t think I’m likely to hop in just now. Hopefully eventually, but until then, I’ll enjoy learning from your posts.

    I love when info from multiple books I”ve read connects. I feel like I learn much better when that happens!