The Wife’s Tale: Aida Edemariam’s vivid portrait of her 95-year-old Ethiopian grandmother

To read The Wife’s Tale is not just to hear about times past and far away, but to be transported into them

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When Aida Edemariam was a tiny child in Ethiopia, her grandmother shoved her and a cousin into a cupboard and stood protectively in front of it while the children crouched “among soft white dresses that smelled of incense and wood smoke and limes”. The country was at war, a tornado was roaring outside, and among the sheets of corrugated iron, hurtling “like dark leaves of paper through the tarnished sky”, were volleys of machine-gun bullets. Panicky teenaged soldiers were trying to kill “the devil in the wind”.

Lethal modern weaponry juxtaposed with ancient superstition, the fragrance of luxuries the first Ethiopian Christians would have enjoyed, harsh weather, a narrative full of sensuous detail and poetic imagery – the vignette, one of scores of comparable ones, encapsulates the character of this remarkable book. It tells the life story of that grandmother, Yetemegnu. The narrative begins in 1916 with her wedding, when she was eight years old. When the groom came to fetch her from her family’s house in the once-imperial city of Gondar, disease was killing people in the marketplace. While she sat silent in the hut where, if she’d been a little older, the marriage would have been consummated, on the other side of the compound the guests feasted on food that had taken months to prepare. There was dancing, and ululations, and a minstrel “tossed rhymes like spears into the crowd”. Only when the festivities ended, days later, did Yetemegnu lift her veil and see the man she’d married, and murmur astonished to the groomsman: “When I have children they’re going to look like that!’

She had nine children, five of whom predeceased her. That husband, Tsega, was a lowly priest when they married but, although a curse laid upon him by his father prevented him from writing, he was master of the oral art of qinè (sacred poetry). He went to Addis Ababa. After two years, he was invited to one of the empress’s banquets. She noticed he was fasting and, approving, invited him to speak. He declaimed his poem of praise. It found favour. “What can I do for you?” said the empress. He asked for Gondar’s venerable church of Ba’ata (destroyed by Islamists in the 1880s) and the wherewithal to rebuild it. “Of course,” said the empress. She awarded him an embroidered tunic, a gold-trimmed cape, mules loaded with Maria Theresa silver, and the title of aléqa (leader of the church). With the suddenness of magical transformation, Yetemegnu, still barely in her teens, found herself the wife of a “big man”.

He beat her. That was normal. He didn’t allow her to leave the house. When she asked permission to spend a night at a neighbour woman’s, the metal buckle of the belt with which he thrashed her narrowly missed her eye. Jealous, he hated to see her dance with the other women, despite her exceptional grace. It was only once she had children that she realised how lonely she had been previously. They had slaves. That was normal, too. The slaves carried water up from the river. But Yetemegnu herself prepared the food, spending most of every day in the dark kitchen-hut making bread and piquant sauces so that when her husband came home, bringing however many guests he wished, she would be ready to serve them. She wouldn’t sit with them, but if Tsega was pleased he might give her a mouthful from his plate.

That’s how it was for nearly a quarter of a century. But then Tsega’s power and position were gone, as suddenly as they had come. He had annoyed someone (probably when he suggested that the church’s tithes should be used to pay the priests). Imprisoned in Gondar, he told Yetemegnu that she, who had barely left their house for three decades, must go to Addis Ababa to petition the emperor on his behalf. And so she did. She could not save her husband’s life. He died, perhaps poisoned. But for three years she persisted, waiting outside the courts, or in the anterooms of palaces, trying to clear his name, reclaim their property and provide for their children.

In the last aim, only, she succeeded, but at a terrible cost to herself. Haile Selassie was setting up schools to create a native elite. At last Yetemegnu had an audience with him: he decreed that all her children should be educated. One by one they left her – temporarily to go to boarding schools, but more permanently to enter a modernity into which she could not follow them. When her eldest son, Edemariam, returned to Ethiopia after five years of medical training in Canada, she came to the airport at the head of a great crowd that walked behind his taxi all the way back into town, singing and ululating. The festivities to welcome him lasted eight days. Lines of priests danced the ceremonial dance. Minstrels sang. Sheep were killed and eaten. But though Edemariam was polite, his mother could see that “something within him was sitting away from the hubbub, staring”.

Aida Edemariam is the daughter of that doctor and his Canadian wife (conventionally, Ethiopian children take their father’s first name). The couple moved to work in Addis Ababa, so the child, Aida, knew her grandmother. She was even able to introduce Yetemegnu, who was in her nineties and close to death, to her own daughter. But this book is far more than a memoir of a beloved relative. It is an account of a complex culture as it moved, in one lifetime, from the medieval to the modern. It notes the gains – the end of slavery, literacy, the telephone – but it is infused with a reverence for the old ways, for the young men dedicating themselves to God and poetry, for the stone-built houses raised by co-operation within the community, for the songs and dances and the subtle, fragrant food.

Yetemegnu’s husband was present at Haile Selassie’s coronation in 1930, listening to the priests chanting for seven days and seven nights, watching the deacons “dancing as David danced in the temple of Jerusalem – sistra clashing, drums beating, bare feet stepping, serious and joyful”. The best-known account in English of this ceremony is Wilfred Thesiger’s. To Thesiger, the mounted warriors circling in their finery seemed like Homeric heroes. Sympathetic as he was to Ethiopian culture, he could not but see it through the lens of European literature. Aida Edemariam, viewing the country’s past century through her grandmother’s eyes, brings us a more nuanced view, informed by a real knowledge of the mentality of those warriors wheeling and yelling in the sun. She respects the past, but she doesn’t sentimentalise it. She has terrible events to describe, particularly during Mengistu’s Red Terror, but she also notes that the eucalyptus trees, which make the countryside beautiful and provide so much wood for burning and for building, were introduced by the emperor, Menelik, in Yetemegnu’s parents’ time. Not every novelty is deplorable.

She talked to Yetemegnu and noted her stories. She interviewed her father and his siblings. A lot of what is in this beautifully written book, though, is the product of her own sympathetic imagination. It doesn’t just relate the facts of Yetemegnu’s life, but reconstructs her state of mind. It describes a rural culture: its chapters are named for the months of the Amharic calendar, beginning with the spring-like Meskerem and ending in winter. Religion shapes the characters’ lives, so the book is laced throughout with prayers, and passages from the Ethiopian Legends of Our Lady Mary. Dreams are recorded as assiduously as actual events. Zars – disembodied spirits – and spells are treated, not with credulity, but with respect. To read The Wife’s Tale is not just to hear about times past and (for a western reader) far away, but to be transported into them. 

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s most recent book is “Peculiar Ground” (4th Estate)

The Wife’s Tale: A Personal History
Aida Edemariam
4th Estate, 352pp, £16.99

This article appears in the 08 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new age of rivalry