The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Book Review - The Lure of the Honey Bird - The Storytellers of Ethiopia

Elizabeth Laird

Reviewer - Helen Papworth

Elizabeth Laird was no stranger to Ethiopia when she embarked on a journey around the different regions to gather the stories which, with the passing of time, the influences of technology and education, and the disappearance of some minority languages, risk being lost forever. She first went out to Ethiopia as a teacher in the time of Haile Selassie I, and returned thirty years later, at the end of the twentieth century, to witness the changes that had taken place. Like Elizabeth, I was lucky enough to live in Ethiopia for periods from 2004. I too travelled around the different regions of the country, and many of her anecdotes remind me of everything I have discovered about this fascinating country over the years. Her journeys across Ethiopia will draw a smile to the face of those who have experienced physical discomforts, like insect bites and diarrhoea, while on their travels, as well as the combination of heat and dirt with poor sanitation. I giggled many times as her descriptions of low wattage light bulbs, scuttling cockroaches, and hard pillows stirred memories of staying in hotels outside Addis Ababa.

Each journey she made, however difficult it was at times, uncovered a wealth of rich tales from the men and women that she was introduced to: teachers, soldiers and farmers, young and old. She compares some of the stories to those she read in the Bible or found in the Koran. A large number are reminiscent of tales from Aesop, the Grimm brothers, or other traditional stories from across the world. Their content sometimes teaches a lesson in morality cloaked in humour or suspense. Often it provides a cautionary warning which may be just as valuable today for those of us living in the 'developed world.' Take the story from Oromia about a father who wants to see his two sons settled in their homes before he dies. One builds a hut but has no one to share it with. The other takes his father to a family who adopted him and it is this son that the father praises saying, 'friendship and warmth with other people is worth more than an empty house, however splendid it may be.'

Elizabeth weaves among the stories her own life experiences: memories from her past and introductions to the people who influenced her. She also tells the history of Ethiopia's people and the turbulent times the country has witnessed. She describes not only the oral traditions of the many people she met, but also their lives and the history of their forefathers. This is told through the tales or explained in the context of the telling of those tales. Beliefs, such as the creation myths, and customs including circumcision seamlessly emerge as she writes the account of her story-gathering exploits. The snippets of the tales she retells are not primarily children's stories, though many appeal to the young as well as to the mature audience they were usually aimed at. They include frightening characters such as the hyena women, wicked stepmothers, cruel landlords, as well as tricksters, like Achok from Gambella with his nasty practical jokes. The themes include romance and adultery, sometimes coupled with death and destruction. Some leave you laughing, others may leave you questioning, and all are entertaining.

She opens the book describing how she came up with the idea of gathering stories after meeting an elderly man near Addis Ababa who told a story about ants. Elizabeth realised that many more tales must exist across the country with no written source. Knowing the need for children’s books in Ethiopia, she suggested to the British Council that, given some resources, she would be prepared to gather such tales and rewrite them in English. The proposal was accepted and, after travelling to each region and hearing the tales translated into English by her interpreters, she edited them. A talented artist, Yosef Kebede, illustrated the books and some of his illustrations now adorn this volume along with a cover illustration by James Albon and a map and two further illustrations by Eric Robson.

A number of years after producing the books for children she met her original contact in the British Council, Michael Sargent, who helped her to create a website to store the stories that she had gathered, along with the tape recordings. Now she has completed this marvellous body of work describing how she collected the stories, intertwining them with her own life story and her impressions of Ethiopia. I recommend this book to anyone going to Ethiopia, living in Ethiopia, or having returned from Ethiopia. And for those who will never set foot in Ethiopia? It is a book full of treasures that they will want to share.

The Lure of the Honey Bird book cover

The Lure of the Honey Bird - The Storytellers of Ethiopia
Elizabeth Laird
Edinburgh: Polygon, 2013
ISBN 9781846972461
Paperback 374 pages
Price £12.99

First Published in News File Winter 2013

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