The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Book Review - The Woman from Tedbab

Diana Spencer

Reviewer - Geoffrey Ben-Nathan

Wherever her UN adviser husband was posted, Diana Spencer mastered the language and culture of the people: first, Malaysia; then Sudan and from December 1964 to July 1975, Ethiopia. Diana Spencer is a very remarkable lady. She is possessed of formidable determination, great courage and enormous charm, qualities which shine through every page of this fascinating memoir.

As Diana says: not for her, sight of Ethiopia only through the glass of a car or bus. She quickly became aware of an Ethiopia 'out there', an Ethiopia beyond the road, an Ethiopia she felt impelled to access. In accessing this Ethiopia, Diana Spencer fell in love with the people, and they with her. She becomes 'mother' to the crippled boy Isayas; 'daughter' to the elderly nun Immehoy Worqit telling each other “wonderful stories of how we would live together as mother and daughter”.

The Woman from Tedbab is Diana Spencer's story of her ventures out into the 'real' Ethiopia. Tedbab is the monastery Tedbaba Maryam (pinnacle of Mary). The monastery is located in the extreme west of the province of Wollo, five days ride each way by mule from the nearest paved road. In all she trekked out to the monastery three times. Other monasteries were visited but it was at Tedbaba Maryam that Diana Spencer became involved in the lives and trials of the local people, particularly the clergy. There, she was known as 'Mrs. Mother Diana'; whilst, back in Addis, at the Patriarchate, none of whose staff had ever visited Tedbaba Maryam, she was simply known as the woman from Tedbab, hence her book's title. For Diana, the community of Tedbaba Maryam became 'her relatives'.

Diana Spencer is a serious scholar. She means business: she spent a year at the Mission School in Addis mastering colloquial and literary Amharic; and later on, in 1972, she learned Ge'ez, the classical language of the Ethiopian Church, at a qene bet (poetry school). Her objective: to locate and photograph St. Luke icons of the Blessed Virgin. In all, Diana Spencer located and photographed six St. Luke icons, knowledge of which was new to western scholarship and to the Ethiopian Patriarchate.

In Orthodox tradition, St. Luke was an artist. He painted the Blessed Virgin synoptically. For Ethiopians, these icons in their possession are the work of the Evangelist himself. These icons and all icons, be they pictures, tabot or crosses are extremely holy, highly venerated and exert great power. 'The very soul of the Church', icons are also the protection of the community. Very understandably, they were not always willingly revealed. Many of Diana's journeys were initially in vain. Her book's signal achievement is to introduce the reader to the byzantine machinations of the Church; her own signal achievement is to have overcome these drawbacks with her armoury of charm, linguistic ability and tenacity.

This book is a 'must'. In human terms, it is a delight. Diana has a magnetic personality: her staff loved her. Her personal servant, Nigussie, and her maid Asselefetch, accompany her through thick and thin. She deals skilfully with Ethiopian clergy, some of whom are possessed of mercurial character to say the least. In ecclesiastical terms, the book is a revelation: the customs and practice of the Ethiopian Tewahedo Orthodox Church are graphically described; as, perhaps for the first time, are intra-Church doctrinal differences. The reader is also familiarised with Ethiopian superstition: fear of evil smells; dread of being stared at for fear of the evil eye; mefzez (stupor) which only 'attacks' the clergy.

The book is very well written. Forty-five magnificent colour photos enhance the text. A glossary of Amharic ecclesiastical (and other) titles would have been useful: one tends to forget that 'the Memre' refers to a Reverend; 'the Memhir', to the Abbot of a monastery.

Credit must be given to Diana's husband, Oscar. He allowed his wife, mother to three young children, to undertake so many dangerous and truly life-threatening journeys in which she so stalwartly endured extreme privation, thirst, hunger and physical exhaustion. He frequently puts himself in serious danger, it seems, of ending up minus one wife!

The book, Diana Spencer tells us, started off as 'spooky stories' for her grandchildren. Fortunately it has developed into the comprehensive account it is. Thank God Diana has kept, and preserved, her detailed diaries. The book has appeared nearly thirty years after the events recounted. Better late, than never. But, one would much rather it had appeared sooner. It is so good. There is so much in this book you will be hard put to find elsewhere.

The Woman from Tedbab by Diana Spencer, published by Elizabeth Horne Publishing, 2003.
Hardbound, 285 pages (xiii pages), map, 45 colour photos, 3 b&w photos.
ISBN 0954638603
Price £35

First Published in News File Summer 2004

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