Ethiopia’s unique scenery, people and history inspire tourists and writers alike. Novelist Alice Allan suggests some literary travel companions for your next visit.
Sweetness in the Belly
Excerpt: “The sun makes its orange way east from Arabia, over the Red Sea, across volcanic fields and desert and over the black hills to the qat and coffee-shrubbed land of the fertile valley that surrounds our walled city.”
Alice’s take: The narrator is raised as a Muslim among the winding back alleys of Harar, a UNESCO-protected walled city in Eastern Ethiopia. This atmospheric novel recounts her coming of age among traditions both magical and violent. When political events demand that she leaves Ethiopia, she must incorporate the hardships of her youth into her new life as a midwife.
Setting: Harar, where the Canadian author lived while writing the book, boasts not just unique gey gar, city houses with intricately decorated interiors, but the famous hyena men, who nightly hand-feed the beasts that skulk outside the city walls.
Notes from the Hyena’s Belly
Excerpt: “I was born in the year of the paradox, in the labyrinthine city of Jijiga.”
Alice’s take: The author’s childhood was spent on the eastern fringes of Ethiopia, an arid area populated by Christians, ethnic Somali Muslims, lions and monkeys. This entertaining and enlightening autobiography tells an intimate story, summoning the sights, smells, sounds and folklore of a region little known to tourists. But charm gives way to horror as the author’s boyhood is overtaken by political events; the fall of Haile Selassie and the rise of the Communist junta.
Setting: A drive from Jijiga to Harar takes you through the spectacular Valley of Marvels — red earth, towering rock formations and pillar-like termite mounds.
Cutting for Stone
Excerpt: “My brother, Shiva, and I came into the world in the late afternoon of the twentieth of September in the year of grace 1954. We took our first breaths in the thin air of Addis Ababa, capital city of Ethiopia.”
Alice’s take: When Marion and Shiva’s mother, a young nun, dies as she gives birth to them, and their father, a British surgeon, abandons them, two Indian doctors adopt the boys. Abraham Vergese’s best-selling novel takes the reader through tumultuous personal and political times, charting the twins’ dramatic estrangement, the narrator’s escape to America, and his ultimate confrontation with his past. Cutting for Stone is both poignant and epic. The medical detail is not for the faint-hearted though; the author is a surgeon, born in Ethiopia and now practicing in the States.
Beneath the Lion’s Gaze
Excerpt: “She took his hand and moved it to her heart and pressed it down. He wanted to think that last look before she closed her eyes was gratitude.”
Alice’s take: Mengiste’s novel, set in the capital during Ethiopia’s Derg Regime, is a powerful reminder of the violence of Ethiopia’s recent past. When doctor Haile is forced to treat a victim of torture, his decision has profound repercussions for those he loves. Mengiste’s story paints a memorable picture of a family struggling to hold itself together as the political and moral compass changes beyond recognition. The author’s description of this troubled period is unflinching, but the book is warmed by the family’s love for each other.
Setting: The Red Terror Martyrs’ Memorial Museum in Addis Ababa, where ex-prisoners of the Derg work as guides, brings home the reality of this heartbreaking tale.
Open My Eyes, That I May See Marvellous Things
Excerpt: “This country has crept under my skin. Its proud, loving, distrustful people, with their wide smiles and suspicious eyes; I share their genes but not their stories.”
Alice’s take: When a premature baby is abandoned on her Addis Ababa ward, adopted British midwife Mariam embarks on a plan to save it that forces her to address her own abandonment years before. A mysterious character from the city around the hospital will be crucial in determining the baby’s fate, as will a workaholic British doctor, with whom Mariam finds herself falling in love.
Setting: I volunteered for 4 years in Addis maternity hospitals. Follow my characters into the hills of Entoto; to the dry, flat-topped ambas of northern Ethiopia; and to the steamier south, to Hawassa, where maribou storks vie for fish on the lake’s shore.
The locations mentioned can be reached aboard Ethiopia Airlines from Addis Ababa: Hawassa, Jijiga, Dire-Dawa, Axum and Mekelle.
Alice Allan’s debut novel, Open My Eyes, That I May See Marvellous Things, was released in March 2017. A literature graduate of Cambridge University, she has written for a number of publications including The Daily Telegraph, The Ethiopian Herald, The Tokyo Times and The Mother Magazine, as well as blogging for Honestmum and Mumfidential. She lived in Addis Ababa from 2011–2015, during which time she volunteered at public hospitals, training doctors and health workers about infant feeding.