[Image of a young Haile Selassie]

Musings on the nature of the Ethiopian character

I have yet to open a book or read a travel article in the FT on the country that does not include the famous line from18th Century Historian Edward Gibbon’s masterwork The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: “Encompassed on all sides by the enemies of their religion, the Ethiopians slept near a thousand years, forgetful of the world by whom they were forgotten.” It perfectly encapsulates what makes this land so unique; so much from ancient times still remaining. Although the modern world now has a stable foothold in the cities, when one ventures out to the interior this thin veneer rapidly falls away, unveiling the unchanged soul of the nation. A man and his young son were ploughing a terraced wheat field below their grass hut with two oxen. Their field on the edge of a small river, this fell away off the high plateau in a series of three waterfalls. Their plough had a small sharp metal tip lashed to its wooden triangular sides, the long beam and ploughman’s handle comprised of bark-stripped eucalyptus. They wore a few items of Western clothing; a shirt and a raggedy pair of trousers, both in bare feet. Aside from these few tiny elements that have seeped in from the outside world, the scene was timeless.

It is fair to say that it took me a while to develop an appropriate appreciation of Ethiopia. The beauties of the country, away from the more obvious grandeurs of the countryside, are of a subtler nature, and time was needed for me to slow down and adjust to a fundamentally different way of life, and the singular flavor of the country’s romance. Ethiopia can be difficult, prickly, cutting, ruthless, unforgiving, infuriating, stark, confused and complex. Yet, like a densely constructed novel exposing the fundamental contradictions of human nature, or, say, the bright plumage of a flowering cactus, when her treasures are revealed they are all the more exquisite for the contrasts that they manifest. The most prized form of Amharic prose and poetry, loosely translated as ‘wax and gold’, is meticulously comprised with a focus on the duality of its meanings. The surface meaning, the wax, must be stripped away to reveal the hidden core of gold underneath. In this way Ethiopia’s charms force you to look deeper within yourself to understand and fully appreciate them, with adventure here not yet having become a parody of itself, making it all the more rewarding.

Haile Selassie, the last Emperor of Ethiopia 

Ethiopia’s last emperor, Haile Selassie, renaming the country from ‘Abyssinia’ in 1963, is worshipped as a god incarnate among the followers of the Rastafari movement. The name is taken from his pre-imperial name: Tafari Makonnen, with Ras – meaning ‘Head’, a title equivalent to Duke. The religion emerged in Jamaica during the 1930s under the influence of the Pan Africanism movement, with Selassie viewed as the messiah who would lead the peoples of Africa and the African diaspora to freedom. With his Solomonic lineage and official titles of Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah and King of Kings and Elect of God, he is perceived by the Rastafari as the returned messiah as prophesised in the Book of Revelation in the New Testament: King of KingsLord of LordsConquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, and Root of David. Haile Selassie visited Jamaica on the 21st April 1966 with approximately one hundred thousand Rastafari from all over the country descending upon the Airport in Kingston in a haze of ganja smoke to greet their messiah. This date is still commemorated by the Rastafari as Grounation Day, the anniversary of which is celebrated as the second holiest holiday after the 2nd November, the emperor’s Coronation Day.

Evelyn Waugh’s account of Haile Selassie’s coronation

The coronation of Haile Selassie in November of 1930 was a pivotal event that catapulted the relative backwater of Abyssinia to the forefront of world’s attention. British writer Evelyn Waugh’s personal account of the event perfectly conveys the uncertain magic and botched brilliance of the country, with the following passages taken from Remote People, published in 1931: “… Presently we went on to the tent. This was already well filled. The clothes of the congregation varied considerably. Most of the men were wearing morning coats, but some had appeared in evening dress and one or two in dinner-jackets. One lady had stuck an American flag in the top of her helmet. The junior members of the legations were there already, in uniform, fussing among the seats to see that everything was in order. By seven o’clock the delegations arrived. The English party, led by the Duke of Gloucester and Lord Airlie in hussar and lancer uniforms, were undoubtedly the most august, though there was a very smart Swede carrying a silver helmet… The six succeeding days of celebration were to be predominantly military, but the coronation day itself was in the hands of the Church, and they were going to make the most of it…

… At long intervals the emperor was presented with a robe, orb, spurs, spear, and finally with the crown. A salute of guns was fired, and the crowds outside, scattered all over the surrounding waste spaces, began to cheer, the imperial horses reared up, plunged on top of each other, kicked the gilding off the front of the coach, and broke their traces. The coachman sprang from the box and whipped them from a safe distance… It was now about eleven o’clock, the time at which the emperor was due to leave the pavilion. Punctually, to plan, three Abyssinian aeroplanes rose to greet him. They circled round and round over the tent, eagerly demonstrating their newly acquired art by swooping and curvetting within a few feet of the canvas roof. The noise was appalling; the local chiefs stirred in their sleep and rolled on to their faces; only by the opening and closing of their lips and the turning of their music could we discern that the Coptic deacons were still singing…

…There was a review of the troops on the plain outside the railway station. Although we had been privileged to see almost every member of His Majesty’s forces almost every day, this was a startling display for those, like myself, who had never seen a muster of tribesmen in Arabia or Morocco. The men converged on the royal stand from all over the plain, saluting him with cries and flourishes of arms, the little horses and mules galloping right up to the foot of the throne and being reined back savagely on to their haunches, with mouths dripping foam and blood. But no catalogue of events can convey any real idea of these astounding days, of an atmosphere utterly unique, elusive, unforgettable. If in the foregoing pages I have seemed to give undue emphasis to the irregularity of the proceedings, to their unpunctuality, and their occasional failure, it is because this was an essential part of their character and charm. In Addis Ababa everything was haphazard and incongruous; one learned always to expect the unusual and yet was always surprised.”

The war with Italy 

In 1935 Italy declared war on Abyssinia and Waugh was sent back to Addis Ababa to cover the conflict. His acerbic account of life as a war correspondent in Waugh in Abyssinia, first published in 1936, also captures an important period in the country’s history as well as her national character: “… The high spirits of the troops seemed unaffected by the weather. In the coming weeks, as the provincial armies passed through the capital on their way to the northern front, we were to see several such displays. For most of the Press it was then a new experience. The old chiefs, almost without exception, looked superb. Their gala costume varied in magnificence with their wealth. They had head-dresses and capes of lion skin, circular shields and extravagantly long, curved swords, decorated with metal and coloured stuff; their saddles and harness were brilliant and elaborate. Examined in detail, of course, the ornaments were of wretched quality, the work of Levantine craftsmen in the Addis bazaar, new, aiming only at maximum ostentation for a minimum price; there was nothing which bore comparison with the splendour of a North African or Asiatic workmanship. But in their general effect, as they emerged from the watery haze which enclosed us, strutted and boasted before the Emperor, and were hustled away in the middle of their speeches by the Court Chamberlains, those old warriors were magnificent.

Boasting was a particular feature of all these parades. Sometimes it was done by special minstrels, sometimes by the chief himself, who would spur his mule up to the steps of the throne, rein it back on its haunches, brandish his spear and recite the deeds of bloodshed he had achieved in the past and those he proposed to do in the future; sometimes he would dismount and dance before the Emperor with drawn sword, chanting his prowess. If he were allowed to continue too long in this manner he intoxicated himself and in a kind of ecstasy, sword whirling, eyes turned up, beard and lips spattered with foam, would constitute a serious danger to those near him. (When the Kambata army came through they cut open the head of one of the chamberlains in their enthusiasm.) The greater part of these recitations, my interpreter told me, dealt with the first battle of Adowa [against Italy in March 1896, securing Ethiopian sovereignty]; most of the promises of the future service were taunts at Italy. Vinci and his staff sat through the wet afternoon listening with polite, if slightly ironical, attention.”

view our ethiopia adventures