Monday, January 23, 2012

Encircling a falling hero

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
Emperor Haile Selassie I
Over the Christmas break I was able to read a book which was neither theological nor philosophical, which needs to happen far more often than it does. The Emperor by Ryszard Kapuscinski details the final years of Ethiopa's last monarch, Haile Selassie, who fell to a communist military junta, the Derg, in 1974, and who died in captivity a year later. The book originally got on my list since it was acknowledged as a key source for Abraham Verghese's breathtaking novel, Cutting for Stone, which I mostly read on the plane ride home from Ethiopia and wrote about last summer.

The author, Kapuscinski, was a Polish investigative journalist who was able to spend time in Ethiopia before and after the coup, conducting interviews with servants and counselors to the august emperor. Much of the story comes directly from interview transcripts themselves, so the subjects speak most and other than "silent" editorial control, Kapuscinski interjects his voice only periodically.

The stories are at once gripping, mundane, and pathetic. What struck me most about this book was the deep ambivalence on the part of the subjects interviewed. These were for the most part people who served their emperor proudly and took seriously the royal mythology that linked the long line of Ethiopian monarchs directly to the biblical Israelite king, Solomon. The ambivalence arises when these loyal servants and subjects reflect on the anachronistic and horrendously corrupt and inefficient monarchial government, struggling mightily for development and modernization in the rapidly changing world leading up to the last quarter of the twentieth century. These subjects were loyal but they were not delusional.

I also read this book influenced by what experience I've had with Ethiopians - current and expat - who reflect on the late emperor in various ways. Some still lionize him while others take a more balanced and critical view. I've been told that younger generations in Ethiopia today generally regard him in a somewhat negative light.

I had dinner recently with a North American Mennonite missionary who was in Ethiopia before and during the military overthrow in '74. He had a chilling story from the day of the uprising, when the military took command of the state radio in Addis Ababa and began announcing the names of captured dignitaries. At the end of the list of names, it was announced that they had all been executed. My missionary friend told me that a chill went down his spine when he realized the enormity of what was happening. There had been attempts to sieze control a time or two in the preceding decade, but this time is was for real.

So all this was swirling around in my head, with memories from our month in the country, as I read through this book.

There are also some interesting parallels from forty years ago to contemporary issues in Ethiopia. It's reported that one of Haile Selassie's final desired development projects was a huge dam on the Upper Nile river in the north of the country. This dam, intended to be an eternal memorial to the greatness and benevolence of the emperor, was never even started. But today in Ethiopia there is planning and/or construction underway for a number of hydroelectric dams which have caused a stir within and outside of the country and have some geopolitical and global-economic implications.

This book was a fascinating read with an interesting perspective on a significant transition in Ethiopia's political history. Haile Selassie's legacy is still very much felt today and will no doubt continue to be a significant interpretive reference point for Ethiopian national identity for years to come. Accounts such as Kapuscinski's can help provide some humility to historical reflections in such interpretive work. Anyone from the West doing work in Ethiopia would benefit from a read.

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