Michela Wrong

Pleading with the emperor

Aida Edemariam’s remarkable grandmother witnessed everything, from Fascist invasion to the horrors of the Red Terror

Yetemegn was barely eight years old when her parents married her off to a man in his thirties. Before she could become a spouse, he first had to raise her. Her education involved beatings when she left the house, even if it was only to borrow shallots from a neighbour. At 14, she gave birth for the first time. Successive pregnancies came like waves. Some of the children died or succumbed to diseases for which the only known treatment was prayer; most survived. She was a grandmother by her early thirties.

In Ethiopia, it’s a story that ranks as utterly banal. Millions of women have lived it and millions will continue to do so, development programmes and government policy papers notwithstanding. But this book is a wonderful example of how, in the right hands — in this case those of Yetemegn’s granddaughter, Aida Edemariam, a strong, poetic writer — a seemingly ordinary life opens up to reveal the extraordinary richness at its heart.

By the time she died at 98, Yetemegn had lived through Italy’s Fascist invasion, Haile Selassie’s flight, the second world war and the emperor’s subsequent reinstatement, a first failed military coup, the takeover of the Derg, the horrors of the Red Terror, famine, and the eventual seizure of power by a group of long-haired rebels from the north who installed Ethiopia’s current government.

As a woman, her powerlessness was always a given, and in The Wife’s Tale Ethiopia’s turbulent history is viewed from the perspective of someone enduring, rather than moulding it. Edemariam focuses instead on the elements that immediately affect a mother and wife: the rhythm of the seasons and their harvest of grains and spices, the secrets of making strong beer and preparing fish, constant sharp observation of the natural world, a homemaker’s pride in the endless procession of meals coming from her kitchen.

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