It was during the rainy reason in 2000. Let alone for a foreigner like Yves-Marie Stranger, the wet and cold weather was unbearable for locals as well. Stranger has never been to Ethiopia, but he did not hesitate to come when he got a job offer in Addis Ababa. He was asked to write a guide book about the city, which was difficult to do since he could not find anything to write about. Besides being challenged by the muddy roads and the weather, everything that could possibly go wrong happened to him.
Looking back, he says, “Imagine what the city was like 15 years ago. It was just villages vaguely connected by roads full of holes. I had an awful experience and could find nothing to write about.” Contrary to his experience, something he cannot quite explain appealed to him. Even after 15 years, he says that “something” which made him fall in love with Ethiopia is too complex to express.
He left Ethiopia after two months but came back after six months as a volunteer language teacher. He eventually lived in Ethiopia for 15 years and recently moved to France. During his stay here, he was engaged in various projects related to Ethiopian history and language. He also did some journalism, translation and interpreting.
The French-English translator and writer Yves-Marie Stranger was born in Exeter, Devon. He grew up on a family farm in the French Pyrenees. Since he grew up with horses, while living in Ethiopia he led horse treks in the Showan highlands for seven years.
With regards to Ethiopian history, some of his works written in English and French include ‘‘Ces pas qui trop vite s’effacent’’ and ‘‘The Abyssinian Syllabary of Cornu de Lenclos’’. He is also a contributing author to “African Train: The Djibouti-Ethiopia Railway”. His latest work, “Ethiopia Through Writers’ Eyes,” is an anthology of writings from Herodotus to Edgar Allan Poe, by way of Dervla Murphy and Prester John. He says, “One of the reasons I wrote this anthology is because I became obsessed with Ethiopian history.”
According to Stranger, even though there are lots of specialized guide books, scholarly books and PhD theses on Ethiopian history, most of them were not for general readership. With his recently launched book, he hopes to fill this gap. “There are lots of interesting historical studies on Ethiopia which are mostly historical blow by blow chorological accounts with footnotes and explanations. This book anthologizes the source texts themselves. Therefore, it makes these books available for general readership,” he says.
He also states the book provided a full version of literary pieces, which are mostly only part quoted. An example he mentions is Edward Gibbon’s book ‘‘Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.’’ There are many references of Ethiopia in the book, but the one sentence quoted every single time is, ‘‘The Ethiopians were encircled on all sides by enemies, and their faces were slapped for thousands of years.’’ In the anthology, there are two extracts around that statement.
Besides the various projects he was engaged in while staying in Addis Ababa, he also studied texts written about Ethiopia. In his book, he included writers from different countries and different times – ranging from ancient Greece, by way of middle ages to contemporary Ethiopia. He says he selected texts people would expect to find, such as Francisco Alvarez. He also incorporated authors that are important, and their books interesting. “I put people whom most people wouldn’t know or who would be unexpected or are just a result of my own biased opinion or reading,” he says.
One example he mentions from texts people would not expect to find is a text from Benito Mussolini. “More or less everybody has the same opinion of him. I don’t think he is anybody’s great hero. But, I thought let the man speak. Give him enough rope to hang himself. He says some dramatic things when he is presenting the invasion of Ethiopia in 1936. I thought I would put that side of the story,” he says.
However, he says he tried to balance such texts with accounts from the Italian massacre. Mussolini says, “We are great conquerors; or we are bringing civilization to these Ethiopians.” However, there is a text about the massacre of Debre Libanos by Ian Campbell, a British historian who lives in Ethiopia. “It is the juxtaposition that is interesting. There are also some fictions that have been influenced by historical facts or reading of historical works in the book,” Stranger says.
During his stay in Ethiopia, one fact he noticed is the westerners’ misconception about Ethiopia. He says many label the country as a land of poverty and famine. He believes this was a result of the negative portrayal of the country in the media and lack of understanding. When he used to do horse-trekking, people usually asked him if there were horses in Ethiopia. Some even asked, “Do they have enough to eat?’’ or, ‘‘We thought they only had camels”. In this regard, he hopes his literary work would contribute a lot to addressing this lack of understanding.
He says the outside world’s view towards a country like Ethiopia was as if it were a place of drama, antiquity, famine and war. On the contrary, he opts to show the bright side of things, sometimes through humor. This is one of the reasons he added a conversation from the American animation series, ‘‘The Simpsons’’. He notes that, “Every place is dramatic and has a sense of humor. Everywhere can be funny. A lot of texts in the book are serious so I put the fictional text”.
On the other hand, there is the historical account that interlinks the country with many foreigners. In the book “African Train: The Djibouti-Ethiopia Railway” written by French photographer Hugues Fontaine, which Stranger translated from French to English, he wrote one piece about a Greek woman called Madam Acimcupulos, a.k.a. Madam Kiki. She lived in Ethiopia and ran the Buffet De La Gare at Awash station for 40 years.
He says he used her story to tell the story of foreigners in Ethiopia. “This is a huge metropolis now and many people have forgotten that the city was originally largely built by foreigners; not by rich expats of today but by poor people. There were lots of Greeks, Armenians, Indians, Italians and Russians who had lost everything in the Russian Revolution,” he says.
Coming to “Ethiopia Through Writers’ Eyes”, the narration ranges from ancient times to contemporary Ethiopia. Going back in history, he includes texts from The Bible and The Quran. He says he was interested in the Quran to underline the importance of Islam in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa. “It has a rich history going back to the first Hijra when the prophet’s followers came and the Axumite king granted them refuge. Therefore, Prophet Mohammed said nobody should rise against the Ethiopians because they were righteous people. Those early interactions between the two religions are quoted by scholars in 2016 when talking about the relationship between Islam and Christianity,” he says.
He believes the misconception could also be attributed to the image of Ethiopia as a medieval Christian kingdom. He says he wanted to depict the history through the writings and reflect upon present-day Ethiopia too. In a chapter entitled “Goodbye Abyssinia, Hello Ethiopia,” he shows how Ethiopia has evolved. This is also by emphasising how people are trying to cope with the brand new way of life, by incorporating new things and by trying to retain what they want to keep.
This country, whose history he loves, is also a land suited to his other passion – horse-riding. He was doing horse treks at Menagesha, Sululta, Debre Libanos and Ankober. The longest distance he and his crew covered was from Sululta to Goha Tsion. He loves the landscape of these places and relates to the strong horse culture and the horse market. He gave horse-riding lessons for seven years and quit only due to logistical problems.
The horse treks led the way to another thing he adores – languages. He got a chance to learn Oromiffa on top of Amharic. He describes Amharic by saying, “I like how it sounds, the complexity, the many different registers of speech and its syllabary.”
These are not the only reasons for him staying in the country for longer than he had expected. Strager is quite taken with the traditional Ethiopian culture. “I always had a liking for a relatively codified ethical Ethiopia, the invitation, visiting, hospitality, elaborate greeting when you visit a family in the country side, the way you are taken in and given tela, is something special,” he says.
He believes these values might be waning down as a result of globalization and the digital revolution. He likes modern-day Ethiopia, and recognizes the changes he has witnessed. Nonetheless, he pauses to think about the preservation of cultural values.
Despite his deep connection to the country, he says he still felt like a complete stranger. He believes, though, that Ethiopia was extremely welcoming, yet the people took their time to assimilate with foreigners. He says this might change as time went by because there were lots of foreigners living here, and mixed marriages were no longer a novelty. He too is married to an Ethiopian.
He is now back in France after years of absence, hoping to reconnect with his roots. He wants to allow his half- Ethiopian children to think of themselves as being from Europe and Ethiopia. Currently, he is writing a new book about the lives of 33 people who are either Ethiopian or people who lived here or interested in Ethiopia. The 33 correspond to 33 main letters (Fidel) in Amharic syllabary. “What I try to do is represent the fresco of Ethiopian reality over the last 3000 years. It might be difficult, but I want to launch the book in French, English and Amharic,” he says.