“Media ignore the reality on the ground for sub-Saharan African countries”
Jeff Pearce is a Canadian author and historian. He is the author of the acclaimed book - Prevail - The Inspiring Story of Ethiopia's Victory over Mussolini's Invasion, 1935-1941 and is also known as a passionate defender of Ethiopia's interest in the world. Here he reflects with Samuel Getachew of The Reporter on the book, on the history of Ethiopia, on GERD and how he wants to make “Ethiopia’s side be heard”, on the recent conflicts and more. Excerpts:
The Reporter: Tell me about yourself; your bio and your connection with Ethiopia?
Well, I started in journalism, working in radio and television, because back then, there were many great writers like say, Hemingway, who got their start as reporters, and I wanted to write novels. Journalism is a great way to build up life experience, but it only has so many lessons in terms of the actual craft of writing books, and it would take years for me to finally break into fiction. That happened when I lived in London and was quite poor, so I knocked out quick erotica thrillers under different pseudonyms. When I returned home, I literally answered a Craigslist ad for a writer to do a book on England and Canada, and that started a new phase for me, writing popular history and current affairs books.
I’ve had a very peculiar career. I taught journalism briefly in Myanmar. A publisher wanted me to write a book on street gangs. I’ve written science fiction and fantasy novels. I went to the Kurdish Front in Iraq a few years ago (on vacation) to research a new book I hope will be out next spring. I’ve even had a university theatre school adapt a history book of mine on sex in my country into a musical stage production!
People assume I must have a wife or some family connection to Ethiopia, but there isn’t one. To me, Ethiopia’s history is just fascinating. People often ask me, “Why are you interested in this?” And my answer is usually, “But who do I have to be? I don’t need a personal stake—your history is compelling enough.”
Your book, Prevail: The Inspiring Story of Ethiopia's Victory over Mussolini’s Invasion. How did that come about?
The short version is that while I was still living in London and churning out novels, I heard a snippet of a story about John Robinson, the “Brown Condor,” who fought for Ethiopia in its second war with Italy. I really wanted to write something good, something that made a bigger impact. But the Internet was young and much less sophisticated in those days, and I couldn’t find out much about him then. The novel I came up with was frankly terrible in retrospect and never sold—but that turned out to be a good thing. Because along the way, I researched more about the war and became fascinated.
The truth, the reality, was so much more interesting than the terrible, stupid plot I had first come up with. Every day, as I tunneled through old newspaper reports and dug through archive files, I kept thinking, How did the world forget this stuff? Why don’t we know more about this?
The book is described as, “…unlike the many other depressing tales of Africa that crowd bookshelves, this is a gripping thriller, a rousing tale of real-life heroism in which the Ethiopians come back from near destruction and win”. Share with me the highlights of the book.
The most incredible thing about the war—about the Prevail story if I can call it that—is that it really does fit what they call the three-act structure of drama. We have Fascist Italy threatening to invade, and where are Ethiopia’s supposed friends like the British and French governments? They’ve abandoned their ally.
And yet… around the world, ordinary people, especially Black people in America, hit the streets, they march in Harlem, they fill Trafalgar Square. All for Ethiopia.
But Ethiopia still has to fight alone. And again, amazingly, it does very well, it holds its own until Mussolini uses more bombings, more poison gas. You had an Italian Occupation that slaughters thousands and puts thousands more in concentration camps.
But then, just like in an action movie, our heroes really do win in the end. There was a guerrilla war right from the first day the tanks rolled into Addis Ababa. So when the Allies finally got off their butts and decided to fight Italy in the Second World War, the Patriots had already worn the Fascists down.
If you want to be flippant, you could almost compare things to that scene in Avengers: Endgame where all the superheroes come back through the portals. The Ethiopians didn’t just get British help. There were colonial Nigerians fighting for them, Kenyans, Indians, soldiers from the Gold Coast, South Africa, the Caribbean. Remember, Ethiopia was the very first occupied nation to be liberated in World War Two.
What impressed you most about Ethiopia’s role in that conflict?
The courage. Throughout the war, you have astonishing examples of patient, stubborn resolve and courage. A young woman, Lekelash Bayan, was sick and exhausted and hiding in a tree, and she still managed to jump down and take out a small group of Fascist soldiers. There are many examples of brave women Patriots—don’t mess with Ethiopian women! You have the boy general, Jagama Kello. You have Lorenzo Taezaz, sneaking back into the Occupation zone to work with the Resistance. And so many others.
Many people see you as a friend of Ethiopia, including many on social media.
Well, I hope I’ve earned that kind opinion. I wasn’t prepared at all for the reaction to Prevail. It’s quite lovely and humbling. Much of the positive attention and reaction may have nothing to do with me personally. I know I’m nobody special. I simply wrote a book.
But because of the Derg and the political upheavals that followed, there’s been an interruption in education, so that people are hungry to learn about their nation’s past. As long as I tell your stories well and get my facts correct, that’s all that matters. And this generosity of spirit seems to be an African trait. I’ve talked with this very nice retired diplomat from Ghana who called me “African in spirit.” People online say, “Let’s give Jeff honorary Ethiopian citizenship!” These are the greatest compliment in the world.
We have in recent weeks seen your defence of Ethiopia’s right to the Nile DAM, which is linked to Ethiopia’s aspiration to become self-sufficient in a nation where the majority of the population still lacks adequate water and electricity. What is your perspective on it?
I don’t live in Ethiopia, and I’m an outsider, so I do my best not to comment on its domestic affairs. It’s not my place. But there are certain situations where it just comes down to basic fairness and decency. You used the word “friend” before, and my loyalties as a friend are to the Ethiopian people, not to a government. It shouldn’t be difficult—no matter how one feels about Abiy or whoever’s in power—to see GERD is not only good for Ethiopia but will tremendously help other countries and the whole region in the end.
I would have kept my opinion to myself, but I noticed this Egyptian academic, Adel El-Adawy, who day after day churns out a steady stream of negative propaganda about Ethiopia on Twitter. Not just GERD stuff, but ridiculous things suggesting the government may fall, the African Union should move its headquarters out of Addis Ababa. He literally boasted about being in contact with terrorists, but then when I confronted him online about it, he ducked the questions and eventually blocked me. On his university biography, he mentions how he’s “a frequent commentator” for the likes of the BBC and CNN. That should concern us all.
Of course, Ethiopians don’t need some white hack writer in Canada to speak for them. They can speak for themselves. But I know how the Western media works, and as a good friend, I want to help make sure Ethiopia’s side of this debate gets heard. Too often, big media ignore the reality on the ground for sub-Saharan African countries.
You must be observing what is happening in Ethiopia the recent ethnic violence that has caused unrest in the country. What is your take on it?
I’m still gathering information and trying form an opinion, but again, I need to walk a careful line of not sticking my nose in on how you guys resolve your own problems. I was moved to write an Op-Ed piece because people are dying, and folks come to me and say, “We don’t want to be another Rwanda.” I wrote another short article because of ugly videos of ethnic conflict at demonstrations in the US. and Canada, and if you’re going to export that nonsense and call for slaughtering people right in downtown Canadian and American cities, sorry, the excuse of “White man, stay out of it” certainly doesn’t cut it anymore.
That doesn’t mean I’m pro-government or anti-government. Again, the how of resolving things is up to you guys. As I wrote in my first article, I’m anti-waste. I’m anti-death. We had violent calls for separatism in my country more than forty years ago, bombings and kidnappings and armored cars on the streets. There are lessons in history, and that’s where I’m trying to find them. My plate’s pretty full now, but I’d like to write a new history of Ethiopia that acknowledges the contributions of all ethnic peoples, that’s done in the Prevail narrative style and helps inspire people.
I think it’s time for a fresh one. We all know Ethiopian history as a discipline really starts with Richard Pankhurst—he did so much, and he was fair. He loved your country and all its peoples. And there’s Bahru Zewde’s great work. But sadly, there are British and American historians such as Harold Marcus and Ullendorff, who as good as they were, politicized the history. For instance, they showed a certain disdain for Oromo history and culture. On the opposite side, you had this anthropologist, Baxter, who made the most outrageously hostile statements against Amhara in an academic paper in the 1970s and finished it with the slogan of the Oromo Liberation Front! And we’re supposed to accept this as balanced history?
So it’ll take a long time, but some folks are encouraging me to write this history, mainly based on the fact that I am an outsider, that hopefully I can bring fresh eyes to it all. This seems to be a critical time when history is being weaponized to promote violence, and if I can help people get a clearer picture on the past, maybe it can help them in some small way understand each other and reconcile with each other.