A compelling story of Ethiopian women at war.

I once had a house in the Ethiopian highland town of Gondar and I shared the compound with a family. Amarech was their servant, six feet tall, broad shouldered as a man and handsome. Her forehead was high, her features strong, her body made for fetching and carrying 20 kilogramme jerry cans of water which she hoisted onto her shoulders. In the afternoons, she would sit at a low stool and comb her hair, no shyness in her eyes which confronted me as I stepped out of the back door. Sometimes she would pound and roast coffee, never inviting me to even the smallest cup. Other times I would hear her laughter as her powerful body yielded itself to the kisses of the grownup son of the household who spent hours outside lifting weights and was really no match for her.

During these times, Amarech never uttered a word other than a suspicious hello. She issued no invitation of hospitality towards me, the foreigner, setting her face in a way that fenced out my gaze. She ruled the back yard with her pots and stove and the fearsome power of her body.

For a long time, I could not make her out, wondering what I had done wrong. Then, one day in London, I found myself looking at a painting in the British Museum. The Ethiopians are defeating the Italians at Adwa in 1896. Queen Taitu herself is there, no meek woman preening herself or reclining in finery. In the painting, Queen Taitu is there, leading her army with a revolver.

Then it came upon me. Amarech, although a servant, in the way she looked at me and the way she carried her body; in her heart she was a warrior.

Battle of Adwa. Image copyright British Museum.

And so, the Italians found this to their cost, firstly at Adwa and then in the 6 year occupation that began in 1935. Although much of the country came under Mussolini’s control, Ethiopia refused to yield. Nowhere more so was this resistance than the area around Gondar, described by one historian as being ‘in a permanent state of revolt.’

What better setting, therefore, for The Shadow King. Speaking at a recent talk at The British Library, Mengiste described norther Ethiopian as “a fantastic landscape for a writer, a David versus Goliath.” The scenery is no less dramatic than the action of war: a mysterious world of mists, pinnacles and razor-edged escarpments where Mussolini’s army, the most technologically advanced in the world, set up camps and execution prisons with the aim of exterminating the highlanders.

The book opens with Hirut. Now aged, she travels by bus to Addis, dismissed by the freshness of youth around her, “the sun like a fist through the window.” Outside, the people are calling for the downfall of Emperor Haile Selassie. Hirut carries a locked box to Ettore, the Italian photographer, who has remained in Addis into his own old age, a human remnant of war. The scene is brief, the reader left pondering the contents of the box and Hirut’s relationship with Ettore.

The body of the novel now unfolds, the setting a distinguished Ethiopian household in the north. The year is unspecified but rumours of the Italian advance of 1935 proliferate. Kidane, grieving for his first born son, spreads maps on his desk in order to gather an army. His wife, the beautiful but cruel Aster rules the household, assisted by a cook distracted by Italian propaganda that she cannot even read and Hirut, a young woman at the time. Hirut has come to the household orphaned, taken in by Kidane who once viewed her like a sister. Her sole possession is the precious wujira or rifle that belonged to her father. Kidane seizes the wujira for his armoury while finding that his own affection for her has turned to lust. Aster releases her wrath on Hirut, leaving her with a deep scar from her whip. Kidane then releases his own wrath on Hirut, when her ancient wujira fails to fire in a skirmish. “War ripples out from the household”, said Mengiste, yet now the four must somehow overcome their divisions in order to prepare to fight.

Italian military soon set up camp in the hills, led by the despicable General Carlo Fucelli. Ettore, known as Foto, is there to record the war with his camera. Kidane gathers his forces but it is Aster who is most impressive, persuading the woman to form their own army. Hirut lines up by her side without question. As war unfolds in its cruelties, each person unfolds in their complexity of human nature. No individual in this setting is neither fully good nor bad, each oscillating between acts of courage, greatness and violence. Even the Fucelli has his moments of compassion for Ettore who is emotionally tortured by the atrocities he is forced to document and the lack of news from his Jewish parents at home.

Ettore has a key role in the story, yet Mengiste explained that she made a deliberate decision not to include photographs in the book. “It would have implied a distance I wanted to overcome. I wanted to force the reader to come close to the act.” Mengiste has succeeded at this. One of the most compelling themes of the book is Hirut’s refusal to let her spirit be crushed by both Kidane’s cruelty and subsequently as a prisoner of war. I felt so depressed at one point on behalf of her situation that I found myself in a place of finding it difficult to keep reading yet compelled to struggle on with the story.

Mengiste began her research for the book in Italy, finding mostly propaganda before she travelled to Calabria (a common place of recruitment of many foot soldiers) and began more informal enquiries. Old war photos came to light, given or found in flea markets. Emotional confessions came from those whose family had fought against the Ethiopians. Within her own family, destiny played a hand in taking the writing forwards. Mengiste discovered that her own great grandmother Geteye had stood before the court to defend her right to represent her family as a fighter.   Uncannily, Hirut’s own mother had the name Geteye in the book and so, a personal history played its hand in allowing the theme of Ethiopian women at war to ignite the heart of the book.

I had a plan as to how to read this book during a trip back to Ethiopia. I would read it facing the streets of Gondar among the decayed Italian architecture, in triumph among the mountains around Debark, taking the book itself on its own whistle-stop tour of the scenes.

In reality, I found I could not read so close to the action. My head moaned that I wanted more visuals of the chess-pieces of the mountains, the spices that inflame the tongue. The prose seemed heavy going at times, bringing a kind of mental breathlessness alongside the altitude.

It was only when back home I could continue. I arrived at the point of no return in the book – becoming prisoner to the story. It was only with distance I could breathe and read and understand at what it took for Ethiopian women as fighters of wars and not just the roles they also played as spies, prostitutes and cooks. Maybe the whispers of their ghosts were too loud to read in the setting. Tantalisingly, Mengiste said there were more stories to come out of those places. Read at your leisure and learn to think about Ethiopia and its women in a new and more complicated way.

Maaza Mengiste is building an archive of photo collections of the Italian occupation at www.project3541.com.   If you like this book, you’ll like other books about Ethiopia here.  

Gondar women
Women of Gondar region, Ethiopia