History is written by the winners, which is why literary memoirs are so important. They often tell the other side of history experienced by those suffering under political and social upheaval. War memoirs like Night by Elie Wiesel, and The Diary of Anne Frank are taught in classrooms across the world. Mesfin Tadesse’s LUCY’S PEOPLE: AN ETHIOPIAN MEMOIR, written with Janet Bastyan, is also a war memoir of sorts but it’s impossible to tell the story of modern Ethiopia without delving into the country’s violent past.
Ethiopia is the birthplace of mankind. The book’s title refers to “Lucy,” the world’s oldest hominid skeleton, discovered there. The country’s ancient civilizations rivaled those of Egypt in terms of technology and sophistication. Ethiopia was one of the first nations to adopt Christianity, even before Rome, which often put it at odds with the Islamic nations surrounding it. During WWII, the country was invaded by Italy, but the Ethiopian army fought hard to repel the fascists. From 1974 to 1991, the military-backed Derg took over, leading to decades of famine and conflict. When Ethiopia isn’t being invaded by neighboring countries, it’s divided by in-fighting. In 1993 the coastal section of Ethiopia broke off, leading to the formation of a new country, Eritrea, and leaving Ethiopia as the most populated landlocked nation on earth.
Author Tadesse lived through the years of Derg oppression, and longs for a strong, unifying Ethiopian leader, like Haile Selassie. Rising to power in 1916, Selassie is seen as an Ethiopian hero for resisting the Italian invasion and helping form the United Nations in 1945. Selassie was deposed by the Derg in 1974. “Throughout my youth, Ethiopia was the land of suffering,” Tadesse writes. Fighting is a way of life in Ethiopia and Tadesse is proud of his family’s “warrior” heritage. Father was a high-ranking military official, while Mother and Grandmother took up arms against fascist invaders. (“Mum was a crack-shot patriot.”) “Our family treasure was a patriot’s sword. During a raid, the Derg stole four. After 10 years Mum got one back.”
Indoctrination into violence started early for Tadesse. “When I was four, I took Dad’s service pistol. It was probably loaded. I refused to hand it over, loving the feel of it in my hand.” Violence, sex, and concepts of masculinity blend together. “At 16 he received the gun, his to keep. He could not obtain a wife without skill in using it. A mark of prowess was to shoot through the center of an orb-weaving spider’s web without breaking it. I did this before the age of nine. A general whispered, ‘You are ready for a woman now.’” It is not until Tadesse joins the military himself, battling Somalian invaders in the Rift Valley, home of Lucy, and soldiers from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, that he gets a firsthand glimpse of the visceral horrors of war. There’s nothing glamorous, glorious, or heroic about seeing friends die.
Military experience, combined with an engineering education, leaves Tadesse more contemplative. He discovers the true heart of Ethiopia in Konso, where systems of engineering, agriculture, and social equity mirror the values of ancient Ethiopia. At times LUCY’S PEOPLE veers toward tall-tale territory, and some of Tadesse’s prideful boasts may need fact-checking. But his claims about Ethiopia’s natural healers could prove beneficial to Western doctors. “Healers in the country found innovative ways to cure cancer without chemotherapy and invasive surgery.”
Is Ethiopia as progressive and forward-thinking as Tadesse portrays? Like many countries in the region, homosexuality is illegal in Ethiopia, and the country leads the world in kidnap marriages and female circumcisions. In 2024 Ethiopia is slotted to join the BRICS alliance of communist nations. Despite years of harassment under the Soviet-backed Derg, the nation’s leaders have chosen again to ally with Russia. Those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. Perhaps this is why Tadesse’s memoir ends with him leaving his homeland and walking to a refugee camp in Kenya. Ethiopia drives its best and brightest away; or gets them killed in endless military conflicts. Tadesse digs beneath the violence to find Ethiopia’s essence.
LUCY’S PEOPLE is Mesfin Tadesse’s fascinating love letter to Ethiopia and looks at the turbulent history of the birthplace of humanity and how multiple leadership changes have resulted in little progress.
~Rob Errera for IndieReader