Married at 8, a mother by her teens, Yetemegnu’s story is one of courage, loss and what it means to be an Ethiopian woman of strong faith. As told by her grandaughter, Aida Edemariam.
Yetemegnu, grandmother to the author Aida Edemariam, was born a hundred years ago in the Gondar region of Ethiopia. Married at 8 years old, her husband Tsega was a poet-priest 20 years her senior who kept her prisoner in the home and beat her. A mother by her early teens, she gave birth to a girl, Alimatu, quickly followed by another girl who died at 3 months old. Yetemegnu goes on to have a total of 9 children in her imprisonment of marriage, of whom 4 will subsequently die. Thus the scene of Yetemegnu’s life is set from an early age, for a life of trials and losses, of suffering, courage and finding strength through religious fervour.
Life changes when Tsega grows to be a man of power, however his subsequent imprisonment and death by poison finds her at threat of losing everything. Yetemegnu must now step outside the home and travel hundreds of miles to petition the emperor for the return of the property she has lost through theft and trickery. After 3 years of waiting, she succeeds. However there is a price. The emperor decrees her 5 remaining children should receive an education. They are sent away to boarding school, beginning their exit from a simple life rural life into the modern world. When Edemariam, now a doctor in Canada, returns to Gondar, his mother finds him changed and now disconnected from the emotional celebrations of his return.
Despite her beginnings, Yetemegnu emerges as a formidable woman, capable of overcoming her losses and the forces stacked against her. She lives through the Italian occupation, when bombers fly overhead, “birds like crosses in the sky.” There are further tests to come, as she must face the terrible times of The Derg, of fear and killing in the streets, her son’s imprisonment and tests of her relationship with loyalty.
Interwoven with this historical journey is a parallel path into the heart of rural, cultural and religious life, behind the scenes into the intimacy of family life. The language of the book is poetic, with much use of metaphor and simile. There is much to be poetic about: the scent of the herbs, the smell of rain on wet earth and the hammer of rain on a tin roof. We see the details of how she lives: sifting through the bags of split peas in the store or making beer and her suppliance to absolute prayer and holy water when her daughter is rendered deaf by a fever. Later she prays for her adult son, dying as an internally displaced person, pleading not for him to be saved but that he might be buried at home in Gondar. Descriptions are evocative, occasionally over-ripe as if the writer has gorged on the smells and memories as told to her by her grandmother, the details amplified by what has by necessity needed to be imagined.
Yetemegnu survives to become a woman of incredible age. In her final years she teaches herself to read until decay sets into her body. Her senses failing, she waits for death. Finally, age and the losses become too much for her. Interred in Gondar, the insular and reactionary city unable to forget its imperial past, her funeral makes for a fitting end. A stream of people swathed in white as far as the eye could see, the priests with glittering parasols, the sound of the drum and the horn that signals the final farewell as she is laid to rest close to where she was married. The end is wonderful, profoundly moving: a book about grief, suffering, resilience and what it means to survive as an Ethiopian woman of faith.
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