The wife’s tale

First published in 2018, Aida Edemariam’s The Wife’s Tale is an extraordinary book that will help in opening up new narratives about women's histories.

Image credit Rod Waddington via Flickr CC.

The Wife’s Tale” is based on Aida Edemariam’s 60-hour long conversation with her grandmother, Yetemegnu Mekonnen (Nannye), that spans 20 years. By situating her grandmother as a central agent, Aida Edemariam tells a story that transcends the authority of the official archive, and its assumption to singular and credible knowledge.

In this remarkable book that also strikingly nudged my own memory, Aida tells us about Yetemegnu’s ordinary life, which in turn evokes the extraordinary lives of Ethiopian women who lived at a certain moment of history; our mothers and grandmothers whose stories are forgotten in contemporary memory. I vividly saw my own mother’s story through Yetemegnu’s tumultuous but amazing life. The narrative covers almost a century, since Yetemegnu lives to be 98.

Each chapter of the book is titled after a month of the Ethiopian calendar. Pagume, the 13th month, ushers in Yetemegnu’s intimate and exhilarating story. The rain on Ruphael’s Day, and its “thud, thud, thud” on the corrugated iron roof reminded me of my own childhood when my mother, just like Nannye, dropped frankincense on “coals huddled into a low clay pot—releasing sweet smoke that rose and tangled with the smell of roasting coffee.”

Attempting to bring the fragments of Yetemegnu’s rich and vast account into one narrative may have been difficult, and results in an occasional disjointed narrative that is sometimes hard to follow. But the narrator’s profound knowledge of Ethiopian history enjoyably invites us in regardless.

Certainly, what amazed me most is Aida’s honed and nuanced understanding of her grandmother’s story through her own critical and profound awareness of the tumultuous 20th century history of Ethiopia. She takes us from the Italian occupation, to the 1960 coup d’état against Emperor Haile Selassie, to the revolution of 1974 and back again to the ingenuities of the Orthodox church, and to a sensibility of Ethiopian aesthetic. Along this magnificent and winding journey are many lives and relationships; Yetemegnu’s mother, husband, aunts and uncles, reveal their aspirations and desires. The church of Ba’aata Mariam, which once turned Emperor Tewodros II’s mother away when she brought her son to be baptized because she sold kosso (purgative) to survive, and could not “afford the two jars of dark beer, two bowls of stew and forty injera they demanded in payment,” became Aida’s major source of inquiry.

Yetemegnu was born in 1916 and married Tsega in 1924 in Ba’aata when she was eight years old. Tsega was born in Gojjam where he had gone to church school and where he had learnt the poetry of Ge’ez. It was Memhir Hiruy “famed throughout the country for his skill with qiné,” who first saw Tsega’s exceptional knowledge. He took him to Ba’aata Gondar to continue his studies where he was awarded aleqa-ship in 1926. And so Tsega’s turbulent and at once blissful relationship with Ba’aata begins, which the author dazzlingly portrays. For those of us who were brought up by fathers who were intimately connected to the Orthodox church, Tsega’s story melts with our own experiences and Aida helps us claim the story with pride. Being a native of Gojjam “where everyone knew the evil eye flourished,” complicated Tsega’s relationship to the people of Gondar and significantly so after he became Aleqa. It is through this brief account of Aleqa Tsega’s life that the subject of the book, Yetemegnu, evolves.

Married as a child, she did not know what the world of marriage meant or comprised. It was in her new husband’s house that she cried and played like a child. As for Tsega, “he worried whether she ate enough. “Lijé,” he’d say. “My child. My child is hungry.” Again, it was as if Aida was telling me the story of my own mother, who was also a child when she was first brought to my father’s house as his wife. So intimate is Yetemegnu’s narrative to my mother’s life, and to the lives of women who once lived through a particular moment of Ethiopian history, that we the descendants can truly imagine their deferred dreams and their anticipation for possibilities in the rapidly unfolding social and cultural transformations of the 20th century.

“Not infrequently,” Aida narrates, “he (Tsega) would arrive home to find her in a corner, weeping. Child, he would say gently, why are you crying—Ayzosh, ayzosh, he would murmur, drawing her to him. He would wipe away her tears and gently soften her taut and salty face. Ayzosh. I will be like a mother to you.” And at other times, a different Tsega would emerge: “Come here. Her stomach seemed suddenly to have slid to somewhere around her feet. Come here, I said. He raised a stick, and he did not stint.”

And yet as Yetemegnu expressed the frequent violence that her often kind and loving husband precariously inflicts she also conveyed her aspirations and her rebellious stance that she continually conceived. It is this complicated relationship between husband and wife that the author recreates in heartening words, in deeply affecting reflections and in meticulously written historical contexts.

Yetemegnu was only 14 when she had her first child, who later dies. Mariam, Mariam, Mariam, direshilin is a chant by midwives and others that Aida repeatedly inscribes to describe the performative setting of Yetemegnu’s 10 entries into motherhood. And through the recurring lines of Mariam, Mariam, the author brilliantly conjures this exhilarating chant that was performed by women during a time when there were no hospitals around. Certainly, what fascinated me most was Aida’s returning urge to articulate such types of cultural and social formations that are spread throughout the book. It is as if Aida wanted to understand her own unfamiliar journey to such experiences and that she also wanted to urgently remind the reader about notions of culture that were once important but are now completely erased from the memory of contemporary knowledge.

And then there is the absorbing story of the Italian occupation when Yetemegnu takes us to the war and to the prominent personalities of the time such as Ras Kassa, to his son and to his brothers who were executed by Italian fascists, and to Abune Tewoflos who later became the second Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and who was Yetemegnu’s family friend. Tewoflos was executed by the military regime in 1974 with 60 other officials of the imperial government. He helped one of Yetemegnu’s sons, Aida, (who is the author’s father), to get a scholarship to Canada to study medicine. And after coming back, the son Aida would establish the first medical college in the country. Indeed, there were many other stories that revolved around the Italian occupation; the brothels that were frequented by Italians, Tsega’s administrative duties for 44 churches in Gondar, as well as the prayers of mercy by the deacons and priests of Gonderoch Maryam and Ba’aata. While it was Yetemegnu who told the stories to her granddaughter Aida, in the book it is as though their two voices have merged.

Another exceptional moment is Yetemegnu’s “wayward” experience with the zar, a ritual that can only be captured by one’s own lived experience. But with a vividly cinematic narrative, the author takes us through Yetemegnu’s recurring trance as if she felt and sensed the zar through her own imagination of Ethiopian myths and ancestral spirits. In other words, Aida locates the past in such a way that seems to converge with her own memory and identity.

We find in many parts of the book that the recording of Yetemegnu’s experience was not adequate by itself. It is only with the fusion of a deeply researched history and imagination that we get a fuller portrayal of Yetemegnu’s life.

Further Reading

Like family

An excerpt from a new book published by Wits University Press that explores how domestic workers are depicted in South African historiography and literature.