The best books that show you the real Ethiopia

Why am I passionate about this?

I lived in Ethiopia for 7 years and arrived expecting to find a country beaten down by war and famine, I could not have been more wrong. Ethiopia covers a vast territory and is as deep in history and culture, while its myriad peoples speak over 80 different languages. It remains one of the most mysterious, misunderstood, and least visited countries on the planet, and a paradise for both physical and armchair travelers alike to explore one of the last great largely undiscovered places on earth. I continue to write articles for both national and international newspapers and magazines about Ethiopia and its many wonders. 


I wrote...

Lights, Camera, Jemuru: Ethiopia through the lens of a community film school

By Robert David,

Book cover of Lights, Camera, Jemuru: Ethiopia through the lens of a community film school

What is my book about?

I quit a highly successful career in the high-flying world of advertising in London to go and teach in a back-street community film school in Ethiopia. Lights, Camera, Jemuru is the remarkable story of the young Ethiopian filmmakers of Gem TV and how their films have transformed lives all over Ethiopia. It’s also a vibrant portrait of Ethiopia today: a land of biblical history, diverse ethnic peoples, staggering natural beauty, and deep-rooted culture. Sometimes sad, often funny and always moving, it banishes the heart of darkness image of Africa and shows you what young people all over the developing world can achieve if given the chance.  

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency

Robert David Why did I love this book?

This is the first novel in a series and what I love about them all is that they show Africa in a positive light. The crimes our heroine, Precious Ramotswe, has to solve are whimsical rather than violent and show us all to be victims of the frailties of human nature rather than anything more sinister. I’m lucky enough to have travelled in Botswana and you can see a little bit of McCall Smiths characters in everyone you meet. I also love the way that he describes the richness of African everyday life, and the way he captures these moments with wry and deferential humour. Whenever things are getting on top of me and I need a pick me up these are the books I always turn to. 

By Alexander McCall Smith,

Why should I read it?

8 authors picked The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Precious Ramotswe, a cheerful woman of traditional build, is the founder of Botswana's first and only ladies' detective agency. Here is a gentle interpretation of the detective role: solving her cases through her innate wisdom and understanding of human nature, she 'helps people with problems in their lives'. With a tone that is as elegant as that which is unfailingly used by his protagonist, Alexander McCall Smith tenderly unfolds a picture of life in Gaborone with a mastery of comic understatement and an evident sympathy for his subjects and their milieu. In the background of all this is Botswana, a…


Book cover of The Barefoot Emperor

Robert David Why did I love this book?

What William Dalrymple is to India, Philip Marsden is to Ethiopia. They are both inspired travel writers and scholarly historians. What I particularly loved about The Barefoot Emperor was that it actually reads like a page-turning thriller. Central to the story is the towering figure of the Emperor Tewedros, a brilliant military commander, political reformer, and charismatic leader, who was both loved and loathed by the warring factions that made up his kingdom. His rise and fall compare with anything achieved by Julius Ceasar or Genghis Khan, and Marsden captures his incredible, true-life story with bravura writing that leaps off the page. He turns a searing searchlight onto one of the most forgotten episodes in African history and captures it all with a breathtaking sense of spirit of place.        

By Philip Marsden,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Barefoot Emperor as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A fascinating narrative excursion into a bizarre episode in 19th century Ethiopian and British imperial history featuring a remote African despot and his monstrous European-built gun.

On one of Addis Ababa's main roundabouts today sits a huge recently installed mortar. This is a replica of 'Sevastopol', a 70-ton lump of ordnance commissioned by one of the most extraordinary leaders Africa has ever produced - King of Kings of Ethiopia, the Emperor Theodore. In 1867, as his kingdom collapsed around him, Theodore retreated to his mountain-top stronghold in Magdala. It took his army six months to haul 'Sevastopol' through the gauges…


Book cover of Orphaned: One Woman's Mission to Save Africa's AIDS Children

Robert David Why did I love this book?

Leader? Hero? Saint? It’s difficult to find the words to define Haregewoin Teferra, the subject of this book, but somehow I feel these still fall short. A woman living in relative comfort in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, her life is turned upside down when she is given two young children to care for whose parents died due to HIV/AIDS. In time Haregewoin becomes a mother to many more just like them. In opening her doors, Haregewoin opened her heart to hundreds of orphaned children and gave them the chance of new and happy lives. This is a book that moved me to tears. Tears of rage at the injustices in the world and tears of relief that people like Haregewoin still exist.    

By Melissa Fay Greene,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Orphaned as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In a tin-walled compound outside Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, a middle-class woman named Haregewoin Teferra suffers terrible personal losses. In grief, she turns to the church, and is presented with two orphans and asked to house them. Haregewoin agrees. Once she opens her gate, she never manages to close it again. Here is a woman who does not run away from HIV-positive and AIDS-orphaned children, brought to her on foot, by bus or by donkey cart. There are over a million AIDS orphans in Ethiopia; "There Is No Me Without You" tells a few of their remarkable stories through the eyes…


Book cover of Ethiopia: Through Writers' Eyes

Robert David Why did I love this book?

How do you describe and encapsulate a country that can trace its history back to the days of the Queen of Sheba, whose ethnic peoples speak over 80 separate languages and whose many traditions and culture remain untouched by time? The genius of Ethiopia: Through Writers’ Eyes is that it solves this conundrum brilliantly by compiling the writings of explorers, travel writers, and journalists dating from the ancient Greeks right up to the modern day. The result is a fascinating kaleidoscope of images and experiences that turn constantly in this reader’s mind long after putting the book down. It’s a book I return to time after time and it always transports me back to one of the most mysterious and beguiling countries on earth.       

By Yves-Marie Stranger,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Ethiopia as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

There are only a handful of destinations left in the world that have retained their ability to shock the traveller with their unique perspective. These places still awaken a sense of deep wonder as they offer the rare opportunity to observe the world from a different angle. Ethiopia is one of those rare countries. This book is the perfect companion to any exploration of Ethiopia, be it in the precarious saddle of an Abyssinian pony, or from the folds of an armchair. A compendium of all things Ethiopian, the book throws wide open precious windows of understanding, allowing you to…


Book cover of The Lure of the Honey Bird: The Storytellers of Ethiopia

Robert David Why did I love this book?

Ethiopia is a treasure trove of traditional folktales and learning. Elizabeth Laird has travelled the length and breadth of the country digging them out by talking to tribal elders, community leaders, and traditional storytellers. What emerged for me was a fascinating record of an ancient culture and its wisdom that can trace its roots back to the days of the Old Testament but whose lessons still ring true to this today. I loved accompanying Elizabeth on her travels as she went in search of the stories; enjoyed meeting alongside her the storytellers she managed to track down; and most of all was charmed by the stories themselves, which are a match in wit and human insight for anything that was ever penned by Aesop or Hans Christian Andersen. 

By Elizabeth Laird,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Lure of the Honey Bird as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1967, at the age of 23, Elizabeth Laird set off for Addis Ababa to take up her first teaching post. She was introduced to Haile Selassie, made a pilgrimage across the mountains on foot to the ancient city of Lalibela, hitched a ride on an oil tanker across the Danakil Desert, and was arrested for a murder she had not committed. Back in Britain, Laird established herself as a major author of fiction for children and young adults, but she always wanted to return to Ethiopia. Her chance came in the late 1990s, when the British Council in Addis…


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Who Is a Worthy Mother?: An Intimate History of Adoption

By Rebecca Wellington,

Book cover of Who Is a Worthy Mother?: An Intimate History of Adoption

Rebecca Wellington Author Of Who Is a Worthy Mother?: An Intimate History of Adoption

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I am adopted. For most of my life, I didn’t identify as adopted. I shoved that away because of the shame I felt about being adopted and not truly fitting into my family. But then two things happened: I had my own biological children, the only two people I know to date to whom I am biologically related, and then shortly after my second daughter was born, my older sister, also an adoptee, died of a drug overdose. These sequential births and death put my life on a new trajectory, and I started writing, out of grief, the history of adoption and motherhood in America. 

Rebecca's book list on straight up, real memoirs on motherhood and adoption

What is my book about?

I grew up thinking that being adopted didn’t matter. I was wrong. This book is my journey uncovering the significance and true history of adoption practices in America. Now, in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, the renewed debate over women’s reproductive rights places an even greater emphasis on adoption. As a mother, historian, and adoptee, I am uniquely qualified to uncover the policies and practices of adoption.

The history of adoption, reframed through the voices of adoptees like me, and mothers who have been forced to relinquish their babies, blows apart old narratives about adoption, exposing the fallacy that adoption is always good.

In this story, I reckon with the pain and unanswered questions of my own experience and explore broader issues surrounding adoption in the United States, including changing legal policies, sterilization, and compulsory relinquishment programs, forced assimilation of babies of color and Indigenous babies adopted into white families, and other liabilities affecting women, mothers, and children. Now is the moment we must all hear these stories.

Who Is a Worthy Mother?: An Intimate History of Adoption

By Rebecca Wellington,

What is this book about?

Nearly every person in the United States is affected by adoption. Adoption practices are woven into the fabric of American society and reflect how our nation values human beings, particularly mothers. In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's overturning of Roe v. Wade, the renewed debate over women's reproductive rights places an even greater emphasis on adoption. As a mother, historian, and adoptee, Rebecca C. Wellington is uniquely qualified to uncover the policies and practices of adoption. Wellington's timely-and deeply researched-account amplifies previously marginalized voices and exposes the social and racial biases embedded in the United States' adoption industry.…


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