The best books that show you the real Ethiopia

Robert David Author Of Lights, Camera, Jemuru: Ethiopia through the lens of a community film school
By Robert David

The Books I Picked & Why

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency

By Alexander McCall Smith

Book cover of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency

Why 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. 

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The Barefoot Emperor

By Philip Marsden

Book cover of The Barefoot Emperor

Why 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.        

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

By Melissa Fay Greene

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

Why 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.    

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Ethiopia: Through Writers' Eyes

By Yves-Marie Stranger

Book cover of Ethiopia: Through Writers' Eyes

Why 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.       

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The Lure of the Honey Bird: The Storytellers of Ethiopia

By Elizabeth Laird

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

Why 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. 

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