African Library: The Case of the Socialist Witchdoctor and Other Stories by Hama Tuma

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The Case of the Socialist Witchdoctor and Other Stories
Author: Hama Tuma

In his author’s note to this text, Hama Tuma declares his belief “that Ethiopian reality is stranger (and more horrible) than fiction”. The Case of the Socialist Witchdoctor and Other Stories (published in the Heinemann African Writers Series in 1993) comprises 22 stories that (again according to the author) were written during the early eighties, which means that the text reflects and reflects on the period during and after the “Red Terror” of the military regime known as the Derg that had toppled the last emperor, Haile Selassie. The Derg (which during this period was Soviet aligned) had incarcerated, tortured and killed thousands of Ethiopians who opposed their reign; the Civil War lasted from 1974 to 1991, when opposition forces conquered and Mengistu Haile Mariam (thought to have been one of the cruellest rulers our continent has known) fled to sanctuary in Zimbabwe.

The stories in the collection are presented in two sections: the first section has the same title as the text as a whole, while the second (comprising 11 stories, like the first) is called “Tales of the Highway Fire and Other Stories”. The stories in the first section are all set in the same “revolutionary” court; the trials described one by one by the young (unemployed) male narrator are of the kind called “show trials” – instituted to help reduce the enormous numbers of prisoners in the country’s jails and in response to the pressures of international disapproval of the regime’s excesses during the Red Terror period after a particularly damning report by Amnesty International. The title of each of these stories starts with the phrase “The Case of …”, while the last part of each title in its exotic absurdity underlines the mockery of due process and the satirical perspective of the narrator – exposing the grotesque injustices of these procedures while appearing not to express direct or more than muted political criticism. The second group of stories are mostly serious in tone and describe experiences of Ethiopians who participate directly in the civil conflict, as well as those (for no one remained exempt) drawn into or profoundly affected by the horrors of the time. Together the stories form a mosaic that builds up a powerfully affecting and highly detailed image of Ethiopia at this time. The narratives do what historical accounts cannot do in providing a diversity of experiential perspectives; authenticating a people’s sufferings during a terrible time; showing us how some individuals cope somehow, while others do not, and many lose their lives or those that they love.

Even after so many years, the stories have lost none of their impact, serving to remind us of one of Africa’s insufficiently documented calamities caused by human agency.

The collection has a brief and rather bland introduction by Ngugi was Thiong’o, followed by a slightly longer authorial entry titled “By Way of a Prologue”. In it we get a few details about the narrator’s circumstances (eg that his siblings – two brothers and a sister – were killed by the state and that his uncle lives with him), as well as learning that his uncle “hates the government” – as does the narrator. We also get the first taste of the scornfully satirical spirit informing the first section of the collection in learning that the state-owned daily, REVOLUTION or DEATH! is called DEATH or DEATH! by the narrator’s uncle (4). When the narrator describes the judge presiding over the military court where he attends the hearings, he describes him (a Major Aytenfisu – whose name may have further satirical meaning) as having “total faith in Our Great Chairman” (Mengistu) and adds, “(H)e hated all civilians, Somalis, intellectuals and his mother-in-law” (7). In the court the accused (appearing on ridiculously minor charges) are enclosed in a cage; the defending lawyer is a military officer and the prosecutor a flashy civilian. During the first hearing, dubbed “The Case of the Illiterate Saboteur”, the following example of court interrogation can provide a first taste of the tenor of Tuma’s accounts of such events (the accused is a middle-aged man of peasant origin who, unaware of the nature of the building, had urinated against the wall of a government office or Kebele):

Q: You are worse than a child. You are also illiterate. Why?
A: Because I cannot read and write.
Q: Why not?
A: I never went to school.
Q: Hasn’t Our Great Chairman launched a campaign of literacy? Why aren’t you registered?
A: I was too busy trying to find work to get something to eat.
Q: Too busy being unemployed! Too busy drinking water! Too busy breaking laws!
A: I like to work if I can get it.
Q: Are you saying that Socialist Ethiopia is a land of the unemployed?
A: I did not say that. But I am an Ethiopian. (13)

In between laughing at the travesty of court procedure in these lines, the reader is made to sense something of the innocent ordinariness of lives incomprehensible to the ideological vision of the harsh new rulers, and of the sheer insanity of what is being done. The accused in the first case is considered “lucky” to be sentenced to 15 years of corrective labour on a state farm – here, he will at least be assured of eating, most of the time!

The second story, “The Case of the Valiant Torturer”, mixes its absurdities with some of the most gruesome revelations that this first set of stories contains. It gets its title from the fact that the accused in this case is in fact so zealous as a torturer for the regime that he dares to denounce two superior officers for not providing him with more victims to torture and making him lose his chance of winning the award for the torturer who broke more prisoners than any other one. While torture has always been a fact of life in Ethiopia, also during the emperor’s rule (says the narrator), Ethiopians prefer not to talk about it. But this has changed under revolutionary rule and hence the accused, though facing serious charges of sedition, is treated with conspicuous respect as he enters the dock – he is known to have “successfully” tortured “scores of anarchists and feudalists” (25), as the regime labels its “progressive” and its “traditional” opponents respectively. The accused torturer declares roundly that “the old regime [of Emperor Selassie] was flabby, the so-called divide-and-rule policy pursued by the King contradicted the correct crush-and-rule that we have nowadays” (27). When he himself is tortured, he taunts his torturer: “You are still using the Israeli method?!” and “Is this all you know of the East German techniques?!” – in order, he claims in court, to spur the torturer on to “greater” efforts! The most appalling and least satirical section in this story is the following part of the accused torturer’s testimony:

“The effective methods which have helped guard the Revolution are many but I shall mention a few of them. Pushing a bottle into the vagina and snap-kicking it upward, a hot iron rod into the anus, peeling the skin slowly and layer after layer from the arm or thigh and force-feeding the bastard his own flesh, submersion in boiling oil to be alternated with immersion in ice cold water (what we call the Hell and Hell trip), using pincers to rip off the nose (called plastic surgery in our trade), cutting the penis and forcing the prisoner’s mother to eat it in front of him (this has proved to be so effective that the mothers themselves have often gone crazy), putting salt and pissing into a festering wound …” Corporal Yimer spoke as if he was naming aloud items in a grocery store. I already knew of these methods and more, yet I was disgusted as I could imagine many others in the audience were, but, this being Ethiopia of the post-Terror days, all faces were impassive, attentive like students listening diligently to their teacher’s narrative of the wonders of a faraway land. (29)

The end of the story returns to the comic mode. The fitting punishment for the zealous torturer, the judge decides, is to reduce the torturer’s quota of prisoners to “work on”. Pleading for death instead of this, the prisoner is refused his request with a firm “No” from the judge, “proving”, as the narrator rightly says, “that he had a lot to teach to Yimer in his own field” (33).

The “socialist witchdoctor” named in the collection’s title features in the third case history. He is given this label because he gave people advice on how to cope with their problems, charging them little or nothing. He makes the point while testifying that in Ethiopia at this time it is the State that is the greatest witchdoctor, since it “slaughters thousands of youngsters to a devil called power” (41). This prisoner is difficult to intimidate, because he sees death under his and most Ethiopians’ present circumstances as a welcome escape into rest. He is, instead, sentenced to “life-long hard labour to be preceded by three years of psychiatric treatment in the central military hospital”, during which he is to be kept totally silent: evidently this thoughtful man’s words and insights are judged to be seriously dangerous to the ruling ideology.

Which leads to the next story, titled “The Case of the Criminal Thought”. The crucial fact for this case is that while during the old regime Ethiopians could find relief in private or secret subversive thoughts, silently indulged, this is now a dangerous crime. “The State of Emergency Proclamation and the Revised Penal Code clearly stipulate that ‘anyone who plans, prepares, commits thinks of or agitates others to think of counter-revolutionary thoughts or deeds shall be punished by life imprisonment or death’” (55).

Taking the extremism and paranoia of the repressive state to its reductio ad absurdum, as the logicians label this form of mockery, Tuma depicts here a woman sentenced to “hard labour for life to be preceded by a three-month intensive brainwashing treatment to induce amnesia and morbid fear of thought or thinking” (62–3). Unlike the accused in the previous case, this woman is no philosophical or political analyst or critic of the regime; she merely smiled during one of the obligatory boring weekly indoctrination sessions held in the Kebele office when she thought of a silly lover (significantly, a “cadre”) who asked her, after a lovemaking session, to evaluate their respective performances. She fences very cleverly with the prosecutor during her interrogation, but is then unable to restrain her hysterical laughter at the absurd words of worshipful adoration of the Great Chairman that she is forced to utter – incensing the solemnly ideological judge to the point of fury.

The housewife who is the accused in “The Case of the Queue-Breaker” is another person punished for normal, healthy conduct because it contradicts the state’s ideology. Queuing is glorified in post-revolutionary Ethiopia, we learn: the “hefty prize” awarded to the person judged to be “the best queuer of the year” is “a trip to Moscow or Warsaw where the lucky queuer is taken to stand in the longest queues he ever imagined being in”, returning only “after queuing to his heart’s content in these refined metropoles of advanced queuing” (66). The crime committed by the accused in this case is not that she refused to queue, but that she went to the front of the queue after numerous state officials, exempt from queuing, had marched to the front of the bread queue and were served despite those patiently standing in line not having reached the counter yet. For this act of protest she is sentenced to daily queuing from 2 am till noon, only to be sent to the end of the queue empty-handed whenever she reaches the front – for three months. Then, for another nine months, she has to sell newspapers and pamphlets to queuers from morning till noon without being paid for the work. The punishment will end then, if she is certified to have behaved submissively throughout. In the case that succeeds hers, that of “the Traitorous Alphabet”, an elderly letter setter at a printing business gets sentenced to “life-long work in the printing press [… to] daily clean the toilets and continuously set up print which will be disassembled as soon as […] finish[ed …] over and over again from morning till dusk” (81). This is for a setting error which inverted two letters and changed the slogan “Ethiopia Tidkem” (“Ethiopia First”) to “Ethiopia Tikdem” (“Let Ethiopia get weak”). The judge – in the narrator’s opinion – fails to appreciate that a Sisyphian type of life is par for the course for Ethiopians; merely “more of the same” rather than a change for the worse.

The “Professor of Insanity”, the accused in the next case, is one of the most interesting figures in Tuma’s array of “criminals”. In Ethiopia at this time, we are informed,

(t)he official state Dictionary defines insanity as delusions of honesty [!], innocence, an acute case of disobedience, opposition or dissent, the tendency to commit anti-State mistakes, infatuation with democracy, worship of idols not permitted by the State, lack of patriotism, morbid hatred of Russia and her empire, etc, etc … He who knows his place is sane. The perfect citizen who obeys the State and the Great Chairman is sane even if he walks around stark naked and raves and screams in an unknown tongue. Sanity and insanity are political, defined from your position vis-à-vis the Revolution and the State. (83)

The man in the dock stands accused of preaching to his compatriots to behave in exactly these forbidden ways and of having burst into song while standing “in the middle of our busiest and most crowded piazza to chant [his] devilish song of the insane” (89). The accused proclaims his doctrine “the song of sanity” and declares, “I felt like going out and singing and I did it. I felt good. Free. Even happy. Three feelings which violate your Articles. I was arrested” (90). So dangerous is a free-spirited Ethiopian considered at this time that the man is sentenced to “life imprisonment and treatment in the Chinese Ward of the Russo-Ethiopian Friendship Asylum” where he is to be “gagged and put in a strait-jacket for life” (95). Tuma is, here, exaggerating only a little, one fears.

“It may surprise you,” the narrator addresses the reader near the start of the next case, that of “the Closet Racist”, “that the land of the burnt faces, which is Ethiopia, should be inhabited by people who consider themselves superior to blacks” (96). This information is provided so that the reader can understand that although Revolutionary Ethiopia has embraced all of Africa and has also outlawed racism, old habits die hard. Hence the accused in this case, who (incensed by a taxi driver and then by a darker-skinned policeman who took the former’s side) abused the taxi driver, who he says tried to overcharge him as a barya or slave and told the policeman that he would not have bought the likes of him in a market. This harks back, of course, to the days when “brown” or lighter-skinned Ethiopians kept Negroid people as slaves – and the practice is not fully eradicated, as a later story attests. To make an example of the accused, and to rehabilitate him, he is sentenced to “twenty years of corrective labour” and a ten-year indoctrination course, all to be administered by “charcoal-black Ethiopians” (105).

The next (ninth) story also has a particularly memorable line in its introductory section, telling readers that “Writers in Ethiopia are as rare as peace” (106). This is explained through reference to the over-zealous censors and contrasted with the country’s rich oral tradition. The story is titled “The Case of the Presumptuous Novelist” and concerns a man who, although he never completed nor published any of his manuscripts, wrote a large number of narratives that a suspicious reader can interpret as sly political allegories, thinly disguised to hide their implicit criticism of the regime. It is not considered any excuse that the accused states that writing is a compulsion with him, or that his works are unpublished. Implacably, he is sentenced to “Amputation [of both hands] and ten years of hard labour” (115). Tuma alternates this terrible and unfunny account (except for certain unmistakably satirical and mocking details in the outlined narratives) with a very funny story about a man who constantly “breaks into” jail, if one may so put it, since in that way he is at least reasonably sure of getting fed (on most days) and so that he can study – most of the political prisoners he has encountered in jail being highly educated and able to assist him with his education. He has reached his third year as a law student when he is brought to court, accused of abusing the system. To call his bluff and prevent his cunning scheme from successful completion, the prosecutor advises the judge to sentence the accused “to freedom”, as he does. At first startled and dismayed, the cunning and quick-thinking young man shouts at the judge: “You call yourself a judge, you fat pig! You are an ignorant fool! Half the time you sleep on your bench! Your only qualification is your stupidity. I bet you are an impotent sissy …” The judge, prosecutor and council yell at him to “SHUT UP!” while the judge fumes: “I will show you who is impotent. You castrated parasite [etc].” The judge then sentences the man to “ten years of hard labour in the Robi Desert state farm” (122) – exactly what the accused had wanted.

The final story in the first section, “The Case of the Incurable Hedonist”, allows the narrator to tell us that

The Director of the Institute of Amphibology [!] under the ministry of foreign affairs put it aptly, if incomprehensively [sic], (as is to be expected from someone in his position), when he stated “in the suffering of the people and the joy of the Leaders there exists a dialectical symbiosis which accentuates the unity of opposites and illuminates the feature of the new Ethiopia fighting to be born.” (123)

In other words, the happier the leaders, the more miserable the people, and vice versa – but stated as if this is an amazing, harmonious achievement of political balance rather than proof of extreme abuse of power and of corruption and injustice. The accused in the story is considered a criminal and brought to court because he engaged in many bouts of pleasurable consensual sex with many young and older women, ate well and satisfyingly and encouraged others to do both these things, and even went as far as distributing recipes to friends. When the question arises how he managed to fund this lifestyle, the accused reveals that he is a thief – a pickpocket. Furious at this unexpected revelation that embarrasses the court (since the man is not here on that charge), the judge gives him a three-year sentence to hard labour on a State farm, with one year on probation as he “confessed of his own free will”. As for the prosecutor who (the judge declares) made “a mockery of our court”, he gets a six-month “disciplinary sentence” from the judge for “negligence of duty, wasting the time of the court” and “honouring petty criminals with grave accusations” (131). This very amusing story, which allowed the accused to preach and spread his philosophy of healthy hedonism in a society beset with dour and puritanical ideologies of suffering (for the ordinary citizens), fittingly concludes Tuma’s series of bizarre “Cases”.

The short stories in the second set of this collection bear diverse titles, but generally they are fairly terse, grim accounts representing and considering the Red Terror and its aftermath as local people in a variety of roles are affected by these events. They serve both as “signs of the times” and as vivid cameo-type “portraits” of Ethiopian people living, suffering, striving or dying under the mostly terrible conditions in Ethiopia during the seventies and eighties.

The first story, titled “Vendetta,” gives a description of a man on a quest of vengeance – his comrade in the anti-government group of resistance fighters (throughout referred to as his “brother”) disappeared when he was supposed to leave the village where he was stationed and it is suspected that he was betrayed or murdered by the villager with whom he worked most closely. The man on the quest, who is never named, arrives on Easter night at a hut where a sick man (also unnamed) lies alone, his wife and child having gone to the midnight Mass. A tell-tale sign that he is the guilty party is spotted by the stranger: a particular kind of rifle is visible and the stranger (who was begged by the mother of the disappeared man to go and find out what had happened to him) indicates to the hospitable invalid that he sees this as proof that he had murdered his comrade. The stranger takes the rifle, but as he is about to kill the man his wife and little boy return, offering further hospitality. He also discovers that the boy has been given the name of the victim. He leaves without killing the man (who does not have long to live), since he thinks the child’s name is proof of the extent to which the sick man’s act of murder and betrayal haunts him. The story ends as follows: “In the distance, the church bells rang and the dogs barked. Without hearing them, the stranger walked into the night. He had a long way to go” (139).

The next story’s subject is also betrayal (as its explicit title, “Betrayal”, indicates). Here the betrayed is also male, but he is a zealous government official who is betrayed by the woman he had married after he had let her off the hook on suspicion of her association with a known member of the liberation or resistance group in the country. The story begins with the man’s meticulous record-keeping of how tight a rein he has kept on the local community through intimidation and severe punishment of those opposed to the state. When the fighters of the resistance, all armed, break in on him as he lies asleep with his wife, he learns that she has been a mole for them and that the marriage has been a sham on her part, something she had agreed to do to prepare for later revenge against him because the man with whom she was associated and whom he had ordered to be executed was actually her lover and fiancé. The reader might feel the odd twinge of sympathy for the protagonist, but the evidence of his cold efficiency as a brutal administrator provided by the author does not encourage such an attitude. In this case, blood is spilt; this tale ends: “The dead man, naked except for his pants, lay small and crumpled. His blood continued to mingle with the red earth. … (A) few steps away the house he had called home was burning. In the distance, a hyena howled, but he was not alive to be afraid of it” (144).

The next story is somewhat oddly titled “It happened in Russia” and could be considered a third “vengeance tale”, though its details are more horrific and the revenge taken more immediate. It starts with the following ominous, brief sentences: “The interrogation was as she had expected it. But this did not lessen the pain or the incredible and senseless horror of it” (145). The tortured woman describes her body as “lost, mutilated”, but when she feels she has little to lose, the torturer warns her: “You saw the girl who died in your cell? She was as stubborn as you. A match to her long hair, a hot iron up her genitals and she was reduced to insanity” (146). The horror of such words spoken as a taunt and a boast of power towards another helpless woman is nauseating and morally appalling, but they convey powerfully the author’s disgust and fierce indignation against the Derg rulers and their operatives. The woman was always apolitical and believed that this would keep her safe from persecution, but she was (so she is informed here) denounced by her maid – probably herself forced to do so under torture, as the protagonist reflects. The torturer demands that the woman sign a false confession of political conspiracy and she complies, only to use the opportunity to grab the knife with which he had cut her and plunge it into his heart. “Calmly” she then cleans the knife on the dead man’s trousers before taking her own life – while wondering whether the same things do happen in Russia, as the torturer had claimed.
In “Death of a Renegade”, the fourth story, a rather vain young man (an intellectual and a former student leader among the politically resistant younger Ethiopians) is tricked by promises of both high office for himself (and compliance with certain political ideals by the regime) into revealing – inadvertently – the identities of two men within the security system who had provided him with information. Once they have the men’s names, they kill him – having driven him (supposedly) to a secret leaders’ meeting. The interrogator concludes that the East German method (“Torture and promises” – 155) proved “successful” yet again.

“Tales of the Highway Fire” looks back at the period of Ethiopian military resistance to the Italian colonial invasion. The main narrative is told by an elderly man. In a chance encounter on the road (the “highway” of the title) he and a young man, whom the old man quickly identifies as a member of the resistance to the Derg, find that they are going in the same direction and warily “team up” for mutual protection. They camp out together, and by the fireside that night, after a few cups of strong arak, the old man tells his psychologically and morally complex story of a battlefield betrayal and murder. His most trusted associate, it turned out, had pinned the blame for informing their foes of their group’s whereabouts on an innocent comrade and shot him dead as if in a fit of righteous indignation – but in fact to silence the man and protect himself. Years later, the old man tracked down the traitor. The former fighter was now a rich and prosperous businessman with a wife and child. Confronting him at last, years later, the old man told his former friend how he had worked out incontrovertibly that he, and not the shot man, was the traitor. Yet the old man simply left his former friend’s home after that, adding (to his somewhat puzzled, even disappointed chance companion) that he had yet not failed in his duty … “The dead were avenged” (169). Does this mean that he went back and shot him, or that the information that his treachery was known, was considered sufficient punishment for the guilty man? We are left slightly unsure, and this ambiguous conclusion fits the story and the context in which traitors are now the ones who control power in Ethiopia, as the old man intimates.

“The Professional” is about a successful hit on a regime operative who specialised in raping and hurting children and youngsters. It is coolly told.

Surprisingly, the next tale plunges us into the sphere of ancient folk beliefs of women’s supposed “possession” by fearsome female spirits who demand terrible sacrifices from the husbands to save those possessed. While hinting that this may be a ploy for women to blackmail stingy husbands into providing things the women want, in the story titled “The Zar Who liked Human Liver” the possessing spirit, or Zar, wants the liver of a black man with unblemished skin. The terrified husband’s detested mother-in-law tells him that there is a “handily available” victim in the person of a neighbour’s slave. The man is also warned that his wife – now in the last stages of pregnancy with their first child – may die if this request (or demand) is not met. So, after some agonising, the man kills the slave and takes his liver to the mother-in-law for his wife. Near the end of the tale we read:

Now, the usual story with a moral might have our man going crazy, or would have the daughter grow up to marry a slave, or would send the man to a monastery. Life being life, the man overcame his aloofness in time, slept with his wife again, got to love his daughter, had another child, this time a boy, and lived like every other peasant who had committed a crime – quietly and peacefully. (182)

It may be at this point that this account of peasant life connects with the tenor of life depicted in the other tales. In the previous story the old man had sagely reflected on the Ethiopian character, perhaps in a comment carrying the weight of authorial agreement that when it comes to “duplicity” and “betrayal”, although people “curse it”, “deep down, we [Ethiopians] do admire the courage, the style, the absolute lack of moral principles, the lack of any fear of divine retribution.” Concerning “the absolute love for oneself”, he says, it is “condemned and yet seen with awe”. “This is the culture of your people,” he tells the younger man he is with (161). Despite this outline of innate cruelty and ruthlessness as the “national character”, we see enough instances of unselfishness, moral courage, dedication and humaneness in Ethiopians in the stories to complicate the picture somewhat.

In the story titled “In “The Bar of No Surprises’”, which is in fact (as the narrator informs us) “The Bar of Surprising Tales”, three drinking companions sit together and one tells the affecting tale of a simple countrywoman who ends up working as a barmaid and falls in love with a young man who turns out, after his arrest, to have been a resistance fighter. The woman, too, is arrested later for having a packet in her possession that her lover had asked her to keep; it contains a gun. Once in the women’s jail, she is told by the other prisoners that she can make her impending torture serve a purpose – by falsely but convincingly incriminating a particularly brutal member of the ruling military regime. Once freed, the woman starts to search for her lover. The narrator, who reveals to his male companion that the man’s beheaded corpse was later found and that the woman was rearrested and killed, for the benefit of their briefly absent female companion, “the hard-drinking prostitute”, gives the story a second, false, sentimental end of a happy reunion and the pair’s escape into the jungle.

“Ten on the Terror Scale” is a surrealist story of satirical cast – told in the context of a dream in which the innumerable corpses and dismembered body parts of murder victims during Ethiopia’s civil war are encountered by the dreamer and tell him their tales. As propaganda, this supposedly scary story was judged shockingly insufficiently terrifying!

“The Waldiba Story” is set in a monastery where a dying old man tells the sympathetic young doctor how, after discovering that his elder son had caused the murder of his dearest friend’s (a widow’s) only son, he had given the information that led (as he knew it would) to this son – now known to have been a torturer – being executed in a hit by resistance fighters. The young doctor comments: “As a fighter, I believed that what he had done was commendable. Still, I also felt the anguish that tore at his heart. Does one congratulate a father for having his son killed?” (211).

The final story, “Madman, Killer, Saint, You …”, also concerns a doctor and a similar moral dilemma. He tries to remain professional and uninvolved at the time when the new regime takes power, even though his younger brother is in the resistance. He is challenged, while healing an injured resistance fighter, as to why he is preparing him for further torture and harm (by the regime, since the patient is in hospital under guard and chained to his bed) instead of helping him to escape such a fate by providing the means for him to commit suicide. The doctor is troubled, but decides he cannot go against the Hippocratic Oath. The man nevertheless dies “in time” because another man (a nurse) provided him with a cyanide capsule. The doctor protects the nurse and they start talking about the possibility that the doctor’s own brother may be brought into the hospital under similar conditions, and when this does happen, the doctor agrees to allow the nurse to give his brother, too, this more merciful death. After this he and the nurse work together, for as the first patient had explained, in saving people (by death!) from torture, you also protect them from giving away information about other enemies of the cruel rulers and thus save those people’s lives too.

Tuma’s collection leaves no reader in doubt about the horror and terror of life in Ethiopia at that time. One narrator had said: “The terrible tales of Ethiopia paralyse the tongue and deafen the ears” (211). It is a fitting description, yet such accounts of atrocities and resistance need to be heard and chronicled if the deaths and suffering of so many and the sins of the perpetrators are not to pass us by, unnoticed, except for the occasional newspaper report, paragraph or two in a history book or TV documentary. Africans themselves need to address what we ourselves do to one another to begin thinking of practices and styles of rule to ensure better and safer lives, and we cannot do this without first facing the truths of the depths to which so many of our societies have sunk.

The castigating power of Tuma’s stories finally serves an unmistakably curative intention; the prophet’s role is not always predictive or idealistically inspiring; it may be, as it is in these tales, that of fierce exposure. And to write thus may be a truer form of patriotism than proclaiming a nation’s glories.

* Hama Tuma studied Law at Addis Ababa University and was considered a thorn in the flesh by three succeeding Ethiopian regimes for opposing injustice – necessitating his departure for France, where he still lives (in Paris). He has published works of poetry, essays and political commentary and continues to write political satire, particularly concerning African issues.


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