“Land of the Yellow Bull”; an English novel by Fikremarkos Desta
By Henok Semaegzer
Jamal Mahjoub, an archeologist by training who became a composite multilingual writer, was recently quoted as saying, “it was easier to write about an archeologist than actually becoming one”. So he wrote a book about an archeologist, which essentially gained him worldwide fame and gave him a start in a career in writing.
Fikremarkos Desta, like Mahjoub, was trained to become practical in the world of science. He studied chemistry in college only to find himself as a full-fledged writer. His ethnographic trilogy is one of the few well-read books in the country.
Fikremarkos writes about the Hamar, Kio, Ebore, and other “minor” ethnic groups in the south-western parts of Ethiopia. He has so far published five books, all of them in Amharic (Kebuska Bestejerba, Evanghadi, Ya Zersiewoch Fikir, Achamie, and Ya Nisir Ayene). The sixth one that was launched is written in English.
The title (Land of the Yellow Bull), that does not seem to make sense in English, is a direct translation of a phrase in Hamar language “Wake Alepenon”, that is how the Hamar call themselves; this is roughly translated into English as "land of the heroic people". All in all the entire the writing of the script took about three years: until it was published abroad a couple of months ago.
Fikremarkos believes that he is blessed to have lived with such “innocent” people for about a decade and most importantly to be writing about their “pure and harmonic” way of indigenous existence. “I usually write about the purity and compassion of these people with a determined mindset. I appreciate such innate human qualities of indigenous life, which can be a symbol of a natural, unruffled and peaceful way of survival," he said.
Fikremarkos admits that his works revolve around usual themes. The characters in Land of the Yellow Bull are even much similar to the characters in the Amharic trilogy “I write about love, purity, friendship, and calmness,” he says, “I have an optimistic belief that a lot of misunderstandings can be removed through promoting dialogue among people and through interacting in a natural calm way. I promote peace, solidarity, and communication; that is why I write about such usual themes.”
As a writer Fikremarkos says he does not want to limit himself to only one style of writing. However, most of his works are set in the countryside; he actually never published a book about city life. He usually recognizes life in the city in terms of life in the rural country setting. In Land of the Yellow Bull he compares the emergency life of the city with the more or less tranquil way of traditional life. According to the author, the people of Hamar and Kio are serene in their nature that they do not involve themselves in any matter without careful observations. They study nature carefully, their interaction with one another is not disheveled, and most of all peace is the most important fabric of traditional Hamar society. Fikremarkos brings his knowledge of chemistry to create an allegory: “Its like when water full of impurities is allowed to settle, the residue goes to the bottom of the container and pure water remains on top." An allegory that professes to say: silence and calmness purify the soul.
Synopsis of the novel
An English anthropologist (Charlotte Alfred) goes to Hamar village to conduct a research. There she finds a problem in adjusting with the culture, the climate, and unusual quietness of the people. As the story develops, Charlotte keeps on trying to communicate with the Hamar people, culture, and way of life. In due course the people responded in their silence by giving her friendship. Charlotte finds herself deeply involved in the practices and life of these people. She falls in worship of the “purity and graceful silence of the people”. (The story goes…)
The novel talks about the difference in the livelihood, and the common misunderstandings that prevail in the city and country life. Fikremarkos portrays the disparity in favor of tradition. We see that when the character Charlotte evolves in favor of tradition in the story. Asked if he is advocating going back to tradition from civilization, he said, “I am only making a modest proposal; the trend in civilization had been advancing on western models in the economy, politics, and even individual interactions. Somehow people have stopped going back to tradition. See how civilization has affected our lives; and understand the world from both angles.”
According to Fikremarkos, since the south-westerners had been alienated from the rest of the world in space and time, they have maintained their identity when the world beyond their land was changing. “I am, in that regard, portraying that positivism, because it interests me a great deal,” he said.