The Girl From Addis…(an unlikely book review)

Cover of "Girl from Addis"
Cover of Girl from Addis

Heaven for me is: A world full of books, and I’ve been buried under mounds of them here at the Kliptown Youth Center (SKY).   What I’m doing here is volunteering, assisting the volunteer staff to take stock of how many books there are in the learning center, with a view to eventually creating a data-base for a functioning Library.  My job is to clean up. I’m  in the  library every day and it takes all of my willpower to focus on the task at hand which is:  packing books, cleaning shelves, rearranging the furniture and shelves, cleaning, moving rubbish, shooing children who’ve so far used it as a playground, which would be great if they actually read the books in the learning center instead of destroying them.  It takes all of my willpower to look over interesting  and inviting books and titles and I just couldn’t resist reading….

The Girl from Addis by Ted Allbeury.

Suddenly I am lying on the black leather sofa and travelling to 1960 Ethiopia, with author Ted Allbeury, a former British M16 operative – or more officially, a former  Lieutenant-Colonel in the Army Intelligence Corps during the Second World War. Allbeury worked in Sales , advertising and radio ( at the BBC), after the war before writing his first novel. He has  written an estimated 20 novels under different names since then.

I was drawn to the book because Ethiopia has been on my lately for a number of reasons, I’ve never been to that land. And it was for me a great escape from Simone de Beauvoirs’ Second Sex , I felt rebuked, chastised from all sides by the author. I could also run away from the  rows and rows of books which seemed to be calling me to read them … though in actual fact they just needed a place to stay.  Besides the book  was so thin I could be done in a few hours.

In a sentence the story is about an ex-MI6 operative now working as a photographer, who returns to Ethiopia, where he finds both romance and danger waiting for him.

The book is set  shortly after  the  Ethiopian  war.  Which  began on 12 September 1974 when the Marxist Derg staged a coup d’état against Emperor Haile Selassie, whom the main character in the book was an advisor to, before his cover was blown. The civil war lasted until 1991 when the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front(EPRDF)—a coalition of rebel groups led by the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)—overthrew the Derg government and installed a transitional government in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa The Derg government had been weakened by their loss of support due to the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. The book is about how this guy was used a pawn in an intricate chess game between, Russia, Britain, and to some lesser extent the US and Italy.  he was tasked to find and blow up military arms bases from Cuba and Russia stored on the border between Ethiopia and Somalia. Russia’s’  plan according to the Somali revolutionary army, was to destabilize Somalia, and take over the rest of East Africa including Kenya. The British seemingly had no real stake in the matter but were interested to know what their  enemies in this case Russia and Cuba were up to.  They eventually blew up the military arms base (triggering war  between Somalia and Ethiopia ) under the guise of helping the Somali revolutionaries, as a way of stopping russia from its planned takeover of the indian ocean, and East Africa. The Russians were using the Derg in Ethiopia and using the country as a base to occupy all of East Africa – which would mean control of the Indian Ocean etc.  The photographer and his love affair got off lightly from the ensuing espionage, but it was an invaluable read ( and snap-shot ) back in history especially in light of the recent terrorist attack by the Islamist Somali Group Al-shabaab , who have killed at least 60 people at Nairobi’s West Gate mall, in an effort to force Kenyan troops out of Somalia.

When I put the book back on the shelf,I felt like a naughty child who has just opened his present a day before christmas, or stolen a cookie from the cookie jar. it was a lovely trip. I am learning again and again, that we can learn from everything, and every situation and any book – Simone De Beauvoir says in her Seminal Book The Second Sex “Mystery is never more than a mirage that vanishes as we draw nearer to look at it”.   I  laugh at myself and think I do like punishing myself, why choose a book-worm to re-organize the library?

But the learning center – Library has been in disarray for some time now, and I feel even just a little order, a bit of cleanliness can restore some respect from those who use it.  Working in the Library, or learning center took me back to my college days when I would often go to the library on campus after lectures to read and watch documentaries then take a taxi to Pinetown where I lived and would spend the rest of the afternoon at the library reading books – mostly autobiographies, some romantic novels, and then hire out more BBC dramas which brought to life – such books as Pride and Prejudice, A Tale of Two city’s etc.  It would be a game of trying to figure out, if the characters on television would be the same as the characters you imagined while reading the book. As a family, my siblings and I loved the BBC dramas because they were long and we could stay in at home for an entire weekends without venturing outside, as long as we had enough movies to watch,  our parents didn’t encourage regular television. We had little access to TV1,2 and 3. Movies on the other  hand were encouraged, because my parents could select what we watched, and we used to look forward to holidays because my father would bring loads of them for us to watch.   I enjoyed the comfort of a library and it was the main reason I volunteered to work in the learning center, because it looked so lonely and without love, in the hope that  I could somehow re-create that same atmosphere at the center, which soothed me so as a teenager and young adult. I would love for them to enter into a quiet, safe space and find joy in travelling to other lands, spaces, places and experience a different life from the daily every day of their physical environment. That is what books did for me and movies.

Paradise for me is….

So here at SKY there are books on almost every subject under the skies and in different languages too. The children’s books are the best kind. There was one with a title “Chicken or Egg ?” which caught my attention and I started reading it mid-packing. The book described different types of chicken, what they are called etc and ended with this statement that got me chuckling  -“ So if someone asks you which came first the chicken or the egg? you can say the egg, because we eat eggs in the morning and chicken for  dinner” Now that’s an answer  I never considered. But yes to answer the question of Paradise: Paradise  for me would be – a time when we all can use this knowledge in decaying and neglected dusty book shelves to solve our problems, now – today. To create  sustainable livelihoods, to bring up positive, creative and loving people – to create a world where we can combine our experience, our talents and passions with  knowledge to break the chains of poverty,  disease and lack. The knowledge is there, but how do we apply it in our lives so that it brings about meaningful change? locally and globally?  This question haunts me a little because I fear books are fast becoming so unfashionable,  life happens online – a new way of travelling, seeing the world and meeting people, books are heavy, wordy, with few pictures, you have to use your imagination. Social Networking means people don’t have enough focus to read large heavy texts and fully spelled out words. I don’t object to technology at all, I am a fan.  Information is King, but what use is all this information or knowledge if it can’t be used to alleviate poverty, to create a better people, better homes, better relationships, working environments. What’s the use of having a lot of information about things which cannot help you to get out of a sticky situation, improve your own life. If I were able to do that – then I would not only be in heaven, my world will be paradise, because my heaven (books) would help me create Paradise on earth.


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