Ethiopia Boy

Ethiopia Boy

by Chris Beckett

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A debut collection in the form of African praise poems, this book celebrates the people and landscapes of Ethiopia. Seen through the eyes of a young white boy in love with his older, black friend, these poems explore boyhood in all walks of life. As it hurtles through recent Ethiopian history, from the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie and the legacy of empire to the wars and famines of the last 40 years, this compilation also draws inspiration from the nation’s folk tales.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781847777577
Publisher: Carcanet Press, Limited
Publication date: 03/01/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 64
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Chris Beckett is the winner of the Poetry London competition and was recently recognized in Chroma magazine.

Read an Excerpt

Ethiopia Boy

By Chris Beckett

Carcanet Press Ltd

Copyright © 2013 Chris Beckett
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84777-757-7


    Abeb, the cook's son

    Abebe, from a distant afternoon
    Abebe, from an afternoon where everybody naps
    even the donkeys propped against trees
        on their little hoofs
    Abebe, tall as a eucalyptus tree
    Abebe, black all over when he pisses on a eucalyptus tree
    who jaunties down dirt tracks to the honey shop
        buys two drippy honeycombs in a box
    Abebe, the cool boy in drainpipe jeans and sky-blue sneakers
    Abebe, the busy crossing where girls stop to chat
    who clicks his fingers to the funky Ibex Band
        as we saunter back up track
    Abebe, calling come here! to the dog called Come Here
    Abebe, trotting round the dog-yard like a horse
    who saddles up the smoky horses and takes me prairie-galloping
    who makes a dash at mud-caves where hyenas sleep
    who shows me how to cook kwalima beef and ginger sausages
        and a chickpea fish for Lent
    Abebe, gobbling up the afternoon like a kwalima
    Abebe, grinning like a chickpea fish
        while everybody naps

kwalima: a spicy dried sausage made with minced beef and ginger, as well as plenty of pepper, cardamom and turmeric

    Mount Entoto

    Brow of a giant, tufty, full of birds
    Dad cuts the engine, calling

        chocks away!

    so our car swoops down the giant's back
    with gasp of tyres

    just then a raggy boy appears
    flings out his gabi like a bustard's wings

    racing down the roadside on small springy feet
    on the 't' of take-off

    now a fierce astonishing idea flies in the open window

        am I leading the wrong life?

    all it would take is to open this door
    all I must do is to jump out into the wind, shouting


    but when I turn the handle, with Dad yelling over his shoulder
    and our car still plunging like a stone

    the boy and his life leap in

gabi: a thick shawl worn over normal clothes for warmth

    Bastard saffron

    Egg yolk, petrol, honey on coarse bread ...

    you rebel son of stuffy parents!
    piss-brother to a woolly cloth for hermits
    who sticks so fast to the long rough threads
    not running even when you're boiled

    ohoo! you make the boy look at a robe and wonder

        could I be simply colour?

xxxx     one night he dreams he'll wake up not a boy
        not white or black
    but bastard yellow, blind, an attribute ...

    he is a rich light flooding the bedroom
    he is the raffish sweet sound of your name

    now he feels bold enough to hug another shape
        and change it! define it!
    what will he do with this, who will he love?

    adults are like insects, mistaking you for pollen
    but you are what the boy sees, how he remembers the future

    Praise-shout for Asfaw, the best cook in Africa!]

is his spicy lamb
    tummy-in-heaven! is his mango jam

    awo! he is Mister Cook
    our Mister Happiness Cook

    his face is rounder than stew-pots
    but his fingers run fast as billy goats

    his t'ibs cut crisp as a shoe-shine
    his fenugreek water, araa! cooler than limes

    when he's shredding a fitfit, he whistles
    when it's fasting and hushhush, he whispers

    dogs howl for his gristly bones
    sheep sidle up with muzzling and moans

    how can I praise the man who feeds me?
    he is my father because he feeds me!

    I stand at the iron gates and shout:
    Asfaw is the secret I will never let out!

    do you know Asfaw, the husband of Almaz?
    negus of kitchens and sons?

    he cooks all day to feed his families
    he is a hundred wooden spoons!

t'ibs: fried meat

fitfit: injera (moist unleavened bread) mixed with spicy stew

hushhush (shifinfin in Amharic): stew hidden under a layer of injera, to be ordered under one's breath during one of the many religious fasts!

negus: king


    What's for dinner?
Dad calls
    flooring bulgy briefcase ...
    we holler all we're worth
    Wot's for dinner, Dad!
    his forehead puzzles up
    that's what I'd like to know!
    by now we're giggling so hard
    we nearly wet our pants
    three shrieky wriggle-sacks
    he scoops to covered basket
    tears off ant-hill hat
    look! spongy pancake splashed
    with knuckle-squirts of stew
    and staring eggs, long sticktooth
    shreds of goat, gooey
    angel peas and half-bean kikwot

    Dad prissies at our fists
    tearing food apart
    looks on scandal-browed
    out, forks! out, schooly Englishness!
    we trill, loading our strips
    of injera with bombs of
    senafich and slither-chicken
    drop them on our tongues
    three, two, one..... blast-off!!!
    then wave our gluey hands
    straight up like gum-trees
    Asfaw marching in
    with bowls and towels, sprays us
    in a froth of tut-tuts, scruba-
    dubs all reeky colours back to pink
    ... bar little nubs of black
    tucked under our nails
    like shrapnel
    in the chattery corpse
    of our freckle-potato fingers

wot: wot and injera is the Ethiopian national dish, eaten with the fingers. Wot is a hot spicy stew made with chicken, beef, eggs, tripe. Strips of injera are used to scoop up the wot

kikwot: half-bean stew

senafich: mustard


    the one who roars at gates and donkeys
    the one with more doors than a house
    the one with two rich tones of skin colour and a flashy
        v-shaped tail
    the one who takes neat heads to school
        who takes sorrow to the airport
    the one with strange songs bubbling out of his windows
        as he dusts off to market
    the one who holds his warm nose out of the mud
        who stuffs a feast of yams in his back pocket
    the one we tap and brother as he shoulders along our street
    the one who gets a splashy sponge and rub-down
        every morning by his own boy
    the one we own with our shiny eyes
    the one called Zephyr, waxy and proud!

    Lion buses

    'giving transport service for the city of Addis Ababa from
    6.15 a.m. to 9 p.m.'

    Nothing-like-a-lion bus!
    you who honk and stagger down Progress
        through Cooperation Avenue
    you who lick us with diesel, swaying this way and that
    with our shopping and hot flesh

    where is your pride, lion bus?
    where is the lioness to do your hunting of kudu and goat
        while you snooze under a tree?

    we don't believe that lions can be buses!
    we don't believe that painting Anbessa on a bus
        in big gold letters changes you
    you slow slug of metal
    you cramper of knees and buttocks

    yes, there are cars that run like the wolf
    there are small trucks as patient as donkeys
    but then there are buses, buses ...

anbessa: lion (Amharic)

    Goat, Doney and Dog

    in the style of Kebede Mikael

    Once upon a time, little friend
    Goat, Donkey and Dog
    took a taxi to the Monday market,
    now how should they divide the fare?
    with many bas and haws and barks
    they finally agreed that
    each of them would pay a third,
    but Goat searched every fold of skin
    and couldn't find a single birr
    so he butted at the door and ran away,
    then Donkey shook a smallish note
    from the wallet of his right ear
    and offered it politely clamped
    in his long yellow teeth,
    while Dog turned paw to palm
    and handed over a twenty
    crisp as any Monday morning
    and waited on the kerb for change.

    But the driver was that kind of man
    whom God tests by giving him a car
    and once behind the wheel
    he loses sight of his humanity ...
    his eyes become narrow and greedy
    because he believes that
    no one else has such a dashing taxi!
    no one else can go as fast as him!
    he forgets to say to himself:

    Yefat, you have the speed of lizards,
    but you cannot make milk like a goat
    you cannot cart firewood like a donkey
    or guard the house like a dog ...
    Yefat, you are still just a man
    with two legs for walking into church
    and two knees for praying!

    So all the taxi driver did was laugh
    and spit and speed away ...
    and that is why, little friend,
    Goat runs off whenever a car appears,
    why Donkey always stands so stiff
    and righteous in the middle of the road.
    It is also why Dog, poor cheated Dog!
    always barks at cars and chases them
    and tries to bite their tyres.

Kebede Mikael (1914–1998) was an eccentric and much-loved poet and playwright who translated Romeo and Juliet and Faust into Amharic. His poems are often amusing parables, with titles like Adamna burrew ('Adam and his ox') and Anbessana t'ota ('Lion and Monkey'), in which man and animals complain to God about their lot and receive his impatient replies.

birr: Ethiopian currency

    Horse song

    imitation of an ox lament from the Kafa highlands

    O, my horse, let me sing!
    O, my stormy horse, who neighed
        like a wind in the big rains
        like a drill at the new airport, let me sing!
    my horse, who galloped out of rusty gates
    whose tail was still in the stable while his head swept
        past the church of Yeka Mikael
    O, my horse, let me sing!
    O, my speedy horse, who overtook buses of every make
        lorded it over mules and pissed on dung-beetles
    your mane was a flag
    your legs were marathon runners
    you were not for the gharry trot-trot or carty sticks to market
    you were not even for the lucky boy to enjoy riding
    you were for the pride of being a horse
    O, my horse, let me sing!
    O, my fidgety horse, who liked to ripple the skin
        up/down your body, let me sing!
    you who threw flies off your carpet
    who threw dust-writing up in the air, telling other horses
        where you'd gone
    O, my horse, where have you gone?
    O, my brotherly horse, who took me out of the back seat
        out of the stuffy windows
    who rode you after I went away?
    who saw the world from your back, felt your blood beating
        under his knees?
    O, my horse, let me sing!
    O, my sleek horse, what are these shabby bone-bundles
        clopping down Yeka Road?

    Wondwossen, the prayer child

    after Nega Mezlekia

    When you are born as the result of fierce and persistent prayers

    when you are born from prayers to all known saints
        and from a fortune spent by your mother visiting a holy man
        who has just returned from Madagascar and is said to have
        the most up-to-date knowledge of the dead and the unborn

    when you are born from the gift of a sheep and five kilos
        of clarified butter in a tin and a box of expensive oudh

    when you are born despite the spells of your father's brothers
        to stop another boy inheriting the family's farmland
        despite the fact that nobody in the family is a farmer

    when you are born and straight away dressed in little frocks
        and spend your first four years on earth as a girl called Kutu

    when your fourth birthday is marked by the most lavish party
        to which four hundred guests are invited, including neighbours
        and relations, local bigwigs and their wives, plus all the good
        and bad spirits who preside over the town

    when your fourth birthday party is also attended by twenty-two
        street dogs, seven stray cats and five famished eagles

    when your mother brings you out in boy's clothes, with your hair
        cut short like a boy, and announces that you are a boy

    when everyone is overjoyed except for the evil spirits of
        body-snatchers who have no more power

    then you know that your speaking soul
        and your thinking soul
        and your soul that is capable of being saved
        and the earth and wind and fire and water
    that together make up the seven elements of your being

    have been brought into the world because they were all desperately
        wanted by your mother
    who will always want you, even when she is dead
        and you are dead

    and because of the fierceness of her wanting
    you will always want yourself too

Nega Mezlekia's wonderful memoir of his childhood in Jijiga, eastern Ethiopia, is called Notes from the Hyena's Belly (Penguin Books, 2001). Wondwossen was Mezlekia's best friend and the book is dedicated to him.

oudh: the dark fragrant resin produced in south-east Asia by the agar tree when it becomes infected with a parasitic mould. It is highly valued for use in perfumes and incense


Excerpted from Ethiopia Boy by Chris Beckett. Copyright © 2013 Chris Beckett. Excerpted by permission of Carcanet Press Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
Abebe, the cook's son,
Mount Entoto,
Bastard saffron,
Praise shout for Asfaw, the best cook in Africa!,
Lion buses,
Goat, Donkey and Dog,
Horse song,
Wondwossen, the prayer child,
What about the scabs on Tamrat's knee?,
Lemon for love,
Spotted hyenas,
Berhanu, the nightwatchman,
An afternoon in the dry season,
Abel, the breakfast boy,
Dawit at the School of Tomorrow,
Addis and Abebe,
Ibsa's dog,
Earth's greeting to feet,
Poem to Friday,
Dirge for Mrs Ethiopia,
Turkey of the Revolution,
The banquet,
To the man with a guzzler wife,
Lizard waits for a new regime,
What have shepherds sung?,
Small nervous prayer,
A cow in the sky,
The shoes he does not have,
Eucalyptus trees,
Boast of the fly-whisk,
Cupboards and a guitar,
The dugout copy of Jerusalem,
Zenabu's taxi,
Before a meal,
Two brothers,
About the fish in Lake Langano,
The goodbye tree,
About the Author,

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