In Ethiopia with a Mule: A book review

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For a generation of Irish people before me and indeed readers the world over, the name Dervla Murphy is synonymous with travel writing.  I’m ashamed to admit therefore that my first notion of her was just about two years ago when I was preparing to come to Ethiopia and I received a gift of her book, “In Ethiopia with a Mule”.

Since then I have been mesmerised by her.

A short biography

For those of you who don’t know, Murphy was born in Lismore, County Waterford in 1931.  She was an only child to her parents, both “blow-ins” from Dublin and she herself left school in Waterford city at the age of fourteen to keep house for them both and look after her ailing mother who had been ill for most of Dervla’s young life.  Sadly, by the time Dervla was 30 years of age, both of her parents had died.

When I myself think on these circumstances alone, I think how tragic it would be for me, to feel so absolutely alone in the world by the age of 30.  I think I would probably just give up there and then!  Whether Murphy experienced this as tragedy, an opportunity to do something less ordinary with her life or a mixture of both, I can only speculate.  Maybe she was always destined to live a life less ordinary.

The seeds for her later adventures were undoubtedly sown during her childhood with her parents in Lismore and her short stints cycling on the continent as a young adult but it was in 1965 that she undertook her first real super-human feat, a solo-cycle from Ireland to India.  A lone female traversing two continents on a bike in the 1960’s- fair play!

In her 1979 autobiography, “Wheels within wheels”, she says of her upbringing:

“The hardships and poverty of my youth had been a good apprenticeship for this form of travel. I had been brought up to understand that material possessions and physical comfort should never be confused with success, achievement and security.”

 “In Ethiopia with a Mule”

We can only guess that having returned from that epic Indian adventure in 1965, she had time to sit down on a chair somewhere for five minutes and had a quick mouthful of tea before setting her sights on Ethiopia in the winter of 1966.

She began from the port of Asmara (modern-day Eritrea) on the 16th of December 1966 and over the course of the next three months roamed some 1,024 miles on foot up and over one of the highest mountain range in Africa, into the hearts and homes of countless highlanders to Addis Ababa, encountering bandits, thieving priests, soldiers and Abysinnian princesses along the way with a faithful mule all the time by her side for company.

She proved just as fascinating to the local people she met along the way in Ethiopia then as she does to me now; they regarded her with suspicion and amusement everywhere she went.

“…this ‘hotel’ is congenial.  The friendly owner- an elderly, handsome Tigrean woman- thinks I’m the funniest thing that has happened in years.  She is now sitting nearby, with two neighbours, watching me write.  Apparently the neighbours were called in because such a good joke has to be shared.”

She amazed me by the way in which almost nothing she did was calculated or planned.  She generally got up of a morning and just started walking, relied on the hospitality of strangers along the way, at times camped out with animals at night and seemed to take each thing as it came at her.  Because of the style of travelling she chose to do she got very close to the local people in a way that would surely envy any anthropologist.

One can of course get too close…

“During the small hours I woke, reached for my torch and felt a disconcerting substance under my hand, it proved to be the afterbirth of a ewe who had just lambed by my ear.”

She writes the book in the form of a diary and while at times it is genuinely hysterical, at other times it is full of philosophical insights and cutting social commentary.  She never got the chance to finish her formal education and yet writes so achingly beautifully that I blaspheme to think whether any of us should go to school at all!

“Already the sun had set and two minute pink cloudlets were poised above the south western horizon.  I would have hugged them had they have been a little nearer, cloudless skies are delightful in theory, but after living beneath their perfection for five weeks an Irishwoman feels that something is missing.”

On the journey, she was often mistaken for a man due to her short rough haircut, the fact that no woman in their right mind would have been attempting what she was doing and we can only imagine, her uncouth appearance having “slummed” it for over three months around Ethiopia.  She seemed to take this sex-change all on the chin!

What impressed me most about the book was…that she indeed was a woman!  For me, 1966 is another realm, one where the last emperor, Haile Selassie I still reigned in Ethiopia and in Ireland where women were forced to give up their civil service jobs upon marriage.  A woman’s place was in the home; a message Murphy didn’t seem to get.  She came from a place in time where unmarried mothers and their babies were often thrown into “care” homes, worked to the bone and inevitably separated.  She was fierce and alone and strong and independent, all of this and she was funny too!  She bucked all the gender norms known to me.  I find her quite remarkable and now want to read all her books (from the comfort of an armchair).

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One Ethiopian I know has read the book on my recommendation and felt mildly offended by it as he said it referred to an Ethiopia which no longer existed and was therefore in a way derogatory.  As for me, I read the book for the first time around this time last year, which is why I am reminded of it again now, when I was undertaking a tiny, guided trek of my own in the Tigray highlands with some other VSO volunteers and I could empathise entirely with her gruelling mountain trek, however pathetic mine was by comparison.

“On the last lap, I passed a big British war cemetery and gazed into it enviously feeling that a cemetery rather than an hotel was the obvious resting place for anyone in my condition.”

But humour and physical exercise aside, it certainly seemed to me as an outsider that not much had changed in these highland places at least since the book was first written almost 50 years previously and that was the most fascinating thing about it and poignant too.  Even if the rest of Ethiopia is changed irrevocably, these places seemed trapped in time due to their remoteness and isolation from the rest of the world.  4000 metre high mountains will do that to a place.

Later life

After her trip to Ethiopia and in her thirties, Murphy became a single mother and after a brief stint at home in Ireland, set off on her travels once more this time with her 5 year old daughter Rachel in tow!  Undeterred, they experienced together much of this world.  Since then she has written at least twenty-five books, spanning almost fifty years and probably almost as many countries including, India, Tibet, Nepal, Peru, Madagascar, Cameroon, Laos, Siberia and Cuba to name but a few.  Now aged 82, her last book penned in 2013 was based on her time spent in the Palestine in 2011.

I think I love her! ❤

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