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Daniachew Worku: The Thirteenth Sun

Unlike his other works, which were written in Amharic, Worku wrote this one in English and we should be very grateful that he did, as it is a fascinating work. It is nominally the story of an old, irascible, dying man, being accompanied to a holy Christian site by his son and daughter (children of different mothers) but is about the clash between old values and new values and the real Ethiopia versus the mythic Ethiopia. The title comes from an advert for Ethiopian Airlines which we see in the first and last paragraphs of the book – Fly Ethiopian Airlines – Thirteen Months of Sunshine.

Fitawrary Woldu has lived a spoilt life. He has, at least according to his son, been selfish, exploited people (including his children) and generally not lived a good life. He is now dying and feels that he can redeem his soul by going to a holy place to pray and have prayers said for him and, at the same time, making donations to holy causes. Much of his money comes from the mother of his son, Goytom, to whom he was not, according to Goytom, a good husband. Woynitu, his daughter, whom he has clearly neglected, has ambivalent feelings about him but does want a father. The matter is complicated by the fact that Goytom is clearly physically attracted to his half-sister. The journey is difficult, with continual complaints from the Fitawrary (fitawrary is a title given to a dignitary), even though he is being carried. When they arrive at their destination, Goytom finds difficulty in getting them accommodation and eventually they find a not very salubrious peasant’s hut, where there is a sick woman, but it is the best they can do.

One of the techniques that Worku uses is to tell the story from different perspectives, with each chapter headed by the name of the individual and we hear not only from the three pilgrims but also from the peasant and his wife. The wife is what Worku calls a conjuror-woman, i.e. someone who espouses the old religion but mixes a dose of Christianity into it and the Fitawrary is soon attracted by her approach. Her husband, however, is very sceptical, though he plays along. For example, when there is a sacrifice and the meat is given to the devil, so that he will be too preoccupied to hurt the subject, the husband is more than happy to steal the meat for his own food. The contrast between”pure” Christianity and the old religion, often mixed in with Christianity, is very strong in this novel and Worku makes the point very clearly. Goytom is equally sceptical about both forms of religion and goes along just to keep his father happy, despite his thoroughly ambivalent relationship with his father.

Goytom – or Worku through Goytom – is also clearly ambivalent about his own country. There is a wonderful lyrical passage, where each paragraph starts Beautiful Ethiopia and he goes on to describe the beauties of the country, the landscape and the culture but, mixed in with this, is the description of all that is wrong with the country – the poverty, disease, oppression, Western influence and so on. It is very well done and very effective. Ultimately, of course, the clash of the cultures is not going to work and we are back to thirteen months of sunshine – in the middle of a rainstorm. But Worku shows us the mythic landscape of his culture and country, using the journey of a dying man to his death as his background, and he tells his story very well.

Publishing history

First published 1973 by Heinemann