canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

The Scent of Eucalyptus: A Missionary Childhood in Ethiopia
by Daniel Coleman

Reviewed by Anne Borden

The eucalyptus tree, imported to Ethiopia in the late nineteenth century as a firewood source, has since naturalized, spreading so profusely in some regions that its pungent scent infuses one's every breath. It has become a problem species for farmers and conservationists because it saps the soil of moisture and nutrients. Yet it also provides relief from the blazing heat, for the farmer or the conservationist who seeks shelter beneath its fragrant canopy.

Foreign missionaries in Ethiopia, as Daniel Coleman observes in this fine memoir, are like the eucalyptus, naturalized transplants whose ambivalent relationship with Ethiopians is in some respects tempered by the comforts they've provided. The ferenjie (foreign missionaries) played a key role in building hospitals and schools under King Haile Selassie and in re-establishing the infrastructure after Italy's brief takeover in the 1940s. Throughout the horror of the military coup in 1974 and the resulting famine, the ferenji remained rooted in Ethiopia. The Scent of Eucalyptus illustrates some of the reasons why.

Coleman, who now holds a Canada Research Chair in English at McMaster University, grew up in Ethiopia in the sixties and seventies, the child of Canadian missionaries. Through an insightful and often understated series of stories that evoke all of the senses (the chapters are thematic, rather than chronological), he describes his early struggles to negotiate friendship, sexuality and his own agnosticism within the strictures of the mission school. In 'Ferenji Nature,' he describes his family's domesticated owls, monkeys and dik-diks, as well as King Selassi's own infamous menagerie, in the context of their neighbors' very different relationship to animals. In 'Sex and Salvation' he conveys the awkward thrill of teen sex with levity and grace; although the confession model ultimately failed the young Coleman and his friends, none of them really seemed the worse for it.

The ferenjis' priorities underwent a dramatic shift when Mengistu Haile Mariam seized power, and Coleman's family was thrust into a new role; using their privilege to advocate for the civil rights of Ethiopians, and combating a new dimension of poverty under a corrupt regime. With white skin and North American money, missionaries were generally granted diplomatic immunity, while the Ethiopian Christians, many of whom they had converted, were persecuted by the Marxist-Leninist junta. The missionaries had to strike a balance - Western pressure could be helpful in the cause of political prisoners, yet too much Western interest could lead authorities to conclude that a prisoner was 'intimate with enemies of the revolution.' As they lost friends and neighbors to the prison system, both their faith and loyalty to their communities propelled them to petition the government and to play dangerous tricks on the authorities to deliver food to famine-stricken regions.

Coleman describes one such trick, gas siphoning, in 'Thick Skin,' which focuses on the relationships that emerged between locals and missionaries in the fight against famine. Through a convoluted exchange, the missionaries spread the Word, wrapped in injera bread, and a local teenager, Yared, managed to avoid military service. 'I would help Yared change the oil or drain the radiator in one of the [government] vehicles, and then we would spend long afternoons sitting in line for gas and getting the ration books stamped for the mission's cars. Then we would siphon off any extra litres from the local vehicles so that they could be used to get country-bound vehicles farther afield. I learned a lot from Yared.'

When he moved to Canada as a young man, Coleman found it nearly impossible to translate these experiences into a language that his Canadian friends could comprehend, and it is in this period that the ambiguity of his national and cultural identity is reflected most profoundly. Like many 'hyphenated-Canadians,' he often opted to omit his transcultural experiences from his official history. 'When Canadians asked me where I was from, I often opted for 'Wheatley, Ontario,' It was my dad's hometown. 'The blandness of the short version discouraged questions. It allowed me to fit in.'

Coleman's conflicted relationship to his past, and to his family's faith, came to a head when he returned to Ethiopia in 1993 and reunited with his childhood friend, Negussi. Having served a horrific 6-year prison term for refusing to renounce his faith, Negussi had been suddenly released with a group of fellow inmates, in the period after Mengistu was exiled and Soviet aid to the junta had evaporated. To the missionaries, Negussi was 'a hero of his faith'; he had continued to proclaim his faith in Christ to his persecutors, and had in fact converted hundreds of fellow inmates through an underground prison fellowship. His example had even lead prison guards to improve living conditions. When Coleman and his wife arrived on the eve of Negussi's graduation from seminary, they learned from his wife that he had developed typhus. 'Negussi lay on a gurney in the hallway awaiting tests. Antiseptic in the air and the smell of urine from the cut-down kerosene tin that served as a bedpan burned my nostrils' When I took his hand, it was so swollen that he could not curl his fingers to fit the curve of my palm.'

While Negussi 'remained convinced that God had showered him with grace,' Coleman grappled with his own interpretation of the unfolding events: 'God breaks his word. He does not keep the virtuous man from falling.' Disease is what most universally assails Africa, and the missionaries are remembered not just for wrapping the Word in injera, but for providing the scientific and educational resources to prevent and treat illness. In the age of AIDS, when governments and even NGOs support policy that denies or discourages condom use and drives homosexuality underground, many contemporary Christian groups have yet to respond to this crisis with the healing zeal of their forebears. Coleman's moving memoir suggests that the drive to heal the sick in body, not just spirit, is the force that can keep the ferenji relevant on the continent, with their roots firmly planted in a rich and fertile ground.

Anne Borden lives in Toronto, where she works as a writer and editor.






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