This blog post is among the winners of the Department of Comparative Literatures’s 2020-2021 Blog Award for the module 6ABA0013 ‘Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa in Global Cultural Studies’. Congratulations to Nina Hanna for winning the award!
If writing that was used to teach English grammar had made up the foundational texts of English literature then no one would bother studying it. But Ləbb Wälläd Tarik, now known as Tobbya, was written by Afäwärq Gäbrä-Iyyäsus when he was exiled in Italy as part of a selection of writing he used to educate his students on the Ethiopian language of Amharic. Tobbya is now famous for being the first novel written in the language – so much so that its original name Ləbb Wälläd Tarik, which can be translated as ‘a story from the heart’, is now the Amharic term for novel.
Tobbya is an enchanting tale which uses seemingly serendipitous moments to unfold its plot. That is to say, everything that happens appears to be totally dependent on chance or fate. This makes the story incredibly engaging as we follow each character’s greatest moments of luck in life as well as their unfortunate misadventures. This atmosphere of luck, chance and even destiny is added to by the central characters, Tobbya and Wahid, being highly connected as twins; meaning any luck or misfortune that occurs in the life of one deeply affects the other – foregrounding the idea of fate as having widespread consequences.
The story follows a close Christian family unit – the twins Tobbya and Wahid along with their parents. Their father serves as one of four Dejazmach (Christian generals) defending his people against incoming Pagan invasions. By chance, he is the only one who does not lose his life in battle and is instead sold into slavery. Luckily, his master learns of his noble past and offers him freedom for a ransom. The Dejazmach’s family work hard to make the money but, again, it is by fate that Wahid meets a benevolent merchant who anonymously sends the ransom to free his father. Wahid is so desperate to thank this merchant that he sets out on an unfortunate journey to locate him and, instead, he is ironically captured and sold into slavery himself. Tobbya disguises herself as a boy for protection and sets off with her father to search for her lost brother. They are caught in yet another Pagan invasion and, though her father feels their fate is sealed, Tobbya uses her faith to stay hopeful. She says to her father: ‘do you think that Christ does not do miracles more than once?’. With this question, Tobbya transforms the motifs of fate and chance of the story into the destiny of God’s will. The pair are saved by what seems to be divine intervention – as the Pagan army marching past fail to explore the hill they are hiding on. They are later discovered by the Pagan king himself who, despite heading a pillaging army, declares they must not be harmed. The king eventually falls in love with Tobbya after discovering she is not a boy and his cousin, who has fallen in love with the disguised Tobbya, then falls in love with Wahid – who the king saves from slavery. In order for the novel to end with a joyous double marriage, the king and his followers convert from Paganism to Christianity – uniting the nation and providing salvation for all.
The chance encounters of the novel now all seem to have been in accordance with God’s will and Tobbya is ‘happy … because god … used her [to] convert the great Pagan king’. But the narrator does not fail to see how this was all contingent on mere chance. The novel ends by noting: ‘all were saved because of a merchant. All believed in Christ because of a woman. The whole of Christian Ethiopia was established because of the words of a king’. Afäwärq Gäbrä-Iyyäsus was possibly hoping that by writing Tobbya, which celebrates the ancient history of Christianity in Ethiopia, luck would also favour him. It was published alongside his Chronicle of Menelik II, (the emperor remembered for defeating Italy and preventing the European colonisation of Ethiopia), with which Afäwärq Gäbrä-Iyyäsus sought to regain favour after having collaborated with the Italians Menelik II managed to fight off. In this way, Tobbya is both a story which celebrates ancient Ethiopian Christian heritage and one with which the author is seeking good faith in order to return back to his national homeland. The depiction of the understanding king of his novel is perhaps most revealing aspect of the author’s intention to flatter his own king.
However, Tobbya is a beguiling read even for those unversed in Ethiopian history or Christianity as the chance, fate and destiny written into its plot cannot help but delight and provide a wonderful reading experience.
Afäwärḳ Gäbrä-Iyyäsus, Ləbb Wälläd Tarik (1908),Trans. Tadesse Tamrat 1964, ‘Tobbya’. Ethiopian Observer, vol. 8, no. 3 pp. 242-266.
2) ‘Pagan’ – BBC Religions, Paganism <https://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/paganism/> [accessed 2 Nov 2020].
3) ‘(the emperor remembered for defeating Italy and preventing the European colonisation of Ethiopia)’ – Anchi Hoh, Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia and the Battle of Adwa: A Pictorial History in The Library of Congress, International Collections <https://blogs.loc.gov/international-collections/2020/03/emperor-menelik-ii-of-ethiopia-and-the-battle-of-adwa-a-pictorial-history/> [accessed 2 Nov 2020].
Nina is a final year comparative literature student from London. Her research interests include post-colonial literature and the environmental humanities, but she has specifically loved studying Ethiopian literature, history, and culture at King’s.