Warrior King by Sahle Sellassie

Warrior King is one of several books in English by Sahle Sellassie, all now apparently out of print. It wasn’t easy to find much information about them so I just went for the one which was available cheapest second-hand.

It is a historical novel, telling the story of the rise of Kassa Hailu, who starts as an outlaw but eventually conquers the whole of Ethiopia and establishes himself as Emperor Tewodros II of Ethiopia.

The obvious comparison for me is with the brilliant Chaka by Thomas Mofolo, also a historical novel about the rise of an African emperor. Mofolo captured something of the brutality and darkness inherent in a man’s rise to power through conquest, and the novel has a real literary heft to it.

Warrior King is a much less interesting book. It’s not a complete whitewashing of history — Kassa Hailu is presented as a ruthless figure, even if he is rebelling against an even more brutal regime. If anything, though, it just doesn’t see that interested in engaging with the morality of it, or the psychology. It reminds me of the kind of history books parodied by 1066 And All That: history as a sequence of memorable anecdotes strung together into a basic narrative. It’s certainly not very interesting as literature, but it’s not really very interesting as history either; their just isn’t enough context or detail to make it come to life. There’s surely enough material in the rise of Tewodros II to make either a really interesting history book or a rattling good yarn. This is neither.

Warrior King is my book from Ethiopia for the Read The World challenge.

» The shield decorated with filigree and a lion’s mane is the royal shield of Tewodros II which, like quite a lot of his stuff, ended up in the British Museum.

Races and races

It’s probably easier and wiser to avoid the awkward subject of the relationship between race and sporting ability. Whatever the truth one way or the other, discussing the possibility of inherent racial advantages in anything is only going to be divisive.

But when you turn on the World Athletics Championships 10000m race, and see that after 3000m the leading group consists of four Kenyans (one running for Qatar), three Ethiopians, an Eritrean, a Ugandan, a Zimbabwean and an American who was born in Somalia, it’s hard to avoid. The men’s distance events are so consistently dominated by Ethiopians and Kenyans in particular; both countries seem to produce new world-class distance runners by the dozen. In the last 10 years, there have been three Olympics and six World Championships, and in the 10000m, 25 of the 27 medals have been won by Kenyans and Ethiopians.

Surely, you have to think, there’s some kind of physiological trait present in some East African populations – probably an adaptation to altitude – which gives them an advantage. And if there is, it would be interesting to know what it is. It would also be interesting to start projects to look for gifted distance runners in other high-altitude countries like Ecuador and Nepal.

I suppose one difficulty is that if you say Ethiopians are naturally gifted distance runners, it tends to devalue their achievement, although they still have to beat each other. The race today, which the awe-inspiring Kenenisa Bekele eventually won after the Eritrean, Zersenay Tadesse, set a gruelling pace for most of the way, certainly didn’t look any easier or less competitive because it was dominated by East Africans.

Of course it’s worth pointing out that the classic simplistic idea of race doesn’t apply here. Distance running isn’t dominated by ‘black’ or African athletes in general; it’s specifically Kenyans and Ethiopians. And perhaps just a specific subset of people from those countries.

I was in Japan during the Sydney Olympics, and the Japanese seemed generally convinced that black people were just ‘stronger’ than Asians, and that was that. So when a Danish TV documentary ran a tiny informal experiment that supposedly demonstrated that people from a particular ethnic group in Kenya had an advantage in distance running, I wasn’t surprised to see the Japan Times report the story with a headline that was something like ‘Blacks proven to be naturally faster’, illustrated with a picture of Michael Johnson. Johnson, of course, is neither Kenyan nor a distance runner. In fact, as a sprinter, any physiological adaptations which favoured endurance racing might well be an active disadvantage.

All of which leads me to… I don’t know, really. I don’t really have a point, except that it’s all quite interesting.

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