CM . . . . Volume XVII Number 8. . . .October 22, 2010.
Cry of the Giraffe: Based on a True Story.
Toronto, ON: Annick Press, 2010.
193 pp., pbk. & hc., $12.95 (pbk.), $21.95 (hc.).
ISBN 978-1-55451-271-3 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-55451-272-0 (hc.).
Grades 9 and up / Ages 14 and up.
Review by Ruth Latta.
You are a brave girl, Wuditu. You are like your brother. Whatever happens, whatever you decide about school, remember the giraffe - she has a long neck and she's beautiful. Even when she's sad or frightened she holds her head up and she doesn't cry - not even when life seems too hard to bear.
Judie Oron, a journalist in Toronto, has written a compelling novel based on the real-life experiences of an Ethiopian Jewish teenager named "Wuditu." Writing in the first person and using the girl's voice, Oron begins the story in 1985 when the heroine, then nine, is living in her native village of round mud huts with thatched peaked roofs. She, her brother Dawid and her birth mother live near the house her father occupies with his second wife and their children, including Lewteh, Wuditu's best friend and half-sister. The story opens during civil war in Ethiopia where outsider groups, like the Beta Israel, are under the suspicion of the government.
Wikipedia offers several accounts of the origin of the Jewish community in Ethiopia. Judie Oron, author of Cry of the Giraffe, explains in her "Note to Readers" that this community had existed in Ethiopia for centuries. She dates its origin to the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem over 2000 years ago. Some Jews fled south and established a community in Egypt. Three hundred years later, some of them followed the Nile into Ethiopia where they established a Jewish kingdom alongside other peoples already living there. In the 1600s, a coalition of forces defeated this Jewish kingdom, and survivors fled to the Ethiopian highlands. Calling themselves "Beta Israel" (House of Israel), they made a living through crafts, like weaving, pottery and metal work. Mistrusted by their Islamic and Christian neighbours, they suffered discrimination and were referred to as "falasha," a negative term meaning "foreigners" or "exiles.
"As long as I could remember, Ethiopia had been at war," says Wuditu. "First the rebels came and conquered our village. Then the government soldiers came and took it back." Bandits also disrupted their lives.
Hardships escalate for the Beta Israelis. The Ethiopian government decrees that Hebrew schools must be closed, and that Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, is to be the market day. In school, in a lesson on the different tribes in Ethiopia, her teacher informs the students that the "falasha" possess the "evil eye." No one there knows that Wuditu, who excels in school, is Beta Israeli.
Soon Wudiitu becomes a letter-reader for her illiterate neighbours and kin. A letter arrives, saying, "A messenger will soon come to guide you to freedom." Her brother Dawid, who has disappeared, returns as an Israeli agent and guide, advising Ethiopian Jews as to how to escape.
In the 1980s and 1990s, in Operation Moses and Operation Solomon, the Israeli government airlifted Ethiopia Jews to Israel to begin new lives. For a period of time, Beta Israelis had to go to Sudanese refugee camps from which they were guided to secret desert air strips. Later, after the Israeli and Ethiopian governments came to an agreement, the flights were out of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
In 1988, when Wuditu is 12, her father quietly begins selling their cattle one at a time. Her mothers begin sewing fine clothes. Dressed as if for a wedding, the family creeps away early one morning, with their breakfast dishes still on the table, so as to escape without arousing the neighbours' suspicions.
The journey to a Sudanese refugee camp is arduous, and camp conditions are poor. Striving to be inconspicuous, Beta Israelis don't seek medical attention when they are sick, and many die. One night, the Beta Israelis are evicted by armed men and forced to trek back to Ethiopia. During this upheaval, 13-year-old Wuditu and her younger sister, Lewteh, get separated from their parents.
Back in Ethiopia, Wuditu leaves Lewteh with extended family and goes to the town of Amba Giorgis to find work. Carrying water and brewing beer earn her barely enough for survival. She never divulges her religion and resists pressure into prostitution.
"Why did you refuse him?" says Almaz, the proprietor of the beer house, speaking of a soldier who drinks there. "These soldiers have plenty of money in their pockets. They would have paid you well." Gradually Wuditu realizes that this beer house also functions as a brothel. A sex trade worker warns Wuditu: "A pretty young girl like you, a virgin, is worth a lot of money and there are men and women who would be happy to sell you."
Pregnant from a rape, Wuditu induces a miscarriage. She manages to find refuge with an elderly Christian woman, a "meloxie," that is, a person who has lived a normal life and then becomes religious, like a nun. Wuditu is safe from sexual exploitation in this household headed by the elderly woman's granddaughter, the mother of two small children. Yet the granddaughter bullies Wuditu, denies her wages and spouts prejudice against Jews. Accusations of witchcraft and evil abound in this bleak milieu.
Then a "faranj", a white foreign woman arrives and buys Wuditu's freedom. This fairy godmother is Judie Oron, whose work for the Jerusalem Post has brought her in contact with the Ethiopian community in Israel where she met Wuditu's parents and learned that their daughter was missing.
Wuditu suffers from post traumatic stress and guilt for having denied her religion. Judie tells her: "We believe that saving a life is more important than anything else, that it overrides almost every other Jewish law... All the time that you were away from your family, you did everything you could to save your life. ...You've fulfilled God's highest law ...[and]... should be praised for doing so."
Canadian Cataloguing in Publication Data classifies Cry of the Giraffe as "juvenile fiction", and the words "based on a true story" appear on the cover. "What was originally meant to be a memoir evolved instead into a story based upon Wuditu's experiences," writes Oron in her "Acknowledgements." "In order to protect her privacy, some names and events have been altered."
Wuditu's story left me longing to read more. According to Wikipedia, nearly all of the Ethiopian Beta Israel community now reside in Israel. "Today, 81,000 Ethiopian Israelis were born in Ethiopia, while 38,500 or 32 per cent of the community are native born Israelis." (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beta_Israel) A novel could be written about the absorption of this unique African community into Israeli society.
In her "Acknowledgements," Oron says that Wuditu and her sister became members of her family. She refers to Wuditu as a "daughter", and Oron thanks her sons who helped "to absorb two lost girls into our family and who showed remarkable tolerance for the mother who believed that this would be a good thing for all of us." This blended family experience would make an interesting sequel.
Ruth Latta is an Ottawa, ON, based author. Visit Ruth Latta's blog at http://ruthlatta.blogspot.com or her website at www.cyberus.ca/~rklatta/RuthLatta.html
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