The Story Collecting Project
Merga Debelo (left) of the Oromia Education Bureau with Bonsamo Miesso during a story collecting visit in Bale
It was not the primary purpose of the project to make a record of Ethiopian folk stories. Methods of collecting were necessarily amateurish and hurried. Elizabeth Laird is neither a folklorist nor an anthropologist, but a writer and English language teacher. Only a few days could be spent in each region, and translations were sometimes patchy. There is no doubt that a wealth of further stories could be collected, but the task is urgent, for only a few years remain in which they will still be remembered.
Elizabeth Laird and the translators worked closely with the Regional Officers in each Regional Culture or Education Bureau. In some cases, the Regional Officer spent days with the team, and it was entirely thanks to their dedication and enthusiasm that any stories were collected. Once the team had arrived in the regional centre, storytellers were assembled by the Regional Officer. Suitable and congenial places were found for the storytelling, and the stories were first recorded on to tapes. Where the storyteller could speak fluent Amharic, the stories were told in that language, but often they were recorded in a regional language, which was subsequently translated into Amharic and then into English, which Elizabeth Laird took down in dictation. The resulting text, therefore, represents fairly precisely the speech and idiom of the final translation from Amharic into English, but not the voices of the original storytellers.
Ogota Agiw of the Gambela Education and Culture Bureau working on translation of Anuak stories with Elizabeth Laird
In all, nearly 289 stories were collected and 34 tapes were recorded. Among the stories are many from small communities in remote areas of Ethiopia. For example, in the Gambela region, stories were recorded and translated into English from the Anuak, Nuer, Opo, Majangir and Komo communities. From the Omo region, there are stories from the Ari, Male, Bena and Tsemay. From Benishangul-Gumuz, there are stories from the Gumuz, Berta and Shinasha peoples. Large numbers of stories were collected in the more homogenous regions of Tigray, Amhara, Somalia, Harar, Oromia and Afar. Some of these were recorded in their source language and are available to listen to on this website. Others were taped in Amharic and still others only in English.
Efforts were made in every region to collect stories from women as well as men. This proved to be challenging, and there are fewer stories from women in the collection. This is to be regretted, as the stories told by women were of great interest and originality. It is a sad fact that the spread of literacy is one reason for the decline in oral storytelling, and it is also true that fewer Ethiopian women than men are literate. A future attempt to collect stories would probably benefit from focussing on women storytellers.