African Studies Quarterly

Fire from the Ashes: A Chronicle of the Revolution in Tigray, Ethiopia, 1975-1991. Jenny Hammond. Lawrenceville and Asmara: The Red Sea Press, 1999, Pp. 456.


Jenny Hammond's Fire from the Ashes: A Chronicle of the Revolution in Tigray, Ethiopia, 1975-1991 is a sympathetic account, based on extensive field observations, of the origin and evolution of the Tigray People's Revolution Front (TPLF), the forerunner of the ruling party in Ethiopia. Hammond's data derives from elite interviews of some TPLF officials, as well as rank and file members of the party. The interviews with the leaders of the TPLF, including the current head of government in Ethiopia, are particularly significant, since they provide insight into how these leaders intended to portray both their organization and themselves.

Hammond collected the data in Tigray intermittently over a period of a few years (December 1986-March 1987, May-July 1989 and January-May, 1991). Among other things, the author discusses the changing role of women in the territory during the different stages of the revolution the anatomy of famine in the area, and the military strategies used for taking on and eventually defeating the superior forces of their opponents. The author spends a good deal of space (esp. see pp. 34-41; pp. 98-101) relying stories told to her by prisoners who experienced abuses at the hand of the Ethiopian government. With graphic detail, the book acquaints the reader with the fundamental philosophy of the TPLF, while also putting into perspective the changes that have since been introduced in Tigray.

Hammond's work is not, however, flawless. Some of the limitations of the book stem from the research design she created to fulfill the goals of her study. She aptly asks at the outset, 'What drives a people over the abyss from fatalistic acceptance of routine misery to armed struggle?' (p. 4) Despite such a clear thematic statement, she does not pursue its answer in the most logical and helpful way, rather she instead dwells on disparate personal narratives, thereby leaving the reader uncertain as to what conclusions or generalizations ought to be drawn from the anecdotal evidence.

Another problem with the research is that there is some question with regards to the author's ability to draw balanced and accurate conclusions. First, the fact that she was invited by the TPLF (p. 9) to study the revolution makes the reader wonder whether she was able to observe more than what the TPLF leaders allowed her to. And although Hammond did indeed recognize this dilemma, she was not in a position to do anything about it: 'The Front has invited me here to conduct an independent investigation, but I cannot go anywhere without their support' (p. 31). Secondly, because she experienced the bombardments and raids of Ethiopian MIGs along with her subjects, her analysis might be colored due to the bond that formed between her and the Front's members following their shared combat experience. Again, she is cognizant of the potential for bias as the air raids turn her "from an observer of a revolution to its participant (p. 5)."

The book is also full of extraneous personal details that are neither of much interest to a reader nor which have a direct bearing on the subject matter. For example, there are passages discussing her urge to urinate (p. 10); how many hours she spent at the latrine (p. 19); her being sweaty and dusty (p. 41), and the like. While minor, these flaws, as they accumulate, tend to get in the way of the discussion of the main themes and should have been eliminated through more careful editing.

Judging also by the fact that the book reads more like a carefully-written diary than an analytical account of a structured field observation, it might have well been titled "A Chronicle of Jenny Hammond's Journey in Tigray," since much of what is written in the book pertains to her encounters and experiences, rather than the revolution per se. To be sure, Hammond spent much energy, as well as time, under truly dangerous circumstances (see for example, p. 115) trying to observe first-hand what she could. However, the volume focuses too much on the author's own story, to the neglect of her analysis of the events and personalities that are at the core of the study.

Still, despite its minor limitations, the book is important for a number of reasons. Particularly invaluable are the interview accounts of the TPLF leaders who currently occupy the reigns of power in present-day Ethiopia. Upon reading Hammond's book, one is likely to gain fresh insights into the philosophical, intellectual, and social origins of the policies of the current regime. The book is rich in details and could easily become a very useful source of reference for a comparative examination of the dialectics of movements that challenge the rule of established governments in different parts of Africa and elsewhere.

Seifudein Adem
University of Tsukuba, Japan