Of Hairy Kings and Saintly Slaves. An Ethiopian Travelogue
Manuel Joao Ramos
A lost sketch book on a Portuguese castle rampart left Manuel João Ramos bereft, and the impulse to draw deserted him – but his first trip to Ethiopia reawakened this pleasure, so long denied. Drawing obsessively and free from care, his rapidly caught impressions convey the rough edges of the intensely lived experiences that are fundamental to the desire to travel. For the travel sketch is more than a record or register of attendance (‘been there, seen that’): it holds invisibly within itself the remnant of a look, the hint of a memory and a trace of an osmosis of feelings between the sketcher and the person or objects sketched. Less intrusive than using a camera, Ramos argues drawing comprises a less imperialist, more benign way of researching: his sketchbook becomes a means of communication between himself and the world in which he travels, rendering him more human to those around him.
As he journeys through the Ethiopian Central Highlands, collecting historical legends of the power struggles surrounding the arrival of the first Europeans in the mid-sixteenth century, he is drawn to the Portuguese legacy of castles, palaces and churches, near ruins now, though echoes of their lost splendour are retained in oral accounts. Excerpts from his diary, as well as journalistic pieces, share the conviviality of his encounters with the priests, elders and historians who act as custodians of the Amhara oral tradition. Their tales are interwoven with improvised, yet assured, drawings, and this informality of structure successfully retains the immediacy and pleasure of his discovery of Ethiopia. It also suggests the potential for drawing to play a more active part in anthropological production, as a means of creating new narratives and expositional forms in ethnography, bringing it closer to travel writing or the graphic novel.