Ethiopia in the Germaine Greer Archive

By Rachel Buchanan

Germaine Greer went to Ethiopia in late 1984 and twice in 1985 to report on the famine for British newspapers, The Mail on Sunday and The Observer, and to make a TV documentary for Diverse Productions, a company that supplied content for the Channel 4. Records generated by these trips can be found in most series of the archive and they often feel out of place. For example, in the Early Years series (2014.0044), Greer’s hand-annotated map of Ethiopia is filed next to an invitation to a party at Warwick Castle in 1968 and poems written on University of Melbourne crested paper in 1959. Her Ethiopia reporters’ notebooks are slipped into the Major Works series (2014.0045), next to typescript drafts of Kissing the Rod, an anthology of 17th century women’s verse that Greer co-edited.

The Ethiopia digitisation project explores the way the famine has spread itself through the archive, defying neat arrangement or classification. It showcases the scope and depth of the archive, demonstrates how inter-related the individual series and hints at the way this archive talks to itself. Researchers can use key Library of Congress subject headings, such as Famine—Ethiopia, to eavesdrop on this conversation.

The records selected for digitisation come from the following series: Early Years (2014.0044); Major Works (2014.0045); Print Journalism (2014.0046); Photographs (2014.0054); and Television (2017.0002). They include photographs, unpublished typescripts, reporter’s notebooks, ephemera, Greer’s road maps, scripts, letters and news clippings. Greer has returned to Ethiopia often in her journalism and the project showcases some of this diverse writing. Ethiopia features in an essay on Sex and Food for The Daily Telegraph (1989), in a 1992 column for The Oldie on privacy and Princess Diana and in a 2009 article about turning 70 for The Age.

The project has captured a portion of Ethiopia in the Greer Archive. Further Ethiopia records are in the Speaking series (notably records relating to Richard Pankhurst, a historiographer of Ethiopia and son of suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst 2017.0009.00635). Ethiopia also pops up in Contraceptives, Cars and Gardens (2017.0026). In between the second and third trips to Ethiopia, Greer bought her property at The Mills, Stump Cross in Essex.

In the gardening files, Greer leaves instructions for the landscaper to follow because she is off to Ethiopia. She was planning a bulb border for her driveway while she was writing a script about media representations of the famine. It is one of many instances, in the archive, where the deeply domestic collides with affairs of national or international significance.

Ethiopia also features in the audio series (2014.0040), 148 cassette tapes, digital audio tapes and minidiscs. These analogue records have been digitised and time-coded and researchers can listen to them in the supervised Reading Room at the Baillieu. Greer discusses Ethiopia in 1985 interviews with Vilma Espin, Fidel Castro’s sister-in-law, and with Italian writer Primo Levi. Greer also made two audio recordings in Ethiopia – labelled by Greer Ethiopia 1 and Ethiopia -- resettlement.

A VHS tape of the documentary Greer presented and co-wrote, ‘Diverse Reports – Ethiopia’ (screened on Channel 4 on 23 October 1985) is held in the third-party AV series (2014.0041) along with viewer responses, Right to Reply (Channel 4, 1 November 1985) and [Art that Shook the World - The Psalms], a 2001 documentary Greer made for the British Broadcasting Corporation in Ethiopia. These records have all been digitised along with more than 400 others that document Greer’s appearances on film and television from 1963 until 2014. One of the most stunning outcomes of the Ethiopia digitisation project has been the 560 unprocessed negatives: some waste generated by Greer’s print journalism. They are like deleted scenes or offcuts, small visual essays that are an attempt to understand an unfolding catastrophe. Only a few of these photos were ever published. Greer took them with an Olympus Quickflash using 35mm black and white film. A snippet of audio from Ethiopia - Resettlement (2014.0040.00051) documents her anxiety about her ability with the camera. “I’m not sure I get things in focus,” she says. “I mean in frame I should probably say.”

What’s happening in these pictures?

In short, tens of thousands of starving people were being moved around the country by an Ethiopian agency called the Refugee Resettlement Commission and Germaine Greer followed some of them. The commission shifted people from dry places to fertile ones. Greer circled a starving nation but many of her stunning photos show people surrounded by food – women selling mangos, men milling flour or tending beehives or planting seedlings in a greenhouse. Her journey is tracked on a large-format map (also digitised) with a pink highlighter and biro. The analogue negatives that have been developed as part of the Ethiopia project are evidence of the politics of reporting, especially of working as a foreign correspondent. What do reporters see? What are they allowed to see? How can they understand what they are seeing when they don’t speak the language and don’t understand the culture? When is the meaning of an event fixed and how can records document or obscure new understandings?

In 1985, veteran Canadian foreign correspondent Brian Stewart wrote a fan letter to Germaine Greer after watching the Ethiopia Diverse Reports documentary on Channel 4. University of Melbourne Archives sent Stewart a copy of his letter, contained in the TV Diverse Reports 23/10/85 file (2017.0002.00060), and asked for permission to reproduce it. His response is a valuable addition to the original record and provides another frame for the digitised Greer Ethiopia records.

On 17 July 2017, Stewart emailed Rachel Buchanan, curator, Germaine Greer Archive the following note: “I have now reread the whole letter, which I remember writing even after all this time. I would first like to make the following comments just to clear up my position.

“At that time, in 1985 I had spent extensive time in the Ethiopia famine lands of the north and visited some resettlement sites in the south. I was one of the first TV journalists to gain access to the worst famine areas in October 1984, and so horrifying was the scale of the catastrophe I witnessed I was influenced in favour of the controversial Resettlement Program which had been supported by several humanitarian organizations as well as friendly government such as Canada, which played a lead role in early famine relief. Indeed, before the full arrival of International Aid the situation looked so desperate in provinces such as Tigray and Wallo a major movement of people to more fertile areas of the South seemed inevitable, and life-saving.

“Like many who covered the famine, however, I came to change my mind over the winter of ’85/86 when stories of government brutality towards tens of thousands of famine victims who were forcibly removed began to surface. It also became more apparent that the Ethiopian government was especially targeting civilians in areas engaged in the Tigrayan uprising (TPLF). Since that period, I’ve looked back on the Resettlement Program as a tragic act of repression. I’ve come to know many Ethiopians who were forced into the program including whole families that had to make daring escapes over hundreds of miles back to their home areas.

“I see throughout this letter that Germaine Greer and myself, while very well meaning, are in this instance on the wrong side of history, if I can use that old phrase. I quite see why I came to that initial conclusion in '85, but regret it nevertheless. However, this does not take away from my strong admiration Ms Greer in many other instances – she was a superb and brave correspondent and commentator who took many heroic stands, often against extraordinarily nasty criticism.

“Because the letter accurately represents a particular point of view in the past I have no objection to you using it. I would naturally appreciate it if my qualifications were somehow noted, but I leave that up to your discretion.

“I regret I only met Germaine Greer on the one occasion of my CBC interview with her. I’m delighted to hear that efforts are being made to preserve her papers as she was an extraordinary formidable journalistic presence across several decades and deserves to be so remembered.”

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