Photos courtesy of Sharon Sarthou

By Cady Herring

“Ethiopia was a fairytale,” said Sharon Sarthou, a wistful smile spreading across her face as she sat in her home across the street from the University of Mississippi.

Her memories of Africa date back to 1954 when Addis Ababa was a place where the wrong kind of glance at the emperor, Haile Selassie, could mean execution. Everyone followed a curfew because of wild animals and bandits. It was not surprising that 3-year-old Sarthou was under close watch by her mother, nursemaid and gardener, not to mention her agronomist father from the University of Oklahoma, who also gave private lessons to the sons of some of the country’s elite.

But Sarthou was safe and happy in her own personal retreat, a walled garden that created a cocoon of bliss for a young girl with a strong imagination. Every day, she went into her garden behind her home and held a tea party with her dolls.

One day, a big black Rolls Royce pulled up.

“A tiny little black man got out and came to tea with me,” Sarthou said. He sat in one of Sarthou’s teeny garden chairs and asked her about her dolls and tea in English and Amharic, Ethiopia’s national language.

The little man who took the time to sip imaginary tea was the emperor. Claiming to be a direct descendant of Menelik, the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, he held complete power in the country. The Lion of Judah, as he was called, not only controlled Ethiopia. His  success in repelling an invasion by Italy in the run-up to World War II helped make him one of the most famous rulers in the world in the last century. In 1936, he graced the cover of “Time” magazine as its Man of the Year.

In 1933, Selassie addressed the League of Nations as the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini marched troops into his country in an attempt to conquer it. Selassie demanded that the world stiffen its spine to stand up against fascist tyranny and colonialism, and he and the British ousted the Italians and provided a victory over aggression at a time much of Europe was reeling from the beginning of the Nazi onslaught.

Selassie helped modernize Ethiopia in a distinctly African way, slowly bleeding influence away from nobles in the countryside. It is believed that he was assassinated after a year of imprisonment in the palace in 1975.

But his influence on Ethiopia remains. Selassie was the all-powerful emperor from 1930 to 1974 and instituted the first constitution in 1931. Although he had complete control as a dictator, he led the country toward democracy. Sarthou’s family revered Selassie because he brought Ethiopia into the modern world.

“I was brought up to think of him as a person who was flawed, as a dictator with complete rule over life and death, but he was a person who was trying to make a difference. And that was very important to my parents. They understood that you could be flawed and still try to make the world a better place.”

Sarthou had never met her paternal grandfathers, and so it was natural that she followed African custom and called him “grandfather” out of respect. He wore a black suit and his car was adorned with furs of wild animals. Selassie was extremely formal and respectful to Sarthou, and he seemed genuinely curious about this “little white girl” in his country.

She didn’t think much about the fact that anyone had joined her for tea in her beloved garden, which seemed like a towering maze with lush green plants and flowers. She held tea every day, and Selassie’s first visit was not his last. He drove around Addis Ababa frequently to check on the city, and he could partially see into the Sarthous’ garden next to their Colonial stucco home surrounded by a wall topped with broken glass. He knew that it was the home of his son’s teacher, Sarthou’s father Charles Lawrence Sarthou.

Sarthou’s father was an experimental agronomist and teacher of chemistry and applied chemistry in Ethiopia, dispatched from the University of Oklahoma to study agriculture and help farmers take advantage of the three full growing seasons  unique to that part of the world. “He was determined to teach people how to feed themselves,” Sarthou said. He believed that everything else would fall into place after that, because people couldn’t do anything if they were hungry.

Living in Ethiopia during that time was dangerous, and her family kept her as sheltered as they could. The bacteria-laden water had to go through a seven-layer filter just to touch her skin, not an insignificant precaution in a land where cuts could easily become septic, Sarthou said.

“Grandfather” was one of the few people allowed in the garden for tea.

It wasn’t until Selassie was assassinated when Sarthou was a 17-year-old university student in Canada that her parents, weeping in their kitchen, told her who “Grandfather” really was  — the Lion of Judah, Emperor Haile Selassie.