In the mid 1970's Ethiopia was in the midst of a Civil War. As people in its northern-most province, fought for independence, more and more Ethiopians were drafted to fight in the war. Added to that, a terrible drought began to spread famine throughout the war-torn country.
Many ethnic groups, including Ethiopian Jews, who had suffered severe religious persecution and violence, began to make pilgrimages towards the Sudan in hopes of finding safety. Unfortunately, in refugee camps throughout the Sudan, people died by the thousands due to starvation and disease.
Israel sponsored many airlifts and secret operations to get Ethiopian Jews out of the refugee camps throughout the 1980's. By 1989, when the military government of Ethiopia was overthrown, 45,000 Ethiopian Jews had been helped to emigrate to Israel.
The Storyteller's Beads is based on the personal accounts of Ethiopian refugees who escaped from their country on foot during the 1980s.
Sahay and her uncle are the only members from their family to survive a military attack. Their crops have perished from drought, and Sahay's uncle has decided the two must escape to the Sudan.
Sahay is disturbed to learn that they will be traveling among Falashas, or "alien strangers," the Kemant name for Ethiopian Jews, who are also known as Beta-Israel. Although the two ethnic groups have close historical ties, they view each other as enemies. Nonetheless, Sahay is intrigued by Rahel, a blind Beta-Israel girl who makes the arduous journey by holding onto her brother's shoulder. When Sahay's uncle and Rahel's brother are captured and sent home, Sahay reluctantly volunteers to be Rahel's guide.
At first, the girls travel in silence, but they soon open up to each other. In time, they learn to accept their differences and to see that they have much in common. When Rahel has the chance to leave a filthy refugee camp and go to Jerusalem with other Beta-Israel, she claims that Sahay is her sister so that Sahay will not be left behind. The two girls realize that they have indeed become mahala, or sisters in spirit.
In addition to tolerance and understanding, persistence is a central theme in this powerful story. The girls' journey is long, lonely, and full of hardship. Rahel draws strength from her storyteller's beads, handed down by her beloved grandmother to remind Rahel of the many stories of biblical Jews' bravery in the face of suffering and persecution. By sharing the traditional stories, Rahel buoys Sahay's spirits.
Family is another important theme in the book. Both girls' families are very important to them and both persist on their difficult journey in part because they feel they are doing it for their families.
Neither Rahel nor Sahay has ever been more than a few miles from home. Now, to escape famine and violence, the girls must be brave enough to leave their country forever.
Alone together on the journey, Rahel and Sahay are badly in need of each other's friendship, but first they must overcome their deeply ingrained mistrust of each other's people.
The Storyteller's Beads is set in Ethiopia amid the famine and warfare of the 1980s. Sahay recalls how life in her village was good until the "Red Terror" came to attack her people. Rahel worries because her family is almost out of money to buy food.
- What other details does the author provide to show the harshness and terror of their lives? What does Sahay say about the weather? What does she observe about the potato crops? Why do you think Sahay dreams about seeds blowing away?
- Why does Rahel worry that her brother will be unable to sell his goods?
- What do Rahel and her grandmother imagine when they hear an airplane overhead?
The girls' trip is physically very difficult. They must cross steep mountains and barren desert land. Sahay vividly describes the rigors of the journey. For instance, she tells of leaving the blood of her feet on a rocky mountain ridge.
- Locate other places in the book where Sahay and Rahel talk about the difficulties of the trip. How do they describe their problems? What helps them to keep going?
Though this story took place less than 20 years ago, the Ethiopians' way of life may strike students as primitive. No one has a car or a television. Sahay notes that her family grew their own food and made almost all of their possessions. Sahay has some superstitions that might strike us as bizarre. Find other details that show that rural Ethiopia in the '80s was not modernized. Where do Rahel's and Sahay's families shop? What kind of bed does Sahay sleep in? What does Rahel call the airplane she sees? What does Rahel's brother do for a living? How do non-Beta-Israel view his trade? What are some Kemant beliefs regarding the Beta-Israel?
Sahay recalls that her family always said she was stubborn, like Yared, the musician, in a story they told.
- Do you agree? Why or why not? How might stubbornness be a useful trait during a trip like the one Sahay made? How might it be not-so-useful when it comes to making friends?
- Rahel has a vivid imagination. How does it help her to survive the journey? To deal with her blindness? To make friends with Sahay?
Rahel and Sahay are similar in some ways; for instance, family is very important to both girls. Compare and contrast the girls.
- How else are they alike? How are they different?
Both Rahel and Sahay sometimes compare themselves to characters from the stories they know.
- Which character do you think each girl is most like? Why?
Sahay feels deeply guilty for hiding instead of going to her family when they were killed.
- Do you think she did the right thing? Why or why not?
Sahay wants to stay with her uncle because he's all that is left of her family. But he insists she go on alone to the Sudan, to make a new life and prevent the family from dying out.
- What would you do in Sahay's place? Do you think her uncle was right? Why or why not?
- Why does Sahay dislike the Falasha? Are her opinions based on experience or simply on what she heard?
- Have you ever prejudged someone you didn't know, based on factors like race, religion, or appearance? Was your judgment correct?
Rahel draws strength from her storyteller's beads. Each bead reminds her of a story from the history of her people.
- Does your own family have any special stories or traditions? What are they? How are they meaningful to you?
Rahel survives her journey by imagining herself as one or another of the characters from her stories.
- How else might stories help people with their problems?
- Have you ever looked to a story character or historical figure as a role model? Who? How did he or she help you?
Rahel and Sahay declare themselves to be mahala, or sisters.
- Do you think that people who are not related can be like brothers and sisters? Why or why not?
- How might being mahala differ from being good friends?
Other books with similar themes:
Letters from Rifka by Karen Hesse (Scholastic)
Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun by Jacqueline Woodson (Scholastic)
Habibi by Naomi Shihab Nye (Simon and Schuster)
The Runner by Cynthia Voight (Scholastic ((originally Atheneum)) )