Like much of my generation, I suspect, for me the first images evoked by the word “Ethiopia” are those of the hideous famine of the mid-’80s: starving, swollen-bellied children without the energy to brush flies from their faces; Bob Geldof and Band-Aid; the dictator Mengitsu, whose name even sounded like that of a particularly nefarious Doctor Who villain. This was of course all many years ago, and Ethiopia is a very different country in 2012 to what it was in 1984 – but still, first impressions remain powerful, especially if those impressions are formed in childhood, staring starkly out of the TV into your living room.
So it’s probably a bigger surprise than it should be to fly into Addis Ababa and be greeted with a landscape that’s as verdant as any I’ve seen anywhere. In fairness, the city is on the highlands, hundreds of kilometers away from the famine regions – but even so, the immediate thought that comes to my head as I drive into town are that it’s criminal that a country so fertile ever starved, an indictment on the pseudo-Marxist Derg junta that ruled the country until 1987 (of whom more later).
Anyway, the point is: Addis is fertile, palpably so. If Cairo is dust, then Addis is mud – rich, loamy mud. The air is heavy and wet, the sky grey and always apparently ready to burst. The streets smell of soft earth. There’s a decent-sized thunderstorm every day at about 3pm, and the usual shoe-shine kids who pepper the main streets of pretty much Addis-esque city in the world also specialize in shoe-cleaning.
As the sun goes down, there’s a low haze over the city, like the earth itself is steaming. It imbues the landscape with a ghostly beauty that’s like nothing you see elsewhere. There’s something wild and primal about it. And the twilight goes on for hours.
The thing is, though, that Ethiopia shouldn’t be poor, and in many ways, it isn’t. The first thing you notice about central Addis is that it looks relatively prosperous, and that other parts of the city — the area near the airport, for instance, where Chinese investment has paid for a brand spanking new ring road — are positively booming, with new buildings going up everywhere you look. There’s clearly a burgeoning middle class here: people who are clearly well off, with expensive clothes, big cars, brand-name electronics, an air of comfortable prosperity. But even apart from Bole, there are weird disconnects everywhere. Across from my hotel, a shop sells expensive cappuccino machines as kids beg outside. The trickle-down effect doesn’t seem to have kicked in to the rest of the population yet, but then, it never does, does it?
But the point is that it’s easy to see Ethiopia following the trajectory of, say, India — a country which retains much of its traditionally agrarian base but also built a very modern economy atop it. Whether this would actually constitute a good thing for the country and its inhabitants remains to be seen. But these are interesting times in Sub-Saharan Africa. In terms of everyday standards of living, then, Addis — or parts of it, at least — are reasonably comfortable.
To the outside world, though, Ethiopia is poor by simple virtue of the exchange rate. The minute a Westerner steps off the plane and exchanges his/her dollars for birr (side note — make sure you actually have dollars, so you don’t get stuck at the airport for hours waiting for the ATM to work so you can pay for your visa), they’re rich. The economic disparity between visitor and local is so great that it makes it difficult to have any sort of interaction that doesn’t have a financial undercurrent. This, sadly, breeds a sort of suspicion in the visitor: why is this person talking to me? What do they want from me? When’s the sales pitch coming? Because the sales pitch always comes. You hate yourself for doing it. But you do it nonetheless.
Again, this isn’t unique to Ethiopia, and I’m well aware that this is an insufferably Western complaint, and I’m also well aware that if roles were reversed I’d just as likely be pursuing the cashed-up visitor down the street with a display of Australian knick-knacks or cheap jewelry. But it’s not meant as a complaint, really — just an observation, and a sad one at that. We live in a world where there should be enough for everyone, and yet because of the way our world is structured, with its borders and tariffs and currency exchanges and hugely unequal balances of power, we end up with huge inequities — and the end result is that as much as the Western temptation is to see people in countries like Ethiopia as poor and benighted, so the local temptation is to see people from overseas as nothing more than sources of limitless cash. Both views are fundamentally one-dimensional, and to see another person as a grasping hand or a bulging wallet rather than a human being is something that diminishes us all.
If there’s any other single image associated with Ethiopia apart from those of its ghastly famine-stricken past, it’s probably that of a stern, bearded man in immaculate military uniform. Haile Selassie I was the Emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 until 1974, when he was deposed by the Derg, the junta of low-ranking military officials who came to prominence in the political upheaval that followed Ethiopia’s first great famine – in the Wallo region in the early 1970s – and soon extended their power to the rest of the army, the government, and ultimately the Emperor himself. Selassie was dead within the year, the enduring rumor being that his replacement as head of state – the dictator Mengitsu Laile Mariam – murdered him personally.
The Emperor’s legacy has outlived that of the man who tore him from power, though. His former palace is now part of Addis Ababa University, which was founded by the Emperor in 1962. It’s now the home of Ethiopia’s ethnological museum, which takes visitors on an idiosyncratic but fascinating journey through the country’s cultural heritage. Upstairs, however, is the real attraction – the Emperor’s bedroom and, believe it or not, the imperial bathroom, both preserved as they were at the height of his power.
It’s a strange feeling standing in an imperial bedroom, let alone a bathroom. It’s a pretty hackneyed observation that we’re all ultimately the same – we all need to sleep and shit – but the notable thing about the Selassie bedroom is how… diminished it looks. The imperial bedspread is resplendent in brilliant royal blue, but the bed itself is… well, it’s small, really. The imperial bidet and toilet are the sort of powder blue porcelain that belies their ’60s origin. It’s the same feeling you get visiting old Roman ruins and noticing how low the doorframes were.
You get the same feeling at the utilitarianly-monikered Lion Zoo, a ten-minute walk back down the hill from the University. The zoo was founded by, yes, Haile Selassie in order to give the royal lions somewhere to live – the whole place is set out in a ring around the circular enclosure that houses what remains of the imperial pride. These days it exists for kids to come and gawk at the animals and then visit the sad little amusement park next door. It looks more like a rundown public park than a zoo – apart from the aforementioned lions, there’s a glum doe and some contemptuous primates. The lions themselves, as the photo above might suggest, look anything but happy. I don’t stay long.
But on a brighter note, the University is home to perhaps the most touching monument in the city. During the fascist occupation of the 1930s and 1940s, the Italians erected a statue-type thing of steps rising into the sky, with a step added for every year they’d ruled Ethiopia. When they were turfed out in 1943, the new government didn’t tear the thing down — rather, they placed the Lion of Judah on the top step, signifying Ethiopian triumph over the fascist interlopers. These days, it’s a popular place for students to get their graduation photos taken. Bravo.
The other thing is that proves incredibly difficult to get a hotel reservation in Addis, so much so that your correspondent is kinda panicking when it gets to a day before arriving with nothing booked in (particularly as the flight from Cairo arrives at 3:30am.) I eventually book into the hideously overpriced Dimitri Hotel in a part of Addis that roughly equates to staying in outer Jersey, if outer Jersey had goat herders and a remarkable Ethiopian Orthodox church plonked in the middle of a rocky, deserted field. It’s actually pretty great out in the middle of nowhere, mainly because it’s hard to believe that anyone else ever stays here, particularly for the prices the Dimitri charges. People seem to view you less as a tourist and more as a curiosity.
The reason for the dearth of hotel rooms eventually becomes clear the next day when I check into the Ras Hotel (a far more sensibly priced place in the middle of town): I’ve wandered into the middle of the 19th African Union Heads of State and Government Summit, which means that every hotel in town is full of VIPs, VVIPs, assorted retinues and police with massive fucking machine guns, so much so that I start to feel like Hunter S Thompson stumbling into the police convention in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
The VVVIPs, however, stay exclusively at the Sheraton, an entirely surreal edifice across the road from an empty wasteland where apparently homeless people graze goats and do their best to shelter in improvised structures of sheet metal and cardboard. The presidential suite here apparently costs $12,500 a night. The average annual income in Ethiopia is about $400. The symbolism of entire swathes of the city being closed off so that these dignitaries can pass slums and shanties in their 4WDs and black Mercedes (the latter the vehicle of kleptocrats the world over, it seems) is almost too perfect. But still.
(As an aside, the whole spectacle also means my flight out of Addis, several days later, is delayed for an hour until the dignitaries who are filling the business class seats deign to turn up. I am amused, however, to find myself sitting in coach next to a heavyset man in gloriously absurd military regalia – sadly, I’m unable to identify which country he hails from, but clearly its budget doesn’t extend to cutting deals with Ethiopian Airlines. His uniform is immaculately pressed, though. These are the things that matter. Clearly.)
And finally, on a more prosaic note, it’d be remiss to discuss Ethiopia without mentioning its cuisine. Curiously enough, the question I got asked most on telling people I was visiting Ethiopia was, “What is there to do there?” The answer, as it turns out, is pretty simple: eat. Eat like crazy. As anyone who’s visited an Ethiopian restaurant will attest, Ethiopian food is fantastic, and it’s even better in its home country. As, for that matter, is the coffee – it seems to taste slightly different everywhere you buy it, flavored with subtle blends of spices, but the common factor is that it’s always black and jaw-grindingly strong.
But oh god, the food. Fluffy, sour injera bread. Rich stews of lamb and beef. Spicy [tibs], like Asian stir-fries but with a depth of flavor that has to be tasted to be believed. Esoteric herbs and spices that are probably those very ones you see sitting behind the counter at African supermarkets but are never quite sure what they’re for. Everything cooked in ghee and rich sauces.
Inevitably, of course, I end up getting sick, which sadly undermines my attempts to go out and discover the Addis music scene – my visions of discovering the next Mulatu Astake are fatally undermined by being confined to my room with a bunch of antibiotics and several sachets of Lem Lem oral rehydration solution. Curses.
In the event, I manage one long walk to a bar that does indeed have live music… at 3:30am. I arrive at 9pm. They clearly do things differently in this part of the world. I sit and have a beer with the owner, who kindly directs me to a record shop, where I purchase a bunch of CDs with inscrutable Amharic titles. They’re all pretty great, which only goes to show that you can’t really go wrong with Ethiopian music. (Or Ethiopian food, for that matter – perhaps just double-check the tibs are cooked properly before you hoe into them with gusto. Sigh.)
Happily, your correspondent has recovered from such unpleasantness, and is now en route to the airport for the next stop on this African odyssey: Dar Es Salaam, a rambling, endearingly chaotic port city on the Indian Ocean, the gateway to Zanzibar and the home of bongo flava, the rockin’ Tanzanian take on old school hip hop. Tune in tomorrow to hear how I’m getting on!