ETHIOPIA

 


ADDIS ABABA Ethiopia is a high plateau country. When we flew into the airport at Addis Ababa, 6,000 ft, it looked like we landed on a level with the tops of the mountains all around it. In the airport building, it was novel to pass up the check ins for diplomats, passengers, and crew, to stand in line at the one labeled "Aliens."

To kick my visit off on the wrong foot, due to email misunderstanding about the date, Fekade Tedasse and his son, Amanuel, had checked the airport for me on the 15th, 16th and 17th. When I finally did arrive on the 18th, I didn’t dare leave the airport building lest I miss them (still expecting to see Menbere, the mom, any minute). This time I knew to immediately tell the customs agent, "No cigarettes, no liquor," and zipped straight through with their contraband. What I didn’t know was that, because of security, they were not allowed inside the building to meet me, and were waiting out in the parking lot. Dialing their phone number got me a busy signal ten times over the course of a couple of hours because their phone was not functioning. I snacked in a bar restaurant, and tried out the first squat toilet of many on this trip. Whew, and I thought Frankfurt’s WCs were bad. I ended up taking a taxi to a cheap hotel named Yordanus. Meanwhile, they started going around to check hotels. After checking in (and napping off an altitude headache), I walked uphill a few blocks to the Hilton Hotel. It was a beautiful sunny, breezy day. I was soon accompanied by a little leech of a boy who was practicing his English and wiles on me. Apparently I belonged to him, because we were watched with varying degrees of envy, awe, amusement and admiration by gangs of other boys all the way, but none other approached me. He got chased off by the Hilton entrance guards when we got there and before I could tip him, just as he was looking into my eyes soulfully, saying "Forty cents, I hev no money."

Ethiopia is still somewhat terrorized and security burdened after their two revolutions. Before entering the lobby, I had to walk through an airport-type metal detector. Then I went to the check in desk to see if I could use a computer to try to email Menbere, and stood back to wait for several others who were there first. Two of them turned around and came toward me. I didn’t recognize Fekade, whom I’d never met, but the second one was Amanuel! A hopeful grin was on Fekade’s face, and a big welcoming smile on Amanuel’s, as he and I had fallen in love with each other back in Baton Rouge when Menbere and I were checking his brother and sister into their dorm rooms at LSU. After the Hilton, they had planned to go check on the Yordanus Hotel. Talk about my guardian angel! It is getting international experience.

The joke’s on me about the Addis Ababa visit: remember I was "going to visit their villa," expecting a big spread? Well, I understand now, they used to have a villa, in fact two or three they owned, plus acreage and some forested lands. But when the Communists who kicked out Hailie Selassie came in, they appropriated everything, and left only one house per family. The Tadasse family’s "villa" means their "house," and it’s about the size of Mike and Marla’s on Devon before their addition to it. It’s in a small, hedged compound, down a very rocky street, and hemmed in on all sides by other small compounds, one being a dairy. There’s no point in upgrading any property because the government says it owns everything, anyway, and can and will appropriate it at will if you do improve it. City streets are not maintained. So, the Tedasse family are living in very reduced circumstances, and have fallen back on their fervent Coptic Christian way of life, to makes it all bearable. Fekade says there’s no point in bitterness; instead the whole experience made him reassess his priorities. Funds they’d managed to get ahead on since the "Derg" as they call it (comparable to the "Red Terror" in the USSR), are going toward educating their children, instead of building a new house to replace the one they’re stuck with. It was very gratifying on arrival at their home to watch Amanuel the first evening, lifting the gifts from Fikre and Selam out of the big box, like a Santa Claus, handing them to his dad and the two of them relishing each item.

By the way, the Coptic church historically predates Christianity, being ascribed back to the time of their Queen of Sheba’s visit to King Solomon, so the Coptic Christians don’t take kindly to modern day Christian missionaries. Trinity Church where Fekade and Menbere were married is designed after one in the Vatican. It was built in 1940 to commemorate Ethiopia’s liberation from WWII Italian occupation, when the British General Wingate returned Emperor Hailie Selassie to his throne in triumph. The high school Fekade attended is named Wingate High School.

The second big jolt on my arrival in Addis was that Menbere wasn’t there. She works for the United Nations, and after I lost email contact with her in December, she had been sent to Luanda, Angola, as part of the UN peace mission there. They were told it might last as little as three months or as long as three years. Either way, I didn’t get to see her at all. Poor Fekade, her husband, was stuck with trying to figure out what to do with me, this unknown American woman who shows up for a week instead of just a few days as he’d understood it. Only sixteen-year-old Amanuel, was home with him. Menbere was off in Angola, and the two older children, Fikre and Selam, were off in college at LSU. Their cook had left the day Menbere did. Fekade had already fired her replacement and was trying another. Couldn’t seem to get one that could really cook, and went through four or five of them during my week there.

Desta, their cleaning and laundry girl, was actually doing the cooking. She has a delightful speaking voice, and it lilts upward at the end of every sentence, like a child’s. She also has a warm big smile. She adapted quickly to my weird needs — no frying in butter, mainly. At most meals we ate njera, which is crepes made of tef grain. On these we piled small helpings of several kinds of unrecognizable but delicious fillings, wrapped them up, and ate with our fingers. Desta spent her mornings chopping the condiments for these savories, which were all delicious as long as I avoided the highly spiced ones. Those were Selam’s favorites, they said, and I could believe it after having seen her pour on the Tabasco sauce at the Chinese Flower Drum in Baton Rouge.

Having me under underfoot seemed to cause Fekade such stress that I asked him to take me to the library at the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) at the huge UN Conference Center where Menbere works, to look up what I could do on my own in town. Security at the gated UN compound required that he have the right sticker on his car, and that he stop the car so the guards could walk all the way around it with a mirror on a pole to look under the car. This same thing was done at the Hilton Hotel. At the ECA library I made friends with one of Menbere’s friends, Mebrat Gebrun Selassie, the assistant librarian, and the newest embodiment of my guardian angel. She obtained reading materials on the country for me, loaned me a phone, introduced me to a couple of other helpful friends, wangled use of the media center’s computers (quite illegally) for me to read my fifteen waiting email messages, and took me to lunch a couple of days in the UN convention center’s cafeteria.

I had been enjoying Mebrat’s warm companionship very much, but I was puzzled by what seemed like nervousness or distractedness in her. Found out at our last lunch together that she was worried that her brother (and Fekade thought she too, possibly, when I told him this) may be deported, or at the very least lose his job because their parents were from Eritrea, and Eritrea has just gone to war again with Ethiopia over their border dispute. Some twenty other Eritreans (Tigre tribesmen) had already been deported from their professional jobs at the huge UN complex here at the request of the Ethiopian government. They dispersed to the U.S., Europe, Kenya, Uganda, and a couple of them back to Eritrea.

The background story is that seventy years ago, Mebrat’s parents walked from the Eritrean capitol, Asmara, to the Ethiopian capitol, Addis Ababa, taking three months to do it, half a century ago when the Italians colonized Eritrea and separated it politically from the rest of Ethiopia. Ethiopia took it back in the ’60s, then Eritrea fought for and won its independence in the early ’90s. Eritrean students I’ve known at LSU are fiercely proud of their country’s independence. However, as I understand it, it has almost no resources and counts on buying raw materials to process into manufactured products to sell abroad. It gets its electricity from Ethiopia’s hydroelectric grid. I was told that Eritrea’s leaders are cousins of Ethiopia’s current leaders, the ones who took over after kicking out the Communists who had nationalized everything. So this "war," now is a family feud rather than a full national commitment to war by both countries. Ethiopians say their current leaders have let the country’s whole infrastructure, from roads to the judicial system, degenerate because "they just came out of the woods" and have no idea how to run a country.

I met an American, Janet Kebede, when she was getting her email at the computer next to me. She became a back-up guardian angel. She’s an American who teaches English there at the UN. Her husband, Negash Kebede who is Ethiopian, teaches physics and high school college prep classes at the International Community School (ICS) in Addis. Among other kindnesses, which included driving me home to Sunday lunch at their house after I caught a toot toot (a taxi van) to meet them at Sunday School at the International Evangelical Church. She arranged for Pongo’s visit to a kindergarten class at the ICS taught by her friend Diane Zemichael. When I first met Diane at her classroom, she and other teachers, and a pair of American parents were all animatedly discussing how and why they’d chosen not to leave the country. The American Embassy had asked for volunteers to leave when the war with Eritrea started heating up, and some Americans did go. We didn’t know if it was going to erupt in Addis Ababa, and if maybe they’d close the airport. It happened, but after I’d left.

At Janet’s Sunday School class, we were addressed by the owner of a large Christian bookstore in Addis on the subject of the Christian’s need for expediency in ethics: specifically, whether and when to bribe with money, which in Ethiopia is the birr. He told the story of a friend who is booked on Nigerian Airlines (a ripple of knowing chuckles at that mention), who phones to reconfirm his reservation the night before the flight. When he goes to check in next day, the agent says, "No room for you on this flight." The man declares, "But I called and confirmed my reservation last night!" Peering over the counter, he adds, "and look, look there is my name on the manifest in front of you." The clerk takes a pen and crosses out his name. "Now it’s not," he says. The man splutters to his friend there with him, "Did you see that? Did you hear that?" The friend disappears around a corner, and soon returns with a boarding pass in hand. "I hope the Lord forgives me for a 75-birr bribe," he says. The conclusion was that Christians have to be ethical, but when dealing with the unethical, they have to be shrewd, and he backed it up with scriptures.

Addis Ababa’s road traffic weaves round at break neck speed, jockeying to miss potholes and to get ahead of each other, preferentially using the lane stripe to drive on if there is one, but miraculously all sorting out into the proper lanes a bare ten feet before stopping at the traffic light. The toot toots were the most aggressive. The tail lights of all of the toot toots were battered, except one I saw that had heavy gauge wire cages bolted down around both of them. When a toot toot goes to a curbside taxi stop to pick up new passengers, it goes to the head of the line of several waiting toot toots. While each toot toot’s tout calls out its terminal destination, the vans are all backing up in spurts while people are boarding them. When one arrives at the back of the line, it departs.

A half-full toot toot I caught my last day, heading for the Zoological Museum, started up the long hill past the ECA on a divided highway, and suddenly stopped, out of gas. The driver let it roll backwards downhill a couple of blocks, then U-turned and coasted on downhill facing sparse on-coming traffic until it reached a crossover in the median. He coasted over into the proper lanes, and on we flew like a taxiing plane, down, down the hill. At a flat intersection, the van slowed to a stop right in the middle of it. Passengers and nearby pedestrians helped the tout push the toot toot across it, then there were no more interruptions to our free glide all the way to a gas station at Muscat Square, which was back down the hill farther than where I had first boarded. Oh well. We finally got back up the hill to the museum.

A couple of times, I was walking on the city streets when school let out, filling the sidewalks with kids in their bright red, purple or blue uniforms. Several times as I’d pass some little boys, one would shyly say, "Alo, muzzah (mother), ow arr you?" and "Alo, muzzah, hi!" It was so sweet, but a wrenching, stark contrast to the little beggar boys whose families could not afford schooling. They’d hold out dirty hands, look soulfully into my eyes and say, "My stowmek is empty," or "I hev no money."

Oh yes, I meant to tell you an Ethiopian joke Fekade told me about when the new, very young Queen Elizabeth visited Emperor Hailie Selassie back in the ’40s. Selassie had started using the royal "we" for himself all the time. The story goes that he didn’t have enough room in his palace to properly put up the Queen and Prince Philip and their whole entourage, so he put them up in a local hotel, the Gion. Then he also took a suite there for himself, to be near them. During the night he went and knocked on the queen’s door. "Who is it?" she asks. "We," he replies. "Come in, one by one," she says!

Odd notes: "Ish she" is Ethiopian for "OK," and seems to both precede and follow everything they say. And "Amesegenalow" is "thank you," but seems to be used very seldom. "Chicka chicka" is what Mebrat called pointless meeting talk in a meeting she’d walked out on to join us for lunch. Foreigners are called "Ferengi" since the French were said to be the first aliens to arrive in the country, and were called "Furenchi," which became "Ferengi," with a soft "g." Since I was an alien in Ethiopia, I always asked if a person I wanted to talk to knew English. A surprising number did. One day I was walking down the sidewalk with a girl named Amarech. After we had passed a sidewalk vendor selling what looked like carved little sticks, I asked her what they were. Her English was shaky, and, as she stumbled over what to say, another man we passed who was just standing there with his back to us watching the street simply said out loud "Colgate" after we passed him. "Colgate" she told me with a big smile. "Toothbrushes?" I asked her "Yes!" Since the Maasai also strip the skin off small sticks, cut down into one end several times with a knife, making a brush of sorts, and brush their teeth with them, it was easy to guess. But those Ethiopian ones had elaborate carving on the handle part. Ethiopians all have beautiful teeth and gorgeous smiles. There are hundreds of Colgate signs and billboards all over Addis, but they had the beautiful smiles long before toothpaste ads showed up.

I met Amarech on a toot toot. At a stop, she had parted with another girl, affectionately touching her cheek, then kissing her before hopping up into the van, taking the seat next to me. As we drove off, I asked, "Your sister?" "Yes!" Big smile. Then she asked, "Do you know Jesus Christ?" This started off a whole day we spent together going to the National Museum to see Lucy’s 3.5 million-year-old bones, tromping around the Addis Ababa University campus, having a Coke and donut, etc. She’s twenty-three, has finished high school only, and wants to go to the U.S. with her church choir. We enjoyed each other’s company very much. Very beautiful girl. Fekade said the name Amarech means "she becomes beautiful." All the young guys we passed took keen notice of her.