The Right Coast

July 30, 2005
Ethiopia Diary 2
By Maimon Schwarzschild

One tends to associate Third World poverty with the tropics. Ethiopia is near enough the equator, and its lowlands are certainly tropical. But much of the country is highland: Addis Ababa and the regions surrounding it are above 7000 feet, and quite "temperate".

Your inquiring reporter left Addis yesterday (by car) for Debre Libanos, a monastery town 100 kilometers to the northwest. It is the rainy season, and the tin-roofed shacks and dirt lanes of Addis -- i.e. most of Addis -- are grim with mud. But the surrounding countryside is beautiful: a temperate-zone landscape, rich with eucalyptus and pine and grassland and moss. But rich in little else. This segment of the two-lane main road to the north of the country was built by the Japanese in 2004 and 2005: it is an excellent road, but with little motor traffic. The excursion is otherwise like driving through an earlier epoch. Ploughing is exclusively with clumsy wooden ploughs and oxen. (Not a tractor to be seen.) The villages are of "tukuls": thatched huts with dirt (or mud) floors; no windows, no electricity, no plumbing. Women and girls walk along the roadside bent under hundred-pound loads of firewood. "Transport" generally is largely on foot: there are far more walkers, even far between villages, than motor vehicles.

The further from Addis, the poorer-looking the villages, and the villagers. By the time we reached Debre Libanos, the people on the roadside looked not far from starvation: legs as thin as your arms, cadaverous faces. Debre Libanos itself turns out to be a muddy village of a few mud huts, dominated by a hideous modern church, rebuilt in concrete by Haile Selassie in the 1960s. Debre Libanos is an important Ethiopian pilgrimage site: the "pilgrims" are mostly ill, hoping for miraculous cure. There was also a starveling "native market" in progress, at which almost nothing was for sale: no food whatsoever other than some small bananas.

Whenever a private car stops, dozens of people -- mostly boys but also older men -- appear, seemingly out of nowhere, hoping for a few pennies. We stopped on the Japanese road to hike to a waterfall in a magnificent gorge near Debra Libanos: as soon as we got underway, we were suddenly accompanied by more than twenty-five very thin, very importunate people who seemed to materialise out of nowhere: all wanting to be our "guides". There was no feeling that violence was threatened; just that alms were desperately hoped for, and needed.

The day's scenes were reminiscent of the European dark ages: temperate climate, land that seems fertile enough -- with the technology and economy of a thousand (European) years ago.

Returning to Addis in late afternoon, the city now seemed not so much a muddy shanty town as a relatively prosperous and modern place. (It helped that the rain had now stopped.) Lots of young people in the streets, many apparently employed and trying to be stylish; even the (very occasional) internet cafe. Addis is desperate enough by First World standards. The tin-roofed shacks and mud colonies begin just across the road from the heavily-guarded gates and walls of the Prime Minister's enormous palace grounds. But by rural Ethiopian standards, Addis is wonderful indeed.