The Right Coast

July 23, 2005
Ethiopian Diary
By Maimon Schwarzschild

The RightCoast spares no effort to bring you first-hand reporting from around the world. Well, we probably spare some effort. Anyway, this RightCoaster is in Ethiopia for ten days, visiting a cousin who is spending the year in Addis Ababa. (My cousin is a midwife and is working with various childbirth charities.)

Ethiopia is not as troubled as some (well, many) other places in Africa, but it is very, very poor. Addis has quite a few 60s-style government office buildings, all intensely shabby and dilapidated; some medium-rise apartment buildings that look as though there are eleven people living in every room; and vast areas of mud-and-straw hovels with tin roofs, dirts lanes running between them, and no plumbing. There are historically important churches and fortifications elsewhere in Ethiopia -- in the ancient Abyssinian capital of Axum and in Lalibela -- but not in Addis. (Axum is about 300 miles north of Addis -- and up to three days' bus or jeep journey overland.)

In Addis, there is a lot of begging, and still more boys and young men in the streets eager, desperate, to do some paid service for a foreigner. A household maid or security guard can easily be hired for 40 US dollars a month, and will work full time, which means up to twelve hours a day, seven days a week. Ethiopians with some high school or better are eager to emigrate: there are long queues outside foreign consulates, and every foreign visitor is urgently queried about opportunities abroad.

Curiously, although Ethiopia was never colonised by an English-speaking country, and indeed was never colonised at all except for a brief, fiercely-resisted Italian occupation, the English language is pervasive along with the national Amharic language. Shop signs are almost all bilingual, as are billboards and public notices. More surprisingly, all education, from junior high school on, is in English. And Amharic, although the "national language", is by no means native to most Ethiopians. There are some 70 vernacular languages, many mutually unrelated. For many Ethiopians, to be even minimally educated requires trilingualism: in a native language, in Amharic, and in English.

As in much of the "third world", there is plenty of obvious entrepreneurial energy here, but also plenty of people who seem to be idle in the street. Banks and government offices have many, many people at desks who are idle at best; at worst, which is not infrequent, they paralyse all activity with triplicate paperwork.

And there is the crippling fact, noted by everyone, that there are no secure property rights. You may "buy" some land and build a house or a business, but the government can expropriate it at any time, without compensation, and frequently enough does -- perhaps for a building project of its own, perhaps for more nefarious reasons. (E.g. bribes, failure to pay...)

Unlike many African countries, Ethiopia is not now riven by civil war. (There was a horrific Communist takeover in the 70s and 80s, ultimately overthrown by military revolt...) Ethiopia is not in a state of anarchy. There are lots of high walls and security guards, but there isn't a pervasive feeling of imminent violence. There are no armies of child mercenaries. There are no "ethnic" massacres, recent or ongoing. There is a fairly high literacy rate: in English as well as in Ethiopian languages.

Moreover Ethiopia is a real country: despite its 70 languages, there is some sense of a common history and common culture. Uniquely in sub-saharan Africa, the country has a long history of independence: it is not a post-colonial artifact with arbitrary borders.

It is a country that ought to have a lot of promise. But there is not much air of promise. Instead, there is that pervasive, heartbreaking eagerness to emigrate.