Why Ethiopia?

(Thanks to A. Davey for the image.) I’m off to Ethiopia on Friday.  I have long wanted to go.  I am hopelessly attracted to the exotic. I arrived in Timbuktoo on a small boat carrying cement up the Niger River and went off into the Sahara with an indigo-robed Tuareg and a camel, I rode a horse with some Peace Corps folk through Dogon country, was pulled out of Lhasa by Médecins sans Frontières, and took the Ougadougou-Bobo Dialasso ‘Express’ in what used to be called Upper Volta.  Addis Ababa, the Danakil Depression, and Mursi country have the right ring to them as travel destinations for me, and it’s more or less as simple as that, so I will explain the more complex question of why not Urumqi, south of Nouakchott, Lo Montang, or 10 islands west of Honiara.  The short answer is: I want to drink homebrew with shepherds, chat with naked scarified kalashnikov wielding nomadic pastoralists, drink $1 Hakim Stouts bottled in the fourth holiest city of Islam, and explore Mediaeval rock-hewn churches from the base of Enrica and Silvio Rizotti’s very civilized looking  Gheralta Lodge. The longer answer follows.

For Melbourners, the way to Ethiopia is easy.  There are lots of Ethiopians in Melbourne.  I know the consul, Graham Romanes a bit from time we both spent at Community Aid Abroad (now Oxfam Australia). He’s a good man, and his Consulate, a shopfront in the Spanish bit of Johnson St, is undoubtedly Melbourne’s friendliest.  It could in fact be the world’s nicest embassy or consulate.  They have a coffee machine and will make you a cup of Ethiopian coffee, let you browse the books, and sell beautiful things from Ethiopia while they write up a visa on the spot in exchange for a reasonable $40.  There is a wonderful travel agent, born in Ethiopia, and a Horn of Africa specialist — Liza Beylerian of Travel Managers (9700 1994; liza.beylerian@travelmanagers.com.au).  About as direct a flight as may be hoped for is available on Emirates for under $2,000 (just a couple of hours’ stopover in Dubai).  And then you can go and stay at Oziopia, a guesthouse with Australian links.  One of the Australians associated with it imports Ethiopian goods — a beautiful selection — to raise money for charitable projects.  See another’s Ethiopian album.

Ethiopia’s a nice agrarian place.  Many are the times when reading decisions of appellate courts that I wish not only for one big statute codifying the single law of Australia, but also for a job as a farmer with some nice mountains in the background.  Never does this fantasy achieve such force as in the padi of Bali, but it is always nice to take a rest in a rural village where roosters crow, chooks and pigs fossick, and people live in beautifully constructed houses made of natural materials.  The lush highlands of Ethiopia fit the bill.

The food is good: one of the few distinctive and advanced cuisines of Africa.  I say that having eaten quite a few meals cooked by Ethiopians in Africa as well as in Melbourne.  But I have only eaten injera — the country’s unique bread — made of wheat, and I am told that injera made of teff — the country’s staple grain — is different and takes getting used to.

Ethiopia has never been colonised, like Liberia, Tonga, Thailand, and Japan; the Roman Empire never expanded south of Aegyptus, but the ancient civilizations made naval expeditions down to Cush, and the Ethiopians are many times referred to in the Old Testament.  That’s cool.  The monarchy which was rubbed out by Marxists in 1974 purports to trace its lineage back to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.  Remember David who felled Goliath?  That was Solomon’s old man.  Solomon was the King of Israel.  He and the Queen are still pretty important in Western culture.  Handel’s Zadok the Priest has been sung for almost 300 years at English coronations.  Zadok was part of Solomon’s crew and ‘The Arrival …’ is in fact part of the Oratorio Solomon.  Rappers sing ‘you got the posture and demeanor of the Queen of Sheba, and I’m Prince Charming, girl, pleased to meet ya’.

The Queen of Sheba was not one of Solomon’s 700 wives nor one of his 400 concubines.  She was, as I have discovered, the Queen of Sheba, Sheba being a nation which encompassed littoral Ethiopia, at least according to the Ethiopes (present-day Yemen is another contender). I suppose the dusky mistress thing (Anthony & Cleopatra, Gaugin and his Tahitienne, Rimbaud and his Harrarienne, etc. etc. has been going on for a while.) Her meeting with Solomon in 10 BC or so — 300 years before Romulus and Remus — is recorded in the Bible, and what purport to be the ancient legends of Ethiopia, but may be Mediaeval romances,  flesh out the story:

King Solomon invited the Queen of Sheba to a banquet, serving spicy food to induce her thirst, and inviting her to stay in his palace overnight. The Queen asked him to swear that he would not take her by force. He accepted upon the condition that she, in turn, would not take anything from his house by force. The Queen assured that she would not, slightly offended by the implication that she, a rich and powerful monarch, would engage in stealing. However, as she woke up in the middle of the night, she was very thirsty. Just as she reached for a jar of water placed close to her bed, King Solomon appeared, warning her that she was breaking her oath, water being the most valuable of all material possessions. Thus, while quenching her thirst, she set the king free from his promise and they spent the night together.

The Italians tried in the late 19th century to expand their comparatively miserable holdings in Eritrea and the bit of present day Somalia that is washed by the Indian Ocean, but their 20,000 troops (Italians and Eritrean mercenaries) were slaughtered by a combination of weapons Arthur Rimbaud had assisted the King (Haile Selassie’s old man) to procure, and bad map reading by the Italians. (Rimbaud gave up poetry at the age of 21 and died at 39 having lived in deliberate obscurity in Java, Cyprus, Aden and Harar for much of the last 15 years, mainly in Harar, a legendary xenophobic walled city in north-eastern Ethiopia, the fourth holiest city in Islam, on the way to what was British Somaliland, visited by Sir Richard Burton.)

7,000 invaders died in this Battle of Adwa, a place near Axum not far from the flashpoint of the latest of Ethiopia’s wars, with Eritrea (the backstory to which, made famous by Thomas Keneally‘s Towards Asmara, graced by lithe frizzy haired geurilla women, is a whole other reason for going to Ethiopia).  The Italians left behind 11,000 guns, and 3,000 prisoners of war.  There were riots in Rome on hearing the news.  800 Eritrean mercenaries taken prisoner were relieved of their right hands and left feet for their treachery.  Even though the King spared the Italians this fate, and apparently desisted from taking Eritrea off the Ethiopians while he was on a winner so as not to over-agitate the Romans, he was not quite sufficiently canny.  Perhaps he misjudged, not predicting Mussolini’s hubris.  Perhaps it was the Empress; according to John Gross, the:

‘Empress and her attendants watched the fighting from a nearby hillside under a black umbrella raised instead of the Imperial Red as a sign of grief at battle against fellow-Christians’, and when the Romans were routed, had ‘one of their number led before [her] and forced to sing ”Funiculi Funicula” and ”Dolce Napoli.”’

Mussolini decided to avenge a bit of national pride, and so invaded Ethiopia again in 1936, bombing the crap out of Adwa as an opening salvo and erecting a stone monument to the fallen of 1896 which his soldiers optimistically brought with them.  The fascists occupied Ethiopia for 5 years before being driven out by the Allies.  The Ethiopians, having discovered the stimulating properties of the fruit of an indigenous bush in the Kaffa region and begun cultivating it about 600 years ago, embraced the espresso machine, with the happy result for Western tourists that Ethiopia has both a wonderful traditional coffee culture (the coffee ceremony involves the laying down of fresh cut grass, and popcorn) and a more modern espresso culture, along with Italian-style pastry shops in all the towns.

The Ethiopian monarchy was recognised by the royalty club of Europe.  So full of something was Haile Selassie (formerly Ras Tafari Makonnen) that a whole Jamaican cult grew up around him, somewhat to his embarrassment (rastafarianism).  Shesheme has a satellite named Jamaica where rasta emigres hang.  The monarchy was finally busted by an unsavoury Marxist, Mengistu Haile Mariam.  He used to string opponents he personally garotted up from lamp posts.  He killed half a million people in the mid-70s and has since been convicted in absentia of genocide.  He had by then fled to Zimbabwe where he still lives in fear of assassination attempts by those he once tortured.  His regime was the DERG.  Like Burma’s SLORC, its name was onomatopoeic with its brutal ugliness.  When he arrested Haile Selassie, he had him conveyed in a Volskwagon Beetle.  Later, it is thought he personally smothered Selassie to death with a pillow.  He had him buried under a latrine.

I am sure it does a great disservice to the many people who rotted in Mengistu’s jails to raise at this juncture so trivial a casualty of the DERG years, but selfishly, I rue the no-fun Marxists’ grievous bodily harm to the most wonderfully unique music of 60s swinging Addis, full of horn and modal craziness.  It is featured on the Ethiopiques series of CDs, and I hope to seek it out in the smoky theatres of Addis’s Piazza.  Quite what state this Armenian-inspired Ethio-jazz is in is something I must investigate, but I fear the worst.

Then there is the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (not the Coptic Church, as I had thought until recently; that is an Egyptian institution).  Come to think of it, my 6 year old’s fascination with and sympathy for the exotic Ethiopes relegated to the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem may explain my long-time interest in Ethiopia.  They claim to have a bit of the true cross squirrelled away in one church, and the Ark of the Covenant in another.  Seriously.

One reason people recoil at the thought of going to Ethiopia is the poverty. It is the tenth poorest country on conventional measures. Pestilence and famine are real there. But poverty and unhappiness are different things.  There is a level at which that is not true: inability to relieve hunger and ill-health will always produce suffering, as will the trauma of armed conflict and fear of violence. There has been a lot of that in Ethiopia, but in general, Ethiopians are, I am told, generally happy in their fierce pride of their nation’s unique attributes.  Not going will not alleviate any of the poverty there is of course, and going will help the economy, but I understand that’s all a bit theoretical; travel dollars almost always end up in a metropolis, often a first world one, the regional retailer of a bottle of beer’s miserable margin excepted.  But the good news is that there are some marvellous community tourism initiatives.  Best known perhaps is the TESFA treks out of Lalibella: promotional video here.  Then there is the horse trekking crew in the Bale Mountains: promotional slide-show here.  And the newest of them to come to my attention is the tourism venture set up by the Mursi people.  More generally, of course, Ethiopia is not a place where there has been undue foreign investment in tourist infrastructure, so plenty of travel dollars flow directly into the Ethiopian economy.

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