Memories of Africa… – Ethiopia

By Ato Bob*
There are so many things that trigger my memory when I think of ኢትዮጵያ (Ethiopia).
To mention just a few: its distinct culture with its language, clothing, food, writing, landscape, nature or like flora and fauna, simply too much to fit in this column.
I lived and worked in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, from July 1996 till July 2001, which is long enough ago, to make my memory fade till challenged. Nevertheless, even though this was already thirty years into my nearly forty years in Africa, many of my ‘habesha’ experience were simply too striking to be forgotten.
While I left Addis in 2001, in February 2011, I received a message from a friend that warmed my heart:
“I was in Addis in December and at one dinner event I ran into an Ethiopian girl working at Netherlands Embassy. Although I knew she just joined like three years ago, I asked if she knows you and she was very amused because she says, she gets asked that all the time. Many Ethiopians ask her if she knows you and how you are. She also said for someone who left quite a while ago, people still remember you were at the Embassy. ….my response was oh yeah that is Ato Bob. “
Some Basic Facts
Ethiopia is Africa’s oldest independent country, which has never been colonised, but for a five year occupation by Mussolini’s Italy. Its population is the second largest in Africa after Nigeria and is spiralling from 95 million in 1993, to a current estimated 106 mln in 2016, according to World Population Review. Ethiopia has a young population with a median age of around 18.
Ethiopia’s cultural heritage is unique and its expression thereof is unrivalled. Ethiopia has often been called the original home of mankind due to various humanoid fossil discoveries like the Australopithecine Lucy (named after the 1967 Beatles song ‘Lucy in the sky with diamonds’) in the dry and hot Afar Region.
Daily life is dominated by two major factors: the presence or better widespread believe in and adherence to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the Ethiopian Government politics and control (style of governance).
Ethiopia was a monarchy till 1974 when Emperor Haile Selassie was deposed by a coup led by the Derg junta later dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, creating a Marxist communist state. In 1991 Meles Zenawi’s rebel forces liberated the country, which he ruled as prime minister (1995 till his death in 2012).
Ethiopia is one of the fastest growing non-oil economies of Africa, despite being landlocked and having had to change its import- export port from Assab, Eritrea to Djibouti. Ethiopia is considered as one of the most stable countries in the region, despite its bitter war in the late 90s with neighbouring Eritrea and its vocal opposition.
Living in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
From the above, you must conclude that I simply loved living and working in Ethiopia’s Addis Ababa, as by the way. I did in Kenya’s Kibigori, Cameroon’s Kumba and Buea, Tanzania’s Morogoro and Dar es Salaam, Zambia’s Lusaka, Benin’s Cotonou and Ghana’s Accra.
However, Addis was a different experience, even for someone already having lived and worked in both East and West Africa for thirty years.
The climate and the altitude is one of the first things to get used to as it is different from what you may expect. Addis Ababa lies at an altitude of just above 2,300 meter, which means that the considerable thinner air will cause you panting after a brisk walk or an uphill course. Strenuous exercise is therefore not done till you are fully acclimatized and your lungs are used to work harder to get enough oxygen to feed your heart and blood. It is common to see people going around with cotton in one of their nostrils due to noose bleeding.
Addis is a fairly young city, the site was chosen by Empress Taytu Betul, who took interest in Mount Entoto, just North of Addis and the city was founded in 1886 by Emperor Menelik II. However, the immediate area did not encourage the founding of a town, so settlement actually began in the valley south of the mountain in 1886. The name changed to Addis Ababa, which means ‘new flower’ and became Ethiopia’s capital when Menelik II became Emperor of Ethiopia.
The city is home to important institutions like the Organization of African Unity (OAU) founded in 1963, which became the African Union in 2002 as well as the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) and the site of the historic Council of Oriental and Orthodox Churches conference in 1965
As Ethiopia is clearly situated in the tropics, you might expect a tropical temperature, but altitude or elevation changes all that, so for Addis Ababa. This gives the city with its subtropical highland climate, with temperature differences of up to ten degrees from one ‘seifer’ hill to another and the valleys in between, while the wind also plays a role. This means that during a sunny day you experience 22 to 25 degrees Celsius, with feeling less in the shadow, while this may drop up to ten degrees at night.
Occasional rain falls between November and January, while the short rainy season falls between February and May. The long wet season is from June to mid-September; it is the major winter season of the country. This period coincides with summer, but the temperatures are much lower than at other times of year due to the frequent rain and hail and the abundance of cloud cover and fewer hours of sunshine. This time of the year is characterized by dark, chilly and wet days and nights at times close to freezing point. Then it chills your bones when you see street-children sleep at bus shelters without any cover.
There are hundreds of beggars and street children in Addis and giving them money is ill advised as little may go for food better use the 1Brr meal tickets from charity Hope Enterprises.
Travelling out of Addis
Most places out of Addis, except from going all the way north, guarantee a more temperate and down south even a warm or hot climate. Popular places to visit are the hot spring spa’s like Sodere a 120 km. South of Addis, Wondo Genet and Giyon. Addis has its own hot spring the Filwoha Bath complex.
Another interesting place is the Debre Libanos monastery with hermit Tekle Haimanot’s cave.
Addis Alem (New World) is a town 55 km west of Addis Ababa, founded by Menelik in 1900 as the new capital, but became a summer residence. It has a beautiful church and museum.
The Great Rift Valley, which runs from
I also visited the Semien Mountains national Park in Northern Ethiopia for work, which is part of the Ethiopian Highlands and a World heritage site. These lie at an altitude of 4,000 to 4,500 meter, which makes a simple walk a heavy exercise. Snow often falls there and rare animals like the Walia Ibex, a dear, the Gelada, a thick haired large baboon-like monkey, also called ‘bleeding heart monkey because its red patched chest and the Cararcal, a large one meter long cat, as well as the Ethiopian wolves can be spotted if you are lucky. The various peaks are divided by deep valleys, which is a feature of much of the Ethiopian highlands. As a stark contrast, the Danakil depression in Northern Ethiopia is 125 meters below sea-level.
The Great Rift Valley runs through Ethiopia, which contains several lakes, like Langano and Awasa.
Work and play
My job at the Netherlands Embassy as Second Secretary was to follow Dutch financed projects in the field of environment, water and sanitation, trade, press, culture and information about The Netherlands.
That kept me busy enough during the day and often back in the Embassy office in the evening.
There were many nice and useful large Dutch financed projects I worked, but also two small ones with little funds and large results. I helped create the Ethiopian Media Women Association and the Construction of a community Library, where students would come to real and study real 24/7.
However, since I did not want to be a dull boy I went out to the town and explored the environment at weekends. Visiting local hotels for Ethiopian music, learning to dance with my shoulders, eating injera with doro wot or ye tsom megib.
Ethiopia is a very exciting and surprising country, which is set to play a more dominant role in Africa in the future. What I wrote above is not only my personal view, but also just a snippet of what I saw, heard and experienced in five years. Much more to write and pictures to show …, so watch this space!
*Ato Bob is a former Dutch Diplomat who now consults with various NGO’s on African issues. He lives in Rotterdam and may be reached on