Greetings from Addis Ababa, the self styled ‘Capital of Africa’ as it’s the home of the African Union and the UN has their continental HQ here. Whilst like virtually all African cities it has a very rough edge to it (awfully polluted, aggressive beggars, chaotic etc.) it also has a more attractive side to it with good restaurants and nightlife and a very pleasing climate. The sort of place (assuming you had a bit of money) you really wouldn’t mind living in.
That’s where we ended the trip, but you would probably say the opposite about where we started the trip in Djibouti. A ‘hot hell’ as one local described it, Djibouti city offers virtually nothing for the visitor except debilitating heat and one of the worst value for money cities to visit in the world. An ordinary restaurant meal costs upwards of $30 and a hotel room costs in excess of $100 a night for fairly poor quality. The reason for it is the huge number of Western military that are based there as Djibouti has emerged as a key ally in the very unstable Southern Red Sea area; with the extra foreigners on expenses accounts brings inflation for any visitors.
That said there is a bit do to in the country as a whole; located in an area called the Afar Triangle, it sits on no less than 3 tectonic plates moving away from each other and this creates an amazing landscape to look at with hot springs, volcanoes, depressions and rift lakes all around you. Highlights of this were the hypersaline Lac Assal, at -156m the lowest point in Africa and the amazing fumaroles at Lac Abbe. From a distance they look like a city skyline but up close they reveal themselves as chimney like vents that offer an outlet for the thermal activity below. Millions of years ago when sea levels were higher they were submarine volcanoes that slowly got built up over time but now just stick eerily out of the landscape on the lakeshore as flamingos and other birds fly around them.
Financially Djibouti seemed to survive on 3 things; remittances from overseas workers, payment from Western countries to allow their military bases and tax revenues to allow Ethiopian companies to use the port. However, this money didn’t seem to spread at all outside of the capital city and I can scarcely remember such extreme poverty as we saw in rural Djibouti. When people think about poverty you tend to think about shanty towns in urban areas and the danger and dirt that goes with that. However, in the country side it takes a different form and in a country as hot as Djibouti (the temperature was about 40 degrees every day) very, very little can get done.
In most villages we passed people seem to be doing almost nothing at all for most of the day with only a sprinkle of activity at dawn/dusk. Visually the men seemed to get through their days by doing nothing but chewing qat; qat is a plant from East Africa that can act as a mild stimulant if you chew its leaves. It will almost certainly never catch on in the West as it is disgustingly bitter to chew and takes ages to have an effect unlike most recreational drugs that are used. However, in this part of the world it’s incredibly popular despite often dreadful consequences on both the environment and society as a whole. In Djibouti, the standard day for a shockingly high percentage of men is to get up, go to the local qat den then spend pretty much all day in a zoned out state, sat in the dark chewing qat and chatting nonsense to their friends or just staring into space. There are obvious consequences of mental health problems, lack of economic activity and an appalling sense of inertia as things just don’t get done.
There’s no move to cut down on it as it’s such an ingrained part of the culture but travelling through the country I could kind of understand why they do it so much. Similar to Russians/Mongolians drinking so much vodka to help get them through the challenges of their climate/environment, East Africans treat qat in the same way as it helps get them through the many boring hours they pass daily in a brutal heat. I kind of grew semi sympathetic to the idea of doing it so much as there are so few other ways to pass the time there; it’s a difficult, difficult place to live in. Indeed the only people who seemed to have it worse were the women who culturally aren’t allowed to even chew qat to waste time.
From Djibouti we had a real adventure and did an 18hr journey across the coastal desert to Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland. When I told people I was going there I got a lot of “Are you nuts?” type of comments but Somaliland isn’t quite what most people think it is. When Mohamed Siad Barre’s government of Somalia collapsed in 1991, most of the country became a lawless dystopia run by a combination of local warlords, Islamic extremists and in Puntland, little more than modern day pirate kings as the country imploded and anyone who could, fled.
Somalian culture is subdivided into a very complex system of different clans and subclans with all the rivalries, alliances and disputes that go with it; but not all areas shattered in the same way. Somalia is shaped like a 7 and in the horizontal part in the North, Somaliland, they have actually been very stable. Immediately civil war broke out in the 1990’s the people worked together to retain their security and way of life away from the problems of the South. They have security through their own army and police, control of their borders and even things like their own currency and functioning democracy.
In short, it’s a real success story in a very unstable area but has become one of the 10 de facto but not de jure countries of the world. They have been pushing for independence since the 1960’s and I think it’s to the international community’s shame that they are unwilling to listen to their wishes. The logic is similar to the safe Kurdish area of Iraq; if the West were to support independence it would remove a stable part of a very unstable country and this would be bad for the future of the country as a whole. I don’t think this is a very positive attitude to take for the people in Somaliland who have achieved so much despite what’s going on elsewhere in the country.
I was slightly wary that it would be a very conservative and slightly dangerous place to be but the people were much more easy going than I feared and happy to see foreigners there. That said we still had to take an armed soldier to travel around the country as a precaution but it never felt that dangerous. Thanks to investments from the large Somali diaspora around the world, the economy is also doing well and you can’t help but feel they really deserve their independence.
After an awful journey to the border we then hit the main focus of the trip in Ethiopia.
We actually started in the Muslim East of the country and the historical city of Harar. It was great going round the walled city via the narrow alleyways and hidden courtyards and even got to see the famous hyena feeding ceremony. It started off as a way of stopping them eating livestock during drought but now feels a bit contrived as a tourist show. However, it’s still pretty cool seeing them emerge from the darkness and wrench the hunks of meat from the hands and even mouth of the feeder.
From Harar we did the long trip West and realised that probably the worst aspect of travelling in Ethiopia is the travelling itself; journeys are long and whilst tickets are cheap you aren’t allowed to travel at night so often entire days are spent ‘in transit’. That said the scenery is wonderful and as you travel across the country you really start to appreciate the huge variety of landscapes and environments that make up the country from the parched lowlands up through coffee plantations to the highlands which act as something of a roof of East Africa as many of the rivers and lakes are formed there.
Our next destination was the so called Historical circuit that Ethiopians themselves are so proud of. Ethiopia’s place in human history goes back further than anywhere of course as it’s here that the 3.6m year old Lucy skeleton was found right up to the brutal Derg regime in the 1970-1990’s backed by the Soviets who murdered some 500,000 civilians during the so called Red Terror period.
Between those two events it arguably contains the richest history of any sub Saharan African country. From the various pre-Christian legends that are said to emerge from here such as King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba to a variety of powerful empires that ruled vast areas before collapsing such as Axum. Rastafarians site their spiritual home in Ethiopia after they saw the 2nd coming of Christ in the former Emperor Haile Selassie’s (whose original name was Ras Tafari) coronation and there were also a lost tribe of Jerusalem who have moved to Israel with limited success. However, when Christianity did arrive it became just the second country in the world to adopt it as the state religion (after Armenia) and religion is still a key part of daily life all over the country.
From the remote and intriguing monasteries on Lake Tana to the famous rock hewn churches in Lalibela, Ethiopia is one of the best places in the world to see Christianity in a purer, more devout form. The most extreme example of this was in the rock hewn churches in Tigray, where you may remember the wonderful (in my opinion) Exorcist 2 is set. In a landscape very similar to Monuments valley in Utah you climb up steep slopes towards churches hidden up in the cliffs. However, in order to show their devotion to God (and find a quiet place to pray) early Christians would put them in places where you have no choice but to climb vertically for some 20m using just natural foot and handholds in the rock. You can now wimp out and use a rope but we wanted the authentic pilgrim experience (or copying Richard Burton/Max von Sydow in the film) and did the terrifying climbs up to the amazing churches cut into caves. Early monks would paint beautiful frescoes on the walls and surrounded by 200m+ precipes on both sides they really are an amazing sight and experience to behold. Whilst the climbing was amazing I was absolutely delighted to get back to the bottom of them and it did beg the question of why? Could you not have found a quiet place that was easier to get to?!!
Ethiopia is somewhere that has been high on my list for a while; however it’s a country that a lot of people have a very limited understanding of and that included some of the fellow Westerners we met. One Australian executive of one of the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the world was visiting on business and said “This really isn’t what I was expecting; I think I just thought I’d see starvation and poverty based on that Band Aid song”.
I actually teach a lesson about the song and how a) inaccurate it is and b) how it has completely fixed even educated Westerners minds onto the idea that all human life in Ethiopia (and indeed Africa in general) is in grinding poverty and completely dependent on the weather.
Actually the situation is very, very different, particularly at this time of year. In a land where “No rain nor rivers flow” during the Summer is actually in rainy season and can be extremely wet, indeed the capital Addis Ababa receives twice as much rain as London and large parts of the country flood every year. On the plus side we saw the source of the Blue Nile and its wonderful falls at full volume but the Simien Mountains were the biggest disappointment of the trip. A World Heritage site famous for its wildlife and views out over the Rift Valley, our time there was ruined by rain and our proposed 5 day hike got reduced to 3 soggy ones as locals said the rivers were too high to cross. We did however get a silver lining on our final day as we go to see the wonderful 500m Jinba waterfall descend from the clouds.
Aside from its historical attractions, Ethiopia offers an incredible array of landscapes. Whilst we spent most of our time in the cooler highlands I also fulfilled an ambition of mine by visiting the Danakil Depression. The road from Makele momentously dropped more than 2000m down to -100m in the Depression. As you descended the temperature on the dashboard in the car increased a degree every few minutes before eventually stopping at about 45 degrees. It has the claim to fame as the highest average temperature of anywhere in the world and as in Djibouti life is extremely hard with salt mining using the ubiquitous camels to help you pretty much the only economic activity. There are however things to see with the undoubted highlight being the incredible Irta Ale volcano. It reminded me of the Gateway to Hell in Turkmenistan as you walk several hours uphill towards an orange glow in the darkness. I drank 4 litres of water on the way up in the scorching temperatures but oh my it was worth it to see two of only 6 lava crater lakes in the world. Bizarrely it strongly reminded me of playing in Super Mario Bros as most of it was covered in black lava that has solidified at 700 degrees, however a lot of it is molten hot magma at 1500 degrees and this is constantly bubbling away and having mini eruptions. It’s a mesmerizingly beautiful sight and whilst at times it is too dangerous to go near, at the moment it’s safe enough that you can go to within a few metres for a near unique experience. Wonderful.
Indeed in many ways Ethiopia is one of the most unique countries in the world and really does do it’s own thing. Famously it’s one of a very small number of countries that were never colonised by Europeans during the Age of Empires as they humiliatingly defeated Italy towards the end of the 19th century using little more than medieval weapons. This lack of ‘contamination’ of European practices can be seen in a variety of very basic ways of how society is organised. For example it’s 2008 as they go by a different calendar, which also has 13 rather than 12 months and bizarrely the time is told differently as their day starts at 6am rather than 12 so they’re always 6 hours behind (or ahead). Their version of Christianity is unique with many of the stories having Ethiopia at the core e.g. The Ark of the Covenant is supposedly buried in Axum, no one outside of Ethiopia believes this is true but every Ethiopian takes it as fact.
All this means that they don’t “Know it’s Christmas time at all” as they celebrate it on January 6/7th like other Orthodox believers. Even the culture isn’t like anything else as they shun everything but Ethiopian music and the dancing is done almost entirely with the upper body as just your neck, head and shoulders move in time to the rhythm as your legs stay static. Eating is done differently too as you eat communally with your right hand from a big slab of injera and its toppings which acts as a kind of edible plate. Delicious. It all takes a while to get your head round but definitely adds to the charm of visiting this unique country
Band Aid also described it as a land “Where nothing ever grows” which must have been a surprise for the 100m or so inhabitants of the huge country. Amartya Sen won the Nobel prize for Economics by using Ethiopia’s disastrous Derg regime as an example to demonstrate how famines rarely have to do with the weather but the governing system that creates the conditions for it. Droughts may always happen but if you have a reasonable government, famines shouldn’t as steps would be taken to prevent that happening.
Despite the impression it created amongst Westerners, amongst lots of other things coffee, flowers and various cereals grow in abundance and this has in part led to a booming economy over the last 20 years. Whilst corruption is still a big issue unlike many African countries Ethiopia has generally been led very well and has become a bit of a darling of Western aid economists due to its steady and consistent leadership. It’s also built up a reputation as a hotbed of entrepreneurialism and certainly does better in areas like manufacturing than most of its African neighbours. In Addis in particular there is a real feeling of positive change as new buildings are being built apace and major structural changes such as a metro and Chinese built highways are also being constructed.
However, claims of being ‘Africa’s China’ are fanciful and gives an indication of how far Africa has fallen behind Asia economically. Whilst new roads and factories have been constructed as well as the burgeoning tourist industry they often mask many of the big problems Ethiopia still faces. Aside from the ongoing ‘Cold War’ with Eritrea and sporadic clashes between the different ethnic groups, some 83% of the population still live in the countryside and a GDP per capita of little more than $500 per year gives a good indication of how hard life is for most people.
Aside from the beggars and homeless I strangely thought that showed itself most in the children of the country; the constant cries of “Gimme money” from them got irksome and sad very quickly and for all the talk of the economy and infrastructure projects the biggest problem by far is the sheer size of the population. The country’s economy has grown a whopping 10% a year for the last decade or so to be one of the highest in the world but the benefits of this have been somewhat lost as the population has also grown by 20million. The average woman still has 4.6 children and they are absolutely everywhere in Ethiopia running around as their poor parents struggle to feed them all and encourage them to beg.
However, the country really does feel like it’s moving in the right direction rather than the sense of stagnation which you feel travelling in many African countries. If it can keep its massive multi-ethnic and multi-lingual population content and under control then they can continue to make progress as one of Africa’s success stories in the early 21st century.
Overall Ethiopia is a wonderful place to travel in due to its unique yet varied culture and landscapes and its friendly and interesting population; 1 month simply didn’t feel like enough and having not even had a chance to see the South it’s definitely somewhere I intend to visit again in the future.
From Addis Ababa,