I am seated on a 20 cm high wooden stool on main street, Addis Ababa. In front is a young boy brushing my shoes making them shine brighter than the day they left Chinese factory doors. I enjoy seeing the boy diligently applying his skill. I am in Ethiopia. In this blog post I will describe to you my first impression of what I find to be a truly unique country.
As I walk the street of the capital Addis Ababa, I am amazed by the number of people everywhere. Business is being done on every street corner. In an Indian sort of fashion, street boys plying their trade and often at costs that would not make a Dutch employee even bother getting out of bed. Just watching two old Muslim women greeting each other in an elaborate and traditional way is moving. I feel part of a world where I am the student, instead of being praised beyond reason as I often felt as a white in Zambia, I now feel I have to study and learn the local customs and culture in order to gain access to this utterly intriguing world.
There are many things that make the country unique. The first thing one would point out to you is that Ethiopia has never been colonised unlike any other African country. This leaves Ethiopia, a remainder of the ancient Aksum empire, with a great sense of pride, dignity and self-direction. Not only is the culture and traditions less worn out by the uniforming hand of modernity, even the official year count is 7 years behind the rest of the world. The stamp in my passport tells me I entered on 22 Sept 2004. My first reaction was to complain about a typically African outdated system; people too lazy to care about such precisities that make the western part of the globe spin. I luckily keep quiet and soon recall that Ethiopia lives in a year of its own and it daunts on me: I am the one to adjust.
Another examples is the Ethiopian language which has its own alphabet dating back to Egyptians times, with over 200 characters. Equally, Ethiopia has its own church, the Ethiopian Orthodox church, a particular version of Christianity forming a strong pillar in society. Whenever a taxi driver drives by an Orthodox church he makes the sign of a cross. All around me is a distinctly Ethiopian music along with traditional dances and clothes. Little is adopted and Western mingling is kept to a bare minimum. Ethiopian politics follow the same line of ‘proudly Ethiopian’; visionary and with an iron hand this country is pushed forward. Multinational and international food chains are not allowed into the country and international companies that are already present experience a hard time playing the Ethiopian game. Ironically, while critised by international bodies like the IMF and World Bank, Ethiopia had managed to run the fastest growing economy in Africa last year. With the EU crumbling for its survival, this should come as a humble reminder that the Western way is not the only way.
As you can tell I am intrigued by this mysterious, unique country. Closed off by much of the foreign world and bellicosely upholding their own way of doing things. But while I am in a country of great allure, at the same time I am struck by the grave poverty of it all. I feel I have never been in such a poor country as where I am seated right now having my shoes brushed and polished. As I get up I leave the boy with the trifling amount of 10 cents for his 20 minutes of craftsmanship. Paramount to the paradox I entered in, this boy grows up in one of the proudest nations in the world and while growth is rampant, poverty is still pervasive, and he is likely to make only marginally more cents when he gets older.
I remember when I started studying development, my first look at the development index of the world Ethiopia occupied the bottom rung, shouldering war torn Sierra Leone. More than ten years later, I get to be part of the economic flight the country is experiencing as of late. While the economic growth is erratic and its benefits mostly accrue to a lucky few, this miraculous growth holds more hope than the country has ever witnessed since LiveAid called the world into action during its tragic famine in 1984. I just hope I can be part of the new growth path the government embarked upon and help people lift themselves out of poverty, exemplifying the new hope that runs through the veins of this unique country.
– Ethiopian women are commonly known to be the most beautiful on the continent. Well after a week in the country all I can say, this is not just a stereotype…
– In the capital there is one junction where roads from all directions cross over each other at different levels, the local name for it: ‘confusion square’
– Beggars are everywhere you look and because of the Orthodox Christian teaching that you should give to the poor and will be blessed by it. This led to such an influx of poor leaving the country side to crawl the streets of the capital in search of coins. It started to create problems and hassle in the city to the extent that the government deemed it illegal to either beg or give to beggars. To this effect, the number of beggars on the street dropped, yet there remains still a good crowd of crippled, blind, handicapped and just terribly poor sustained by compassionate people that feel it is ‘more blessed to give than to receive’ (bibleverse)
– People in Ethiopia eat from one plate. It is even normal for someone to put food in your mouth as a gesture of friendship.
– Ethiopia’s staple Teff (a very fine sort grain) is only grown on Ethiopian soil and made into ‘enjera’ (pancake like, see photo) on which the rest of the food is served.
– Ethiopia is rich in its greetings. When greeting a nod or bow with the head shows respect. A more friendly greeting you touch your both right shoulders. Similar to Dutch custom you greet inner circle of the opposite sex with three kisses on the cheeks. To express your gratitude and respect you support your right elbow with your left hand and bent your knees slightly when shaking the other’s hand. When receiving a gift you are supposed to reach with two hands as one may be considered as reluctance or ingratitude.
– Coming saturday I will be watching Netherlands-Denmark at the ambassor’s house with all my fellow countrymen hopefully cheering the Dutchies to victory