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Bekoji

It’s Tuesday evening in Addis Ababa’s garish central Bole neighbourhood. Wealthy, Westernized, and dodgy, Bole is a favourite spot for Addis’s expat population, and my most hated part of the city. Outside the rainy season is chilly and grey. The sun sets into a funereal sky stained with diesel smoke. Droves of begging children aggressively harass anyone who looks like they have money. Shoe shiners use their bare hands to polish muck-covered loafers. Bratty rich kids (‘Bole Kids’) lacing their Amharic with American English sneer at the beggars and snicker at the bug-bitten, sunburned foreigners who are running to the hideous architecture and isolated bubble worlds of their luxury hotels.

I’m in the lounge of one such hotel. The attentive staff greet guests who pass through the metal detector and baggage screener with a charming salute, CNN flickers on the flat-screen television over the well-stocked bar, and jazz music plays softly in the background. This particular hotel is popular amongst Addis’s expat community for being one of the only places in Ethiopia with free high-speed Wi-Fi. It’s usually full of foreign aid workers, African Union officials, low-level diplomats, members of Ethiopia’s diaspora, the odd tourist, and one or two of Addis’s half dozen or so Western journalists.

I’m chatting with a handsome young Italian man with a dark, well-groomed beard and a light-blue embroidered scarf. I’d seen him here before and assumed he was an aid worker. His English is good, and his Italian accent disarming. He tells me his name is Francesco and he came to Addis as a photographer with Save the Children, and my eyes begin to glaze, but he gets my attention when he says he’s really a photojournalist. He’s planning to do a feature in a small town called Bekoji where six Olympic gold medal athletes hail from. He knows I’m a journalist, and mentions it would be a lot easier to sell the photos if he included an article with them, looking at me hopefully. I get the hint, and ask when he’s leaving. First thing tomorrow morning. He has no contacts, no place to stay, and has done limited research. It sounds like an adventure, and I can’t say no.

Since my *Habesha girlfriend Mahi has that week off work, I ask her to join us as a translator. She’s from Addis, and hesitates to venture into the countryside, but eventually agrees. The next morning we start our adventure, during which we see the best and worst of Ethiopia.

After spending ages searching for a taxi willing to give a Habesha girl with two white men a half-decent price, we end up driving across the sprawling city from the bus station that used to go to Bekoji to the other bus station that goes there now. It turns out our taxi driver is a friendly Italophile who falls in love with Francesco and gives us an incredibly generous price. We get his phone number and now he’s our go-to cabbie. Finding an honest taxi driver here is like finding an honest mechanic or computer repair person back home – you thank God and become a customer for life.

With the help of our affable driver, we find a bus heading south to sunny Nazareth, on the way to Bekoji. While there, we have lunch and chat with Francesco in a nice hotel near the bus station. He turns out to be the perfect travel companion – good-natured, unfussy, and jocular.

Upon return to the bus station, our jubilant moods darken. Without having a Habesha man to help us, we are immediately taken advantage of. On the bus to Bekoji, the bus staff speak Oromo so that Mahi can’t understand (she speaks Ethiopia’s national language, Amharic), and smack us with a phony “baggage charge.” When Mahi yells at them, they tell us they’re no longer going to Bekoji, but to Assela, a small city (and hometown of Haile Gebrselassie) near Bekoji, which means we need to get a third bus.

At the Assela bus station our nightmare begins. As white people in Sub-Saharan Africa, you often draw loads of unwanted attention, particularly in rural areas, and people can be a little aggressive in their peddling, but we’d never seen anything like this before. Dozens of screaming men from different bus companies immediately swarm us, physically fighting each other to try and get closer, and repeatedly try to grab our luggage from us. Everyone is shouting obscenities at Mahi as punishment for daring to be seen with white men. Simply being called a slut is among the less objectionable comments. “Do they fuck you at the same time?” “If they pay you enough, will you eat their shit?” Imagine being in your own homeland, having your own people say such things to you.

This is all too much for poor Mahi, and she simply goes catatonic. With Mahi unresponsive, Francesco and I, unable to understand Amharic, have absolutely no idea what’s going on, or what our plan is. We form a human circle around our luggage, and stand at the ready.

Eventually a bus station employee screams at the mob surrounding us, though they just laugh at him. He eventually finds us a cramped van to Bekoji, which we have to battle through the shoving throng of passengers to win a seat on. On the bumpy, scenic ride, my head is throbbing. When one of the passengers tries to pay the small fare with a hundred birr bill, a furious quarrel erupts. Even carefree Francesco rolls his eyes at the absurdity.

We finally arrive in tiny Bekoji, and our luck changes once again. A good Samaritan named Zelalem immediately spots us, helps with our bags, and points us in the direction of Hotel Wabe, a charming little haven recently-opened by long-distance runner Tadesse Tola. The staff are friendly without being smarmy, there’s a very decent restaurant, and the rooms are clean and comfortable. We have a simple spaghetti dinner and much-needed libations, and chat with the nephew of the owner. Afterwards we retire to our rooms and drift off to a long-awaited sleep.

Early the next morning, after a hearty breakfast of eggs, bread, and tea, we explore the town by the light of dawn. Bekoji has a population of about 17,000, almost all of whom are from Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, the Oromo. There’s very little English, and many older people don’t even speak Amharic. There’s one main thoroughfare, a large market, and a town drunk who repeats the same fragment of the only English he knows every time he sees us: “You! I’m sorry about that! About what?” But even he is friendly and harmless.

Bekoji is fantastically beautiful, enclosed in cloud-tipped mountains, with grass so green it looks like it’s been Photoshopped. Everywhere we’re flanked by animals – horses, donkeys, goats, cows, sheep, and stray dogs. The sharp sound of the giraf, or shepherd’s whip resounds throughout the town as children expertly wield it for fun. Simple mud huts are interspersed with small modern buildings with electricity and running water. At an elevation of 2800 metres, Bekoji’s magical highland air and active rural lifestyle are said to be amongst the reasons for producing so many of the world’s finest runners. Young boys spend their childhoods running around barefoot and herding livestock. There are virtually no cars.

Walking through the town, we encounter the familiar staring and “Fereng, fereng!” but in a remarkably different tone than I’d previously become accustomed to. In Addis, the attention usually takes the form of ridicule, fawning, or base solicitation. In Bekoji, we’re greeted in a curious, friendly tone. A simple “Salam no?” greeting is enough to elicit a cheerful and polite response. Smiling children are delighted to see us, shouting “China!” (apparently the first “white” people they saw were from China) and asking us to take their photo. Virtually no one is rude. There are no screams of “Give money!” no knee-jerk xenophobia or insults hurled at a Habesha girl with white men, no aggressive beggars, pick-pockets, or pan-handlers, and the only traffic we need to worry about are horse-drawn buggies, which also operate as taxis.

By Western standards, the people are “poor,” but they also seem happy and relaxed. It offers a stark contrast to irritable Addis, where everyone seems constantly on edge. “This is how I want to remember Ethiopia,” I think to myself, at the same time disturbed by the prospect of returning to Addis. It’s the first time during my two months in Ethiopia that I feel completely safe without being behind any walls.

We meet the famous coach Sentayehu, who we watch the Moscow World Championships with, one of his new star runners, and the legendary runner Kenenisa Bekele’s charming father.

After a couple of days Mahi gets sick with some sort of stomach ailment. I’m not too concerned because she often has stomach problems, but as I’m going over some notes in our room I can hear her vomiting in the washroom. When she stumbles out and collapses onto the bed, I ask if she’s ok, if she needs a doctor, but she just lets out a soft whimper. I go to ask one of the hotel staff if there’s a doctor in Bekoji, and we come back to check on Mahi. I try to wake her up, but can’t. I shake her, yell her name, slap her face. Nothing. Finally I open her eyelids, and like in some horror movie all I can see is white sclera. I start to panic, feel for a pulse, sprint to Francesco’s room and tell him to get a car any way he can. By now the hotel staff is alert to the emergency with their special guests. My whole body is trembling from the cold, overcast weather, and from the terrifying prospect of losing my Mahi, the reason I came to this country. “You can’t leave me alone here, Mahi,” I whisper in her ear.

Francesco manages to wrangle a bajaj, the blue and white three-wheeled covered taxi ubiquitous in small-town Ethiopia. One of the hotel workers helps me carry Mahi inside and I bark at the driver to floor it. I don’t even know where we’re going, since they don’t speak English and as far as I know there’s no doctor in Bekoji. We are immediately flagged down by a traffic cop and I scream at the driver to keep going. Mahi’s entire body starts convulsing and I’m holding her as tight as I can, trying to maintain my composure, whispering in her ear that she’s not alone. I know she can hear me because a single tear rolls down her cheek, even as she remains unable to speak or open her eyes.

After only a short distance we reach what appears to be some kind of medical clinic. I race out of the bajaj and scream at the terrified receptionist. “Doctor, DOCTOR! Now, NOW!” I almost kiss the young man with crooked teeth who appears, ostensibly the doctor, especially when he speaks a little English. After a few excruciating minutes, the doctor looks at me, smiles, and says “She’s fine!” I hear them speaking Amharic and occasionally the word “epilepsy” pops up. I remember now how she had some sort of seizure last summer in Kigali, and it all starts to make sense. Presumably, her sickness, lack of food, and vomiting triggered a seizure.

Finally Mahi comes to. Meanwhile, at least half the hotel staff have joined us at the clinic, and even brought Mahi a blanket and socks. It is at that moment that the Ethiopians win me over. No matter how nasty Addis could be, I swear I’d never forget the kindness of these people. Francesco is there too, and his cheery mood and quick wit make everyone more comfortable.

The doctor is still concerned with the illness that triggered Mahi’s seizure, and a nurse gives her a painful blood test, missing her vein several times. After that, another terrifying word comes up, a word that conjures images of filthy nineteenth century London – Typhoid. I run over to the nearby pharmacy and buy a bunch of medication the doctor prescribes. Mahi takes the first dose via injection.

When we get back to the hotel, everyone tells us not to trust this doctor, and that Mahi probably doesn’t really have Typhoid. Moreover, it’s dangerous to take Typhoid medicine if you don’t have it. They turn out to be right, since her flu soon disappears, and she stops taking the medicine.

The remainder of our time in Bekoji is peaceful. Francesco needs to stay behind for another few days, but when it’s time for Mahi and me to leave, I do so with a heavy heart. Our shared adventure had bonded us with Francesco, and saying goodbye to him reminded me of how lonely I was in Addis, and how badly I needed a friend.

One of the hotel staff is kind enough to accompany us to Asella, and having a Habesha man with us erases all of our problems. But upon our return to Addis, we are greeted with the usual foulness. An entire restaurant of taxi drivers near the bus station screams at Mahi, and warns me to be careful with my belongings in front of the “prostitute.” “Welcome back to Addis,” I mumble, as Mahi cries softly in the back of the taxi we paid the absurd foreigner price for.

*Ethiopian people refer to themselves as Habesha, and other Africans as “African” (for example, Swahili music is labelled as African). To further complicate matters, many large ethnic groups in Ethiopia, such as the Oromo and Somalis, often prefer not to use the word ‘Habesha’ for themselves, associating it with the Amhara, Tigrayans, and Gurage peoples who have historically dominated their country.

*If you liked this, please click here for similar pieces.

*Please see here for photos from this trip

*Click here for my article about Bekoji in The Atlantic.

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23 thoughts on “Bekoji

  1. You have painted a completely unfair picture of Addis, but i suppose a journalists’s job is to sensationalise. Your piece is also devoid of any interesting or useful information…if I were you i would turn to fiction

    • How do you know it was sensationalized if you weren’t there? Not only did all of the above really happen, it’s quite a representative example. I’d be happy to recount all of the times Mahi has been called a bitch, slut, or pet dog. It happens on average 5 – 10 times a day, and if you think I’m exaggerating, I really question your knowledge of Addis. If you want a “10 things to do while in Bekoji!” fluff piece, I suggest you look elsewhere.

  2. I came to this article by chance and read your story. You can write that’s for sure 🙂

    I am an Ethiopian born and raised in Addis and now live in London.

    I really feel for you. The name calling etc, certainly isn’t fair on your missus or yourself but the problem is deep. Ethiopians are not used to seeing white men and Ethiopian women as couples. When they see you with Mahi, they are assuming she is a pro and you are just a tourist. Assumption as they say is the mother of all fuck ups and there is little you can do to change that at this moment. This is something time and generation will change just like it has and is doing so in USA and Europe. In history, couples like yourself and Mahi, have had to break barriers – not just for themselves – for the current generation to live as they want without questions. Things may not be great for you now but it will improve.

    If you have been to bars and clubs in Addis, am sure you have seen lots of Ethiopian prostitutes with tourists. The ladies of negotiable affection 🙂
    You see, that assumption i was referring to is born out of what people see in the bars and clubs. They cant stand to see these girls act in a way they do. Ethiopia is a growing country and there are jobs they can do but these girls want it easy. You see, that’s why Mahi is getting much of the name calling and why people are i-rate with girls who work as pros.

    Further more, traditionally, Ethiopian girls/women are known to be reserved and well mannered. The high majority still are but the way the prostitutes act in the city and the way we are seen in Arab countries etc now is the opposite of reserved.

    When they see you and mahi, they don’t see a loving couple. They see a pro and tourist. I hope and am sure that will change.

    As for your issues with taxi drivers, if you are a local, you have an ID. If you show them the ID , you pay local prices. If you are not a local, they will obviously charge you more than they would the locals. These has happened to me in every country i have been to and the mini cabs do it here in London too.

    As for the below:

    Ethiopian people refer to themselves not as African, but as Habesha

    so wrong!

    Ethiopians are Africans. Proud Africans. Cant be anything but Africans. As a journalist, you should know better than to make such bold statements. Why don’t you look at our history before saying something like that. Is this because some Ethiopian has said that to you? May be someone from the Somali or Oromia region? A man like you should have spotted that from a mile off 🙂 Anyway, Ethiopians have divisional issues right now and fail to understand the “united we stand, divided we fall” mantra.

    I wish you good luck!

    • Thanks Sami. You are spot on. And to be fair, many fereng tourists here do treat the country as their own personal amusement park.

      About the Habesha part, yes many Habeshas are strongly disagreeing with that, and many are strongly agreeing with it. Though I know many Oromo and Somalians take issue with the term Habesha, it’s actually been many of my Habesha friends here in Addis who have told me that many Ethiopians (I didn’t say all) consider themselves superior to other Africans, or at least unique (the unique part is true), and therefore consider themselves Habesha above all else. I would never make such a bold statement without thorough reporting to back it up.

  3. #Ethiopia lead me to your article and its a good read. Its nice to hear a different prospective of Addis and Ethiopia in general.

    Ethiopians who think they are superior to other Africans are deluded. Unique may be but not superior and i know many do not feel that way.

    For most foreigners, Ethiopia is cheap and they spend and give money away to kids etc. When kids see you , a white guy, they see $ signs. On top of the economical problems, the gap between the rich and the poor has grown so wide, it has created many hustlers. Even with such problems, crime is still very very low, esp compared to other African countries. It almost does not exist. Mainly because Ethiopia is a religious country and people would rather beg you than rob you.

    I agree with you with regards seeing true Ethiopians outside Addis. Thats how the majority of the country is but Addis is changing fast, most for the better and some for worse.

    I wish you and your girl friend peace and happiness. Mahi just needs to ignore those who call her names.

    God bless!

    • I’m afraid the more money Addis gets, the more inequal and dangerous it becomes. The problem with most of the investment coming from the diaspora and other places is that it’s only going to hotels, restaurants, spas, etc. These are the things Ethiopia needs the least. You’re right that it’s one of the less dangerous cities on the continent though.

  4. dramatic some?? also it reads like a longass diary. there is good writing to be sure, but you gotta cut out at least a third. i like what a guy above said… this should be turned into fiction! add better dialogue and you might have a story that can keep the reader interested.

    The overarching lesson is you can take try to take the city out of the city girl, but you most definitely shouldnt take the city girl into the country! ha!

    good luck man

    • So you want me to write it less dramatic than it really was? That would be a peculiar style indeed. And if you think it’s too long, have you never read a 15,000 word New Yorker article? I do wish I had more dialogue, but it’s hard to do that without taking extensive notes, and I didn’t know I would turn it into an article until it was all over.

  5. An amazing and disheartening story, at parts. I know nothing about Ethiopia and trust your narrative. 😉 I can’t imagine being called such names in my own country… So sad. Thanks for sharing.

  6. (Copypasting my comment from Facebook, slightly edited)

    In my opinion Nick is telling it like he sees it, and that’s what we as journalists have to do, even though some people may be offended. The constructive criticism, debate and experience-swapping between Ethiopians and expats that have been going on here are great– indeed, a sign of an awesome blog post–but the base ad hominem attacks say more about their own writers than about Nick or about the (disturbing) points raised in the post…some people need to grow up!!

    P.S. I can say that sensationalism is not the word for this. I wasn’t there in Bekoji, but I have travelled a bit in Addis with Nick and his friends. He’s not pulling this out of his ear, OK? The racially-tinged sexual harassment that Mahi (and to a lesser extent Nick himself) face on the street is real; I heard it with my own ears when I was there. (http://yearofnofear.wordpress.com/2013/08/20/welcome-to-addis-ababa/)

    I know that a good solution to moronic comments can be to ignore them, but I understand how that can be difficult if said comments just…never…stop.

    • Mahi said to me that even if she tells her family and friends about what happened to us, they won’t believe her, or perhaps just won’t want to. All my Habesha friends are telling me that Ethiopians HATE to be made aware of any problems in their country, especially from a foreigner.

  7. Hi,it was nice to read your article and your view about Addis and quite shocking too.I was born and raised in Addis and of course wasn’t really pleased with your view.I’m currently living in India and honestly that’s exactly how I felt about India at first.I used to complain a lot and wanted to go back as soon as possible but I came with a purpose and knew I gotta do what I gotta do so I started to accept the fact that it’s their way of life and I’m nobody to judge them ,I believe it would be good if you did that too because you can’t just post all those bad things about Addis (and tell the whole of Addis to read it) and not expect us to be offended .I’m not saying Addis is all good but it sure is not as horrible as you express it to be .And as far as the random comments (by some guys on the streets)are concerned ,it’s just a harmless thing ,being a girl from Addis I have heard lots and lots of them and so have my friends but we just laugh about it and let it go that’s all.You probably had a different expectation of Addis but the fact is it is what it is ,so please try to focus on the positive things and stop painting such a bad image of Addis .cheers.

    • Thanks for you comment Sheri. But honestly, can you name a single bad thing I say about Addis? Can you find a single sentence even beginning with “Addis is…?” Is there anything disrespectul whatsoever in the article? Sure, I call Bole ugly, because it IS, and many Ethiopians say this too. It’s full of luxury hotels and grocery stores that the average Ethiopian can’t afford and has no use for.

      It was shocking how many insults I got after posting this article on an Ethiopian Facebook group. My Habesha and fereng friends all read it, and said it wasn’t even a little bit offensive, and it was totally accurate. When I told my Habesha friends about all the negativity caused by the article, they rolled their eyes and said that if a fereng or Habesha says anything critical whatsoever about Ethiopia, the response is always the same – you are called a traitor, a liar, unpatriotic and much, MUCH worse.

      This isn’t an article about Addis, and it doesn’t need to be “balanced.” It is simply a summarization of five days I had in Ethiopia, as accurately as I could portray it. But when I re-read it, honestly, the actual experience was FAR worse than this article expressed. I wish so much that I had taken video of that bus station in Asella, and of all the comments we’ve gotten in Addis (including in the past hour of writing this). Mahi herself even said if she tells her friends and family about this experience, they simply wouldn’t believe her.

      If I moved to Detroit, got stabbed, and wrote that I got stabbed, would you call it a “negative” story? Would Americans call me anti-American? No, because that would be ridiculous…

      Addis can be a reasonably friendly place when I’m not with a Habesha girl. It’s actually one of the safer cities in Sub-Saharan Africa. The problem I have is being with a Habesha girl, and from what I’ve heard, this problem is far worse in Ethiopia than any other African country.

      Perhaps I’ll write an article about Addis one day when I’ve been here for longer. If I do, I assure you it will include all of the positive and the negative.

      But to be honest, I often get the impression from Ethiopians that I’m allowed to express any opinion of Ethiopia I want, so long as it’s positive. That is ridiculous. I’m always curious about hearing criticisms of Canada from immigrants, because they often see things that the rest of us miss.

      You can’t ask a journalist or any serious writer to write only “positive things.” Give me a break. That goes against all the most important journalistic values. Our job is to write about the world as it really is, not to be patriotic or flatter people. Writing a “positive” article would be just as bad as writing a “negative” one. This essay is neither positive nor negative. It is simply what happened.

  8. Honest observation!
    Instead of patronizing, such honest pictures give concerned citizens to work hard in order to change the ugly images of Ethiopia that we think is normal (because not many told us about the wrinkles) until we go out and see how the civilized world behave.

    Begging, trying to take advantage of foreigners, not telling the truth, despising girls who be friended with others, etc… is not a Christian moral as majority of Ethiopians brag to be religious (majority Christians and Muslims too). If you feel educated or patriotic or guardian of Ethiopia’s name, then bite the bullet and start to organize yourselves to educate young people fight these ills of your society.

    Keep it up young man! You are doing us a huge favor.

    • Thank you kindly. As with any city with a recent population explosion, Addis is less friendly than the countryside, but I think the “real” Ethiopia is outside of Addis.

  9. but smtimes it’s of concern fo the white dudes that the people feel they say those words bro. In Ethio anybody wit white skin is seen wit atmost respect even if u r ethiopian and evbdy wants to protect u. Thats even why u dont see crime much, the police will brutally atack u if u touch a white man let alone attack him. So I got u but u shld also understand them.

    • Thanks for your comment. I do feel very safe in Addis, I do feel like a lot of people on the street would help me if I had a problem, and I’m sure I am far less likely to be attacked because I’m white and people for the most part are afraid to attack white people. White people also get special privileges based more on economics than race, such as not being searched as often or being treated really well in Western-style hotels and restaurants. I don’t think every white person is seen with respect though. It’s mostly amusement. It’s very very hard to understand unless you live here for a few months as a white person.

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  11. I would say most of the observations you made are spot on. I even agree with the statement “Ethiopian people refer to themselves as Habesha. not as African, but as Habesha.” It’s not uncommon to see small children on the streets of Addis referring to any black foreign person as “Africa” the same way they would point at white foreigners and say “Ferenj”. I’m not proud to admit it but considering ourselves as Habeshas only is something even me and most of my friends are guilty of which is why it is a subject of discussion among ourselves most of the time. I believe it usually emanates from being overly proud of our traditions and cultures or anything that sets us apart from any other country in Africa or in the world. Unfortunately, one of the things that sets us apart is our look (more specifically having slightly lighter skin tone). I know it is uncomfortable to talk about and I don’t want to ruffle anyone’s feathers with this statement but I believe it is one of the factors that cause us to think of ourselves as being different from other Africans. At the end of the day I don’t think any Ethiopian would discriminate any and I do mean ANY foreigner based on their skin color ( as long as you’re willing to let go of the finger pointing and other similar staff which I know can be tiring at times). I don’t believe racism is and ever will be an issue in this country.
    P.S I read most of your other posts too and I really like your blog. It is refreshing to see such an honest and fair take on issues that continue to affect our lives daily.

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