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.