A few small brain chunks are all that remain of the man on the street. My girlfriend Mahi and I walk past the lurching throng of crying Ethiopians. Myself, a thoroughly desensitized Westerner, feel only a detached curiosity, and perhaps a hint of jealousy at how emotional Ethiopians can be. If onlookers at a car accident cried in New York, Toronto, or London, they would be subjected to a flurry of bewildered and even mocking looks. This uncontrolled show of empathy contrasts sharply with the seemingly total disregard for human life one often sees in this part of the world, exhibited in the way people drive or how police beat the hoi polloi at the drop of a hat.
A few minutes later we see another horrific car accident through the windows of our careening taxi-van on the way to a small village nearby. The driver of our jam-packed vehicle doesn’t slow down. “If you tell him to drive slower, he’ll only yell at you,” Mahi tells me, a hint of fatalism in her voice. I sigh in resigned disbelief, though a part of me no longer cares, since I’m leaving the country soon.
She tells me a story about cops letting a man who was struck by a car die because they chose to fill in their paperwork before taking him to the hospital. I recall another time while we were walking a friend’s dog in Addis. Mahi kept admonishing me to keep him on a short leash. “People here won’t think twice about hitting a dog. There’s no law against it,” she warned.
Clichés swirl through my head. “Life is cheap here.” “Death lurks around the corner.” “Africa is chaos.” Yes, yes, they sound reductionist, and they’re simplistic and often untrue, but I understand where they come from. It’s silly to consider all clichés or stereotypes true, but equally silly to dismiss them as necessarily false. Administrative failures and poor economic conditions from a long history of exploitation cause such a state of affairs. Car accidents are extraordinarily common in Ethiopia, as are other kinds of unnatural death. I can’t believe how many recently deceased people Mahi knows, or knew. Having African (I can hear a whining voice protesting, “Africa isn’t a country,” but it’s easier to say “African” than Ethiopian, Rwandese, Kenyan, Ugandan, and Nigerian) friends on Facebook means regularly reading necrological status updates.
We’re travelling in the country’s northern historical circuit, the leftovers of thousands of years of advanced civilization. In fact, the Kingdom of Axum, precursor to modern Ethiopia, was one of the four greatest powers in the world by the third century A.D., and the Ethiopians were greatly revered by the Ancient Egyptians and Greeks.
The north is home to the mighty Simien Mountains, where animals found nowhere else in the world reside; 800 year-old churches, carved from a single rock in Lalibela; the medieval castles of Gondar, Africa’s own Camelot; the experimental village of Awra Amba, peopled by utopian atheists who have eliminated gender roles; the swirling lava lakes of the Danakil Depression, the hottest place on Earth; Axum, scattered with millennia-old manmade stelae and the alleged resting place of the Ark of the Covenant; and the site of the 1896 Battle of Adwa, where 100,000 Abyssinian imperial troops smashed a modern Italian army, thus ensuring the empire remain the only country in Africa free from the poison of colonialism.
Travel writer Paul Theroux summarized the state of ancient Ethiopian civilization thusly: “When your barbarian ancestors were running around Europe bare-assed, with bellies painted in blue woad, elaborately clothed Ethiopians were breeding livestock and using the wheel defending their civilization against the onslaught of Islam, while piously observing the Ten Commandments.” Though when he travelled there recently, he described the denizens of Addis as “handsome people in rags, possessed of both haughtiness and destitution, a race of aristocrats who had pawned the family silver.” Colourful, unscientific, and probably offensive, but I must admit I nodded my head when I recently reread that passage.
So what happened? How did a once mighty empire become one of the most impoverished nations on Earth? How did a fly-blown Ethiopian face become an advertisement for the aid industry? The usual reasons: foreign exploitation, mostly at the hand of Europeans; domestic oppression under corrupt elites; extraordinary governmental mismanagement, both under Emperor Haile Selassie and then even more so during the brutal Derg regime, particularly during the famines that have plagued the country for centuries; domestic turmoil, occasionally very bloody, caused by resentment towards the government as well as political, ethnic, and religious rivalries; and of course a few fruitless wars.
It’s become very fashionable of late to speak of “Africa rising.” Ethiopia does have a skyrocketing GDP, and everywhere in Addis one can look upwards to find cranes towering overhead. But these cranes are mostly building luxury hotels that the vast majority of people cannot afford, and most of the growth is benefiting a tiny, often corrupt elite. One should also not forget the “growth” of inequality, urban poverty, and materialism.
Nonetheless it remains a fascinating place with a rich culture, incredible people, and gorgeous landscape, one of the most distinct places on the planet. It’s a different world from the beaches, safaris, tourists and Bantu Swahili cultures of Tanzania that I had been immersed in a few weeks earlier.
* * *
Tanzania was for me a sort of tropical purgatory. I hovered in limbo, gazing dazedly at the blurry lives of passersby. My own life sat twiddling its thumbs in the corner. I’d been staying with some very generous friends in Dar Es Salaam, waiting for an Ethiopian business visa needed as a first step for accreditation as a freelance journalist from a government not known for its fondness of reporters. The consulate in Toronto assured me it would take only a few days. Of course nothing involving Ethiopian bureaucracy can ever be measured in mere 24-hour units.
Naturally no one was able to tell me just how long the wait would be. There are no concrete timelines because there is no concrete process, or if there is one, no one seems to know it. It was hard to tell if this was the usual cloak of obfuscation so often encountered in dealing with African governments, or simply incompetence. I recall former Reuters journalist Aidan Hartley’s description of African bureaucracy: “Even the simplest of subjects, such as the figures for coffee exports, appeared to be matters of national security. In fact, we suspected it was for a more mundane reason. He didn’t know and, more to the point, the figures didn’t exist.” Whatever the reasons, I was adrift in what Sir Richard Burton called “the proverbial delays of Africa.”
Meanwhile, I travel. By bus around the Serengeti and past Mount Kilimanjaro to Arusha and Lake Victoria in the north, and by ferry across the warm Indian Ocean to the islands of Zanzibar and Mafia off the eastern coast. Everywhere I meet tourists complaining how expensive everything is.
Being skinny is painful. I mean it physically hurts. Bones need a cushion of meat to pad their edges and acute angles. Hard surfaces bite into the bottom and back of the gaunt, requiring them to constantly cycle through their resting positions in a kind of ridiculous dance. After 14-hour bus rides on dirt roads with bumps hit with such speed as to propel me from my rock-hard seat into a collision with the ceiling, my ass was sore for days.
During these painful episodes the terrifying realization would set in that maybe I don’t love travel the way I once did. I became more impatient with the bothersome elements of traveling in a developing country, and less infatuated with the adventure. It was no longer new and magical. Perhaps I’ve overdosed.
After my travels, I languished in dusty, friendly Dar Es Salaam amid the coconut palm and baobab trees, white-washed buildings, whirling ceiling fans, bright kanga wraps, raging tropical sun, merciful Indian Ocean trade winds, hordes of foreigners, malarial mosquitoes, modern shopping centres, Indian merchants, grilled street meat, bouncing Swahili music, bajaj and moto taxis, endless traffic, and unrelenting fraudsters. It was more developed and more crime ridden than Addis.
At first it was wonderful catching up with a good friend, meeting new people, and having great conversations, perhaps even the kinds of conversation I can only have with fellow Westerners. But soon I grew frustrated and depressed over my stalling career and journalistic impotence in Ethiopia, and was starting to feel useless in Tanzania. I allowed myself to become the type of traveller I usually can’t stand. Normally I’ll have read at least a couple of books and speak a smattering of a country’s language before even stepping foot on the plane, but I knew little of Tanzania and spoke almost zero Kiswahili before I came. Aside from a few extraordinary cultural experiences, I lived a largely isolated life, taking bajaj taxis instead of buses, chasing Wi-Fi wherever I could find it, and often simply staying at home reading. I had almost no interest in Dar Es Salaam, and my revulsion of African cities was now well-established.
Sometimes I felt like some sort of comic book super villain. It was strange being around Westerners again, and I often had to resist the urge to thumb out the eyes of the ones whose positivity, enthusiasm, white guilt, and political correctness nauseated me. I was comforted by the irritated passages in Charles Bukowski’s Ham on Rye that I was reading at the time. “I liked being bad. Trying to be good made me feel sick.” His sincere anger with the world and disgust with people were refreshing.
Sometime around the third rebooking of my plane ticket back to Addis, I had to ask myself if living there was really worth all the time, money, and frustration. Sure, it’s a fascinating place, and I had made a few great Ethiopian friends. I had had the pleasure, through Mahi, of spending my time with local journalists, artists, intellectuals, and activists. Nonetheless, I finally had to admit to myself that Ethiopia wasn’t for me, at least not Addis Ababa. I had a dispassionate intellectual interest in the place, but no visceral attachment. The people appeared to equate “development” with the adoption of all those parts of Western culture that I so despise – rapacious consumerism, self-help and “positive thinking,” a shallow image-based entertainment culture, and elitism. Nationalism, xenophobia, and general intolerance seemed to be popular hobbies.
Addis was also killing Mahi, from the venomous and chronic misogyny, to the workplace exploitation, to the frequent eruptions of hostility caused by being with a white man. Even her friends gave her a hard time for being with a foreigner. They ask, “Why don’t you tell him to buy you a laptop,” and don’t understand why that bothers her, why it belittles our relationship. Every single economic interaction she had when I was present had to turn into a shouting match because everyone overcharged her. She even had to leave her job at a corrupt construction company because they were trying to extort her for money. “Just get your boyfriend to pay. Isn’t that why you’re dating him?”
Moreover, my job at a mismanaged Ethiopian newspaper was hellish. The journalists were fantastic, but the editors spent most of their time complaining about their “lazy” reporters. They even told me they regarded all foreign journalists as hacks who “don’t understand Ethiopia” (the dozens of books about Ethiopia and the wider region I’ve personally seen on foreign journalists’ bookshelves in Addis would seem to refute that notion). The unfortunate reporters at this paper work 80-hour weeks, sleeping at their desks on the weekends, in an office with almost no cell phone service and Internet that rarely works. They must endure this with seemingly zero compassion from the management. I was working the same hours and also sleeping there on weekends, yet I had no more than 20 hours of actual work to do each week. Whenever I asked why, the answers were, like so many other things, always circumlocutory. And after all that, they refused to pay me a single cent. In the end I didn’t have the energy left to argue with them. After all, rich white people aren’t allowed to complain.
The expats were mostly disappointing; I met many, but socialized with virtually none. The lifestyle and cultural differences were simply too much for most of them to bear and they had retreated into a bizarre bubble world existing side by side with Addis. Most of what they did was designed to isolate themselves from reality. I’ve never been to a country where so few of the foreigners, even those who had lived there for years, spoke the local language. As always, it was fashionable amongst expats to hypocritically denounce the Bubble, but they would also occasionally mock those expats who had gone “too native.” Most were aid workers there to “save Africa,” who rejoiced at the orgy of Westernization, but were hungry for more. Many were so bored that they had become alcoholics, and the worst of them behaved in a way they could never get away with in their home countries, treating Addis like some seedy amusement park or brothel. Even most foreign journalists were trapped in this parallel universe, obliterating my romantic conception of the firmly embedded and adapted correspondent.
* * *
I fly into Addis’s airport, in the wretched Bole neighbourhood, the living museum of everything that’s wrong with development in Africa, and immediately flee to Piazza, a charming old neighbourhood built by the Italians during their brutal occupation of the country. Piazza’s endless cafes and low-key restaurants tend to attract Addis’s sophisticates, and its habitués are friendly and accustomed to a cosmopolitan crowd. It’s the dry season now, and the combination of cool highland air and hot tropical sun makes for a virtually perfect climate, in stark contrast to the inclement weather I had left behind in Ethiopia six weeks before. I sit down to people-watch and can’t help but be struck by their incredible uniqueness – the facial structures and skin tones, the language, the pride. They’re not always good people, but they are a great people.
I can’t help feeling that Ethiopia and I had let each other down. It seemed as though the country had sent its armies to keep me out – hordes of fleas, bureaucrats, thieves, and miscreants. When my camera kit was stolen, along with hundreds of photos, I finally got the message and threw in the towel in bitter defeat. If I was younger, or if it were my first time living abroad, perhaps the “magic” of living in Africa would have made all of the bullshit worth it, but no more. Ethiopia was a false start to my (still theoretical) career as a journalist abroad. On my last day, rolling my luggage down the crowded street to find a cab, a passerby told my girlfriend to “Tell him not to come back.” I decided to take this fellow’s cruel advice. “Beka,” I murmured to myself. Enough.
* * *
Half a day later I’m consumed by the consumerism of holiday-season Toronto. My iPhone jumps back to life with its ever-present hi-speed Internet. It’s too much to handle and I can’t seem to put it down. The airport bus is equipped with leather seats, electrical sockets, and free Wi-Fi. Tickets cost $27 and can be paid using the onboard credit card machine. It leaves exactly on schedule even though only three of its fifty seats have passengers in them (I remember how Kapuściński wrote that the difference between concepts of time in Africa and the West is that in the West, buses leave at a specific time, while in Africa, they leave when they’re full).
Almost immediately, my standards for satisfaction increase tenfold. “This movie will take 25 minutes to download? Fuck.” I stare out of the window of my friend’s hi-rise condo, looking at the CN tower a few hundred metres away. Going without water or electricity for several days at a time in Addis is already a faint memory. I’m drunk off of Western comforts. It feels good, but not healthy. My friends tell me their lives feel empty, and they try to fill in the emptiness with consumer items, sex, and alcohol.
Back in Winnipeg I’m subjected to all the usual observations about how skinny I’ve become (But I suppose I can’t make any comments about how much weight anyone has gained. That would be rude), a few not-so-surreptitious glances at my thinning hair, and the inquiries of when I’ll “grow up,” which, if I’m not mistaken, means living in a “civilized” (i.e. Western) country, moving to the suburbs, and getting an office job.
Those things terrify me. Instead, I decide to return to Istanbul, my first love, the most beautiful city in the most beautiful country in the world. Turkey was the spark that ignited my love for travel eight years ago when I lived there for six months. But in retrospect, perhaps it wasn’t travel that I fell in love with, but rather Turkey. It’s the perfect combination of Western comforts, European culture, Mediterranean passion, and Eastern spirituality and exoticism. And best of all, I don’t need a business visa to work as a freelancer.
If you liked this, you may also enjoy my other essays about Ethiopia, found here.