Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Ethiopia from scratch (omitting the stuff I've already bored on about)

Let's wind back to the day we crossed from Sudan into Ethiopia. And get some sense and order into this thing.

But first a brief Marek-style digression:

- this load of old cobblers has had 2478 hits so far - from 17 countries. Please keep looking in, and clicking on the ads (if and when they ever pop up). Some Ethiopian kids will be grateful, and you will encourage me to keep on spouting. A double whammy at no cost to you!

- Marek saw an early draft of this posting. His first comment: "Nothing special" (what did I care?). His second: "This is bullshit - simply speaking" (I cared even less). His third: "Why do you make so many grammatical mistakes?" (that gave me pause for thought - English is his 5th language). Finally: "I am giving this work a school grade of F. F for fucked-up". There you go, the 6 week delay in this posting is his fault for shaking my confidence. See if you can find any grammatical errors now you Polish whotsit. Apart from the deliberate ones of course. (You see, that last sentence did not contain a verb. That was deliberate - it's obvious to anyone but a grammatical nazi).

- Pierre asked me "What means this word Marek say 1,000 times a day"
"What word?"
"It sound like '. . . facteurp . . .' he say it all the time" Have you got it yet? Click on an ad to celebrate (if you can see any yet).

Right, back to business.

Crossing from Sudan to into Ethiopia was an experience I want to record before it is lost forever to my failing memory. We spent an inordinate amount of time at the border in dust and heat before we were able to leave Sudan. The Sudanese bureaucracy is Kafkaesque. Apart from a visa and a police registration certificate, I now have 8 Sudanese stamps in my passport. Once through all that we had to endure the Ethiopian immigration formalities. Much less taxing, but time-consuming all the same. It was strange to be in a typically African temporary “building” in a desert frontier station, but with the most sophisticated electronic identity-checking equipment I have yet encountered.

You'll think I'm exaggerating, but really there is no need to exaggerate when describing the Ethiopian landscape. Within 15 minutes of crossing the border, we passed from desert to rolling green countryside reminiscent of Cornwall. It conjured up the moment in the Wizard of Oz when the picture changes from monochrome to Technicolour©. I suppose it is no coincidence that the ancient Ethiopians struck their boundaries where the topography changed from fertile agricultural land to worthless desert. That was before anybody cared much about oil. As we climbed into the mountains, the landscape changed from Cornwall through Scotland to the Alps.

Ethiopia has produced many of the world's fastest runners. Altitude must be a factor, developing the hearts and lungs of people, particularly those whose lifestyle involves hard physical activity – viz. everybody. Again and again barefoot boys raced the truck and were easily able to keep up with us for long distances - or even pass us on some stretches.

I have to say it again. Nice people. Children run to the side of the road to greet or gawp at us as we pass. Everybody smiles delightedly, or waves or kisses their thumbs at us- a big old dirty British truck a long way from home.

After a month in Arab countries, and despite the almost shockingly green landscape and cool climate, this is real Africa at last. Women with loads on their heads, naked children driving bony cattle, woollen cloaks over bare legs, ragged clothing which is indefinably African and that constant feature of real black Africa – people walking. In the middle of nowhere, walking, walking, walking.

Our first base in Ethiopia was the mountain town of Gonder, once the seat of Royalty and fabulously-rich but now rather the opposite. It's a nice enough place though, situated in a bowl at over 2,200 metres. Nestling is probably the right word. There's a lot of ancient stuff – ruined palaces and fortifications – and one church spared by invading Muslims when they occupied the town centuries ago. You can google them if you want – I won't.

The sharp contrasts with Sudan were not finished though. Suddenly thunder cracked and a huge downpour ensued. We can all probably remember the greatest deluges we have experienced. This came third on my personal scale, and I have been on the planet for 60 years. And here comes the cliché: it was lashing down. But the really big deal was that only that morning, not far down the road, we had been kicking our heels in the arid heat and dust of a squalid Sudanese desert town.

It was actually cold here. So much so that an open fire was lit for us in the bar of our hotel as we congregated for our first beers for a long while. This being Africa, there was no nonsense with kindling or firelighters. A liberal application of diesel and some plastic bottles produced a blazing fire in seconds.

Down in the town, I engaged the services of a shoe shine boy. We agreed a price of 10 Birr (40 pence). Job done, he demanded 40 Birr insisting that he had quoted 20 Birr . . . . per shoe! Either, times being hard, his normal clientele can only afford to have one shoe shone at a time, or there are a lot of one-legged men here. I had intended to pay him 20 birr in any event, but in the circumstances he got 10. I doubt I will be hearing from his lawyer.

The next amusing little scam went like this:
- A boy approached offering a SIM card for about 6 quid. The normal price is nearer 2, but you have to find a telecoms office, bring your passport, 2 photos and a completed application form whilst the counter clerk takes private phone calls, converses with other customers, argues with his boss, fiddles with the aircon control, switches off his brain as a blond western woman in shorts walks past the window, and other T.I.A. delaying tactics.
- It was evening and the kid's proposal would save me a lot of time and hassle the following day, so I agreed on the basis that he first installed it and showed me it was working.
- He did, making great play of breaking it out of the backing card. I paid him and the transaction was complete.

Next day I started getting text messages from a Scandinavian lady. I don't understand Swedish (if that's what it was) but some of the words were international – if you know what I mean. At first I took this as an expression of anger, but smiley faces and closer reading suggested that she was communicating deep affection (at the very least) to someone of the contrary gender.
Clearly the card was lost, stolen or discarded and after a couple of weeks of test messages from the phone company it was blocked. I had to jump through the hoops and pay another 2 quid after all.

Danny our Anglo-Ecuadorian driver laid on an educational trip to the premises of a local business. After two dry weeks in Sudan he was able to demonstrate his impressive ability literally to organise a piss-up in a brewery. On the way back (no. Danny wasn't driving) we found a great little music place in town. If it's not called a shebeen, it should be. A rudimentary building in which we were the only westerners (and very probably the only ones out on the town that night). It was clearly a popular venue with the locals, most of whom were traditionally dressed. The entertainment largely comprised percussion performed by a matronly lady sitting cross-legged on the floor kicking up a storm with 4 drums. A couple of young men strolled around playing one-stringed fiddles and collecting small tips. We got some valuable instruction in the Ethiopian style of dancing – which I will happily demonstrate to anyone who cares to see it. One of those great nights out.

At a historic site the next day, a group of Germans took some photos of me whilst I was on the phone to Shelagh. According to my companions it was not my hangover that interested them but my pose. In my crumpled travel clothes, with my cheap cotton knock-off of a panama hat pulled down over my eyes and my hands cupped in front of my face to shield the phone from the wind, I appeared the very picture of furtiveness. I feel quite proud of that – one does aspire to be a colourful character.

The best way to get around Gonder is by motorised rickshaw (tuc-tuc). They cost nothing, and I am wondering whether it would be possible to hire one with a driver for a month's tour of the country. Or I might just stick with that Toyota hi-lux I'm going to get.

En route from Gonder to the more remote parts of the hinterland, we passed numerous roadbuilding sites. Men sitting at the controls of huge machines. Women in twos or fours carrying large stones on stretchers. I have no further comment on that particular subject.

All along our route new roadbuilding is going ahead alongside the old dirt roads. It will all be different in a year or two, but for now the old rutted track takes us through the centre of villages and even farmyards, and it's all surrounded by a green landscape increasingly reminiscent of the nicer parts of England. Except for . . . well, well, there's another Chinese factory.

Here, looking like a line of motherless ducklings, comes a convoy of six brand new shiny red trucks carrying roadstone. Is that script along the sides Amharic? Nope – it's Chinese. The manufacturer's name is Sinotruck – a Chinese company of course.

How long before the kids here are learning Chinese at school, wearing Chinese branded clothing and listening to Chinese pop music? A new, possibly more benign, colonial era seems to be beginning. I hope the Africans will get a fair share of the benefit. At least it is increasingly worthwhile for kids to study and train for the skilled jobs the Chinese will create. It seems probable that part of what has held African countries back for so many years is that there has been little incentive to sacrifice time and money developing skills for which there is no job market.

In remote poor areas there are frequently packs of children wearing over their ragged clothing the bright pastel shirts which pass for a rudimentary school uniform, walking to or from school. You can be certain some benign foreigners are supporting these schools. Sometimes there are notices: the subsidies may come from the EU, or UNESCO, or the Norwegian Government (who, rather than spread their foreign aid budget so thinly around the world that it makes no measurable difference, have chosen to focus mainly on Ethiopia). If the Chinese get in on the act, and they may already have done so, the Western powers will have to get used to steeply-declining influence in these countries whose land and natural resources are going to be so vital to the world economy in the future. The not-too-distant future.

Look, there go more Sinotrucks. And those diggers, tankers, earthmovers, rollers, bulldozers - all Chinese.

Our road again takes us through the heart of farming communities. No tractors, just mules. It struck me, looking out over the fields in this green and pleasant land, how much it looked like 18th century landscape pictures of England. And then the reason hit me: everything that happens in these fields and pastures is achieved with muscle – animal or human. There is no mechanization yet, but it is coming – from China.

What will happen then to all these people whose work and strength is needed to farm the land now? One high probability is an increasing tidal wave of humanity pouring into the cities, boosting their slum populations to frightening levels. Meanwhile here’s a statisitic which shocked me: in 1980 the population of Ethiopia was under 40 million. Today it is over 80 million. In a society where there is no welfare provision for people too old to work, long-term food security comes from having children. That can only be cured by increasing affluence, but rapid population growth engenders only poverty. Scary isn’t it?

Further along our route, the landscape is lovely. Groves of trees beside winding streams and neat patchwork fields give way to craggy mountains and steep-sided volcanic plugs creating a fantasy scene scene of the kind one might only expect to see in a childrens' picture book.

More (and very probably more) anon.


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