Working and learning in Addis Ababa

Trip Start Mar 26, 2012
Trip End Apr 29, 2012

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Flag of Ethiopia  ,
Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The flight from Nairobi Monday meant another very early start (wakeup at 04:00) but went everything went pretty smoothly. On arrival in Addis Ababa, was able to get a tourist visa for $20 and was met outside the airport by someone from the simple guest lodge where I'm staying. It was short drive from the airport and I got settled in to my very spacious room in a popular quarter of the city. I have a view down into the outdoor courtyard of a family that lives in a tin roofed house across the street, and beyond that Meskel Flower Road.

This place is very good value for money: $60 a night plus tax, and a full breakfast served in the room each morning is included, as is free wifi. It’s not in the center of the city, but taxis are cheap too, more on that later.

On arrival here I changed some money to have some Ethiopian Birr in my pocket, then found an Italian restaurant a couple of blocks away where I had a delicious large pizza (more American style that Italian) for about $2.00. This country is very inexpensive!

I took a wonderful long nap in the afternoon, then got organized to catch up on some work: answer a hundred e-mails, research a sermon, catch up on Festival organization for October, start the draft of a blog post and so on. I didn’t leave the room that afternoon, and just went out for a light dinner before going to bed early.

Tuesday I kept working on my ongoing projects, but also took a few hours with a guide and vehicle to see Addis Ababa. We quickly went through the National Museum of Ethiopia (it doesn’t take long). There are paleontological exhibits including a cast of the fossils known as "Lucy". Evolutionists believe she’s our oldest ancestress, and Ethiopians are very proud of that: we all are supposed to have come from Ethiopia. When I saw how few fossils there were from which a whole creature is supposedly reconstructed, it was obvious to me there’s a lot of wishful thinking involved in the depictions of Lucy, but I digress.

There were exhibits of Menelik the 2nd, who everyone here seems to revere for two things: first he led his army against an invading Italian army to the battle of Adwa in March of 1896, and second, he and his generals soundly beat them. When the Italians came back in 1935-36 they were better prepared and armed and crushed the Ethiopians. Haile Selassie, who also featured in various exhibits, fled to exile in Great Britain at that time, which Ethiopians don’t seem to respect at all.

Interestingly, before taking his Emperor’s name his name was Tafari. When he gained the title of Ras (similar to Duke), that made him Rastafari. Ethiopians believe his line went all the way back to the Queen of Sheba who according to legend shared Solomon’s bed long enough, during her visit to Jerusalem, to conceive an heir. The Rastafarian movement, mostly centered in Jamaica, believes Haile Selassie is a messianic figure, God incarnate, who will lead Africa and it’s diaspora to domination.  (While waiting for that to happen, they’re known for wearing the colors of Ethiopia, growing dreadlocks, smoking ganja and playing Reggae – that’s why Bob Marley referred so often to the Lion of Zion and so, on in his music). My apologies if you knew all that already; I found it interesting.

We walked quickly through the Ethnological Museum, a former palace of Haile Selassie, now part of the University of Addis Ababa. There are exhibits explaining the history and diverse cultures of the country, as well as some pertaining to the last Emperor, who everyone seems to refer to as Haile Selassie the First, even though there was only one and won’t be any more….

His bedroom has been preserved, along with his large personal safe in the closet (even Emperors need a plan B I suppose), and his quite modern bathroom.

We also visited the two most famous churches in Addis (as it’s called in short): Saint George's Cathedral the site of Haile Selassie’s coronation, and the Holy Trinity Cathedral, which he had built and where he is buried with his wife.

I was interested to learn that Orthodox Ethiopian church’s all contain a replica of the Ark of the Covenant in a room called the “holy of holies.” Even the replicas can only be seen by certain priests; other than that they are always kept covered. Many Ethiopians believe that the actual Ark of the Covenant was brought to Ethiopia where it remains in a chapel in Axum (or Aksum). They believe even the replicas have power, and there is a lot of ceremony associated with Ethiopian orthodoxy, which has ancient origins and is not entirely like either Catholicism or Greek or Russian Orthodox forms.

The Arch Deacon at Saint George’s explained all this to me, before asking for a tip at the end of the brief tour. I’d already paid the entry fee, but I offered him the equivalent of a dollar. He informed me kindly that it wasn’t enough and that 100 Birr (about $6) was the appropriate tip. He might have a future in American televangelism….

 At the Holy Trinity church I happened to be there when a prayer service began for some important people, so I got to see into the “holy of holies” and the covered ark, and also hear a priest reading in Ge’ez, the liturgical language which no one understands any more except for initiates.

Before ending my tour we drove through the Mercado, the open air market that is supposed to be the largest one in Africa. It’s not really one market in the classic, connected sense of the term, but a sprawling area of blocks and blocks of shops and stalls and open areas with vendors of all kinds. I was warned several times not to go walking through it; the US embassy forbids its personnel from doing so. There’s probably not much risk of violence, but pickpocketing and snatch and run would be likely, it would be rather difficult for me to blend in and look like a local….

I was interested to see the khat section of the market. khat (they pronounce it chat here) is a leafy drug that is commonly chewed in the horn of Africa. I see it in market stalls all over including near the lodge where I’m staying. Khat contains a stimulant which causes first excitement and euphoria, and then lethargy. The WHO has labeled it an additive drug and it’s illegal in the US and most western nations. But here it’s legal, and in an area of extreme poverty, low employment for the young and so on, its use is common and almost always counterproductive.

For dinner last night I tried a local spicy firfir, made from shredded injera, (a large sourdough flatbread, made out of fermented teff flour – teff is an annual grass that is the basis of the traditional bread which is the base of most of Ethiopian cuisine. It was spicy, and while I wouldn’t eat it every day like they do here, it wasn’t bad.

Today is my last full day in Addis, tomorrow I start the long trip toward London, via Nairobi.  This morning I finished a blog and sent it off to our editorial reviewers and continued catching up on office work. Later in the morning I took one of the ancient blue and white Lada (a now defunct Russian communist produced vehicle) taxis. The drivers’ English is often very approximate, but with clear enunciation, something written down and a general geographic idea of where one wants to go – one can get around inexpensively if not comfortably. I went first to the Red Terror Museum, which chronicles the pathetic end of Haile Selassie (almost certainly murdered in his sick bed) and the rise of the Communist regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam and the party apparatus called the Derg that ruled from 1974 to 1991 torturing and killing up to half a million Ethiopians to keep power. The museum is small and privately supported, so it doesn’t have to be politically correct. In addition to photos and texts explaining the unfolding horror, there are rooms containing the recovered bones of some of the murdered, and well as displays of shoes, clothing, pots and pans and other personal items that were disinterred from mass graves: yet another pathetic story from a continent that has known so many.

I flagged down another taxi, whose driver spoke good English, and went to an address I’d been given to have a cup of coffee in the traditional semi-ceremonial Ethiopian way. Ethiopians are proud to explain that coffee came originally from their country and they’ve been drinking it for a very long time. In the traditional manner, the beans are roasted in front of the guest prior to preparing the coffee, and incense is burned to enhance the enjoyment of drinking the strong black brew. It was another interesting window into the culture here. I caught another taxi (this costs 2 or 3 dollars each time) to Piasa Square where there are a number of (safe) shops selling tourist trinkets. I picked up a small gift for my wife and daughters (time will tell if I chose wisely…). Then I caught another taxi back to the hotel. The driver’s English was not very good, but he did his best to explain the sites we passed as we went. If I didn’t understand, which was frequently the case I just returned his friendly smile and said “Ah, um hum.” I was back at the lodge before lunchtime.

I spent all afternoon working on my laptop, confirming festival arrangements, exchanging correspondence with co-workers, and had time for a Skype call with my parents. My father loves history (a love he passed on to me) so I often think of them when I travel to historically interesting places. It’s great to be able to talk for free all the way across the planet using VOIP programs. Such communication used to be extremely expensive.

Tonight I’ll have one more dinner here before an early night to prepare for the marathon day that will start again tomorrow. The few days spent here have been productive, educative and interesting. I now have several ideas that I hope will be useful in our future editorial work.

If all goes as planned my next update will be from London.
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Thank you Mr. Meeker for another interesting & fascinating travel blog! May you have a wonderful trip to London...out of Africa! Looking forward to hear about London!

Judy Dane on

Thank you very much for the history and the culture information. I know so little about the areas that you travel and am always interested in what you write. Thank you.

hervedubois on

Thank you Mr. Meeker for sharing so much detailed information about the land of Coush, certainly one of the oldest country in the world. I liked your comment about Lucy, quite informative in itself. Unfortunately we can see also the other dry bone alignments as terrible memorials even all over the planet, Africa Kampuchea, Europe and so on. I did not know about this one, which reminds us about Rwanda. Be safe. You are in our prayers.

Tommie Briley on

Fascinating journey you have taken us on! The information on Haile Selassie sounded vaguely familiar, but the information about Bob M was new to me. Makes me wonder if those old high school buddies of mine that became so enthralled w/his culture and music understood where he was coming from. Looking forward to your next posting and praying for safe travels.

Dave on

stay safe brother : )

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