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january 5, 2004 -> Out of the Abyss?: Ethiopia

Ethiopia would seem an unlikely tourist destination. The very name has become synonymous with drought, famine, and starvation - a place barely fit for human habitation. A little research, however, reveals a country unlike any other in Africa: home of an ancient, sophisticated civilization; site of grand castles; inheritor of more than 1600 years of Christian history; never colonized. First-hand experience also belies the common perception of the country as a blighted land. Fields of teff, wheat and barley stretch to the horizon. Even steep hillsides are extensively cultivated. The jagged mountains and cool air of the highlands is completely unexpected. Where are the deserts, the malnourished children, and the sickly cows?

The country boasts the longest archaeological record on earth. "Lucy," an early hominid fossil discovered in 1974, walked upright across northern Ethiopia more than 3 million years ago. Stone Age petroglyphs are found throughout Ethiopia. The Axumite empire, which flourished in the 4th-6th centuries A.D. created Africa's only indigenous written language, minted coinage, carved great stone houses and towering obelisks, and traded actively with Romans, Egyptians, Arabians and Indians.

Ethiopians are strikingly handsome. Their skin is coffee-colored. They are tall, with high cheekbones and straight, thin noses. The men keep their curly black hair very short, the women wear tight breads. "We are not like other Africans," a guide explained, "We are from Israel."

Legend has become historical fact in Ethiopia. In the 14th century, a new emperor wanted to give legitimacy to his (usurping) dynasty. He commissioned six scribes to create the Kebra Negast ("a pastiche of legends," according to a noted historian) - which told the story of the Ark of the Covenant, and its heist and transport to Ethiopia by Menelik, Son of Solomon. Most important to the then-emperor, it established his claim as the direct descendant of Menelik, restoring the "Solomonic dynasty." Up to an including Haile Selassie I, Ethiopian emperors have since claimed Solomonic descent, a fabricated lineage enshrined in the constitution.

Ethiopians, like the Thais, are very proud that their nation was never colonized, though that is not strictly true. Italian forces successfully invaded Ethiopia in 1935. The Ethiopian emperor, Haile Selassie I, appealed to the League of Nations for assistance (Ethiopia had been a member for more than a decade), but no help was forthcoming until June 1940, when Mussolini formally declared war on the Allies. With British assistance (including many great "White Hunters" from British East Africa, now Kenya), Ethiopia was liberated in 1942, ending six years of Italian rule largely focused on the capital Addis Ababa.

Casual observers tend to exaggerate the 'Italian influence' from these few years - seeing a European hand in the cafe culture (though coffee is endemic to Ethiopia) and the fading grandeur of some government buildings (though many were actually built during a Soviet-inspired flirtation with socialism in the '70s and '80s.)

Italian pride had suffered a grievous blow in 1896, when Italian forces were soundly beaten by Ethiopian forces at the Battle of Adwa. Italy was desperate to own a piece of Africa, having missed out completely on the African 'land grab' that divided the continent among the Great Powers in the late 19th century. In 1885, the Italians landed at the Red Sea port of Mitsiwa (now in Eritrea). They had been given the go-ahead by the British, who were willing to concede Ethiopia to the Italians as a check against French ambitions in the Horn of Africa (France had already established a colony at Tadjoura, in modern Djibouti). The Ethiopian emperor, Menelik II, bristled at this invasion of his territory, but was powerless to evict the Italians. It wasn't long, however, before the invaders, keen to escape the fierce heat of the coast, began encroaching on the cooler plateaus of the highlands, sparking a war that would end in ignominy for the 'superior' Italian forces.

Europeans were so shocked by the Italian defeat at Adwa that they came to believe that Ethiopians were actually Caucasians who had migrated south and been darkened by the African sun. Thus, the Kebra Negast, together with this recent myth of Ethiopians' "white" past has been widely accepted by many Ethiopians.

We very much enjoyed Ethiopia food, and were perplexed by the negative comments made in so many books and articles. The national bread - injera - is spongy and slightly sour; critics liken it to a wet dishrag. A large round of injera is typically spread out on a circular plate. Dollops of various meat and vegetable dishes are then dropped on the injera. Diners tear bits of injera from the edge and use it to pick up the spicy sauces ('wats') or lentil pastes ('chiros.') Though injera is an acquired taste, we loved the variety of dishes - not to mention the economy, at US$0.50 for plate of injera big enough for two. We even tried 'kitfo' - the spiced raw beef beloved by Ethiopians - though the kitchen had thoughtfully cooked the meat slightly for the the 'faranjis.'

Ethiopia does not have large herds of animals, as in Kenya or Tanzania. However, many of its animals are endemic, and the bird life in astounding. We visited three of Ethiopia's national parks (Simen, Mago and Nechisar), and stayed only a few days in each. Still, we managed to see: olive baboons, gelada baboons, black and white colobus monkeys, maribou storks, kori bustards, Abyssinian ground hornbills, Burchell's zebras, Swayne's hartebeests, Thompson's and Grant's gazelles, waterbucks, dik-diks, warthogs, crocodiles, hippos, walia ibexes, klipspringers, jackals and an amazing variety of birds of prey.

While much of Ethiopia's grim reputation is undeserved, famine has often gripped the country. In fact, the failure of seasonal rains and subsequent famines played a major role in both the 1974 overthrow of emperor Haile Selassie, and the 1991 toppling of Selassie's successor, the socialist 'Derg' (Amharic for committee). In both cases, government denial and dithering, combined with widespread corruption and regional and local levels exacerbated the food shortage. Hundreds of thousands starved to death or were struck down by disease. Were it not for massive international aid (remember the "Live Aid" concerts of the mid-1980's?) the situation could have been even worse.

For all its history, for all its pride, Ethiopia remains one of the poorest countries in the world. A large share of government spending depends on international donations. It is tempting to link the country's woes with its lack of colonization - a racist theory, perhaps, but there is little doubt that colonial governments, for all their faults, were zealous builders or roads, rails and institutions - but Ethiopia seemed to me merely unlucky. Unlucky that the 45-year reign of Haile Selassie (who though very shrewd, was illiterate) enriched only an aristocracy, and entrenched the poverty of many (despite a booming economy for several decades). And very unlucky that the Derg, ostensibly leading a Marxist "revolution of the proletariat" was doomed to commit the same mistakes. At its most ludicrous, the Derg ignored the famine at the same time it bought fighter planes and guns for its absurd war with Eritrea.

With 64 million people, Ethiopia is one of the most densely populated countries in Africa. Despite the fertility of the highlands and its numerous river systems, overpopulation seemed to me the country's basic problem. International donors continue to supply the country with millions of tons of grain and millions of dollars (come feast or famine), but even the expatriate aid works we met in Ethiopia were highly cynical of the 'donor state' that has been created. Ethiopia must learn to stand on its own feet. It deserves a chance to do so. And Ethiopia certainly deserves a visit.