23 July 2008

Tenastellen!

I seem to have found myself sitting in an Internet cafe in Addis Ababa, so I thought I would do a quick post. I've been taking notes every day on my laptop and I'll upload something more substantial when I get home. I've been in Ethiopia for a week now, and I can say that on almost every level it has defied my preconceived notions.

You arrive into Addis via one of the most modern airports I've seen in a developing country, which could easily be mistaken for Stansted (though without the hoards of hen parties flying to Temple Bar for the weekend). The airport is free from the usual hawkers and touts because they charge an entry fee for non-passengers. This is the first sign that you are not in Kansas any more, and at times the feeling of segregation between the diplomats, expats and NGO-workers that zip along in their white SUVs, logos painted brightly on the doors, and the thousands of refugees that have flooded the city following decades of war and famine, threatens to overwhelm you and incapacitate you unless you break free from the faranje-bubble that you find yourself in.

Faranje (foreigners) come in three types, bored looking diplomats and aid workers, earnest young missionaries out to evangelise the heathen Orthodox souls of Ethiopia, and the seedy late middle-aged white guys with two young Addis girls on their arms that really make your flesh crawl when they walk into the same coffee shop as you. I wish I had a t-shirt with the words "Yes, I may be Faranje, but I'm not that kind of Faranje" blazoned across it.

The amazing thing is though that the bubble isn't limited to expats, for within Addis is a thriving middle class, and everywhere on the streets is the evidence of money, in the clothes people wear, the cars they drive, the rate of construction that appears to be engulfing the city as a whole. The UN issued a report last week that said they expect Ethiopia to leave the classification of Less Developed Country by 2020 (it's interesting that in Ireland we refer to the "Least Developed Countries", not "Less", but I suppose its all a matter of how potable the water in your half full glass is), and though the country is overwhelmingly rural and agricultural, Addis itself shows no sign of the food crisis that has gripped the rest of Ethiopia, and the world. The cost of tef, the native grain from which injera, the ubiquitous bread/plate that accompanies every meal, has risen by 100% in the last four months, but restaurants are still full and so far there has been no rioting on the streets.

The streets themselves are full of migrants and refugees from everywhere else, distinguished by their clothes, walking sticks and occasional goats. They sleep in bundled heaps on the median between road lanes, hands outstretched during the heat of the afternoon to passers by, Ethiopian and Faranje alike, as hoards of ragged street kids tap on the windows of cars and taxis paralysed in rush-hour traffic.

And yet the poverty and shanty towns are so much less than I expected, certainly in comparison to supposedly more developed nations that I've travelled through like India. It could be that the optimism and energy that is on the streets is a real and genuine force that can overcome so many socio-economic crises that this nation has faced. It could be that Ethiopia, spared the ravages of colonisation that are the route of many of the rest of the developing world's problems, has a mental strength and belief in its own abilities that can overcome all adversities. Then again it could just be that I am older and more jaded, and am not as easily shocked as I was ten years ago when I first encountered the crushing degradation of true urban poverty in New Delhi.

A guide we talked to in St George Cathedral told us that Ethiopia has everything, good land, resources and a passionate people, all it lacks is adequate education. But every person that I have talked to has a strong awareness of the state Ethiopia is in, the paths that have led it to this place, and what must be done to bring it forward.

Ethiopia defies easy explanations, destroys preconceptions, and has opened my eyes to a different take on the developing world. Susan George argues that "Another World is possible", and a week in Addis Ababa has already changed my understanding of what is, and what may be.

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