Ethiopia marches forward

2012-05-18 14:06

A crazy twist of travellers’ fate puts you in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.

It’s 2.30am and you find yourself in the delectable company of two models whose names you struggle to pronounce.

But this counts only in your favour as an indispensable point of conversation.

You’ve just discovered that the rumour is true – there are no ugly girls in Ethiopia.

This is yours truly at the elegant Kuriftu Resort and Spa, located on the banks of Lake Kuriftu in Debre Zeit, about 45km outside Addis.

A group of 36 South Africans are on a sponsored sojourn to the horn of Africa to discover a country moving beyond an antiquated version of itself.

This means spending five nights criss-crossing this vast land.

First, we witness the new infrastructural developments in and around the capital, and then fly to Bahir Dar,, the city that would have become the new capital had Haile Selassie lived long enough.

This is followed by a visit to Lalibela to see the 11 famed, ancient rock-hewn churches.

But tonight we are in Addis for a gala dinner with some government officials and a few big-shot businesspeople.

The feast is accompanied by an eight-piece band performing with a troupe of dancers choreographing ethnic tales of love and war.

Our hosts have also squeezed in a fashion show, with girls parading the clothes of one of Addis’s favoured designers.

Call it kemis couture – it’s a stylised and more colourful take on the white habesha kemis traditional coffee dresses.

After much merriment our banquet winds down with a steady flow of cognac and whiskey. Then, one after another, my fellow travellers retreat to their bungalows.

A few of us find a perch on a row of day beds with a view of the lake and no mosquitoes to fear because Addis is a malaria-free zone.

As the French beverages take their toll, our numbers keep decreasing – even some of the models, who by now had joined the enterprising pack of hacks, retire.

So fate puts me in the company of two new female acquaintances with difficult names, Arhawa and Mekdes.

As their giggles fade into the shimmering night, I silently wonder if the stories are true.

I’d been warned that, as prostitution is legal in Ethiopia, a smiling waitress or random hottie could mean business – literally.

So there’s tension in the air. What do you say to normalise relations when the context is uncertain?

Journalistic instinct takes over, with questions like: “So, what do you do except modelling?”

The girls are dressed in stilettos, miniskirts and flashy costume jewellery. Arhawa with blonde hair and an obsession with Got to Love You, the dance hit by Sean Paul, even sports a peacock earring.

Mekdes claims to study marketing and sales at Addis Ababa University, where the blonde also takes courses in business management. They burst out randomly singing along to the tinny track played on a smartphone.

There’s a guiltless lack of innocence about their manner as they dance to songs by Rihanna, Nicki Minaj and Teddy Afro, the local reggae star famously jailed for criticising the government.

These girls are two of many who crave the thrill of something smuggled in. Many times they wish to smuggle themselves out to the big wide world.

“Maybe I go to Dubai or New York if I leave here,” says the blonde.

She calls out for more drinks. The service is prompt and impeccable, this in a country notorious for its poverty.

Ask anyone about the land and its people – at best you’ll get a line or two about Selassie and his place in the Rastafarian pantheon of heroes.

But more often than not people will rehash the image of a famine-stricken basket case from aid agency literature and 1980s newsreels.

Children in South Africa grow up being told to finish their food “because there are children going hungry in Ethiopia”.

But this country is moving beyond its former self, a self shrouded in religious myth and stigmas of poverty. There are resorts and hotels popping up along Addis Ababa’s famous five crater lakes.

Many are projects established by Ethiopia’s returning sons. They left as wounded asylum seekers and small men of little means in the late 1970s and 1980s.

Now they are returning home with a new sense of themselves. They are part of the three million Ethiopians who live abroad. They carry none of the old sense of defeat.

The World Bank reportedly estimates these expatriates inject a remittance inflow of about $3.2 billion (R26.2 billion) into the country every year, so this lot is not to be underestimated.

All those beauty queens, shopkeepers, doctors and common hustlers who left their homes in search of a better deal are returning as mutinies of the dying era.

Among them are the likes of Sheikh Mohammed Al-Amoudi. He was born to an Ethiopian mother and a Yemeni father, and raised in Ethiopia before moving to Saudi Arabia.

His lavish contribution to the land of his birth is the grand Sheraton Hotel in Addis. This year the hotel hosted the World Economic Forum.

Our host at Kuriftu Resort and Spa is also one of these new men about town. Tadiwos Belete built his fortune in the US and is now part of this new drive to reconstruct and develop.

As dawn lifts the darkness from over me and my two young companions, it says there’ll be no sleep – a tour of Bahir Dar and Lalibela beckons.

The ancient town of Lalibela, famous for its churches, doesn’t easily give away its hidden magic. At first glance, or from what one sees when landing at the isolated airport, you’d expect to discover the cliched images of malnutrition and kwashiorkor-stricken children.

But after an hour-long bus ride uphill, the dusty town reveals a series of dissolving mysteries. All the years of obscurity and isolation are ending. The charming innocence is wearing off.

Tourists are ushered into the cavernous temples by youthful priests who walk with dips in their steps and have rap stars’ flair for sunglasses.

They carry cellphones underneath white robes while wearing sacred ancient crosses.

These are clerics of an order peeling off an age of withdrawal and self-absorbtion, men of meditation venturing out into a world of doing.

They guide us through the holy monolithic structures (there are 13 churches assembled in four groups). The town is believed to have been built as a symbolic representation of Jerusalem.

The structures were built during the reign of King Lalibela, one the nine priest monarchs of the Zagwe dynasty who ruled the region during the 12th and 13th centuries.

In fact, Lalibela is said to be buried in the Bete Golgotha, or House of Golgotha.

The Church of St George, or Bete Giyorgis, is the most iconic of the structures. In the shape of a cross, it was built in honour of the saint who is said to have killed a dragon.

The symbol is also used for a beer brand of the same name.

Though the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian Church in Lalibela still has a mud-hut school that prepares young boys for a future as priests, using centuries-old methods of reciting scripture for hours on end and copying religious paintings on goats’ skin, the dusty streets uncover a new, techno-savvy breed of youths.

Some wear a worn-out, crimson school uniform with battered shoes, others wear their equally shabby casuals, but they all stalk tourists at the makeshift curio shops and internet cafes.

They spout all kinds of questions and requests: “Hello, sir, please take a picture of me. I’ll give you my email address and you can send it to me.”

The younger ones also ask for pens. Never money. But they all want their picture taken. Their greatest hope is to forge a new image of themselves. This is the future.


Ethiopia at a glance:
» Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital city, is a malaria-f

ree zone.

» Although brothels are illegal, prostitution is not illegal.

» There are about 3 million Ethiopians living abroad.

» The country has 12 months of summer, so the climate is pleasant all year round.

» About 25% of the population depends directly or indirectly on coffee for its livelihood. Coffee drinking is believed to have originated in Ethiopia.

» In the 4th century, Ethiopia adopted Christianity as the state religion. It still has a Christian majority.

» Ethiopia has only three medical doctors per 100 000 people.

» Axum is the holiest city, followed by Lalibela, and is known for its tall obelisks.

» Lalibela, in the north, is a pilgrimage site for many tourists and Ethiopian Orthodox Christians. It is known for its monolithic, rock-hewn churches.

» Shashamane town outside Addis was created in 1948 when Emperor Haile Selassie donated 202 hectares of his private land to the Rastafarian movement and other settlers from the diaspora.

» Mabandu was a guest of Ethiopia Airlines

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