Ethiopia inspires so many different feelings …

This visit to Ethiopia has been absolutely amazing, inspiring, saddening, heart-wrenching and humbling all at the same time. It’s hard to describe these experiences, but I’m going to try my best.  Telling you how I feel about these is even more difficult, I need to reflect before I can try to share those….

So where do I start? The last couple of days here in Addis Ababa have been pretty intense… Our local crew (see this recent blog post) have been showing us around the city, taking us to spots both well-known and off the beaten path.

Yesterday morning we met up with Abraham for a journey to the top of Entoto Mountain.  It started out as a short walk from the Piazza area of town, just in front of Castelli’s Restaurant (which has become our meeting point).  We trotted up Cunningham Street, stopping for a late hamburger brunch at La Coquette, located across from a local cinema and at a major intersection making for great people-watching.  We continued on down the road to an impromptu bus stop, to begin our planned journey to the top of Entoto Mountain.

Ethiopian mini-buses are a common sight on the roads of Addis. Blue side paneling with white roofs, they are converted cargo vans with ten to twelve seats, and a capacity of about 25. The driver will usually decorate the bus with various religious articles, bumper stickers and other assorted paraphernalia. A ride in one of these typically costs between 0.50 and 1.00 Birr (about 5 to 10 cents US). As we boarded, the bus parked in front of it began to reverse and hit our vehicle. The drivers of each bus yelled at each and other this was When Cornelia noticed the Norwegian sticker plastered on the rear windshield which said (in Norwegian) “PLEASE KEEP YOUR DISTANCE”.   Since the buses remained parked about 6 centimetres from each other, we were close enough to get a good photo of the sticker, which will be posted in due course. The bus we boarded was one of six we took that day to complete our journey to the top of Entoto. :)

Along our journey I saw a number of things, all of them interesting, some of them sad, some thought-provoking, and others just typical images of daily life in Ethiopia:

– A barefoot boy of about seven years of age eating discarded fruits out of a rubbish bin on the side of the road

– A woman with no eyes begging for money

– An artist friend of Abe’s dressed Rastafarian-style, showing off photos of his artwork (one of them I am considering buying – a v v cool mirror/painting combination)

– a road built by the Chinese, presumably as part of their bid to extend their sphere of influence to emerging markets in Africa (Ethiopia being one of the few African countries which has natural resources to offer China – Ethiopia’s main exports are coffee, flowers and qat – the last an edible narcotic illegal in the US but legal in the UK).

– elderly women carrying huge loads of dried grass, branches and other underbrush on their backs, hobbling down mountain roads while groups of five or six men lounge on the roadside in the shade)

– panoramic views of the city of Addis from a curving mountain road

– plantations of eucalyptus trees which apparently are water-intense and were introduced by Australians in 1905. The heavily forested mountain-side is now an important source of firewood for the city.

– a long line-up of people sitting on the ground with piles of jerrycans (gasoline cans) around them – they were waiting to fill them up with water at 0.25 Birr for 10 litres (about 2.5 cents US).  That may not seem like much but in a country where those who work, do so for about a dollar or two dollars a day, and many don’t work at all and resort to begging or making money from unstable means (such as working as an independent tour guide), the plight of Ethiopia’s poor begins to dawn on you.  A new friend here who is doing a fellowship with the Ministry of Water told me that NGO estimates are that about 30% of the country is covered by the water distribution network.  The government estimates it at about 50%.  The lack of access to clean water by the local people of course exacerbates the existing problems of disease, poverty, and famine.

On our sixth and final bus change, I got outside of the bus to stretch my legs and began talking to a group of local men in their late teens and early twenties.  One of them introduced himself as Maradona. :) Another, who spoke broken English and had a bright but wary smile, approached me and introduced himself as Samuel.  He told me that they were a group of friends but he was the only one who spoke much English at all.  He recounted how he had learned his English from giving impromptu tour guides to foreigners that he would encounter randomly in the city.  At twenty years old, he had just finished a technical course in baking and confectionery and was looking for work and seeking to expand his skill base.  He seemed like someone with a bright spirit and a good heart, so I introduced him to Abraham who I felt might be a good role model for him.  The two of them immediately hit off, so we invited Samuel along on our journey and began our final ascent to the peak.

Entoto Mountain overlooks the city of Addis and is situated at 3,200m above sea level (Addis itself is at 2,500m above sea level) and is home to the former capital of Ethiopia, Entoto.  Emperor Menelik II and his wife Empress Taytu lived at the top of Entoto over 100 years ago and ruled the country from that naturally defensible location.  It is now the site of a museum and a monastery and the emperor’s former palace.  More recently it has become famous among Ethiopians as the source of a “holy water” which can cure people infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.  Today there is a small community of sick and disabled people who live atop the mountain.

At the top of the mountain, we visited an HIV-positive boy of 8 years old, who lived in a hut made of branches and mud and covered with a blue tarp to keep out the rain. It had no running water and no electricity and it was a small room about the size of a bathroom.  At least three people lived there, consisting of the boy, his mother, and another woman (who was HIV+).  None of them work and depend on begging to pay the “house rent” of 65 Birr a month (6.5 dollars US) and buy food and water. HIV medication is provided free by a local aid agency. The boy, who was diagnosed with HIV five years ago (it was not clear during our visit how he contracted it) cannot speak apparently due to permanent complications from spinal meningitis. Oe of the consequences of spinal meningitis is deafness.

Meeting the boy and his mother was the objective of our visit to the top of Entoto Mountain. Our other activities while we were up there included a two-hour hike through mountain-top farmland, playing soccer (football) with local schoolchildren, a visit to local artist Wasihun Amake (sp?), a tour of the museum and palace hosting artifacts from Emperor Menelik’s reign.

There’s so much more I could write about… the dinner out at Zebra Grill with Will Davies and Bryn Saxe last night, the nightcap at Harlem Jazz, our visit to the Merkato (one of Africa’s largest markets) today, the time spent with Abraham, Solomon and the newest member of our local crew – Samuel… but will save some of those memories for my next update and others for my grandchildren.  Until next time… :)

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