Reflections on Ethiopia: Myths from the Live Aid era busted and reinforced

It’s the height of arrogance to say you’ve ‘done’ a country. Travellers love to say it, and I’m as guilty as any; it’s a neutral tick in the been-there-done-that box to impress those who are, well, easily impressed – once again, me included.

In the past four weeks, I’ve been travelling through Ethiopia, on fairly well-toured paths, which are popular for sound reason.

But Abyssinia, as it was once known, is not ‘do-able’ in just a month: it’s a fascinating ancient country replete with complex and vexing contradictions.

I’ve learned a smidge about the people, a little about the climate, even less about the intricate culture and have fallen head over tongue in love with its fab food.

It’s been a sterling introduction, enough to formulate some answers (well, barely educated passing observations) to some long-held questions I’ve had about an enigmatic country which first launched into my mind’s eye back in the mid-80s, during the Live Aid concert, when a far, far removed nation seemed to be on the brink of starvation.


A hungry country?   

When I think of famine, or starving people, horrific 80s television images of emaciated children with bulging, malnourished stomachs in Ethiopia are usually my reference points. It’s an unfortunate and oft-exaggerated cliché that this country is unable to feed itself.

But this year, for the first time in many years, famine has again blighted the fringes of the country; along with substantial parts of neighboring Somalia and Kenya.

The mass suffering is, mostly, confined geographically to the marginal desert lands in the west and south, far away from the capital Addis Ababa and the destinations where travellers tend to go with limited time at their feet.

I saw only pockets of people beginning to flow in from the rural fringes, mixing with the sea of street people already existing without fresh water and regular nutritional food.


Foreign aid: the answer or yet another question?

Unquestionably the famine-stricken areas of the country need urgent assistance, but aid in Ethiopia is a divisive topic. Some (mainly middle class) Ethiopians I spoke to passionately resented the long-term aid mentality, saying that throwing money instead of ideas at a problem breeds dependence. Aid is perceived by many as the norm now (for the past couple of decades) instead of being just a safety net.

Several reasonably prosperous towns I visited, notably Lalibela in the north, and Arba Minch in the south, are full to overflowing with NGOs and aid organisations. To my untrained eye these towns had good access to water and established and fertile lands for agriculture, less in need of aid than many places I’ve visited. Perhaps these towns, because of their tourism credentials, receive more than their fair share of the aid pie?

One NGO worker I overheard in Lalibela spoke of concerns about the lack of policing of how aid money was being spent in the town. She talked about how funds destined for one child’s education were being squandered on consumer goods for his family.

Overall, there was much debate about long-term solutions and preventable famines – quarrels that will, undoubtedly, extend into the future.


A hopeless charity case then?

Certainly not. Grass roots optimism and accompanying lofty ideas abound in Ethiopia. Entrepreneurial spirit with a social bent is also beginning to sprout. Bethlehem at soleRebels (an exporter of shoes made from recycled tyres) could have easily been operating her thriving business in any western country – see

Aseged, an industrious guide in the stunning northern town of Gondor, aims to produce ethnographic films about all the cultures of Ethiopia. His ambition is sown in his tiny one-roomed house every night, as all his spare resources are poured into the project, and as he scours his town for potential backers and partners.

Collectively the population of Ethiopia is savvy enough to recognise the country’s shortcomings – and the solutions to these.

People are beginning to throw their weight behind a project to dam the Blue Nile, both for generating hydro-electric power and to deal with systemic water shortages that seem to plague Ethiopia. There’s a flood of logistical questions still to be answered; environmental credentials and the effects upstream in places such as Egypt and Sudan aside.

But everyday people are not waiting for government funding, with community groups forming to collect donations in the effort to raise more than 60 billion birr. Big money, big dreams, but the Blue Nile dam seems important to this country: economically and spiritually. “Every Ethiopian heart bleeds for the Blue Nile,” said one local.

The crucial question is whether incoming investment and government policy can keep up with the ambition of the people. Off the record, people thought the current Ethiopian government lags behind even comparable developing African countries.

On the upper end of the scale, wealth is certainly creeping into the cities: construction and housing development in Addis Ababa is visibly booming, but whether the wealth will trickle down to those street families is another matter entirely. Trickles tend to be soaked up pretty quickly in Africa.


The begging question

From an outsider’s point of view, Ethiopia still looks like it is very much a developing country: the huge gap between rich and poor is tangible and the infrastructure (simple things such as roads and affordable public transport) can be diabolical. But it is the huge underclass of people existing on the streets, mainly in the squalid end of built-up areas of Addis Ababa, that is the real giveaway.

Of course, as a passer-by, it’s difficult to judge the real level of poverty; as a pale-faced faranji (foreigner) you are confronted with it at hyper-speed; beggars swarm around you in places such as Addis, attracted by the bottomless-walleted westerner cliché.

Many beggars are in dire need: mothers and children sleep rough as a matter of course. Some, however, sadly see it as a way to earn a living, forgoing whatever the scant alternatives are to a better life. I heard the gratingly repetitive “Give me one birr” (or similar) a lot more than “welcome” or “hello”.

A lot of the streetkids I came into contact with were intelligent and wise beyond their years, fluent in the pleasantries of five or six languages, taking to touting after (and sometimes instead of) primary school.

Ten-year-old Jesus (yes, his real name; in a Real Madrid shirt, no less), followed us around for a few days on and off, knowing full well that the pathos in his face would elicit some return from a lot of faranjis. Pay-off? Jesus has a pack-a-day foreign chewing gum habit. And, yes, after two days, he eventually got some from us. Jesus’s friend had dreams of being one of the much-coveted official tour guides in the town. I hope Jesus one day decides to follow this or a similar path.


Life without a safety net

Unfortunately those unable or less capable to look after themselves seem to have been set adrift on the streets of Ethiopia. Beggars span all ages and both sexes equally, but middle class (and above) Ethiopians are more likely to give money to old, blind or disabled people because they are acutely aware there is no social security here – or if there is, the system has more holes than substance.

Mental illness seems to be the biggest taboo in this society: I saw a billboard stating that violence against people with mental illness should not be tolerated – you need a sign? The site of a naked middle-aged man masturbating on the busy Addis Ababa street underlined this point. No-one stopped and stared, they stepped around him; he was invisible to them.


Dry as a… ?   

The biggest surprise for a lot of travellers to Ethiopia is that it’s not entirely flat, hot and dry. Certainly the southern region, particularly towards the Omo Valley, can be parched desert-scape but this country is a mass of different climates.

After crossing over the border from unforgivably hot and pancake-esque Sudan, we drove  straight up into the highlands (2,000m to about 4,500m above sea level), which dominate the north.

‘The Roof of Africa’, as the Ethiopian Tourist Board likes to trumpet, is perpetually drenched by rain at this time of year (the rainy season, not surprisingly) and is relatively cold: breath-misting and at least two blankets during evenings.

Even Addis Ababa, at 2,300 metres above sea level, maintains a mild climate year round; with no or low risk of malaria, depending on who you ask.

During the rainy season these parts of Ethiopia are as green and mountainous as anywhere in Europe – and arguably at least as picturesque.


How’s the food?

I am a massive fan of Ethiopian ‘national food’ but it tends to elicit a Marmite-style love or loathe split.

For many westerners the fundamental challenge is eating with your hands; not just solid food, but mopping up stews as well. Your hand is your knife, your fork and your spoon.

The centerpiece for the bulk of national dishes is the injera, a large flat pancake (made from tej, a type of highland wheat) served on an extra-large-pizza-sized stainless steel tray.

Typical dishes, such as tibs (diced lamb served in sauce) and shiro (chick pea stew), are tipped onto the injera, juice and all, and it’s up to you to get it in the hole.

I fell deeply in love with the bayanete, a mini-vegetarian buffet served on injera. It’s grand value, spice-orofic and convivial; it you want to share it with a friend, the waiter will just dump more gom (minced spinach) or whatever you please onto your injera. Another injera? No problem – although sometimes a few more birr.

Berber, a spice which I think tastes vaguely like supermarket fajita-mix spice, will sit alongside (or instead of) salt and pepper at most local restaurants.

Trick for young players: vegetarian food, such as bayanete, is known as ‘fasting food’ (Ethiopian orthodox fasting simply involves no meat).

That’s my kind of fast. Ethiopian food, I will miss you – I love you… No truly!


You think you like coffee?

Like fine wine, coffee is about a time, a place and the company you keep.

Before I came to Ethiopia I did not drink coffee, preferring to get my caffeine from less pure sources.

Now I am a convert, perhaps because Ethiopians take their coffee so seriously – and everyone, tourists and locals alike, seem to drink it here.

So seriously in fact that coffee preparation has its own ceremony. The ritual involves the laying out of fresh grass to welcome the drinker, the lighting of pungent incense, followed by the fresh roasting and the ceremonial grinding. The aroma will have coffee-lovers salivating like a St Bernard.

The ceremony is not for one person; it’s a cultural celebration; you’ll probably have more than one of the powerful cups in a sitting.

The first time I witnessed the coffee ceremony, it seemed simply a ruse to make tourists pay more for their coffee. However, every little local café and restaurant has a version of it – it’s just how much you pay for it that is the difference.

Ethiopia was never colonized (famously fighting off the Italians), but its coffee culture has been to some extent: the macchiatos are delicious and omnipresent.

If you require something with a little more kick (more like headbutt, actually), then sample the uber-sweet Tej (honey wine). The quality ranges from stomach-churningly gross to nearly palatable and the strength ranges from normal to palette-singeing ‘special’.

Not the best local concoction I’ve ever tried, but when in Ethiopia…


Worth a look for the average tourist?

There are thousands of years’ worth of reasons to visit Ethiopia: it is a history buff’s wet dream. The Ark of the Covenant reportedly lives in Axum (but you won’t even get close to seeing it), as does Queen Sheba’s former palace; rock-hewn churches abound; and that’s before you dig into the archeological depths here – with (absent) Lucy friends sitting at the base of human development.

For those who love the outdoors, like me, there’s a range of challenges ranging from trekking the Simien Mountains (avoid the rainy season) to the bizarre biome of the below-sea-level Danakil Depression.

Wildlife viewing is not in the league of Tanzania or Keyna’s parks, but the Rift Valley lake region in the south offered us a smattering of fauna: hippos, baboons, warthogs, more colourful and large birds than you could imagine and gigantic crocodiles - including a six-metre monster that bumped into our small boat.

The problem with the tourist industry in Ethiopia is that it is, haphazard, a little mercenary and not particularly thought through.

The tribes of the southern Omo are said to include of the most diverse ethnic groups in Africa. But reports from many north-bound tourists are that tours to the region are conducted like expensive visits to the zoo or an evening at the circus. Turn up to a village, pay for a guide, pay for a photo (no choice), then move on to the next village. Repeat. No money, no dance. No real interaction.

These tribes are already grappling with forced transition into modern cultures alien to theirs (from being isolated pastoralists): surely this factory line tourist attraction as it exists is not in anyone’s interests – perhaps except a small group of relatively well-off tourist operators.

Overall the tourist industry here is at a tipping point. Ethiopia certainly has a relatively untouched and raw quality, particularly in comparison with the over-touristed places such as Kenya.

I thinks it’s one of the best-value (internal plane flights are also ludicrously cheap) destinations going, a rewarding venue that will linger far beyond the average beach holiday – although it’s not necessarily as luxurious or easy.

It feels like the mass-market tourism flood gates will fling open here soon – let’s hope the authorities work out exactly how to cope with the deluge.


Steve Madgwick


NEXT STOP: Lagos, Nigeria – life in the fastest lane…