Postcard from Ethiopia

I spent a week in Ethiopia last week, as part of the process by which I am piecing together my own understanding of Africa. Partly, as I extend my business into the continent. Partly, as I build my own understanding of civilisations.

I did this trip to Ethiopia on my way back from Lagos, Nigeria where we had held our first successful banking meeting. Several people had asked me, so what will “The Asian Banker” be called in Africa? “Why, The Asian Banker of course,” was my reply. “The Asian Banker” does not need to stand for where we come from, but what we are trusted to do well. I do believe that the business I have created is now entering a phase in “globalisation”, where coming from Asia stands for as many positive values as coming from other developed parts of the world.

Every trip into Africa, I try to add yet another country that I don’t yet understand. In conversations and visits I have done so far, the mental picture that I have developed has Nigeria sits at the very top of any business destination to Africa. Even the South Africans (2012 GDP $384b and growing 2.5%), who should be cited as the most developed economy in Africa, concede that Nigeria (2012 GDP $263b and growing 6.5%) is where the momentum for the future is, even with all its present problems. The other promising countries top on my list are Ghana (despite its sudden turn of fortune lately) and Rwanda. Rwanda, I was told, was ruled by a controversial but effective “Singapore Lee Kuan Yew” style benevolent dictator who has made tremendous changes in the country, but whose long term impact is still uncertain. This would be followed by Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.

Also, Ethiopia lends itself as an easy stop-over destination, especially if you fly Ethiopian Airlines because of its good connections to the northern parts of Africa. It turned out to be a very well-run company, providing great service in new planes. All the flights I took were on time, and the inflight service very professional, even if Addis Ababa airport appeared to thrive on a bit of chaos. A well run airline makes one hopeful about the country where it comes from.

Ethiopia, a destitute country it is not

The first thing that strikes anyone visiting Ethiopia for the first time is the sheer incongruence with current Western imposed perception that this is a famine ravaged and dysfunctional country with thousands of desperately hungry children. Nothing could be further from the truth. Large tracts of arable land. Strong social cohesion, even in the small towns and rural areas. Healthy children laughing in the streets. The reality today is one of a relatively stable and happy people living in a vast and fertile land. It is also the most understated of holiday destinations in Africa that, as you will see from the photos, I would heartily recommend to anyone.

The country did have two debilitating famines in recent memory, but they were in 1973 and 1984-86 and were caused more by political intrigues rather than any widespread crop failure. Still, the images from those events continue to forever distort the world’s impression of this important country.

Everywhere I went, I was greeted by curious children, many of whom speak English and go to school for at least some time in their lives. Despite the subsistence level livelihoods, parallels with modern life were visible everywhere. Where there would be entertainment centres and cinemas in a more developed country, I saw and participated in street table tennis, rudimentary billiard halls and badminton courts. They have had enough peace, even if not enough wealth, to have very deep social structures in place.

Towards the end of my trip, I spent two days in the small but historically important town of Lalibela. That was enough time for an itinerant tourist like me to cross the line into the local community. Happily losing a bantering exercise with a group of street kids, I became the proud owner of the “Lalibela Hope” soccer team. The boys were originally trying to hustle me to buy things from them. When they saw that I was not interested, they started talking to me about general things, and then about their soccer team and its upcoming game the following week against a team from another town. Poor boys in Ethiopia usually make soccer balls from rolling their fathers socks together, much to the consternation of their parents.

We saw a soccer ball in the shop nearby and I volunteered to buy it for them, for less than $30, instead of buying anything from them. The boys were thrilled. We launched the ball in their makeshift soccer pitch and lo and behold the “Lalibela Hope” soccer team had a ball to practice with. The same grateful boys did not forget me the next day. They waited outside my hotel gates, much to the consternation of the hotel staff, to pass me their email addresses, written on scraps of paper, with every intention of keeping in touch. Through experiences like these, we leave a lasting impression on each other and I get a feel of the essence of the people, what they are really made of over and above the subsistence economy that keeps them under a lid. What I saw was indeed hopeful.

In another instance, after visiting a cave church in the Simien mountains near Lalibela, I had the privilege of watching a group of “elite” religious school students (selected from the schools nearby) holding class under a tree. These students, all boys, are specially selected for religious-based schooling. From this cohort a number eventually do go on to become doctors in the US. The discipline of memory work, reciting the scriptures as they did, and the rigour of studying hard in such beautiful but Spartan settings do them good later in life.

Ethiopia falls into a category of countries where it is actually difficult to do business in, but for very interesting reasons of its own. The country is so caught up in its own history and traditions, that the inertia to change is strong. It is not really interested to allow foreign influences or investors in too quickly. It is the only African country that was never colonised by any Western powers. Such was the strength of its own organisational powers as a nation state for centuries, something worth studying in its own right.

Imagine an African kingdom 2500 years ago having the same organisational capability of the leading kingdoms of the day, just by being open to the ideas of these leading kingdoms and then absorbing them into its own culture. Then imagine this same kingdom morphing into an insular state that seeks to preserve the traditions it inherited that others have abandoned in exchange for modernity.

But it is a country that in the African context, cannot and should not be ignored. At 91m people and a GDP of $43.2b, it is already the largest economy in East Africa with a sizeable population, and a non-oil one. But with a per capita GDP of just under US$500, the country is not able to import very much either to invest in building its infrastructure and productive capacity. So it is curiously an economy that is almost self-sufficient and yet not productive enough to carry its full weight as an exporting country.

The good news is that the government does not subsidise much of the oil because it can’t afford to. The bad news is that the people have depended on firewood for so many generations that the country’s forested areas have dwindled from 40% in the early 1900s to about 2% today. Everywhere I went, the use of firewood was widespread, even rampant. Large tracts of wooded forests have been replaced by green grass. The last emperor even imported eucalyptus trees from Australia a century ago to feed the insatiable desire for firewood. The use of natural gas has been on the increase, although not petrol, so that Ethiopia does not have the same problems as other oil subsidising developing countries. No large numbers of motorcars and scooters as you would find in Indonesia or Vietnam.

So people walk a lot. In the villages, on a weekend, you see people walking from every country road to the marketplace. It’s quite a sight to behold. From these many people walking and running in the highlands every day, this country generates some of the world’s fastest runners and best athletes, winning 35 medals at the London Olympics alone and even in the Winter Olympics.

There is a dam being built over the Blue Nile that will make this country a net exporter of electricity to its neighbouring countries in the near future. The dam makes the blue Nile muddy and clearly unattractive as a tourist destination. But through these stops and starts, it tries to be relevant to the global economy, but on its own stubborn terms.

Conversations in the country side

I figured that the reason the Christian missionaries and armies of parents looking to adopt children target this hapless country is because it is the most stable Christian country in the region, where missionary activities and the inflow of aid money are not prohibited and child adoption is a well regulated industry. So, the misguided missionaries in America pray for and throw money at problems such as child prostitution and child brides in Ethiopia, when the fact is that there is widespread awareness amongst young girls throughout the country of their rights to choose a husband or get a job.

Also in Lalibela, I made friends with three sisters who ran a tourist artefact shop with their mother. All of them had biblical names. Hubli (as in the mother of David) who at the tender age of 24 had just completed university, Meron (as in Mary) 21 years old and studying computer science and Yokabd (as in the mother of Moses) who was still in high school. After buying some things from them, I was invited to sit down and have coffee. An American hippie, ala Bob Marlene, walked in the store and was invited to join the conversation.

The girls very clearly recognised his genre and were happy to accommodate him. Hubli quite clearly fancied him and kept asking him a lot of questions and he took her cues. He was quite talkative, first claiming to be an American Hawaiian native and then changing later claiming to be a Rastafarian wanting to import hashish into Ethiopia, betraying therefore his Jamaican heritage where the Rastafarian movement originated from. Not that any of it mattered, he made for very good pseudo-intellectual conversation that revealed everybody’s personalities.

A modest rise in per capita GDP, translated into higher wages for all, would very easily result in the female population insisting on their rights to completing school, marrying later in life and choosing who they want to marry. This was so obvious to me just for that conversation. No Christian prayers required, no human rights terms and conditions. Just more money into the productive capacity of the people. The young people of Ethiopia are ready for the future. The answer is right there waiting to happen. But the West pontificates to them, puts them into a box and calls them a problem.

The Chinese however have now come to offer a different model. Build their roads and their railway (the big one is the one from Addis Ababa to Eretria under construction), and say, “Just give the projects to our Chinese contractors, no questions asked.” The infrastructure to be left behind by the Chinese will clearly not be long lasting, but it does create that last rung on the rope to the future that the Ethiopian people can hang on to and climb their way out of their current condition, if they can.

The country’s real problem today however, is that of youth unemployment, hitting more than 20% of the population. Almost 50% of Ethiopia’s population is under the age of 18, and even though education enrolment at primary and tertiary level have increased significantly, job creation has not caught up with the increased output from educational institutes. Much of this can only come with foreign direct investment (FDI) which is hampered because of a conservative mindset. It is a conservativeness that comes from the very same pride of being the only African country that was never colonised by Western powers. That and a strong sense of national history has set in place a mind-set that foreign investment is bad.

In this respect, the influence of the last emperor Haile Selassie was profound. He was the emperor who made Ethiopia the first African country to be taken seriously as a nation state by an otherwise Western dominated League of Nations, the predecessor of the United Nations. Still, he was the same leader who stymied the social development of the country, keeping it feudal and unequal and refusing all but the most necessary modern infrastructure and capital investment.

As a result, agriculture, infrastructure, transportation, retail and a few others are considered strategic sectors and remain under tight state control, with no opportunity for much needed foreign capital to revitalize the industry. Which then results in high structural inflation. The lack of investment is evident in the agricultural sector. This is the one country where there is no sign of even small level of automation in the form of tractors anywhere in the vast and beautiful fields. No yield management. The farmers still in a subsistence economy mode as they have been for generations.

In this trip, I focused on Addis Ababa and the Amhara region in the north. Specifically, the cities of Bahir Dar (where the Blue Nile is located) and the ancient cities of Gondar, Axum and Lalibela. Let me run through the most important tourist areas I visited so as to give an idea of the richness and diversity of this country.

The Ethiopian national museum in Addis Ababa

The prehistoric human skeletal finds in the horn of Africa region was for me a continuation of the “Cradle of Humankind” sites in South Africa that I had visited earlier this year, and forms a clearer picture of the origins of humankind in my mind. I made it a point to visit the Ethiopian National Museum in Addis Ababa, where I finally met with “Lucy” the 3.2m years old female Australopithecus afarensis or a hominid ancestor to mankind, and the full range of fossils from chororapithecus (the point at which man and ape diverged in their evolutionary tracts 10m years ago) to the homo sapiens we are today.

The Cradle of Humankind in South Africa just outside Johannesburg area are a must visit sites for anyone who is piecing together the whole human evolution story. There the famous skeleton is the skull of Mrs Ples, a sort of contemporary of Lucy, except that she is an Australopithecus africanus and is about 2.5m years old (younger), which I have also seen. The South African experience is a lot more dramatic because it is out there in the fields, where you have to go down mining shafts to see how modern man first discovered these skeletons when the Europeans started mines in that country.

Sites from biblical times

Ethiopia is also an important peripheral civilisation to the Judeo Christian civilisation, starting from the early days of King Solomon to the time when the advent of Islam diluted the Christian empires that defined the country. Peripheral in that its own civilisation organised itself around the ideas taking shape in the great kingdoms around the Mediterranean region. Being peripheral gave me many things to think about, such as what were the many different manifestations of the Judeo-Christian traditions in its early days that we can learn from. The variation that moved northwards into Europe became more individualised and very urban. The variation that moved southwards offered Ethiopians the chance to organise themselves in a superior manner relative to their peers in the rest of Africa.

It’s hard sometimes to tell if Ethiopia is really fully African or if it is pseudo-Mediterranean. Much of the rest of Africa had a clear stone age, but there is debate if the organisational effects of a bronze age – militaries, fighting and farming equipment and so on – had a widespread effect in Africa. The Phoenicians carried some of their own bronze age cultures into northern Africa. Ethiopia is a clear beneficiary of that influence, as were the Nubians. But it did not result in the country building any of its own momentum to take its own civilisation into the next phase.

There is this great recognition of the impact of the Jewish Solomonic traditions in Ethiopian history. The Ethiopians imported the teachings of the Torah and then the Bible wholesale. But unlike the Germans and the Scandinavians, towards the north of the Mediterranean, who morphed the Judeo-Christian traditions into becoming more personalised and judgmental, the peoples south of the Mediterranean were more attuned to the Orthodox version and morphed the traditions into their own more communal and feudal structures. I am saying a bit more than what meets the eye here and will be building on this idea in later writings.

I was surprised to find out that the Jewish Torah and Christian Bible is littered with Ethiopian characters whose names are still in popular use today. Ebed-melech the Ethiopian who helped the prophet Jeremiah 38:7-8, the men of Judah defeating Zerah the Ethiopian who fought them with an army of a million men in 2 Chronicles 14:9, Philip and the Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians in Acts 27. Balthasar, one of the three wise men who visited Jesus at his birth (believed to be the dark-skinned Ethiopian emperor Beese Bazen). Prester John, the legendary emperor of Ethiopia in the 17th century. The classic reference in Jeremiah 13:23, where the prophet asks, “can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots?” The most important Ethiopian name of all, though, should be the Queen of Sheba who visited King Solomon, tested his wisdom and according to legend, had a son by him she called Menelik and whose lineage validates the Ethiopian’s historical connection with Jewish and Christian histories.

All of this is embedded in the country’s rich living history. The belief that the “Ark of the Covenant” (that supposedly contains the ten commandments that Moses inherited from God, and was “inadvertently” carried by Menelik I to Ethiopia after visiting his father) is supposedly kept inside a special building in Axum. Through these and other such beliefs, the Ethiopian people forged a powerful sense of self identity that dictates all their other decisions, including the one of keeping foreigners out.

A quick visit to the Blue Nile was somewhat of a disappointment, especially for anyone who has seen other great waterfalls and rivers. The building of a dam across the Blue Nile in Ethiopia has reduced the mighty river into a tame version of itself. But the walks in the highlands around the river and the waterfalls are very pleasant.

Meeting the Felisha Jewish lady

In Gondar, as the van I was traveling in was passing through what was a “Felisha village,” I noticed a lady standing in front of a Star of David. When my driver said that she was the last Felisha woman left in that village, I told him to stop the van, reverse and let me go meet her. When I got out of the van, she was still standing there in front of her house and that Star of David. I went up to her and greeted her “Shalom” and she immediately melted into a string of Jewish greetings, kissed me on the cheeks and welcomed me into her house. I found out later that her name was Mariye Negosae Mulat. I followed her into her house, stopping to touch the Mezuzah at the door. She showed me photos and letters of her family in Israel.

About 135,000 Felisha Jews, or virtually the entire population, were migrated to Israel in 1979 after the Jewish state recognised them as being essentially Jewish. These Jews trace their origins to the cohort that was sent by King Solomon to accompany his son Menelik I back to Ethiopia in circa 900 BC. But about 400 still remain in Ethiopia. As such, it was a real treat to have met Mariya.

The churches and palaces

Later that day, I visited the Beta Giogis and Beta Maryum, two Ethiopian Coptic churches from the 13th century still standing in a remote village in the Lake Taha area. Ethiopian Christians were present from the very beginning of the religion when Philip the Evangelist was purported to have converted the first Ethiopian in circa 34AD. But Ethiopia became formally Christian in 334 AD when two friends who were ship-wreaked preached to the Axum king.

The walls of the Beta churches were painted later in the 15th century with stories from the bible in a signature Ethiopian art form that has come to represent its own genre today. This period was parallel to the Middle Ages in Europe at the time, so that the art form would be called an Ethiopian version of medieval European art form. It coincided with the advent of the Portugese visitors who were eventually going to help protect Eithiopia from the Arab and Turkish Muslim assault.

I have not figured out the social structure and significance of what I call these rural social fortifications which came after the great kingdoms of Axum and Lalibela, which appeared to be more urban, and whose buildings incorporated stone technology to build the stone-hewn churches of their time.

The St Mary Chruch in Axum is said to be the most important church in the Ethiopian Orthodox tradition, and is where the Ark of the Covenant is said to be kept. The security around that building where the ark is alleged to be kept appears very lax.

On another day, I visited the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela (named after the king himself whose name I was told meant “lover of honey” but upon closer examination could also mean “the bees recognise his sovereignty”) and tried to piece together the motivation to create them in the 1600s. This was about the same era in which Tiananmen square was created, the Taj Mahal in India and the city of Barcelona in Europe built – all very different constructions with different GDP implications in their time. King Lalibela’s motivation was to build a new Jerusalem, having lived in the real Jerusalem in his youth.

Much later, in Gondar is where the complexes of the kings, built from Facilides in 1645 onwards is located. It is also known collectively as the “Camelot of Ethiopia”.

The Rock Churches of Simien mountains

More importantly then was the hiking in the Simien mountains. Firstly, in the part of the mountain range just outside the city of Gondar. Then again in Lalibela. These World Heritage Site mountains themselves are magnificent. The entire distance could be walked on foot over 12-14 days. The pictures are proof of how beautiful they are. We needed to register at ranger posts and take armed guards not because any of the animals are particularly dangerous, but as a precaution as well as providing employment to the local population.

The mountains, between 3,200-4,200m in height, were a natural bulwark against invaders from the north, from the Roman persecutions to the Muslim invaders and later the Europeans. Some parts have snow falling at certain times in the year.

The word Simien used to mean “South” in a language called Geez, as they fell south of the ancient kingdom of Axum, and then came to mean “north” in Amharic, when the civilisation moved further south of the mountain. They were first inhabited by Ethiopian Jews in the 15th century, who were running away from their own persecution from the Christians. The Ethiopian Christians turned out to be, amongst other things, very pluralistic people, providing protection and passage to Jews and Muslims alike. The Ethiopians were the first to provide protection to the Prophet Muhammad’s entourage soon after the formation of Islam.

Ethiopia’s coffee industry

Ethiopia is the original home of coffee, and I was happy to see coffee plants growing wildly in the rural areas I visited. The way the Ethiopians say it, coffee was discovered 1000 years ago in a region in their country called Kaffa. A goatsman noticed his goats becoming hyperactive after eating seeds from a certain tree. He brought it up to the local priest who told him the seeds were cursed and ordered them to be burnt. As the seeds burnt, they offered an addicting aroma into the air, which even the priest approved of and recommended to the farmers.

Ethiopia has a great coffee drinking culture. Everywhere, coffee is roasted, ground and served in small cups in front of you. Three sisters in the town of Lalibela in whose shop I hung out over two evenings educated me on the elaborate coffee etiquette. The raw coffee bean is presented to the customer. Then roasted in front of the customer. Then boiled. Then serviced in three helpings – the abol (first), tona (second) and beraka (the blessing) – and the customer has to stay for all three. The experience is a slow but social one, and if the parties know each other, can make for a good long conversation.

Still Ethiopia failed to capture a reasonable share of the global coffee export business, being surpassed by countries as diverse as Colombia and Indonesia, amongst others who industrialized the industry. More importantly, Ethiopia does not command a premium price in the international market place, if only because it has not invested enough in the technology to grade and differentiate their products, much of which is done in other countries.

More questions than answers

I left Ethiopia with more questions than answers. Here clearly is an established civilisation that was built borrowing ideas from the leading civilisations of its times. In the 1900s while almost all other African countries struggled to make sense of the western idea of nation state, this is the one country that had the concept established for more than 2500 years. It had the organisational ability to push back the Italian and other invaders and maintain its sovereignty. Yet it focused instead on playing the role of preserver rather than developer of traditions. Whether it was Emperor Lalibela in 1500 or Emperor Halie Selassie in 1945, both travelled extensively “around the world” of their times to see and learn. Yet, strangely what every capable Ethiopian leader brought back and internalised were the elements worth preserving rather than the elements worth nurturing for the future and transforming the society.

Still, anyone who visits Ethiopia will have a reference point and a richer dimension from where to think about the rest of Africa. It is not about modern day poverty. The 1970s photographs of hungry children that adorn the donation envelopes of a thousand churches and airlines trying to do good are but a severe distraction to what this country is really about. This country is about preserving the past, but with an 2500 year open-ended answer as to whether this is a prelude to preserving the future as well.

PS: I uploaded photographs that are visible to all in my Facebook page “Emmanuel Daniel” I just could not figure out how to incorporate some of them at least into this blog entry.


  1. Hi ED,

    Hope this mail finds you keeping well. Amazing piece on your "Postcard to Ethopia" after reading it, certainly brought back some fond memories especially when they used to give me coffee beans as gifts knowing me a coffee junkie.



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