Unbounded Possibilities, Limited Realizations
No, this is not a story about starving children. We know that this is the picture many Europeans have of Ethiopia, but it is a pretty unfair one. In fact, Ethiopians have lots of reasons to be proud of their country. It is often ignored that Ethiopia has one of the longest and most interesting histories in the world. Although not everything they sell as history is true – probably they do not host the “Ark of Covenant” and their kings did not descend from the biblical Salomon – what stands the test of science is still impressive. First, it is the cradle of humanity and the place where Lucy was found. The old kingdom of Axum (in northern Ethiopia) was considered to be one of the four most important empires of the first centuries, together with China, Persia and Rome. Later the Ethiopian kingdoms had relationships to Portugal and France, defeated both the Ottomans and the Italians and remained the only African country to resist colonization.
The landscape here can take your breath away, too. Usually it is nice, friendly and green, but also spectacular canyons and mountains are on offer. You see so many diverse wild animals and for ornithologists it must be paradise. It often is a nearly perfect idyll: there is no motor noise, donkeys, mules, cows and sheep cross the streets and farmers plow their fields with self-made wooden plows and two oxes. Further, everyday life is full of culture and Ethiopians know how to have a good time together. They have their own music and dances and are ready to smile and laugh. Ethiopian food is very special and tasty, you find good pastries but they also skilfully adapt international cuisine – preferably from Italy – and you do not get sick of it. Even the smallest and cheapest café is carefully furnished and will have some charm. And definitely it will have a professional coffee machine to achieve the high standards of Ethiopia’s aromatic coffee culture.
Ethiopia is a dynamic country. They have doubled their GDP per capita in the last ten years, houses and roads are built everywhere and Addis Ababa is growing as fast as any Chinese city. Ethiopians are enthusiastic about the new Nile dam they are about to build and that will solve almost all of their electricity problems. Sudanese and Egyptians are a bit less enthusiastic.
In general, people turned out to be really polite and surprisingly well informed. They’re very open, you easily get into a conversation in a café or elsewhere, small children love greeting and waving to foreigners and the quite high level of most Ethiopians’ English skills facilitates communication. Usually the ordinary street vendors accept a polite “No, thank you”. Especially after Nepal and India, the overall atmosphere is calm and agreeable. However, mainly two problems make travelling through Ethiopia a bit hard and sometimes annoying. One is rather technical and might change over time, the other is deeper rooted.
First, there is nearly no infrastructure for tourists, above all for backpackers or budget visitors. It is complicated to get reliable information about sites, distances are large and just a few main roads are paved. Still worse, government regulations sometimes make travelling even harder by forbidding to use the infrastructure which is existing. Excursions we were interested in were usually tailormade or at least had tailormade-like prices. Maybe it is much easier to travel here with an organized tour, but then you can be sure that the wrong people will get the money. And if you are willing to pay incredibly high prices, it is often better to do it somewhere else because most sights do not justify such expenditures. If you can afford it, maybe it is best to explore Ethiopia with a hired vehicle to be independent and have time to see the countrysides.
The second thing is that Ethiopians are very proud of their hospitality. Honestly, there is no reason for this and in fact, Ethiopia competes with Nepal for the last place in that ranking so far. “I like foreigners because they have dollars” one of our bus drivers said to us, and that might be the best definition of Ethiopian hospitality. Yes, as said before, they are polite and friendly and will help you with anything, for example by translating in a shop. Unfortunately, then you will pay more, and not just 10% to 20% but the threefold or fourfold. With the remarkable exceptions of cafés and restaurants, everywhere they will demand “faranji”-prices and they will tell you almost anything to make you accept their demands. We argued a lot about fair prices and almost never received support from some locals (really different from India, by the way). When it comes to ripping off a foreigner, they usually stick together, and you have dozens of Ethiopians lying to you. Only once or twice some passengers in the bus helped us and told the driver not to overcharge us – and these people then made our day. But generally speaking it is like this: in China, where they also had a different language and a different alphabet, they doubled their efforts to help us when they realized we were not familiar with the country. In Ethiopia they double the prices.
Perhaps it is too hard to say that there is no hospitality. Perhaps they simply forget it when they are tempted by foreigners’ money. Again, we are aware that we must appear incredibly rich to them. Even though we have not seen extremely dire poverty, the country is totally underdeveloped and life must be harsh. It is cold in the mountains and fuel or wood is rare for heating. The next town may be a day away by walking. Cultivating fields appears idyllic but it is physically exhausting, like most of the work here. Nonetheless, we think that hospitality has little to do with income. In fact, our great couchsurfing host Ahmed could tell us from experiences he made in Somalia and Sudan. There, the clans and locals did everything to treat him as a guest and refused to take money. Here, normally the beggars and cheaters are not the poorest in the country. They are bus owners, well-dressed touts, children asking for a new football or young students requesting at least a 200 EUR scholarship per month for their education. In Ethiopia, more than in any other country we visited, they are deeply convinced that it is the white man’s burden to give the black man money. They expect it from us and are truly disappointed when we do not give anything.
Hidden in the countryside, surely most people do their hard work. But in the cities and tourist spots, too many people here hold this truth to be self-evident that work is not a mean to get rich. Working is something for women and old people. Those were the ones we saw carrying the heaviest weights and simply doing their work without complaining, and moreover they were smiling and greeting friendly. Contrasting this, lots of young men hang around idly, some of them waiting for a tourist to rip off. It is not that they are lazy, they invest a lot of effort in overcharging us, but they have no initiative in building up something with a larger time horizon. There are so many things we happily would have paid for, unfortunately no one had the idea of earning money with these services. The only touristy infrastructure that really exists are the officers standing at each tourist spot, even in the middle of nowhere, demanding quite high entrance fees. Maybe corruption discourages potential entrepreneurs, perhaps it also is just more accepted to rip off “faranjis” than providing services for them.
To conclude (*sigh*): Ethiopia is the first country where we are truly not sure whether one should visit it or not. Elsewhere, tourism had side-effects, but it provided income to many classes of people and it enlarged the horizon of both the travellers and the locals. Here, mainly the wrong persons benefit from it and tourism enhances the demands more than income, making people less satisfied than before. Given that honesty and fairness seem to be high values, we had the feeling that our presence rather brought out the worst out of Ethiopians.