MY first two days at the African Union Commission in Addis Ababa mostly consisted of shuttling between my space in between two desks in the Archives Unit and the Julius Nyerere Building, which houses the Peace and Security Department.
Sitting in between Sirake and Stephen in the archives unit, I followed a routine of going through agendas from different AU summit meetings over the years, highlighting items of interest and then passing my highlighted list to Sirake. He would then descend into the bowels of the archive and bring me back whatever preparatory notes, if any, were available for each item I had identified. As I said in the last post, the archives unit did not have a scanner or a photocopier available so I was restricted to taking pictures of each individual page of every document with my phone. In the evening time, I would upload each picture to my Google drive account so as to make sure I had enough storage space on the phone for the next day’s photography session. Thankfully, the restrictions the Government had placed on the Internet didn’t extend to Google or I would have been really screwed.
When not taking pictures of old documents in the offices of the Archive Unit, I was rediscovering some of my old journalistic skills over at the Peace and Security Department. It had proven very difficult to get a response from most people at the AU prior to my arrival, to the point where I didn’t have a single interview scheduled before landing in Addis. This meant that I had to effectively start from scratch, and Sirake and Stephen were happy to help me get going. They recommended one or two names to start with in the Peace and Security Department and where to find them. Thanks to two very educational years spent reporting with the Limerick Leader in my early 20s, that was all I needed.
I mustered whatever negligible trace of charm I had and walked in unannounced to several offices to request interviews. For the most part, people were quite receptive and curious to find out why an Irish man had taken such an interest in the defence architecture of the African Union. Each time I secured agreement for an interview from someone, I asked their opinion on who else might be able to offer insight that would be relevant and valuable to my research topic. More often than not, I had a few names suggested to me along with details of where I could find them. By the end of my first day at the AU, I had three interviews organized already and was on the radar of several other people with whom I hoped to speak.
By the start of my second day in Addis, it was apparent that there was no way I could take a photo of every necessary page that I required before Friday (the AU doesn’t open on weekends). While buzzing in and out of offices looking for interviews the day before, I had noticed that several of them had scanners. Unfortunately though, each scanner was the responsibility of one person in each office. The machine was located next to their desk and anyone that wanted something scanned had to ask the relevant person in their office to do it. There were some scanners in the lobby of the Julius Nyerere Building but due to some network error, they were not working.
Faced with the possibility of returning from Addis with only a fraction of the documents I required, I decided to try and charm the scanner gatekeepers in multiple offices into helping me out. For much of Tuesday, I went from office to office with bundles of often tattered documents from the archives. In each office, I introduced myself to the person next to the scanner and explained my predicament. In fairness, most people I encountered agreed to scan some amount of documents and I was smart enough not to tell any of them initially just how much scanning I required. For much of the rest of the week, I would keep a consistent flow of documents going to each person until they had reached the end of their patience with me. That point varied between different people but they all reached it.
Each evening, I wandered around the streets of Addis, half looking for someplace to eat, half exploring my surroundings. At least one time on every street I walked down, a local would stop me to say hello. Some of the younger kids might go for a high five or a fist bump. To my shame, I initially presumed that people were stopping me to ask for money and on the first two occasions I kept walking and said, as politely as I could, that I didn’t have any cash on me. It was only when the second guy said that he was just saying hello to me that I felt like an ass hole and apologised. For the rest of the week, I gave a hearty response to everyone and anyone that hailed me on the street. Many people had not heard of Ireland, although Bono often served as a good point of reference. Everyone wished me a good time in Addis Ababa and made suggestions for things I should do there.
Each morning, Ashu collected me from the hotel and continued to provide me with a comprehensive schooling on Ethiopia during our 20-minute drive to the AU. One morning, he was doing up a receipt for me and I noticed that he wrote down the year as 2010 at first before scribbling it out and correcting it to 2017. Thinking it an odd mistake to make, I joked with Ashu that he was living a few years in the past for a moment.
“No, no. We use a different calendar in Ethiopia and on our calendar it is 2010,” he explained.
“Really? It’s a different year here?” I asked incredulously.
“Yes. Now that you are here, you are younger,” responded Ashu, blowing my ‘living in the past’ joke out of the water.
On Tuesday evening, I decided to try lamb tibbs, a local delicacy that every eatery advertised. I had been warned against eating salads or pre-cut fruit, due to the possibility of consuming local water, which would have been too overwhelming for my Western gut. Tibbs fit the bill just fine though, as they are literally just strips of lamb, served up sizzling with a pancake-like accompaniment that I think you’re meant to wrap them in. That’s what I did anyway.
Before going to bed, I attempted to estimate how likely I was to get all of the necessary scanning done before the AU closed for the weekend on Friday. It would be cutting it tight but if I continued eliciting sympathy from people sat next to scanners throughout the AU Commission and kept up a good pace with my phone, I reckoned I would get everything done in time. I went to bed optimistic.
I woke up at 4am, with all of the optimism drained from my body and everything else that was drainable about to follow it. The tibbs had come back to haunt me in the form of a vengeful bout of food poisoning. From that time until 8am, I was clinging to the toilet bowl like it was the last life ring thrown off the Titanic.
Because of the time frame I was working with, I couldn’t afford to pull a sickie from the AU for the day. Unfortunately for Sirake and Stephen, whose desks I sat in between as usual at the archives, this meant some very nervous hours, as I spent the morning alternating between shuddering, sweating and empty reaching within arm’s length of them. At one o clock, I had to throw the towel in and I told the two guys that I wouldn’t be back after lunch.
“I think that’s a good idea,” replied Sirake, visibly relieved that the ticking time bomb on the other side of his desk had decided to call it a day.
I cancelled an interview I had scheduled for that afternoon and called Ashu to come to my rescue. On the journey home, he suggested stopping at a pharmacists to see if they could provide help with my predicament.
“They might be able to give you something to help flush out your system,” Ashu offered helpfully. I assured him that my ‘flushing out’ capability was not an issue here but I appreciated the offer and agreed that it might be worthwhile. Pharmacists in Ethiopia can provide antibiotics without a doctor’s prescription and while they didn’t seem necessary, as I was pretty sure I had caught food poisoning, she said to take them anyway in case I’d contracted E. coli.
Ashu dropped me back to the hotel, where I headed straight for my room, shut all the curtains, downed a cocktail of what the pharmacist had provided me with and fell asleep worrying about what this unplanned break would do to my scanning and interview schedule.