“Inidemini āderiki” (good morning), I greeted my driver Ashu, the day after I had returned to the hotel prematurely with rotting insides, practicing the only piece of Amharic I had learned since arriving. Thankfully, the pharmacist’s fears from the day before had not been realised and I had just caught good old-fashioned food poisoning, rather than E. Coli.
I had been woken that morning, as on other mornings, by the sound of what I had presumed was the call to prayer from a local mosque but Ashu informed me that what I had heard was in fact coming from an Orthodox Christian church. Ethiopia has enormous Christian and Muslim communities that live in harmony alongside one other. Had I been staying a few blocks down, it would have been the Islamic call to prayer that woke me instead.
On our way to the AU Commission, we came across adherents to another religion that were travelling in a battered van with Jamaican flags painted on the side and a flag bearing the image of the former Ethiopian King and Emporor, Haile Selassie, stretched across the back window. Rastafarians consider Selassie to be God incarnate and they occupy a special position in Ethiopia.
Salassie, who died in 1975 and was himself a Christian, seemed to have denied his divinity but was at the same time receptive towards the Rastafarians, even facilitating their repatriation from Jamaica to Ethiopia, which they consider to be Zion. Today, you can still see many of them driving around Addis Ababa in old vans with pictures of ‘God’ or Bob Marley displayed on the exterior.
Ashu informed me that most Rastafarians in Ethiopia today live in a village a few hours from Addis called Shashamene, on land that was given to them by Salassie. There, he said, they practice their rituals and lead a relatively simple life as farmers, growing crops and keeping animals. I asked him if the authorities here allow the Rastafarians to grow the crop with which they are best associated. A knowing grin spread across his face and he chuckled, saying that marijuana is illegal in Ethiopia but that something of a blind eye was turned to it in Shashamene.
That day at the AU, my second last before it closed for the weekend, was spent much the same as those I spent before succumbing to illness. If I wasn’t interviewing officials in the Peace and Security Department, I was crouched over a desk in the archives unit, slowly taking pictures of page after page of precious documents with my phone. If I wasn’t doing either of those two activities, I was dashing from between offices in the AU Commission, trying to find sympathetic faces that would agree to scan and email me documents, which were vital to my research.
By the end of Thursday, it was apparent that this routine would not be allow me to scan everything that needed scanning before the end of business on Friday. The food poisoning had robbed too much of my week from me and I would have to either adopt a new approach or sacrifice large chunks of archive material before I ever got to analyse it properly.
That night, after chancing my first piece of solid food in two days, I went out on to the streets of Addis to purchase a rucksack. I reasoned that someone, somewhere in the Commission would be kind enough to let me use a photocopier and I would pack copies of whatever I couldn’t scan into my additional piece of hand luggage.
On the following morning’s routine of begging for scanning allowances, I garnished my request with an additional enquiry about a photocopier and it proved surprisingly difficult to get a positive response. Not only did everyone I asked for the first couple of hours say that they had no machine I could use, many of them went so far as to say that my enquiries would prove fruitless wherever I planned to ask.
It was at this point that I remembered the advice of a dear friend, who has travelled the length of Africa twice, visiting many countries, including Ethiopia. The name of the game when trying to tackle any form of roadblocks in officialdom, according to him, is patient persistence. As evidence, he recounted several instances of waiting at immigration offices in several states, being told that he would not get be seen on that day but insisting on waiting around just the same, only to receive service a few hours later.
Taking his advice paid off later in the morning, as an obliging administrator contradicted many of his colleagues and said it would be no problem to use the photocopier in his office, even providing me with an extra pack of paper, upon seeing how much copying I had to do, along with a heavy-duty stapler. When all was said and done, the documents that I photocopied, due to not having enough time to either scan or capture with my phone camera, weighed over 10 kilos and more or less filled the additional bag I had purchased.
My plan for the weekend had been to engage in some touristy pursuits but one of my most high value interviews on Friday afternoon got postponed to Saturday and took up almost four hours. It was time well spent though and in hindsight I was delighted to speak with the official outside of office time as there was no way he could have afforded spending half of his day with me during the work week.
On the Sunday, I visited some museums in Addis and learned about Ethiopia’s proud history of repelling colonial invaders. The country is sometimes incorrectly cited as the only African state to have never been colonised but Italy did militarily occupy Ethiopia in the middle of the 20th century, albeit for a short period in which the colonisers never established firm control. One of the museums I visited contained some superb pictures of those who battled the invaders, displaying a mix of modernity and tradition with fighters in traditional clothing holding modern (for the time) weaponry.
In the afternoon, I took the advice of a friend who had spent time in Addis before and visited the diving boards and public pool by the Ghion hotel. The pool itself is enormous, roughly the dimensions of an Olympic swimming pool. It’s a favourite location for residents of the City to spend much of their weekends and, sure enough, when I got there it was packed.
Not having anticipated spending much time outside, I had forgotten to bring sun block with me when I left South Africa but had reasoned that I’d be able to buy it at the shop for guests to the pool, where I also needed to purchase swimming gear. Unfortunately all they had behind the counter was moisturiser, which wasn’t that surprising when you consider I was the only non-Ethiopian there.
Having come this far though, I wasn’t going to just turn around because of a lack of sun block so I decided to go for a swim and lay out for what I estimated would be too short a time to get sunburned. No need to go into a further exposition on how I sabotaged my health for a second time in Addis but sufficed to say, I completely misjudged how long it takes to fry an Irishman in the Ethiopian sun.
While I was lying on a deck chair, mid-fry, two young boys came up to me, both of them around six or seven years of age. They had very basic English but were keen to investigate the presence of the odd man out at poolside.
“Mister, mister, you fish?” one of them asked, leaving me perplexed.
“Am, not today anyway. How about you?”
“No, no. You fish?” the same kid asked again, but this time making a diving gesture, indicating that he was asking if I had gone for a swim.
“Oh, I’m sorry, yes, yes, I went for a swim. How about you?”
By the time I had figured out what he meant, the kid had become distracted by just how pale I was and had started inspecting my leg. He poked my calf in the same innocent and curious way a child would examine a slug he had found in the back garden. His companion, who was slightly older but had more limited English, smacked him gently across the back of the head, seemingly embarrassed by the probing of his friend.
“Where you from?”
“No, no, Ireland. Next to England. Do you know England?”
“Hmmm, where Arsenal from?”
“Yes, yes, where Arsenal are from.”
“Ok, you from Arsenal.”
“Am, ya, kind of.”
“Ok mister. We go fish now.”
And with that, he poked my leg one last time for good measure and jumped into the pool with his mate.
About half an hour later, I became aware that my skin was started to develop a crispy bacon-like quality and packed up my things to leave. As I was walking away, I heard a familiar voice hailing me frantically.
“Mister, mister, goodbye!”
It was the more curious and vocal of the pair and he was running after me, soaking wet after just jumping out of the pool to come and bid me farewell. I was terrified as he ran towards me along the edge of the pool that he would fall and hurt himself. When he reached me, he jumped straight into my arms and gave me a big hug, much to the amusement of the onlookers around us.
“Goodbye Mister, nice meet you.”
Getting such a fond farewell made all the sunburn and food poisoning Ethiopia could throw at me worth it.