On Ethiopia

A few thoughts on Ethiopia that didn’t coalesce into full pieces.


On Good Friday, the stone churches of Lalibela are surrounded by reverence and cloaked in quiet piety. A sunny, windy afternoon finds hundreds draped in white cloth circumnavigating the first three of eleven churches, mostly sitting but occasionally standing to do a sort-of head, shoulders, knees and toes-like kneel-bow prayer a few times, always kissing the ground before rinsing and repeating.

Small children sit next to small elders, most of whom have likely made the pilgrimage to Lalibela more than 50 times. A few look like they could be on their 100th trip.

Outside one of the stone churches of Lalibela

Outside one of the stone churches of Lalibela

Every now and again, bells ring and chants emanate from the churches below. And they are below: the main entrance is on top of the giant rock that the first two churches were built from.

Built isn’t exactly the right word. The churches are more the final remnants of the rock that once contained them. As Michelangelo merely unearthed David from a slab or marble, King Lalibela merely unearthed these churches from a (much larger) rock – the holiest use of negative space, hammers, and chisels.

(According to legend and my guide, King Lalibela also had the help of 40,000 workers and a handful of angels that helped at night)

The parishioners sitting outside the churches have spent the day fasting, and many show it: slightly weak looking, maybe a bit slower to do their prayers. The fast ends at 5:00, and more than a few younger churchgoers sneak a look at their cell phones often enough to figure out that injera and shiro are on their minds.


Each country has a script.

In Uganda, it’s short and sweet: “Mzungumzunguhowareyoui’mfine” (all one word) followed by, after a short conversation, a (decidedly non-threatening) directive: “Give me money.”

In Malawi, it’s to the point: “You give me Kwacha?”

In Kenya and Tanzania, it’s often one word: “Pesa?”

If you’ve spent any time in east Africa, you’ve caught on and are remembering all of the times the script has been spoken to you. For the rest: the script is used by the Kid Asking For Something. There is diversity in each country’s script, sure, but the basics are pretty standard.

In Ethiopia’s tourist mecca, Lalibela Town, the script is long and eerily unchanging:

Kid: “Halloo?” (rhymes with Baloo, the bear from Jungle Book)


Kid: “Welcome to Lalibela/Ethiopia.”


“Where are you from?”

The United States.

The Saturday market in Lalibela Town

The Saturday market in Lalibela Town

“Oh, the United States. Capital is Washington. Obamaland.”

Yep. (By now, you’ve realized that my part of the conversation is pretty uninspired.)

“What is your work?”

I work in hospitals.

“Me, I am a student. Grade 7.”

Oh, cool. Good.

“I am studying to become a doctor/engineer so I can help my city.”

Nice. That is good.

“Will you give me book? Pen? T-shirt?”

No, I won’t.

And that’s the end of the conversation. Occasionally the kid will say bye; often, he won’t, and he’s quickly off to find the next tourist to chat up.

Like most places I’ve been in east Africa, the number of kids and adults who just want to say hi and to ask how I am dwarfs the number that say hi to ask for something. Lalibela is definitely a special case.

But what’s concerning is that, like other touristy places, it’s possible the kids are being put to work by someone and aren’t enjoying the full fruits of their labor (or whatever you want to call it). This could be relatively innocuous: a sibling or a parent puts the kid up to it, and the kid does what he or she is asked – something like a chore.

The script is so standardized, though, that it feels like something a bit more sinister is occurring. It’s common in some areas for kids to be forced into this type of work – to become child laborers – for a “pimp” of sorts who uses them as income generators.

Internally, I lapse into an Eggers-style conversation with the kid who, in my head, is much more verbose and sophisticated than his or her slight frame and grade level would suggest.

But externally, my response is always the same: no, I won’t. This could be the safe move or the selfish move or both.


Addis Ababa is in its gawky teenage years.

The city is growing at an unbelievable clip. Without exaggeration, every street in the city has at least one building in the state of construction or renovation.

The entire city, it seems, is surrounded by the tree-branch scaffolding that marks a building in its gestation. Cranes are ubiquitous; so is cement, and noise, and directions speckled with “it’s next to the building under construction” (a little like saying that a place is next to the food cart guy in New York City.) Caterpillars drive down the street as if they were tractors in rural Minnesota – as if it were normal to drive a large industrial machine down the street. In Addis Ababa, it is normal to do so right now.

But like a gawky teenager in the throes and woes of puberty, the growth is awkward. Uneven. Painful. Moody.

Like any urban center, Addis Ababa is a magnet for those looking for a better life; the four million or so current residents are besieged by seekers who come in droves. And four million people is only a fraction of Ethiopia’s population, which is quickly approaching 100 million people (in an area about twice the size of Texas).

The prosperity hinted at by the construction boom isn’t distributed evenly and doesn’t seem to trickle down to the city’s worst off; the trickle down is more a trickle of a trickle that still only touches a few. Opportunity isn’t constructed as quickly as a new hotel or the new apartment building next to it.

And so there are more homeless, or semi-homeless, people than anywhere I’ve seen in east Africa. More hopeful and hurting and crippled and infirm citizens arrive to the city each day; they congregate in tourist centers and on sidewalks to ask for a few birr. Many have young children. Some have infants.

To be fair, the vast majority that come to the big city likely have something approaching a better life in Addis Ababa than they would have in a rural town bereft of opportunity, or electricity. But many – an unusually large group of people here, it seems – don’t.   And the massive economic growth of Addis Ababa (Ethiopia as a whole, really) has passed them, leaving them further behind.


Ethiopian women are stunning.


I’ve come to recognize that the suffering of others affects me unevenly. Imprecisely. Idiosyncratically. Situations that should tear me apart don’t; things that could slip through the mind of anyone else stick with me.

Part of this, I think, is sheer overload; it’s simply too much for me to think about the desperation and deprivation of the countless Addis Ababa street mothers with their children running ahead of them or attached to them and street kids selling gum and polio sufferers dragging their useless legs behind them and elderly individuals standing on street corners and the countless nameless and faceless people I don’t see who are in the throes of need. The aggregation of the world’s pain would swallow me whole if I allowed it to.

There’s a theory at the periphery of autism research: severely autistic people are really just severely unfiltered. They don’t lack emotion, they’re drowned by it, and they tread water by controlling the world as much as they can. Everything becomes equally important, equally unmanageable; the barking dog, the body language, the bright lights, the vivid sounds, a person’s touch – all of it competes for scarce attention. The theory is known as the Intense World Theory (and is not without its critics).

This is kind of how I look at my experience disassociating from the pain of others. The metaphor is… fickle, sure, but I doubt I’m alone in feeling that way.

(Another part of this, it’s worth noting, is the total banality of seeing someone in distress; it’s sufficiently common to be wholly unsurprising. This is disgusting. Its only virtue is its veracity.)

But pain sneaks in through the relatively common stories of others. It seeps through the cracks.

Take Girma, a man who served in an Ethiopian opposition party; his eyes never stop sweeping the expansive hotel lounge we’re drinking coffee at, ostensibly in an effort to suss out the government agents listening in on our conversation (to me, our neighbors look utterly uninterested in us).

IMG_7366Girma (which is not his real name) left Ethiopia for asylum in a European country, only to find the prejudice thick and the opportunity thin. Seeking a better life, Girma tried to emigrate again, but other countries – including his most coveted choice, America – felt that asylum in one country was asylum enough. So he came back to his home in Addis Ababa, where the jobs were still scarce but at least there was family.

Now almost 40, he’s watched his friends and former political allies leave in frustration or fear; he’s seen them subsumed in a business culture that pays well but reeks of meek corruption. He refuses to capitulate to this reality; rent is twice his salary at a small organization in Addis Ababa, so he lives with his mother.

Though Girma is a warm and decent man, women don’t want to marry someone who “may not be around” in the future to raise children – someone, he notes, who could be disappeared or killed by the party in power with little reason and less warning.

Years ago, he was youthful, idealistic, and hopeful. He’s none of those things now.

Or take the woman who left her husband behind and took her two young children to America – not for a better life but for a better education. After completing a graduate program in one year, she returned to fight for the basic human rights of women.

Except the Ethiopian government has made it exceedingly hard for her, or anyone, to fight for the basic human rights of women. Colleagues fled the country, and though we’re dining socially, she can’t help but wonder if she’s next. She wonders if her kids will be OK if something happens to her.

She seems hopeful. But she seems scared, too.

Two faces of repression in Ethiopia: professional, passionate, and pained; heads bloodied but somehow unbowed. Stymied by autocrats held up by the world’s elite as leaders for the future of Africa. Just not the future of Africans.

And their stories shake me; their struggles bother me; their pain seeps in.

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