Letter from Ethiopia: Highlands , Homes and Churches
I was in Ethiopia for a week in July 2011- almost 17 years since my first visit in Nov 1994. The government which overthrew the revolutionary Derg regime has just celebrated 20 years in power with huge roadside posters in Addis. Living standards have visibly improved. Democracy is not yet well developed in Ethiopia, the opposition fared badly in last year’s elections. I wondered whether this was because the governing regime is protecting its power but people said that the opposition was very feeble and had offered few new ideas and deserved the rejection that they received at the polls.
I was there to visit my research fellow S and monitor progress on a trial of ciclosporin that we have been trying to set up for the last 3 years. Ethiopian bureaucracy is slow and obdurate; S has had the patience of a saint to negotiate it. We had been waiting for the drugs to arrive from India for months. Finally they arrived a few days before me. But although they had arrived they were then untraceable at the airport. It took endless phone calls to track down the container with our drug consignment. Then we had to negotiate Customs, finally we were presented with a bill for storage costs for the time that the container had been “lost”. Since the container people still had the drugs we didn’t have much choice over paying. I followed S taking the calls. Her fluent Amharic enables her to negotiate with Ethiopian skill.
S is a quarter Ethiopian , quarter Italian and half German and she seems to be blessed with the strengths of each nationality. She is phenomenally well organised, just the person to be running a trial, she has the warmth of Italians welcoming one with food and love and she has the determination and nationalism of an Ethiopian. She is married to G, an engineer who is half Ethiopian, half Italian who is based in Kenya building roads and bridges. S has set up a household of three servants and a baby in a quiet, residential part of Addis. Baby L is 10 months old and is the happiest baby I’ve ever seen. He crawl s around contentedly gazing at the world with his big Ethiopian brown eyes. He has fair skin and so his eyes are very noticeable, he looks like one of the Ethiopian icons. There are three servants, a twenty two year old nanny looks after L devotedly, and she hopes that her next job will be in The Gulf. Now she is too young- Ethiopia does not allow women to go and work in The Gulf until they are over twenty five, in an attempt to protect them. The cook is older, more serious and lost her husband years ago. She has a very bright son who although he comes from a poor background has done well in school and is just about to sit the entrance exams for Addis University. She makes lovely food, highly spiced Ethiopian dishes alternating with Italian pastas and all accompanied by beautiful salads topped with concentric circles of chopped veggies that I was reluctant to disturb by eating. She is a diligent woman who works to high standards and I suspect that her son also her ability to work successfully. The cleaner is poor woman, with a cross tattooed on her face; she has epilepsy and only just manages in the household as a rather hopeless cleaner. S took her in out of kindness a few years ago and she is now part of the household but she has trying bouts of extreme religiosity and superstition. I could see that the other two women were looking out for her; ameliorating her outbursts.
No sooner had I arrived in Addis than S took me away for a night to Debre Libanos, the site of an ancient monastery. The highlands were beautiful with green grass everywhere, above were clouds and shafts of sunlight broke through into the rural scene. There were clusters of huts for each family and clumps of eucalyptus trees. There small herds of cows were tended by black blanketed herdsmen. The lodge at Debre Libanos is perched on the edge of a deep natural gorge The ground just falls away from one for hundreds of feet with a few little shoulders of land left were small fields have been created. Deep down in the valley a river flowed and there were small villages across the valley. I felt as though I was on the edge of the world. We slept in stone floored mud huts, cold at night. In the morning I smelt the rosemary that was growing in the cracks between the stones on the terrace and watched gelada baboons roam through the scrub and small bushes below us. Eagles and vultures soared on the thermals waiting for breakfast. Last a huge solitary eagle soared, perhaps one of the lammergeyer eagles found in Ethiopia who break open bones by dropping them on the rocks. The monastery at Debre Libanos is famous and if one dies there one goes straight to heaven, so the monks have exploited this by selling exclusive sites in the cemetery, family plots for £ 2000. So donors believe they have a fast track ticket for the future and the monastery finances are boosted, surely a win/win! The monastery has about 300 monks saying prayers around the clock. We were shown around by a tall handsome blue robed monk who was very keen to tell us all the details of the saints there. Inside a few people prayed before the effigies. Unusually for Ethiopia the church has modern stained glass and has very attractive scenes from the Old Testament, Jonah perching on a huge toothed whale mouth. Outside the church the beggars line the road for about a mile, all hoping for some alms from the visitors. We also had a request from home women to bring some holy water back to Addis for them. Holy water is very popular in Ethiopia; all the patients try holy water as the first remedy for any illness. We also bought some holy charcoal; if one cannot carry water then crumbling the charcoal into water later on will make it holy. Travel friendly holy water. I was struck by the contrast between the richness of the church and the poverty of both the beggars and the surrounding town. The church did not appear to feel responsible for their neighbours. We had more church encounters back in Addis. L’s devout grandparents have insisted that he take his first communion, which happens at eight months of age. Now the poor chap has to take another five communions in the next x months because e it is especially important that children who are sin free take communion. He also had to take communion on his saint’s day and was taken off by his nanny and grandfather to the church, initially he was supposed to be fasting but this was relaxed after S protested. I was also glad that the communion on his saint’s day was also going to protect his against leprosy- who could deny him that particular benefit.
ALERT hospital was taken into the government service from NGOs several years ago and went through a ghastly period of restructuring when many people left, partly because their salaries were savagely cut. The hospital has now stabilised again and seems to have better interactions with the Addis University dermatologists. New buildings have also sprung up but it was heartbreaking to walk through the dermatology out-patients, packed with people waiting for a diagnosis. The leprosy clinic is now in a separate hut away from the main out-patients. The advantage of the separation is that the doctors have a lot more time to talk to the patients. There are two young Ethiopian dermatologists working there, Dr X and Dr Y. Dr X is full bearded and is touched by the plight of the leprosy patients. He has also travelled down to South Africa and was amazed by the wealth he saw there. Dr Y is a debonair young man wearing a suit and elegant tie. Both of them finished their dermatology post grad training in Addis. The trio seem to work together well and I hope they will form a leprosy nucleus. And the trial? Well it is certainly well prepared, S and I picked up the proformas that had been printed locally and were just being bound into booklets. She walked me around the hospital so that I met everyone who was involved in the trial and I saw them in their natural habitats, the pharmacist in his drug store, the biochemist in the lab. The next day everyone contributed to a presentation about the drug trial. So now all we need are willing patients.
It was a fine visit to Addis, staying with S opened up many aspects of Ethiopian life to me as well as being fun and nourishing.