Thursday, 31 January 2013

Addis Ababa in January: Music, politics and leprosy

On a brief visit to Addis I combined work with hearing two good bands and then soaking up the art and history of repression under the Derg.

January is a good time to be in Addis Ababa, the skies are clear blue with cold nights and warm days. I had a week long monitoring visit to Saba, my research fellow there whom i have written about previously. And as usual I managed to combine work with going to two concerts and a new museum about the Red Terror, the vicious repression that occurred under the communist Derg Regime.   
Saba has yet again moved. Her latest house is a colonial style bungalow with a row of servants quarters behind it. She let Gaby her husband choose the house and wall colours so the house is a vivid pink and the walls bright green. Gaby has moved back from Nairobi and is setting up engineering projects in Ethiopia and the books in the study are about camber surfaces and road drainage, and I suspect that he prefers the precise detail of engineering to the vagueness of aesthetics. I enjoyed being part of an Ethiopian household, and celebrating saints days is a large part of life. That week  St Mary was celebrated and the chanting in the church started at 4am, and pilgrims carrying lights thronged the churches. At home the maids had a coffee ceremony and brewed strong coffee in a black coffee pot on coals and burnt incense with grass on the floor, a special loaf of bread was cooked to celebrate St Mary and a candle was lit. The ceremony was also a welcome for the nurse Alem who had gone home and a welcome to me.  In my blog 2012 I wrote about the cook’s hopes for her son to have a university education. These are now being realigned because her son has become a father. He was working at the ALERT leprosy clinic whilst sitting his university entrance exams and had a romance with the other clerk and soon she was pregnant. She needed a caesarean section and the young husband then had to bring sutures to the hospital to replace the ones that had been used for the delivery. The young couple are starting life with very few possessions. Saba put an advert on the Addis social site and was touched by the response she had from “ferangis” who had baby things to donate. It is nice that people chip in with their possessions but it also illustrates the huge need for health and social services. A new born has such a fragile life in the dangerous environment of the Addis Ababa slums. Everyone in the clinic is also encouraging the young man to still try and do his exams and get further training.
The last Prime Minister Meles Zenawi died in Austria Aug 2012 after a long undisclosed illness but he is achieving sainthood at home.  His face looks down everywhere from vast hoardings and he is credited with every aspect of Ethiopia’s economic, and social and sporting development. One poster described him as the leader of the Ethiopian renaissance. The deputy prime minster has taken over but does not appear to enthuse people as Meles did. Several vice presidents have been elected, maybe as a way of keeping tabs on him. Ethiopia played Nigeria in the Africa Cup of Nations football. The streets were silent as people were entranced by the match, lucky ones watched in the centre of town on a huge screen, close to us an enterprising resident had hung a white sheet above the street and the TV was being projected there, the cops were even redirecting traffic so that the street was safe for the viewers. Sadly Ethiopia lost to the Nigerians with their goalie and then even his substitute being sent off and the match had to pause whilst a replacement goalie jersey was fashioned.  
Saba and I had a cultural Sunday afternoon seeing modern art and then history at two new museums. At the Museum of Modern art we saw a retrospective of one of Ethiopia’s modern artists, Gebrekristos Desta, he started work in Hailie Selasies reign and continued under the Derg. He depicted oppression through abstracts, the famine through white shrouds and the surveillance through large eyes looking down on scenes. His work was not appreciated by the Derg and he applied to Germany for asylum but it was refused, even though he had trained as an artist in Germany. He then found asylum in the US and died in a small flat in Oklahoma. This retrospective was a poignant reflection of the artistic response to oppression but also showed how artist can be abandoned by the people they think would protect them. The Germans have now built a beautiful new museum named after him, perhaps as atonement. After absorbing this poignant work we went to The Red Terror Martyrs Memorial museum, which depicts the genocide perpetrated by the Derg. The museum has been set up by the relatives of people who disappeared then. The museum traced the history of the revolution and showed how the early optimism at having deposed the emperor soured. The Derg regime, headed by Mengistu became one of the most vicious regimes, people were tortured and killed in their thousands, especially students. There were large photo-board displays of students nearly all of whom died. The killing fields on the edge of Addis were depicted by stacks of skulls and other cases had the personal objects of prisoners shoes, note books. It was reminiscent of a Holocaust museum. Our museum guide had been imprisoned for 7 years. When he was released he felt unable to go home and hid working in the household of an Italian diplomat. It was very moving to be taken round by someone who had been oppressed. He said that he did not want revenge but he did want people to remember the horror. Since then i have read the book “Beneath the Lions Gaze” about the oppression that occurred during the Derg. That book captures the horror of the torture and the effect of the Derg on families.
Music was another theme of the visit. We heard an Ethiopian jazz band at the crowded jazzamba cafe in the old part of the city.   An Ethiopia sang soulfully about being rejected in love and then. We also heard Farka Toure, my favourite Malian guitarist with his band. They played a rousing concert in the Ethiopian national theatre. They wore long white robes with blue jackets . Local Addis musicians joined them on stage, one female saxophonist played an amazing number with them, she just blew her heart out clearly very fired up by the occasion.   The national theatre was packed, Saba commented that she had no idea that there were so many white people in Addis.
I spent time at the hospital seeing patients with complications of leprosy. One 20 year old had need so much steroids to control her reactions that she had developed osteoporosis and had severe back pain from collapsed vertebrae- something commoner in 90 year olds. We are also enrolling patients from the clinic in Addis into a global network of patients with ENL. I also have a Ethiopian PhD student, Edessa Negera  starting work on these patients later this year. Saba is also planning to stay in Ethiopia for another 5 years and that gives a feeling of stability to the project.
So it was a good visit. Saba and i worked hard and made progress on our various projects, through her household i felt the realities of life in Addis. In the hospital i saw patients who remind me why we are trying to improve the treatment of leprosy. I also enjoyed new aspects of Ethiopian history and culture.
Diana Lockwood
Apr 2013
Beneath The Lions Gaze 

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