LAST week, I said I’d be writing my next column from Ethiopia, and indeed I am, writes Damien Enright.
As I write outdoors in this extensive hotel garden (€30 double b&b) my companions are two Colobus monkeys perched on a tree 30ft above me and a dozen yards away. They are big monkeys, and have vivid black and white coats which flow behind them as they swing from tree to tree.
Colobus skins have been made into rugs, throws and wall hangings. Their metre-long tails, tipped like white feather-dusters, remind one of exotic bell-pulls and might indeed have been used as such in ancient palaces. I’m fascinated by how their striking plumage camouflages them in the sunny treetops. Light and shadow, in motion.
Addis Ababa is a ramshackle city of 4m or more people, nobody really knows. It is, if anything, even more colourful and ramshackle than, say, Calcutta. The women of Ethiopia, however impoverished, wear brilliant almost day-glo colours, combined to gorgeous and striking effect.
They are often very beautiful, slim, often tall; most are Coptic Christians or Muslims. Dresses are worn ankle-length, and close-fitting.
The Copts and non-Muslims generally wear no headdress, and have long, shining hair. They’re blessed with perfect white teeth, set in dark, or very dark skin, and are quick to smile.
It is extraordinary that this city of a million, ramshackle small businesses functions. Small businesses are everywhere; a man with a wheel-barrow full of bananas or sugar cane standing on a corner is a small business. I saw no begging. There is no violent crime or hustling, at least against foreigners, but pickpocketing is common. Driving two hours from one side of the city to the other, I saw not one white face amongst the millions.
There are white people in Addis, of course. European embassies each occupy enough grounds to sustain 10 villages. Fortressed behind high walls, on the pavements outside the small-business men and women live in another universe, selling cheap clothes, fruit, secondhand shoes, used car parts; or they hire out their labour to build the new Chinese-financed office and apartment blocks. The Chinese have provided a tram service, roads and much infrastructure. Some gainsayers say “The Chinese are buying Africa”.
We go out of town, “on the road”. After two hours clearing Addis outskirts, we begin to see, below the long, straight highway, farmsteads on the edge of vast plains of golden stubble or brown ploughed earth, enchanting scenes of small corrals each with a thatched dwelling, often circular, with animal byres, perfect golden straw “haystacks” and threshing floors alongside. Usually, a few cattle lie chewing the cud under tall eucalyptus trees. A woman, with a child wrapped in swaddling clothes on her back is glimpsed at work; somewhere out on the fields men are working. Idyllic scenes, yes, and made more idyllic by the stately eucalyptus, elegant but deadly. They take the water, kill the native vegetation, make the land incapable of supporting anything else. Introduced from Australia with good intentions, they have become a scourge. This in a country blessed with good land. But ignorance, and immediate necessity, dictates a disastrous scenario.
The trees feed no insect, bird or beast other than koalas at home in Australia. Unfortunately, however, their long, straight, lightweight but strong limbs make a poor-man’s scaffolding, and find a ready local market and, apparently, a thriving export trade to China and possibly the Gulf states. The trees grow fast and provide a cash crop for the farmer, as long as the ground water lasts. But nearby wells and rivers dry up and crops wither.
Through a West Cork couple, Colin and Tara Cashman, who adopted an Ethiopian child, I was introduced to a local Ethiopian NGO running community projects to educate farmers to convert to long term sustainable crops. The old ways aren’t always best. Ethiopian farmers had never heard of ploughing with horses, rather than oxen, or that a fruit called apples would thrive on their land and find markets, or that their traditional injera cereal which involves the land lying fallow eight months a year, yields less than other cereals and demands much more labour.
I saw, in the field, the projects the group, the Education for Development Association, www.efhda.org.et are promoting. The staff was minimal, the premises humble. I came away resolving to contribute via their website. I cannot instruct but my few hundred euro a year will support those who can.
The Ethiopians are an ancient and dignified people. I’ve found them kind and courteous to a fault and I feel privileged to join in this enterprise. It’s great to travel. It’s great to see the story at first hand.
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