« October 2004 | Main | December 2004 »

November 30, 2004

Ethiopia accepts Eritrean border "in principle"

This seems like a huge story to me - a possible way out of one of the continent's most frustrating conflicts. But it got relatively little coverage outside the wires.

Ethiopia OKs Ruling on Border With Eritrea

Thu Nov 25, 5:43 AM ET

Ethiopia (AP) - Prime Minister Meles Zenawi told parliament Thursday that Ethiopia has decided to accept "in principle" a disputed ruling on its border with Eritrea made as part of peace deal four years ago.

Ethiopia had until now refused to respect the April 2002 ruling by the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission, part of the Permanent Court of Arbitration based in The Hague (news - web sites), Netherlands.

Ethiopia still believes that the commission's finding was "illegal and unjust" but has decided that peace is more important to the country, Meles told lawmakers.

It was a bave decision for Meles Zenawi to make. Many people here will not be happy about it, even though it does open the door to a final settlement between the two countries. I fell back on the old foreign correspondent's trick of intervierwing a taxi driver about it as he drove me to the House of People's Representatives. He said: "It is good for Eritrea but bad for us. So many people died in the war and now we are just giving up."

Predictably, Eritrea was officially hugely suspicious about the whole thing. Eritrea Daily yesterday said "Ethiopia's 'acceptance in principle' is a gutter ploy crafted to fake acceptance and reopen a legally closed and settled matter."

I suppose Eritrea has good reason to be uncomfortable about the whole thing. Ethiopia's acceptance now puts the ball firmly in Eritrea's court.

Posted by aheavens at 10:22 AM

November 29, 2004

The great Great Run


Look closely and you still won't be able to see me among the crowd of 20,000 who set off from Meskel Square on Sunday for the Great Ethiopian Run.

It was an amazing experience. I would like to see the competitors in the UK's Great North Run keeping up the same level of chanting all the way round the course.

Posted by aheavens at 10:15 AM

November 22, 2004

Born to run in the highlands

Two interesting Ethio-related pieces of research highlighted by two of the best Afro-bloggers out there.

There is the suggestion that humans evolved to be pursuit predators. Is this really news, asks Foreign Dispatches? I and 20,000 others will be testing out the theory later this week at The Great Ethiopian Run (which starts, of course, in Meskel Square.)

Then there is a study into how people adapt to high altitude areas like the Ethiopian highlands, highlighted by Ethiopundit via Gene Expression. Apparently, it takes a full three months for visitors to adapt to the altitude here. I am almost there but still get breathless walking up to the Piazza.


Posted by aheavens at 8:41 AM

Danny, Brad, Emma and Midge queue up

Danny Glover will this week become the latest celebrity to visit Ethiopia and tour a few of its trouble spots. He will be here as a UNICEF goodwill ambassador. Over the past couple of months we have also been blessed by the company of, among others, Brad Pitt, Emma Thompson and Midge Ure.

These visits raise a few issues.

First of all, why are these celebs always monopolised by the charities, the NGOs (non-governmental organisations)? The publicity around their visits to Aids orphanages and development sites constantly reinforces the country's famine-stricken image. Perhaps one day a glossy celeb will agree to tour somewhere less obvious like a rose farm (boosting floriculture - Ethiopia's new growth industry) or one of the country's cultural sites (boosting tourism - another sector that could give Ethiopia an alternative to living off coffee exports).

Secondly, why does the press respond to these visits by actors who are, for all their gravitas, just light entertainers? Why are we so interested in Madonna's view of the US election or Brad Pitt's insights into HIV/Aids? (Don't misunderstand me. I will be there later this week taking down Mr Glover's quotes with the rest of them.)

Thirdly, are these visits actually productive for the charities that organise them? Has anyone ever done a study on the quality of the publicity that emerges from these trips? The Brad Pitt visit was a good example. He stayed at Ethiopia's most expensive hotel, the Sheraton, and took up hours of charity workers' time as he was shown around. He even let one small charity down by failing to turn up to take part in a food run around the capital. At the end of the day he left the country without even doing a press conference, as if his presence alone would be enough. Exactly what did Ethiopia get out of his visit?

Posted by aheavens at 8:09 AM

November 19, 2004

Ethio briefs

Italy signs deal with Ethiopia over obelisk return - Reuters

"The accord was written with the intention of returning the obelisk by the beginning of next year, before the rainy season starts," said an Italian Foreign Ministry official.

British Trade Mission to Visit Ethiopia Next Month

From Nottingham!

Tourism to be harnessed for poverty alleviation

Ethiopia is to become one of the first countries to be targeted under a United Nations scheme harnessing the country's tourism potential in order to tackle entrenched poverty.

Francesco Frangialli, secretary general of the World Tourism Organisation (WTO) announced on Tuesday that Ethiopia would benefit from a WTO-led, development-friendly, tourism scheme. The Sustainable Tourism Eliminating Poverty initiative focuses on encouraging sustainable tourism - social, economic and ecological - to ease poverty.

Tourism to be harnessed for poverty alleviation

Published: 18-NOV-04

Ethiopia is to become one of the first countries to be targeted under a United Nations scheme harnessing the country's tourism potential in order to tackle entrenched poverty.

Francesco Frangialli, secretary general of the World Tourism Organisation (WTO) announced on Tuesday that Ethiopia would benefit from a WTO-led, development-friendly, tourism scheme. The Sustainable Tourism Eliminating Poverty initiative focuses on encouraging sustainable tourism - social, economic and ecological - to ease poverty.

"It will target the world's poorest countries, particularly in Africa and developing states in general," Frangialli told IRIN at the opening of a three-day tourism conference in Addis Ababa. Ethiopia, with its seven world-heritage sites, is a magnate for tourists, he said.

The WTO, which was accepted as a UN specialised agency late last year, argues that tourism is an effective weapon in helping underdeveloped nations achieve the 2015 anti-poverty Millennium Development Goals. Globally, the tourism industry has created 100,000 new jobs a year, accounting for 11 percent of global employment.

"Tourism is the only service industry where there is a positive balance of trade flowing from first world to third world countries," Frangialli added. Cities like Addis Ababa, he said, where half of young people account for about 50 percent of the population, could reap enormous rewards from growth in the tourist sector. According to the WTO, 50 of the world's poorest nations rank tourism in their top three income sources, attracting vital foreign exchange. "There is growing awareness about the economic importance of the tourism sector," Frangialli said, warning that tourism has negative effects if not properly managed.

The new initiative will offer technical and operational expertise, promote quality ethics and practices, and establish a unit to attract funding for tourism proposals. Tourism features Ethiopia's Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP) that aims to combat poverty and encourage development in the Horn-of-Africa nation. The government has revamped its regional airports, is restoring historical sites and offers visas upon entry to the country in a bid to attract more tourists. Last year, according to the tourism commission, some 180,000 people visited the country generating US $80 million.

Ethiopian President Girma Wolde-Girogis said at the conference that tourism promoted greater integration.

"Ethiopia has once again become keenly aware of its immense development potential in tourism and efforts are underway to exploit that potential in the best interests if its people," he noted.

Posted by aheavens at 8:20 AM

November 17, 2004

Ethiopia expects ... again

Italy has, once again, raised hopes that it is about to return the obelisk that it stole from Ethiopia in 1937. This has happened many times before. The last time Italy made a promise, Ethiopia issued a special set of stamps to celebrate the return. Then...nothing happened.

This time it could be for real though. I heard an Ethiopian engineer spent most of last week in Rome to work out the final technical details. If all goes to plan, the obelisk will be loaded on to an Antonov aircraft before Christmas.

No one is holding their breath though - least of all veteran campaigner Richard Pankhurst who, as ever, came up with a great quote at the end of the Reuters article below.

Italy Prepares to Return Prized Ethiopian Obelisk

ROME (Reuters) - Italy finally looks set to heal a feud with Ethiopia by returning one of its most cherished relics, the obelisk of Axum, taken by fascist invaders almost 70 years ago.

Final details of a plan to transport the 200-tongranite column from Rome to the holy city of Axum are expected to be discussed when Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi meets Italian officials on Thursday and Friday.

The 24-meter obelisk, believed to be at least 2,000 years old, was split into three and hauled off when fascist Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1937...

After the fall of the dictator Benito Mussolini and his nascent Italian "empire," Rome signed an accord in 1947 agreeing to return stolen relics and art works to Ethiopia.

Another accord was signed in 1956 and another in 1997, but the obelisk with its geometric designs remained in Rome, in front of what had been the Ministry of Italian Africa...

"Until the obelisk is returned to Ethiopia, Mussolini will be laughing at us from his grave," said Richard Pankhurst, a British historian living in Addis Ababa who has led the demands for the return of Ethiopian treasures.

Posted by aheavens at 7:34 AM

November 16, 2004

Blair's Commission wants you

The Commission for Africa has gone all interactive with a collection of forms and forums.

According to ZDNet UK:

Simon Mills, who is in charge of the online consultation, said the commission wants to reach a wide audience.

"The online consultation will enable thousands of people to not only find out more about our work, but to give us their views on what sort of areas the commission should be developing."

I may not have done enough background reading. But from what I have seen, the Commission members have been very vague about the exact content of their deliberations up to now. All will become clear next year when the Commission's report comes out. But in the meantime, it will be interesting to see if people can keep up a focused discussion without anything concrete from the Commission to comment on.

The subject headings within each thread do give a clue to some of the areas covered though. Worth watching. Here's the Commission's home page.

Posted by aheavens at 12:54 PM

November 11, 2004


Africa's own flavour of Linux.

Shuttleworth Sets Up Virtual Office in His London Flat

Business Day (Johannesburg)
November 11, 2004

FOR several years business gurus have been predicting a change in the way companies are structured, as telecommuting and the ease and speed of international communications eliminate the need for workers to cluster together in an office .

Until now that has largely remained pure fantasy, but SA's famous software developer Mark Shuttleworth has launched a new company around that idea of longdistance collaboration.

Canonical employs 37 professional software developers based in 12 different countries. The nearest thing it has to a headquarters is Shuttleworth's flat in London . The staff expect to meet three or four times a year as Shuttleworth holds conferences in different cities.

Canonical was formed to develop Ubuntu, an open-source operating system and a suite of business and creative software applications . As well as the staff, another 300 people have formed a voluntary, virtual community to help develop the software by collaborating over the internet. Every six months Canonical will collate those additions into a formal upgrade for the software.

Shuttleworth tracked down his team by analysing vast amounts of correspondence posted online in open-source development forums.

"That gave me a good idea of the team I wanted to put together and they all came on board," he said at the Ubuntu launch in Johannesburg last week.

For software developers, a personal invitation to join Shuttleworth's next project was bound to prove attractive especially since they are being paid to indulge their passion for open-source .

The venture is also compelling as Shuttleworth has committed to pay them even if Canonical fails. Its vision is to put Ubuntu on to millions of computers around the world, but the software will all be free.

Canonical must generate $2m to 5m a year to be self-sustaining, and its only income will come from consulting services and from supplying support. However, with a community continually refining, extending and translating Ubuntu applications for free, there may be little need for paid-for support.

"I have what some people say is the impossible task of building a company around a product that we will give away. I don't know if we can make it sustainable, but if we can we will change the software game," Shuttleworth said.

He has committed $10m for the first two years. "Then I will assess whether or not the community likes this way of working. "

The first release of Ubuntu comes with business software including a word processor, spreadsheet, database, internet browser, email and presentation programs. Users can download thousands of other applications over the internet, including some in Zulu, Sotho and Afrikaans.

Here is the Wiki entry on it.

Posted by aheavens at 2:16 PM

November 6, 2004

Thanks to God, Michael Buerk and Mr David...

Girmay and familyThe obligatory Live Aid 20th Anniversary story, this time in the UK's Leicester Mercury. The photo shows 1984 famine survivor Girmay Assefa and family outside their home in Mekele, northern Ethiopia.

By Andrew Heavens

Girmay Assefa has a single piece of paper fixed to the wall above his bed at his home in the dusty northern Ethiopian city of Mekele. On it is he has written "Because of God, Mr Michael Buerk and Mr David... the door has opened and I am getting through".

You will already know God and Michael Buerk, the BBC journalist whose harrowing report from northern Ethiopia 20 years ago shook the world's conscience and inspired Bob Geldof to organise his historic Band Aid and Live Aid relief efforts.

Mr David, however, requires an introduction.

David Stables, of Evington, is the driving force behind a small charity which is dedicated to delivering education to students across Ethiopia.

Among the pupils is Girmay. Two decades ago, he was one of the starving, rootless children brought to the world's attention by Buerk's landmark broadcast.

Thanks to a combination of amazing luck and the food relief that flowed in after the BBC report, Girmay survived the drought that eventually killed more than one million of his fellow Ethiopians.

Today, he is safe and well, married with a young son of his own. He recently enrolled on a diploma course in software engineering.

That last achievement is largely thanks to that third name on the hand-written dedication above his bed.

David, 65, founded A-CET - the African Children's Educational Trust - after returning to the UK following a career working in some of the most troubled areas of the world with the Red Cross.

His last posting was in Ethiopia in the 1990s, when the country was recovering from its latest civil war.

"The war left millions of orphans - far more than could be accommodated by the admirable African extended family system," he remembers.

"For some largely bureaucratic reasons, there always seemed to be a number of youngsters who fell between stools and could not be helped by the Red Cross or other support programmes."

He started looking after those lost youngsters on an informal basis when he was in Ethiopia, putting a roof over their heads on the condition they went to school.

When he returned to Leicester, he recruited a management team, filled in all the necessary forms and carried on working. It was this zest for action - at an age when many of his peers are dreaming of easing towards retirement - that has made such a difference in the life of Girmay.

The Ethiopian has come a long way since he struggled through the famine in the closing months of 1984.

He does not know his date of birth, but guesses he must have been between five and seven at the time.

He has strong memories of his ordeal. When the Western world woke up to the drought, Girmay was staggering along roads in the northern Tigray region searching for food with his mother, brother and two young sisters.

"I was traumatised. I got confused. The only thing you think and care about is to feed yourself and to stay alive," he says.

"Life was very cheap and a lot of people died all along the way.

"People were flowing along like a river and everyone was walking with no energy. If you collapsed, nobody could stop to help."

He remembers arriving at a feeding camp after five days' march without food and going to a river to collect water.

When he returned, his entire family had disappeared.

He says: "I just sat down and cried.

"That was an unforgettable feeling."

It turned out his family had been separated in the chaos of the camp. It was another two months before he found any of them again.

When he did, passers-by told him bluntly that his mother had died. No-one knew how. "By that time, I did not cry. There was no energy for tears."

One of his sisters was also nowhere to be found. To this day, he does not know what happened to her.

After a number of years in the camp, he was taken to an orphanage in Mekele, the region's capital.

After another two years, he was told to leave and fend for himself and his surviving sister. By this time, his brother had died of an unknown illness.

"It was tough for me because I wasn't used to life in society. I had to get on with it because that is the only way to face any challenge."

He rented a one-room house in Mekele where, over time, he fell in love with the landlord's daughter, Mulu, and married her. Two years ago they had a son. He named the boy Michael.

Youngsters are usually selected for A-CET grants by committees in Ethiopia.

Girmay was an exception. He was tracked down by none other than Michael Buerk, who returned to Mekele last year to film a documentary on how Ethiopia was coping, 20 years after the famine.

After the filming had finished, Buerk contacted A-CET, asking whether it could help Girmay.

A-CET, funded by its army of sponsors - most in the UK - went on to track down the college, pay for the course and support Girmay through his studies.

He has already made a strong impression on David and team.

"He's a very deep young man. I think it is because of what he went through," says David, who is in Ethiopia, checking on the charity's operations.

"It has made him very composed, very determined. Nothing will faze him again."

It is a rare and hard-fought happy ending to have come out of such a devastating famine.

Today, there are fresh signs of drought emerging in Tigray and other parts of Ethiopia.

Girmay, though, remains determinedly optimistic.

This time, government plans are in place and food aid is promised, to prevent the drought turning into another humanitarian disaster.

Then there is his family to focus on.

"Before, I didn't have to care about education. I didn't have to care about anything. The only important thing was to find food.

"Now, we are very healthy. Thanks to Mr David and A-CET.

"We are going to a college and we have even produced a baby who has a bright future. A lot has changed."

Posted by aheavens at 1:58 PM

November 5, 2004

Ethiopic goes mobile

Here's an article I just did for Wired on research which could bring Ethiopic characters -- hundreds of them -- to mobile phone text messaging.

Progress in an Ancient Tongue

By Andrew Heavens

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia -- For centuries, its letters have covered the pages of goatskin manuscripts, illuminated Bibles and the chronicles of ancient kings.

Now one of the world's oldest living alphabets could be about to make its debut on a mobile phone, if a group of Ethiopian academics gets its way.

Professors and research students here in the Ethiopian capital have just released a piece of groundbreaking research that they hope will open the door to SMS messaging in Ethiopic characters.

The earliest use of Ethiopic lettering has been traced to before the fourth century. Today the letters are shared by a range of languages spoken by millions of people across the Horn of Africa and hundreds of thousands of emigrants settled in the United States, Canada and parts of Europe.

The new report, catchily titled "Ethiopic Keyboard Mapping and Predictive Text Inputting Algorithm in a Wireless Environment," sets out to overcome some of the substantial technical obstacles to the alphabet's transition to the mobile age.

Its authors said they hoped it would also persuade mobile companies like Nokia that there is a viable market for mobile texting in Ethiopic.

"We think there is a great need for it," said Solomon Atnafu from Addis Ababa University's department of computer science, one of the key advisers on the project.

"There are so many people in Ethiopia who cannot write English. A localized version of SMS would open up the technology to the whole population."

Languages that use Ethiopic as their alphabet include Ethiopia's official tongue, Amharic, and the ancient Orthodox Christian script Ge'ez, still chanted in incense-filled Ethiopian and Eritrean churches to this day.

One of the main obstacles to widespread Ethiopic texting is the sheer number of characters involved. Texters would have to find a way of using the nine character keys on a mobile phone to type out the 345 letters and letter variations available to an Amharic writer.

The new report describes two possible ways of mapping a limited set of 210 characters onto a mobile keypad, using a combination of keystrokes for each letter.

The number of letters had to be cut down, the report explains, because of another technical limitation -- the average memory of a mobile phone.

"Most cell-phone manufacturers have a 64-KB memory limit (in some cases less) on the size of the wireless application file," states the report. "But most Ethiopic font files commonly used in desktop applications alone have sizes in the ranges of 175-250 KB."

The report also sets out a road map for detailed statistical study of the language and its most common letter combinations. That would be used to produce a "predictive text inputting" algorithm to allow the phone to "guess" which word the user was trying to type, thereby saving scores of keystrokes.

Text messaging has already proved a huge hit in established mobile markets like Europe, where teenagers have used the technology to flood the airwaves with abbreviated gossip and chat.

But Ethiopia's academics have already set out a much more substantial use for the standard: market and weather reports for the country's often drought-stricken farmers.

"Mobile phones are very much cheaper than PCs," said Solomon. "We could get them out to every corner of the country, even to the farmers.

"With Ethiopic texting, you could access market information. A farmer in the north of the country could find out the price of coffee in Addis."

Ethiopia was last month labeled one of the "least connected" countries in the world by its own infrastructure minister, Kasu Yilala. He told a conference of telecom experts in Addis Ababa: "Up until recently, access to telecom services in rural areas was almost nonexistent." The resulting digital divide between Ethiopia and the rest of the connected world, he added, was "closing the door to economic opportunity."

Some of that physical infrastructure shortfall has recently been balanced by the spread of the mobile-phone service offered by the state monopoly provider, Ethiopian Telecommunications. English-language texting services were introduced last December.

"It has not proved very popular," said Solomon. "But I am very optimistic that our system could catch on." He added that the research team, which includes research students Shiferaw Abebe and Tewodros Seyum, had already received expressions of interest from one of Nokia's main distributors in Ethiopia.

No one was available for comment from Nokia's headquarters in Finland.

Posted by aheavens at 1:40 PM