January 31, 2005
Burundi comes out for Bob
The Royal Drummers of Burundi took over the centre of Addis today a day before the start of 'Africa Unite', a month long celebration of Bob Marley's 60th birthday. The drummers are going to be one of the star attractions at tomorrow's launch ceremony and, I think, at Sunday's big concert.
If their performance was anything to go by, the celebrations are going to be quite something. They basically stopped Addis in its tracks by hoisting their huge drums on to their heads and marching across one of the busiest streets in the city. They then circled the Menelik monument three or four times, beating the hell out of their drums and jumping high in the air.
Bob Marley is going to be taking over this site over the next couple of weeks. There is something different happening most days and I am helping to cover the event for AP. Regular random postings will resume when it's all over at the end of February.
January 29, 2005
ARTICLE: Journey from famine to the hunger of the soul
Here is an article that I have just had published in The Times. It is an interview with Claire Bertschinger, a Red Cross nurse who ran two feeding centres in the 1984/5 famine in Ethiopia. I have included the full text of the article under the fold.
It is a strangely uncomfortable experience writing about the 1984/5 famine while living here.
No one talks about the famine in Ethiopia. No one wants to talk about the famine - for very understandable reasons. Why would anyone want to dwell on such a traumatic event that casts their country in such a negative light?
But in the UK, the words 'Ethiopia', 'famine', 'Bob' and 'Geldof' are almost synonymous. The newspapers and TV reports there have been packed with pieces linked in some way to the 20th anniversary of the terrible drought. This is likely to continue until at least July - the anniversary of the transatlantic Live Aid concert. Again, there are understandable reasons for this interest. People like to remember the idealism behind Bob Geldof's campaign and the way it allowed UK and US people to make a difference, albeit a very small difference.
So, what do you think? Should the famine be forgotten? Or is there anything to be gained from remembering it 20 years on?
Journey from famine to the hunger of the soul
The Times 29 January 05
By Andrew Heavens
Its almost 20 years since Live Aid, but for one woman it was just the start of a long spiritual journey
CLAIRE BERTSCHINGER remembers exactly how she felt 20 years ago as the rest of the Western world counted down the days to Bob Geldof's historic Live Aid concert.
“I felt dead - dead inside. I was so emotionally drained. I had cried so much that I had no tears left. Live Aid was going on but I really didn't understand what was happening.”
The young nurse had just flown back to England after a 12-month stint running two feeding centres for the Red Cross at the epicentre of Ethiopia's devastating 1984-85 famine.
While the rest of Britain focused on the country she had just left, Bertschinger headed home to Essex to recharge her batteries and to work out the answer to a question that had started to obsess her.
“I started to ask ‘Why?',” she said, speaking from her home in the leafy village of Sheering where she still lives two decades later. “I had seen all this suffering and was thinking now why, why are people suffering? Why should there be haves and have-nots?
“I looked into Christianity because that was my background. I tried to go to church and follow it through. But it just didn't seem right. I couldn't believe in this outside deity saying you can die and you can't die. That was the start of a 20-year spiritual journey.”
It was ironic that Bertschinger felt so separated from all the Live Aid razzmatazz surrounding her at the time. Because, in many ways, she was at the heart of it.
Bertschinger was the Red Cross nurse whom Michael Buerk had interviewed just eight months earlier in his seminal BBC news report that first raised the alarm about Ethiopia's famine.
She was the “young nurse” whom Bob Geldof saw on his television screen the evening that he started phoning around his friends to sign them up for a single called Do They Know It's Christmas?
“There were tens of thousands of people in the camp in Ethiopia . . . where a handful of European aid-workers were distributing a pitiful amount of food,” the Irish singer later wrote in his autobiography Is That It? “One young nurse had the awesome task of selecting the few hundred individuals who were to be fed.”
That nurse was Bertschinger, and that was the experience at the heart of her spiritual crisis. “We could maybe take 50 or 60 at a time at the feeding centre and there were one or two thousand that needed to come in. All the rest would die.
“I remember Michael Buerk asking me how it felt to make that decision. I said that it broke my heart.” It also left her with a deep feeling of guilt that took many years to disperse.
In the years after the famine, she decided to keep her experiences to her self. “When I came home, everyone kept saying, ‘Oh you did a wonderful job Claire. It was fantastic what you did.'
“And I kept saying, ‘No, you don't understand. It wasn't a good job because of all these thousands we couldn't help.' In the end I decided just not to talk about it because people were not really hearing what I was saying.”
Instead, she continued on her solitary spiritual journey: “I became a humanist for several years. But that didn't really give me enough guidelines. I found some humanists a little bit aggressive to certain religions. I wasn't aggressive to religion. I just didn't find what I was looking for.”
Her ambiguous feelings towards organised religion had first surfaced after her earlier experiences when working for the Red Cross in Lebanon.
“I used to cross the front line every day and go between the different fighting factions. I could be going from the Christian to the Druze militia to the Shia Muslims to the Sunni Muslims to the Israeli front lines and back to the Christian area in any one day.
“And they were all fighting each other and they were hating each other. But when I had to arrange cease fires or cross the front lines to talk to the soldiers they were really nice people, normal people with families, problems and kids and everything.
“And I thought, ‘This is really weird. They had this awful hatred inside them for the other person. And a lot of it was to do with religion'.”
She kept up her silence until last year, when Buerk tracked her down again to take part in another documentary on what had happened to Ethiopia in the time since the famine.
At first she was terrified of going back. “I was so scared because I didn't think I had done a good job. I didn't know how people were going to react.” But when she finally touched down in Mekele, she found a reborn town bustling with activity and packed with people with nothing but fond memories of her.
“It was wonderful. Because everybody just welcomed me with open arms. And we just had a good hug and a cry and it was so nice to see them.”
The experience allowed her to open up and talk frankly about her memories in front of the camera. In July this year she will take that process one step further by publishing a book, Moving Mountains, part-autobiography and part-philosophical exploration of the issues that rose out of the famine.
Money from the book will go to the African Children's Educational Trust www.a-cet.org a tiny charity based in Leicester and Mekele that pays for the education of some of the children that she and other relief workers helped to save. (Buerk is also listed as a donor.) Moving Mountains covers the rest of Bertschinger's career with the Red Cross - moving through Uganda, Kenya, Sudan, Afghanistan and a dozen other countries in West Africa - up to her present job teaching nurses at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
It also follows her spiritual journey up to its resolution. While she was struggling with humanism, a friend started telling her of their experiences with Buddhism.
“I found that is was the way forward for me.” Today Bertschinger is a member of the Lay Society of Nichiren Daishonin Buddhism, otherwise known as the Soka Gakkie. Twice every day she goes to a special place in her house to recite a passage from the Lotus Sutra and to chant “nam myo ho renge kyo”. Bertschinger also helps to run a Buddhist group in her area.
Last month her faith was tested against another unimaginable disaster as the tsunami wreaked its havoc around the Indian Ocean. She watched as another set of communities had to start rebuilding their physical and spiritual lives - just as she had seen them do in Mekele, in Lebanon and across West Africa.
But this time round her belief gave her something that she had missed in Ethiopia - that way forward. “This Nichiren Daishonin Buddhism is called the Buddhism of here and now. It deals with the problems we have now. What you do is to try to relieve suffering from this point on so that it affects the future. All that matters is addressing the suffering and showing compassion to suffering people now.”
Essex's Buddhists rallied round after the tsunami, organising fundraising lunches and auctioning off their unwanted Christmas gifts. Bertschinger was no longer on the front line setting up feeding centres. But that did not matter.
“You affect the here and now in your own community and that can have a knock-on effect around the world. You have to think about changing the greed and anger at home and that can change other things - like the government or Ethiopia.”
Moving Mountains is published in July by Doubleday at £17.99.
January 25, 2005
Bob Marley the symposium
I have just had a briefing on Ethiopia's celebrations of Bob Marley's 60th birthday next week. The briefing included details which, as far as I can tell, have not been made public up to now.
In case you don't know, about 300,000 people from across the world are expected to cram into the capital on Sunday, February 6, for a huge, free concert. Harry Belafonte, Quincy Jones, Angelique Kidjo, Baaba Maal and Youssou N'Dour are all performing. Very appropriately for this blog, the event is due to take place in Meskel Square.
In the days running up to the concert, there will be a symposium on subjects inspired by Bob Marley's songs in the United Nations base in the centre of Addis. Here are the highlights.
The overall theme 'Africa Unite' is based on Bob Marley's line "Africa Unite, unite for the benefit of your people, unite for it's later than you think".
Day one - Tuesday February 2, will relate to the lyrics of the songs 'War' and 'Exodus' particularly "Until the philosophy which holds one race superior and another inferior is…abolished, there will be war."
According to the briefing:
Bob Marley's musical rendition of the legendary speech to the United Nations by H.I.M. Emperor Haile Selassie I allows us to focus on Africa's contemporary challenges including tribalism, gender discrimination and disenfranchisement of youth. Additionally, international issues that are clear barriers to African growth and development, such as unfair trade agreements, inadequate debt relief and in some instances, continued support for non-democratic leaders, are all manifestations of colonialisation and the vestiges of slavery and racialised policies. As prophesied, the outcome is war.
The programme, chaired by US actor Danny Glover, includes greetings from: Nana Afua Adobea 1 (Mrs Rita Marley); K.Y. Amoako, executive secretary of the UN's Economic Commission for Africa and President Alpha Oumar Konare, chair of the African Union Commission.
Day two - Wednesday February 3, is based on the songs 'No Woman No Cry' and 'Get Up Stand Up'.
No Woman No Cry, unsurprisingly, will focus on the situation of women in Africa, covering areas ranging from poverty, AIDS and domestic abuse to "the need for girl child education" and "the negative effects of genital mutilation".
According to the briefing:
The complementary song 'Get Up Stand Up' emphasizes the driving force of African women on the front line who refused to accept a fait accompli…The lyrics of the song provide absolute defiance and determination in the face of systematic problems, "sick and tired of the ism schism, you can fool some people some time but you can't fool all the people all the time…get up stand up stand up for your rights…".
The programme is made up of a number of as yet untitled addresses, panels and sessions involving, among others: Professor Michelle Jacobs from the University of Florida; Marie Angelique Savané, chair of the African Peer Review Mechanism (of NEPAD); Dr Debrework Zewdie, director of the World Bank's Global AIDS programme and the writer Maya Angelou.
Day three - Thursday, February 4, is focused on 'Redemption Song' and 'One Love'.
The main theme taken from these songs is youth.
[Redemption Song] emphasises the call for youth to liberate themselves, in spite of all the technological challenges, while encouraging them to reach out and reach forward to their history and their ancestors as a source of strength and guidance. Africa's greatest victory will be its ability to work for and with the youth for her advancement.Ziggy Marley and Angelique Kidjo will give some closing remarks ahead of a mass chant of 'One Love'.
Reuters - Ethiopia, one of the world's poorest countries severely affected by HIV/AIDS, started a programme on Monday to give free antiretroviral drug treatment to 320,000 people by 2008.I wish I knew enough about the history of AIDS treatment to know just how groundbreaking this is. But it must be good news all the same. The article goes on to say that, although infections are slowly rising in rural areas, there are signs that rates are falling in towns and cities - enough to add up to an overall slowdown. A rare achievement.
Ethiopia to host world's largest ever gathering of pastoralists
AP - Spanish shepherds, Mongolian camel owners and herders from 21 other countries will discuss the challenge of preserving their way of life at a unique international conference, the United Nations said Monday.This probably sounded great in the planning stage - statesmen have conferences so why not pastoralists? But what will a Spanish shepherd have to say to a Mongolian camel owner or, for that matter, a Tigrinian subsistence farmer? Or am I being too cynical?
January 24, 2005
Egypt blogs...how about Ethiopia?
It looks as though blogging is exloding in Egypt. Mindbleed reports
I've been receiving a near constant stream of requests to add blogs to the Egyptian blog roll, probably a blog a day or so...Eventually, as these blogs age, they'll evolve into different facets of Egyptian life: some will remain social, others political, others something else I'm sure. Or so I hope.Things haven't quite reached that rate in Ethiopia yet. There are ethiopundit, Friends of Ethiopia and, last but not least, my wife Amber Henshaw. But anyone else? It would be good to hear from you.
January 21, 2005
Time for a rubble index
It's time we had another way of measuring the size and growth of Ethiopia's economy. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is just old hat. The dollar purchasing power parity (PPP) used in C.K. Prahalad's The Fortune At The Bottom Of The Pryamid sounds great. But it goes way over my head.
How about a rubble index? There must be some sort of relationship between the amount of building debris and construction activity in our streets and the prospects of the economy. Just a five-minute walk from our house shows that something big is happening in Addis Ababa. The city is one huge building site. Shining blocks are shooting up, whole roads are being ripped up and widened.
It is not much fun to live nearby - our water was cut off for three days after the diggers moved in and our electricity comes and goes as it pleases. Local storekeepers turned up one morning to find the front of their shops had been demolished to make way for the widening (they just shrugged their shoulders and re-built everything in an afternoon). And when we had two days of unseasonal torrential rain last week, the area turned into a mud bath.
But it is all development, albeit rather messy development.
January 17, 2005
Parris in Addis
Matthew Parris of The Times has been in Ethiopia over the past couple of weeks travelling in Afar and Tigray. He filed at least two columns - one hugely pessimistic (about Africa), the other hugely optimistic (about English).
The first The question for Blair: what is it that keeps on killing hope in Africa? is just downright despairing.
...in the highlands they advise not to travel in the lowlands without two paid and armed Afar guards. We picked them up by the Afrera salt lake and they will earn many times the local wage by just hanging around. The Afars are volatile and distrust strangers and it's a sort of protection racket. However, when we reached Dodom, a tiny, primitive settlement ten miles away, the village people insisted one of their own village join us as an extra armed guard.
I have no objection to three men and three guns - the cost is chickenfeed - but I do mind that the instinct among the men, on observing a new form of economic activity - tourism in their midst - has been not to join it but to demand with implicit menace a cut. That is Africa, or part of it.
I wish Tony Blair could look through those binoculars himself. He would see a mountain ridge dividing Ethiopia from Eritrea and cutting Ethiopia off from the Red Sea, and understand the idiocy of this division. This is Africa, too: self-defeating.
I must admit that there are times when these words do ring true. But I will have to stay here a lot longer than three months to work out whether they are actually true.
Both articles are copies out under the fold. The only reason I am doing this is that Times URLs have a habit of breaking after a while.
January 08, 2005
Matthew Parris in Ethiopia
CAN a ruler ever be in touch with the everyday lives of ordinary people? The age-old question, with the numberless tales it has spawned of princes moving disguised among their people or messiahs passing unnoticed through the crowd, pressed itself on me as I made my way through the fortified gates of the Addis Ababa Sheraton in Ethiopia eight days ago. Armed guards in pith helmets conducted a bomb search on cars as we drove through into another world: of landscaped gardens dotted with plastic palm trees in primary colours (ironic) and old-fashioned British red telephone boxes (to make rich visitors feel at home).
Here Tony Blair stayed when he arrived last year for a summit to promote the launch of his Commission for Africa. I was calling at the Sheraton to e-mail last week's column. Briefly I entered Mr Blair's planet. Music tinkled, glasses of iced drinks clinked, Westerners - tourists, plutocrats and men and women of affairs - in bright casual clothes drifted between swimming pool and souvenir shops as uniformed porters hovered ready to help with the smallest bag. Outside there was an illuminated fountain in a pool built from Ethiopian marble. At the entrance the air-conditioned Mercedes-Benzes of the wabenzi - the African elite - awaited their masters.
Etcetera. This sort of prose tripped easily enough from the sweaty ballpoint of a columnist now sitting, fly-tormented, amid the camel dung beneath a solitary thorn tree at the foot of Hertale, an active volcano in the Danakil Desert in the north of the country, as clouds of sulphur dioxide blow over us in almost intolerable heat. Easy to dramatise the contrast with the Africa Tony Blair saw.
So why do it? We should not begrudge prime ministers every comfort and convenience. Security is obviously a problem. They have a job to do. They should not be bothered by flies. Their time is precious. They should not walk when they can drive and not drive when they can fly. If a helicopter can get world leaders quicker to more places, why should they be detained or tormented by the places in between?
Nor do I think that Mr Blair is careless of the places in between. At least he went. At least he tried. He visited a project when he was here. He was photographed with children. I know from my own small experience as a parliamentarian that one's motives for doing such things are tangled beyond unpicking, even alone in the self-examining watches of the night. You do want to advertise how in touch you are with those at the bottom of the heap; but you do also really want to help, and to understand their condition. You have long ceased to know where or how your ambition has corrupted your goodwill, but you still feel the goodwill and the hunger to hear the truth.
So I am not asking about our Prime Minister's motives, or any leader's motives. They do want to know what it is like. But can they? That is my question. Especially in Africa, can you, by diligent study and the highest quality briefing, know how things really are?
I think you cannot. Or, rather, I think you can know what the conditions are, but I doubt whether you can fully grasp why they are so. Mr Blair, in common with the rest of us, can watch a video which pitilessly records catastrophe in Africa - or Aceh. He can watch relief efforts in Sumatra - or project work in Addis Ababa - almost as if he were standing behind the camera. He can be better acquainted with facts and figures than many on the ground. People can show Bob Geldof, and Geldof can tell Mr Blair, what the needs and opportunities are.
But why, in Africa, has it come to this? That is what it is hard for him to know by briefing. Even to begin to answer that question you need time, so much time, dead time. Time has to hang heavy on you. You need to be stuck, bored, and to watch: to watch not attentively, eager to prove or disprove a lively hypothesis, but listlessly, with your eyes roving and your mind empty, and nothing to do. Only then do truths begin to swim into vision.
What the heck does my armed guard think he is doing here, sitting at the foot of this tree? He has a rifle and a sort of uniform and is intrigued by my binoculars (once he works out which end to look in, for he has not seen binoculars before). He seems a bright and helpful chap. But he is here because he is one of the local Afar tribe and, though our splendid guide and organiser, Solomon Berhe, is Ethiopian too, Solomon is from the highlands, and in the highlands they advise not to travel in the lowlands without two paid and armed Afar guards. We picked them up by the Afrera salt lake and they will earn many times the local wage by just hanging around. The Afars are volatile and distrust strangers and it's a sort of protection racket. However, when we reached Dodom, a tiny, primitive settlement ten miles away, the village people insisted one of their own village join us as an extra armed guard.
I have no objection to three men and three guns - the cost is chickenfeed - but I do mind that the instinct among the men, on observing a new form of economic activity - tourism in their midst - has been not to join it but to demand with implicit menace a cut. That is Africa, or part of it.
I wish Tony Blair could look through those binoculars himself. He would see a mountain ridge dividing Ethiopia from Eritrea and cutting Ethiopia off from the Red Sea, and understand the idiocy of this division. This is Africa, too: self-defeating. If our PM had travelled, as we just have, the hundreds of hot and lonely miles down Ethiopia's only good link to any port - the route from Addis to Djibouti up which Bill Deedes and Evelyn Waugh travelled (though by train) 70 years ago, the latter to write Scoop - and if he had killed a few hours just sitting on the roadside in a shanty village grown to service the hauliers, and if he had watched as lorry after laden lorry crawled by on its journey up to Addis, and watched as empty lorry after lorry thundered down towards Djibouti, might not a question have occurred to Mr Blair with more dismaying force than seems to have been the case: what can Ethiopia make, what can the rapidly multiplying Ethiopians do, in exchange for the food and soda pop, and bathroom suites for the senior personnel of resident NGOs being dragged up from the Red Sea port? How will Ethiopia compete in manufacturing with countries such as Thailand and Indonesia?
And if Mr Blair had watched with me as we filled our tanks and jerry cans with fuel (all imported) for our expedition, and watched idly as an all-woman workforce (“the ladies,” an Ethiopian said to me, “labouring and packing and loading camel and cooking and looking after children; the man watching cattle and carrying a gun and looking out for enemy and making sure hair look nice with butter”) undertook the construction of a huge six-storey office block in the middle of 10,000 square miles of useless, unoccupied land for a “regional authority” headquarters (“they tried to give them fancy offices with desks but they never using them - just lying on floor”) might he have wondered whether the overseas aid making this possible is being well spent? The case on paper for this regional authority must be formidable; but stand and watch and you know that all is lost.
The scrubbed-up African kids Mr Blair met will have been sweet. But were he stuck for a while in the sand near a desperately poor and isolated village of tiny thorn-bough and hide huts, as we were, and were he to see the fresh, alert, intelligent, fascinated little faces of tribal children anxious to learn, anxious to help, itching to be and become, he would see what every traveller with time on his hands sees: the tremendous, untapped genius and energy of youth in Africa. And he might ask, as I ask: where does it go?
What happens to them? What is it that keeps killing hope in Africa?
January 15, 2005
It struck me forcibly as I sat in the back row of a classroom in a remote part of Ethiopia
WHAT WOULD you think was the biggest thing to hit human culture, worldwide, in the past quarter century? To the anthropologist of modern Man, what change would head the list? The explosion of air travel? No, most of those alive today will never fly. HIV-Aids? No, just one of many terrible scourges our species has faced: diarrhoea and malaria still kill more. The collapse of communism and rise of the global free market? The internet? These point the way, but still reach only a minority.
The answer stares us in the face. Like much that does so, it is widely overlooked. But it struck me forcibly in Africa this week (and I bet it will have struck Gordon Brown) as I sat in the back row of the Grade 1 class at Digum Complete Elementary School, by the side of a dirt road nearly 1,000 kilometres north of Addis Ababa in the Tigra region of Ethiopia.
This country, you will recall, was for many centuries a remote and independent African kingdom whose only colonial experience was as an Italian possession for a short period before the Second World War. The British never came here much. Ethiopia is in nobody's “sphere of influence”.
My class at Digum school were aged between five and seven: 44 boys and girls, some barefoot, some decently dressed, many in rags; some fit and healthy, some with sores or burns, or eye problems. Few would ever have been to Addis Ababa. None had seen another country and few ever will. None will ever have been in a lift or seen an escalator. Some will not have entered a two-storey building. Most will never have made a telephone call and some will never have seen one taking place: a fascinated crowd gathered as I made a satellite call from our campsite to The Times. None will ever have had a television, though some of their parents will have owned a radio and all of them will have listened to one.
The children were divided into a morning shift and an afternoon shift. Thus did their impressive headmaster, Mr Getachew, and his 30 staff, manage to run a school of 1,644 children housed in six long single-storey cabins scattered over an acre of dust.
I had arranged my visit quite by chance. Our guide thought we would be welcome, and we were. Every child stood as we entered a class. “George Bush and Mr Tony Blair will never visit our school,” said the Grade 8 teacher, Mr Hailay, “so you are our most important foreign visitors.” He should invite Mr Brown.
The Grade 1 classroom where I sat had no teaching aids at all, save tiny wooden benches and single-plank desks, dog-eared newspaper-covered exercise books, a blackboard, and a keen and patient young teacher, Mr Hadush. Discipline was absolute.
“Let us sing, children” said Mr Hadush. “Come to the front Abraham.” A tiny boy marched confidently up, all the others rapt. “This is the way I wash my face, wash my face, wash my face,” shrieked Abraham, making face-washing motions with his hand. “This is the way we wash our face,” shrieked all 44 tots, in an ear-splitting chant, “Early in the morning!”
There is no piped water in Digum - just a well with a hand-pump, down by the dried up river.
“This is the way I put on my clothes, put on my clothes, put on my clothes,” shrieked Abraham delightedly, doing the motions. “This is the way we put on our clothes.” Yelled the class, full of excitement at learning and at showing off their learning, “Early in the morning.” Some of them barely had any clothes.
Mr Hadush called a little girl, who looked about five, to the blackboard and handed her a stump of chalk. She wrote out the English alphabet perfectly on the blackboard. Ethiopia's native script, which she also knew, is composed of the bewildering symbols of Amharic.
The spread of English across the globe is a seismic event in our species' history. It is one of the biggest things to happen to mankind since the dawn of language. Speech is fundamental not just to communication but to the process of thought itself. No single language has ever before approached universality. English is now doing so. No other language has ever advanced as far, as fast, as ours. This is the first time in history that it has been possible to denote one language as predominant.
Within the lifetimes of Times readers, every other serious contender for that status has been eliminated. French is dying outside France. “Francophone” Africa is turning to English. Portuguese Africa is abandoning Portuguese. German made a small, temporary advance across emergent Eastern Europe but elsewhere outside Germany it is dead. Russian, which we once thought we would all have to learn, is finished. The Japanese are learning English, and developing their own pet variant. China will resist, but Mandarin and Cantonese are not advancing beyond their native speakers. More of the world's new Muslims are learning English than Arabic. Spanish alone is raising its status and reach - but among Americans, who have English already. India is making an industry out of English speaking, as call-centres daily remind us. A quarter century ago, as the dismemberment of our Empire neared completion, we might have thought that the predominance of our language had passed its zenith. It was only dawn.
It is imponderable what may be the consequences of the advance of this linguistic tide. Within a few generations and for the first time in the story of Homo sapiens, most of our species may be able to communicate in a single language.
The advantage lent to us British by our fluency (and that of the Americans) in this world language should not be exaggerated. The number of native English speakers may not grow much; our relative influence may decline. They know little of us in Ethiopia. Yet all over that country street signs and business billboards are appearing in English, beneath the Amharic. English is cool. The very lettering confers status.
At Digum school I also sat through a Grade 8 class of 56 students. Here in the top form boys and girls aged between 10 and 20 were being coached by the excellent Mr Hailay. He was teaching the uses of “just”, “already” , “up to now”, “yet”, “ever” and “never”, and, astonishingly, most of them had a pretty good grasp. Over the shoulder of the boy in front I read his battered computer-printout English textbook, instructing the reader in the correct tenses to use in reported speech. I asked Mr Hailay if I might ask his pupils a few questions.
Did they want to learn English? Yes, replied everyone. Why? “It is the language of the world, and I want to know the world,” replied one boy.
I asked what other languages they would acquire if they could. Spanish, Chinese and Arabic were cited in reply, but none had any plans to learn these. To my surprise, one of the boys asked me afterwards what language I spoke - was I Italian, he wondered? I saw that knowledge of English was not regarded as an indication of nationality, but as a possession, a philosopher's stone: one which anyone could get. At Digum they were struggling to get it.
English, I realised, as I left the school while the children chanted “I was a pilot, a pilot was I,” isn't really ours any more. We are losing ownership of international English. Internet English is already looking unfamiliar. Africans rely heavily on the present continuous, and manage perfectly well. Different parts of the globe will develop their own pidgins.
There will be no point in fighting this or regretting it. We should just take pride in what we have started. It gives us no mastery and nor should it, but it gives us a link. All the world will have an open gate into our story, our culture, our ideas, our literature, our poetry and our song. And we into theirs.
January 15, 2005
The good folks at Google have given me
six four Gmail accounts to give out to test users. Send me an email if you are interested.
January 14, 2005
If anyone out there still thinks that Ethiopia is a land of dried up deserts and starving children, take a close look at this photo. It shows one of hundreds of jaw-droppingly beautiful sites that one day will be the centrepiece of a highly lucrative eco-tourism industry.
This is Ajora Falls, one of a pair of waterfalls which plummet hundreds of feet into a green, fertile valley in Ethiopia's Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Region (SNNPR). The local authorities have re-planted trees, set up a small camping ground and built a path to the bottom of the valley. They are basically waiting for an entrepreneur to turn up and build a Kenya-style tourist lodge on the site.
For the time being anyone can camp on the site and enjoy a little slice of Ethiopian paradise free of charge. (This photo was taken two days ago at the peak of the dry season. The falls more than double in size after a bit of rain - say from September to December.)
Just catching up
Just catching up on what has been going on over the past few weeks. First thing to note is that Ethiopundit took my post on The Long Fetasha and ran with it.
The shock of the new
The scenery was stunning and the rural development sites we visited (with the UN's World Food Programme) were fascinating. But, for me, they were topped by a visit to a remote high school, a day-and-a-half's trip on rocky, unmade roads south of Addis Ababa.
As we walked up to one of the outdoor classrooms, we heard the voice of a Maths teacher going into great detail about the angles of a parallelogram. When we went in, we found the 60 or so students were all taking their lesson from a professor speaking through a state-of-the-art Samsung plasma video screen that would be way beyond the budget of many schools in the UK. The lesson was being beamed in from Addis via a huge satellite dish outside through a rack of Digital Video Broadcasting (DVB) receivers.
Headteacher Mohamed Nur Osman said there had been an initial adjustment period when the screen was first installed six months ago. Students had found it hard to keep up with the English used by the Addis-based teachers. But they soon got used to it and grades had improved by up to 45 per cent over the period.
These days students at Mudula Senior Secondary School receive Maths, English, Civics, Chemistry, Biology and Physics lessons by satellite. They have a computer room stocked with 35 Acer PCs. And they also have a handful of Dells which they plan to use in two months time to access the internet, also by satellite.
Apparently, every high school in Ethiopia has similar equipment (including the plasma screen), paid for by the Ministry of Education.
The technology and its application were interesting enough. I also liked the sheer excess of it all. If someone is going to provide you with lots of gear, why settle for a boring old TV monitor. If in doubt, go for plasma.
January 4, 2005
The long fetasha
One of the few downsides to life in Addis Ababa is the number of times you are searched and frisked going about your daily business. You are searched going into the bank, searched before queuing up to pay your telephone bill, searched going into the city's main shopping mall the Dembel Centre, searched going into the compound of Addis Ababa University.
You are searched on the way into the National Museum - but, oddly, not on the way out. You are searched every time you walk into the main post office to engage in the highly sensitive business of buying a stamp. (The post office guards make a particular point of confiscating all cameras.) Every time you visit the Ministry of Information - the headquarters of Ethiopia's state TV company ETV - your bag is stripped of all information-gathering equipment including microphones and tape recorders. Your bags are x-rayed every time you go into the Hilton for a swim or a quick drink - although if you are reasonably well-dressed the guards just nod you through even if your bag sets all the alarm bells ringing.
If you ever ask why you are bring searched, no-one seems to know. Up until recently, it was all a mystery. That was until my wife, Amber, came across the following passage in Ryszard Kapuscinski's book The Emperor about the reign of Haile Selassie. The passage describes the regime imposed on the streets of Addis immediately after the Emperor's downfall in the 1970s.
To get things under control, to disarm the opposition, the authorities order a complete fetasha [amharic for search], covering everyone. We are searched incessantly. On the street, in the car, in front of the house, in the house, in the street, in front of the post office, in front of an office building, going into the editor's office, the movie theatre, the church, in front of the bank, in front of the restaurant, in the market place, in the park. Anyone can search us because we don't know who has the right and who hasn't, and asking only makes thing worse. It's better to give in. Somebody's always searching us. Guys in rags with sticks, who don't say anything, but only stop us and hold out their arms, which is the signal for us to do the same: get ready to be searched. They take everything out of our briefcases and pockets, look at it, act surprised, screw up their faces, nod their heads, whisper advice to each other. They frisk us: back, stomach, legs, shoes. And then what? Nothing, we can go on, until the next spreading of arms, until the next fetasha. The next one might be only a few steps on, and the whole thing starts all over again. The searchers never give you an acquittal, a general clearance, absolution. Every few minutes, every few steps, we have to clear ourselves again.
So there you have it. Thirty years have passed and the fetasha lives on.
Ethiopian obelisk to go home at last
The Guardian Monday January 3, 2005 - A long-running cultural and diplomatic wrangle looks likely to be resolved within months, with the return of a 1,700-year-old obelisk that was hauled out of Ethiopia by Italian colonial troops in the fascist era.
The government in Addis Ababa announced this week that the treasured stone column would be flown home from Rome in May, putting an end to years of procrastination and 18 months of logistical delays.
That's odd. Because I heard another government source saying that the first part of the obelisk could come back as early as this week. We shall have to wait and see.
Ethiopundit on ethnicity
Ethiopundit has kicked off the new year with a typically thorough post on the country's high ethnic diversity.
It is difficult to comment on the whole thing as I am still digesting it.
But he does have some scary things to say on the downside, particularly relating to Ethiopia's ethnically based government, where different political parties represent different ethnic groups.
Offically, the reason for the current ethnically based government is a desire to avoid conflict and to generally provide for legitimate self determination. Unfortunately, with issues ranging from internal commerce to education, development measurably suffers. Indeed, given increasing competition for resources in a system where ethnic division is encouraged, the prospects for widespread ethnic warfare are frightening.
To me, this seems rather alarmist. But Ethiopundit is right to worry about how heavily armed the general population is. Decades of war have spread AK-47s to every corner of the country. You see them everywhere. If anything ever did kick off, it would be fairly bloody.