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.
Posted by aheavens at January 4, 2005 6:33 AM
thanks for the insights into ethiopia, its a country i enjoyed travelling in.
i also had the feeling that people were paranoid being photographed (someone told me it was something to do with the undercover police, during the time of the derg, arresting people who posed for photographs?!?) -- and the other thing that still beats me is about opening windows in buses for fresh air. the only time i tried doing so, i was sternly rapped on the knuckles by other passengers!
Posted by: Ashok at March 7, 2005 2:58 PM
Oh what a nice article! The part of Kapusinscis says it all. I like the author very much. He always describes African society, behaviour, corruption etc.. in a very easy kind of fair tale language. And I always find mysel saying: Yes he is right!!!
Posted by: Gennet at December 8, 2005 2:48 PM