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August 29, 2005

Drink more coffee - it's good for you

One more entry for Meskel Square's fast-growing coffee theme. It turns out that coffee is good for you - one in the eye for all those health nuts who see cutting out your daily jolt of caffeine as a cure for all ills.

The American Chemical Society has just published research claiming that coffee is the biggest source of antioxidants in the US diet. Antioxidants, apparently, are a good thing.

Antioxidants in general have been linked to a number of potential health benefits, including protection against heart disease and cancer. For the current study, Vinson and his associates analyzed the antioxidant content of more than 100 different food items, including vegetables, fruits, nuts, spices, oils and common beverages. The data was compared to an existing U.S. Department of Agriculture database on the contribution of each type of food item to the average estimated U.S. per capita consumption. Coffee came out on top, on the combined basis of both antioxidants per serving size and frequency of consumption.

It does go on to say that coffee can "make you jittery and cause stomach pains, while some studies have tied it to elevated blood pressure and heart rates". But everything has a downside.

Now all we need to prove is that the best antioxidants in the world come from Ethiopia.

Posted by aheavens at 8:28 AM

Ethiopia lives

blog_bgt.el.0013.JPGI had to go all the way to Rwanda (online) to find EthiopiaLives.net - a great blog of photos of everyday Ethiopian life. The link came via On Safari with El Jorgito another great blog by George Conard, a tech expert who used to work for Microsoft in Seattle and has now moved to Kigali to set up a development project involving phones - I think that is right.

According to the Ethiopia Lives blurb:

Nineteen Ethiopians turn their cameras onto their own lives and invite you to share their very personal perspectives. From diverse backgrounds and different parts of the country, their photographs give a rare insight into life in Ethiopia now. They will continue to post new photographs regularly until the end of 2005, so please check the site regularly.

I presume the point is to provide an alternative to the persistent "Live Aid" image of the country. Seems a shame that is is all going to be over in December.

Posted by aheavens at 6:03 AM

August 28, 2005


Set43_02Here, as promised, are some photos of Addis' great Starbucks rip-off Kaldi's. They were taken with what is officially the worst digital camera in the world. But you get the idea.

If it is a tribute to Starbucks, it is not a particularly subtle one. I haven't been into a Starbucks for months (it is now just a few weeks away from the anniversary of the day we left all that behind us and moved to Addis). But I am pretty sure that even those swirly patterns on the wall are a direct copy.

As far as I am concerned, it makes the whole experience of drinking there more enjoyable. The chairs are just as comfortable as in America or the UK. The service is also up to scratch. And the coffee is, of course, much, much better.

Just a few weeks back, the New York Times did an article on the chain, with a much better photo. In it Starbucks said they were aware of the outlet.


Officials at the Starbucks Coffee Company were not thrilled when they learned of the knockoff. "Even where it may seem playful, this type of misappropriation of a company's name (and reputation) is both derivative and dilutive of their trademark rights," a company spokeswoman, Lara Wyss, said in an e-mail message, adding that the company prefers to resolve such conflicts amicably.

Despite their grumbling, Srarbucks would be very unwise to send in the lawyers. As Nestlé has already learned to its cost, a super-rich company that flexes its legal muscles in Ethiopia will never emerge unscathed.

Posted by aheavens at 2:10 PM

Internet politics in Ethiopia

Aurelia E. Brazeal, the USA's soon-to-be-leaving ambassador to Ethiopia, has written a farewell essay which has been published in most of the papers. In it she talks about two factors that she believes shape Ethiopian politics.

One is what I would call "Identity politics" and the other, especially at this moment, is what I think of as "Internet politics".

Identity politics is when, as was the case in last year's elections in the US, a voter is too often urged to choose a candidate or party based upon their identification with a narrow issue or group, rather than on higher principals of national good. In the Ethiopian context, Internet politics is when a loud and vitriolic minority of voices, many of whom have not been in this country for years or even decades and have far less at stake than Ethiopians at home, urge those actually living here to act on the basis of old-think ethnic identification or frozen and aged images of how Ethiopia used to be.

I've got nothing much to say about Identity politics. But for proof that 'Internet politics' is alive and well, look no further than some of the comments left on this site. People have posted some pretty vitriolic and divisive stuff on Meskel Square in recent months. And once you check the logs, an interesting pattern emerges. The most vitriolic and divisive stuff comes from people, I am guessing expat Ethiopians, based in the United States of America.

The people who like to throw ethnic insults around, calling someone else an Amhara 'this' or a Tigrayan 'that', are more often than not typing their abuse into a PC in Washington DC. It is a pattern that you see amplified on other more newsy Ethiopian websites hosted in the US.

I am not saying that there are no ethnic divisions inside the borders of Ethiopia. But it is an interesting pattern nonetheless.

By the way - in a quick return to the "13 Months of Sunshine" debate, you may be interested to know that our windows are currently shaking under the onslaught of the most violent hail storm that I have ever experienced. It is a classic African torrential downpour. Just when you think it can not get any louder, the volume doubles.

Posted by aheavens at 1:25 PM

August 25, 2005

Addis coffee shops: My favouite place in Ethiopia #4

Set52_01It is one of the greatest mysteries in Ethiopia – how has Nestlé managed to establish even the smallest market for its vile brew Nescafé here?

As everyone knows, Ethiopia produces the best coffee in the world (sorry Kenya and Colombia but it is true). Coffee was discovered here – by Kaldi the shepherd boy who noticed his goats were getting a little frisky after eating the beans. Only the most superior "arabica" beans grow here. If you can get you hands on them wherever you are, you have to try the almost lemony flavour of Yirgacheffe coffee, or the earthier taste of "Unwashed" Harar. (Does anyone know why it is called "unwashed"? There must be more welcoming brand names.)

In Ethiopia, amazing coffee is also incredibly cheap – much cheaper than a jar of Nescafé. You can get a steaming cup of it at any pavement café in Addis for about 1.25 birr. And there are lots of varieties – simple buna, buna ba wetet (coffee with milk), macchiato etc etc.

And yet, despite all this, some people are clearly buying Nescafé. You can find it in even relatively small shops – all the big supermarkets stock it. I have been offered it a number of times in people's homes. And I can exclusively reveal that there are vast tubs of it in many of the offices in the UN compound at the centre of Addis Ababa. To add to their crime, it is served with powdered Nestlé milk.

Nescafé, as everyone knows, is the vilest excuse for a cup of coffee in the world. It tastes disgusting. When it goes off, as it does quite quickly, it gives off a smell like tar. A friend in the coffee trade once gave me a hair-raising account of how it is made. In case there are any Nestlé lawyers reading this, let's just say it does not come from the cream of the coffee bean crop.

The fact that Nestlé has found someone to sell it to here is nothing short of a capitalistic, free-market miracle. Maybe it is the exoticness of it – a foreign brand seen as better than the home-grown version. Maybe it is its just-add-water "instant" convenience. But if you are really that lazy, coffee shops will deliver a cup of the real stuff on a tray to your home or office in a matter of minutes.

Whatever the reason, if you come to Ethiopia, stick to the local brew. Three of my favourite places to drink it – making them three of my favourite places in Ethiopia – are City Café & Pastry on Bole road, Tomoca below the Piazza, and the wonderful Starbucks rip-off Kaldi's on Bole Tele (photos coming).

UPDATE: If you are in the UK, a great place to order Ethiopian beans is Hill & Valley Coffee Ltd. Here is their East Africa page.

Posted by aheavens at 8:40 AM

August 20, 2005

Ethiopia: 13 months of sunshine - and torrential rain

ethiopian_tourism_commissio.jpgIs there a more misguided or misleading tourism slogan in the world than "Ethiopia: 13 Months of Sunshine"?

It is misleading because it is simply untrue. We are now right in the middle of the long rainy season. This year, the rains started early towards the end of June and could still be around past the end of September. That is more than three months of the total 13 - and we are not even counting the mini rains that fall earlier in the year. I actually quite like this season. The countryside turns fluorescent green, the air is fresher and the farmers get to grow their crops. But sunny it is not. A more accurate slogan would be: "Ethiopia: Up to ten months of sunshine and at least three of window-shaking thunder, fast-flowing muddy water and bright patches."

It is misguided because 13 is one of the most cursed numbers you can think of - at least in the western cultures that are most likely to produce tourists. It is considered unlucky in scores of countries. (Not sure why - something to do with the Norse god Thor inviting 13 people round for dinner then murdering them all, or was it Judas being the 13th guest at the Last Supper?) I know all this talk of the 13th month is supposed to remind people of Ethiopia's unusual calendar (Ethiopia has 13 months, it is still 1997 and 7 o'clock is actually 1 o'clock.) But that is the last thing that prospective tourists from Europe or the US will think about. The number 13 on a poster is much more likely to make them unconsciously want to stay away, cross their fingers, touch wood and avoid ladders.

It should be easy to think of an alternative - something as striking and simple as "Malaysia: Truly Asia" or "Visit Britain". How about "Ethiopia:" combined with any one of the following - "The 8th Wonder of the World", "The land that created coffee" or "The birthplace of mankind". All other suggestions welcome.

Posted by aheavens at 11:21 AM

August 16, 2005

Sanitation stars revisited

Finally, Fortune newspaper's groundbreaking restaurant reviews are getting the recognition they deserve.

Back in May, I did a short Meskel Square entry on the business weekly's regular detailed articles on Addis Ababa's growing restaurant scene. The entry highlighted the reviews' analysis of each restaurant's "sanitation" facilities.

Yesterday, none other than the New York Times came out with its own article on the phenomenon - 5 Stars for the Soap Dispensers, and the Food's O.K., Too. The journalist had clearly read the same reviews and was equally impressed with their bathroom-focus.

This Sunday's Fortune picked on the Meda Bar and Grill in the ground floor of the Tegene Building near Globe Hotel on Debre Zeit Road. Just so you know:

Both restrooms are of a very good quality and very spacious. The men's has five toilets and five urinals with comfortable sinks, liquid soap and an electric hand drier. The ladies' room has only two toilets of the same high standard.

Both rooms are well ventilated, and there is always a lady waiting outside who makes sure the place remains clean. You can leave her a tip in the small basket if you are satisfied.

It is good to see someone else recognises the importance of having a "comfortable sink".

Posted by aheavens at 10:16 AM

August 9, 2005

And they're in

Here are the election results, fresh from the press conference. The EPRDF now has an overall majority (they needed to get 274).

EPRDF - 296
CUD - 109
UEDF - 52

There are still results to come in from 32 re-runs and 23 seats in the Somali region.

Posted by aheavens at 2:55 PM

Comments on comments again

I just had to delete another load of comments on two recent posts. Just to re-state what now amounts to Meskel Square's "comments policy". Any comment that uses ethnic or racial insults gets deleted. On days like this when I haven't got the time to read every word of every rant, the whole stream gets deleted.

Posted by aheavens at 5:42 AM

August 8, 2005

In the back of a 'blue donkey' line-cab - My favourite place in Ethiopia #3

Set44_01They are not particularly comfortable. The typical seating arrangement is 12 people crammed into a space a bit larger than the back of an average Land Rover – six squeezed in on a barely-padded bench on either side with knees almost touching in the middle. When you get out, you have to bend over to half your height and apologise along the way to everyone you accidentally elbow in the face (at least that is how I do it).

They are also not particularly safe. I have often wondered what would happen if one of these packed vehicles took a corner at more than 20 miles an hour. You don't want to think what would happen if they met an 'Al-Qaida' Isuzu truck coming head on the other way. The words "crushed", "sardine" and "can" come to mind.

But the great thing about Addis Ababa's line-cabs – also called blue donkeys – is their sheer efficiency. There are thousands of them trundling through the capital, all crossing and re-crossing it in a complex grid. Once you have worked out where they are going, you can get practically anywhere in Addis Ababa for a handful of coins.

A trip from our house in the Bole Tele area to the centre of town costs one birr (6 UK pence or 11 US cents - if you are a ferengi, a normal taxi driver will try to charge you anything up to 20 birr for the same trip). A trip all the way to the Mercato is just Birr 1.60. It is not over-statement to say that once you have mastered the line-cabs and their ways you have pretty much mastered Addis Ababa.

Set45_01There are many other things to enjoy about driving around in the back of a blue donkey.

There is the solidarity of the passengers. Everyone grumbles together when the cab lingers too long at a stop for just one more fare. Children are picked up and passed down the cab and people are always willing to point out a stop to a puzzled foreigner. Someone once told me that on one trip, the conductor tried to over-charge her (an unheard-of event). But the game was up when the other passengers noticed and complained loudly on her behalf.

There is also the fascinating economy that has grown up around the line-cab trade. Because of the low fares, conductors always need lots of change. And the best people to supply them with it are the crowds of beggars and street children who spend their days collecting five and ten cent coins from passersby. At the busier inter-sections you often see a child walk up with a roll of coins and exchange it for a one birr note - walking away with a five cent profit.

Finally, there is also the frequency. If you miss one, there are always three queuing up behind it.

When it comes to running a low-cost, efficient public transport network, Addis Ababa has a lot to teach the "developed" world.

Posted by aheavens at 7:14 AM

Brace yourselves

So it's official. Ethiopia's election result is due to be released today ... or tomorrow ... or Wednesday. That is according to the latest informal briefing from the National Election Board. So keep holding your breath.

If the decisive results are announced on Wednesday, it will be almost exactly three months after Election Day itself. To repeat a challenge made earlier in this blog, can anyone out there think of another national election that has taken so long to resolve?

UPDATE: Fortune newspaper had a report on Sunday claiming that they had already seen the results - and that the EPRDF had won. I suppose that is hardly surprising given the results that have been announced so far. The National Election Board, of course, refused to confirm it.

Posted by aheavens at 6:53 AM

August 1, 2005

What Ethiopia's bloggers are talking about

A few months ago, a fellow Ethiopian blogger got in touch to suggest that we should start some sort of website to keep track of the country's growing blogging community. The idea was to launch an Ethiopian version of Blog Africa - a place where you could go to see a list of all the latest blogs about Ethiopia, information about the bloggers and perhaps a selection of their latest entries.

From time to time I've thought of various ways we could do this - merging RSS feeds, manually updating a catalogue etc etc (While I was sitting around wondering, someone did actually launch an aggregated Ethiopian blog - http://planet.tezeta.org/)

Then, over the weekend, I came across this web service called TagCloud. Basically it scans a number of websites, pulls out the most popular words - makes the really popular words multi-coloured and even bigger - and then prints them out. It is not what we were thinking about all those months ago. But it is one way of keeping track of what Ethiopian bloggers are talking about.

Here is the TagCloud for a selection of the Ethioblogs I've got listed in the right hand column, including Meskel Square:

And here is the TagCloud for Meskel Square on its own:

Not surprisingly, we all use the words and phrases 'ethiopia', 'addis ababa', 'africa', 'ferengi' and 'Meles Zenawi' a lot. Unfortunately 'unfortunately' also seems to be a popular word. Phrases that Ethiopia's bloggers are using that I am apparently not using include 'AK47, 'death' and 'diplomats' - except that now I have just listed those words in this entry they will probably appear in my cloud. In fact, now that I have included the general Ethiopian blog TagCloud words in one of my entries, their TagCloud words will eventually become my TagCloud words. All very confusing.

If you click on any of the words, you get a listing of the sites that used them. These TagClouds are based on live feeds so check back over time to see how the Ethiopian blog conversation is changing.

Posted by aheavens at 4:54 AM