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February 28, 2006

Buffy comes to Ethiopia

So how have I been filling my time in snow-bound England with only a high-speed internet link to keep me connected to the outside world?

Well, obviously, I have been keeping up with the latest episodes of Light-blinded, a fanfic version of Buffy The Vampire Slayer set in Ethiopia. Light-blinded, written by someone called nemo-gravis, is currently on its 23rd gripping instalment.

In the story Buffy has to travel to Ethiopia's "Somali Province" to rescue her side-kick Xander who has been trapped in some hell dimension by a naked slayer-witch called Desta. There are vampires, "flesh puppets" and demons a plenty.

Most disturbing of all, our heroes also encounter an office full of journalists from The Ethiopian Herald:

From Episode 2 of Light-blinded

As he filed through customs at Bole International Airport, [Tony] tried to tell himself that everything was going to work out fine.

Xander was here in Ethiopia somewhere. Not in the city but down near the border, if the information he had was accurate. What the kid had been doing down there was anyone's guess. Charity work?...

From Episode 3 of Light-blinded

There were a few newspapers in this country. Tony had stopped on the way out the airport to check a newsstand and found a couple that looked promising enough. He dismissed the ones published in the local lingo out of hand to pick up the Herald, the only seemingly local paper he could find on the stand to be written in English.

"Where do they make this?" he asked the vendor loudly and clearly.

The vendor looked at him oddly and shook his head.

"No idea," he enunciated carefully, as if talking to a moron. "Do I look like an information desk to you?"...

More from Episode 3 of Light-blinded

The Herald wasn't what Tony had expected. You didn't expect big city efficiency in an African country...

This wasn't LA at rush hour, of course. But this was a place of business. A serious newspaper in a foreign country, not some quaint local foible. And Tony stood out like a sore thumb not because he was the big white hero but because he was a scruffy hobo in a building filled with professional types going about their business.

"Can I help you?" a young woman behind a desk asked as he came through the door.

Tony paused for a second, fighting not to just turn around and walk out. The moment passed and he nodded.

"Yeah. Uh... I'm here to... Well..." He sighed. "I'm trying to find some information, 'bout a fire in a town somewhere near the border, a month ago, something like that?"

She cocked an eyebrow.

"You want information?"

He fidgeted slightly.

Will Buffy manage to rescue Xander from the naked embraces of the witch-slayer Desta? Will Willow, Giles and the rest of Buffy's Scoobie gang be able to patch up their differences in time to save the day? Will the journalists on the Ethiopian Herald ever cave in and give Tony some reliable information? Find out in instalments 4 to 23 of Light-blinded.

Posted by aheavens at 6:30 AM

February 27, 2006

duChemin on Ethiopia

And now for some truly beautiful photographs.

Ethiopia by David duChemin - Travel Photographers Network Feb 26

They are also a young people. Half the population of Ethiopia is under the age of fifteen years old. Everywhere we looked we saw children doing the work of adults. Six year olds driving cattle, small girls carrying water jugs that would give me a hernia, large bundles of firewood walking down the road of their own accord – protruding little legs the only hint of the little human underneath. Everywhere we went we were greeted with waving and smiling and shouts of YOU! YOU! YOU! Sometimes they wanted something, sometimes the wave changed to an open hand and a request for pens or money, shoes or pants. But by far the greatest part of the waving and smiling was simply for the smiling and waving.

Here are some more pics on his personal site.

Posted by aheavens at 8:33 AM

Shmoozing with Andarge Terefa Yossi Vassa Sisiya Sahon

Ethiopian-born Comic Mines History for Laughs - Forward Feb 24

In the standup act he has been touring America with this month, Ethiopian Israeli comedian Yossi Vassa recounts how he came to accumulate six names: When he left Ethiopia at age 10, he was called Andarge; in Sudan - where his family waited nine months for an Israeli airlift, and where Vassa fell deathly ill - he was given the name Terefa (Amharic for "he who is worthy of life"); in Israel, he was called Yossi, and, from the start, he has had what in America would be a twice-hyphenated name reflecting both his parents' lineages: Vassa Sisiya Sahon. "During roll call," he joked, "my teacher would read from a list of my classmates' names on one sheet, and a list of my names on the other."

Posted by aheavens at 8:22 AM

This ain't a headline

OK, it was kind of cute and funny at first. But please, enough with all these blaxploitation headlines.

Posted by aheavens at 7:59 AM

February 25, 2006

The white man's burden

white_mans_burdon.jpgHere's one book that I will be getting my sticky little mitts on as soon as it hits the display stands.

William Easterly wrote the first book I ever read about development - The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventure in the Tropics. Next month, he'll be coming out with the even more ambitiously titled: The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good.

There were two things that made the first book such a good read.

First, it was jargon-free, written for people like you and me who have not got their Masters in Advanced Development Acronyms (MADA) from Tufts.

The second was that it came up with a passionately argued answer to a tough, tough question. The question was - why is so much of the world still so dramatically screwed up after more than 30 years of aid and development work largely funded by the west? It's a question I've been thinking about a lot after last week's trip to Ethiopia's drought-hit Oromiya region - an area which has been caught up in droughts many times in the past and looks likely to repeat its experience many times in the future.

The answer to why western aid had apparently made so little impact, according to Easterly, was all to do with big, dumb, imposed development schemes and a failure to understand the simple mantra "people respond to incentives".

There have been lots of bad schemes creating bad incentives, he said - "rewarding" corrupt governments who misuse aid by offering them debt forgiveness etc etc. And there have been very few schemes creating good incentives or removing bad disincentives - slashing red tape to make it easier to start new businesses in developing countries etc etc.

The book was pretty invigorating stuff, helped along by Mr Easterly's gift for a crushing phrase. A good example of that came in his opinion piece in last week's Washington Post titled The West Can't Save Africa, in which he reflected on Tony Blair, Bob Geldof and Jeffrey Sachs' big Africa push in 2005:

Everyone, it seems, was invited to the "Save Africa" campaign of 2005 except for Africans. They starred only as victims: genocide casualties, child soldiers, AIDS patients and famine deaths on our 43-inch plasma screens.

Yes, these tragedies deserve attention, but the obsessive and almost exclusive Western focus on them is less relevant to the vast majority of Africans -- the hundreds of millions not fleeing from homicidal minors, not HIV-positive, not starving to death, and not helpless wards waiting for actors and rock stars to rescue them. Angelina, the continent has problems but it is not being destroyed.

By all accounts, he gets even feistier in 'White Man's Burden'. According to a mixed review of the book by the greatest development writer of them all Amartya Sen "[The book] is a critique of all grand plans to save the world hatched in Washington or London or Paris".

All great stuff. Nothing like a bit of west-bashing to get you going in the morning.

So why exactly do aid workers, many of them western, continue to get up in the morning, amid all this apparent failure?

My best guess is that, despite all the colourful cynicism of people like Mr Easterly, there are lots of development projects that do actually work. It is easy to come up with a list of bizarre development failures over the past 30 years or so.

As The Economist said last July:

The aid sceptics-some of them veterans of the industry, their palms calloused from many previous bouts of hand-wringing over Africa-have all the best lines in the debate. Everything has been seen before, they say, nothing has worked.

But those same sceptics overlook the obvious successes.

One of those is good, old fashioned short-term emergency aid - as opposed to schemes that try and introduce long term change. Therapeutic feeding centres, for example, can transform a tiny human skeleton into a chuckling, healthy child in a matter of weeks with miraculous supplementary foods like Plumpy'Nut. I saw it happen in East Haraghe late last year. (I have also heard development sceptics - not including Easterly I hasten to add - huff and puff about this kind of "short-term fix" and ask what is the point of saving a child's life and then returning them to their original state of grinding poverty. They then go on to make ominous noises about the perils of fuelling Ethiopia's spiralling population growth. But have these people really thought through the implications of what they are saying?)

Another set of often-forgotten successes are the large scale campaigns against disease. Back in the 1960s, Smallpox was an unbeatable scourge, killing millions a year. Today, thanks to large scale coordinated public health campaigns, it has ceased to exist. In a few years time, we could be watch Polio suffer the same fate - thanks largely to global development oganisations like the World Health Organisation (WHO) and Rotary International. In a few decades time, we may thanking Bill Gates and other development kingpins for doing the same to Malaria and HIV/AIDS.

So there are some significant successes to set against all the ills inflicted by the west through its development efforts. Successes, however, are not nearly as much fun to write about as a string of colourful failures. So I will quite understand if Mr Easterly chooses to leave them out of what should still be a real rip-roaring development page-turner.

Posted by aheavens at 6:41 AM

Two sides to every story

Blair turns his back on friend who failed him - The Times Feb 13

TONY BLAIR came face to face yesterday with one of his handpicked new breed of African leaders - and promptly turned his back. To both men's evident distaste, Mr Blair found himself seated next to Meles Zenawi, the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, at the final press conference of a weekend summit of “progressive” world leaders...[Mr Blair] told reporters that although the elections had been the freest in Ethiopia's history, the Government had “overreacted” to the ensuing protests.

“Most free, fair elections” - The Ethiopian Herald Feb 13

British Prime Minister Tony Blair described Ethiopia's third national elections as most free and fair ever held in the country, BBC reported Monday (February 13). He also acknowledged that Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was elected democratically...[Mr Blair] reiterated that if there was an overreaction on the part of the government, then there should be an independent enquiry into the violence.

Posted by aheavens at 6:29 AM

Up from the comments section

More key comments from Meskel Square.

Comment by Nemo under Ethiopia goes to the dogs

A bit off topic, but after perusing your blog, I can't help but rant about the use of "ferengi" and "ferengis". I've always found it supremely annoying. "ferenj" or "ferenjoch" would make sense. What's up with the "i" suffix? Is it supposed to make it plural? So then why add another "s" on top of it? Even when writing or speaking in english, you could just say e.g. "all these ferenj", it sounds better and is more accurate.

There's nothing worse than gratuitous exoticism, which happens to be wrong, and that's what the "i" suffix seems like to me. It just sounds vaguely Arabic, Italian, foreign, exotic, whatever, so people just throw it in.

It's like when English speakers say "coup de grah" instead of "coup de grace" in french, where the "s" sound is actually supposed to be pronounced. To the non-French speaker it sounds vaguely more French to make the "ce" silent but it's not -- it's really wrong and horrible!

Or -- typical hollywood thing -- say two Nazis are talking to each other, and both are played by American actors. In the story they are of course supposed to be talking in German, but they sound like "Vee vill do zat und zis, ja" etc. which is ridiculous. Either make them actually speak in German and subtitle it in English, or just make them speak English in a natural appropriate accent within that language (e.g. tone, social class etc.). Why translate something, and then add a phoney accent on top of it, as if that will untranslate it and make it more authentic sounding.

End of rant about this totally minor point.

No doubt you are right Nemo. But the reason I keep typing 'ferengi' is because that is what every child in Addis shouts at me the moment I venture out on to the streets (in between their cries of 'you, you, you'). Up until recently, when I am in a good enough mood, I have shouted 'habesha' back at them. It always gets a few laughs, no doubt at my expense. (By the way, am I being rude or in any way gramatically accurate?) Now that I know better, I will walk up to them, grab them by an ear and scream "surely you mean 'ferenj' or 'ferenjoch'".

Coment by ciilaaloo Lakki about Parris back in Addis

I think Afars are very gentle and beautiful people; they are not ferocious and deadly as it was narratted by people in the past. The Europeans who came with their guns and armies 500 and 600 years ago were more ferocious than the Afaris. They took our lands, killed our people and destroyed our governments all over Africa. Who was more ferocious than the pushy new imperialists of the 1890 Joe Chamberlin and Cecil Rhodes. Leave my people alone, please. Do not reinforce steryotyping as it used to be told in the past.If you do not stop saying that; you may watch for your groin. Africa has been bleeding since the arrival of the imperialists.

This, I think, was a reaction to Matthew Parris writing "I shall be among the ferocious Afar, the native tribe who were described by the explorer Nesbitt as wearing necklaces of the desiccated scrotums of all the men they had killed." It's a good point, well made by ciilaaloo Lakki - although a little undermined by the threat to my groin.

Posted by aheavens at 5:01 AM

February 24, 2006

The dream is over

This time last year, a hologram of the U2 lead singer Bono shimmered in front of a packed audience at the annual TED (Technology, Entertainment & Design) conference in Monterey, California.

Bono's image, which was projected into the hall via satellite, talked about Africa in general and Ethiopia in particular. As this site reported at the time:

Bono was granted three wishes by the organisers of the TED conference. His third was "I wish for you to show the power of information - its power to rewrite the rules and to transform lives - by connecting every hospital, health clinic, and school in one African country, Ethiopia, to the Internet." TED participants are now supposed to help him make the wish a reality.

Sadly, not all wishes do become a reality. Ethan Zuckerman of ...My Heart's In Accra and Global Voices, is currently blogging from this year's TED conference and gave us an update on the status of Bono's dream for Ethiopia:

With advice from the TED community (me included) and a great deal of research, this idea was abandoned as being not the right thing to do at the moment.

It is a good job that Ethan was there to give us an update. Because I am not sure how else we would have found out that Bono's dream of switched-on schools and hospitals in Ethiopia had come to nothing.

The announcement of the wish received blanket media coverage last year. But this year, there have been no details of its demise, as far as I can see, on TED's website, which is still reporting that Bono's wish #3 as open. Nothing on the website of chip-maker AMD which this time last year issued a press release boasting AMD To Help Make Bono's Wish A Reality. Nothing on the website of Bono's own DATA organisation. Nothing on the official U2 homepage.

It's a shame, because it would be fascinating to find out exactly why a collection of the world's greatest technologists (the 800+ TED attendees) could not follow through on Bono's idea. Lots of lessons could still be learned for future tech-centred development projects.

The first lesson could be that development is really, really hard. It is a lot easier to dream up sexy ideas than to follow them through into reality. You can understand why companies like AMD jumped straight into the whole rock star glamour of the Bono-internet-Ethiopia launch, then quietly let the idea fade away into obscurity a year later. But, if I were allowed a TED wish, I would ask for a full report on the whole failure - a report that could be used as a cautionary tale and a foundation for the next tech-based big idea.

A second lesson could be that maybe, just maybe, the internet is not the answer to all of humanity's ills. In Ethiopia's drought-stricken Somali and Oromiya regions, the health centres are not calling out for internet connections. They are calling out for staff and really basic supplies - things like oral rehydration salts to stop children dying from diarrhoea. A recent survey of the Somali region's Afder and Liben zones, for example, could not find a single operating health centre.

When Ethan gets back from Monterey, it would be interesting to hear more about the research and the advice behind the whole cancellation.

Posted by aheavens at 7:48 AM


On February 6, I wrote one of my characteristically snide pieces about the cost of broadband internet connections in Ethiopia. On February 7, my phone line was cut off. Just a coincidence? Well yes, it almost definitely was.

Anyway, I hope that explains the relative lightness of posting recently. I am now back in snowy England for a couple of weeks (on more family-related business) sitting at my mother-in-law's PC, moving between Yahoo's Ethiopia search and my Bloglines account at what, for me, is a mind-blowing speed. It is all courtesy of her BlueYonder broadband connection (1mbps - £25/ETB382/US44$ a month).

Before I left, ETC said the matter was in the hands of their repair people and I would just "have to wait". I was still waiting when I left. Just in case I have to continue waiting when I get back again, I am using my short UK break to catch up on all the Ethiopian news I can before getting on the return flight.

Posted by aheavens at 6:41 AM

February 15, 2006

Two scenes from a drought

DSC0150More than 100 men, women and children crowd around the edge of a rough-cast well in Ethiopia's southern Moyale zone, held back by a single man carrying a whip made out of a broken branch

The man gives a short cry and the crowd surges forward, throwing buckets down over the side, leaning back to pour the water into cracked jerry cans, kicking over each other's containers in the rush.

They have to move quickly because this is probably the last water they and their children are going to see for more than 10 days. The water arrived two hours earlier, pumped out of a leaky government tanker truck. A few hours later it is all gone.

Moyale is at the heart of a devastating drought that has left an estimated 737,000 Ethiopians struggling to survive without access to clean water. Beyond Ethiopia, the drought has spread out to affect more than 8.3 million people, including 1.2 million children aged under five, across the Horn of Africa.

The zone sits on Ethiopia's porous border with Kenya, the southern most part of Ethiopia's lowland Oromiya region. Most traditional water sources, from hand-dug wells to underground cisterns, have already dried up after the near-total failure of two successive rainy seasons.

All that is left for Moyale's 124,000-strong, mainly pastoralist population, are three motorised boreholes and the one leaky truck which trundles slowly between them, collecting water and transporting it to 17 collection points, including the rough-hewn well.

DSC0189The truck is driven by Tafesech Sahele, a 45-year-old mother-of two from Addis Ababa, who has been flown in by the Ethiopian government to help keep the water flowing to the most needy.

When she first got her driving license 20 years ago, she dreamt of becoming a taxi driver in the capital. But she was quickly snapped up by the government to become one of Ethiopia's very few female long-distance lorry drivers, transporting cereals across the country.

These days she sleeps in her truck, filling up from boreholes around Moyale in the early hours of the morning when the water pressure is good, before setting off on her rounds.

"When people see my truck coming, they run up, jumping around for the water. When they see that I am a woman they are even more surprised. It is very unusual.

"I enjoy the job very much, because it is saving lives."


DSC0033More than seven hours drive up the road is Goraye, a small settlement perched on the edge of the crater of an extinct volcano. Any other year, the crater and its 13 salty wells would be part of picture-postcard Africa.

This year the picturesque scene is littered with the corpses of thousands of goats and cattle.

Pastoralists from as far afield as Kenya have come here in search of water for their livestock. A constant stream of goats, camels and cattle slowly makes it way down to the bottom of the crater for their small allotment of water.

For many of the weaker animals, the walk back up again is too much. "We are losing about 200 or 300 animals every day," said Yatani Ali, a 42-year-old, father-of-two who makes his living through his herds.

"We have not had such a drought for the past five years." Yatani says he has lost 100 goats, five cows and four camels - more than a fifth of his total livestock - since the failure of the last hagayya rains, which should have fallen from September to December.

These days he is more worried about the health of his two children, aged four years and three months.

DSC0041 "People are facing a lot of problems. They are not getting a proper diet. Last week we had a lot of children with diarrhea."

Development experts say it is generally the sheep and goats that go first in a major drought. Then it is the cattle, then the camels, then the people - many of them aged under five, picked off by opportunistic diseases like measles. Estimates of the number of human deaths during the region's last major drought in 2000 range from 56,000 to more than 90,000.

A few kilometers from the top of the crater in Goraye, the NGO Care is constructing a new bore hole that will stop pastoralists having to make the exhausting climb down to the salty wells and then back up again.

Until that arrives, Yatani is holding out for the next rains, expected in April. "More rain and God's help are the only things that can help us."

Posted by aheavens at 2:56 PM

February 9, 2006

Ethiopia goes to the dogs

DSC0038How about this for historic?

Over the weekend, Addis Ababa's International Community School played host to the country's first ever dog show. There was a dog beauty contest and a dog IQ contest together with loads of stalls, snacks, and fair-style entertainments. Fun for all the family.

Now, I know what you're thinking. Typical ferengis lavishing attention on their pets while the humans around them suffer in one of the poorest countries in the world.

But what you might not have realised is that the whole event was organised by a home-grown Ethiopian charity - the Homeless Animals Protection Society (HAPS). One of HAPS' main aims in life is to campaign for animal birth control and rabies vaccination programmes for the thousands of stray dogs and cats that you see everywhere in Ethiopia's main cities. (Members are looking for an alternative to the capital's current animal control policy - leaving poisoned bits of meat lying around in the street.)

As one of the event organisers said in her opening speech:

Many people might think it is a luxury to care for homeless animals in a country like Ethiopia that deals with so many issues such as hunger and many diseases. But we must understand that our fate and the fate of these animals are combined. With three people in Addis Ababa dying from rabies every month, it is not a luxury but our obligation to solve the stray animals problem once and for all.

Many of the dogs on display were former strays that had been rescued by HAPS before being treated, re-housed and groomed to their weekend state of glossy-coated perfection.

Posted by aheavens at 9:40 AM

February 6, 2006

Speed trials

Like I said below, I'm no economist. But here are some more numbers that I've been crunching.

The cost of a 2mbps broadband connection from British Telecom - former state monopoly:

Set-up cost:
ETB 0 (£0/US$0)

Monthly charge
ETB 275 (£17.99*/US$31.50)

[* After the first three months. Before that there is a £14.99 special offer with free modem.]

The cost of a 2mbps broadband connection from Ethiopian Telecommunications Corp - current state monopoly:

Set-up cost:
ETB 103,406 (£6,763/US$11,849)

Monthly charge
ETB 41,479 (£2,713/US$4,753)

[The ETC prices are for ADSL on a leased line. Back in June 2005, ETC did say that it had also "introduced a new type of Internet Service coined as 'Shared DSL', which could fall in between the Leased Line and Dial-Up Internet services" which was only ETB 905/month for a not-so-bad 256 Kbps connection. (See the full release here.) But today, almost seven months later, the woman at the tele office told me that the Shared DSL service had been delayed and would not be online for at least another four months.]

Oh to be in Somalia....

Posted by aheavens at 2:41 PM