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November 29, 2006

My walk into town: Favourite place in Ethiopia #6

DSC0186Head off an hour after dawn on the road past Menelik Hospital (my beautiful new neighbourhood – who needs Bole). Turn left and take a look at the forested hills that surround Addis Ababa, packed with hyenas and who knows what else. If you were really keen you could have climbed them an hour earlier and watched Haile Gebrselassie on one of his early morning training sessions.

Turn right and start walking past the straggled taxi stand, past Sandford English/International School, past the well-heeled parents dropping off children in their 4x4s. Past the old men a few yards down the road, taking their grandchildren to playschool (the one with the Teletubbies painted on its metal gate.)

The road curves down to a T-junction – St Matthew's Anglican Church and the Ras Amba hotel to the left, Arat Kilo to the right. Turn right and then almost immediately left, crossing the road and its endless stream of line cabs and taxis. This takes you down a rural back lane – Lovers Lane or Robbers Lane depending on who you believe.

Past the shacks and the children. Past the cemetery with spooky old photos of dead people on the gravestones. Past the armed Red Berets. Past the hardest working street youths in Addis who live behind four big skips and scrape a living recycling the city's waste.

Head straight across the crossroads with the crowds of secondary school pupils, past the Prime Minister's Palace on your right. If you are lucky and it is a Saints Day, get caught up in the crowds of worshipers and beggars and candle sellers and shiny umbrella stalls that pack the road around St Gabriel's church

You are at the top of the dual carriageway that leads down past the still un-opened Africa Park with its untouched slides, climbing frames and benches. Head down and left into the Hilton for a reminder of how the other 1% live. Walk through the grounds, skirting round the back past the barbers, the mini-supermarket, the tourist shop and the bakers.

DSC0191Walk down through the back gates, past the uniformed guards and their wobbly salutes. Cross the road, braving another stream of line cabs, taxis and WFP Toyota Landcruisers. Head left, then right after the petrol station, past the beggars and street children waiting for the UN staff to turn up for work. Past the barricaded back entrances to the UN compound.

Head down to the junction with Jomo Kenyatta Avenue, past the two young polio-crippled beggars who came to Addis a year ago, all the way from Arba Minch. Turn right where the dual carriageway crosses the trash-choked river. Keep going for another couple of minutes and there you are - in Meskel Square.

Posted by aheavens at 6:45 PM


DSC0109The first Brit to visit Ethiopia was an 18th Century Scottish gentleman called James Bruce. He came back with so many tall tales that he was ridiculed as a liar for the rest of his life.

His tallest tale was that the country's favourite dish was a plate of raw meat. According to his biographer Miles Bredin in his book The Pale Abyssinian:

Bruce has an undeserved and unenviable reputation. He is generally remembered, if at all, as ill-tempered and a liar... Haughty and proud (the portmanteau word paughty might almost have been coined for him), he once forced a visitor to eat raw meat after the unfortunate man had expressed doubt at it being the Abyssinians' favourite dish.

To my shame, it has taken me two years to present the proof that Bruce was telling the truth. I can also tell you that Bruce's visitor wasn't unfortunate at all. Once you get used to the texture, fresh raw meat is tender and tasty.

The picture shows what I got when I asked for a 'tinnish, tinnish' [small, small] portion at a friend's wedding.

Posted by aheavens at 5:27 PM

Addis Ababa: The new building site

DSC0193Welcome to the changing face of Addis Ababa. Every time you turn around these days, a new building site springs up.

This is a view of the road between the Hilton Hotel and the United Nations compound (see the car park bottom right). Once a jumble of shacks and small businesses. In a few months it will be Addis' high rise downtown, packed with shiny new tower blocks. (Will there be enough business to fill them? Probably.)

The building with the curved glass roof in the right of the main group is the already-finished German House - home to GTZ. The skinny yellow one behind it will be the new UNICEF headquarters in a few months. Somewhere behind them is the skeleton of an Irish-funded four-star hotel. No idea what everything else is going to be - and the empty ground in the foreground is up for development as well.

No wonder there a national cement shortage.

The picture was taken from the new site of the Old Milk House at about 6pm - when the harsh light of an Addis afternoon turns into a photographer's dream.

Headline explanation: 'Addis Ababa' means 'New Flower'.

Posted by aheavens at 4:58 PM

November 27, 2006

Gone again?

All the Blogspot blogs seem to have disappeared again.

Posted by aheavens at 4:59 PM

November 26, 2006

Hacks outperform athletes at Great Ethiopian Run

DSC0027Another November, another great Great Ethiopian Run.

More than 25,000 people ran through the Addis Ababa this morning on the 10k road race organised by Haile Gebrselassie and British marathon star Richard Nerurkar. They were joined by another few thousand street children and some athletics greats including Ireland's Sonia O' Sullivan and Morocco's Hicham El Guerrouj.

But the most impressive performances of the day came from the world's journalists gathered for the event:

  1. There was the Chinese film crew who turned up early to get the best view of the start of the run. They hauled their equipment up to the roof of Meskel Square's Siemens building - then pulled up the ladder behind them, ignoring the increasingly angry appeals from the crowd of photographers building up on the floor below them.

  2. There was the celebrity Japanese photographer who waited until all the other snappers had politely taken up their position in the media box at the finish line - then strolled in front of the media barriers and squatted down, blocking the view.

  3. Best of all was the British BBC presenter who took part in the race, interviewing people as he went. He finished pretty quickly but looked absolutely exhausted, almost pained as he crossed the line. After a few minutes getting his breath back he jogged back a hundred metres or so, and finished the race again, this time cheering, with both arms raised in victory. Let's be generous and assume the camera didn't get him first time around.

Posted by aheavens at 2:59 PM

November 20, 2006

Gunfire at the Meta brewery

A quiet Sunday afternoon at the Meta brewery. Three adults and one baby boy sitting back having a beer/milk, enjoying the late afternoon sun, watching a wedding party getting noisier and noisier outside the main visitor centre.

Everyone was drinking and singing and clapping and dancing and drinking. About half an hour in, some of the younger men started tussling on the edge of the crowd. Nothing too serious. The bride and groom drove off in a car covered in ribbons and everything calmed down.

People started drifting towards the front of the visitor centre, wandering about on the road that ran along the shaded grassy bank where we were sitting. The guys started shouting again, lunging at each other in packed crowds. Girlfriends in shiny dresses dived in, screaming and trying to drag their men away. Nothing more than you would see in many English towns on a Saturday night.

The screaming suddenly got louder and people started running in all directions, leaving a gap in the middle of the crowd. People started picking up rocks and throwing them at anyone within range. A man in a suit and open necked white shirt stumbled forward carrying a five foot length of telegraph pole. He looked around for someone to hit, saw a 30-something woman in traditional dress, raised the pole above his head and brought it down on her neck.

It was then that I noticed the doddery old guard standing next to our table on the bank. He was pulling down on a lever on his equally aged rifle (so they do load those things). He aimed it into the air and fired off an ear-shattering round.

Three adults and one bawling baby decided to run away very quickly and take shelter in the bar building. Everyone we passed on the way had something to say.

"Chiggur yellem, chiggur yellem" (No problem, no problem) said one of the guests.

"Ethiopian men and alcohol," said another standing close to the door as the guard fired again.

Inside a smartly suited man sitting at one of the tables leaned forward and wagged his finger at me. "Don't talk," he said. "Don't tell anyone."

Posted by aheavens at 4:20 AM

November 9, 2006

How I learned to stop worrying and love Creative Commons

Below the fold is a re-written version of part of a talk on 'Blogging with pictures' that I gave at the Digital Citizens Indaba in Grahamstown, South Africa last month. It is the part that focuses on the strange things that start happening when you add a Creative Commons license to your work.

This really is the last word on the Indaba, promise.

How I learned to stop worrying and love Creative Commons

This is how it used to be. I took photos of things that happened in Ethiopia. I sold the best ones where I could and posted the rest on Flickr for the folks to see back home.

Then two things happened – one huge and historic, the other small and not so historic.

The big event was the violence that followed Ethiopia's national elections in May last year.

DSC0025Just to recap, opposition parties made huge gains in the elections – the third held since the country's murderous Derg regime was overthrown in 1991. The opposition Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) won almost all of the national and city administration seats in the capital Addis Ababa and lots of constituencies outside. When all the results were finally counted, however, it emerged that the incumbent Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) had held on to power across the country as a whole. Many opposition leaders and supporters felt cheated. There were three days of protests in June, and another period of unrest in November. On both occasions, events climaxed in bloody confrontations between protesters, armed federal police and special forces. At the end of it just short of 200 people – most of them young men – were dead.

I took some photos of the elections, then of the protests, the dead and the injured. Some of the photos ended up with Reuters. Without thinking about it too much, I posted the rest on Flickr.

The second, much smaller event was a passing comment from Ethan Zuckerman of GlobalVoices and ... My Heart's In Accra. It was a long story, but it ended with him suggesting that I should consider using a Creative Commons license. Again, without thinking too much about it, I made the necessary quick changes to the blog and my Flickr page.

[Creative Commons is a non-profit organization that has released a series of copyright licenses that allow you to say how you want your work – your articles, photos, music and so on - to be used by other people. Mine is a fairly typical one that allows anyone to re-use anything – as long as they credit me and don't change the original material or make any money out of it.]

ethio protest 3The days after the June protests, the Reuters pictures made it into some papers in the UK, Europe and the US. They were also all over the local press who had ripped everything off the news feed on Yahoo! – a fairly common practice that every journalist living here gets used to.

After that, they sank down the list on Yahoo News and disappeared. News photographs hardly ever outlive the stories they are attached to. The world's attention had moved on so that was that.

A few days later it became apparent that the photos were attracting pretty heavy traffic on Flickr. Up to then, the most I had had were a couple of hundred viewers in total for each photo. But the protest photos were getting many hundreds of visitors a day.

Next a couple of mirror sites cropped up on Flickr, collecting all the photos they could find of the violence and re-publishing them on the photo-sharing site, under names like Ethio Photo and Terrorism against Ethiopians. (Warning – some of the photos reposted on these sites include very disturbing scenes from the mortuaries.)

Most of the people behind these were from Ethiopia's huge diaspora population in Europe and the US. Ethiopians in Washington DC and London had heard about the bloodshed in their home country. On the day of the protests, they had been able to watch the story unfold on the BBC and CNN. But the day after that, the mainstream news organisations had moved on to fresher conflicts. News-hungry Ethiopians were left to do their news gathering by themselves.

19362867_9484df125d_o.jpgIn the weeks that followed, Ethiopians across the world started holding their own demonstrations against the government and its use of lethal force against unarmed protesters. Slowly, photographs of these demonstrations – from Melbourne, from Geneva, from New York, from Rome – started filtering back through Ethiopia's resilient blogosphere and, again, the Yahoo! News feed.

The pictures all showed crowds of Ethiopians marching past well known landmarks holding banners in English and Amharic and huge blown-up photos – very familiar photos.

In Melbourne, a middle aged woman held up one of my photographs of a nurse, weeping in the corridor of Addis Ababa's Black Lion hospital, as she looked into the (out-of-shot) morgue, which held the bodies of seven dead teenagers.

18397722_bc53f62815_o.jpgIn Washington DC, a young man held up a photo of five other young men in Addis Ababa waving their fists at a line of armed riot police. In Rome, young women held up a montage of shots of mothers and sisters screaming with grief outside another city mortuary.

I am sure they would have got hold of some of the pictures with or without the Creative Commons license. In fact photos from other photographers also appeared on the banners – including a well-known one of a soldier beating a boy with his gun from AP. But the way the Creative Commons license had opened up my Flickr account meant that the protesters had access to many of the shots in their original full resolution. Many of the photos were blown up to near life-size.

This June, the first anniversary of the violence rolled round. Ethiopian blogger Weichegud ET Politics pointed to a six-minute video that had just gone up on YouTube titled Ethiopia's June Massacre.

If you have the bandwidth and the time, watch it now. It makes its point without resorting to any of the disturbing scenes from the morgues.

Once again, many of the photos used in the film to illustrate the post election violence and grief looked very familiar. They were taken straight off Flickr and other online news sources – and, apart from the fact that they were not credited, it had all pretty much happened within the terms of the Creative Commons licence.

The film itself, with its soaring, wailing soundtrack, was very moving and brought back lots of difficult memories. From a journalistic perspective it was also very disturbing.

Most journalists do their best to keep a distance from the things they write about and take pictures of. The key thing is to maintain impartiality, particularly when the story in question is divisive and highly political.

But here were my pictures illustrating a piece of highly-charged anti-government propaganda. (That's not to criticize the film by the way. It is just pointing out the obvious that the film had something to say and it said it with great force.) I worried about what the Ethiopian Ministry of Information might think. I worried about what my freelance employers might think. For one brief selfish moment I also worried about my bank balance – didn't I used to get paid when other people used my photographs? None of these worries were particularly focused. To be honest, at the time I didn't really know what to think.

Now that a few months have passed, those worries have faded – in fact looking back they seem a bit over-played (particularly the one about getting paid given the subject of the photographs.)

Time and distance have allowed me to reflect on the many benefits of learning to stop worrying and start loving the liberating effect of Creative Commons.

On the personal side, lots of good things have come out of the fact that my cast-off photos are swimming around the internet with a CC license attached. People have written in checking to see if they can use them in textbooks, calendars, Ethiopian restaurant menus, novelty Amharic greeting cards. (How often do you get the chance to illustrate a line of novelty Amharic greeting cards?) Some of these contacts have resulted in further paid work. Some have resulted in the offer of free food if I am ever passing through New York and want to pop in to a certain Ethiopian restaurant. Others have resulted in nothing financial at all.

Lots of good things have also happened beyond the personal side. As I said earlier, one of the most frustrating things about press photography is the short lifespan of your photographs. You put yourself in a risky situation to record what you consider to be an important, newsworthy event. The resulting pictures flash up on newspaper pages, TV screens and Yahoo! News for a day or so. And then they disappear.

The greatest thing that Creative Commons does is give you work an extra lease of life. After the news event has passed on, the photographs are still out there, waiting for someone else to pick up on them, give them a new meaning and use them in a different setting.

There is no doubt it can still be scary and disturbing (imagine if a race hate group had picked up the pictures and used them to illustrate an article on black-on-black violence.) But at the very least it is a fascinating process to sit back and watch where your photos end up.

Now you will have to imagine me pressing the button to reveal the last cheesy slide in my cheesy PowerPoint presentation in Grahamstown, in south South Africa. It spelled out a simple message in swirly whirling letters – 'If you love your photos, set them free'.

Posted by aheavens at 4:45 AM

The FGM debate

Here is the latest round up of the Ethiopian blogosphere on GlobalVoices - this one mainly focused on the debate over the Ethiopian sentenced to 10 years for female genital mutilation.

Posted by aheavens at 2:08 AM

November 7, 2006

Use Shell or else

DSC0190Can someone out there translate this for me.

At the moment I can only assume that it says something like - Use Shell or this will happen to your car.

Or could it be anything to so with Ethiopia's scarily high rate of road accidents?

According to the World Health Organisation, Ethiopia has the highest rate of fatalities per vehicle in the world - quite an achievement when you realise that there are only 1.5 vehicles per 1,000 Etihopians.

UPDATE: Thank you brother, abe, Tazabeo and Abebe. Apparently the slogan means something like "A second's patience can save your life and property".

Posted by aheavens at 8:42 AM

Peace rehab

Why fight your enemy when you can just rehabilitate him? Maybe this is something they should try in Iraq.

More than 100 former ONLF fighters undergoing rehabilitation - Walta Nov 7

Some 104 former members of the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), who recently gave themselves up to the government, have been rehabilitated, according to the Somali State Security and Justice Coordination Supreme Bureau.

Bureau Head Abdi Mohammed told WIC that the training has been offered to the defectors misled by the anti-peace propaganda of ONLF, which is the agent of the Eritrean ruling party...

As a result the disillusioned members of the Front asked for forgiveness realizing that ONLF has done nothing for the benefit of the Ethiopian Somalis other than destabilizing the region through terrorist acts, the Bureau Head elaborated.

Posted by aheavens at 8:16 AM

Soldiers for sale

D4813045x.jpgRe-fight the Italian/Abyssinian War in your very own bedroom.

For just £400 you get a Mountain Gun Mule Team and handlers, an Abyssinian Stretcher Party, four Abyssinians at the Slope, three Italians at the Slope, four Abyssinian Tribesmen in different coloured cloaks and a rare John Hill and Company Ski Trooper (G-VG).

Those cunning Italians - to catch everyone by surprise with their shock troop of ski troopers.

They are all on sale at Christie's in South Kensington, London on November 20.

Posted by aheavens at 7:57 AM

November 2, 2006

Haile and Tirunesh

DSC0180You think you are a hard-bitten hack who has seen it all - the last person to get excited about the appearance of a mere celebrity.

Then Haile Gebrselassie and Tirunesh Dibaba turn up in their super tracksuits.

And all you want to do is stand behind them and grin like an idiot.

Posted by aheavens at 12:04 PM

Ten years for genital mutilation

It is not every day that the BBC World Service headlines make you want to cheer.

But that is what it felt like this morning when they led their bulletin with the news that an Ethiopian man had been jailed for ten years in the US for mutilating his daughter's vagina with a pair of scissors. Here's the online version of the story:

Father jailed for US mutilation - BBC Online Nov 2
A US court has sentenced a man to 10 years in jail for genital mutilation of his two-year-old daughter, in what is said to be first such case in the US. Khalid Adem, an Ethiopian immigrant, was found guilty of aggravated battery and cruelty to children by the court in the state of Georgia. Prosecutors said he used scissors to remove his daughter's clitoris in 2001. A US women's rights group described the verdict as a victory against female genital mutilation worldwide.

The "traditional" practice of Female Genital Mutilation (or 'cutting' for the squeamish or 'circumcision' for those in denial) is the most shocking thing I have come across since moving to Ethiopia.

Its defenders often try to play down the actual process. In Egypt, for example, they claim that everything is OK because qualified doctors conduct the mutilation under anesthetic. (Although personally I find the image of scrubbed-up men doing it in operating theatres just as chilling as the scissor attack, if not more so).

They never talk about Ethiopia's Somali region where just short of 100% of little girls undergo the most extreme form of mutilation which is the complete excision of the female genitals followed by a process called "infibulation". Together the process is also known as "pharaonic circumcision". It is no coincidence that this subject is packed with convenient technical euphemisms to hide what actually goes on.

"Complete excision" means total removal - everything gone. In Somali region, "infibulation" means sewing up what is left afterwards with acacia thorns which are inserted into both sides of the wound to seal it shut, as a guarantee of a young girl's virginity. Wikipedia has more on the practice in its excellent entries on Female genital cutting and Infibulation.

This morning's story brought to mind two images from the Somali region.

An Ethiopian friend described finding a hut in a village near the regional capital Jijiga a few months ago. Inside there was a row of little girls sitting close to each other with their legs stretched out and their ankles tied together. They had undergone the procedure earlier in the week and were having to sit dead still for days on end for the wounds to heal.

The other image was from my own visit to the town of Gode, not so far from the border with Somalia. A group of boys were playing outside their school, watched by a line of girls. I asked why the girls weren't playing with them. The teacher next to me shrugged and said "We're afraid that if they fall they may break their stitches."

Posted by aheavens at 4:20 AM