And I’ve just got back from a fantastic five day field trip there, so I’m going to subject you to a week of posts on it.
I go on two kinds of trips for Oxfam – laptop and notebook. Laptop trips are usually to conferences, with powerpoint, wifi, memory sticks, email and all the paraphernalia of the modern wonk, which sometimes leaves you feeling that you might as well have stayed in the office. Notebook trips leave all that behind in favour of my trusty reporter’s pad and five senses, talking to farmers, street vendors, business people etc, trying to reality check all the stuff I spend my time reading (and writing about). Alas the laptop trips have been squeezing out the other kind in recent years, so it was great to have a few days on the road in Ethiopia last week (albeit on the back of an ‘expert group meeting on poverty eradication’ in the UN compound in Addis Ababa, with its echoing marble halls and four restaurants). I’ll mull over a few of the programme visits and other conversations over the next few days, but here are some random impressions to begin with.
First the beauty – the landscape after plentiful rains is extraordinary. I’ll spare you the purple travel-writing prose, but this is not the Ethiopia of TV stereotype. I may even follow Bill Easterly’s advice for once and book myself a hiking holiday here. And the Ethiopians are beautiful too, with a lovely intimate habit of promenading with hands on each others’ shoulders, or holding hands, or arm in arm.
Even though I’m a white ‘ferenji’, I mercifully didn’t attract all the attention. A lot of the stares were instead directed at the Oxfam driver Fikrte (see pic). One young boy simply shouted ‘why?’, while girls goggled at her (you could almost see the proto-feminist cogs turning). Luckily Fikrte seems to have inexhaustible reserves of good humour to put up with this kind of stuff, as well as weaving for hours on end between legions of goats, donkeys and cows, all of whom seem to regard the road as their own. She’s certainly the first woman driver I’ve ever seen working for Oxfam, and I was relieved to have a testosterone-free trip in a country with the world’s second highest rate of road deaths, according to a recent report.
Highlights on our hotel menu included ‘roasted lump’ and ‘beef burger holestain’. See if you can work them out (answers at the bottom)
The road out to the rift valley was dotted with numerous Chinese flags on large shiny metal billboards outside factories, construction projects and an enormous industrial park, contrasting with the weatherbeaten and rather battered versions of western governments and NGOs. I was even greeted with a ‘hey China!’ by one small boy – sign of the times.
Mobile phones are everywhere – all the coffee farmers in one meeting had them, although none of them had electricity or piped water. When I asked what difference they make, the answer was always the same. You can check in on your relatives, talk to the sick, or sort out a meeting without going in person. By skipping the landline stage and going straight from having to walk miles to see someone (public or private transport are rare, beyond mules and horses), without any certainty that they will be there, to calling them on the mobile, the communications technology has brought huge time savings.
And finally, the only wildlife I normally get to see is roadkill, but as I’m a bit of a nature freak, the three colobus monkeys reclining in a tree top, in full view of passing cars were unforgettable.
More traditional development fare follows once I get off the plane and start blogging.
Menu decode: Roast Lamb, and Holstein beef ……