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Story Publication logo January 12, 2008

Ethiopia: My Romantic Reunion with Africa


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In Ethiopia and Kenya, dry seasons grow longer and tribal conflict over access to water is on the...

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Close to 40 hours after leaving Athens, Ohio, I arrived to my destination in Addis. My Emirates flight was not exactly that long...I had two stopovers - four hours in Hamburg and 12 in Dubai. It is the kind of thing you have to contend with when you make a decision to fly cheap.

I made my time in Dubai a little productive, making calls to family and friends. I also had a chance to visit the Dubai Duty Free - perhaps one of the finest testimonies of the huge capitalistic market Dubai has turned into. Then I took some time to catch a beer at The Irish Village right at the airport. It was a very good decision I must say, one which reunited me with my colleagues of The Common Language Project. I had lost contact with them more than ten hours earlier in New York, when they took a different flight. The happy Reunion seemed to prove a point: there is always a way to smoke out drinkers.

Addis Ababa

I have been away in America too long (five years to be precise) and was in every way bracing myself for the reverse culture shock I would experience when I returned to Africa. A Kenyan friend in the U.S. had warned me of the same. In many ways, he said, the experience would be worse than the one I had on arriving in the U.S. for my studies.

After two days in Addis, where apparently everyone thinks I am Ethiopian and can comfortably converse in Amharic, I am convinced that my love affair with Africa is eternal.

Immediately after disembarking from the airport at Bole, i was catapulted into a ball of emotions. The sights, the sounds, the smells seemed all too familiar and nostalgic. This is some of what I have been missing all this long, I thought to myself.

First was the laid-back nature of attending to things that is so typical of Africa. My colleague spent hours trying to change money at the bank in airport but the tellers were out for lunch, which apparently took a considerable amount of time to finish.

We spent half a day looking for a hotel and many other small things like phones and SIM cards. I bet it could take you not more than thirty minutes to handle the same in say Seattle, Atlanta, or Columbus. Then there were all the people on the streets, talking, walking leisurely, others sitting down on the edge of the road seemingly without a care about any ticking clock. While in no way am I suggesting that idleness is a virtue, there is something spiritual, something so uplifting about absence of the mad rush to go and clock in at work I had gotten used tot hose past years in the U.S.

Unsurprisingly, there was a lot of disorder, the near anarchy on the roads and beyond so typical of my home country Kenya. It was on of the things, it occurred to me, I have subconsciously missed all these years. I hope I am not the only one who enjoys disorder. There is something about disarray that makes me feel at home...I guess it is perhaps because I was never too orderly.

It was rather amusing to think that I had all but forgotten how they sell meat in this part of the world. Rather than package meat in small bags and then arrange them in the freezer for the shoppers to come and pick at their own volition, they have a whole carcass of an animal hanging at the meat shop. You walk into the shop and point at the part of the animal's anatomy you would want the butcher to chop for you. As you walk down the streets you can not help but be in awe of the job butchers do here. And how in the hell do they keep that meat fresh and sanitary in these hot temperatures? Future food for thought. In the meantime, I have immersed myself into feasting on beef - my all-time favorites delicacy. Addis' meat is of course 100 percent organic, which makes it so tasty. It is like nothing I have eaten in years. God save me from gout!

On the downside, there are the numerous beggars on the street. Begging here is licensed, I am told. It has helped in improving the relations that people here have with beggars. I have seen nothing but very cordial relations and generosity toward the poor here. The drawback to licensing begging might have implications on the number of beggars. The streets of the city are populated with many seemingly able-bodied beggars. But perhaps the grim unemployment statistics in Ethiopia - 50% of urban men aged 15-30 are unemployed, according to the Centre for the Study of African Economies - explain why. And for those who would care to know, prostitution too is legal and licensed.

Then there is the harsh treatment of donkeys that I have witnessed here these two days. The magnitude of violence against donkeys here can only be rivaled by what Is aw in Limuru, Kenya. While I may not have turned into an animal-rights activist of sorts, and in full knowledge of how nasty donkeys can sometimes be, I cannot bring myself to bear with the extreme treatment of donkeys in this part of the world.

By and large, i adore Addis. I love its homeliness, its hospitable people and its tropical weather, which makes me feel very much at home even though I am not home in my home of homes.

After having worked out most of the logistics, today my team begins the legwork for the water stories.

I am sure there will be many exciting things and some not-so-exciting I will reconnect with in the road ahead.

In absence, my heart's fondness for this continent has grown exponentially. On returning to Africa and beginning to work here, this affection energizes me more than I had ever expected.



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