Ethiopia and the Keeper of the Cashbox
Updated: Apr 14, 2019
Ethiopia was one of the countries we were most looking forward to. The volcanic east, mountainous north and spiritual monasteries spoke of a vibrant land, so different to our own. Unfortunately, that very same land turned into our biggest disappointment.
The landscapes, history and spirituality don’t disappoint. It’s the prevailing culture towards foreigners that we found so hard. I use culture in the broadest sense of the word, and perhaps as a proxy for our experience over several weeks and thousands of interactions across the country. I wouldn’t, for a second, be so bold as to try and capture Ethiopian culture in this blog. As a country with 200 tribes and 83 distinct languages, an anthropologist could spend a lifetime trying to bottle that genie. So instead, this tells the tale of our experience of the common characteristics, good and ill, that we encountered, no matter whether it was the Tigre or Amhara regions, Omo Valley or Afar.
“Having now left Ethiopia, I’m sad to say I’m glad we’re in Kenya. This country was top of our list in terms of excitement, and while the coffee, food, scenery......lived up to the hype, our general experiences across the country truly soured our time there. The reason, for the most part, is the people.” ~traveller blog, 2018
When I read the quote above, I was taken aback. I thought it was unfair to generalise and sad for someone to be so cutting. After nearly a month traversing Ethiopia from north to south, I can now empathise. We arrived in Ethiopia excited by the colour and personality that we’d missed in the occasionally barren, simple and uniform regions of Sudan. We’d escaped the desert for a green land, alive with both flora and fauna. The initial honeymoon period was stimulating but already had its warning signs; any price was up for debate, aggressive hostility between fixers was evident at the border and there were more armed civilians than we’d ever encountered. Ryszard Kapuściński describes this enduring Ethiopian characteristic in his famous book “The Emperor”:
“All of them have weapons; they are in love with them. The wealthy had whole arsenals in their courts, and maintained private armies...Machine guns, pistols, boxes of grenades. A couple of years ago, you could buy guns in the stores like any other merchandise. Bullets are the most valuable currency in this market, more in demand than dollars. After all, what is a dollar but paper? A bullet can save your life.”
Whilst decades have passed since the fall of the emperor and this book was written, the presence of arms is still brazen. In most countries, an AK47 is accompanied by a uniform, which gives at least a modicum of comfort. In Ethiopia, arms abound, uniform or not. This becomes especially apparent at the dividing lines of their society. While in many countries, those fall on wealth divisions, in Ethiopia, it’s a tribal matter. Animosity between tribes regularly erupts into violence, which the presence of arms only escalates. Luckily for us, little of this is focused on foreigners, but as you pass through the country, you can sense the underlying tension. At one point, we set off from Arba Minch towards the Omo Valley and eventually, the Kenyan border. An hour in, we encountered a roadblock, two police and 500 metres ahead, a burning village. Violence had erupted between two tribes whom we believe were the Dirashi and Konso. As is often the case in a country where 70% of people still make their living from agriculture, the conflict was over land. Almost every traveller had a story like this, in Harar to the East, near Metema to the North, and worst of all, in Moyale in the South. These dividing lines are so deep that the new Prime Minister is trying, like many African nations, to gradually erode tribal identity and forge a broader Ethiopian one. In a world that’s moving towards greater integration and less division, despite what fake news may imply, this is an important step.
A simple hike in the Simien NP requires an armed escort:
A community run village near Arba Minch:
Whilst the tribal conflict was challenging, the hardest part for us to deal with was the attitude towards foreigners. Everywhere you go, the same chant rings through your ears, “Firenji!(Foreigner!) YOU, YOU, YOU, money, money, money, pen, pen, pen”. And when I say everywhere, I mean everywhere. From the moment we crossed the border from Sudan until the point we left for Kenya, 2,000km and 28 days later, we heard this universal demand. It bookended so many conversations, to the point where you suspected that any interaction would involve this request. It cheapened everything. The hope of a positive, sincere conversation was instantly blown to pieces by the demand for money. Whilst people of all ages attempted it, the saddest part is that every single child did the same thing. They clearly didn’t know any better but had somehow, from somewhere, been conditioned to think of money when they saw a foreigner. Little else came into the conversation. It’s something we struggled with, discussed and thought about deeply.
It’s sheer chance that we were fortunate enough to be born into a wealthier country than the people before us. Questions abounded. Would we act that way in their position? Back home, begging is frowned upon but perhaps here it is different - people with less can ask for help from people with more? Are we wrong to feel exhausted by such persistence? And are those demands only placed on foreigners or locals alike? Some people put this habit down to the influence of western aid agencies over the past decades. That thesis suggests that we, in the developed world, are responsible for breeding this attitude of dependency by handing out food, supplies and support when their own government failed. However, having read about times before the Western presence emerged in the country, I’m not so sure. I suspect the roots grow deeper. Either way, it’s a nuanced question that would take much longer to explore.
“The revolution divided people into camps, and the fighting began. There were no trenches or barricades, no clear lines of demarcation, and therefore anyone could be an enemy. The threatening atmosphere fed on the Amharas’ pathological suspicion. To them, nobody could be trusted, not even another Amhara. No one’s word can be trusted, no one can be relied upon, because people’s intentions are wicked and perverse...” ~ The Emperor, Ryszard Kapuściński
As we reflected on those questions, a second malignant force acted upon us: the art of the ruthless hussle. Every price was up for debate, and the outcome was clear, foreigners pay far more than locals. How much more? Whatever you can get. I’m a big supporter of this pricing policy for important experiences such as national parks, especially when the gulf in purchasing power between locals and visitors is so vast. However, when it refers to coffee, bus tickets, SIM cards, lunch and other simple services, you quickly become exhausted. And this was not our first rodeo, Egypt is famous for its hussle and bartering culture, as we’ve already described. However, there, it’s done with a degree of warmth, humour and flexibility. In Ethiopia, that was sorely lacking. It’s combined with a degree of hostility and duplicity so that the simplest of purchases can leave you feeling cheated. One of those that upset me most involved the simple act of cutting a SIM card down to fit my phone. I debated, argued and cajoled a couple of locals in Gondar after they’d cut my SIM card. Reasoned with them on the fair cost for such a service (as another local had told me). They were resolute, the foreigner price was way higher. This is the private market, we can charge what we want, especially now we’ve cut it (a mistake I’d allowed). Thirty minutes of debate came and went; and clearly little reason followed. They tried every trick in the book; lying, manipulating and ignoring my needs. In the end, we settled for a relatively small fee, four times what it should be for local. I felt cheated and angry. The amount was paltry but the tactics and attitudes were intolerable. It was an important moment in the splintering of trust between the locals and me.
The last emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, split his mornings into rigid one hour slots through which he ran the empire with an iron first. The second of those slots was the ‘Hour of the Cashbox’, where gifts and bribes were doled out to a few fortunate souls. Everyone in his court sought after this slot, hoping to catch the Emperor’s eye and line their pockets. Travelling through Ethiopia made me feel like the ‘Keeper of the Cashbox’, where people’s sole aim was to extract as much money from us as possible. What bestowed me with such a title? I was simply foreign.
If this sounds like the petty complaints of a privileged soul, searching for peace, I’ll offer a story of how the breach of trust can run far deeper. We met a French cyclist, Jordy, in Sudan who’d travelled 24,000km around the world with Africa his latest and greatest stage. On his way through Ethiopia, he was harried and hassled in a way that drivers are lucky to avoid. This includes the game of attacking and throwing stones at visitors who pass. One of these stones struck Jordy on the head, leaving a gaping wound that required stitches. After seeking help in a nearby clinic, he went to hospital given the severity of the cut. As he staggered in, a man offered to hold his blood stained hat and show him the way. Once he’d found the correct room, the man demanded money for his ‘service’. Our friend, shocked and angry, rejected this out of hand and a dispute ensued, in spite of the blood flowing down Jordy’s face. Luckily doctors stepped in, peace was restored and the man skulked off. When I heard of this episode, I was shocked but not surprised. It’s said that long distance cyclists can reveal the true side of a community. People recognise their innate vulnerability and often seek to protect and provide as they pass through their region. If you agree with this belief, it underlines how badly Jordy was let down. Not only was the injury inflicted in the first place but upon seeing the severity of his wound, the man, whoever he was, saw only another Cashbox Keeper to capitalise on. A truly sad indictment on the man and also community in question. Needless to say, this was the final straw for Jordy so he stopped cycling, hitched a lift and headed for Kenya, skipping the first and only country in his global journey.
I’ve thought a lot about our time since leaving Ethiopia; perhaps the hallmark of a meaningful travelling experience. It’s important to remind myself, and others, that not every interaction was difficult; there were many beautiful and sincere moments. Our dear friend and Emma’s platonic soulmate, Kristy, flew out and joined us for much of it. The laughter flowed and spiritual exploration abounded. The Simien mountains were spectacular and Gelada monkeys engaging in a way I’d never seen. The moonscape of Tigre was mind blowing and simply unforgettable. But all too often, these experiences occurred in spite of the welcome we received by locals, not because of it.
A handful of the beautiful moments:
The comparison with Sudan was stark. So too Kenya, Uganda and even Egypt, a country with its own challenges for visitors. A poorer, more challenged nation, Sudan, was a safe, welcoming and beautiful country. The people’s natural warmth and hospitality were notable. In Egypt, you couldn’t run 500m down the road before someone would insistently invite you in for tea. The Kenyan warmth was intoxicating whilst the Ugandan tranquility has been serene. Each in their own way displayed a level of hospitality that was sorely absent in Ethiopia.
When travelling, breakdowns of communication are common, almost a way of life that you learn to live with. The breakdowns in trust are far more difficult. They force you to thicken your skin and fundamentally, trust less in others. That’s the part I struggled with most. They forced me to close off, distrust and assume the worst. The polar opposite of my viewpoint in life. And trust me, we tried. After each metaphorical knock down, we got up and opened ourselves again to the people around. At one point in Tigre, a local accidentally reversed into our car, causing minor damage to our rear light. We did all the right things, exchanging of details, discussing reparations and agreeing a plan. Short of forcibly driving the man to an ATM or confiscating his wallet, we did what we could and placed our trust in him and his group. As wedding photographers, they appeared legit. When morning arrived, they’d vanished, were nowhere to be seen and another fragment of our crumbling trust had been chipped away. We knew the risk, wanted to see what they’d do and then our worst expectations had been realised.
That experience is just one small piece in a mosaic built on thousands of interactions. The sum of our time in Ethiopia. It’s a mosaic that made me appreciate other countries before and since, all the more, but I’ll never reward Ethiopia much praise for that. I’ve come to the sad conclusion that everywhere has its bad eggs, it’s just Ethiopia has more than most. Far more than anywhere else we’ve been in the world. And whilst you should never say never, Ethiopia provokes a finality that few other countries have. To put it in the most British term possible; we will not rush back.