Thursday, April 26, 2012

the end

What I had initially billed as a trip through the Horn of Africa became limited to eight weeks in Ethiopia, with a brief excursion into Somaliland. Eritrea has closed its borders with all its neighbours, a Djibouti visa was difficult to obtain in advance, and the rest of Somalia is perhaps not the most attractive travel destination for those who want to decide themselves when to return home again. Having said this, Ethiopia turned out to be an extremely varied country, from the mostly Christian north, with its mythical ancient history, and the mostly Muslim east, bordering Somaliland not only physically, but also mentally – although somehow there is little love lost across that border -, to the tribal circus of the south, and back to the northern Afar region en Danakil Depression.

Of course, the question remains, did we like Ethiopia? I know I have been negative on occasion, and perhaps a little cynical on others. But did we like it? Ethiopia is definitely a scenic country, fabulous natural beauty, spectacular geological phenomena; full of history, and full of architectural highlights to prove it, from the walled city of Harar to the churches of Lalibela and Tigray, and those around Lake Tana. But great nature and great toruist sites are only half of the story. The churches are very special indeed, unique, you won’t find anything like this anywhere else. But I never felt welcome in those churches, it was only my money they seemed to be interested in. The tribal villages in the South Omo Valley are equally unique, I don't think there are many people dressing up that way anymore, these days. But once again, I didn't have any social interaction with the people, I just paid money. We were welcome until we stopped taking pictures. In fact, with the exception of Somaliland and the Afar region, we didn’t think people were particularly hospitable to foreigners, despite the assurances of an Ethiopian acquaintance that guests in Ethiopia are held in the highest esteem – perhaps foreigners are not seen as guests. And history is on my side:  many visitors have been slaughtered in Ethiopia in the past, and not only by the Afar people. See the accounts of James Burke, Wilfred Thesiger.
So, did we like Ethiopia? Yes, but perhaps less so the Ethiopians. Which does not diminish the travel experience, mind you. Those eight weeks have been very enjoyable, and have taught us a lot, about the country, the culture, the people we met along the road – perhaps the advantage of the traveler over the tourist. It equally taught us about ourselves, and puts our own experiences in other countries in a certain perspective - at least in part the difference between living somewhere, and just passing through, however much time we take for that. Another lesson: perhaps we do prefer our own way of independent travel, complete with irritations and uncertainties, over the convenience of organized travel, as we did the last three weeks. If someone organizes the trip for you, you are no longer in control, but what is worse, you get the feeling that you are watching through a window, you don’t seem to be part of society itself anymore. At least that’s how we experienced it.

Some general observations, not hampered by any scientific base: The West is often criticized for its colonial past, and whilst there is little to justify the rape of colonies, the argument that colonial exploitation has caused poverty is disproved by Ethiopia, just as poor if not poorer, yet never having been colonized save for a few years Italian occupation. That the West is responsible for arbitrary borders is true (especially the Conference of Berlin, 1885), but the border of Ethiopia, the result of late 19th century expansion drift, is just as illogical, including ethnic Somalis, and a whole range of tribes that have very little in common with the Tigrays and the Amharas of Northern Ethiopia, the ones who have historically wielded power. And racial discrimination? Just as much alive in a country that is overwhelmingly black, and where those same Amharas and Tigrays look down on those primitive Southerners as well as those savage Afars. At the same time there is no denying (as so often has been done) that a highly skilled society in Africa has been responsible for the construction of those extraordinary rock-hewn churches, quite likely at a time that the West was dominated by Barbarians. And that society has survived, for centuries, in the same place: it may have been pushed, occasionally plundered, but there has been an Ethiopian - Abbysinian - entity for at least 2000, perhaps 3000 years here. There are few other countries that can look back at such history.

What the future holds for Ethiopia is hard to tell, of course, even more so by someone who has only been there a short while. It seems to me that encouraging more agriculture at the expense of pastoralism - animal husbandry - would be a step in the right direction, but that is just an impression from two months traveling, during the end of the dry season. If the rains stay away, animals die – wealth destroyed  -, and crops fail – wealth creation is postponed to the next season, with relatively low additional investment. It is interesting that all my previous employers – Shell, but I mean more specifically Plan International, Save the Children, Interact Worldwide, even IOM – are present here. Organisations as Unicef have their second largest program in Ethiopia, no lack of outside help, thus. But maybe that is part of the problem, maybe that discourages incentives for people themselves, discourages them to take their lives into their own hands. A generation of children grows up begging the foreigner for whatever they can think of, and they have been preceded by an older generation, now in their 20s, many of whom still cannot resist a “give me” attitude in the face of a foreigner. Time to take responsibility, perhaps?

Anyhow, the end of a trip, the end of another blog. Hope you enjoyed reading it, hope you enjoyed the pics. Let me know any feedback, so I can incorporate that - or not - next time around.

(o, and by the way, you have to check out the video in the post "the travel day", which I finally managed to upload...)

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