Travelogue: In Ethiopia, Xmas is in January

ETHIOPIA; Panoramic View of Addis Ababa,

Wale Okediran

By Wale Okediran


The Karamara is a popular but smoky night club in the Bole area of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.  About 30 minutes drive from the Sheraton Hotel, its mud wall and thatched roof building gives it an exquisite traditional appearance which makes the Club a favourite of tourists.  It was to this delightful “watering hole” that Fekadu, our amiable taxi driver and guide took our group of Parliamentarians and Civil Rights Leaders that cold December evening a few years ago.

Having been stuck at the “Sheraton Addis” for the past few days over deliberations on Human Rights and Good Governance, we wanted to air ourselves for a change.  And so when Fikadu suggested going to Karamara to listen to traditional Ethiopian music, we all jumped at the idea.

As we entered the dimly-lit Club, a strong and sweet aroma of burning incense hit the nostrils while the pulsating beat of Ethiopian music floated around the Club.  Sitting cross-legged in a meditative position amidst a cloud of burning incense inside an alcove within the Club was an Ethiopian lady dressed in white.  All around her on the floor were empty teacups while an aluminium cistern on a stove sat beside her.

It was amidst this wafting cloud of incense that she poured a steady stream of a rich dark liquid from the cistern into the tea cups on the floor.  “She’s making Ethiopian coffee”, Fekadu explained.  “But, why the ceremony”?  I asked.  According to Fekadu, apart from being the most important agricultural product in Ethiopia, coffee is also valued for its spiritual, social and religious significance which explained the ceremonial nature of its brewing.

On the band stand was an Ethiopian musician dressed in a white tunic with an electronic keyboard as his main accompaniment.  And as our group settled down on the Club’s low stools and tables, I observed that the Club was patronized mostly by foreigners.  It was a traditionally built Clubhouse with several Ethiopian traditional paintings and crafts adorning the smoky interior.

ETHIOPIA; Cathedral in Addis Ababa

Above the din of the noise, Fekadu tried to interprete the various paintings that depicted traditional Ethiopian houses, crafts as well as various modes of dressings to me.  Suddenly, I felt a movement near me and looked up to see a young lady barely out of her teens sidling up to my side.  “Hello, my name is Jane.  You want a friend”?  She asked in halting English.  I was about to shoo her off when Fekadu came to my rescue.  He spoke to the girl in Amharic and she moved away to another corner of the Club.  That was when I looked up and discovered that there were several other “Janes” in the Club, some who were already paired up with some patrons.

According to Fekadu, the girls were mostly from the war torn Eritrea and had come to Ethiopia in search of education and training but ended up in prostitution due to the poor economy of their host country.  Our conversation was suddenly interrupted by heavy drum beats as the tempo of the music changed and two dancers, a male and a female came onstage.  Moving in tune to the music, the couple started an energetic dance which involved a rapid movement of the waist, the torso and the neck in that order.

“They are doing the Guraga”, Fekadu explained as the dancers continued the vigorous shaking of the different parts of the body.  And as we all applauded, the tempo of the music changed to a slow one and the couple made their exits.  In their stead, a young lady singer came on stage and started her act in a soft, sonorous voice whichj was accompanied by a slow, gentle dance.  “That is the Onamo”, Fekadu explained.  “It is a song about love, hope and everlasting joy”, he added.

Much later, as we drove back to our hotel, through the well-lit and well-paved streets of Addis, I was greatly impressed by the simplicity and orderliness of the Ethiopian capital city.  With a population of about three million people, the city was said to have been founded by Emperor Menilek in 1887.  More than 21,000 hectares in area, Addis Ababa is situated in the foothills of the Entoto Mountains and rambles pleasantly across many wooded hillsides and gullies.  This enchanting view of Addis was very different from the picture painted by the International Media of Ethiopia as a land of war, famine and International food aid recipient.  Although this severe food shortage has significantly abated, it still continues to this very day in some parts of the country.

Old beyond imagining, Ethiopia dates back to Biblical times with a culture and tradition going back 3000 years.  Originally called Abbyssynia, the country is said to be one of the very few African countries that was never colonized in the true sense of it.  This way, it has retained its original tradition and culture which are still well seen in the way of life of Ethiopians.  And like many other African countries, Ethiopia is a multi-ethnic State.  The principal spoken language which is also the official language is Amharic with about 80 other languages and 200 different dialects.

Legend has it that Emperor Menelik I, the son of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon brought the Ark of the Covenant from Jerusalem to Axum in Ethiopia where he settled and established one of the world’s largest known, uninterrupted monarchial dynasties.  With a population of about 70 million people, Ethiopia covers an area more than the size of France and Spain combined and nearly twice the size of Texas.  About 65 percent of the land is arable with 15 percent greatly cultivated.

African girls and women sorting coffee beans on coffee farm, Ethiopia, Africa. Little children are working under tables – they picking up every single coffee bean dropped accidentally by women and putting these dropped coffee beans back on the tables.

Ethiopia is so steeped in tradition that the country has its own calendar which is seven years behind the rest of the world.  Also, by the country’s traditional time piece, Ethiopian is six hours behind the rest of the world.  More interestingly, while the rest of the world celebrated Xmas on December 25, Xmas in Ethiopia is normally celebrated in January.

Although not an oil-producing nation, Ethiopia has managed to keep the price of its petroleum products at 5.50 Ethiopian Birr (ETB) which is approximately ₦80.00 (Eighty Naira) per litre.

In spite of its relative poverty, it was obvious that this poverty has been well managed by the Ethiopian government as could be seen by the adequate and efficient basic amenities in the country.  Apart from the well-lit and paved roads in the Capital City of Addis, the regular and sufficient electricity supply as well as the orderliness and honesty of the Ethiopians I saw in Addis are testimonies to a country which in spite of its poor economy continues to hold its own.

I was impressed when a taxi driver who took me to make a phone call at the Lagar area of the city rather than sneak away went looking for the parking area attendant in order to pay his parking fees.  It was at the same Lagar area that I chanced upon five Nigerians who informed me that they were actually serving various prison terms in the City’s prison. The five young men who were in civilians clothes had entered the telephone office under armed escort by prison officials.

According to one of them who gave his name as Bright, the five men were caught at various occasions on their way from Asia with Cocaine meant for the Nigerian market.  Bright who said he had three months more for his sentence said that the prison officials usually allow them to come to the centre to make phone calls home.

The following day found me in the premises of the Nigerian Embassy near the Semin Hotel in the northern part of Addis.  I had been invited for lunch by His Excellency, Olusegun Akinsanya, the Nigerian Ambassador to Ethiopia at the time in question.  I was taken round the compound by the Minister Plenipotentiary, Mr. Layi Iyanda.  The Embassy compound which comprised of the Chancery, the residential buildings for the Ambassador and two other officers also had a guest house for about twelve guests as well as the Presidential Lodge for visiting Nigerian Presidents.  Under construction was a Community Centre which according to the Ambassador, will be used to host Nigerians on special occasions such as Independence Day Celebrations among others.  Although most of the buildings which were built during the Babangida regime are overdue for renovations, they have made the Embassy a little bit self-sustaining very much unlike the case of some embassies who are unable to pay their rents.  Even at this, Ambassador Akinsanya was still unhappy with what he referred to as the poor and irregular funding of Nigerian embassies all over the world.  As he put it, “since our foreign missions are the representatives of Nigeria, everything must be done to keep them in the high standard that is befits the status of our country”.

The Ambassador who observed that the telephone lines to the embassy in Addis were recently disconnected due to the inability of the embassy to pay its bills appealed to the National Assembly to increase the budgetary allocation to all foreign missions as a matter of urgency.  And although the number of Nigerians living and working in Ethiopia are very few being limited to the staff of the African Union and Economic Commission for Africa, the embassy is always in touch with all Nigerian citizens including the few young Nigerian prisoners I had met earlier in the day.  As the Ambassador put it; “although they are in prison, they are still Nigerians and we need to keep an eye on them”.

The existence of Ethiopia as a Centre in the business of drug trafficking is an unusual one since the country itself is not a major drug-consuming nation.  According to recent documents from the Ethiopian authorities, drug addiction is not a serious problem in Addis since drug use is not common in the country.  What appears to be the drug of recreation among the youths is a leafy substance called Chat (Khat).  It is a mild narcotic which when chewed for several hours at a time produces a feeling of euphoria.  Although it increases alertness, causes excitement and improves concentration, it is also believed to dull sexual desire but rarely causes toxic or schizophrenic reactions.  However, Chat remains banned from many Western countries who consider it to be a drug of addiction.

What appears to cause what observers call “political split personalities” is the current peace initiative between Ethiopia and Eritrea.  Although the war between the two neighbouring countries is officially over, several issues ranging from free movement of nationalities of both countries as well as boundary disputes still remain unsolved.  It is even believed in many international circles that were it not for the UN peacekeeping mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE), hostilities would have commenced again between the two nations.

And so, when the then Ethiopian Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi proposed a new peace initiative which had the backing of the United Nations and many members of the International community, he never bargained for the kind of opposition the initiative generated from leaders of the Ethiopian’s Coalition of Opposition Parties and the Eritrean government.  According to the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD), the initiative which conceded a number of hitherto disputed border towns to Eritrea was a sellout.  As the CUD put it, “the sudden and unexpected peace initiative is one more example of an untenable strategy of Mele’s administration’s pursuit of lasting peace.  We also believe that the real motivation of the initiative lies in its flagrant effort to prolong its hold on power”.  Also, the Eritrean government in spite of the apparent concession of some border towns to it by the Ethiopian authorities considers this gesture very inadequate and wants a better deal.

However, with the UN and other major political stakeholders such as the USA, Germany, UK among other countries already in support of the initiative, it is very likely that the agreement will sail through.  Also encouraging are the feelers from members of the Nigerian diplomatic community in Addis Ababa who expect that by the time Nigeria which at that time occupied the position of Chairman of the African Union wades into the matter, the issue will be amicably resolved.  So high is the confidence many African diplomats have in Nigeria’s ability to resolve many nagging political issues on the continent that even when I expressed my reservations over this impression, one of the officials stood his ground.  As the diplomat put it, “Nigeria is well respected by several African countries for her courage and intelligence to resolve international disputes and it is a pity that Nigerians don’t appreciate what they have.  It is a case of a prophet not having the required respect in his home”.

My last few hours in Addis were spent with my fellow Parliamentarians, Civil Rights Leaders and Judiciary officers putting finishing touches to the Communiqué that outlined the outcome of our Human Rights Conference.  This was very crucial since the officials of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights who convened the meeting insisted on a very practical and realistic time-table of actions on the subject matter rather than mere “political statements”.

As I made my way to the newly Commissioned Bole International Airport for my final departure to Nigeria, I once again admired some major sights of Addis.  Apart from the Central market, The Mecato, equally fascinating was the Campus of the Addis Ababa University, the Pizza which is the commercial nerve centre of the town as well as the residential area of Kasa.

A further testimony to the long tradition of Ethiopia were the two palaces, one built by King Menilek (now the residence of the Ethiopian Prime Minister) and the other one by Emperor Haile Selassie before the Italian occupation of Ethiopia (now the official residence of the President).  At a local Cafetaria, Abbysynian Café, I tried to eat a popular local meal of Injera and Wot.  Unfortunately, I found the Injera rather too sour and the Wot too bland.  Perhaps that was the only thing I found unremarkable about this ancient land of remarkables.