In the eye of a political storm
Photo: ©2005 Khaled Diab
The first sign that something was awry was the difficulty with which we found a taxi – there was only a smattering of the government-owned yellow ones and none of the private blue ones – to get us from the airport to the hotel, where the reception staff greeted us with big smiles like reunited friends. When we asked them what was going on in town, they seemed reluctant to divulge too much – perhaps because they did not wish to alarm us or give us what they thought was a poor picture of their country.
We eventually managed to get them to confirm that there we were in the midst of a three-day transport strike and that there had been clashes. “But it’s nothing for you to worry about. The city is safe,” one of the receptionists reassured us.
“We’re sure it is,” we agreed.
There is something both eerie and intriguing about walking around a large city that has more or less completely shut down. The private transport strike had more or less brought Addis to a grinding halt, since public transport was not enough to keep the city moving.
It also struck me that many shop owners had used the strike as an excuse to join the protest, because there were thousands of people milling around but hardly a commercial establishment for them to enter.
In the phantom city, we had to get everywhere on foot and it took us two hours of walking around before we found an internet connection so that we could check our e-mails to make sure that Katleen’s colleague’s sister was coming to pick up her money.
During our walk around, Addis seemed calm – we joked that it would be hard to see the signs of vandalism in such a rundown place – but there was an underlying tension. It seemed to flow beneath the city’s streets, in the murky depths where a sewage system should have been, carrying the barely concealed discontentment and disillusionment of a population that had been shat upon by generations of uncaring leaders and ignored by an outside world preoccupied with other matters.
Katleen and I were impressed that in such a poor country – where no work often equated as no food, and there were no union funds to support striking workers – people could organise such an effective strike action. In the two days we were in Addis, we saw no more than half a dozen blue taxis and at least 90% of the shops were closed.
However, despite this show of public courage, it occurred to me that this defiant display of popular will would go hardly unremarked by the outside world. The media would not fall over itself to give Ethiopia’s revolt against the status quo an inspirational name – it would not merit the prefix Orange, Cedar, or even New Flower affixed before Revolution.
But we were quite sure that this would not be the end of the popular movement and we feared things might get uglier after our departure.
Even Live8, which is ostensibly dedicated to Africa and particularly Ethiopia, did not spark too much interest in the election and its fallout. It is almost as if Ethiopia is only invited to the party if it is dressed in the sufficiently wretched attire of emaciated and hungry powerlessness. A defiant and rebellious people complicates the simple telegenity of starving children – especially if they can turn up 20 years later looking healthy and as stunning as a supermodel.
Ever since my return from Ethiopia, I have not been able to see Bob Geldof or the Live8 effort without succumbing to a severe dose of scepticism. I’d like to believe that it will have some impact and I wish it will, but the signs are not good.
Even its limited goal of showing G8 leaders what people think did not seem to worry them unnecessarily. I suppose the superrich celebrity spokespeople charged with delivering the message are too much a part of the status quo to worry the leaders of the world’s superrich countries, even if Sting delivered a stinging rendition of Every step you take telling those leaders to watch their back.
Live8 was more of a low-cost gesture to make the affluent feel good because they were doing their bit to make poverty history. But just as a one-night stand does not constitute a relationship, the biggest concert ever staged is unlikely to make a shred of difference to the net sum of poverty in the world – in fact, it might only succeed in making sub-Saharan Africans feel cheap when they wake up the morning after to find that the rich world has forgotten their number again, despite the wonderful night of flirtation and intimacy.
Photo: ©2005 Khaled Diab
Friday the thirteenth
Our second day in Addis was also our 13th day in Ethiopia which just happened to be a Friday. Although I am not superstitious and find it amusing that the number 13 – especially when combined with a Friday – should bother anyone, the coincidence of walking through the troubled ghost city on such a day appealed to my poetic side.
Determined to make the most of our last day in the country, we set off fairly early in order to make time to walk everywhere. Our first stop was the excellent Ethnographic Museum which is housed in Haile Selasie’s former palace, on the campus of Addis Ababa University.
The informative and interesting exhibition is laid out along the theme the human lifecycle, from birth to death. It delves into how the country’s diverse ethnicities deal with each of these phases of life. The gloss and modern museum starts with the nation’s founding myths, including the Queen of Sheba’s famous encounter with Solomon.
It also explores birth and mothering among the various tribes and ethnicities in the country, early childhood, initiation into adulthood, courtship, marriage, as well as conflict, sport, music and art.
In the afternoon, we decided to head down to the huge mercato (market) district to see if any shops were open so that we can do some last-minute gift shopping. En route, we observed the nervous movement of police and army troops around the city. I took a photo of a special forces jeep after it passed us. It turned back and the commanding officer asked to see my video camera. I explained it was a normal camera and he let us go. A little while later, while pretending to read our map on a main square, I took a photo of a passing army truck. However, the farcical encounter was still to come at the market.
The walk took us the better part of two hours, so you can imagine our disappointment when we discovered that the entire market, reputed to be the biggest in sub-Saharan African, was completely shuttered. But entertainment was waiting round the corner.
The incriminating photo.
Photo: ©2005 Katleen Maes
We had one exposure left on the camera and Katleen used it to capture an old woman walking along one of the Mercato’s side streets (see below). Suddenly, a police constable pounced on us, barking: “No photos.” At this point, I was already putting the camera away and I told him that we wouldn’t take any more photos.
This did not satisfy him and he insisted on seeing the camera. We showed to him. He asked us to take out the film and we refused. Perhaps not happy at having his authority questioned, he asked us to accompany him to the police station. We refused, insisting that we’ve done nothing wrong.
Caught off guard by our response, he followed us like a lost puppy and we tried to stroll as casually as we could through the closed market district pretending not to notice our tail. As he followed us, he consulted with other policemen and, pretty soon, we found that we were being followed by a small force of half a dozen or so policemen!
Then, all of a sudden, a police pick-up truck skidded to a halt on the other side of the road and the commanding officer leapt out and called us over. We were totally bewildered as to how a simple photo of a woman walking down a street could stir up such a fuss, particularly since we’d already taken much riskier photos.
We concluded that the police were either edgy or bored, and our feeling of indignation at their overreaction mounted. The senior officer asked us to go to the station and I tried to reason with him through an interpreter, asking him to explain to us exactly what crime we’d committed or law we’d broken, and that we were not criminals to be treated in such a way.
“No, we don’t think your criminals,” his assistant explained. “We just want to ask you a few questions.” We told them that they could ask whatever questions they liked there on the street. Katleen, who is normally the patient one, dug into the assistant, asking him if they didn’t have anything better to do with their time than pick on tourists.
Our sense of disbelief reached its peak when a police jeep appeared on the scene with the area commander on board. Katleen asked if she could borrow his mobile to call the embassy and I tried to explain the ridiculousness of the situation to him. He asked to see my passport and then let us go.
We’ll never again look at our erstwhile camera in the same light again. We had never realized that it was such a dangerous weapon that required an entire police squad to disarm us of it. The entire episode gives a whole new meaning to shooting film.
Aware of the city’s transport situation, we decided to find a taxi well in advance, but that was more easily said than done. We came across none on our way back to the hotel. I stood outside the hotel several times waiting for a taxi to pass to no avail. The reception tried to phone around to find us a yellow taxi but the few that were running were already booked.
At the 11th hour, while we were eating our dinner, the receptionist managed to find us a private car to take us to the airport at a premium rate – that is, by Ethiopian standards. The night before we had dinner at one of Addis’s best traditional restaurants and we hoped to check out another of the city’s culinary landmarks in the Piazza district.
However, the taxi drama meant that it was too late to walk all that way and back before our transfer to the airport. We sat down for dinner in the hotel emptying restaurant. Just 20 minutes earlier, the restaurant, reception area and adjoining lounge had been buzzing with activity.
Perhaps owing to the transport situation, it emptied out in a matter of minutes and we were left alone with the hotel staff. The solitude was a little eerie and disconcerting. We felt a little like the last people left behind in an evacuated city. A chilling silence had gripped the hotel staff as they watched the flickering television screen in the lounge with visible apprehension.
We asked one of the waiters what was going on and he said it looked like the government wasn’t going to back down over the elections and there was likely to be more trouble ahead in the coming weeks.
We thanked John for agreeing to take us to the airport. He drove us through the city’s dark and deserted streets seeming to pick the better neighbourhoods to pass through. Appropriately, Teddy Afro, Ethiopia’s favourite singer, whose lyrics are apparently hard-hitting and political, provided the background music to our final journey in Ethiopia.
ă2005 K. Diab. Unless otherwise stated, all the content on this website is the copyright of Khaled Diab.