“This country is full of events”

A volcano has just erupted in part of Eritrea that just borders the Afar region of Ethiopia, with a resulting Eyjafjallajökull-like effect on air traffic in this part of the world. Ethiopia, of course, does not have enough going on at the moment.

Bole Medhane Alem Church

Eighteen hour services on feast days - not sure I could cope.

I am reading lots of papers with titles like  “Political ecology: where is the ecology?” and “Political ecology: where is the policy?” which goes to show that political ecology is a good geographical term because people are able to have lots of arguments about what it means, and actually you can make it mean pretty much anything, so it is a useful framework to have for a dissertation where you are not entirely sure of the topic yourself. This is rather my situation at the moment, so as avoidance techniques I go to museums (lots of million-year-old molars and “Screw you Tanzania/Kenya/Chad, Ethiopia is the true cradle of humanity”, except usually phrased more politely) and accidentally get sent on tours of churches which involve quizzes on how well one can recognize the Old Testament Bible scenes in the stained glass windows, and learning that Ethiopian church services can last eighteen hours on feast days, and there are special sticks piled under the pews that people  lean on so they can continue to stand throughout (“What do the priests do for eighteen hours?” I asked the guide. “Sing”, he said, and I’m not sure if this is supposed to encourage the congregation or not).

Part of my work at the moment involves pestering NGOs as to what their opinions are on the business of integrating climate change adaptation concerns into their disaster risk reduction projects (so far, most have politely agreed  that this is a very good thing and they will absolutely take it on board once the minor issue of the current food crisis has been resolved, and then they give me some leaflets about DRR or a USAID map of Ethiopia and hope I go away, because really, of all the things that one could be doing during a food crisis, appeasing interns has got to be pretty low on the list).  Finding the NGOs is often a problem, as Addis is rather short on points of reference, and people expect you turn up either in your NGO jeep or a taxi; since I sadly do not have the power to command the former and cannot afford the latter, I have to walk and tend to get directions like “Well, you know the Saudi Arabia embassy?” (I do not.) “Go straight past there, turn right at the Queen of Sheba Hotel then left at the alley with a sign for an English school and straight on past the place where the yellow minibus is usually parked ” for no one knows the street names, which have all changed anyway, so an awful lot of my time is spent wandering around the back streets of Addis tripping over herds of skinny sheep and the occasional donkey while looking for a building with high wall and lots of barbed wire, which is reliably either an embassy or an NGO.

Addis minibuses

Minibuses; also, weather and a monument to the victims of Italian repression in the 1930s.

Anyway, working out how to use the public transport in a new city is one of the best parts of travelling, even if you end up in some slightly odd places on the way, and even though it is usually a happy accident when I am on a minibus whose destination coincides with my own and the system of payment is so far entirely opaque, I am enjoying the Addis minubuses.  These are fast and plentiful and the brakes do not always work terribly well, so when they stop on an uphill stretch (which they mostly do, for it is a fact that there is more uphill than down in Addis) they have a tendency to roll placidly backwards into the oncoming traffic, and then your morning is made that much more invigorating by means of adrenalin. But actually the traffic is remarkably well-behaved, and cars do not go out of their way to run you down, which they do in some places, and sometimes they even stop at zebra crossings. Indeed, the only vehicle I have seen careering about in a cavalier manner was a UNICEF jeep which for some reason had a flashing light and a siren and was obviously off on an emergency trip to fund some children somewhere. The only time this changes is during the magnificent thunderstorms when the power flicks off block by block, and freed from the tyranny of traffic lights, things merrily degenerate into survival of the fittest, and crossing the road become a great adventure, especially when you are the only person out in the storm, which I usually am (well, me and the guys trying to sell me umbrellas, and you have to keep your umbrella up all the time even though it does no good, for otherwise you are chased by people brandishing said item at you) because I like them, and have made myself unpopular with the hotel cleaners due to my tendency to drip in corridors afterwards.

Anyway, fingers crossed that next week will take me out of Addis and into the project sites, where there will be more entertaining things than public transport to write about (although this seems to be an unfortunate habit of mine, at least Addis doesn’t have a metro system for me to eulogise). I’m enjoying working here, but I get the feeling that there is much more to see out of town.


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