Archive: Offbeat – Travel in Ethiopia


On the way from the airport, our taxi had no headlights, one functioning windscreen wiper to rearrange the water from a torrential downpour, rather than sweep it away, and no suspension.

   ADDIS ABABA May 3, 2005 Sapa
   On the way from the airport, our taxi had no headlights, one functioning windscreen wiper to rearrange the water from a torrential downpour, rather than sweep it away, and no suspension.
   Welcome to Addis Ababa’s clapped-out blue-and-white Lada 1200 taxis.
   The taxi’s windows could not wind down, there was no air conditioning — but there was running water.
   The “we” in this case was Sapa’s reporter, a Member of Parliament and an academic, in town for a conference on defence budgeting.
   Hell-for-leather the car sped down the airport highway – it was after 11pm – the rain pelting down and the lights of oncoming cars leaving us dazzled.
   Then it was across the traffic island and into the face of those speeding lights. Suddenly we veered of the road and sped down a narrow alley lined with corrugated iron fences.
   We would still learn this was what Addis Ababa looked like, a chaotic and largely unplanned sprawl of houses, shacks, hotels and shops.
   The driver insisted this was a shortcut to the hotel. Being South Africans, we feared the worst.
   But sure enough, soon enough, our hotel loomed out of the gloom, the Hotel de Leopol, in the city’s Bambis district.
   Addis Ababa, the name means “new flower” in Amharic, a main language, is the capital of an ancient and largely orthodox Christian country.
   Ethiopia prides itself on offering the visitor “13 months of sunshine” – and it delivers because its Julian calendar has 12 long and one short month.
   It is also advertised as the country where one feels “seven years younger.”
   Again there is truth in advertising, as it is still 1997 in the country. Visitors arriving are returning to the 20th Century, while those leaving are, as a film title once put it, going “back to the future.”
   When asking for a wake-up call, wary travellers should also beware what clock they are using. They might be on “standard” time, but Ethiopia’s clock runs differently.
   Since Ethiopia was only briefly colonised — by Italy from 1936 to 1941 — its ancient way of telling the day and time has persisted to this day. Indeed, many Ethiopians seem unaware there is any other way of doing so.
   Therefore, imagine the surprise of a group of visitors from Sweden who asked for a six o’clock wake-up and were roused at midnight – or 6pm, Ethiopian time. The Ethiopian day starts at 6am (standard time), making noon their 6am.
   “It was very confusing for the first two months,” a Lesotho diplomat based in Addis Ababa said. “Even now I rather say ‘I’ll meet you for dinner in four hours’ time’ rather than saying I’ll see you at six’.”
   In Ethiopia the expression must be that goats do not vote for Easter. They are part of the main course for Sunday lunch.
   In the run-up to the Orthodox Easter, this weekend, hundreds could be seen being herded through city streets, shaggy and with red dye on the fur on their backs. Here and there, a housewife, in brightly embroidered white traditional dress could be seen inspecting a specimen.
   “They’ll all be dead before Sunday”, our taxi driver prophesied while taking ten of us on a US100 tour of the city in a minibus on Orthodox Good Friday.
   And so it proved. The next afternoon, while standing on a hotel room balcony, a goat in a neighbouring yard could be heard to bleat its last.
   Down below, a man worked fast, slitting the animal’s neck and severing its head. He picked up the dead animal by the legs and took it inside.
   Soon it was raining, making the smog from hundreds of eucalyptus-leave cooking fires worse.
   Christians in Ethiopia take their religion seriously. Perhaps it is a reaction to the repression of worship during a vicious 1974-1991 communist dictatorship.
  That was demonstrated on Good Friday, when hundreds of worshippers could be seen all over the city, mourning the death of the Christ. On high festivals, Ethiopian Orthodox Union Church members pray for up to seven hours — standing.
   At Kidist Mariam (St Mary’s Church) in the hills above the city of about 2.5 million people, a museum dedicated to the memory of Ethiopia’s unifier, Negus Negusti (Emperor) Menelik II, who ruled from 1889 to 1909 and who founded Addis Ababa, displayed the ceremonial dress he and his empress wore during services as well as long, crutch-like staffs used by them for staying upright when standing for so long.
   Outside the staffs were in evidence, although many worshippers were kneeling or otherwise prostrating themselves.
   The period between Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection is a time of near total fasting, only a small meal is allowed overnight.
   On Saturday, all observant hotel staff — and most other city residents wore a straw of grass tied around their foreheads.
   The hotel’s entrance and most shop floors were also liberally sprinkled with grass, symbol of fertility and a physical marker of a religious holiday.
   On Sunday morning, religious staff, men and women, and even the business class air hostess on the flight back to Johannesburg were wearing their Sunday best rather than the usual uniform.
   Those who could, had already been in church since midnight in anticipation of the rising of the Christ and the feast to follow.
   On the way back to the airport, in what may have been a former Toyota, even more clapped out than the Lada, worshippers could be seen spilling out of the impressive octagon-shaped St George Coptic Christian Cathedral, built by Menelik in 1896.
   The prayers, being sung by a priest, were blaring over a public address system that could be heard kilometres away.
   On Monday they started a vegetables-only fast that is set to last 53 days, to Ascension Day.