A former New Zealand Herald journalist, David Robie has travelled widely overland in 14 African countries and is now group features editor of the Aga Khan’s Daily Nation national daily in Nairobi, Kenya.
By David Robie
Fascinating and awesome, Ethiopia could easily be some make-believe country plucked from the pages of Hans Christian Andersen or the brothers Grimm.
For centuries the world has caught only fleeting glimpses of the fairytale nation where history has become confused with legend.
This is the land of the fabled Queen of Sheba, Prester John, the hidden kingdom of Lalibela and the robber-ogre Emperor Theodore. And it is the domain of the of the world’s oldest Christian state which, locked away in mountain strongholds and counting the days on a calendar of 13 months, fought for survival in the middle of conquering Islam.
Ethiopia was among the first parts of black Africa known to European travellers. The handful who braved the gauntlet of mountain passes and raiders marvelled at the splendour and squirmed at the barbarities of the empire in the 16th and 17th centuries — when much of Africa was still a blank on the map.
Even today [authored in 1973] the country is still struggling to catch up with the 20th century. The cities of Addis Ababa and Asmara pay homage to progress with the superficial trappings of ultramodern buildings, industries and neon lights.
But in the countryside the black Biblical world of Ethiopia has hardly changed. The raw beef banquets, the self-satisfied priests emerging from corrugated-iron roofed church huts, the doziness of officials, the toiling peasants crushed by feudalism, the beggars, and the bigotry and violence of the Middle Ages set against remarkable scenic beauty — they are all still there.
In the small towns mud and timber buildings crimble and decay. Banks and post offices are rare. So are schools. The only plentiful places are 75cent-a-night doss houses and bars.
Hygiene is usually forgotten. Looking for a lavatory is an idle exercise. And garbage lies uncollected in alley ways — waiting for hyenas which often venture into villages at night to scavenge.
In a moment of recklessness, I decided to drive into Ethiopia from Kenya’s northern frontier district, which has been closed for several years because of marauding shifta — border bandits. The track was a bruising obstacle course of a dried-up stream beds and potholes.
Diversity of the races makes it difficult for the King of Kings, Emperor Haile Selassie, ruler of Ethiopia since 1916 — except for six years of exile during Mussolini’s occupation — to keep a firm grip on the country from his capital Addis Ababa.
He has been plagued with disorder in Eritrea where there is a Muslim struggle for independence and in Ogaden which is coveted by Somalia.
Addis Ababa is a vibrant thrusting city of almost 700,000 people. Founded toward the end of last century [19th], it is the showpiece of Ethiopia with modern wide boulevards and striking buildings. But Addis has grown in a disjointed and gangling manner. A short distance from the lavish Town Hall there are whole districts of depressing mud hovels.
In a country with a population of almost 25 million people there are 42 million chickens, 26 million cattle, 24 million sheep, 17 million goats and eight million camels.
The peasants farm diligently. They use ploughs well and are skilled in terracing and irigation. Their crops are substantial. But they remain among the poorest in Africa (average income each is little more than NZ$40 a year).
Although in 1967 the hated tithe system — paying up to two-thirds of a crop to absentee landlords of the Church — was abolished, feudalism still lingers on to sap the economy.
Any attempt at radical change is crippled by deeply embedded traditions and prejudices. Bitterness among younger Ethiopians lucky enough to have been to school (there are only about 800,000 students at school or university this year) was one of the reasons for a revolt against the emperor in 1960.
My first close contact with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church was at Debre Libanos, the holiest monastery and about 160 km north of Addis Ababa.
The grounds of the monastery’s NZ$1.5 million church were packed with pilgrims — blind women, criplled men, elephantiasis victims, lepers and dying old people. And, of course, the beggars pleading for a handout.
By day the pilgrims kissed the steps of the church and bathed in a nearby holy spring, praying for a cure. By night, they slept in lean-tos beside graves in the cemetery.
One of the bars that I ducked into had special character. The ceiling was covered with years of soot from the midfloor fitreplace. The walls were unfaced mud.
On one wall a grubby page from a Danish newspaper weighed up the chances of Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali before their world heavyweight boxing title bout. On another was a nude torn from an old Playboy magazine.
The mountain road between Addis Adaba and Asmara passes through many historic places. Gondar, about midway, was a medieval capital and the remains of nine castles built by King Fasilides and his sons still crown the hilltop overlooking the town.
To the north is Axum, the 3000-year-old capital of the Queen of Sheba’s kingdom, which contains strange relics from the past. Towering granite obelisks near the town are a mystery.
Recent archaeological excavations have uncovered the foundations of ancient palaces, tombs and one of the earliest Christian churches — said to be the resting place of the Ark of the Covenant. Many ruins are buried under houses but a huge resettlement scheme will begin soon to enable them to be excavated.
On the edge of the Danakil Desewrt is Bati, a tiny town which swells to a teeming population on market day. Camel trains carry in salt from the saline lakes of the desert. And there is a blending of cultures as Danakil trades with Galla and Amhara.
On the Somali side of the Great Rift Valley is the walled city of Harrar with its crooked wooden houses perched jauntily on top of loose-stone walls and winding alleyways too narrow for cars. Harrar has a frenetic market, like most of Ethiopia, full of strange smells and beautiful women clad in the white shawl-like shamma.
As I drove out of Addis Ababa, past cunning travel posters which advertised “Thirteen months of sunshine” and bumped along the track back to Kenya, I thought about Ethiopia’s shrinking barriers.
Slowly Ethiopia is conquering the obstacles of isolation and improving communications.
Even the hideous track to Kenya is vanishing. Within two years a super highway will link Addis with Nairobi.
This article was first published in The Sunday Herald on 19 August 1973.