From Ethiopia into the rest of Africa; along a road paved with tattoos and other forbidden things

Where are the new roads being built in Africa taking the people, and what do the residents in the mushrooming apartments in the cities dream of?

IF you drop in on Ethiopia once every one or two years, the outward progress you see in places like the capital Addis Ababa, is very impressive.

It is a country in a hurry. It is pouring cement, stone, and laying down tar like it is going out of fashion. Ethiopia has been notching up the fastest growth of any African – and world –economy, turning nearly 11% a year.

If you ever visited Ethiopia in the awful days of Mengistu Haile Mariam’s military junta in the 1980s, the difference is like Earth and Mars.

Some old habits die hard, though. Ethiopia is not a bright-eyed democracy by any measure. The ruling EPRDF dominates power, and still rules with hammer and tongs, though with a velvet touch. And while its economy is galloping, the benefits have not been fairly shared and inequality is deepening.

Its state-led capitalism and political model were recently tested when high-handed plans to expand the capital into neighbouring Oromo lands provoked protests. According to human rights organisations, over 200 Oromo protestors were killed in the ensuing confrontation.

The government has now backed down and abandoned the expansion, for now, and Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn has struck a rare moderate tone on the Oromo demonstrations.

Also, despite the progress, and an aggressive push to bring more electricity and green power to the grid, outages are still frequent in Addis Ababa. Internet services are in the Stone Age, compared, for example, to what is offer in tech savvy Nairobi.

Hungry, but…

A drought, the worst in nearly 60 years, has also further exposed the country’s fragilities, and nearly 11 million people are in need of food aid.

Yet, it is the fact of the hungry Ethiopians, that reveal the real changes the country has made. Thirty years ago, a drought that was probably only half as severe set off a famine in which, according to some estimates, up to million people died.

It served up horror images of people dying daily like flies, and led to the birth of the celebrity charity concert, with the Bob Geldof-inspired Live Aid concert.

In some of those places where thousands perished, today there are lush irrigated farms. 

READ: Ethiopia’s remarkable turnaround: 30 years after famine, village now hosts visitors to show off food security

If there is a miracle then, it is that today millions are hungry and suffering, but there have hardly been any deaths reported. 

An African mirror

However, I was tantalised by something elsewhere – how the state of affairs in Ethiopia might mirror what is happening in the rest of Africa.

Like for other countries on the continent, the more interesting question is where the new roads are taking the people, and what the dreams of the residents in the mushrooming apartments in cities like Addis Ababa, Kigali, Nairobi, Accra, and Dakar, are.

It’s not easy to read, for the clues are sometimes hidden in strange places.

I was talking to a thoughtful African economist in Addis Ababa about the drought, when I joked that what Ethiopia needed to do was to buy some rain.

However, he didn’t take it lightly. He looked at me seriously and said, “actually, rain is not a problem. What African countries like Ethiopia that have been hard hit by drought need to do, is to invest in the technology to make rain. It’s possible, you know”.

It is. The Chinese make a lot of rain, and recently even Zimbabwe put some money into seeding clouds to water its parched lands.

READ: In search of rain: Zimbabwe starts modifying weather as drought deepens

I chose to read his comments metaphorically. 

What I heard was that even what countries like Ethiopia are doing isn’t what will make Africa a big winner. 

For that, we needed to move beyond exploiting the gifts of nature – the minerals, oil, weather, wildlife tourism – or those that were made by our ancestors, like the pyramids, the old Coptic cathedrals, the stone monuments of the Great Zimbabwe, and cave paintings, and do our own new things through innovation.

Zola Tatto in Addis Ababa has been busy allowing people like this Ethiopian woman make a statement. It’s a growing business in Africa and points to interesting explorations by young people on the continent. (Zola Tatto/FB).

Thus if you are to have tourism, then do it like the South Africans, and build Sun City. You can hang a bungee-jumping rope at Victoria Falls, yes, but let it be the start of something ambitious, not the end.

There are not too many matured developments of this, beyond a few like Sole Rebels, the very successful Ethiopian shoe company founded by Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu.

It makes and sells revolutionary eco friendly and vegan handcrafted shoes. It was the world’s first fair trade green footwear firm certified by the World Fair Trade Organisation (WFTO) and is now one of Ethiopia’s most thriving businesses.

It sells its products in over 55 countries, and its biggest markets are in Austria, Canada, Japan, Switzerland and the US.

More Sole Rebels

But will Africa have more Sole Rebels? Yes.

In Addis Ababa, when you park in a mall lot or along a street, something very familiar in other African cities happens. A hawk-eyed vendor nearby will slide up to your car window, and offer to sell you a cheap phone charger, fake Rolex, and other wares.

If you don’t buy, he will present pirate DVDs of the latest Hollywood movies. If you still don’t bring out your wallet, he will probably imagine that you are downcast. He will dig deep in his merchandise and bring out pornography DVDs – speaking highly of local offerings.

It can be offensive, and clearly it’s not the way the vendor will get to heaven.

However, in other ways it is also an act that shows a willingness to go to a forbidden and uncomfortable place, which is where truly ground-breaking ideas reside. People like those vendors are not the type who will pray for rain. They are more likely to try and make it.

Tattoos and forbidden things

Indeed, this time, I noticed in Addis a large number of young men and women spotting strange hairstyles and tattoos (some in unusual places). At one tourist art shop a cashier wearing a low cut blouse had an unmissable wild flower tattoo that obviously started much further down snaking all the way to her neck.

“Good” girls don’t do those kind of tattoos.

And that is what makes it a good indicator. It is a statement of hyper individuality, and a bold break away from what African tradition would approve, and therefore quite promising.

It’s refreshing to see these new explorations of the self and uncharted frontiers around Africa. Inside them, are modern day versions of the 15th century explorer Vasco da Gama.

As long as there is an army of restless and Africans out there, there will be more exciting things, like Ackeem Ngwenya’s shape-shifting wheel, or the Moyo Waterfront Restaurant in South Africa.


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