A Gallop in Ethiopia: Wax, Gold & the Abyssinian Pony

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Richard Dowden in his acclaimed book, “Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles” has this piece of advice for those who wish to explore the continent. ‘’The best way to find out is to go, not as a tourist in a bubble of Western luxury and safety, but as a traveller to meet people and engage with them. It is easily done. But beware. Africa can be addictive. Les fous d’Afrique, the French call them, those who become mad about Africa.’’

While Yves-Marie-Stranger seems to have been spared of the madness, that he has been fascinated by the part of Africa he encountered appears evident. How else can one explain an enduring attachment expressed thus, “Today, twenty years later, like the über-Ethiopians of Frankfurt and Minneapolis (‘more Orthodox than the Abun, more Oromo than the Aba Gada’), my gaze remains resolutely turned in the direction of Ethiopia, a country that I tried to make mine by the force of my will.”

It was not, of course, a case of love at first sight, as the phrase the force of my will suggests. In fact, he begins with a frank admission of the aversion he felt initially to the capital and the people, “I immediately took a strong dislike to Addis Ababa and to Ethiopians.” Hardly a promising start for one who would gradually morph into an aficionado of things Ethiopian. The aversion did not, however, deter him from trying to court the country and its habitants, “desperately trying to make myself accepted by Ethiopians. I ate my enjera with a great show of relish.” Gradually, his attachment sent roots and found himself a devotee, eventually marrying an Ethiopian woman. He then established a stable, Equus Ethiopia, to set up a trek over to the high plateau. He has since remained a devotee, “Having come to spend two months in Ethiopia, I was able to leave fifteen years later.”

An aspect of the country that intrigues and exercises the writer’s mind is a quality scholars enamored of it usually attribute to it and a portion of its citizens enthusing in its exceptionality relish. He makes recourse to a (possibly apocryphal) saying of Emperor Haile Selassie to make his point: ‘An enigma coiled in the heart of a secret, itself plunged into darkness.”  The saying finds contemporary resonance in a lyric of an Amharic song (not surprisingly, by an exiled singer wistfully nostalgic about a faraway land); “Only Divinity is able to penetrate the mysteries of Ethiopia“.

But Stranger doesn’t let the apparent inscrutability of the country discourage him from making a determined and persistent effort to get to the heart of the putative mystery. Undaunted, he sets himself to the task of explicating the conundrum of the country and its ways. He thus avails himself of whatever comes in handy to help him in the endeavor. Talking to ordinary people, delving into the writings of anthropologists, befriending people like a bohemian writer Sebhat Gebre Egziabher, chewing chat with Ethiopian friends, moving in the charmed circle of remarkable gentlemen of the bygone era such as the pioneer of Ethiopia’s tourism industry, Hapte-Selassie Tafesse, and his secretary Worku Sharew who was also an editor at Shama Books.

The volume also includes interviews with three distinguished people; Rahel Shawel (architect),  Beedemariam Mekonnen (hotelier and grandson of Emperor Haile Selassie), and Éloi Ficquet (French anthropologist), each offering their perspectives on the past and present of the country, its hopes, aspirations, challenges, and prospects.

Not just the age-old tradition of the country, but its march toward modernity also fascinates the writer. He marvels at the remarkable speed at which the country was growing. “Everything was growing, not just the population, and, with an economy expanding at nearly 10% per annum at the dawn of the 2010s, everything seemed possible: Ethiopia, new China.”

Indeed, under the watch of a developmental state, the country’s resolve to overturn its negative stereotype and slough off its unenviable reputation as the world’s poorest moniker was such that its ventures in this direction were beginning to bear fruit and was attracting  the notice of such notable publications as The Economist, which joined in the chorus of Ethiopia rising narrative by lauding Ethiopia as the China of tomorrow

It is to be recalled that only ten years back, the same magazine infamously pronounced Africa as the hopeless continent. Other writers, too, were suitably impressed by the positive turn of events and promising developments shaping the continent in general and Ethiopia in particular. This is how the authors of the book, The Next Africa: An Emerging Continent Becomes a Global Powerhouse envisioned what the future held in store for the continent based on the current performances of some countries, “Ethiopia, Ghana, and Kenya will vie with South Africa for rights as South Africa’s second-largest economy…. Ethiopia will have blazed the “Made in Africa” path, becoming the continent’s first viable outsourcing and manufacturing hub, supplanting China and attracting sourcing from multiple global companies.” 

The question, however, was the economic progress raising the living standards of the people? This was what the author made at askance at much-touted progress.

“But the new industrial parks struggled to be more than Potemkin industries. Young graduates with no job prospects are legion, and Ethiopia today has 110 million people—60% of which are under the age of 25. It was as if Ethiopia had experienced the post-war ‘thirty glorious years’ and the neoliberal ‘winner takes all’ fever of the 1990s and 2000s, plus the long post-2008 crisis—but all compressed inside little more than a decade. The number of Ethiopians receiving food aid, in one form or another, had hovered between 15 and 25 million per year for a decade (and this, with 10% economic growth).

Apparently, to set the stark contrast between the rhetoric and the reality on the ground in bold relief, he ironically concludes the chapter, Ethiopia, the China of tomorrow with a wry observation about his friend Elias Negussie’s shock at the price of oranges he had bought for his daughter, leaving him to muse sadly ‘’the much-lauded Ethiopian economic growth was bearing bitter fruit.’’

By thus moving into Ethiopian social circles and keeping his finger on the pulse of events and developments, Stranger proves himself an astute observer of events and developments in a country, caught between “a frenzied desire for modernity and a visceral attachment to its traditions.”He asks ‘’If modernity were a Zar spirit, it would seem like it is the whole of Ethiopia that is galloping on its back—but towards what new horizons, exactly?‘’ That remains for the future to tell.

The writer’s admirable and persistent efforts at understanding nonetheless, there are a few things he gets wrong. He remarks, for instance, that Meles Zenawi would be the last traditional ruler of the country. A more nuanced reading of the role of tradition might have revealed to him that it was a potent force that simply won’t go away.

On the whole, this book is an enjoyable and welcome addition to writings on contemporary Ethiopia, presenting a good deal of information in a concise and sophisticated way.

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