Wednesday, May 30, 2012

two years late and change

When apexart gave me the opportunity to go to Addis Ababa in November of 2009, they explained the philosophy of their Outbound Residency: the emphasis was to be on the experience, not the creation of work. I was also asked to post to a blog, but since I'm a writer (and not one in the habit of blogging), I didn't know if I'd be able to honor the "experience, not work" instruction and the "write a blog" instruction at the same time. In the end, it was a moot point because internet access proved to be unreliable and expensive, so I let the technical restrictions be my excuse for not blogging from Ethiopia.

The furtive notes and snapshots that I did take sat fallow for a long time and then began to evolve into a multi-platform text-image piece centered around an abecedary that gets interrupted by other elements—a way, I hope, to address my own resistance to "travel writing" while indulging my desire to think through the experiences this residency afforded me. What follows is a selection of entries from that abecedary along with a few images. I'm grateful to apexart for sending me to a place I'd always wanted to visit, and to my hosts in Addis, Konjit Seyoum and her family and friends, for their extraordinary generosity welcoming me to their city. 

The exploration continues.



When I tell people about my impending trip, I try to avoid the word “Africa,” though I can’t explain why. I am struck by the timidity, the lack of specificity of the euphemism I adopt: “I got a grant to spend a month in Ethiopia,” I say. “Have you ever been to that part of the world?”

“Unprepossessing from a distance, up close it was dirty and falling apart, stinking horribly of unwashed people and sick animals, every wall reeking with urine, every alley blocked with garbage. Loud music, car horns, diesel fumes, and pestering urchins with hard-luck tales and insinuating fingers and dire warnings, such as ‘There are bad people here.’" 

This is the only mention of Addis Ababa in Paul Theroux’s 2003 New York Times Bestseller, Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town. I had thought it might make good plane reading.

“Paul Theroux is the internationally acclaimed author of such travel books as The Great Railway Bazaar, The Old Patagonian Express, Sunrise with SeaMonsters, and The Kingdom by the Sea. His many novels include Hotel Honolulu and The Mosquito Coast. Theroux lives in Hawaii and on Cape Cod.” 

According to The Boston Herald, “The next best thing to going to Africa is to read (compulsively) this account.” 

No, I’ve never been to that part of the world. 


A direct round-trip flight between New York City and Addis Ababa is 13,910 miles and produces 5,425 lbs of carbon, which is 13% of the total carbon output of the average North American and 24 times that of the average Ethiopian. To offset it by planting trees in Kenya would cost $43.76, less than an hour’s wage for the average New Yorker and one-and-a-half times the average monthly income in Ethiopia.

The morning of my departure I go shoe-shopping. My boots are worn through, and I’m worried they won’t last the trip. The salesman, who tells me he is from Israel, says You’re going to a very poor county, you know. My sister went to South Africa once. She was on safari, she couldn’t believe her eyes. Me, I spent three years in India. The children they keep coming at you, you want to give them everything you have. I buy a pair of $110 boots that seem versatile and comfortable and wear them out of the store, leaving my old ones behind.

It’s midnight when we deplane at the Haille Saillasie International Airport, and a number of us are ushered into a small marble-floored room to apply for our on-arrival visas. Four functionaries receive us at a long table, reminding me of election day at the rural upstate district where I vote, or of registering at an academic conference. Multiple copies of tissue-thin paper and receipts are passed back and forth between the uniformed men, rubber stamps are applied, copies filed; there is no computer in sight. I am reminded of my many arrivals at the Athens airport as a child—the origin, I suddenly recognize, of my fascination with rubber stamps, my fetishization of paper, of duplication, multiples. The next morning, emerging from my Manhattan-sized apartment for a first walk along the broad, sun-beaten avenue occupied by the German and Russian consulates, I am reminded of the year I made a point of walking the broad, sun-beaten avenues of my native Los Angeles, feeling equally foreign for an altogether different reason.

An inferior mind notices similarities, somebody said; a superior mind notices differences. I could have mentioned that that first walk was preceded by a swift ride from the airport through a lightless landscape, so that when I crawled into bed at 2:00 a.m. I didn’t know if my building was on the outskirts or in the center of town. And that after a few hours of silent sleep I was awoken by the sounds of kids playing in the backyard, weekend noises, and that when I walked out on my Juliet balcony to discover where I was, there were high rises, a river, and a jungle, and two boys walking a sheep by its hind legs, like a wheelbarrow, toward a tall man in a dark suit, who pulled a knife from his pocket and killed the animal, then sat the boys down and taught them how to dress it.


After a week in the city, I become curious about the countryside. I meet an artist, Dawit, who is returning to live in the southern region of Gambella, where he was raised, to take possession of a large farm, which the government has sold him for very little as part of a complex and controversial land redistribution program whereby farmland that was nationalized in the 1974 coup is now used as a lure to attract members of the Ethiopian diaspora back home. Dawit has been away for 20 years: Vancouver, New York, Santa Cruz. He worked as an events planner for the International Olympic committee. He knows less about farming than I do. But he is determined to collaborate with the local population to establish, eventually, an eco lodge as well as an artist’s residency on the farm. I tell him about the emergence of farmer-artist alliances in the U.S. and particularly in my region of the Catskills. We promise to stay in touch.

“Gambella, Ethiopia: tourist attraction,” a production of that features groups of people in colorful garb dancing and singing before tourists with cameras, has been watched 1,391 times since it was posted on Youtube in April 2010. There are no comments.

“Gambella, Ethiopia = The suffering of Gambella people,” a production of Freedom4Anuyak that features a soldier in a red beret speaking angrily to the camera, has been watched 6,860 times since it was posted on Youtube in March 2010. The comments are filled with vitriol and anti-semitism. Recent posts revolve around the authenticity of the speaker’s identity. He is accused of being a fake Somali, a “Stupid African American AKA White man slave,” and an immigrant from Midlands, U.K.

According to the 2007 Census, roughly 84% of the Ethiopian population lives in rural areas. Pregnant women in many locales say that even if new clinics were built nearby, they would not opt to have their babies there. The only women they know who are taken to a clinic during labor come back dead. They have seen it happen.


Waiting for Azeb outside the National Theater of Ethiopia, I count titles of the books in English at an outdoor book stall:

How to Win Friends and Influence People (3 copies)
The Power of Positive Thinking (2 copies)
Ayn Rand’s The Viture of Selfishness 
Ayn Rand’s Who Needs Philosophy 
Sex Power Before and After 40 
The Power of Your Subconscious Mind

Azeb, a well-known actress, tells me that when she spent a month in New York, she liked to give money to panhandlers on the street. Here in Ethiopia, she says, it’s the white people who give money. In New York, I’m the white person, so I give

“White person” here is a flawed functional translation of “Ferenj” or “ferenji” a term applied ubiquitously to light-skinned people visiting or living in Ethiopia, even those fluent in the local languages and customs. The etymology of the word is the matter of some debate. It is commonly explained as a variant of the Arabic word “faranj,” meaning Franks, or the Persian “farangi,” meaning foreigner; in Modern Greek, “frangkoi” is sometimes used to denote Western Europeans, and the etymologically unrelated “ferengios” literally translates as “trustworthy” or “financially solvent.”

“Ferengi” also refers to an extraterrestrial race from the Star Trek universe: “Ferengi civilization was built on the ideals of free enterprise, where all other goals are subjugated to the pursuit of profit. Their governing body, known as the Ferengi Alliance, was formed over a period of ten thousand years, beginning with the establishment of a system of currency, progressing to its purchase of warp technology, and finally to its state in the 24th century.”

A white person walking in Addis can expect to hear the matter-of-fact call of “Ferenji! Ferenji!” upwards of a hundred times a day. The Ferengi generally refer to Humans as “Hew-mons” (pronounced “hyoo-mons”).


Mihret, an art student, takes me on a tour of the Ethiopian Studies museum on the university campus. It’s filled with icons and Medieval religious paintings, some anonymous and some by known artists, including my favorite, the Master of Sagging Cheeks. She tells me that if a person is painted in profile, that means he’s a sinner. We spend half an hour looking for sinners in all the paintings.

Later, Mihret takes me to the artist-run Asni gallery, housed in an old mansion atop a verdant hill in the midst of the city. To enter, you pass through a gate marked with what appears to be a Coca Cola sign written in Amharic. I get engrossed looking at the exhibits and forget to ask what it says.


From 1941 to 1943 Italian troops occupied, but did not conquer, Ethiopia, home of the coffee bean. The population prides itself on never having been colonized and refers to this period almost as a joke. In contrast to the situation in many postcolonial nations, literary life in Ethiopia happens overwhelmingly in Amharic, the centuries-old official language, and not in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese… certainly not in Italian.

In Addis, the world’s best macchiatos can be had for between 20 cents and four dollars, depending on the neighborhood and venue. Ellie tells me in an email that the word “macchiato” comes from the Italian word for “stain;” the coffee is stained with a drop of milk. 


I go shopping.

Good Governance and Civil Society Participation in Africa by Organization for Social Science Research in Eastern and Southern Africa (OSSREA)

Testing the theory of reasoned action and its extensions: predicting intention to use condoms by Edward E Marandu

The Origins of Amharic by Girma Awgichew Demeke

Gender Issues Research Report, Series No. 23

OSSREA Eastern Aftica Social Science Research Review, Vol. XX, No. 2, June 2009

The Resolution of African Conflicts by Alfred Nhema & Paul Tiyambe Zeleza

Assessment of Poverty Reduction Strategies in Sub-Saharan Africa: The cases of Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda, Uganda, and Zambia

Poverty and the Social Context of Sex Work in Addis Ababa: an Anthtropological Perspective. by Bethlehem Tekola

Issues in Urban Poverty: Two Selected Papers by Daniel Kassahun. & Meron Assefa

The Quest for Expression: State and the University in Ethiopia under Three regimes, 1952-2005 by Randi Ronning Balsvik

The Peasant and the State: Studies in Agrarian Change in Ethiopia 1950s-2000s by Dessalegn Rahmato

Health, Wealth and Family in Rural Ethiopia by Andrew J. Carlson and Dennis G. Carlson

The Roots of African Conflicts. The Causes & Costs by Alfred Nhema and Paul Tiyambe Zeleza

The Quest for Peace in Africa by Alfred G. Nhema

These are the books I buy in Ethiopia. I read The Peasant and the State: Studies in Agrarian Change in Ethiopia 1950s-2000s, while sitting outside the coffee stall two deserted blocks away from my apartment, in the opposite direction from the university. Tea here is only 2 birr, impossibly cheap.

On my first two visits to the cafe, I try ordering macchiato, but am told the machine is broken. Finally, I stop asking and start ordering tea instead. One day, I order tea and am brought a macchiato.

I read Poverty and the Social Context of Sex Work in Addis Ababa: an Anthtropological Perspective in the airport in Istanbul during my layover on my way home to New York. I charge a cup of coffee to my credit card. It costs 8 euros.


Once upon a time, there was a clever monkey called Toteet. She used to spend her days swinging from tree to tree. As she spent her days in the forest, she became friends with a lion. The lion’s name was Brute. Whenever Brute went hunting, Toteet would go with him. Toteet would call out from the high trees. She would tell Brute where his prey were hiding. One day Brute asked Toteet to marry him. Toteet was very angry. She knew that Brute had two wives. She did not want to be his third wife. But she promised to think it over.

Tales of Toteet by Ethiopian children’s book author, Michael Daniel Ambatchew


The basic staple of Ethiopian food is Injera, the bread that serves as a carbohydrate, a plate, and silverware. The grain used in injera is tef. The traditional method of farming tef has been refined over generations. It is extremely labor intensive and at the mercy of the weather.

First, you plow with Oxen.
Then, you let it rain.
Then, you spread the seed.
Then, you gather your neighbors and walk the field to tamp down the seed.
Then, you wait for rain.
Then, you send in the cows to trample the field again.
Then, you wait.

I may have the details wrong, but the procedure goes something like this. The tef grain is very fine and does not adapt well to mechanization. That the cows fertilize as they trample is not an explicit part of the equation, but when they are subtracted from the process, fertility is lost despite chemical amendments according to formula. International development interests are campaigning to promote a transition from tef to other grains that are more easily grown using industrialized means, but a majority of Ethiopians resist this removal of their bread, plate and fork in the name of progress.


Haille Sellaisie’s “lion cages,” in the center of town near the university, make for the saddest zoo I’ve seen. Lions prowl alone in bare concrete cages, smaller than my apartment. It costs 10 birr extra to take pictures. I have no desire to take pictures.

Somebody said that the way a country treats their animals reflects how they treat their people. My favorite place in Addis is the Zoological Natural History Museum, where everything is stuffed, pinned, jarred, labeled. Housed in what looks like a former elementary or high school, now the faculty of the University’s Botany department, it is just around the corner from my apartment and I visit it often. The director is always there, wearing a white lab coat, ready to answer my questions about the hundreds of species of birds he has painstakingly displayed in dioramas. His goal, toward which he is progressing mightily, is to gather every species of animal in Ethiopia under one roof. He is getting close to representing the 800-plus birds, whose names and characteristics he can rattle off to me at will. I start to recognize some of the species from my balcony after his teachings.

The museum is trying to raise funds for a new building: 2 million birr, less than $200,000, will buy the director the palace of his dreams. On the wall as you enter, a hand-painted sign explains the need for a bigger and better Natural History Museum. The sign is in English and lists the reasons in a series of categories:

A Modern Natural History Museum should be an enjoyable recreation spot

A Modern Natural History Museum should have modern displays, workshops, lectures, filmshows, areas for children and scientific facilities

A Modern Museum asks you to take part in various activities

A Modern Museum teaches you to have respect for living things

These are in the category ABSTRACT REASONS, which is preceded by a headnote:

Abstract Reasons: Wild animal life is so important to some people that a world without wildlife is to them a world not fit to live in.

At the exit to the museum, there is a full length mirror with a message printed on it: THIS ANIMAL IS WILDLIFE’S GREATEST THREAT. It’s the last picture I take in Addis.