Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Ethiopia, Part Two: Broke, Bag-less, and Blocked

Because this is going to be a pretty whiny post, I figure I’ll start off by saying that I’ve honestly been having a good time in Ethiopia these past several days. I’ve caught up with the grandfolks, kicked it with the cousins, and thrown back some whiskey with the uncles. I even managed to make a side-trip this past weekend to the ancient walled city of Harar in east Ethiopia. (Picture left.)

But the other day, I heard a successful Ethiopian businessman, who used to work in China, say that, “Ethiopia now reminds me of China 20 years ago.” A prediction like that should be as much cause for excitement, as it is for alarm. Indeed, for every two steps towards easing the suffering of this extremely poor, disorganized, and mismanaged country, there seems to be at least one step in the opposite direction—barriers that make things less hospitable for a new generation of progressive, energetic, and talented Ethiopians. As an example—a very petty, microscopic one that does not claim to be either progressive, energetic, or talented—I posit three things that happened to me this past week as examples of what I’m talking about.


One Ethiopian Birr is worth a little more than 1 US dime, which makes me feel like a rich man here and not like the broke thousandaire I am in New York. You acquire, rather quickly, a skewed sense of value. Two rounds of drinks and a round of hookah at a posh sheesha bar in town set us back about 400 Birr. When you convert that into dollars, roughly 40 bones, it doesn’t sound that bad at all. But when you think that 400 Birr is the weekly salary of most entry level, college-educated office workers in Addis, you’ll start to realize that something is pretty off.

And that’s just consumer goods, like booze, food, and such, which have all sky-rocketed in the past year—and especially in the past six months. Oil prices are catapulting here just like in the States, and it’s having an effect on all sectors of life. Prices continue to soar, while salaries stagnate. My cousin, who has a law degree from the premier institution for higher education in Ethiopia (i.e. Addis Ababa University), pulls down 3,000 Birr every month, equal to about 300 American dollars. A full tank of gas here—you have to drive everywhere—costs about 500 Birr and lasts about 10 days. My cousin, if she didn’t carpool with my aunt every morning to work, would be spending almost half of her income on gas. That’s ridiculous, and probably hard for folks whining about $70 fill-ups in Atlanta to fathom.

Speaking of cars, the most ludicrous thing I’ve heard since I’ve been here is the government’s newly imposed automobile tax, which states that all citizens (except of course those with close ties to the ruling party or some kind of investment scheme) hoping to import a car to Ethiopia must pay a tax that is the equivalent of 200% of the value of the car. So, for example, if I wanted to bring a new Porsche Cayenne (market value: $90,000) to Ethiopia, I would have to pay the government $180,000, not including shipping costs. For any young person interested in moving to Ethiopia, working for a couple of years, and living in relative comfort while doing so, the financial strain would probably be too much to handle.

Worst of all, however, isn’t the price of food or gas or even construction cement: it’s real estate. Prices have hit New York levels in Addis Ababa. A crummy 3BR house in a decent part of town would set you back about 2-3 million Birr, or roughly $250,000. You could, if you were so inclined, buy a 1BR condo in Miami for that price—though, to be fair, I’m not sure about the quality of the injera on South Beach.


I landed at Addis Ababa Airport on Friday, July 11, to the unfortunate news that my checked bags had not landed with me. After filling out a lost luggage form with one of the baggage attendants who works for the-airlines-which-shall-remain-nameless, I walked out of the terminal and into the gray-green air. The fresh tang of diesel fuel, burning wood, and eucalyptus trees damp with rain assaulted me with the force of memory. Were these the same taxi drivers that were here hawking rides three, five, thirteen years ago?

I went home that morning rather indifferent about my lost luggage and fairly certain that my bags would return safely within a day or two on the next airlines-which-shall-remain-nameless flight from Paris.

It wasn’t until just yesterday, some twelve days after I departed Hartsfield airport for Ethiopia, that I finally received my luggage from the airlines-which-shall-remain-nameless. Over the course of the past week, I’ve made no less than five trips to the airport. Everyday, I was given a different story about where my bags were and when they’d arrive. Invariably, they were on their way to Addis and would be here tomorrow morning. Eleven tomorrow mornings later, they finally showed up. By this point, I’d been denied daily compensation for my clothing and sanitation expenses (usually a given) and had suffered even more by way of emotional strain. I had to borrow clothes from my male cousins, all of whom happen to be giants, while enduring the constant jokes of my female cousins, who had taken to calling me “Stinky.”

Late last week, I wrote an irate email to the airlines-which-shall-remain-nameless and am told they called back, full of apologies. They wanted to know the names of the employees that I dealt with at Addis Ababa Airport. Later today, when I call them, I will give them no such names, not only because I don’t know the names of the people I dealt with over the past week (it was always a different person), but also because this isn’t about a few rotten apples, as Rummie might have said. This is about a systemic communication and customer relations failure that’s bigger than any one employee.

It’s also about that daily compensation. Papa needs a new pair of chama! (No, seriously: see previous post.)


Here’s something you might not have realized. I didn’t post the last entry to my blog. Even this one you’re reading. Not me either. That honor has fallen, for reasons I will tell you in a second, upon the nimble fingers of a good friend.

The story goes like this. While sitting in an internet café a couple days after my arrival, and starting to reek a bit in my unwashed pair of slacks (thanks again, airlines-which-shall-remain-nameless), I decided to pay myself a visit at Mik Awake: Unusually Tired. My internet connection was strong. I had my Gmail open on another window. But for some reason, I couldn’t access my blog—or any other blog—on the blogspot.com network.

My cousin was checking his email beside me, and I leaned over the divider to ask him if there was a problem with blogspot on his internet. It turns out there is a problem. A big problem.

Blogger.com is a blacklisted site in Ethiopia, only accessible by going through certain URL-scrambling sites like proxify.com and gpass1.com, both of which, however, have now fallen under the banned sites rubric here. So, basically, my blog and all the other blogs running on Blogger.com are blocked in Ethiopia. Which is sad, but which is what you get when the communications infrastructure a country relies on for phone calls, emails, general openness, efficiency, and the free exchange of ideas is controlled by the government. (Yes, Ethiopia is one of the few remaining places on earth whose Internet, mobile, and phone lines are controlled—and closely monitored—by the State.)

All of this anachronistic, quasi-fascist control is weird coming from a government that is as avidly pro-capitalist as Ethiopia is now. For a kind of answer, one must look… East.

It’s interesting to see the way Ethiopia has become, like so many other African countries, a battleground between Euro-American business interests and Chinese interests. It should come as no surprise perhaps that every time Prime Minister Meles gets censured by the “International Community” (read, the U.S. and E.U.) for human rights abuses or election tampering, he makes a trip to Beijing.

“Oh, you want to talk about rights?” I can almost hear him saying. “Let’s see what the homeys back in China are talking about… Oh, they don’t seem to care about my rights abuses. And on top of that, they’re charging me less to do what you do. Fuck you, America! And fuck your phony ideals!”

One does wonder if Ethiopia’s recent reliance on China does make a certain kind of sense. After all, what has Western moralizing, which always seems to be accompanied by blatantly contradictory actions (ahem, Rwanda), ever done for Africa? Why not side with a country that makes no bones about morality and hooks you up with shit?

It is depressing to note how, after so many years, Ethiopia’s answer to solving national ills is to take on the ideals, weapons, goods, and flaws of the biggest bully of the moment. And the bad boy on the Ethiopian block isn’t Uncle Sam anymore. It’s the big, red dragon.

P.S. Block this, Ethio-telecom douchebags.


Me and Pedro said...

"The fresh tang of diesel fuel, burning wood, and eucalyptus trees damp with rain assaulted me with the force of memory. Were these the same taxi drivers that were here hawking rides three, five, thirteen years ago?"

Bam. So good.

Bilen said...

ahnd birr = a dime? really?

it just makes no sense.

glad u got ur threads stinky!

emanuel said...

Well, I guess it would have been a lot more exciting if Ethiopia now reminded her of India 20 years ago. But, the fact that there's only one, "premier institution for higher education in Ethiopia (i.e. Addis Ababa University)," could keep us from achieving that goal. Plus, there is no real value placed on educated manpower. My good friend's father(with a doctorate from Germany) who is a professor at the University makes 2000 Birr a month.

Andy said...

want ... more ... posts ... !!!

Yesukal said...

What Andy said!!!