“As once the winged energy of delight
carried you over childhood’s dark abysses,
now beyond your own life build the great
arch of unimagined bridges.” Rainer Maria Rilke
The road to Ethiopia began on a treadmill at the YMCA exactly five years ago. I had made a commitment to organize a fundraising gala for People to People Aid Organization. With a venue booked at the ROM I realized that I had better start envisioning how that event would look. So in the free-flowing creative state that can be invoked on an easy run, I began to write the event blurb, “Imagine spring with cherry trees in bloom, and an evening party in the elegant and stylish lounge setting of C5 at the ROM.”
My husband and I went on to 5 years of organizing and chairing the People4Kids Gala to raise funds for children orphaned by AIDS in Ethiopia – three years at the ROM and two years at the LUMA in the TIFF Bell Lightbox. From day one we began to meet many members of Toronto’s Ethiopian community who appreciated our efforts to help out. One constant message was to keep in mind that Ethiopia is a beautiful, vibrant country. It felt inevitable that we would one day visit – it was just a matter of “when”. Five galas later with much money raised, and close to full-retirement for us both, we finally made it to see both the country and the organization whose work the gala had supported.
Here are Five Things that Struck me about Ethiopia
- Ethiopia IS a beautiful country with vistas both stark and lush.
- Ethiopians are special people with a unique and remarkable history.
- Ethiopia is a one of the poorest countries in the world.
- Ethiopia is not an easy country to run in.
- Ethiopia is a very safe country.
We travelled to 8 different cities and towns flying first to Arba Minch in the south and then the classic Northern tour of Bahir Dar, Lalibela, Axum and Gondar all by air. We returned to the south with a road trip to Hawassa and Lake Langano. Our two trips to the south included stopovers in Ziway, Chencha, Dorze village, Butijara and a quick visit to a coffee collective in Aleto Wondo. Did you know that 90% of Africa’s mountains are in Ethiopia? The Rift valley with its lakes with mountain surrounds, the rugged mountains of Lalibela reaching 10,000 meters and peeks from afar, of the Simien and Bale mountains, amply illustrate this fact.
Ethiopia has nine UNESCO world heritage sites, which along with Morocco is the most of any country in Africa. Nine of those ten sites are cultural sites. Ethiopia is the only country in Africa that has never been colonized. For a short period it was occupied by the Italians but it is point of pride that it has never been a colony. It is for this reason that the African Union Headquarters is in Addis Ababa.
POVERTY & HEALTHCARE
It is one thing to know intellectually that Ethiopia is one of the poorest countries in the world – 11th from the bottom in per capita GDP. Actually seeing how people living on $2 USD a day live is like the difference between looking at a picture of food and tasting it. Currently there is a severe drought in the Tigray and Afar regions which some say is worse than the drought of 1984 which killed more than 1 million Ethiopians.
On the positive side, life expectancy has risen from 52 to 62 over the past 10 years. Although with so little resources for medical care, a child in Ethiopia with cancer of any kind has little chance of survival.
While one of Ethiopia’s greatest exports is world-class distance runners including Haile Gebrsellasie, the greatest distance runner ever, it is not that easy for a visitor to run in Addis Ababa. Driving style, pollution and poor road/sidewalk infrastructure make running in Addis a huge challenge. Running in some of the smaller towns or cities can be a bit easier. The advantage of training at altitude, Addis is about 2600 meters, helps to produce world-class distance runners but for the everday athlete adaptation to altitude can be quite variable. Fortunately, for all my fears due to a bad experience in Sante Fe a few years back, I had no adverse effects but I was severely limited in my runs by the other constraints.
Not being a particularly adventurous sort, the fact that Ethiopia is one of the safest countries in Africa to travel was an attraction. While it may be a very poor country, there does not seem to be a culture of criminality alongside this. We always felt very safe. Far safer than we did in our visit last spring to Chicago. People were kind and helpful and you got the feeling that if you did run into trouble on the street, the locals would help you.
So this trip was the culmination of an important part of our lives for the past five years. Most of the ferengi (foreigners) we met while there, were those involved in aid work. In fact, we bumped into friends from 22 years back with whom we lost touch with and discovered that they have lived in Addis for 18 years and very much a part of the community of NGO’s in Ethiopia. We met a Dutch man working with religious leaders in small communities so they can help influence their communities to abandon the widespread practice of female genital mutilation, a Japanese man involved with helping strengthen coffee cooperatives and a young economist with the World Food Programme who had decided that he had written enough papers on international development and it was time to some experience on the ground.
And most importantly there are the Ethiopians, the returning diaspora and the extensive world-wide diaspora working towards change in multi-faceted ways. Notably Haile Gebrsellasie, who I had the great honour to meet. He showed us around his Addis office and introduced us to the staff of the Great Ethiopian Run, Africa’s largest running race. But this I think is a topic for a separate blog post.
I greatly admire the committment to change all these individuals represent. While Ethiopia is a wonderful place to visit, for those used to the comforts of developed nations, living there for longer periods of time would be a challenge for most of us.
As the impact of this trip takes hold, I find myself thinking it is only a matter of time before our relationship with Ethiopia will be reimagined, knowing that imagination cannot contain the fullness of what the next five years might hold.