Letter from Ethiopia - January 20, 2002
The Gena and Timqet holiday season is finally over leaving us with doubts and worries about our future, the country's future and, in general, where things are heading.
The 'serg' season which just started with the ending of the 'Gena Tsom' and which will stretch all the way to May will keep many families busy but I am doubting that the brief moments of happiness and celebrations that accompany our elaborate wedding ceremonies will offer us the continued jolt of assurance, optimism and hope for the future that we desperately need.
As the prime minister continues to lock himself up in his palace and office receiving only foreign officials who bring him the hope of money and food aid, the city and for that matter the whole country seem poised for uncertain times. Take, for instance, the hundreds of families from drought affected areas of Tigrai and Wello that have flocked to our capital city. Just the Saturday following Gena - Ethiopian Christmas, I had driven through the Cathedral school area and was shocked to see the multitude of new beggars (displaced from Tigrai, Wello and other areas) that have made Addis Ababa their new home. Once could see at least 2 generation of many families camped in this area on both sides of the traffic light. The kids and their mothers camp in this area from early morning to sunset hoping to make enough money to buy themselves food and pay for lodging at the open-space 'berendas' of the 'American Gibi' area in Somali tera. I later heard that they are charged as much as 1 Birr per person per night for a sleeping area as tiny as 2 square meters. By the way, here I feel apprehensive as I publicly reveal this side of their lives as I am sure that if the city or Kebele officials in that area come to realize the extent of the trade they may be, as always, tempted to seize the opportunity and, as they effectively do elsewhere, get their share of this less than honorable trade.
I wondered where the fathers of these children and husbands of these women will be as I passed few coins to some of the kids who were swarming around my car. By the way, giving money to these poor children, I came to realize soon, was not an easy feat as scores of other children beggars came forward making driving almost impossible. This, my readers, is the face of drought and famine and what it means to some extent to our daily lives here in Addis Ababa.
Few days after this morning ride, in a more pensive mood, the parallel between these fathers who send their wives and children to beg and political leaders who lead this country was very much apparent to me. Think of it this way. Drought and Famine have always been the great litmus test for our leaders starting from the Middle Ages. Mr. Pankhurst has written extensively about this if you wish to pursue this more. But the thought here is that as drought hits and the country's leaders fail miserably to prevent it escalating to famine and starvation, they effectively become like these failed fathers who feed on the alms brought by their kids and wives.
For me, the talkative Mr. Meles who was busy for 10 years tearing apart Ethiopia, selling her port and even refusing to take it when EPLF indicated willingness to give Assab, hosting hundreds of medieval-age "gimgema' sessions while overseeing a corrupted state machinery that makes even Mengistu's time look clean, looks more and more like these failed fathers of famine refugees.
With thoughts of this nature constantly in my mind (and many more Ethiopians, I am sure), I recently attended a meeting Ato Simeon Michale (the Drought and Famine Commissioner - possibly the only person in the whole world with a title like this or similar) chaired. After two day's worth of meetings and endless talks by bureaucrats, what was clear was that the Ethiopian government in general, and Ato Simeon's office in particular, have perfected the art of begging complete with capitalistic efficiency (He said his office can track food delivery to the nearest 10 quintals!). On the other hand, this Great Famine of 2002-2003 has made it equally clear that the Ethiopian government in general, and Ato Meles' office in particular, have perfected the art of selling communist ideas (land owned by the state) wrapped in IMF/World-Bank lingua ('capacity building', 'poverty reduction', 'agriculture led industrial development', etc) again with capitalistic efficiency. A long-time friend of mine added that only in the Ethiopia of 21st century communism and capitalism complement each other with the Americans and Europeans footing the bill. With complete and unprecedented disaster to us Ethiopians, I must add.
In closing, I must confess that I started to write about other things in the city also like how the city is preparing for the African Union by cleaning streets and painting buildings for the first time in 11 years! The trouble at Lideta and how the Patriarch Paulos who lives in a cheesy palace at Amst Kilo came to control the estimated 100 million Birr of the Lideta Church empire with the help of 'Federal Police' armed with German guns and vehicles and scores of casualties was also on my mind. So much to write about...but it is hard to ignore, these days, the 'dirq' situation that has gripped the country and our attention.
Tizibt Mezgebu (Saris, Addis Ababa)
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