Letter from Ethiopia - November 10, 2002

Tizibt Mezgebu

It is a busy season here in Addis Ababa and many other parts of the country.  We hear shipments of grains are finally making it to the country. As you know, traditionally, it is around December and January that the worst face of drought shows up. We are praying that the food grains reach our affected population in the next 4-6 weeks before the disaster reaches a human catastrophe. Look at the numbers (15 million  - 25% of the whole country!) and awe and fear should strike you.  It is funny for us here in Ethiopia how bad politicians with an increasing narrower vision of the world speak about weapons of mass destruction when what the real world in our neighborhood is facing is lack of will for creating means of mass salvation.  $5 - $10 million, we are told, could help save the lives of those endangered by the drought. In the mean time,  we are also told that $50 - $100 billion will be needed to fight the war in Ancient Babylon and "safeguard" us from evil weapons which we even have doubt exist and will ever be used. No wonder I read Arundhati Roy as this algebra of the relative truth, twisted logic of the powerful, 21st century 'pre-emptive' militarism, and misplaced priorities confuse me and others as we try to make sense of this disparity in worries and priorities. 

Coming back to the grain shipments, to our temporary relief, we are told that none of the grain shipment is genetically engineered. Along with the obvious long-term health hazards, we are relieved that this will save us from the kind of disrespectful and arrogant comments some corners of the West had showered on our sisters and brothers in Southern Africa only a few months ago. 

We also hear that the money that the Europeans and World Bank had withheld from Meles because of the last war with Eritrea is finally making its way to the country. This has breathed some life back to some of the companies in town that make money contracting road and water works from the government. Few friends who had been complaining about lean days seem to complain less now. We hear that the Euros, WB and IMF will be releasing funds slowly at their leisurely rate making sure Meles keeps all the promises he made in Algiers few years ago regarding the details of stopping the war.  Since what we have heard is that his promises are enormous and hard to keep, it may be a long time before all the money comes to the country. But it looks like the money didn’t come early enough for EFFORT, the NGO with government ties. We hear it is in financial troubles and many suspect that it is only a matter of time before Meles parades some of his EFFORT people in front of the courts. EFFORT, according to the joke here, was and still is the most effortless way to make money for the ruling circle and it will be interesting to see Meles and his enemies in EPRDF slugging it out in public over the affairs of this para-state organ. I imagine that Ato Siye, Meles' nemesis, who had entertained us in the past year or so in his court appearances where EPRDF past secrets are spilled may have more to say about this in the next few months. As always, of course, we are the silent spectators. 

The other interesting thing we see in town these days, however, and what I would like to write about today is the increasing number of new returnees from the US.  My husband calls them Bush’s economic refugees.  A close relative of ours is one of them and his story seems to be shared by many. He had left to the US many year ago – about 15 years ago and life had been very good to him especially in most of the 90s. But his business has suffered in the past two years and just last June he decided to “wait out” the economic problems of the US and uncertainty right here in the land he left 15 years ago. It has been 5 months since then. It is of course very difficult for us to understand this given the fact that we feel things just couldn't be as bad as here. Therefore, I had thought his case was an isolated case. 

I sensed a trend only when I started noticing that regular visitors/returnees to Addis Ababa from the US who normally come for 2 and 3 weeks started staying for 2 and 3 months. The same people we had seen only a year ago who had complained that they couldn't stay over for Mesqel because of this and that work and commitment in their newly adopted country are now still in town. I suspect that we will see them in Genna and Timqet too.  After what we heard only two weeks ago from two couple who are in the same boat, my husband was even predicting that these returnees may be with us for a number of Fasikas and Gennas.  The big social event in town a few weeks ago was, of course, Haile Gebreselasssie's race and it was after the race that we met these two couple (old friends from Commercial School and now on extended vacation from the US) who insisted on taking us for a late lunch. Fifteen minutes in to lunch, it was already obvious that their extended vacation has a lot to do with their disappointment with the US economy and more. One of the ladies was actually dissatisfied not only with the economy but also with the political climate also. She was very much surprised how things had changed in the US in only two years since Mr. Clinton left power (send that man here and let him lead us if he can't be allowed to lead the US to more peace and prosperity, I had commented). Particularly the war drum beating seems to have annoyed her very much. This was, of course, more of a news to us. Yes, we do hear about the economic problems and the bullying and call for war which no one over here thinks is a necessity. But it is so far away for us and perhaps, when it comes down to it, secondary to our day-to-day worries that it took us some time to sympathize with their disillusion.  

This trend of the new returnees raises many questions, as one would expect. My husband insists (jokingly) that there is no trend until we see some of our singers like Aster, Gigi and Kuku Sebsibe return back for these extended "leave-of-absences". "Artists have a better sense of the mood of a community than anyone else," is his line of argument. On the other hand, I think half of the Ethiopian community in Washington DC will have to be unemployed before Kuku Sebsibe joins Muluken Melese in Addis Ababa for a joint concert at the Sheraton or National Theatre or Jan Meda. However, it seems to me that the serious side of the issue is how best can the country benefit from these returnees? So far, it is only the "tourism and sebenek" sectors (as Ato Fasika Sidelil of the Dergue era would say) that seem to benefit. When do we see these returnees actually showing some of the Capitalistic skills they picked in the US? When will they open businesses? When will they take business risks as much as they do in the US? When will they hold jobs in 2 or 3 places and inject some sense of urgency in our sleepy cities? When will they actually create jobs to our unemployed youth here? May be then, we will feel that the difficult economic situation in the US will be a blessing to us here in Ethiopia. But now as things stand, no one wants to see the sum of $300 million or so that we hear Ethiopians in the US send to the country every year vanish into thin air.  Between this money and the price Meles paid for us for Assab, we hear that the country's balance sheet of this year isn't as bad as last year and will carry us limping through another year - save the diriq situation. 

Be Selam qoyu!

Tizibt Mezgebu (Saris, Addis Ababa) 


As always, I am very much encouraged and flattered by letters from my readers. I was reminded of Ato Gizaw Negussie the last Mayor of Addis Ababa during the Dergue years and his accomplishments in in his brief tenure. I do stand corrected on that. I was also touched by the young college student who said that my letters were History lessons for him and his colleagues. I am flattered even though that makes me feel old. So many other letters were of encouragement and even enquiring why I had skipped writing last week. "Ye-Injera Guday huno new!" 

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