Letter from Ethiopia - October 1, 2002
from Tizibt Mezgebu
Late in the Kremt season, I had traveled to Bombay, India on an Ethiopian Airlines flight for an NGO conference on stuff like globalization and food security. My work with a local NGO takes me to places outside the country and I have had the fortune of flying in most of the routes served by our airlines.
Among the Ethiopian Airlines routes - if I have to pick a favorite one - I will pick the Addis Bombay route closely followed by Addis - Jo'Burg. I would have picked the Addis-Nairobi or Nairobi-Addis routes as favorites if it was not for the short distance where one barely has settled in one's seat before the pilot advises that we are landing. I have heard people saying they like the Addis-Athens or Addis-Rome flights too. But that hasn't been my experience. Somehow a flight across the Afar land and then the Arabian Sea as the sun sets had caught my imagination than a flight through the Sudan, Egypt and the Mediterranean.
In this particular flight which left on a beautiful Monday afternoon, I had planned to read one of India's outstanding writers Arundhati Roy's new book "Power Politics". Her book which deals with globalization and what have you is a required reading - in my opinion - for anyone working with NGOs. My husband who boycotted ETV and read Arundhati's other book "God of Small Things" as we were watching Meles' performance at the University in August was the one who had recommended the book. Even Shema publishers was not carrying the book and I had to search throughout the city before I got a copy. Before settling in my seat to read the book, I found every excuse to get up and walk around the plane's aisle just to see who was traveling. There were many West African students and businessmen on transit. There were also some middle-aged Arabs, mostly in first class. Across me, also sat a group of middle aged Ethiopian men. They looked to me to be part of some government delegation. They were all dressed similar - stiff with heavy business suites. Their big stomach also gave them away. My husband calls them "Meles' Yes men", these middle aged men with membership to parties that have names like this and that people's liberation front. Later, I had some polite conversation with one of them. He said they were on a trip to talk to Indian pharmaceutical companies who make drugs for HIV/AIDS treatment. Next to me sat and Indian professor who told me that he teaches at the Arba Minch Water Technology Institute. It looked liked he enjoyed Arba Minch but complained about its remoteness and was clearly home-sick. He narrated a story of some of his old students who have now gone to Europe and America to do Masters degrees. "I hope they come back and take over my job so that I can retire in Kerala," he added later. He was a good company. There were also some young kids in the flight traveling alone. I imagined they were going to schools in India.
Two hours to the flight, my curiosity and the generally affable mood in the plane had encouraged me to meet a good number of my fellow passengers. "A very pleasant trip," I thought to myself, The view below was a late afternoon scene of the Arabian sea and I settled to read Arundhati's book. I had barely made it to the first few pages when a former high-school friend who is now a stewardess at the Airlines recognized me and came over my seat to greet me. It has been a few years since we met and it looked like we had a lot to catch up; so she invited me to the front seats. We talked for what looked like hours on issues like family, work, the coming holidays and who is getting married and who is having a baby, etc. For reasons still I do not remember, somehow our conversation turned to how the beggars in Addis Ababa and Bombay are the same. "At least, Addis Ababa beggars take coupons from Hope Enterprises for their meals," said my hostess friend. I had never heard of that and asked her, "what coupons?" After her explanation, now, I realize that you can buy food coupons for 10, 20, 30 Birr from Hope Enterprise ("Tesfa Dirijt") and just give some away when a beggar asks you for money.
A month after that trip, this piece of information is what I have learned most. When I came back to Addis Ababa, I went over to Tesfa Dirijt on Churchill Road and got the meal coupons. Just the other day, while driving in the city with my mother, a red light stopped us at Kazanchis near the EU mission. A mother carrying two babies (whose face I recognize because she is always there - rain or sunshine) came over. My mother slipped her 1 birr - generous amount in Addis Ababa these days. It was my chance to see if my hostess high-school friend's meal coupon idea works or not. When I gave this mother of two kids a meal coupon, I received the "mireqa"-blessing of a life time.
Melkam Mesqel - Be Selam qoyu!
Tizibt Mezgebu (Saris, Addis Ababa)
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