Category Archives: ethiopia

Culture Shock

I have successfully completed my final work assignment with the Solar Energy Foundation in Ethiopia and on Monday I returned to the US. However, after finishing my SEF gig and before returning home, Robin and I traveled for 10 days around Ethiopia. We spent most of that time in South Omo, the most underdeveloped part of one of the poorest states in the 11th poorest country on Earth. And it was like walking through the pages of National Geographic. There are 22 different tribes living in this region, speaking about as many different languages. Here are the highlights:

The Dorze tribe reside on a string of mountaintops in the south of the country. They live in 20 foot tall beehive shaped homes. The height allows for a poor man’s cathedral ceiling: bamboo covered by banana leaf thatch. Inside the home a small smoky fire continuously burns to keep the insects down and to ward off the (relatively) cool temperatures at their 8000 foot high elevation.

We went into one of the homes. It housed a family of six, plus three cows and three sheep, humans separated from the livestock by a woven banana leaf screen. The cow area is very important: If the husband comes home drunk and tries to beat his wife, she will retreat to the cow side of the house…a recognized safe zone. If he should violate that safe zone, she will report him to the village elders. They will penalize him by requiring the purchase of a cow (at the princely sum of $300) which he must butcher, roast and share with the village. Perhaps this seemingly simplistic tradition keeps domestic violence to a very low level.

The Mursi tribe provided us a big culture shock. Their claim to fame is a custom believed by them to increase female beauty, but certainly believed by most everyone else in the world to be barbaric. At about age 20 a young woman becomes eligible to marry…and begins to wear a clay lip plate. A slit is cut inside her lower lip and over the course of the ensuing year, larger and larger clay disks are inserted into the slit until her distended lip can accommodate a 6 inch diameter disk. The larger, the more beautiful.

I have never seen a sight as interesting…and as disturbing as a village of 600 people with virtually every woman over age 20 either wearing a lip plate or displaying a sagging lower lip, dangling down to her chin – – when the plate was not being worn. Many Mursi women were topless and I am substantially more in favor of that custom than a stretched, deformed lower lip. I saw only one women of lip-plate age without a stretched and distended lip. She had gotten pregnant before marriage, and as a punishment by the tribe, she was forbidden to ever slit, stretch, and wear a lip plate. Bummer.

But then again, who am I to judge another’s culture? I am thrilled to have seen such a spectacle, even if I strongly object to it.

And speaking of objectionable spectacles, we spent an entire afternoon at a Hamer bull jumping ceremony. Nothing wrong with bull jumping, just with the custom that proceeds the jumping. A twenty-something single man proves he is ready for adulthood and marriage by running across the backs of eight bulls standing flank to flank. Only one man attempts that feat at each ceremony, but hundreds of Hamer participate in ceremony.

The first – – and the truly objectionable – – part of the ceremony is the whipping of the women. Female supporters of the jumper-to-be line up to be whipped (always by a man) with a long stout switch. And we are not talking about playful taps across the shoulders. Each woman asks to be whacked really hard. I could hear the snap across her back. I could see the welts rise. I could see the blood lines form on the welts. Most women from late teenage and older bore permanent whipping scars across the back.

A most surprising aspect of this ritual beating is that the participating women, dozens of them, seem to do this willingly. They taunt the whipper to hit them harder, they get back in line for a second and third beating. The more and the harder they receive, the more support they show for the jumper.

After the whipping, and a bit of dancing by the women, and some face painting by the men, the entire group of well over 200 Hamer (and a few tourists) walked 15 minutes into the bush to the bull jumping site. The jumper is presented to the crowd – – naked. Then he takes a running leap onto the back of the first bull, scampers across the backs of the remaining seven bovine, and jumps to the ground…where he catches his breath, then repeats the journey from ground to bull back to ground – – two, three, four, five, six times. Each time successful, no falls.

This triumph was especially satisfying for the jumper’s sister. Had he failed, she would have been beaten, just like the willing female supporters before her, but this time by the entire crowd. Had the jumper botched his quest, punishment would be have been meted out to his sister under the belief that she did not feed him sufficiently to succeed. Consequently, brother’s success was especially sweet for sister.

Most of the Hamer came to the bull jumping dressed to celebrate. Men were bare chested with ornamental beads around the neck, biceps and waist. Women work goat skin skirts and loose goat skin tops to cover their breasts, but nothing on their backs…all the better to receive the lashes from the stout switch. And those who really wanted to stand out had a mixture of fresh red clay and butter applied to their page-boy-length, tightly curled hair. The mixture, also rubbed on the shoulders and sometimes the face, glistened in the afternoon sun.

So eye catching, so memorable. Now if they could just eliminate the bloody beatings, I would be a total supporter of traditional Hamer culture. But at least they didn’t wear lip plates.

In every tribal region we passed through, young children (mostly boys) would – – upon seeing our vehicle approach – – dance by the side of the road. Dance style would vary depending on the local tribe: shaking hips or bootie, waggling one raised leg, bouncing up and down from deep knee bends, making vertical leaps into the air. Even waking on stilts (with white chalky clay on the face and torso.) Initially I thought the purpose was a sort of greeting, but more likely it was a creative request to pose for a (paid) photo. However, had we stopped to photograph and pay each dancer, we would have had no time to complete our journey. There were that many dancers.

The corruption of policemen in Africa is legendary. Being shaken down for a bribe or charged with a made-up traffic violation is rife on the continent. But not so in Ethiopia. In my entire three months here, not a single time. That is until my final week. Our driver, Osman, was flagged over by a policeman who requested that we make room for the cop’s friend in our privately contracted vehicle. Osman protested, said we were foreign tourists who had paid for the vehicle. The policeman calmly explained, “No problem, but we will have to pull your van off to the side of the road and inspect every bag.” Osman decided that discretion was the better part of valor, so we made room for the policeman’s friend in our vehicle. We didn’t talk to him much though, we were not especially gregariously inclined at this point.

Our final stop, a one hour flight north of Addis, was the small town of Lalibela, Ethiopia’s most famous historical treasure and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. About 800 years ago King Lalibela, during a 23 year burst of religious devotion, commissioned the carving of ten churches (one for each of the Ten Commandments) out of solid bedrock. Legend has it that St George complained to the king that not one church was named for him, so Lalibela added an 11th – – called Gyorgis Church. Many of the churches are connected by underground tunnels also cut through the rock. Quite a fun way to travel from church to church.

They say that these rock hewn churches at Lalibela would be considered one of the seven wonders of the world if they were not located in the remote highlands of a relatively obscure country in Africa. It is not totally clear to me who “they” are, but the supposition is correct. A three story tall church, ornately carved out of solid rock is beyond description. You’ll just have to come see them yourself…or check out my photos.

In the late afternoon, after we finished our full day visitation of these 11 spectacular churches, we walked down a crooked rocky path through a cluster of homes. A young, but very self possessed, preteen girl stepped from the gate of her family compound and inquired, “You want buy scarves?” Interested in such a purchase, we entered her walled compound: a dirt courtyard surrounded by four mud and stone buildings. We sat on a stone ledge in the compound while the girl, her mother, older sister and a friend displayed dozens of hand loomed cotton scarves. After several minutes of very friendly bargaining with the appointed negotiator, the 12 year old girl, we made our purchase.

The family was so taken by the size of our purchase – – 8 scarves – – that they invited us to stay for coffee. An older sister roasted the beans over charcoal, then brewed a rather strong cup for each of us. To go with our coffee the mother brought us freshly cooked injeera and a mound of spicy red chili. During coffee hour, the 12 year old quizzed Robin and me on Amharic vocabulary. We answered only 2 of 20 correctly. She was asking difficult words. Like hello and yes and chair. Who knows that?

When it came time to leave, the bright young girl walked us down the path in deepening evening shadows to the main cobblestone pedestrian thoroughfare. She stopped, pointed at her shoes, Croc knockoffs with a large split in the back. “For me you have extra shoes in your hotel room?” We didn’t. None that would fit anyway. My well worn Nikes were years too large for her. Instead we offered her 20 birr (about $2 – – the amount a new pair of shoes would cost in Lalibela.) Too proud for that, she rejected our repeated offers of the cash…even when we suggested she give it to her family.

We ultimately went separate ways, us with the money back in our pockets, but much richer from the cultural interaction. And she, equally culturally richer, but still wearing her broken down Crocs.

And two days later we returned to the US, so thus ends this series of Ethiopian updates. I wish you all the best.


Let’s Twist Again

In a very poor country it is important for companies to safeguard their assets. In the case of SEF, we have a large gated-courtyard in front of our office with several lockable storage sheds within. We park our SEF vehicles in the courtyard and lock the gate. However, an energetic thief could scale the courtyard fence, unlock the gate from the inside and abscond with a vehicle or with some solar systems from our inventory. But this has never happened. SEF, like most businesses and like many upper crust home owners, has an on site guard. Typically the guard is on duty 24/7/365.

Our watchman lives in a 3×7 foot guard shack in the courtyard. He sleeps on the shack floor and uses one of the office restrooms as his bathing area. He buys very cheap food on the street. I have asked several of my SEF colleagues what his name is. Most do not know, even though he guards their business compound 24/7. Except for a few weeks annual leave each summer, the guard is on duty non-stop. He visits his family in the countryside only during his summer leave. Otherwise, he seldom sees them. What a way to live. The guard’s speech is mostly unintelligible, perhaps due to a speech defect or maybe a mental shortcoming. I don’t know.

But in a sense he is very lucky: He has a full time (very full time) job and a roof over his head, albeit in a 3×7 room. Many other unskilled people with similar defects sleep and beg on the streets. He earns less than $3 per day, but it is steady money.

Currently SEF is attempting to computerize what has been, up to now, a paper-based activity: Recording and tracking the loans given to customers so that they can purchase a solar home system. (Cost is around $500, and for most customers a purchase of this size requires a three year loan.)

SEF has made loans to nearly 1000 customers, and all these loans have been recorded by hand. But as SEF grows to 5,000…10,000…50,000 customers, such a paper-based system would become overwhelmingly cumbersome. Hence the introduction of a computer-based system.

Now this introduction entails a substantial training program. SEF has contracted the design of the computerized loan system and the subsequent training to a vendor from southern Mexico. The very friendly Mexican contractor arrived with a decent, but imperfect command of English. The SEF personnel being trained arrived in class with a somewhat challenged understanding of English.

So, when the trainer asks a question in fractured English, the SEF personnel do not respond: maybe they don’t understand, maybe they understand but are not capable of formulating a response. Each student, working on a laptop, is attempting mightily to keep pace with the instructor’s not-totally-clear explanations. But several students are unfamiliar with computer use; and all are struggling to follow his English. Most have fallen behind the instructor’s lesson…but due to politeness or shyness or inability, they never ask him to slow down or to repeat.

I do my best to alert the trainer when it is necessary for him to slow down or repeat, but I am not always present in the training room; I have other things to do. Consequently, I suspect that the students are absorbing only a portion of the lesson transmitted.

Bottom line: One of the great challenges of business education in a developing country is full communication. Full communication seldom happens and this is one reason developing countries struggle mightily to catch up to the more technologically advanced nations.

Now for your reading enjoyment, I share some of my favorite fractured commands from the draft computerized loan system – – imagine yourself filling out an on-line loan application and trying to figure out the meaning of the following buttons:

  • Customer could not assist meeting
  • Family expense reasonably
  • Operating costs personably

The latter has a drop down menu with the following choices: High Regular Low. It must be comforting to know a customer has “operating costs personably, regular.” In my last remaining days at SEF I have made it my assignment to help make some sense of this new system.

Last weekend seven of us journeyed to Rema – – four Ethiopians, the Mexican mentioned above, and Robin and me. This was my third visit to SEF’s training facility five hours of spectacular scenery north of Addis. And this time, at the tail end of the rainy season, it was greener than ever. Waterfalls plunged over previously bone-dry cliffs and streams rushed down formerly parched gullies.

One purpose of the journey was to repair a faulty solar-powered refrigerator in the local bar. With the fridge on the blink the bar owner had reverted to the pre-solar way of cooling drinks. He buried them in the sand. I discovered that a sand cooled beer is only slightly cooler than the 85 degree air temperature. I think the entire town of Rema was relieved when our solar technician got the fridge back on line.

That night our Ethiopian hosts, mostly in their early 20s, taught us the traditional dance from each of four major Ethiopian ethnic groups. For those of you contemplating a visit to the disco soon, here is a guide to the dances:

  • Amharic – the famous shoulder shaking dance
  • Tigrinya – in a circle, kind of an ethnic bunny hop
  • Gurage – hands in prayer position, pointed forward, cross stepping back and forth
  • Oromo – hands behind the back, stepping forward and backwards

The moves of each were quite different but the music sound pretty much all the same to my untrained ear. Robin and I demonstrated my strongest dance: the twist. The twenty-somethings Ethiopians were vaguely familiar with this genre.

Happy Ethiopian New Year

One observes the run up to the Ethiopian New Year on September 11 (only coincidentally a date seared in Americans’ minds) in the few days prior. Shops and restaurant scatter fresh cut long stem grass on the sidewalk, at their doorways and even inside on the floor. I think it gives them a rural village feel. The ubiquitous street vendors have added celebratory bottle rockets to their product line. Women (and their daughters) begin appearing in traditional white thick gauzy fabric dresses bordered with multicolored patterns around the hem, waist and sometimes shoulders. And for the first time I have been in Ethiopia, I observe men in traditional outfit as well: white trousers, shirt, and shawl of a similar fabric to that of women.

Depending on one’s economic class, the traditional New Year’s feast is meat. In the last few days leading up to the big date, more people than usual are on the street taking home live meat: chickens held upside down by the feet, goats carried over the shoulder, sheep led by a rope around the neck. I even observed more oxen in the streets around my (urban) office. People from the surrounding countryside drive their small herds into the city in increasing numbers just before September 11 to take advantage of the peak in demand for feasting meat.

Robin observed employees of a small company killing, butchering, grilling, and feasting on what had been a live goat. It took the entire New Year’s Eve afternoon. And in a related note, the next morning we spotted, for the first time, two vultures on a perch above the butchering area. I suspect they smelled the blood. Unfortunately for the vultures the only carrion left was goat heads.

Early on New Year Eve I went to the gym to get my weekly yoga fix. Afterwards in the gym parking lot I discovered that the gym management had set up a bonfire for gym patrons (including Robin and me) to celebrate the coming year.

About 50 of us gathered to participate. Each man was given a 10 foot long bundle of straw – – dampened to control the burn rate. We each lit our bundle from a small fire in the center of our gathering, we then tossed the burning straw onto the central fire creating a larger flaming tribute, a bonfire, to the coming year. As soon as all straw bundles had been dropped on the central bonfire, the gym staff began circulating in the crowd, offering helpings of roasted meat: mutton, beef, maybe others. None of which could be considered haute cuisine, and all of which, should be considered quite tough and chewy.

A couple large bowls of popcorn and cups of steaming espresso wrapped up the early New Year’s Eve celebration. Then we were off to our main event. The day prior Robin had met an American jazz band from Philadelphia that was staying in our hotel. They were scheduled to play at a venue on New Year’s Eve and had invited Robin (and me by proxy) to stop by. As Robin had understood, the venue was the Yugo Center – – the former Yugoslavia Cultural Center.

However, when we arrived we discovered the venue was actually the You Go Bible Study Center and the anticipated jazz was instead, gospel music. Only after we were seated inside did we realize that we had joined the Ethiopian version of an American tent revival meeting. Three thousand people inside swayed to the gospel music, shouted halleluiah and amen to the preacher’s exhortations. Frequently members of the audience would raise a hand (or both) and sway from side to side with eyes closed as if in rapture. But we knew we weren’t in Kansas anymore when audience members began to ululate and the gospel singers on stage began to leap vertically into the air – – a not uncommon African tribal dance ritual. The Masai in Kenya do this for example. Except for the Philadelphia band members, we were the only westerners in the 3000 person meeting hall.

Regardless of one’s religious inclination, this was a very moving experience…except that there were too many long sermons in Amharic between the musical numbers. Multiple preachers offered their guidance to the congregation. We left after 1.5 hours. The full revival ran from 6 PM until 4 AM – – 10 straight hours of religion – – and I suspect many of the 3000 Ethiopians stayed for all of it.

To wrap up the long New Year’s weekend we took a Sunday day trip to Ziway Lake, about two hours SE of Addis. We hired a row boat with driver (rower?) to visit two of the lake’s islands: one with an abandoned small village (my first Ethiopian ghost town) and the other with hundreds of cacophonous water birds: Marabou storks, herons, ducks, black egrets.

But the highlight on the water was passing by a dozen swimming hippos. We had to stay at a safe distance, but thanks to the magic of telephoto lens, I have memorialized this experience. Hippos, despite being vegetarians, are very territorial and protective of their young. I have read that hippos kill more humans in Africa than do lions. But due to our New Year’s good luck, they didn’t get us.

Santa Has Arrived

The remaining cardinal direction from Addis that I had not visited was west. So Robin and I planned a day trip to the town of Ambo and nearby waterfalls. Two hours west via bus… but that doesn’t count the taxi ride to the wrong bus station, the city bus ride to the correct station, then the wait on board the correct bus before it left.

Robin and I were the first to take our seats and we chose two in the front row so that we would have an unobstructed view out the front windshield. We knew the bus would not depart until all seats were filled – – they don’t run on a schedule here, they run on capacity maximization. What we didn’t know until we departed nearly two hours later was that it would take nearly two hours to fill the bus. We also didn’t know that the view from our front row seats would be obstructed by several last minute passengers who took the SRO positions in the aisle and bus door stairwell directly between us and the front windshield.

Anyway, the two hour drive to Ambo was fine. But our full journey, counting all our missteps, had consumed five hours, door to door. And when we arrived it was still raining cats and dogs, just like when we started. Along the route the beautiful green fields had rivulets of mud-red water coursing through them.

We had intended to hike from Ambo to a series of scenic waterfalls. However, our later than planned arrival (remember five hours door to door) pretty much precluded this possibility. And besides, who wants to hike through the forest under an umbrella in ankle deep mud? Instead we retired to a local restaurant where, after lunch, we joined an American Peace Corps volunteer and three Ethiopian women for coffee and conversation. The locals roasted raw coffee beans on an open charcoal fire, then crushed them with a mortar and pestle, before brewing the beverage. We sat in a circle on handmade wooden stools for our little kaffee klatch. Not quite as much exercise as a hike to the waterfalls, but a lot less muddy.

In preparation for the Ethiopian New Year, one of the women showed us how to execute the famous Ethiopian shoulder shaking dance – – famous if you have been hanging around Ethiopia for a while. Ask me to demonstrate when I return home.

After our coffee break and shoulder shaking lesson, we boarded a return bus so as to arrive in Addis before dark. A winding Ethiopian highway is no place to be after dark, what with the plentiful pedestrians, donkeys, goats, etc wandering on the road. We had an uneventful, but scenic late afternoon ride back to Addis in a cozy eleven person minibus that was carrying 15 passengers and two very well behaved chickens.

The view from our fifth floor hotel room overlooks a small field that contains a ramshackle corrugated aluminum shack in one corner. The one room shack is inhabited by a mother, father, three children and a grandmother. It is pretty obvious that these are poor people, even by Ethiopian standards. So Robin decided to divert a few of the toys and school materials she had brought for her volunteer teaching job, to our poor neighbors in the field below us.

I accompanied her as she took a collection of stuffed animals, bracelets, pens, paper, and balls to them. The grandmother and kids were at home when we knocked on the metal fence surrounding the field and shack. We interrupted the grandmother who was sitting on a blanket sorting a large pile of barley. She was removing stones from the grain. The kids must have thought Santa had arrived; they seemed thrilled even though none of us could speak the other’s language. Robin even gave the grandmother a bracelet.

Our hotel manager informed us that a week earlier, a Danish couple staying in the hotel, had arrived with a suitcase of children’s clothing since they were adopting an Ethiopian orphan. They too had looked out their hotel room window and then diverted some of their stash to the poor family in the shack. Now I figure that family must be the richest poor family in all of Ethiopia.

Anticipating a Happy New Year

I have just begun my final tour with the Solar Energy Foundation in Ethiopia.

I flew in to Addis Ababa on Monday. Since I am working for a non-profit organization, cheap flights not efficient routing, is the order of the day. Consequently, I departed Boston at 6 AM, heading to Washington, DC where I made my first stop. Six hours later, onboard Ethiopian Airlines, I was high above Boston again, flying (and it looked about the same at noon as it had earlier in the morning) the opposite direction towards Rome and on to Addis. Personally, I think it is crazy to fly the wrong direction to get on a plane flying the right direction, but like I said, efficient routing is not the order of the day.

But all is well that ends well. After 21 hours in transit, I arrived at my hotel in Addis, took a short nap, and then walked to the SEF office. When I arrived, the office was a beehive of activity. Most of our field technicians (solar installers) were there. They had come in from all points on the compass to cake care of home office business before departing for nearly two weeks vacation. And all took the same two weeks: the run up to the Ethiopian New Year on September 11. On that date, by the Ethiopian calendar, 2001 will tip into 2002. And the change will be preceded by – – according to one of my Ethiopian colleagues – – dancing, drinking and eating…raw meat. Not that again. Anyway, raw meat aside, I look forward to their celebration.

I knew I was back in Addis when I encountered a goatherd near my office driving his goats down the city street. He snapped a homemade whip, a two foot long stick topped with a three foot rawhide strip. He also talked on his cell phone. Traditional meets modern in Ethiopia.

My girlfriend, Robin, has joined me for this final three week stint. While I am working she will be teaching English at an Ethiopian school. She has volunteered to work with first through fourth graders there. At the end of our concurrent three week sessions we will travel around the country for two additional weeks.

Ethiopia is nearing the end of its three month rainy season and the countryside showed it. Flying in, I observed the fields: a kaleidoscope of greens… depending on the crops planted in each. Even in the dry season the Ethiopian highlands retain some green, but these colors were striking: pale lime to bright emerald. Also, the rivers and streams were flowing briskly and the ponds and lakes had ballooned in size. Wild flowers were everywhere.

They say this is the best time of year to be in Ethiopia. And it probably is. Except for the raw meat.

Burnt Face

You may recall – – if you have been a regular reader of this space – – that SEF has a Solar Training Center in the town of Rema, to the north of Addis. On Thursday we made the long six hour drive there over what I had previously described as one of my top ten driving routes (anywhere). The journey still ranks up there. This time, courtesy of the rainy season, the view was imminently greener than before and just as eye catching. A new addition to the view was farmers, each plowing his rain softened field behind a team of oxen. Just like we did as kids.

Shortly after arrival, we took a sunset walking tour of Rema. As before, the kids swarmed us, wanting to shake hands with every foreigner in our group (two Germans plus me.) To gain respite from the well meaning, but relentless onslaught, we took refuge in a local bar. The barkeeper barred the kids and served each of us a solar cooled beer. Actually, the sun indirectly cooled the beer – – by powering a refrigerator. Before SEF, tepid beer, warm coke, room temperature water was the norm.

After the sun had set we walked back to the Solar Training Center. It was very dark on the return path, allowing us to see the Milky Way spilling across the sky above. But at house level, from virtually every home, a soft light emitted. Remember, every house in this town of 2500 families, has a solar home system.

The residents can actually conduct activities at night. They used to eat dinner at dusk – – around 6:30, then go to bed by 7:30 when it was totally dark. Now with solar powered lights they can eat after the sun has set. The school kids can play in the afternoon, then do their homework by light. Tailors can work in the cooler evening air. Some say Rema is the luckiest town in Ethiopia. No other town in the country has free, non polluting power in every home. And all of it was given to them by SEF.

The reason I went to Rema was to conduct a training workshop for 19 SEF personnel: systems installers, supervisors, and home office staff. Working under the belief that we all must be a sales person for the organization…and with the observation that SEF personnel were not yet well honed public speakers…I designed a full day of sales presentation training for this group. Theoretically all spoke English – – however that premise was mostly theory. My presentation was in the simplest language I could devise. For example I edited, “All sales people interact with their customers” to “All of you talk to customers.” But often that was not nearly simple enough.

In preparation we had to consider poor country logistical constraints. We had planned to purchase a metal flipchart stand to use in the training. But SEF found the price too expensive so we instead applied third world technology by using electrical wire to hang the flipchart pad from random, but fortuitously placed nails in the wall. We didn’t have to worry about power outage though: at SEF’s training center everything is powered by solar batteries well charged by plentiful sunshine

At one point we broke into small teams to practice our presentations. The door to one breakout room was locked and the key was not to be found. (My bad – always check all logistics before the session begins.) Anyway, that team met instead in a storage shed and took it all in stride. They are used to this sort of improvisation.

There was one slightly disruptive episode when some local kids brought their donkeys into the courtyard in front of the classroom to water them at the training center cistern.

I taught my class the basics: stand up so they can see you, speak up so they can hear you, sit down before you bore them. (I learned that gem of wisdom in the Army.) I taught them to sell the benefits of their solar systems, not just the features. E.g. Feature: This is a 10 watt solar system. Benefit: A 10 watt system can power four lights (in different rooms if you wish) and also a radio.

Initially, the group was quite reticent to answer my questions. Several did not understand my simple English and even if they understood, they couldn’t formulate a response in English. Many had never spoken in front of a group before. However when we broke into smaller teams of six people most of them flourished. They learned how to make an “elevator speech.” For those of you unfamiliar with this business term, it means a short speech or explanation that you can deliver in the time it takes an elevator to lift you from the ground floor to your office in the skyscraper.

But we couldn’t use the term elevator speech, it would not translate culturally. There are very few buildings in Ethiopia tall enough to warrant an elevator and some that are tall enough can’t afford one. I am pretty certain that some of my training class had never ridden in an elevator. (Nor in a Mercedes, an airplane, or a ski lift.) We described this short speech as a “60 Second Speech.” Each student ultimately delivered one in English. And several of them I actually understood.

At a sales training session in the US, I had seen one company award $1000 to the individual who gave the best sales presentation. I suggested this incentive to SEF management, scaled in size to the local economy, of course. The winner here received $30 and she was just as thrilled as the $1000 recipient in the US.

The training session ended with a self graded quiz…a very simple self graded quiz that some had difficultly with. Here is a sample question that was challenging for them to understand:

1. Which direction should you face when presenting from a flip chart?
a. Face the chart
b. Face the audience
c. Face the door

But despite the problems I have described, the session was a success. Samson, CEO, and Worku, CFO, were thrilled with the progress of their staff. And your humble trainer was also quite pleased.

After the session, Worku took me to visit a traditional round wooden church just outside Rema. The church guard was very poor. He was barefoot, wore shorts and a ragged blanket around his shoulders. A sort of modified Mahatma Gandhi look. For his troubles to open the locked church gate for us, I offered him 2 birr (18 cents.) He refused, correctly sizing up that I was not a local, he said, “Your country is so far away; you need this money more than I do.” First time in Ethiopia that someone tried to give money back. (I insisted and he reluctantly accepted.)

Back in Addis on Sunday I took a walk to the Shola Market, a very large and active market of open stalls selling food, clothing, shoes, furniture, fabric, and much else. I took the obligatory photos of the spice and grain shops displaying baskets piled high with multihued lentils, grains of every shade, ground chili, and red, yellow, and orange curry. Very colorful. In the market, I passed an open area filled with 20 foosball tables, nearly every one in use and surrounded by spectators. Most of the tables were barely functional, missing miniature players designed to kick the ball and missing handles designed to grip the flipping bar. But the players were enthusiastic nevertheless.

On my walk back to the hotel I stopped to watch a real football (soccer) game in a vacant lot. The soccer pitch was a challenging combination of wet mud holes surrounded by sun baked mud that had hardened into semi-concrete divots. Adding to the challenge for the players was the lack of uniforms – – unaffordable to the teams. They wore whatever shirt they owned. Watching a red shirted attacker guarded by a red shirted defender, confused me and I wasn’t even on the field. I had no idea whose side the green and blue shirted players were on. So I left.

You may recall my blog entry several weeks ago about the women firewood carriers, the ones who labored all day to bring very heavy loads of wood from the forest back into Addis. Well today I saw a sign for the “Former Women’s Fuelwood Carriers Association.” Someone has organized these women, taught them to make saleable crafts so that they can earn money – – more money than by lugging backbreaking loads of firewood for less than $2 per day. Less wear and tear on the body too. I doubt that I could carry loads as heavy as these women do. Anyway, this sounds like a good organization bringing benefits to these women.

I learned a new word today. Previously I reported that the Ethiopian term for foreigner is “farengi.” Well, their own term for an Ethiopian is “habesha” which means literally, “burnt face.” This is meant to connote that Ethiopians are darker than farengi, but lighter skinned that other sub-Saharan Africans. They take great pride in being different – – both in shade and in culture – – than the rest of Africa.

Tomorrow I will make the 24 hour journey back to Boston for six weeks of personal battery recharging. I will return in September for my final stint with SEF and with the habesha.

The Name Game

On Sunday my friend, Lorenz, and I hopped on a bus for the one hour ride east from Addis to the small town of Debre Zeit. The name means Mount of Olives – – no olives here, but like many places in Ethiopia, this is a biblical name. What the town lacked in olives though, it made up for in lakes. And most were strikingly scenic crater lakes, filling a string of extinct volcano craters, all lying in or near the town. We spent most of the day hiking from lake to lake, four in all; chatting with the locals, eating a brown bag lunch on the rim of one crater, and fending off the persistent horse cart taxi drivers – – we wanted to walk. All in all, a sort of low key day with plenty of sunshine, fresh air, and exercise. A prescription, I believe, for a healthy and happy life.

A good name can contribute to a happy life as well and the Ethiopians have some great names. As I wrote in one of my early blog entries, a few are recognizable biblical names, say, Samson. Some cannot be immediately recognized, but can be translated into an English name. Dawit = David, for example. But the fun part about names here is that while many can be translated into English, they are not names that we would ever use. Let’s visit a few.

I will spare you the Amharic version, but from the English translation you will see that these are quite different than the names we have in America. It seems that Ethiopian parents give names to describe their new born or to register hope about some desired trait.

“Loving” – – A sweet thought.

“It Is Clear” – – For a particularly light skinned baby.

“Quiet” – – Perhaps wishful thinking by the parents of a new born.

“Flower” – – We have Rose and Daisy, but no generic flower as far as I know.

“Border” – – No idea what this might relate to. Incomprehensible connotation.

“God Allows Me” – – Exactly what God allows him to do is unstated.

“Response” – – I am not aware of an equivalent name in English. Sounds too much like “Responsible,” which of course would not describe any children I know. My kids excepted, naturally.

“Gold” – – We do have Goldie Hawn, but generally we don’t name kids after precious metals. Although in college I once dated a platinum blonde.

“Always World” – – You may remember our equivalent, former NBA player, World B. Free. I’ve always thought that was a cool name…even wanted to name my son World B. Free, but unfortunately his last name is Nichols. Rocks are one of the thrills of motoring on Ethiopia’s roads. In a land of poor people and hence, unaffordable maintenance, cars breakdown on the highway…and not infrequently. I doubt that a reflective warning triangle exists in the country. And even if it did, the typical dented and jammed car trunk would not yield it in a time of need anyway. Consequently, the driver of a breakdown will protect himself while supine beneath his vehicle by placing two or three large rocks on the roadway behind his disabled auto. We are talking big bowling ball-like objects. Once he gets his car running again, he will be so excited at his success, that more often than not, he will hop behind the wheel and take off, leaving the spherical, non-reflective warning signs on the road.

Now imagine yourself in a car (as I have been) flying down the highway at night, 60 mph. All of a sudden there they are. Rocks in the dark are usually spotted when it is much too late to swerve. So, if don’t avoid them, you will likely be laying out your own set of rocks while you change tires. You will leave your rocks behind as well. And so it goes.

Thirteen Months of Sunshine

The rainy season has arrived with a vengeance: torrential downpours nearly every day. They last several hours at a time and turn the many dirt roads around my hotel into sticky, goopy red mud. The other morning I made the mistake of taking a dirt road shortcut – – after a heavy overnight rain – – to my office; By the time I had navigated the 300 yards of dirt road-turned mud puddle, my shoes were so heavily coated with red sticky mud I could barely lift them. And they had grown in size as well. On the far side of my sludge traverse lay an asphalt road and a phalanx of heaven-sent shoeshine boys. For 20 cents – – and at that price I should be getting several shines a day – – one of them washed off the mud, shined and reconditioned my shoes and had me on my way to work inside of ten minutes. Looking pretty spiffy, except for the mud on my pants up to my knees.

One rainy afternoon I went outside to discover that someone had replaced the asphalt main road in front of my hotel with a lake – – and not an insignificant lake. I had to walk nearly a block to find a fordable spot, all the time jumping back from the lake shore to avoid too fast drivers and their less than thoughtful splash. Naturally, one really doesn’t want to get splashed, and not just because rain water is especially wet. More because our new lake is red with mud washed in from tributary dirt roads…all of which have had herds of cows, donkeys, goats, and sheep driven over them earlier in the day. The lake water is about as clean as a stock pond on a farm.

The great challenge is to navigate all this in an evening downpour during a power outage. Control the umbrella, try to see in the dark, find thy ford, avoid the car splash, and have a nice day.

Ethiopia lies north of the equator and thus it is officially summer here, but the Ethiopians call this season their winter. The days are often darker (lots of clouds) and noticeably cooler: 50s at night, 70s in the day. Some wear a parka with the hood up to protect against the (relative) chill. I am fine with just a shirt (and umbrella), this is like a typical New England summer day for me.

The Ethiopian tourist board has a poster with a tag line that reads “13 Months of Sunshine” Such a statement of course requires explanation. In this country they use the old Julian calendar – – the same calendar used by the western world until 1582, at which time we switched to the Gregorian calendar. The Julian, or Ethiopian calendar as they like to call it, has 12 months of 30 days each, plus a 13th month of 5 days (6 in leap years.) Do the math: 365 days, just like our year, only packaged differently. So that’s how they get 13 months of sunshine. But that still doesn’t account for the rainy season which I presume the tag line ignores.

Back in 1582 when much of the world made the switch from Julian to Gregorian, seven to eight years somehow got lost in translation. The upshot is that it is currently 2001 in Ethiopia, turning 2002 in September. And if months and years haven’t confused you, let’s move to time of day. In the west our day is split in half, midnight to noon (AM) and noon to midnight (PM). In Ethiopia they start counting their daytime from 6AM and nighttime from 6 PM. Thus 2 o’clock daytime on an Ethiopian clock would be 8 AM on our western clock. Some clocks are set on Ethiopian time, some on western time…all very confusing. So let me put it all together. Say you have a very important business meeting (or a hot date) at 3 o’clock daytime on day 4 of month 13, 2001…that could very well be tomorrow, however you would never know until it is too late. But you should take your umbrella anyway.

No Girls Allowed

With perhaps the possible exception of Haile Selassie, Ethiopia’s most famous historical figure is Lucy, the 3.5 million year old hominid. Our suspected human ancestor is displayed in the National Museum in Addis. Actually, a copy of her skull is displayed. When you come to Addis be sure to check out her noggin.

Last Thursday I traveled with the SEF country director, Samson, and his executive assistant, Yikanu, to the Southern Peoples State. The name brings Mississippi to mind, doesn’t it? But this was not a trip to Mississippi; in fact this journey was a repeat of the first trip I took with SEF two months ago to observe our sales process to home owners in this southern region. The sales efforts were successful; we will install around 100 solar home systems. This recent trip was to check on the health and welfare of our 10-person installation team in the village of Abasuja and to visit two local families who had each had a solar system installed a fortnight earlier. Everyone was happy: the installation team had three rooms to sleep in at the local school, plus one more room to cook in. The locals were thrilled with light in their homes for the first time since Lucy.

But I wasn’t happy. We departed Abasuja after dark and got hopelessly lost on cattle trails (no road signs here) that wound tortuously from the village for nearly 20 miles back to the main road. In the pitch black African darkness, it was impossible to see the natural landmarks that had marked our arrival in the late afternoon. We had arrived too late, stayed too long, and departed after nightfall. Only spectacular flashes of lightening provided fleeting illumination of rural (very rural) Ethiopia. But we did make it back, eventually, to Addis Ababa where I caught a Friday night flight to Bahir Dar, around 300 miles north of the capital.

Bahir Dar sits on the shore of the Lake Tana, Ethiopia’s largest. The lake is more or less round, about 50 miles in diameter. At my charming, but rundown lakeside hotel, I discovered that several independent travelers had banded together to hire a boat to visit the lake and its ancient, but still active, monasteries. I joined them on a five hour excursion to three monasteries dating back four centuries. The first one, Kibran Gebriel, sits on a hilltop on a small island in the lake. Women are forbidden from entering this monastery for fear of putting impure thoughts into the minds of the 20 monastic male residents. (Sorry, I don’t make the rules.) So the several women in our group visited the nunnery at a nearby island, while the more macho contingent checked out the male-only island.

Out of respect for monastery rules, I would like to ask all female readers to stop reading now. You may pick up again one paragraph down.

Well, the monastery itself was closed on the day of our visit, so the women didn’t miss much. (Ladies, please!) However the head monk – – I am a bit unclear on Orthodox ecclesiastic titles – – escorted us to the storeroom where monastic treasures were safeguarded. He showed us an antique book of the Gospels written on goatskin, which he said was 900 years old. It was written in Ge’ez, the predecessor language of Amharic, and is still used in the Orthodox Church – – not unlike Latin in traditional Catholic churches. He removed this fragile volume from a shelf and then thumbed through the increasingly brittle and worn centuries-old pages. At most other places such a historical treasure would be under glass. Other valuable items included ornate crosses of various styles and also crowns, some donated by Ethiopian Emperors over the past few centuries.

Nearly all of Ethiopia’s Orthodox churches, including those at the three monasteries we visited, are built in the round…actually, more like hexagonal. Roofs are made of long juniper poles, cross hatched with smaller twigs, all ties together with goatskin strips and then overlaid with grass thatch. The outer walls surround an internal hexagon covered with orthodox art (similar to Russian Orthodox art) showing scenes from the bible (climbing Jacob’s ladder, Moses parting the Red Sea) or the activities of saints (St George slaying the dragon.)

After the monasteries, our boat driver took us to a river outlet on the lake’s edge: special because this is the source of the Blue Nile. (Which meets the White Nile in Khartoum…but we covered this geography lesson in an earlier posting.) We motored a few hundred yards into the river to a spot where purportedly one could observe hippos and crocodiles. The animals didn’t make a showing that day, but merely motoring out of Lake Tana into the upper reaches of the Nile was satisfaction enough for a geo-freak. And I consider myself one of these.

I attended a wedding in Bahir Dar. I wasn’t actually invited, but the event took place in the courtyard garden of my hotel – – not 20 feet from my room. So, I sat on the veranda in front of my room and pretended to read while the celebration took place. The bride wore bright blue (traditional color?) and her attendants had on eye catching peach dresses. Groom and groomsmen were sharply attired in well tailored tan suites. This was clearly an upper socio-economic class affair. The well turned out guests serenaded the union with, to my ear, very beautiful a cappella Amharic songs accompanied by handclapping – – theirs, not mine – – and also some celebratory ululating. I always love that sound.

I couldn’t bring myself to surreptitiously snap photos, but I thought about it. Tacky and intrusive was my ultimate judgment.

On Sunday I joined a German woman and a Belgian man, like me, both solo travelers, on a half day trip to the Blue Nile Falls. When at its best, some claim these falls rival the famous Victoria Falls in southern Africa. While picturesque, the Blue Nile Falls have not been at their best for over a decade. Ethiopia’s quest for electricity has greatly compromised the water flow. Above the falls the Blue Nile River has been side-channeled to a hydro power plant, reducing the current over the cataract by at least 90%. It is as if the impressive breadth of Niagara was shrunk to about 20 yards.

But the two hour hike to and from the dehydrated falls was a treat all the same. We crossed the 400 year old Portuguese Bridge, dating from Portugal’s brief and unsuccessful run at colonizing Ethiopia in the 1500s. (In fact, no country has ever colonized this nation. Mussolini invaded and occupied it for a few years during WWII, but Italy never colonized the country.)

We hiked through small farming villages with their picturesque thatched roof homes, past numerous shepherds, waded across two tributaries of the Nile, and were included in a photo shoot with some Ethiopian college students celebrating their recent graduation. All in all, not much water, but a fulfilling half day trip.

I had Sunday afternoon free to explore Bahir Dar so I rented a bike. At 64 cents per hour, the rental fee struck me as quite a bargain. I did wonder how a bike rental firm can pay back the $300 or so purchase price of a mountain bike at 64 cents per hour. Well, one way is to scrimp on maintenance. The front brake was non-functional: no break pads. The rear brake coasted the bike to a stop over half a block. Any quicker stop required the addition of foot dragging. The 18 gears had frozen into one, somewhere in the midrange of the gearing. And the tires leaked. I had to pay 27 cents at a sidewalk tire shop to refill the tires, then pedal like crazy back to the hotel before they ran flat again. And to those who love me, no, I did not wear a helmet. I don’t think they have them in Ethiopia.

To recap: the Blue Nile Falls don’t really flow, I didn’t see hippos, I wasn’t invited to the wedding, the bike really didn’t work…but at least I visited a monastery that no woman on earth has ever set foot in. So there.

The Award Winning Solar Energy Foundation

The Solar Energy Foundation was recently selected as one of three Ashden prize winners. The Ashden prizes are awarded by a British environmental group to organizations (like SEF) that work at the grassroots level to improve the environment. Our Ethiopian director, Samson, flew to London to receive the award from Prince Charles. A big deal for our foundation, but an even bigger deal was that the prize carried a $30,000 windfall with it. I doubt I will get my cut, so the funds will likely go toward furthering our solar expansion in rural Ethiopia.

All foreigners in this country are called “farenji” by the Ethiopians. The etymology of this word is uncertain, but possibly comes from a permutation of English slang for a French person, “frenchie.” (Frenchie, Farenji…get it?) Especially rural Ethiopians have trouble distinguishing the ethnic background of one farenji from another. One guy asked me, “Are you Russian or Asian?” Somehow he picked up that I wasn’t African. I have walked down a village path and heard people behind me say loudly, “China.”

In fact there are a lot of Chinese workers in Ethiopia, many in highway construction. These highways are a gift from the Chinese government. But there are many ex-pat Chinese in business jobs as well. In fact, at times I see nearly as many Chinese as I do Caucasian foreigners.

Fresh juice is available year round; the flavor depends on what is in season. Now I am enjoying a choice of orange, papaya, mango, and guava. Either straight up or blended, all for about one buck. But the real seasonal treat is avocado juice. Now if you puree an avocado you basically get guacamole – – a bit too thick to drink. So they dilute the pureed avocado with some water, bottled I hope, and then add a touch of sugar, otherwise it might still taste like guacamole. Try it at home, quite a refreshing way to drink your vegetable. And I suspect it goes well with tacos.

Depending on the route I choose for my morning jog, I will pass some combination of the following educational institutions: University for Peace, Miracle Health College, Good News Youth Academy, Future Generation Hope School, the School of the Future, and the somewhat redundantly titled, City University College. So many opportunities for learning…and if we could just get the truant shoeshine boys to attend one of these institutions, they – – and Ethiopia – – would be the better for it. On my route are both the Light of Today School and the School for Tomorrow. The later is evidently the one that the shoeshine boys plan to attend – – someday. The Community Development Center, despite its high sounding name, is actually a bar. I also pass the “Freind ship Pub.” Apparently too much time in the pub and not enough time in school.

Baboons at the Gorge

You may recall from my June 15 posting that disagreement over the price of repairing my torn trousers (27 cents vs. 9 cents) caused a minor ruckus in Harrar. So, I brought the offending trousers back to Addis for repair. Our very able executive assistant, Yikanu, took them to her tailor near the office. He charged her big city prices: 9 cents. How do they make a living?

The rainy season is just now beginning, perhaps an hour of hard rain every other afternoon. I am told the frequency and length of downpours will increase. But at the moment, our reservoirs are at their lowest point and the few rains have so far not really raised the water level. Consequently, hydro-generation of electricity is at its weakest. We now have all day power outages every other day. One gets used to it and works around the inconvenience. In a few weeks the increasing rain should replenish the reservoirs and eliminate the need for power outages… until dry season again next year.

On Sunday I took a daytrip with a new friend, Lorenz, an Austrian/American working here in Addis. We hired a car and driver ($36 for the day) to take us two hours north of Addis to the Muger Gorge. This steep gorge plunges 2000 feet to the Muger River below. The Muger is a tributary of the Blue Nile, which meets the White Nile in Khartoum, Sudan. Together they form the Nile and flow northward through Egypt to empty into the Mediterranean. But enough geography.

We began our exploration on the rim of the gorge in the village of Durba where a very colorful Sunday market was taking place. Just a couple hundred yards from the market we observed an eye catching 300 foot high waterfall, and then nearby, a troupe of 25 or so Gelada Baboons ambling across an open field. They are also known as “bleeding heart” baboons due a chest of bare red skin sported by the male; no hair there on this otherwise hirsute animal. A quick glance might lead one to think the male’s heart is bleeding.

After a few photo shots we left the baboons and descended the switch back trail into the steep canyon. Soon we stopped on a rocky ledge (with a spectacular view across the gorge) to eat the sack lunches we had brought with us. Apparently the sight of two foreigners eating strange food overcame the reticence of several locals who were streaming down the trail from the market above to their homes on the canyon floor below. They stopped to stare. We had brought too much food for our lunch, so we offered the extra to the curious locals. They seemed intrigued by the exotic food we shared: apples, raisins, hummus, crackers. All purchased in a supermarket in Addis, but quite rare in this semi-isolated canyon.

They seemed to take a liking to our food… and to us as well. They invited us to hike to the bottom with them, so we set off with half a dozen of varying ages. An 11 year old girl was the only one who could speak some English, so she became our main contact. At one point she pointed at me and told 29 year old Lorenz, “The old man is clever.” I was partially flattered.

At the bottom, one of our fellow traveler, a middle aged woman, invited us to her home for coffee, dinner, sleep the night, and breakfast. Quite an offer – – if correctly translated by the 11 year old. But we had a driver and car waiting back on top so we had to decline her generosity. The 2000 elevation rise, bottom to top, was a workout. Due to the extreme steepness of the rocky trail, our climb was like ascending stairs for one hour straight. We didn’t stop, but we did have to side step occasionally on the narrow switchback, whenever a string of charcoal laden donkeys bore down on us from the market above. Good climb, good agility training, no need to visit the gym that day.

Dodging Steam Rollers

Observing road construction in Ethiopia is entertainment. Back home in Massachusetts we are incensed that every minor bit of roadwork requires a police detail on hand. Apologies to the policemen who serve on these details, but, to see a cop standing nearby drinking a cup of coffee and staring into the excavation, while I drive past watching my tax dollars fund this excess, irks me mildly. However, I would gladly fly several police details to Ethiopia at my expense.

The road in front of my office was recently paved. No construction signs were used. No barriers were erected to keep drivers, pedestrians, or goats off of the road while it was under construction. Cars would vie for position with steam rollers on the wet tar. When one side of the road proved impassable due to mounds of rock or dirt, drivers would drive on the wrong side of the median strip, challenging the correctly directioned drivers – – and the steam rollers.

Occasionally, the road crews would absolutely need to close off part of the road. In this very poor country, they don’t have temporary barriers to erect. Instead, the crews would position several large rocks across the forbidden section of road. And the drivers would drive around the rocks and challenge the steamrollers once again. All in good fun

At my yoga class recently, I met a Lieutenant Colonel in the Canadian Army. He is serving as the senior military liaison between the UN and the African Union forces in Darfur. While his organization is based in Addis he travels regularly to Darfur. The place sounds horrendous. The capital of North Darfur normally has a population of 50,000. Due to the massive influx of displaced people, the population is now approaching 200,000. Some refugee camps have upwards of 100,000 people in them. It would be difficult to avoid squalor in such an overcrowded place that consists of a few buildings, a few tents, and lots of stick and plastic shelters. Running water is virtually non existent and generator-powered electricity is likewise.

When he goes on an inspection visit out in the bush – – always accompanied by a well armed team of African Union soldiers from one of the contributing AU countries – – he sometimes comes into contact with government armed militias. These are the militias that have been accused of many of the well publicized atrocities in Darfur. He says some of these militia units include child soldiers. According to my friend, there is nothing scarier than a 15 year old untrained kid with an automatic weapon in his hand. Fuelled by beer and testosterone, these youngsters are totally unpredictable. I had thought of visiting Darfur while here in next door Ethiopia, but have decided against it due to the high air fare. Actually, I didn’t check the airfare; I just don’t fancy combat zones and weapons in the hands of kids.

There is a woman at my hotel reception. Here name is Jerusalem. In this very Christian nation, I assumed she was Christian. But, she could have been one of the few remaining Ethiopian Jews. Or perhaps equally likely, a Muslim. However, I think the cross around her neck gave her away. In any case, this was the first time I had met anyone named Jerusalem. And speaking of crosses, I have seen several women with crosses tattooed onto the forehead. Very devout.

Ancient City of Harrar

The small city of Harrar lies 13 hours by bus east from Addis. I opted for the 50 minute plane flight. Price for foreigners: $300; for residents of Ethiopia: $88. Didn’t seem quite fair to me, we both fill the same seat. But I lucked out. Since I flew into the country on Ethiopian Airlines, I automatically qualified for the resident rate. Quite fair after all.

We landed in the country’s eastern region, heavily Muslim, near Somalia. But not dangerously near – – still 180 miles or an eight hour drive to the border.

My guidebook described Harrar as the fourth most important city in Islam. For those of you keeping score: 1. Mecca, 2. Medina, 3. Jerusalem, 4. Harrar? Note: My daughter, Alison, who is well schooled in these matters, tells me #4 really is a town in Tunisia. And besides, she had never heard of Harrar.

Whatever its Islamic rank, Harrar is a fascinating place. It is a walled city (one of very few in sub-Saharan Africa) dating from the 1500s. One enters the old town through one of five city gates, then wanders, semi-lost and disoriented, around a labyrinth of winding alleys. These pedestrian pathways are mostly cobblestone and are flanked by whitewashed walls which keep prying eyes (mine) from the courtyards within. But with enough surreptitious glances as people entered and exited their homes, I caught a pretty good composite view of the flowery and attractively painted interior walls within the courtyards.

As picturesque as Harrar is, one would never mistake it for a quaint walled European city. This is the Ethiopian version: crowded, rundown, and more trash – – but fascinating all the same…and soon to be designed a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Being an upmarket kind of guy, I chose the Belayneh Hotel, the nicest in town. And at $11.80 per night, quite a bargain. But nicest in town is a relative term. We had electricity in the hotel on just one of the three days I was there. Consequently I was able to stay in a romantic candlelit room. Showering was permitted two hours each morning and again two hours in the evening – – strictly controlled by a shower head that emitted water only at the designated times. And in an interesting application of bone headed plumbing, the toilet flushed only during official shower times.

Outside the city walls, in the so-called new town, I stopped under some shade trees to rest and to review my guide book. A nearby shop owner and a couple of his friends soon started up a conversation with me. It wasn’t much of a conversation though. They spoke little English and my few memorized Amharic phrases didn’t get us very far. Furthermore, their native tongue wasn’t even Amharic, it was Oromo. My guide book has a table that translates English into several of the significant Ethiopian languages. So, instead of conversing, we looked up words and phrases in English, Amharic, and Oromo and laughed as each person tried to read a word in a non-native tongue. I’m not sure what was so funny about that…but the simple joy of laughing (mostly) at ourselves was refreshing.

I later stumbled across the qat market. Pronounced chaat in Ethiopia, qat is a shrub with green, bitter leaves. The locals chew the leaves to release a stimulant which gives sort of a quadruple espresso buzz. Only thing is, later I saw numerous qat chewers semi-reclining along the old town alleyways each with a large pile of qat leaves. They didn’t seem hyper-caffeinated; they seemed kind of zoned out. They would spend several hours of the afternoon pursuing this time wasting, non-productive pastime. For the record, qat is legal in some developed countries (UK) and illegal in others (US.)

From my hotel balcony I had a bird’s eye view of the Christian Market. So called because it lies outside the city walls and most of Harrar’s Christians live outside. Inside the walls Muslims predominate and, not surprisingly, the main market there is called the Muslim Market. One observes both religions at both markets. Anyway, I overlooked the firewood section of the market. Teenage girls – – never boys for this task – – would pass my hotel having traveled several miles, each with a large bundle of firewood balanced on her head. Donkeys would bring in heavier loads. Over the course of the late afternoon the firewood market took shape with an ever growing supply of product arriving by female head or donkey back. Each girl could expect to receive $1.50 – $2.00 for the firewood she had likely spent the entire afternoon bringing to market.

Friday night seemed like a good time to watch Harrar’s Crazy Hyena Man (CHM) feed wild hyenas. For a $5 tourist contribution, CHM will feed raw meat to these very scary animals. They look mean with big heads, sloping hindquarters, and fearsome teeth. Hyenas will even occasionally ambush and kill a weak lion. Anyway, four hyenas showed up from the forested hills surrounding Harrar, lured by the smell of raw meat and the familiarity of CHM’s calls to them in the darkness. I had arrived at the feeding site by taxi and by design, the taxi driver stayed to shine his vehicle headlights on the feeding activity.

Crazy Hyena Man began by tossing pieces of meat to the four wild creatures. They snarled and snapped at the meat. Next he fed them by hand, actually by a 12 inch stick with meat hanging from it. But the coup de grace was when he held the stick in his mouth and offered the meaty end to wild, fearsome, unpredictable carnivores. Next he explained it was my turn.

I told him I didn’t eat raw meat. Of course he really meant it was my turn to have my hand and face within 12 inches of powerful hyena jaws. I read somewhere that hyenas have the most powerful jaws of any carnivore on earth. All the better to crush bones to get at their marrow. Since I cherish my hand and face marrow, I took a pass on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I remained at a safe distance and snapped headlight-illuminated photos of CHM and his snarling, wild friends.

The next morning I hired Girma as my guide to take me to the Valley of Marbles. We began our journey at the bus station in Harrar, boarding the bus a few minutes before the designated departure time. But departure, despite what the schedule says, is dictated by filling the seats. So we waited…and waited while the driver attempted to Shanghai other eastbound travelers onto our bus. At several points, some passengers grew tired of waiting and attempted to exit the bus, Animated shouting would break out, some flagrant gesticulating, but no touching. After 45 minutes we left, pointed eastward toward the small market town of Babile and the Valley of Marbles a couple of miles beyond.
This region’s inhabitants are ethnic Somalis: same language, religion, dress of their cousins in the failed state. (We were still 150 miles from the border.) Some Somalis live in straw huts. Made from a type of reed, these homes resemble oversized witches hats minus the brim.

The Somali women love bright colors. Those who really pop wear a lace-fringed ankle length skirt, overlaid by a gaudily printed wrap-around to the calf (so that the lace shows below,) followed by an equally gaudy blouse with yet a different vibrant print, then a shawl, often a powerful yellow, orange, or green color. They cover the head (but not the face) with one, sometimes two, additional loud patterned scarves. All these layers are light and breezy as is appropriate in this hot climate. They are also loose fitting so as to obscure the female figure. These multiple competing layers scream for attention. But it all seems to work, unlike, say, when I wore a stripped shirt and plaid polyester pants in college.

The Valley of Marbles is a beautiful mountainous landscape of giant monolithic granite blocks, up to 40 feet in height. Many stand upright, some balancing atop the block (or blocks) beneath. On the rocky/sandy ground were scattered thumb size chunks of marble. Marble and granite are related minerals and are often found together. Scurrying over the granite blocks were rock hyraxes. A rock hyrax is a football sized mammal resembling an overgrown guinea pig. Oddly, it is the closest living relative to the elephant. If you have difficulty understanding how an overgrown guinea pig can be related to an elephant, take up your concerns with a taxonomist. I offer no further explanation.

On Sunday morning I again ventured inside the walls of the old city, destined for a row of sidewalk tailors manning their foot treadle sewing machines. An overzealous laundry lady at my hotel had torn a hole in my favorite micro fiber, wick ‘em away traveling trousers. I was seeking a tailor to make the repair.

I approached the first sidewalk tailor and inquired the price of an on-the-spot repair. “Three birr.” (27 cents) At this low price, I chose not to bargain and handed over the torn trousers. However, a local passerby elected to bargain for me. “No, only one birr.” (9 cents).

This intervention so enraged the tailor that he rose from behind his antique sewing machine and picked up his sharply pointed scissors. Before he could close on the uninvited bargainer, another local stepped in to restrain the scissor wielding, price gouging tailor. And before this situation could fully resolve itself, I collected my micro fiber pants from the now vacant sewing machine and beat a hasty retreat down the cobblestone alley. And besides, it looked as if the tailor was planning to use white thread on my favorite tan trou.

The entire weekend I spent in Harrar, I saw just one other westerner. Being (almost) the sole outsider, gave me a feeling of total immersion in the Harrari culture. The morning I left, I met a lawyer from NYC. He talked too much. The reason: lawyer? Or from NYC? You decide.

Beggar’s Belief

There are a lot of beggars in this very poor country. More than anyplace I have ever been. (Note: I haven’t been to India or to Bangladesh.) But there are lots of them here. Some of them are opportunists, like the sort-of-poor, but not-totally-poor guy who dashes across the street to encounter a perceived affluent foreigner. Or the little kid who stop laughing with his friends and puts on a pitiful face when I walk by. But there are clearly poor women clutching babies, or people wearing little more than rags. There are also many men permanently injured or missing limbs. My best guess is that they are veterans of some ill-advised war that involved their country. And there have been several wars for them to have suffered in.

I can pretty much guess their war by their age. The oldest of the wounded perhaps fought during the 80s in the resistance against Ethiopia’s brutal communist regime. (Overthrown in 1991.) Slightly younger are those that fought through the early 90s in the civil war that followed. The outcome was the separation of Eritrea from Ethiopia. Younger yet are the former soldiers who were sent in the late 90s to fight a simmering border conflict with the newly independent Eritrea. And the youngest of all are those maimed in Somalia. Two years ago Ethiopia sent troops there in an unsuccessful effort to shore up that failed state. Ethiopian troops withdrew this past January. Now the troops are home and the wounded are begging on the streets.

My job is to discern the opportunists from the legitimates. Whenever I have spare change in my pocket I dole it out to the legitimates…at least my idea of the legitimates.

Even the country itself is somewhat of a beggar. When one walks down the street in Addis it is impossible to miss the great number of charities, non-profit organizations, and NGOs that have set up shop here: UNESCO, CARE, Save the Children, The Carter Center, Columbia University’s Earth Institute, UN, Solar Energy Foundation (of course) and the list goes on. I see signs along major roads telling me which wealthy nation funded its construction and notices beside new buildings announcing that the European Commission (or some other body) sponsored its erection. I sometimes wonder if Ethiopia could survive without all this foreign aid. I suppose most low income countries must rely on such aid for their survival.

Religion – Ethiopia claims to be the second oldest Christian nation on earth, after Armenia. Christianity came here around 300 AD. This is a devoutly Christian country despite a large percentage of non-Christians. I have seen varying estimates of the religious mix, but most are around 50% Christian, 40% Muslim, and 10% Animist and other. There is a very small number of Ethiopian Jews. Most were spirited out of the country by Israel during that brutal communist dictatorship of the 1980s.

Despite the sizable proportion of Muslims in the country as a whole, one sees mostly Christians in the central highlands where Addis is located. The significant Muslim populations are around the edges of the country near the Eritrean, Somali, and Sudanese borders. I see many more churches than mosques and while I do see a fair number of Muslim women (evidenced by headscarves) they are greatly outnumbered by Christians. Among men it is difficult to ascertain religion by dress. It appears that these two religions coexist very amicably. I am told that mixed marriages are reasonably common, with either spouse converting to either religion, or even both religions coexisting in the same home. Now, if we could just get other parts of the world to practice this tolerance.

The Rainy Season

With the rainy season fast approaching, it seemed time to spring for an umbrella. One of the women at my office told me I should pay ETB35 – 50 (Ethiopian birr) or about $3 – 4.50. Before heading out for a post-work umbrella shopping spree, I inquired at my hotel reception desk about where to find the desired product. The receptionist told me to go to a supermarket because the nearby small shops sell only “artificial umbrellas.” Hmm, artificial umbrellas are a new concept to me. More likely, we were dealing with a language error. But just in case, I headed to the nearby small shops to see if they had artificial umbrellas.

All in all it was a successful afternoon. I purchased an artificial umbrella. I learned the Amharic word for umbrella. (“jonTELA” for the linguistically curious among you.)And I got to bargain: starting price ETB 80; my price ETB 50 – – just within the range recommended at my office.

The Ethiopians are big on greetings. When men greet they shake hands. And depending how formal the greeting, the man will often bow his head and touch his own forearm with his free hand while shaking hands. Sometimes, while shaking hands he will bump shoulders with the other fellow, one, two, or three times. (I think the number of shoulder bumps indicates how happy he is to see each other guy.) I am fairly adept at the shoulder bump by now.

Women generally shake hands and kiss each other on alternate cheeks three times. Occasionally I have seen this alternation continue up to five kisses. Again, I assume, a sign of happiness to see a friend.

One does not see much public display of affection between the sexes. Infrequently, I see men and women holding hands. But more frequently I see men holding hands with men and women holding hands with women. This is a common sign of friendship, nothing more.

I had my first Amharic lesson on Friday. My tutor, Dawit, was introduced to me by a local British guy. Dawit has tutored several people from the British Embassy and he is quite good. He will come to my hotel two or three times each week to teach me to say please and thank you.

I had written in a previous posting that there were 231 characters in the Amharic alphabet. I was wrong. Dawit brought me a table with 238 characters…and he told me there were actually more, but the extras were not frequently used. 231, 238, even more – – all overwhelming to me. They have strong vowels and weak vowels…including one vowel that is so weak it is used as a consonant. (Whatever that means.) They even have explosive consonants – – my favorites – – that sound almost like one of the world’s rare click languages. So much for the alphabet.

After my first lesson, I can greet men, women, groups of people, and priests at different times of day. Each greeting is different and some are hard to pronounce. Especially those with weak vowels and explosive consonants.

With just one lesson under my belt, conversing in English remains mandatory. I am still finding that accurate communication, even with nominal English speakers, is a continuing challenge. Interviews are especially difficult. The accent is always tough and even those who speak English often don’t have a full grasp of the language. A recent interview went like this:

Me: “What is your job responsibility?”

SEF salesman: “Solar better than kerosene lantern. It provide better light, is less expensive and no pollute.”

Good answer, I guess, but not to the question I asked. I must frequently, reformulate and re-ask my question in even simpler English.

Returning to Ethiopia

Yesterday morning I flew into Addis Ababa for the beginning of my second stint with the Solar Energy Foundation. This time I will stay in country for six weeks, doubling the length of my previous stay. Speaking of length, my flight from Boston was, as usual, a lengthy one. It required two overnight flights: first from Boston to Frankfurt where I had a 10 hour layover, then another overnight flight to Ethiopia.

Fully rested by this morning, I walked to work. Along the way is a shop selling charcoal and firewood. When I see the many containers of charcoal and the numerous bundles of firewood, it brings up images of the shrinking forests around Addis. But the poor people in the city have few other sources of cooking fuel. The shrinking forests became real for me a few weeks previously while driving through the Entoto mountains just outside of Addis. I passed dozens of women walking alongside the road carrying huge bundles of still leafy, green firewood. Each bundle extended perhaps five feet on either side of the woman and was so heavy she walked bent over forward with her back parallel to the ground. (Of note: there were no men carrying these body bending loads of firewood, just women.) They had walked miles from the city into the forest to bring back firewood to use in their homes, as well as to sell. Lots of firewood was stripped from the forest that day and I doubt there is a robust reforestation program in place.

In route to work I also passed a cabinet-building workshop. The unusual thing about this workshop is that it was on the sidewalk. This small business has no fabrication facilities, just a small walled area to lock up their material and equipment at night. During the day, the actual work is performed on the sidewalk. About half a dozen men process the furniture through the various stages of completion. A power saw operator cuts the pieces, another guy hammers, nails, or screws the pieces together, a third sands the cabinet, and yet another worker spray paints the masterpiece. Quality didn’t look to good to me, but what can you expect from a sidewalk factory. Besides, I didn’t get a close-up look, I had swept wide off the sidewalk into the street to avoid the power saw and spray paint operators. In the street was a goatherd with nearly 100 goats. Pedestrians beware.

We have a position at SEF called “Office Girl.” That is her official job title; I checked the organization chart. I am told every business has an Office Girl. Her job is to do administrative odd jobs, but jobs that don’t require education. Typing requires education. At SEF, our office girl’s name is Mahmey, pronounced something like “mommy,” which sort of describes the motherly tasks she is responsible for. She brings me a bottle of water each day. She earns about $900 per year.

Tales of Ethiopia

I am back Newton now for a two week R&R. I will return to Ethiopia on the first of June for a six week stay. Here are a couple of items I wrote previously but did not get around to posting… until now, that is.

Even the paved roads near my hotel – – and there are as many dirt as paved – – are incredibly dusty. Of course this plays havoc with my shoes and hence my professional appearance. But getting a shine is simple, there are shoe shine boys everywhere. I figure they should be in school, but they are not, and consequently their career arc probably won’t rise much above shoe shine boy.

I approached the first one I saw and asked, “How much for a shine” and was told by the shoe shining truant, 25 cents. I knew this was greatly inflated, but at what point does one just pay up and not negotiate small amounts? In principal I don’t like paying above the market rate just because I am a foreigner. But in this case, I figured he could use the extra few cents more than I. So I sat down on his stool at the edge of the sidewalk and the shine began.

When the customer next to me paid 10 cents for his shine, I knew the real market price. My shine soon completed, I offered the shiner the 25 cents we had agreed on. Sly little kid… said that was 25 cents per shoe. Now this is where I draw the line. I am willing to overpay an agreed upon price, but I won’t be swindled – – even if a small amount, especially by a dropout. I put 25 cents on the ground and walked away from the pouting shyster.

Power outages: We have one every 3 or 4 days. There is no schedule for these outages, they begin very early in the morning and I discover them when I wake up. Fortunately it gets light before 6 AM so I can at least see what I am doing. There is also no power at the office either. We have sufficient light from windows to see, but the computers, printers, landline telephones, office refrigerator don’t run too well without electricity. Generally, we operate off the computer battery for a couple of hours until the computer dies. People whose jobs require being connected or using a computer sometimes leave for the day. I try to work on paper or go to an Internet cafe in a different part of town – – one that is not subjected to the current outage. Maybe their turn for outage will be tomorrow. Who knows?

Some larger shops and restaurants switch to generators. But many restaurants do not have generators so they cook from gas canisters and light with candles. Power returns around 9 PM but it has been dark since 7 PM. One evening, around 8 PM I walked home from the gym during a power outage. No shop lighting, no restaurant lighting, no street lighting. It was pitch black. I couldn’t even see the two foot deep holes in the sidewalk. And I didn’t like walking in the street because some drivers save gasoline by driving with their lights off. No wonder they call Africa the Dark Continent.

Journey to Rema

On Saturday, seven of us loaded into two vehicles for the six hour journey north to Rema. We were two Ethiopians, two Swiss, one German, one Brit, and I. All I can say about the long (and dusty) drive of endlessly changing vistas is that it now ranks in my top ten all-time list: Open plains with grazing cattle, sheer volcanic drop-offs, vertiginous mountain switchbacks, flat bottom river valleys, red, white, and tan colored buttes – – studded with eucalyptus trees, human sized prickly pear, and other assorted greenery. All along the way was the usual menagerie of donkeys, mules, horse carts, long horn cattle, and goats, all tended by the local people.

In some countries they would make this a national park. In Ethiopia it is, well, just the countryside.

We arrived at our destination late in the afternoon, just as the Saturday animal market was breaking down. Herders drove their unsold cows and goats down the mountain road out of Rema. From the center of town – – and the daily necessities market – – shoppers from surrounding villages made their way home carrying a week’s worth of produce or grain or cooking oil or kerosene. The outlying villages are off the electrical grid and they do not have solar, thus they are consigned to lighting with expensive and smoky kerosene.

But Rema does have solar. It is the model project for Solar Energy Foundation. Instead of selling the systems to residents here (as they are doing elsewhere in Ethiopia) they have given a solar system to each of the 2,500 households in the town. SEF has established a solar training center in Rema. The center brings aspiring solar technicians from all over Ethiopia to spend six months learning the trade: three months in the classroom and three months installing and maintaining systems in Rema. After six months they return to their home regions to join an SEF installation team there.

SEF tests its new products in Rema and tries out new ideas, like street lights. Not surprisingly, the local people are absolutely thrilled with the benefits that SEF has brought to the town. Apparently they associate any western visitor with the largesse of SEF. Consequently when our group of five foreigners – – three of whom were involved in SEF’s past generosity – – walked down the street we were greeted warmly by nearly everyone. “Salam” (hello) from all; and an outstretched hand from perhaps 25% of the people. I must have shaken hands with 200 people during my walk through the community. (I may go back later and ask for their votes.)

Samson, the Ethiopian director of SEF, took us into several homes to show us the installed solar lighting. Most homes – – typically two rooms in size – – had two or three LED bulbs hanging from the ceiling. The light from one of these bulbs is equivalent to a 20 watt incandescent light bulb – – quite dim when one considers that in our homes a 60 watt bulb is the smallest we generally use. However, quite bright when the townsfolk compare to their recent past: total, absolute darkness at night.

Then there were the kids. They just can’t get enough of foreign visitors. Our group looked like a collective Pied Piper as we walked through town followed by a gaggle of 20 – 50 kids at any given time. The shy kids would run up, touch my white skin and run away giggling. The brave ones, and most were brave, would say “salam” and want to shake hands. Even the little ones with dirty faces, runny noses, and flies around their eyes – – just like on TV. I shook hands with all of them, then washed my own hands with soap and water before dinner.

Rema has another claim to fame: Bill Clinton visited the town last year as part of the Clinton Initiative. He wanted to view Africa’s first solar town. Interestingly, most locals did not know who he was. Some thought he was a wealthy German philanthropist behind SEF. (SEF is a German-based foundation.) Others had no clue. Realize that most adults are illiterate farmers with no formal education and no link to the outside world. Rema is off the grid. Even those who have a few years of schooling have studied basic reading, writing, health care, and agriculture, not geo politics.

Trip to Chale

Worku and I went to Chale (Cha-lay), due east from Addis, on Friday to check on the health and welfare of Solar Energy Foundation’s six person installation team who live in that remote (off the grid) village.

As usual we got an early start, 6 AM, so that we could battle the early morning truckers and their eye stinging, lung searing, unfiltered exhaust. I hate to think what a lifetime breathing this polluted air will do to one’s health. In my case, it merely felt as if I had smoked a pack of cigarettes.

However, when we stopped for breakfast 1.5 hours later in Mojo, I had found my mojo. The traffic had thinned, the air was fresher. We turned off the paved highway and continued on a dirt road, sometimes smooth (40 mph) and sometimes very rough (15 mph.)

The donkey to car ratio increased, as did the horse cart to car ratio. Collective this is referred to as the beast of burden ratio. After a couple of hours we arrived at the edge of a deep valley. As we made our way down the 1000 foot escarpment into Africa’s Great Rift Valley, the air grew hotter and dryer. On the valley floor camels joined the parade. Most were laden down with wood, bags of grain, or large plastic containers of water. More about water later.

Yet anther 1.5 hours brought us to Chale, a small village where SEF has installed solar systems on 55 homes in the past month. They have several dozen additional orders to fulfill in the coming weeks.

The final 10 miles to Chale was on what could at best be called a beaten path. Save our own 4×4, we saw no other vehicles on this stretch. We played dodge ‘em with the local pedestrians, donkeys, camels, heard of goats and cows.

We stopped to talk to one friendly villager. Friendly, except he did have a rifle slung over his shoulder. It appeared to be a near-antique – – a single shot, bolt action piece. However, I assumed it worked, so I was especially charming towards this guy. I dispensed with my usual line of Emperor Haile Selassie jokes.

When we got to the living quarters of the SEF installation team, I was shocked: no electricity (but of course that is why they are in Chale), no running water, and all six installers (4 male, 2 female) live in a single room. About 12 x 10 feet with mattresses covering virtually every square foot of the floor space. The room had a door, but no windows.

I gently inquired about the adequacy of their living arrangement. They were universally upbeat, joking about dorm life. It turns out that all come from rural backgrounds and large families. They seemed to be one happy family now.

They cook outside on the dirt yard in front of their home.. They take bucket showers and there is an outhouse somewhere nearby.20 They rent their McMansion for $4 per month. Ah, the joys of country living.

But there was a problem, a big problem. This being the dry season, the nearest source of potable water was a 15 mile roundtrip to the closest market town. And they have no vehicle.

So, today we drove them and their large collection of five gallon plastic containers to town. There they guided us to the local water merchant: some guy who has a well, a pump, and a hose. It took a full hour to fill their containers. We then manhandled the now heavy containers back into our vehicle and retraced our route to their charming villa, now made even more attractive by the presence of a one week water supply.

Since the installation team cannot count on an SEF vehicle visiting them from Addis regularly, they are seeking other ways to solve their water challenge. They have investigated hiring a donkey or a camel, leading it to town, then walking back with full containers on the back of the animal. Downside: 15 miles roundtrip on foot, plus water filling time, takes the better part of a day. And a single beast of burden, even a large camel, can carry only a couple days of water in containers.

But the resourceful installation team may have come up with a workable solution. Each Saturday morning a truck driver from Areti, the market town, drives his empty truck to Chale to pick up farmers and their produce, and takes them to the Saturday market in Areti. The SEF installation team plans to provide him with a week’s worth of empty containers which he will fill on Saturday morning and bring to Chale in his empty truck. He will return to Areti with the farmers, crops, and another week worth of empties. All that remains to be done is to agree on the payment amount.

Mercifully, the rainy season will begin in another month and then there will be sufficient clean water – – until the dry season returns in mid September.

Living in Ethiopia

I got my hair cut last Sunday – chose most expensive place in town, the Hilton Hotel. Cost: $3.50. I probably could have saved a couple of bucks by choosing a local barber – who spoke no English and had never cut anything but Ethiopian nappy hair. But, I opted for the upmarket choice.

To get to the Hilton barbershop I had two options: take a taxi or take a mini-bus. Taxis are generally bro ken down rattletraps – – some with seat belts, some with window cranks, some with shock absorbers, all with dents. No meters, so one must always establish the price before getting in. The driver will invariable try to make the passenger feel that he is undercutting the accepted price and so energetic bargaining ensues. I usually end up paying about 50% of the starting price – – and even then I am certain that I have paid the foreigner’s premium. Prices to most places in town run $2-$5.

However on Sunday I rode the mini-bus to the Hilton. The mini-bus is a 10-person van that runs on a fixed route, generally up and down a major thoroughfare. As the driver drives along the route, a “conductor” hangs out the sliding side door shouting out the destination of his particular mini-bus. The mini-bus will stop to collect passengers wherever hailed and will discharge passengers wherever one wants off.

Since my route to the Hilton was a straight shot on a major thoroughfare, I hailed a passing mini-bus. The conductor slid open the side door and showed me a tiny open space along with 15 other passengers already jammed into the 10-person van. I paid him the going price – -1 Ethiopian birr (about 9 cents) – – and I don’t think I paid the foreigner’s premium.

I have found a gym about a 15 minute walk or 5 minute mini-bus ride from my hotel. The Bole Rock Gym is large and modern. Price for a single visit is $4.50. Since I view regular yoga as essential to my health and welfare, I have been attending yoga class one or twice a week. The 25 or so others who attend are a mix of foreigners and Ethiopians (upper socio-economic class, I presume.)

Life in Addis Ababa

Some of you have asked about life in Addis Ababa. Here are a few highlights:

Addis sprawls over the foothills of the Entoto Mountains. The city sits at nearly 8000 feet elevation – – third highest capital in the world. That high altitude makes my morning jog feel like a marathon. Half an hour and I am totally bushed.

The city is a crowded urban concentration (3 million), but there are touches of countryside within – – like the goat market (about $50 for a goat) just down the street from my hotel. The goat market is adjacent to donkey market (more than twice that price for a donkey.) One morning a rural visitor was herding cows down the street. Maybe fifteen cows, big horns, looked like long horned Texas steers. I crossed to the other side of the street.

We have had three, all-day, electrical outages in the 10 days I have been here. Much of Ethiopia’s electricity is derived from hydropower and as we are nearing the end of the eight month dry season, the reservoirs that drive the turbines are running low. Consequently, I am told that one should expect an outage every several days – – sort of rolls through Addis on an unpredictable basis.

Getting money in Addis is a regular challenge. ATMs exist but are exceedingly sparse and often don’t have money to dispense. There is virtually no acceptance of credit cards (outside of the big international hotels like Hilton and Sheraton.) Just a handful of banks accept travelers’ checks. Consequently, one must bring all the cash one needs – – sort of a problem for a long stay – – or make special trips to the few travelers-check-accepting banks.

Cashing a travelers’ check is a bit more bureaucratic than in the west. For those of you who recall cashing a travelers’ check, the procedure was simple: Go to the teller, show ID, sign the check, receive money.
Here in Ethiopia we have some additional steps: Go to bank officer’s desk. Give up passport and travelers check to be Xeroxed. Sign check. Xerox again. Bank office then fills out comprehensive form – in triplicate with carbon paper. Returns passport, hands over a numbered metal token. Wait in main lobby, 5 to 30 minutes, until number matching the token flashes on teller’s screen. Go to teller, collect money. Go back to hotel and take a nap after this ordeal.

And finally, a word about names: In this very Christian nation, a few names are recognizable from the bible: Samson and Solomon. A few others have biblical or saintly roots that require some head scratching: Yohannis (John) and Gyorgis (George). However, most are totally unfamiliar: Worku, Workeneh, Girma, Shimeles, Yikanu. Here is a quick test, identify the lone female name above. I have taken to writing down the name of each person I meet so that I can (sort of) remember them and keep them straight.

By the way, if you selected Yikanu, you are correct.

Report From Ethiopia

We left Addis Ababa at 6 AM on Wednesday, heading to the Southern Peoples State where we were to present our solar systems to farmers who live in unelectrified villages. Four of us from the Solar Energy Foundation went along to make the pitch. I was merely an observer, able to speak neither Amharic, the national language, nor Gurage, the language of the Southern Peoples State.

We fought through horrendous early morning traffic. It is a mystery to me how one of the poorest countries in the world – – Ethiopia ranks 11th from the bottom in the world in GDP per capita – – can have enough cars to create a traffic jam…but they have more than enough, big time. There are no pollution controls on vehicles so eye stinging exhaust billows everywhere. Thick enough to see. Thick enough to taste. And the honking is incessant.

Outside the city, the air in the rolling green hills of the Ethiopian highlands (7000 feet) was clear and clean. Small farms lay in every direction. The local farmers and families live in a gocho, a round wooden hut, maybe 20 feet in diameter, covered with a high conical thatched grass roof. Many family compounds consisted of several gocho surrounding a grassy courtyard – – all enclosed with a hand hewn wooden palisade fence. Green hills, crops, scattered gocho compounds and people walking everywhere – – incredibly picturesque.

The bright sun, equatorial sun, pushes the daytime temperatures into the low 80’s – – tempered somewhat by the high altitude. At night the temperature falls to the comfortable mid 50s.

In the countryside, men wear western trousers and shirts, some very worn and ragged. Women wear loose fitting ankle length skirts or dresses with a totally mismatched, clashing top. Most women and some men wrap a thin shawl around the upper torso and over the head to ward off the early morning chill, and later, the bright midday sun.

As we made our way south we passed through 10 or so small towns, each with a school. Kids on their way to morning class wore look-alike school uniforms: a brightly colored pullover. Each town had its own uniform color: vibrant green, bright red, hot pink, electric grape, shocking lavender. All very eye catching. Boys and girls alike wore this uniform, sometimes with matching pants. The sight of an entire school class in hot pink pullover and hot pink pants was unusual for me. Apparently Ethiopians don’t attach such gender specific assignments to clothing colors as we do in the west. Two hours south on a main paved road, then two more hours on a rocky, bumpy dirt road brought us to Gumar, sort of a rural county seat. When we arrived in this small town to conduct a solar demonstration for the county administrators, we discovered that our meeting would be delayed because a local catastrophe had struck just an hour earlier.

An open cooking fire inside a wood and grass gocho had lit the home on fire. A morning breeze fanned the flames which quickly jumped to 10 adjacent gocho. By the time we arrived, only circular smoking ash remained. Hundreds of villagers swatted at the smoking embers with leafy tree branches. Another hundred or so milled around, gawking. School had been let out; hundreds of school kids joined the two teams: swatters and gawkers. Not having a swatting branch, I joined the gawkers. I soon learned that a white face in this remote highland town was imminently more remarkable to the kids than were smoking huts. A crowd of students, 10 – 20 deep surrounded me, silently staring. My abrupt, “hello,” elicited swarms of giggles.

Eventually the fire was brought under control with no loss of life nor injuries. But sadly, 10 families lost their homes. Our team retreated to the local restaurant to await our rescheduled meeting with the county administrators.

Someone ordered for us: injera (remember, spongy pita-like brad made from teff, an indigenous whole grain.) Also a big bowl of rather chewy cooked beef mixed with what looked like small white onion bits. “Good, I thought, “at least I can get my vegetables.” But, bad news: the small white onion bits turned out to be gristle. But also good news: there was plenty of it.

In the afternoon we met with the county administrators to organize a demonstration the next day with the farmers whose villages lacked electricity. The meeting was set for “9:30 or 10.” Sort of indeterminate, I thought.

The next morning the farmers began arriving at 10. They were still arriving at 11 when we started the presentation. They were still arriving at 11:30 when we were into the heart of the presentation. Ultimately we had 166 men and 6 women crowded into the local meeting hall. They had walked in from as much as 2 hours away. Many arrived carrying their dual purpose walking stick/shepherd’s crook. The wealthier ones carried a horse whip – – they had ridden in. One guy showed up on a motor bike. Another farmer brushed his teeth during the meeting – – he massaged his gums with a fibrous plant stem. The non-punctual arrival demonstrated to me that we were working in a timeless economy. There were watches on a few wrists, but that didn’t seem to affect their random arrival pattern. Apparently the watch is more for show than function. I assume the meeting time was set according to wake up, breakfast, and early morning farm chores.

The meeting went well, the farmers were sold on the concept. In a couple of weeks Solar Energy Foundation will send a technical team back to Gumar to begin installing 100 or so solar systems.

Arriving In Ethiopia

I arrived in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, on Friday morning after a too long flight with too many layovers en route from Boston. After a brief nap I went to the office of the Solar Energy Foundation. SEF is a German/Swiss organization with a major focus on solar energy in Ethiopia. I will be spending about three months helping SEF set up a sales and distribution network for their solar energy business.

I met my Ethiopian SEF business contacts, Samson – CEO and Worku – CFO, and they are so hungry for assistance that even I can help. I spent the first two days learning, listening, diagnosing.

About 84% of rural Et hiopia is without electricity and SEF has targeted unelectrified villages as its target market. To make this business more than just another NGO (non-governmental organization) give-away, SEF is requiring their customers to purchase the solar system – – thereby committing the customer to the success of this venture. And by running this program as a business, SEF is creating sustainable jobs for Ethiopians, providing technical training, and ultimately will generate manufacturing in the country.

They sell solar systems to rural folk, mainly farmers and their families. SEF subsidizes 20% of the cost of the system – – a solar panel, storage battery, and long life lights – – and takes payment for the remaining 80% from the customer in four payments. SEF installs the system upon receipt of the first payment. Remaining payments are required annually, so in effect, SEF loans the purchase price of the system to the farmer and receives and annual payment over three years.

Ah ha, I thought, I can immediately save SEF money by requiring payment monthly, instead of annually: in effect speeding up collections. Oh, the things we take for granted in the west. Farmers cannot pay monthly. They have no bank accounts; they have money only after the autumn harvest. That is when they can afford to pay for cash items – – like a solar system. The rest of the year they subsist in a mostly cashless state. Apparently, I have more to learn before applying breakthrough business concepts that won’t work in the developing world.

Addis is a big (3 million), sprawling city with few street names and no street numbers. To describe one’s location one states the general area of town and a big building nearby. I am in the Bole area near the Medhane Alem church.

A word about the language…or languages, all 80+ of them. I will focus my efforts on Amharic, considered the national language, even thought just 1 of 3 Ethiopians is a native speaker. The other two thirds use one of the other 80 languages.

I began to study my Amharic phrase book to learn the alphabet. But I gave up when I discovered that there are 231 letters – – and actually they aren’t letters, they are more like syllables and the so-called alphabet is actually a syllabary.

Next, I thought I’d learn some basic verbs, only to find that verbs change spelling (unrecognizably) depending on the gender and number of the subject and the object referred to. Way too complex for my feeble language skills. So now my only hope is to memorize a few simple phrases and hope for the best.

Worku, one of my Ethiopian colleagues, took me around the city on Sunday. He treated me to lunch at a traditional restaurant in a 100 year old house overlooking Addis. The first thing he ordered for us was teuj, a fermented honey drink with all the character of grain alcohol.

Next he suggested we try the raw meat – – I politely took the cooked chicken option while they brought Worku one pound of raw beef. We each cut our chosen meat into bite sizes, then picked up each piece with a piece of injera bread (no utensils other than the knives.) Injera is a sort of spongy pita bread made from teff, a local whole grain. My dish was covered with a mildly spicy red pepper sauce and was quite good. Worku’s was basically a slab of dead cow and, I assume, quite bad. (Apologies to the carnivores among you.) Apparently this raw meat dish is a delicacy in Ethiopia.

I will be traveling in the countryside for several days: my first immersion into rural Ethiopia. With my SEF colleagues, we will visit a village that SEF is trying to market its solar system to. SEF will demonstrate how the system works, then with some luck, sign up a bunch of new customers.