We made it in time for me to have a birthday beer. The whole of Metema, the Ethiopian border town, felt like a bar where you constantly watch your bag and nervously eye up the locals for signs something’s about to kick off. Few border towns are particularly pretty, but the rough edge of this place was put into sharper relief by the sober Sudan we’d left behind. Huge beer ads lined the road metres from the customs station and the streets were suddenly filled with women, including sex workers with tight jeans and bare shoulders who flirted with us both as we pushed our bikes to the hotel.
Ethiopia has attitude – a self-confidence that spills over into rudeness that can sometimes frustrate – but it was actually nice not to be treated as semi-royalty for a change. Our appreciation for the contrast was cemented by the other incredibly visible change – within days we’d seen female police officers, builders, tuk-tuk drivers and welders. Interactions with Sudanese and Egyptians were almost always with the less fair of the sexes; women making only rare appearances and always in the company of their husbands or brothers. Ethiopian women fought alongside the men when rebels overthrew the old Communist regime, and that equity in war seems to have had some impact on gender roles in civilian life.
As we set off cycling through the same stunning countryside where the civil war raged over 20 years ago, in each hill-clinging village and mountain-hugging town, the same image was everywhere. The smiling face of the Dear Leader, Meles Zenawi, the young rebel leader who went on to become President, was on huge billboards and stickers on every minibus. We’d arrived in a country in mourning. Three months before, in a hospital in Belgium, a brain haemorrhage had suddenly and unexpectedly cut short his reign and Ethiopians were shell-shocked. I too was confused, but for very different reasons.
The excitement was palpable. Opposition parties put aside differences and coordinated themselves in an effective political coalition; rallies were held, posters plastered the streets and cafes buzzed with political debate in a way friends told me they’d never experienced before. But the effectiveness of the opposition perhaps took the government by surprise. The results showed they’d swept the incumbents from power in the councils of all the major cities and massively increased their share of parliamentary seats. Buoyed by their progress opposition supporters took to the streets and – probably overstating their case - claimed the results were rigged, and demanded an end to the rule of former rebel commander, President Meles Zenawi.
Meles was a respected thinker, supposedly part of a new wave of African leaders to lead the continent towards prosperity, democracy and stability. But faced with the imminent loss of authority he ordered a crackdown. Students were shot dead in Addis Ababa by the curfew-imposing army; thousands were rounded up in cities across the country and taken into temporary imprisonment in military camps; the internet was shut down; and opposition leaders were arrested, later to be tried on trumped up treason charges, or sent into exile. Meles was seen by many as a reviled figurehead of a murderous regime. Newspapers were shut down, tight controls on the opposition and NGOs were imposed and elections in 2010 produced a farcically result, the government claiming 99.6% of parliamentary seats. The door to democracy swung open and was slammed shut.
Now Meles was dead and I returned to see his record in power portrayed in a very different light. Eulogised as a great leader Ethiopia, nay, Africa would never see the like of again, his death was marked by a full month’s official mourning. Now, three months later, life had returned to normal but even friends who had seethed with anger at the events eight years ago would not go further than to say, “Yes he made some mistakes, but he did so much right.”
Indeed, Ethiopia was certainly changing fast under his watch. Every town we passed had at least one, often many more, new hotels built within the last five years, and major towns like Addis, Awassa and Bahir Dar had witnessed a building boom of late-nineties Ireland proportions. Tuk-tuks have replaced the formally ubiquitous pony and trap taxis. The cars zipping past us on the newly resurfaced roads were more frequently driven by the newly money-middle classes, than the NGO vehicles that overwhelmingly dominated the highways eight years hence. Ethiopia was posting annual growth figures of over 10% and its investor-friendly policies were attracting large-scale inward investment – we passed at least five huge factory complexes built by the Chinese.
Even the issue I was working on as a VSO vol, HIV, seemed to have witnessed an unprecedented success. Eight years ago about 5% of Ethiopians were living with HIV. Today almost everyone who needs HIV treatment receives it, the prevalence rate has dropped to just over 1% and the country’s approach to integrated healthcare is lauded as an example for Africa in international development HQs in London and Geneva.
But what is most obvious about the economic development of the country is that Meles hadn’t managed to tackle inequality. Despite the fact that a report published when we were in Addis Ababa on global rates of inequality showed that the UK has higher rates of inequity than Ethiopia, in Ethiopia it is much closer to the surface. Whilst standards of living sky-rocket for some – witness the hoards of clubbers buying Stoli and Jack Daniels by the bottle on a Friday night in towns across the country – the majority rural poor have seen only a moderate improvement. As we pedalled up and up and up from Sudan into the thigh-busting Ethiopian Highlands blue smoke rose with us from the straw roofs of mud huts. The deep green and blue beauty of the hills no consolation for the families subsisting on them.
When we’d battled our way to Gonder we left the bikes behind to spend four days hiking through the Simien Mountains. As we marched breathlessly up to the plateaus we passed by tiny crops of barley clinging onto every farmable inch of land. Harvesting is done by hand, thrashing by circling oxen. Kids here only do half days at school so they can work shifts patrolling their family smallholding, chasing away raiding monkeys with hand-woven slingshots.
If you’ve seen the episodes of Planet Earth or Human Planet focused on mountains you’ll have been wowed by the Simiens’ sheer scale and beauty. We’ve seen sights on this trip that we’d seen before on TV, like the pyramids, and felt the telly had over-promised and under-delivered. However, the exquisite BBC camerawork of the highest mountain range on the continent paled in comparison to the awe-striking reality.
The epic tectonic forces which wrenched the crust asunder here ripped open the vast Danakil Depression a few hundred kilometres to the Simiens’ east – the lowest point on earth not covered by water – where magma constantly bubbles in an open scar in the land. In contrast the Simiens were forced into the sky, huge lumps of rock that suddenly plunge back down, thousands of metres to the valley floor. On the high plateaus troops of Gelada monkeys, hundreds strong, graze like cattle; Lammegeyer vultures circle on vectors of warm air; and Augur buzzards swoop from cliff edges.
Ethiopia is defined not by the dry, dusty landscapes of a famine-ridden land seared on our brains by news reports on famines, but by fertile, gigantic mountains. As we cycled on from Gonder up and down through spectacular valleys, the vast areas of farmland to our left and right were being harvested by people bent-double, hand-scything their way to enough food to feed their families. And there are a lot of mouths to feed. Although the birth rate is stabilising, the population now stands at just under 90 million.
For bicycle tourists this means there’s a child around every corner. The blissfully empty desert evenings under the stars were truly behind us, and on the couple of occasions we camped wild, having asked permission from people in villages along the road, we were surrounded by scores of inquisitive faces, discussing our garlic chopping techniques.
The children of Ethiopia all behave like the tinkiest kid in class. Cycling blogs abound with stories of screams for money, attempts to knock you off your bike, and stones lobbed when you aren’t looking. It’s not like this anywhere else. We planned to meet this onslaught with a Zen-like nonchalance, totally unconvinced it would hold up under the stress of climbing 1500m through the Blue Nile Gorge. Nonetheless, our smattering of Amharic helped and we met every cry of “You, you you! Money, money!” with smiles and greetings and regretful apologies that we were empty-handed. For the most part it seemed to work – see the upcoming blog post on Zen and the Art of Ethiopian Bicycle Touring for our top tips – only three half-hearted stones were thrown.
The children were annoying at times but they live a difficult life. Imagine waking before dawn, helping get the fire rekindled and maybe, if you’re lucky, having a sugary tea for breakfast. Then, as it gets light, walking the livestock out from the village to graze on the surrounding grassland with an empty belly. You’ll do this seven days a week with little to keep you entertained but the goats and the other kids doing the same thing. I too can understand getting over-excited about seeing some crazy ferenji (foreigners) cycling past.
Obviously some tourists do go bearing well-intentioned gifts of pens and money so it’s worth a shot, and a scream, and if they cycle on with severe looks, worth throwing an odd stone to get the giggle-inducing indignant reaction of the provoked forlorn foreigner. If you ever visit Ethiopia don’t bring pens, rather give a little to an effective NGO; the kids might not thank you face-to-face but it will do more good, and cause less harm.
Ethiopia, and I shudder as I write this classic cliché of Africa, is a place of contrasts. It’s by no means an easy place to cycle tour – the mountains are steep and big and plentiful, and the kids would test the patience of a saint. The obvious pride that Ethiopians have in their country sits awkwardly with the begging of adults and kids when you cycle past or met them in the street. This country is starting from a very low base but, despite questions about inequality and free speech, it is definitely a development success. But starting each day with the best coffee in the world, ending it with delicious fresh food, and spending the intervening hours cycling through constantly changing cool mountain valleys fuels your soul enough to forget the stresses.
After Addis we could roll downhill to Awassa where I lived eight years ago. I’ve very many happy memories from there and the old friends I met ensured it felt good to be back. Ethiopia feels like a place we’ll definitely return to. There are sights I want to see before I die that we missed – like the Danakil Depression. But after eight years I barely recognised Awassa, new roads, hotels and a multiplex under construction. I hope after a few years under Meles’ successor there will be more changes to witness, and Ethiopia’s evolution continues with a little more democracy, equality and perhaps some Ritalin.