Today Richard and I went up to Mount Entoto – the first part of Addis to be built by Emperor Menelik and his wife Taitu in the 1880s. It’s a nature reserve of sorts, with beautiful views out over Addis, and is covered with eucalyptus trees, which were introduced under Menelik because they grew fast enough to satisfy the demand for firewood. The story goes that Menelik travelled to Australia, saw eucalyptus seeds, stored them in his afro, and then when he brushed his hand through his hair back in Shewa, the Entoto forest sprang up. I’ve read that Menelik never actually left Ethiopia, and that his Swiss adviser Alfred Ilg suggested the tree as an answer to the firewood problem. I know both which story I believe and which one I prefer. In any case, now the government is trying to remove them slowly and replace them with indigenous trees, because they take up too much water and don’t shed enough material to replenish the soil.
It is remarkable as you climb the hill how it suddenly, after a large market, seems that you are back in rural Ethiopia, with the smart clothes and fancy cars of Addis left far behind. We went up there on what are locally called ‘blue donkeys’ – minivans that go up and down predetermined routes and cost a ridiculous 5p or so per ride. Richard’s knowledge of routes was impressive – there is no map and seems to be no system, so experience and local knowledge is essential if you are to get anywhere. You stand at a particular place – you can usually tell where by the concentration of people, but there is no bus stop sign or other indication that this is a waiting area – and then one of two vehicles will appear, painted blue and white like all the taxis. The first is the Toyota minivans that anyone who has travelled in Africa will recognise. The second type, by far my favourite, is an indestructible Toyota or Isuzu pick-up trucks, with a large plastic or metal box jerry-rigged on the back, inside which are face-to-face bench seats. I am endlessly fascinated by how the conductor/ticket man (who sits on a piece of metal attached to the always-open, swinging-on-its-hinges back door) manages not to fall out onto his arse on the road every time the vehicle accelerates. So you stand in the waiting area, until a van approaches and the conductor/ticket man leans out of the window, usually when you are facing the other way, and yells “Bole Brass Bole Brass” or “Kazanchis” or some other destination at the top of his voice. If you then manage to avoid jumping into the path of another vehicle in shock, you are able to get on and make your way.
In Entoto, Menelik built a church and a palace – which is actually more like a comfortably-sized house, very humble and simple, though I’m sure it didn’t seem so in 1883. Ethiopia is currently in the middle of a three-day church festival, so there was also a service, with many white-clad worshippers prostrating themselves while the priest’s prayers in Ge’ez echoed out from loudspeakers. It was a very striking scene. In the museum on site there were many objects associated with Menelik, though as the signs were all in Amharic (not unusual), I was a bit nonplussed. Menelik himself was an interesting character – wily and smart-looking, clearly image-conscious, and apparently fascinated by European gadgets such as the camera, with some highly posed and mannered photographs. He always has on some interesting head-gear – a broad-brimmed hat, or a feathered head-dress, or a large cylindrical gold crown. He also liked his food and drink and was, in later life, tremendously portly; his enemies called him “Six Mules” because that was how many they said he wore out in a single day on the road with his army. He was definitely someone that the Europeans underestimated. I’ll put up some photos from Entoto when I have uploaded them.
I’ve given up on the job hunt now – it was going nowhere and getting me down. I had an interview yesterday with a recruitment company who gave me the sort of honest, straightforward advice that I have needed all along – the gist basically being that I have the skills but not the experience, and that I don’t have much of a chance of finding work in development unless I stay here quite some time and do some serious networking. They also said, encouragingly, that I stand a much better chance of getting where I want to be once I have a year of policy work under my belt – I told them about the Quaker job in Brussels, and they said it sounded like a good entry point. All of this was more or less what I had realised myself, but it is good to hear it from someone who knows what they are talking about. Friends and contacts here have been very encouraging – that’s what friends are for, isn’t it? – and perhaps I needed this dose of reality. I’m heading back to the UK on Tuesday night next week, so for now I think it makes sense just to travel and see some more of the country before I go home. So I’m off to the old walled Muslim city of Hararfirst thing tomorrow morning, and will spend the weekend there before coming back to Addis for the last day or two. What I do know is that I really like Ethiopia and really like Addis. I was sitting drinking coffee outside the university at Arat Kilo earlier on, watching the world go by, and thinking, “this is the life”. So I’ll try and come back here at some time, even if I can’t stay for now….