Leaving Ethiopia

So, it’s nearly time for me to go home. I’m on the midnight plane from Bole airport tonight, and arriving back in London in time for breakfast tomorrow. It hardly seems like a month since I got here.

I spent a good two days after my last post from Harar. On Saturday I mostly slept, to recover from my chat-induced insomnia, and then on waking, walked around the market with a couple of French giants (I exaggerate not – 2m5cm and 2m10cm, or 6’8″ and 6’10”), who met each other in Lalibela and have been travelling around Ethiopia together, scaring the living crap out of small children. On the minibus from Harar on Sunday I had the amusing experience of serving as an unwitting chat-smuggler, as three ladies with big bundles insisted on stuffing them under every seat in the bus and communicating in sign-language that they wanted me to lay my pack, which was on my lap, down flat to cover over their luggage. It was only once we stopped at a police checkpoint that I realised why; to bring more than a personal-consumption amount of chat into a town you need to pay a small, per-weight customs duty. My fellow passengers didn’t want to pay, and so hoped to hide their 10kg bundles, an amount that would not pass for personal use even in the most crazed, lorry-fighting loon. Luckily for me the policeman did not pick me out as a potential chat-farmer, and after much resentful arguing we were on our way again.

I stayed on Sunday night in Dire Dawa, which is described in my guidebook as ‘hot, dusty and charmless’. Only the first two are correct. It doesn’t have the sense of history in other Ethiopian towns, having started life as a minor junction on the French railway railway into Addis from Djibouti. The railway was fairly poorly used, but the closure of the Eritrean border since 1998 has made Djibouti the only port from which Ethiopia can access the Red Sea. Dire Dawa’s importance ballooned, it grew explosively, and it is now Ethiopia’s second-largest city, dwarfing more established towns like Gonder or Bahir Dar. Hot and dusty it certainly is – the temperature didn’t drop below 25C all the time I was there, including during the sweltering night-time, but it is also orderly and tidy in the way that colonial cities (especially French ones) can be, with tree-lined avenues and a really nice feel. Addisu, who lives in a single rented room with his 14-year-old brother (a reminder of the different material circumstances for even a relatively well-paid public servant in Ethiopia), with Addisu, a friend of a friend whom I met in Addis a few weeks ago. He teaches chemistry at the new university in Dire, and welcomed me into his home to sit, chew the fat, meet friends of his, and stay the night after a meal and a few beers. In the morning he went off to lecture and his brother, Robel, was keen for me to pass the time by watching two films, on pirated video-CDs rented from the local corner shop for 1 birr (5p) each.

The airport in Dire was something of a nightmare – marred by a broken check-in system, broken fans, and broken customer service – but I eventually made it back to Addis in time to meet two people I am reliably informed are the Only Quakers In Ethiopia. They were two VSOs called Colin and Annie, and come from Littlehampton Meeting. We chatted about Ethiopia, development work, and Quakerism over a meal, and I’ll be writing about my encounter for The Friend once I am back in the UK.

What I’ve got out of being here wasn’t what I expected. A job, except in teaching, was a very tall order, and too much to expect. Four weeks of pure travel and fun wasn’t going to work if I was going to at least try to find a job. So it hasn’t exactly been work, nor play. But I have realised some things that perhaps I didn’t quite see before. Seeing how hard it is to totally change careers has made me see the virtue of patience, and maybe accepting that some jobs, particularly the Quaker one, might lead you somewhere you want to be if you can’t get there directly. Missing home and my old life as much as I have at some points has made me see how much I’ve actually had taken away from me, and shown me that perhaps my sanity and sense of integrity need me to be a little angrier, less balanced and rational, about how that life was ripped away from me. More than anything, the hospitality, grace and good cheer I’ve been shown here reminded me what I should have seen all along: life does not always go how you want it to, but it’s how you play the hand you are dealt that matters.

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