“Not knowing what should be known” (Ethiopian Adventures!)

Recently, my friend invited me to crash in her hotel room while she attended a conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. It was awesome getting to see another part of East Africa and to experience Ethiopian food in its natural habitat. (Believe it or not, it tastes the same as Ethiopian restaurants in the States; it seems Ethiopians don’t compromise their food one bit to suit foreign tastes!)

I paired my trip with a novel about historical Ethiopia, which helped to contextualize the place a little bit. Ethiopia is one of only two countries in Africa that were never formally colonized (Liberia being the other). There was a brief Italian occupation from 1936 to 1941, which resulted in horrible massacres of local people and (eventually) really good Italian restaurants in Addis, the capital. The country was ruled for nearly 60 years by Emperor Haile Selassie, who was first seen as a hero for liberating Ethiopia from Italian occupation but then was blamed for covering up a terrible famine in 1973 and exploiting Ethiopia’s riches to fund his lavish lifestyle while ignoring the needs of the middle and lower classes. He was overthrown in 1974, and Ethiopia became a communist country run by the extremist “Derg”, a militarized group supported by Russia, Cuba, and North Korea. Thousands of people were killed during communist rule as the government brutally suppressed all opposition, nationalized everything and promoted aggressive militarization, and the lives of ordinary Ethiopians failed to improve.

I explored some of this history by visiting the Red Terror Museum in Addis Ababa, which honored the deaths of thousands (potentially hundreds of thousands) of students, opposition leaders, and ordinary Ethiopians brutally tortured and killed by the Derg in their attempt to suppress all opposition. The techniques used were similar to ones used in Cambodia during Pol Pot’s reign at around the same time and it was pretty awful to read about. All of these promises of “never again” seem empty when I keep learning about more instances of genocide that I never knew about. #educationfail? The good news is that people seem to be excited for their brand-new president, elected in March, and are hopeful for his proposed changes.

Painting depicting a woman who lost four children all in one day during the Red Terror.

I also learned about earlier Ethiopian history and got to visit one of the world’s oldest “humans”: Lucy!

This lovely lady is approximately 3.2 million years old and is one of the most intact skeletons from her time. She was apparently named after the Beatles song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” that was playing on the archeological dig site when she was discovered in 1974.

I also saw lots of unlabeled arts and artifacts at the National Museum and learned about some traditional fables (related to reproductive health of course) that I found fascinating. I’ll share my favorite titled “Not knowing what should be known” from the Banna ethnic group:

“Once upon a time a husband and his wife lived together for a long time without children. In their old age they had a son. When he grew up, they decided that their son should be married and they found him a girl that might be suitable. He then married her. After they were married, they didn’t know how to go about making a baby.

One day when his mother was climbing a ladder, the son who was lying on the ground noticed something between his mother’s thighs that he had not seen before. He asked his mother, ‘What is it?’ When he was told that his wife also had that thing, he argued that he had never seen it.

‘How come you do not know about this after all these years of marriage?’ his mother asked.

‘My wife shows me only her toes,” the son replied.

‘Tonight, check if your wife has the same thing I have,’ she said.

The son went home that night and saw his wife had the same thing as his mother. He was happy and he kept watching over his wife day and night.

One day war broke out in the area and all the inhabitants fled so he also left with his wife.

While fleeing he asked his wife, ‘Did you forget to bring your thing?’

‘I left it at home,’ she told him.

The husband thought it was true and while running back to get it, he was killed in the war.”

Hence, this story manifests the importance of sex education and is my new favorite rationale for what I do. Don’t get killed for not knowing about your lady’s private parts, everyone. Get educated!

Addis Ababa itself, the capital of Ethiopia, is a bustling city that reminded me a lot of New York actually. I think this is simply due to the fact that it’s a large city and the street kids doing drugs underneath the light rail tracks has a “big city” sort of feel that we don’t see in Kigali. We tried some of Ethiopia’s famous, delicious coffee and enjoyed traditional food, music, and dancing at a local restaurant. Most Ethiopians are Orthodox Christian so Ethiopian restaurants include “fasting” and “non-fasting” foods. Orthodox Christians are required to fast for 208 days out of the year and must eat a vegan diet for their meal during those fasting days. They also follow a different calendar, based on when they believe Jesus was actually born, so for example today is actually 2010 in Ethiopia….

We also found out about a common, completely legal pastime of “chewing khat” (pronounced “chat”) which is a plant grown in Ethiopia and chewed to create an amphetamine-like high. Apparently, it’s very popular with students because they say it helps them study long hours, but unfortunately it’s highly addictive and folks have problems spending all their money on khat to chew with their friends even into old age. A decent sized bundle can be bought on pretty much any street in Addis and the cheap kind costs about $10 per bundle. My tour guide brought me to a crater lake that was popular amongst khat chewers (but also has a lovely walking path!) and I chuckled at having what was essentially a drug park included as part of the tour.

Amazing tree in the khat park. My awesome tour guide is in yellow.

I got outside the city also and saw the drastically different countryside. Notably, folks in small towns use horse and cart as a primary means of transportation. Agriculture is the main activity and I saw a lot of harvested teff (used to make the Ethiopian “bread” injera). The houses are circular and well-insulated with their teff straw and mud walls. Each ethnic group has a slightly different way of building them, plus their own language and stories.

I visited a bunch of crater lakes while I was outside of the city, and they were lovely. Some crater lake highlights included: a hike through the village to the lake led by a local villager who told me all about his two adorable children; a canoe ride across the lake with some very old, toothless gentlemen manning the oars; and a surprising horseback ride (can’t remember the last time I was on a horse…) through a valley that looked straight out of the Sound of Music with frolicking sheep and trickling streams.

Overall it was a lovely trip and I came back to Kigali very full of injera and khat (just kidding—only injera!)

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Sue Wyss
Sue Wyss
3 years ago

cool. thanks for taking us all on your adventure.

3 years ago

Wonderful trip and beautiful description of an ancient country. Exciting to get to see Lucy! If you will forgive one humble correction, Botswana (formerly Bechuanaland) was also never colonized. Tsakedi Khama, the Paramount Chief, requested and received protectorate status from the British, because they feared the Zulus advancing from the East and the Afrikaaners coming up from the Transvaal to get to the as yet undeveloped diamond mines.