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Published: July 12th 2013
I don't know what it is about Ethiopia, but I am completely taken by it. Maybe it is the uniqueness of the culture—their own unique cuisine, their own music styles, their own dancing, their own language only spoken in that country. Going to Ethiopia reminds me of the first couple of times I went to Nepal. I just wanted to take it all in and could not get enough. It is strange and exciting and always full of adventure.
This past week I was in Addis Ababa leading a qualitative research training for a maternal and child nutrition project. This is not actually my study, but I was filling in for a colleague who could not get to Addis quickly to lead the training herself. So I said since I was in the region anyway and had plenty of experience leading such trainings, particularly in Ethiopia, that I would fill in.
The training was pretty straightforward. The team of about 25 field workers, the research agency we subcontracted for the work, and representatives from our office and Save the Children all met on the 7th floor of a nice hotel that is actually owned by an Ethiopian (as opposed to the Chinese or Indians). Much of the training was done in Amharic, but I did some important sessions in English, and the field workers all listened intently.
I had a long conversation with the director of the research agency about issues they often run into with sensitive data collection in Ethiopia. He told me a story of how some field workers were once detained for collecting data about opinions of the government, and how on a separate occasion data was confiscated by local officials and destroyed. He told me they now refuse to collect any data that could be sensitive or related to the government. Ethiopia is known for these types of things—the government controls the radio, TV, mobile phone networks, and even international banks are not allowed. Supposedly things have lightened up recently, but the first time I was in the country last June there was talk of not permitting anyone to use skype.
My evenings this week were spent at the nice little gym at the Radisson, listening to live jazz in the lobby while sipping wine and catching up on emails, and watching the VIPs stream in and out of the hotel. The governments of Sudan and South Sudan were meeting at my hotel, and apparently former South African President Thabo Mbeki was there serving as a mediator. I also found out he stayed on my floor. That would explain the big men in suits stationed outside a room down the hall at all hours.
The nicest part of my stay was the few hotel employees who remembered me from January and therefore gave me a little extra special treatment. When I arrived on Sunday night, the concierge came running up to me to give me a hug. She is beautiful with her big eyes, long neck, and shaved head. We bonded last time I stayed there when I had to ask where to buy feminine products. She seemed genuinely happy to see me. The front desk manager shook my hand and called me by my name. There was also the server at breakfast who had made me a "special tea" last time when he heard me coughing. This time I got the same tea each morning in a to-go cup.
Mid way through the week I was stepping into the elevator to return to my room when one of the doormen came running up to me. "Nice to see you again! Welcome back!" he said as he enthusiastically shook my hand. I honestly did not remember him from last time, and was a bit embarrassed because of it. But I later realized that this was the guy who had shined my shoes for me during my last visit. There is a polishing machine on every floor, and I had no idea how to use it. So I called down to the front desk and they sent this guy to show me how. Instead of just showing me, he told me to bring all of my shoes and shined them for me. So I had sat next to him on the floor and chatted with him while he worked. I particularly remember the incident because when I went to give him a tip after he was finished, he shook my hand and said, "Please, all I need is friendship."
Apparently me sitting on the floor next to him was particularly touching to him because, as he told me during my visit this week, he felt as if I was showing I am on the same level as him, not just a guest that he must serve. And as I later learned, the act of polishing someone else’s shoes is a very big deal in Ethiopian culture. You can pay someone to clean all of your clothes down to your socks. But since shoes are so dirty, you should never ask someone to do that for you--you do it yourself. I think what he was trying to tell me was that by shining my shoes he was showing great respect and admiration (and perhaps a crush?) for me.
Saturday was my much-needed day of rest. I had a 4-hour spa session (massage, facial, mani/pedi) at the hotel spa for the equivalent of $50, then my driver came to pick me up to go shopping for gifts. The driver I hired for the week was a 27-year old hipster guy who had a new pair of stylish sneakers and Ray Ban sunglasses on each time he picked me up. The first day he had some American hip hop playing on the radio, and after I made a comment about enjoying one particular song, he made sure to put on music he thought I'd like every time I was in the car. His English was not great, so we didn't talk much while sitting in traffic, but we would both bob our heads and smile. Funny how that was enough to form a friendship.
So Saturday we drove around town shopping, stopping at a famous coffee shop called Tamoca for macchiato. I went home in the evening to do some work and pack, but he promised to come back later to pick me up and take me out for a night on the town in Addis.
We met a couple of employees from the hotel (including the door man and a server from the restaurant I remembered from my many business dinners there in January) at a club I had heard of several times called H2O. It was a 2-story club packed with Ethiopians and faranji (foreigners). The music alternated between Western hip-hop and Teddy Afro, a very popular Ethiopian artist. We were all dancing and having a good time.
But then I glanced over at the table where one of the guys was sitting and noticed that my little black handbag was gone. We quickly notified security, and within minutes they found the contents of my bag strewn on the floor on the other side of the club. Luckily, my ATM card, Visa, and license were still there. But my iphone, my cheap local phone, and the 300 birr ($15) I had in cash were gone. We were never able to recover them, but the management of the club was so helpful. I even watched the security cameras with them to see if we could spot the culprit. No luck. Fortunately my iphone was locked and switched off, and a short time later deactivated, so was useless to whoever took it.
The guys I was with quickly started blaming each other for stealing the phones, and a fight almost broke out between them until I literally had to yell at them to knock it off. But they were all so worried I would think badly of Ethiopians because of this incident.
After at least 45 minutes of dealing with the management and security, we finally left the club around 2am. I was walking towards the car with my driver, the 2 other guys trailing behind. All of a sudden on of a bunch of guys leaning against a car reached out and grabbed my breast.
"Excuse me?!" I yelled. "What makes you think you can touch me like that?!"
"But you are so beautiful," the jerk said.
At that point I was so fed up about the night being ruined by the thief that I walked up to the guy, shoved him as hard as I could, and said in a loud voice, "That does not mean you get to touch a woman just because you think she is beautiful."
My friends quickly came over to see what the problem was, but I stormed off. At that point I knew I was not going to be sleeping that night before leaving at 7am to catch my flight to Malawi. "Show me the rest of your town," I said to my friends.
My driver left and the rest of us jumped into a taxi. We first went to a little underground, more traditional style club called Tam Tam. I had passed it many times on the road previously. It was pretty dead, and they mostly played Ethiopian music. They did play a South African song I recognized and knew the dance to, and I shocked my friends by getting up and doing the appropriate steps. We had one drink and left. The doorman knew the owner of the club and introduced me to a bunch of people.
Finally we went to a club called Illusion. It was one big room with a backlit dance floor, bars around the perimeter of the room, and a DJ on a stage mixing on real turn tables. The place was absolutely packed with locals and faranji, and by that time it was after 3am. The doorman introduced me to several Ethiopian hip hop artists, but the only one I was familiar with was a guy named Ziggy Zaga who recently did an Ethiopian remix of an originally Nigerian song called Nwa Baby. He was adorable with his big eyes and big natural hair. The other couple of people I was introduced to walked off rather quickly to have their photos taken with some fans. Had my phone not been stolen, I might have requested a photo as well. I was also introduced to a male model on our way out of the club around 4:30am. The doorman told me his brother is in broadcasting so knows many people. It was fun to be mingling with Ethiopian stars.
I made it back to my hotel as the sun was starting to rise, exhausted but wound up. Overall, despite the couple of incidents, the night was a blast. This is Africa; you have to go with the flow, I guess. Never a dull moment, and always a big party when out on the town.
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