It had been a few years since I had been to Ethiopia, so I was curious to see the changes. Sometimes things change for the good, sometimes for the worse. But I think what I had forgotten is that it’s how Ethiopia changes you. Unlike most other countries which you visit, learn about the culture and history, meet people and take away a few souvenirs and memories, Ethiopia makes you question many of your Western ideas, beliefs, and your own life…on such a deep level and like no other country I have been to.
Having seen all the sights on several other trips, they no longer impressed me like the first time I went, although they do remain amazing – the rock hewn churches of Lallibela, the Simien mountains, the tribes, the colourful town of Harar, and the 16th century castles. It was daily life that touched me. And the amount and type of tourists that annoyed me. Permit me to have a little rant…
Coming from a country which already suffers from poverty, (Egypt) I found it hard to go to Ethiopia and witness even more/worse poverty. In Egypt, where people at least get by for the most part, in some parts of Ethiopia they really struggle. Seeing kids dressed in rags, and by that I mean shredded clothes, made me wish I had a huge bag of clothes to give out. I mean, the rag is the only thing they had to wear. A dirty rag. And in some places, like the capital of Addis Abbaba, where beggars are rife and sleeping rough on the street…it made me feel so helpless. Where I could I gave people food or a bit of money to help them get through the day. But you can’t help the whole world, you can only do your bit. I couldn’t bring myself to buy anything superficial, because it made me think I could be using that money to help someone. I bought things from villages where things were locally made to help with local income. Often just a “sympathy purchase”, nothing I really needed, because I am someone who doesn’t need a lot.
Walking past a string of beggars on our way to a nice restaurant also disturbed me. How can I enjoy a meal knowing there are people hungry outside? Obviously I am not confronted with these things on a daily basis so I am not immune to my feelings about it. The question was always who do I give to, where do I start…? Once a man came swinging across the street – he had no arms or legs, (just stumps to his elbows) with a thumb-like thing – he held out his stump – I didn’t even know where to put the money!
Dealing with power outages, broken things
I live in Egypt. I am used to the power/water/internet going down. You just have to be flexible with it. But for my group of Westerners, you could see how much of an inconvenience it was. Often in hotels doors or fittings don’t work, because they are bad quality and break easily. I am used to shrugging these things off as an everyday occurrence. But tourists rush to the hotel reception to get things fixed like it’s their biggest problem of the day. In Ethiopia, people have much bigger problems to deal with. It just makes you realise how lucky you are.
…or at least that is what I call them, this army of people at certain tourist sites. The minute you step off a boat or come out of the cave churches they are waiting like a welcoming committee to “practice their English”, telling you they are a student…(like this brings more sympathy…?) I don’t know but it seems the entire populations are students! However I do find it a noble thing that they place so much importance on education. But they are very sticky. It’s hard to get them to go away when all you want to do is stroll down the road and look at the scenery! In Lallibella, a major tourist hub, locals are used to conning tourists. They often tell you their parents are dead or have AIDS or are ill or something, to get some cash out of you. Maybe you will even sponsor them long term? Unbeknowns to you they might have several sponsors sending them money. At the market, a girl asked me twice “Am I your sister?” I said “OK” to see where this is going – then she said “My father is dead” – straight to the point. I just rolled my eyes and walked off. It is Lallibella after all.
Visiting tribes in the south of Ethiopia
The South of Ethiopia is full of an amazing array of interesting tribes, each with their own style of huts, hair styles, clothing (or not!) Seriously a fascinating place with beautiful African scenery too. When I visited 10 years ago, not many tourists ventured south due to the difficulty in getting there – no flights, bad roads, no hotels…now, all that has changed. Whereas it is still a bit of an adventure, the south seems to be flooded with “older” tourist groups. They turn up at a tribal village, walk around and take a few snaps of the “funny looking” tribes people with lip plates in/no clothes on/painted bodies, all the while the tribes people are vying with each other to get their photo taken as they charge you for it. One tribe we visited was so “painted up to the nines” I couldn’t take them seriously – it was quite fake – even using coloured chalk some tourists had given them. But whoever had the best paintjob earnt the most bucks off the tourists, so it was worth it. As I said, ten years ago hardly any tourists were there, so it was a nicer experience to actually try and interact with the locals, but now vehicle after vehicle of camera-toting tourists turn up, shoots away, gets a selfie or ten of themselves smiling next to their favorite bizarre-looking tribesman and leaves. It seriously made me question if I wanted to take people there again. However it is a two-edged sword. It’s an easy way for locals to make money and the tourists do get nice shots of themselves with some way-out looking tribesman. At the moment, I would say, Ethiopia is still worth a visit. But just be aware, it will affect you in more ways than you realise.