Tuesday, January 31, 2012

In Ethiopia: First impressions of a far-off land

Manitoba Co-operator editor Laura Rance travels in Africa with the Canadian Foodgrains Bank



The sun was just peeking above the horizon as the Boeing 777 banked south just over Cairo, Egypt and headed for Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital that serves as the hub for all of Africa.

We'd been travelling ahead in time, losing a night as we left Washington, D.C. at around 11 a.m. on Saturday, flying 13 hours non-stop and landing at our destination at 8 a.m., nine hours ahead of the clocks back home.

The air felt heavy as we stepped from the plane, which is odd because we were stepping into thin air. At its highest point, the capital city of Ethiopia is 2,390 metres above sea level and we were told its elevation makes it the third-highest capital in the world (next to La Paz, Bolivia and Bogota, Colombia).

But the early morning haze was rich with smells -- diesel from the multitude of vehicles travelling the streets, many of them belching black smoke as they sputtered along, and spices as we passed open-air restaurants and markets on our way to the hotel for a few hours of R+R before taking a sightseeing tour of the city. There was also a hint of wood smoke from cooking fires. We learned later in the day the most accessible fuelwood in the city is cut from eucalyptus trees growing rampant up the hillsides, which explains why there was an exotic tang to its acridity.

Sounds also add to this colourful assault on the senses. This is a land of open windows, so the air is filled with everyday living, children, laughter, dogs, city traffic and even some crowing roosters. Frequently through both day and night, the haunting sounds of a soulful male voice chanting the Ethiopian Orthodox gospel in Amharic, the dominant Ethiopian language, ripple through the alleys and side streets near our hotel.

And the tastes: Our first meals in this country were richly spiced, some with a little heat, but deliciously prepared.

Despite the fact it was Sunday, a Christian holiday just like at home, the streets were busy. The African Union is holding its annual summit in Addis this week, bringing heads of states from across the continent to the city. Traffic jams were inevitable as security forces blocked the streets to allow diplomatic delegations to pass.

There was no such pomp and circumstance for our delegation, a group of five Canadian journalists accompanied by Jim Cornelius, executive director of the Canadian Foodgrains Bank and Sam Van der Ende, CFGB's Ethiopian project co-ordinator. We are here on a Media Food Study Tour with visas granted by the Ethiopian government. But our hosts are forever conscious that in this part of the world, foreign journalists are sometimes suspect.

Touring projects

We are guests and we are here to learn more about food-security issues through the eyes of local CFGB partners. Over the next several days we will be travelling into the countryside to experience first-hand the kinds of projects Canadian farmers and the bank's 15 partners support through their fundraising efforts at home.

For me, this trip is an opportunity to do much more than escape the Prairie winter and reverse the thermometer from minus to plus. (Daytime temperatures here are hovering around 24 C and dropping to 11 C or so at night.

And it's kind of cool to think I've now been to two out of the three highest capitals in the world, having travelled to La Paz, Bolivia in 1997. (Guess there's more than one way of moving up in the world.)

But I accepted this opportunity for a different reason. I suspect I'm not alone in this, but I've never been to this country. And until my arrival here, the first images that came to mind whenever Ethiopia is mentioned were images of famine and starvation portrayed in the media coverage of those tragedies.

Of course I know at a conscious level that Ethiopia is about much more than droughts and distended bellies. But shaking those subconscious imprints on our memories can can be difficult.

Ancient and diverse culture

There is no question that famine has been a part of this nation's history and that hunger continues to stalk vulnerable sectors of its population. It has no doubt influenced its culture and its view of the world. But it does not define Ethiopia as a country.

While on a tour of the national museum, our guide recites history in the context of millennia. Ethiopia's Awash Valley is where the famous Lucy, a skeleton dating back 3.2 million years, was discovered in 1974. The specimen is scientifically known as Australopithecus atarensis, and considered the "missing link" in the evolution between apes and humans.

Ethiopians trace their civilization back to King Solomon's times. Emperors in the 12th and 13th centuries were paying homage to their spiritual beliefs through structures such as Lalibela, a collection of churches carved out of a mountain in the country's north that are considered architectural marvels even today. They successfully thwarted European invaders, not once, but twice, maintaining their independence as a sovereign country while much of the African continent was carved into colonies.

Ethiopia is home to about 80 million people, occupying an area nearly twice the size of Texas. There are 80 different ethnic groups and a population that is spiritually divided mainly between Muslim, Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity with a sprinkling of indigenous religions.

But unlike Canada, which is considered one of the most urbanized countries in the world with 80 per cent of its population living in cities and towns, Ethiopia's urban rural breakdown is almost exactly the reverse.

It is a rural country, with agriculture making up nearly half of its GDP and 80 per cent of its exports. Nearly 25 per cent of the population earns its livelihood from coffee, but Ethiopia is also known for its flowers, leather products, pulses, oilseeds, beeswax and, increasingly, tea.

The sun is rising again. As we follow the Rift Valley south today, I know I'm going to be visiting communities in which food security remains elusive. I expect to learn about the complexities of the work the Canadian Foodgrains Bank supports.

But I also know my first objective for this tour -- reformatting my simplistic image of Ethiopia -- has already been accomplished. I plan to relax and enjoy the ride.
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