The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Report from Ethiopia - 2002

Author - Paul Henze


I spent the entire month of November and the first nine days of December in Ethiopia this year. It was my 13th visit since the fall of the Derg in 1991 and like all the others, it included busy times in Addis Ababa as well as extensive travel. My first activity in Ethiopia was participation in the 6th International Ethiopian Art Conference at the Institute of Ethiopian Studies at Addis Ababa University. Four days of sessions attracted a large audience of both ferenjis and Ethiopians who benefited from the stimulating discussion and reports of recent research.

Following the conference I set out on a 3-week expedition north with Professor Chojnacki and Abebaw Ayalew, a young University instructor (who had also travelled with us in Gojjam last year) who completed a dissertation on 18th and 19th century Gojjami church art and history a few months ago. We first devoted three days to researches in SE Gojjam, making unexpected discoveries, and then drove via Mertule Maryam to Bahr Dar, which is developing rapidly. We found the old church of Sendaba Yesus impossible to reach so went on to Gondar, where we stayed two days, visiting Debre Berhan Selassie, Debre Sina Mariam at Gorgora and the nearby ruins of Emperor Susenyos's palace, and then headed for the Semyens.

The well-engineered road into the heart of the 'Roof of Africa' deserves to rank among the most remarkable in the world. In a day and a half we crossed all the territory I had covered in nine days of trekking at the end of 1970. Gelada baboons have multiplied and are now so comfortably protected that they let you walk among them. We were told that a recent census of walia ibex produced a total of over 600. So in spite of population and cultivation pressure, the national park appears to be functioning reasonably well. We had heavy rain on the southeastern slope of Ras Dejen as we drove on to Mekane Berhane near Derasge, occasional light rain in Tigray and one rainy day in Addis Ababa but otherwise Ethiopia - as one would expect in November - was sunny and dry.

This year Tigray was our major goal for fieldwork in history and art. Thanks to Tigray Tourism Commissioner Kebede Amare who set up a strenuous schedule of visits to remote churches and monasteries in the Aksum region and in Tembien, we had extraordinary success. Michael Gervers and Ewa Balicka-Witakowska joined us for two weeks of back-country driving and trekking. We photographed rock churches, manuscripts, paintings, textiles and gained a great deal of historical information. In spite of all the war and disorder of the past 2½ decades, remarkable cultural riches can still be discovered in Tigray. Country hotels are improving. After a night at a new hotel in Enda Selassie and three nights in the Africa Hotel in Aksum, we made Berhane Redda's new hotel in Abi Adi our base in Tembien. We ended our tour in the first-world comfort of the Aksum Hotel in Mekelle. There, as at Aksum, we encountered tourists who are now coming in considerable numbers.

My final travel in Ethiopia this year was an expedition to Arsi, Bale and southern Shoa with Alula Pankhurst and eight of his anthropology graduate students to photograph Oromo tomb art. We put in three dawn-to-dusk days at this task, interviewing local tomb-builders and painters as well as local elders on history. The harvest was fair to good in most of the country through which we travelled and there is impressive expansion of feeder roads and electric lines. The smooth asphalt of the new Rift Valley highway cuts the time to reach Addis Ababa from Zway Ketema to an hour and a half.

Everywhere in Ethiopia highways are being extended, rebuilt and asphalted. They are the real key to progress in development. Some sections of the country have had good rains this year, others not. The result is a serious net food shortage and problems with livestock, but not yet - as some media reports have maintained - famine. The Federal and local governments with the help of the international community are coping effectively with the needs of populations in areas afflicted by drought and prospects are good that the challenge will be met. (The Afar region and the area around Harar, which I did not visit, were especially hard hit by drought this year.) In 5,500 km of travel, I visited only one region where this year's harvest was a total failure: eastern Tigray. There Irobland in the far northeast which was devastated by the Eritrean invasion has had no rain for a year and a half. USAID, the Italians and Catholic NGOs have mounted a major effort to help the Irob, an admirably energetic people with a great sense of solidarity. One of the most exciting aspects of my travels was visiting their almost inaccessible capital, Alitena, which looks more like a town in Tibet than in Ethiopia. Nearby Zalambessa, wrecked by the Eritreans before they withdrew, is still a depressing ruin, but even there people are preparing to rebuild. While Tigray as a whole is recovering well from the Eritrean invasion, Eritrea is in crisis. UNHCR and NGOs are now caring for thousands of Eritreans who are fleeing into Ethiopia.

Life in Addis Ababa is lively. Newsboys hawk more newspapers than anyone could read in a day and their quality is improving, though politics is still more rancorous than constructive. New colleges are proliferating. Commercial activity has continued to expand and there is a great deal of new construction. Hotels are hosting a good number of tourists who go down to the Omo or to Harar. The most impressive new feature of Addis is the Ring Road which Chinese construction teams are close to completing. It has been built to high standards and curves through the countryside south of the city for over 30 km from Bole to Ambo Road.

First Published in News File Spring 2003

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