African wrap-up

HIV positive, but she's being adopted by a family in Italy

So I’ve been home a week, sorted photos, gotten a barbershop shave, showered for hours, and now I’m ready to try to sum things up.  Didn’t have to spend any time unpacking, of course.  I get a phone call every day from the insurance company telling me that they haven’t found my bags.


The Ethiopian people are by far the most modest I have ever seen, both male and female.  I didn’t see a single man shirtless, or even wearing shorts.  Most of the women wear shawls covering their heads–not just the Muslims.   Long skirts are the fashion, without any sort of sexy adornment or thigh-high slits up the side.  Tops have sleeves, and long-sleeve shirts are what most of the men are wearing.

Yes, I saw a few of the younger women in very tight pants or short skirts, but darned few.  Even the hookers on the street were more modestly dressed than students I see every day in Berkeley.

The one exception, by American standards, is breastfeeding.  Babies are at the breast all over the place, and nobody pays it any attention.  Half the beggars knocking on the windows of our van were mothers with nursing infants. There’s a moral here somewhere–why do Americans get so exercised over the natural purpose of breasts while fetishizing them in fashion and art?

Public Display

The people of Ethiopia are very touchy-feely.  Men hold hands walking down the street because they are friends.  Women walk arm in arm, or with arms around each others waists. People stand closer to each other to talk than Americans are comfortable with.   When we arrived at an orphanage, all the children would come up to shake hands with us.  The typical Ethiopian greeting seems to be a hand shake coupled with a half-embrace and some shoulder bumping, maybe a few air-kisses, too.

These are a warm and friendly people, easily given to displays of affection. As we drove through the country side, people stopped and waved.  Children raced to the side of the road to see us. Farmers waved as they plowed.  Taxi drivers shake your hand after a ride, waiters after a meal. Being in Addis is like living in a tiny town where everyone is your friend, except that there are 6 or 8 or 10 million of your ‘friends’  there.

Opportunity Lost

The rate of growth here is astonishing.  Modern tall buildings tower over corrugated steel huts (many of which have satellite dishes).  Cell phones are everywhere.  And America influence?  Nowhere to be seen.

The Chinese are the driving force in Ethiopia.  They are building roads and factories–the manufacturing we exported to China for cheap labor they are in turn starting to export to Africa for even cheaper labor.  The investment that isn’t Chinese is Arabic, but it sure isn’t American.

In two weeks in Addis Ababa, I saw a total of TWO American cars.  The streets are full of Toyota Hi-Ace vans, which comprise the fleet of jitneys criss-crossing the city.  Toyota simply owns the auto market here, with Chinese marques like Geely and Li Fon slowly making inroads.

America gives aid,and seems to expect nothing back.  China gives aid in return for investment opportunity.  I suppose we are claiming some sort of moral superiority, but the growth is coming from the investment more than the aid, so who is doing the most for the Ethiopians?  General Motors is is dire straits, and there are millions of vehicles to be sold in the growing nations of Africa–why aren’t we actively pursuing that market?

This is my friend Betty, short for Bethlehem

Security Theater

Security is everywhere in Ethiopia, but it is even more of a ridiculous joke than it is at our airports.

Every major facility has “guards” and metal detectors.  They just aren’t even a little bit effective.  In places, the men would get frisked before entering an establishment, but not the women.  The guards at the Hilton hotel always found a need to look in the glove box of the car, but not in my considerably larger camera bag.  Everyone entering the campus of Addis Ababa University gets frisked.

I have no idea what they are supposedly looking for.  The country doesn’t seem to be a hotbed of terrorism or political violence.  Like any big city, there must be crime, but we never felt like we were in any particular danger walking on the streets at night.  In any event, it is so much more a matter of security theater than actual security that anyone genuinely intent on doing harm would have no problem bringing weapons wherever he wanted.

Or she wanted. I’ve noticed an odd fact–when women are getting frisked, (by other women, naturally), the guard checks arms and shoulders, then places her hands together and very carefully goes down between the friskees breasts, never touching them.  Polite, to be sure, but leaving a pretty nice opportunity to carry a couple of pounds of plastic explosives.  I’ve seen exactly this procedure at airports from Nairobi to Heathrow, it must be in the security theater handbook.  Beware of little skinny girls with big busts…………………..

Leaving Addis, you go through security when entering the airport and again at the gate.  Except they just waved me through at the gate, beeping metal detector and all.  I think it was the white guy exception, or maybe I just looked too tired and grizzled to be dangerous.


Would I do it again?  Yes, but I’m not going to be staying at Mr. Martin’s Cozy Cabins ever again. .  I’ll certainly be watching for another opportunity to volunteer, whether in Africa or Cambodia or Peru or New Orleans.  This trip was fabulous, in the sense that it expanded my horizons and emotional capacities.  I don’t have any illusion that because of me some kid will grow up to be an artist, all I can really hope for is that we gave them a glimpse of what they are capable of, and some attention and caring.  My biggest contribution may have been just standing holding hands with 3 little girls, or swapping kisses with a 2 year old who can’t possibly get held enough.

We live lives of enormous privilege, with warm soft beds and loving families and decent health care.  The poorest of us is rich by the standards of the rest of the world. Many of us travel the world frequently, on luxury tours and cruises.  There are more than 5 million orphans in Africa due to HIV alone, and not enough money or drugs to treat them, they need more rehabs like the ones at  Volunteering is actually cheap–two weeks at Mr. Martins came to $156, I spent a couple of hundred more in restaurants and on internet service.  Plan ahead and the airfare isn’t too awful; you can spend two weeks volunteering for under $2,000.  Considering the benefits to your karma, that’s cheap at twice the price.


One thought on “African wrap-up

  1. GREAT blog Chris. I’ve known you a LONG time and this is the most fun we’ve had. Me reading your interesting journal about your Ethiopian trip plus that lovely column of your brother’s.

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