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Delights and intrigues of Ethiopia

Saturday April 23 2011

From the palace we were driven to Merkato which, according to our guide, is the biggest open-air market in Africa. “You can buy anything, from a sewing needle to an elephant!” he said.

From the palace we were driven to Merkato which, according to our guide, is the biggest open-air market in Africa. “You can buy anything, from a sewing needle to an elephant!” he said. 


I visit Ethiopia on a regular basis in connection with my Rotary and surgery. In the process I have developed a great liking for this land of Solomon and Sheba.

Incidentally, it is the only country in Africa which has never been colonised. The last time I mentioned this to my Ethiopian friend, he quickly reminded me: “It has not colonised any country either!”

Ethiopia has two other unique features. St George is a popular beer there, making it the only country I know which has named its beer after a saint!

Secondly, its famous bread injera is prepared from millet, which only grows in Ethiopia.

Until last year, my visits there were fully occupied by day-long meetings, leaving hardly any time to savour the country or the capital, Addis Ababa.

Last year I visited Ethiopia twice, once to Addis in April to attend the Rotary district conference and again in August to Hawassa, to attend the council meeting of Cosesca – College of Surgeons of East, Central and Southern Africa.


During the April visit, I was accompanied by Marie and we were met by the Rotary Governor, an Ethiopian doctor.

“You have a free day tomorrow and I have arranged for my car and driver to pick you up and take you round Addis,” he said, warmly greeting us at the Bole International Airport.

Military dictator

Next morning, at 9 a.m., a liveried chauffeur arrived with a gleaming new Lexus. He gave us a full day tour of Addis, a hilly historic city. Soon after we left the Hilton Hotel, where we were staying, we were in the main square and saw the red star, sickle and hammer overlooking what looked like an arena.

“This is from where our last military dictator gave speeches on national days,” the driver informed us.

We then moved on to the late Emperor Haile Selassie’s palace. “Here, during his reign, the emperor kept lions to protect him, and his pet dog, Lulu,” the driver-turned-guide told us.

The mention of the pet dog reminded me of the time when Haile Selassie came to visit Mzee Jomo Kenyatta in Nairobi soon after our uhuru. As the reception committee, including Mzee, stood on the apron expectantly to welcome the emperor, out came this little dog, a chihuahua of Mexican breed, to the consternation of the spectators.

Everybody watched patiently while Lulu cautiously descended the step ladder. It was followed briskly by the diminutive royal visitor!

From the palace we were driven to Merkato which, according to our guide, is the biggest open-air market in Africa. “You can buy anything, from a sewing needle to an elephant!” he said.

From there we proceeded to the Holy Trinity Cathedral, perhaps the most historic site in the city. “This is both a church and a museum,” said our guide.

I saw on the left of the cathedral beautifully painted windows depicting the Old Testament. It starts with Adam and Eve in paradise, both covered with a fig leaf, with the menacing serpent lurking nearby. Then came Noah with his famous ark, followed by Abraham and his wife Sarah, who miraculously delivered their son Isaac at the ripe old age of 90!

There was Moses parting the river and leading his people to the Promised Land. Finally, there were Solomon and Sheba providing the Ethiopian interlude.

“Queen Sheba went to Jerusalem,” our guide informed us, “and came back pregnant. The child was named Menelik, who became the first Emperor of what was then known as Abyssinia many centuries ago.”

Soon we moved to the crypt in the cathedral where Emperor Haile Selassie and his wife are buried. “The emperor was murdered and buried in the palace grounds,” said our guide.

Emperor suffocated

“According to reliable reports, the military dictator personally pressed a pillow to his nose until the emperor suffocated to death. Only after the murderer was overthrown and fled the country, the emperor’s body was exhumed and reburied in the crypt where the emperor had reserved a grave for himself by the side of his wife. She had died a natural death and buried there while the emperor was still in power.”

This information spurred me to talk about the Ethiopian Emperor, the next day when I was scheduled to speak at the Rotary conference on the subject of “Peace is Possible”.

I spoke about the time when Italy invaded Abyssinia in defiance of the League of Nations, which was a predecessor to the UN. The Emperor flew to Geneva to plead for his country but nobody was interested in stopping Mussolini’s army from crushing a defenceless African country.

Eventually he fled his country in the face of advancing Italian army and had to seek refuge in the UK. It was when the Nazis and the Fascists serially invaded and occupied their neighbours in Europe and the war came to their doorstep that the Allies remembered Abyssinia still lying under Mussolini’s yoke.

They realised they had a common interest, liberated Abyssinia and restored the Emperor to his throne.

My Ethiopian audience was enthralled to hear their late Emperor being so handsomely eulogised.

The visit to Hawassa was a new experience. This town is known for its beautiful lake and its fast growing university. In fact, it is now known as a university town like Oxford and Cambridge. It is also the fastest growing town in the country with the student population of 22,000.

It is a well planned town with wide roads and building construction going on everywhere. The popular means of transport is the tuktuk, a three-wheeled motor-driven vehicle manufactured by Tagrow Bajaj, a conglomerate of Ethiopian and Indian entrepreneurship. Carts driven by donkeys, ponies and mules ply the roads as well.

The dinner for the surgeons was at the Haile Resort, owned by Haile Gebresellasie, the record-breaking long-distance runner.

The resort is a five-star luxury hotel built by the lakeside. No Ethiopian dinner is complete without injera and hot spicy meat, eaten to the accompaniment of a beautiful dancer and local music.

Dancer’s cleavage

As per the local custom, the dancer goes round the audience, seated on low seats in a circular fashion. As she fleetingly brushes past, the admiring viewers tuck a tip in the crevice behind her bra.

My surgical colleague sitting next to me slipped a $20 note in the beautiful dancer’s cleavage. “Surely that was an overkill and an excessive tip,” I remarked.

“Not at all,” replied the imaginative surgeon. “I intend to claim the change back when she comes around again!”

There is a touching end to this travelogue. On the way back from Hawassa, I got another free day in Addis, part of which I passed by the Hilton natural hot spring swimming pool.

Seated next to me was a white Canadian lady. She was watching, like a hawk, her four-year-old Ethiopian-looking daughter who was floating in the pool with a rubber band round her waist. Every time the little girl even swayed in the water, the young lady shot out of her sun bed and rushed to the edge of the pool.

Very precious

“You think I am an overprotective mother,” she remarked, looking at my incredulous face.

“She is a very precious child, I found her in a dustbin when Addis had plastic houses on the side of the roads. These were plastic sheets under which families lived. Some poor mother had dropped her baby in the bin somewhere nearby soon after birth because, obviously, there was no place in the plastic house to bring her up. I was driving and had to stop on the road for some reason when I heard the faint cry of a baby emanating from the dustbin.

“I went out to see and found a newborn inside, semi-conscious and crying. She was frozen. I put her in the front seat beside me and put the car heater on – full blast. By the time I reached the hospital the baby was warm and coming back to life. At the hospital, they put her in an incubator and she started recovering, I think only because of her survival instinct. When she had recovered fully there was no one to pay the hospital bill and took care of her. My husband and I were recently married and trying for a child.

“How would you like a full-term ready-made baby without me having to endure nine months of pregnancy and expose myself to all the pain and possible complications of labour and confinement?” I asked my husband.

“Very much,” he replied.

“That is how we ended up with this pretty doll we call Zenna!”