Final Stop: Ethiopia


I made my last stop on my journey in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the capital city of the country and arguably of the African continent. It is a place of rich culture and complex social and religious traditions that blend to make it a suitable home for the UN in Africa, the African Union Commission, and numerous NGOs and charities. The Orthodox Christians of 18th century Ethiopia invited their persecuted Muslim neighbors to come there as refugees “because you are our brothers”, and ever since Christians and Muslims have lived together peaceably and productively in this African nation. Ethiopia is the only African nation not to be colonized, though the Italians tried unsuccesfully at the beginning of the 20th century. For that reason, Ethiopians are proud of their heritage, their traditions, and their many contributions to religious and ancient history. The palace of the Queen of Sheba (of Solomon fame) can be found in the northern city of Axum (where the Lost Ark is supposedly too), and some of the oldest churches in the world, hewn out of stone, are named the “8th Wonder of the World”. Coffee was discovered here, and also some of the great spices like cinnamon and clover can still be found in its markets.

We all have our stereotypes of Africa and Ethiopia that tend to be terribly wrong (this whole trip confirmed to me that our stereotypes of most countries are terribly wrong), though there is an element of truth to them that still can be found if you’re looking for those things. My impression of Ethiopia before going there was: a) Emaciated children and famine, b) ancient historical traditions, and c)one of the world’s poorest countries with little tourism or influence. I was wrong on almost all accounts. First of all, the famine was in the late 1970s. While there certainly are poor people, most Ethiopians are not famished or hungry. They grow their own crops in some very fertile soil similar to California, and poorer families slaughter or purchase meat for cooking. I saw a lot of poor children, but I did not see many malnourished or hungry children. I understand that this can be different in some rural areas where there has been drought, but this is not a persistent problem.

It is true that Ethiopia has long historical traditions, some of which I outlined above. Most of this is still accessible to tourists, though far removed from the more modern city of Addis. For one, Ethiopia is on the Gregorian calendar and so the Millennium just began this month. I loved that I actually was 7 years younger in Ethiopia than in LA. But third, I was very wrong that Ethiopia has little influence or tourism. As I said above, Addis is the chief diplomatic city for Africa with hundreds of embassies, NGOs and charities. My hotel is the primary place for these meetings, having recently hosted the World Bank, the US Embassy, Secretary Rice, and Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. And oh yea… America’s top diplomat, Beyonce.

I first noticed how wrong my stereotype was when I boarded the Airbus 747 in Amsterdam, and the whole plane was packed with European and US business people and tourists. My reaction, “All of these people are going to Ethiopia?” Why?” I then had another stereotyped shattered by the very modern airport that makes LAX look like a dump (which it is). I arrived at the hotel to find it abuzz and at capacity all week long with meetings, tourists and conventions. Furthermore, Ethiopia is a key ally of the United States in the war on terrorism because of its pro-US leanings amidst a sea of border states that are much more problematic: Libya, Sudan, Somalia and Kenya. For this reason, security is high in Ethiopia. I almost felt bad that actions by the US in the Middle East are causing so many security precautions in other countries that support us that are more than we even observe here at home. Both in Kuwait and in Ethiopia, I had to go through a metal detector to enter the hotel and through numerous detectors at the airports.

While I was wrong about the influence of Ethiopia and the extreme hunger, I was not wrong about the poverty. Other than a couple of hotel properties, there are not many “nice” things in Addis. Most of the westerners live in compounds, and the 6 million city residents live in shacks and concrete homes. Some live in thatch huts, but that’s not too common. Goats, donkeys and bulls with horns ramble through the streets unleashed but tame. Women walk miles up the 2,000 foot mountain to gather brush for fires and haul it down the mountain on their backs. Ethiopians raise their own animals and produce for food, or purchase it at one of the large markets (Mercado) in the city. Spices, coffee, and fruit abound. Malaria is not a problem in Addis because its elevation is higher than Denver, and mosquitos do not travel there.

The main problem in Addis and in Ethiopia is not poverty, hunger or malaria. It is AIDS. I spoke with numerous Ethiopians about the issue and tried to understand the problem. They told me that the main problem is awareness, not availability of condoms. Many Ethiopians traditionally do not wear protection or use birth control, and therefore families tend to be very large. Ethiopians are aware of the problem of AIDS but not very aware of how to prevent it, or of the necessity for regular testing and the availability of medication. Clinics with testing and anti-virals are opening around the city, and now many Ethiopians have gotten an education as well as a new lease on life.

I am proud of Starwood and the investment it made in this country with hopes that its investment would spur other companies to do the same. The hotel literally is a place of hope on the hill as it employs and trains local residents as well as proves that major companies can thrive here. They are making a huge difference, and I am proud and honored that I could be there to see it first hand. I have never felt so honored to be somewhere in my life, and I know I’ll return. It is a great land with good people, and if Africa has a future, it is here.

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