Tuesday, February 28, 2012

African Subjugation Part One: The Ethiopian Anomaly

Before we dig into international relations, let’s establish the curious circumstances surrounding Ethiopia. With the exception of South Africa, Ethiopia is arguably the most comprehensively unique country in Africa. Ethiopia is one of two African countries (the other being Liberia, which is quite another story) that retained sovereignty throughout the twentieth century. Ethiopia was occupied by Italy for five years preceding World War II, but has otherwise avoided imperialism. This is the prevailing theory as to why Ethiopians are so friendly towards foreigners (read: The White Man) – their experience with whites is not one of conquest and villainy.

With a population of 85 million, Ethiopia ranks second to Nigeria amongst African countries. The population growth rate is 3.2%, one of the highest figures in the world. Mass urban migration to the sprawling metropolis of Addis Ababa is rapidly changing the economy from one of agricultural domination to soft industrialization, though the majority of the people still belong to a strictly agrarian society.

Most interestingly, Ethiopia is the most populous landlocked country in the world. This is not an enviable position. Ethiopia is forced to trade through the Horn’s ports in Eritrea, Djibouti, and Somalia. This trying situation is made more problematic by jagged relations with Somalia and Eritrea, the latter which is more or less at war with Ethiopia. The products Ethiopia does export from the Horn – coffee, khat, and traditional fruits and vegetables – aren’t exactly golden egg-laying hens. There is little oil inside Ethiopia. Still, Ethiopia has the agricultural capability to export huge amounts of food to surrounding countries, and was even called a potential "breadbasket for Europe" by the New York Times if they could ever organize their agricultural industry. Ethiopia does have one intriguing 21st Century resource - water - but the surrounding need is not yet desperate.

This leaves Ethiopia as a large, rapidly expanding country with limited opportunity for economic refreshment. The people of Ethiopia are poor - almost all of them.

And this is where things get interesting. I was always under the impression that poverty and crime had a directly causal relationship, but Ethiopia has little crime and almost none of it is violent. Before coming out here I assumed that was because there were no weapons (false - AK-47s are more ubiquitous than wireless routers) or there was something distinctly unique about the culture, but I now believe the explanation is a little simpler. About a month ago, in a debate on the right to bear arms, a wise man told me his theory why Ethiopia has so little crime:

Because everyone is poor. The lack of an upper class eliminates potential conflict. It's not poverty that begets crime, it's the explicit gap between the upper and lower class. If there's nothing worth stealing, stealing's not worth it. Contrast this with the most violent places in America, cities like Los Angeles and St. Louis, and it becomes self-explanatory. There are a lot of reasons why crime isn't an issue here, but that's the most plausible.

Despite its sustained independence, Ethiopia certainly hasn't been immune to the vagaries of hegemony. I'll discuss more later - and explain why I can't right now.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

After Addis

In three weeks my commitment to the kindergarten will be complete, just in time for March Madness. However, I have the opportunity to stay here and work for another couple weeks. I think that I will. Although I do feel like I am helping the students, my reasons for staying are mostly egocentric. I have made a lot of progress but am nowhere near my destination. I have no idea if I will approach that place on this trip, but the longer I stay in Africa the closer I will get.

After those additional two weeks it seems sensible to travel somewhere else in Africa. I bought a one-way ticket here and have no certain commitments until the 2012 WSOP at the end of May, so all itineraries are on the table. Here are the current contenders in the order I first started considering them:


Going to Egypt and checking out the Pyramids was the first travel impulse I got once I knew I’d be going to Africa. However, recent violence and instability has all but eliminated Egypt from consideration.

+ Crowds would be sparser than ever

+ There are no manmade objects on Earth I want to see more than the Pyramids

+ Logical, efficient stopover on the journey home

- Unstable and dangerous


+ Home in time for the premier five-TV ManCave event of the year: March Madness

+ I miss my dog and friends – though not as much as I expected to

+ Injuries to both my legs could use immediate medical attention

+ The sooner I get back to the land of high-speed internets, the sooner I can get started on pertinent life-projects

- Wasting the opportunity to see more of Africa and deepen the experience


Climbing Kilimanjaro would be the sensible exclamation point to the East African experience. I have climbed mountains all my life and this would be the biggest.

+ My only real shot at one of the Seven Summits

+ The glaciers on Kilimanjaro are melting and will soon be gone. This could be my last chance to climb it before that happens.

+ My cardio is superb right now

- The injuries to my legs could render the climb impossible

- Expensive

- Tourist-central

- I don’t actually want to do this and wouldn’t expect to have a great time

Tanzania – Safari

The standard 29 year-old tourist itinerary for East Africa begins with a climb of Kilimanjaro and follows it up with a safari in Tanzania. Though I do really want to see some badass animals, I’m not sure I want to pay a bunch of money to do it in a controlled environment with a bunch of firenjes I’ve never met.

+ Animals!!

- Tourist-central

- Expensive


I’ve been outside Addis Ababa for less than 48 hours since arriving here five and a half weeks ago, and that was just a weekend trip to a nearby town. Visiting Ethiopia without venturing outside of Addis would be like visiting Colorado without venturing outside of Denver. Ethiopia’s wonders include a valley that allegedly rivals the Grand Canyon, 15,000 foot mountains, legendary rock-hewn churches, ancient tribes, etc. There’s a lot I’d like to see in Ethiopia, but hope to snap a few off on upcoming weekends.

+ Proximate

+ Cheap

+ Encompassing Ethiopia, rounding out the experience

- Not as spectacular as other possibilities


Bussing east through Ethiopia, crossing into Somaliland, hitting the beach, and flying out of Djibouti is an intriguing way to wrap things up out here. Somaliland is not Somalia, but you do have to hire an armed guard to escort you throughout the country.

+ It’s in Somalia!

+ Unique

+ The beach

+ Highly recommended by Lonely Planet and others who have visited

- It’s in Somalia!

- Time-consuming

The Middle East

Jordan, Lebanon, Israel

+ This might be the closest I get to the most fascinating region in the world

- This is the sort of trip I should take with someone who knows the area

West Africa

Stopping somewhere like Ghana, Senegal, or Cameroon on the flight home would make some sense.

+ I might never get another chance to see West Africa

- Would be going alone

- No real connection to the rest of my experience other than being in the same continent


A logical layover on a long flight home

+ A quick way to experience another totally unique culture

+ I’ve always wanted to see Singapore but may not be in the vicinity again anytime soon

- Only makes sense as a brief layover

- Expensive

Seychelles or Mauritius

Islands in the East Indian Ocean

+ The ultimate solo beach vacation

- Expensive

- Time spent there would likely be relatively unproductive


It’s likely that I will head to Uganda at some point, either for a shorter visit or possibly a longer volunteer-based stay. Everyone I’ve talked to is very high on Uganda, particularly the town of Jinja on Lake Victoria.

+ Easily accessible via plane from Addis Ababa

+ Mature infrastructure

+ Animals!

+ Scenery

+ Lots of entertaining recreation


This idea came out of nowhere when a travelling German couple we met at a restaurant told us it was the best place they had been to in eighteen months on the road. We would probably steer clear of South Sudan, likely staying north of Khartoum.

+ A totally unique, authentic, tourist-free experience

+ Cheap

- Sudan ranks 153/167 on the Democracy Index; check out the countries surrounding it

- Minimal research so far

- Extremely hot

- Minimal civilization/infrastructure if something goes wrong


I had basically ruled Kenya out of the equation because the country is so corrupt and dangerous for foreigners, but an intriguing opportunity to spend some time in Nairobi and then go on a safari with a friend has emerged, and this is now the leading contender for the conclusion of the trip.

+ Animals!

+ Connects conveniently with Uganda

- Dangerous and corrupt

Sunday, February 12, 2012

My Life in Addis

My alarm goes off at 6:59. I dress and pack my bag. I wear the same thing every day – jeans, a t-shirt, a hoodie and tennis shoes. At this hour it is cold enough to see my breath, but it won’t be long before the piercing sun stirs the coals of the city and I shed the hoodie.

I go to the bathroom and take a leisurely #2 while reading. The first two weeks I pooped six times a day but now I’m back to my usual one or two. For breakfast I have a cup of tea along with banana bread or cookies that our chef, Asni, baked the day before. I continue to read or idly chat with housemates before brushing my teeth, filling my 2-liter water bottle 2/3 full of filtered water, and heading out.

Our house is located between a brothel masquerading as a bar and the Palestinian Embassy. A 19-year old Jew we call “The Kid” is staying at the house. Insert your own joke here.

I walk down a hill to the Tor Highluch bus station.

Tor Highluch is probably Torhai Loch; nobody knows or cares. Tor Highluch is a monstrous clusterfuck in the morning, and this will be the worst part of my day. The emissions of a hundred minibuses, fifty idling taxis, and a thousand passing cars mingle with the dust to create a thick, choking haze.

In Addis, cars do not depreciate; they only appreciate. The price of a gallon of gas – $4, the same as a generous meal in one of the city’s nicer restaurants – is not enough to dissuade the fire-breathing dragons of commerce.

Boarding this first minibus is an animalistic, vile, degrading experience. I stand on the curb until two dozen of us spot the Piazza bus. The half of us who fight the hardest, who attack the bus doors most aggressively, who sacrifice the most dignity will land the coveted seats. Later this same bus will hold as many as nineteen people, but passengers are limited to twelve under the “jurisdiction” of Tor Highluch. It will take eight times as long to load the bus this way, loading it before the exiting passengers have a chance to escape. Such are the inefficiencies of disorganization. On my hourlong commute to school, I will see hundreds of hungry Habesha, dozens of destitute orphans and a multitude of amputee beggars, but it is the legislative failure of Tor Highluch that perturbs me the most because it would be so easy to fix. When people are made to behave like animals, forced to push each other aside to feed at the trough of transportation, it undermines their civility as humans. However, this is the only ignoble activity that I will witness or take part in during the day, and the only one of my four minibus rides that will present any sort of difficulty.

It will take between zero and thirty minutes for me to board a minibus. The longer it takes, the more upset I get with myself for not scrapping harder to get on the last one. Once boarded, the bus will travel northeast through the city to Piazza, one of the city’s several commercial hubs. I was transfixed by the minibus experience the first two weeks here, eyes glued to the window so I could see every treacherous move the driver made, every store on the street, every Habesha interaction. I was also enraptured with the smells – eucalyptus, goats, manure, body odor, and spicy berbere - intoxicating but fleeting, usually choked off by burning gasoline within a few seconds.

But now it’s all the same, and I usually just read my book. Piazza isn’t that far away, but it takes twenty-five strident minutes to get there in rush hour. On the day I will ride four minibuses across the city. Each will cost 2.70 birr, a total of 10.80, equal to about seventy cents.

Though it is the commercial center of East Africa, Addis is basically a giant shanty town. No one really knows how many people live here; estimates range from 2 to 9 million, depending on what you count as city. It's unfair to generalize so many people - you can find every financial sector here - but the majority of the city's residents are somewhere between poor and destitute. But it is not an unhappy place.

Piazza is alive in the morning. Piazza probably never dies, but I’ve never been out after midnight. I walk four minutes through the shops, stands, and throngs to where the Kechene minibuses load. Getting on a Kechene bus is stress-free, and twelve minutes later I will weraj at the Medianhealem Church.

I then walk seven minutes up this hill.

I often stop for a moment to chat with a boy who washes cars named Taigen. Many Habesha will engage me in conversation throughout the day. The desperate and uneducated just yell things in Amharic, which serves no purpose and deserves no reply. Sometimes children just hold out a palm and ask for money; I’ve found the best response here is just to turn it on its head and reply “money?” as if they are offering it to me – if they get the joke, they laugh, if not, they usually walk away puzzled. It works either way.

Some offer a friendly greeting which I will reciprocate, but that is the limit of my Amharic and their English. And roughly once a day, a Habesha who speaks fluently will talk to me for several minutes. The majority of the time, this exchange is purely innocuous. Unlike Morocco, where almost everyone who spoke English to firenjes did so from financial motivation, most Habesha who do so are genuinely interested in genial conversation, friendship, erudition, or just practicing their English. I have several Habesha friends I’ve met in this manner, including Taigen.

I turn right on a cobblestone/dirt road,

gaze at a local dog who reminds me of Bailey for a moment,

take in this vista along with a few deep breaths of cleaner, elevated air,

and walk into the IEICA school. I arrive between 8:40 and 9.

I am immediately, adoringly swarmed by a gaggle of 4-6 year-olds. After a series of hugs, kisses, and high-fives, I exchange three-step handshakes and greetings with the faculty in a mix of English and Amharic.

The student-faculty ratio at our school is surprisingly small. There are about 25 students in two classes, KG1 and KG2. There is a principal, three full-time teachers, two full-time guards, one cook/cleaning lady, one cool young dude whose role is still unclear to me, one wise old man who just kinda shows up around lunchtime, frequent and arbitrary visitors, and me.

The kids play for a bit as everyone arrives. Around 9, Ficulta, the female teacher/disciplinarian, raises the Ethiopian flag while the kids sing the national anthem.

Then it’s time for class.

Both KG1 and KG2 have English, Math, and Amharic every day along with a sprinkling of art, science, and music. Math became my favorite once I learned the Amharic numbers. It is easier for me to communicate in arithmetic than it is in English, which the kids (especially KG1) know so little. Ficulta does not speak English, so I assist Asrat and Mulugeta in their classes. They are passionate teachers. I learn greatly from watching them conduct class, even though most of it is in Amharic. Asrat’s style is expressive and playful, while Mulugeta is more composed and methodical. Asrat is in university studying education. Mulugeta is in his last semester at the school and will soon be an accountant.

My role in class is an amalgamation of teaching, assisting, sitting at a desk and watching attentively, checking classwork and homework, sharpening pencils, and keeping kids on task.

After two half-hour morning classes comes the dreaded two-hour recess.

There is always a soccer game which Mulugeta, Asrat and I often join. Sometimes I play monkey in the middle with a few kids, sometimes I play on the slide, lift the kids up to do chin-ups, or just hang out in the cacophony. Lately I have been tutoring groups or individuals more, which has made recess shorter and more worthwhile. When the lunch buzzer mercifully rings around 12:20, I am hungry and tired.

Lunch is the most important facet of IEICA. Many of the students don’t eat breakfast, and some won’t get dinner either. Half-days end with lunch, and I get the feeling the tertiary faculty is there for the meal. Around forty former students who now attend the government school will arrive for lunch as well. We hand out the meal in an assembly-line, then eat our own share.

Four days a week we eat a bowl of rice, usually with potatoes and cabbage. It’s always filling. Once every week or two we have injera. Lunch winds down into a halfhearted naptime, followed by another, shorter recess. During this time I will usually end up discussing American, Ethiopian, and world affairs with Asrat and/or an old man named Meksala. I feel this reciprocal period of teaching is just as important as the classes with the students.

Around 1:50 the afternoon classes start, three and a half hours after the morning session ended. After this pair of classes the flag is lowered, the kids kiss goodbye, and I walk back down the hill and catch a bus to Piazza. The weather is the same every day – cloudless, 78 degrees with an occasional breeze. Though the temperature isn’t extreme, the intensity of the sun is ferocious. The equatorial proximity along with the 8,000 foot altitude create a brand of sunshine I have never experienced before, an enrapturing warmth that penetrates every pore of your body. To my amazement, most Habesha spend the entire day clothed in pants and an overcoat of some sort.

My immediate goal is usually to dissipate a couple hours before heading home. The Cherokee House is a frenzy at this point in the afternoon, and there is nothing I can do there in peace other than a 20-minute workout mashup of pushups, situps, jumping, wallsits, and tae-bo I developed a couple weeks in. So usually I hang around Piazza for a while, stopping in a café for a while and reading, checking email and CU Buffs basketball scores in primitive internet cafes, or just walking around and getting slightly lost.

Eventually I find my way to the final bus stop of the day down by this mosque.

I am rather well-liked at the house and will be greeted warmly upon return. The social situation was awkward the first week here, but now we have a merry community which satisfies my desires for companionship. Sadly my three closest friends are leaving this weekend, and I will miss them dearly. I doubt if the house will be as enjoyable hereafter, but I do have many other Habesha and firenje friends throughout the city at this point. There are Korean Mondays, soccer Wednesdays and Ultimate Frisbee Thursdays. The worst case scenario – a dozen books and the third season of The Wire – is appealing as well.

Together we eat a delicious meal Asni prepared around 6:30, then play Settlers of Catan or shoot the shit for a while before retiring to our quarters.

Early on, the sleeping situation was rather dire as I was needlessly sharing a room with another guy, then two other guys, and an excruciatingly irritating water pump located fifteen feet from the bedroom was haunting my every waking and fitfully sleeping hour. But we neutralized the pump by turning it off at night and then I moved into an empty room on the second floor, and now I sleep peacefully every night. There is a hole in one of the windows making the room feel as if it is partially outside, which I enjoy. During the night the temperature will slip into the low 50s or high 40s, so I sleep under my blanket in shorts, a t-shirt, and socks. I usually sleep hard for seven hours and change, then wake up rested and tired.

It may sound as if I have described a disgruntled existence in Addis, but that is not the case. Life is not particularly entertaining, but the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. I have a hard time explaining why I am happier here than I have been in Boulder for most of the last year. I suppose it is the balance. I have put great emphasis on balance for many years, yet it has always remained elusive. Somehow I have fount that equilibrium here in Africa. I am satisfied by my work, my social life and my athletic pursuits. I get to play lots of games, learn new things, and constantly improve myself. Upward mobility is part of everyday life. The only thing missing is romance, though I do meet new people all the time. It doesn’t matter; that part of me is currently comatose. I am not ready for Her arrival; searching would serve no purpose. Eventually that part of me will return. When it does, I will be deserving of the sort of companion I have long envisioned.

Friday, February 10, 2012

January Top 15

15. Red Hot Chili Peppers - Brendan's Death Song
14. Smashing Pumpkins - Melon Collie And The Infinite Sadness
13. Whiskeytown - Dreams
12. Red Hot Chili Peppers - Dance, Dance, Dance
11. Red Hot Chili Peppers - Monarchy of Roses

10. Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros - 40 Day Dream
9. Madonna - Hung Up
8. Red Hot Chili Peppers - Ethiopia
7. Red Hot Chili Peppers - Meet Me At The Corner
6. Smashing Pumpkins - Where Boys Fear To Tread

5. Augustana - Shot In The Dark
4. David Gray - Babylon
3. Red Hot Chili Peppers - Desecration Smile
2. Matchbox Twenty - The Difference

Song of the Month: Smashing Pumpkins - Bodies

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Super Bowl Pick

Really Like:
Patriots -2.5 over Giants

Championship Round:

Ravens +7 over PATRIOTS $
NINERS -2.5 over Giants X

Divisional Round:

Really Liked:
NINERS +3.5 over Saints $

Was Forced To Choose:
RAVENS -7.5 over Texans X
PATRIOTS -13.5 over Broncos $
PACKERS -7.5 over Giants X

Lock season record: 0-0
Really like season record: 6-4
Like season record: 29-32-2
If forced to choose season record: 98-93-2
All games season record: 133-129-4

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Learning To Learn

For some reason, perhaps because I erroneously heard it was the national language (perhaps because it is the only language spoken at universities), or maybe because I knew the kindergarteners I’d be teaching had English class, I was under the impression that Ethiopian people generally spoke English, many as a first language.


Over eighty languages are spoken in Ethiopia, but the only relevant ones in Addis Ababa are Amharic, English (a distant second), Italian (a distant third), and a rising fourth which I will get into in a later series of blogs. Amharic is the language here. A few Addis Ababans speak English fluently (none without a powerful accent), a sprinkling can slowly but comfortably engage in half-broken conversation kind of like I speak Spanish, many know a few words, and the majority of the population speaks no English.

There are 8-11 adults who work or just hang out at the school I volunteer at. Four speak English well enough to regularly converse with me and the others know little more than good morning, how are you, etc. The 4 to 6 year-old students know the letters of the alphabet, numbers up to 10, some colors, a few words like “cat” and “ice cream”, and not much else. I cannot hold a conversation with any of them and I cannot speak any whole sentences and expect them to comprehend what I’m saying.

Amharic is nothing like English or other Western languages. Amharic has its own alphabet with 217 different characters, or seven versions of 31 different letters. Every syllable has its own letter. “Sa”, “say”, “seh”, “see”, “sih”, “so”, “su”, the syllables you can make starting with the “s” sound, each have their own slightly-different iteration of the root letter. The kicker is that Amharic has several syllables completely alien to English pronunciation. I work at a school in the “Kechene” neighborhood, but “Kechene” is just a made-up word that approximates an Amharic word that is literally impossible for me to write or sound-out without speaking. The first two syllables of the word involve making sounds that English speakers have never made in their lives. Other than briefly trying and failing to roll my “rr”s in Spanish class, I never imagined there might be syllables out there I’d never uttered before.

When I leave the house to go to school, I enter the Amharic world. The immediate goal every morning is to take two minibuses (more on the mesmerizing minibus system in later posts) across Addis Ababa to “Kechene.” Imagine trying to get from, say, San Francisco to Oakland, taking two buses, without knowing English or anyone who did. The first few times I tried were rather grievous affairs dependent on asking randoms one word destination questions, but then one of the housemates realized the Amharic letters scrawled on top of the minibuses might actually be cues to the locations the buses were headed. I found a commonality in one of the Amharic letters for the bus I needed, a “T”ish looking letter that’s like P in English. A few bus rides later I had managed to deduce the three-character word for “Piazza” written on all the minibuses headed there. Though it seems simple, this was a thrilling, confidence-building leap in my Amharic education. Actually boarding a Piazza bus is an entirely different matter, however, whose horrors will be better described in a future post.

School is exhaustively challenging. Teaching English to kids who don’t speak English without being able to speak their own language is an arduous process. I quickly realized drawing pictures was a precious intermediary, then realized I didn’t know how to capably draw many pictures on chalkboards, that I had a hard time differentiating between a rat and a cat, a cow and a dog.

Math was hopeless until I learned 1-30 in Amharic along with +, –, and =. Jumping through that hoop was another thrilling leap though, and now I feel legitimately useful teaching math.

I have to learn to draw, have to learn how to teach, have to learn Amharic, have to learn the kids’ names which is particularly trying because Amharic names don’t correspond to English ones. They’re all just random combinations of syllables to me.

It doesn’t end when school gets out. Navigating Addis Ababa can be rather enjoyable, but doing so proficiently is still a challenge. Just trying to order a juice and coffee together is a chore I’ve already failed to realize on two separate occasions. Ethiopians find it preposterous that someone could want to drink juice and coffee at the same time; I think passing up a delicious $.50 macchiato and $.80 fresh mango/avocado juice is more ludicrous.

If I want to play or watch a sport, it’s going to be soccer, a game I haven’t played since I was nine years old. I suck. I keep playing. I have to learn to play better. At home I have to learn how to live in a house with an array of young people I had never met twenty days ago, have to learn to sleep with earplugs and wake up at 7 (that actually came automatically at first, jetlag I guess, but I seem to be unlearning it).

I have never been forced to learn like this before. I had tremendous zeal for learning and memorizing things in elementary school and feasted upon the competitive aspects of schooling, even though my elementary school didn’t have grades. In middle school I realized I didn’t have to try very hard to get As, and in high school I realized I could get where I wanted to without expending much effort. The game switched from trying to know as many things as possible to trying to subsist on as little study as possible. There have been some intense learning experiences in my life (poker being the most obvious) but they were always born from amusement, never mandated.

Everything about the experience here is forced. I use that word to convey both its meanings: Many things are compulsory and quickly assimilated into my existence, without an alternative; other things are strained, uncomfortable but functional.

The other day, one of my housemates said something I found incredibly interesting: that she and her husband actively put themselves in uncomfortable situations to keep themselves mentally fit, to keep life challenging, to ensure their lives are always dynamic, never satiated. I was stupefied by this comment. For as long as I can remember I have been focused on efficiency, minimalism, making life as smooth and as graceful as possible. Yet somehow I wound up here, where little goes according to schedule and nothing comes without effort. Though there hasn't been any shortage of challenge in my life over the last nine months, I suppose I put myself in this position on purpose. Every day I seem to learn a little more about why I did that, and I hope to fully understand by the end of my stay here.