Christopher Thornton teaches in the writing program at Zayed University in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. His essays have appeared in numerous literary journals in the U.S., Canada, and United Kingdom. Last year his book-length travel narrative about Iran--Descendants of Cyrus: Travels through Everyday Iran--was published by Potomac Books.
Notes from a Bootstrap Economy: Letter from Ethiopia
We were packed into a crowded minibus somewhere on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, heading in the direction of Lake Kuriftu and the city of Debre Zeyit, which hugs its shoreline. The lake was promoted as an idyllic retreat within day-trip distance from the polluted and overcrowded capital. I was sharing the back seat with Yikeber, a young man I’d met standing in the line waiting to board at the “station”—a dusty windblown lot on the edge of the city. Yikeber was one of Ethiopia’s emerging young professionals, a civil engineer who had found work in Addis, as Ethiopia’s capital is locally known, but still commuted from his family home in Debre Zeyit to avoid the high rents in the city. A gracious host, he paid my $4 fare and also assumed the role of tour guide, pointing out the sights of Addis’s outskirts along the way. “That’s a textile factory,” he said, pointing to a red-and-white prefabricated shed on the left. “It’s owned by the Chinese but employs local workers. They don’t need much skill for the job. They can learn it in few days.” A little further up the road he pointed to a blue-and-white office complex: “That’s a pharmaceutical plant. Most of the employees are Europeans but the products go to the local market.” Yikeber was clearly proud of these sights, as proud as any licensed tour guide waxing rhapsodic over Ethiopia’s ancient churches and historic ruins. But this was Ethiopia’s present and future being touted, propelled by a torrent of foreign investment, a fact of life equally deserving of national pride. It represented global confidence in the “New Africa,” and Yikeber was a fitting representative of this “New Ethiopia,” having worked on development projects all over the country. “We build just about anything,” he told me, “schools, health clinics, office buildings, residential. That’s a garment factory,” he said, pointing to another industrial complex halfway up a hill on the right. Also lining the road were wood and steel skeletons that would eventually become houses and apartment buildings for young professionals like himself. They would work for foreign bosses at the pharmaceutical plants and textile factories, but in so doing attain the previously unimaginable comforts of suburban life—Western style. For Yikeber and others of his generation, it would mean an end to bunking with parents well into adulthood or cramming into overcrowded apartments in the city, the fate of many young professionals in the West. It was becoming clear: the road our minibus was trundling along wasn’t just the highway to Debre Zeyit but the path to Ethiopia’s future. What we had left behind were remnants of the country’s difficult past and the morass of its present. Off Meskali Square, the Museum of the Red Terror documented the horrific oppression under fiery communist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, whose savage rule ran from 1974 to 1987. Inside, several walls were covered with black-and-white photos of young Ethiopians, student age, who were executed or tortured to death by his regime. At rallies Mengistu was fond of brandishing a glass jar filled with a red liquid he claimed was the blood of his enemies. At night, throughout the Piazza district young prostitutes offered “quick marriages” to strolling tourists outside cheap bars that blasted African pop into dimly lit streets. And then there were the vast slums in the surrounding hills and pockmarking neighborhoods, chock-a-block shanties of corrugated metal in narrow lanes that became rivers of waste during the seasonal rains. But Addis also showed signs of promise. A sparkling Sheraton Hotel stood in the center of a neatly manicured concourse. The Bole Road, leading to the international airport, was lined with half-finished construction projects, due to become upmarket housing and retail space for the city’s well-heeled expatriates and growing middle class. For three years major thoroughfares had been torn up to lay track and build stations for a metro system, the first in sub-Saharan Africa, funded by the Export-Import Bank of China and contracted to the China Railway Group. The city could also boast a thriving contemporary art scene, with many galleries and exhibition spaces for the growing number of talented painters and sculptors. And for all its blemishes, Addis was reasonably safe as African capitals go, petty theft and pickpocketing the most common nuisances. Even foreign women could walk the streets at night in all but the sketchiest neighborhoods. A hundred meters from my hotel one night I spotted a European woman walking in the same direction. “That’s something you don’t see very often,” I said, “a single woman walking alone.” “Oh, it’s not that bad,” she replied in a soft Irish trill. But hyper development almost inevitably carries a dark side. All around the city, slum dwellers were being cleared out of their shanties to be relocated to subsidized housing projects far from the center—and far from their livelihoods, schools, and health care facilities. All things Addis were now behind us. We had arrived at Debre Zeyit’s main street, a dusty, traffic-clogged thoroughfare lined with shops, market stalls, and kiosks selling mobile phones and cheap clothing and electronic goods, in other words, the commercial traffic common in much of Africa and backbone of barebones economies everywhere. We hopped out of the bus and were about to part when Yikeber offered to be my guide for the afternoon. It was Saturday and he had the rest of the day free, he said, and it would give him great pleasure. How could I refuse? We climbed into the back of a bajaj, the three-wheeled taxi that passes for public transport in much of Ethiopia, and headed in the direction of Lake Kuriftu, just beyond the center of town. Debre Zeyit may be the gateway to Lake Kuriftu but it is also a military town, home to a large air base where Yikeber told me his father had served as a colonel. The decades-long war with Eretria provided a steady flow of military personnel through the city, which provided a steady flow of cash to keep its economy afloat, but in recent years tourism had emerged as a growth industry. A string of resort hotels had sprung up along Lake Kuriftu, and more were being built. Our bajaji dropped us off at the Kuriftu Hotel and Resort, Debre Zeyit’s top-end “bed away from Addis.” Curious what a room in a luxury getaway in Ethiopia went for, I coaxed Yikeber into the lobby and up to the check-in desk. The concierge was as snappily dressed as any on Park Avenue, and greeted us with the same practiced cheer and deference. He then produced a rate sheet that listed the cheapest single room at $136 per night. I didn’t know whether or not to be surprised. The charge was moderate by Western standards, but a whopping sum far beyond the wildest imaginings of all but the thinnest strata of the Ethiopia’s upper crust. However, the concierge informed us, we could enjoy all the facilities—the pool, sauna, and restaurants, café, beach, gym, and massage room (massage not included)—for a daily rate of $25. Acting as gracious host, Yikeber asked if I was itching to indulge. I was a Westerner after all, and weren’t Westerners flush with cash and forever treating themselves to creature comforts, especially on vacation? But I wasn’t interested in a workout or a plunge in the pool, so we left the polished lobby to stroll along a trail that led beyond the grounds of the Kuriftu, and returned to the everyday world of rural Ethiopia. Broad, flat fields stretched on to a row of hills that lined the horizon, and a pair of little boys tended a herd of cows that had gathered around a giant eucalyptus tree, whacking their hind quarters with rickety sticks whenever they got out of line, or whenever the boys wanted to assert a sense of purpose, and importance, in a role that was otherwise meaningless, except for the sense of purpose and importance it gave them. Since leaving the hotel I’d been nursing a delicate question, and thought it’s time had come. I asked Yikeber if there were there enough Ethiopians in the entire country to fill hotel rooms that cost almost half a year’s average wage? “No,” Yikeber admitted. “Most people only come for the day, to get out of the city on the weekend. The rooms are mainly for foreigners.” A little beyond the Kuriftu, also fronting the lake, another resort hotel was being built and appeared almost ready for business. The façade had been completed, the glass balcony doors installed, and workers were putting finishing touches on the exterior trim. Like the Kuriftu, it had a dock to tie up rowboats and Jet-Skis that could be rented by the hour. Whether they stayed a day or a week, for weekenders from Addis a day trip to Lake Kuriftu wasn’t merely an opportunity for a little fun in the sun. It was a peek into the future, of a country that was struggling to carve off the barnacles of its past, but there wasn’t a lot of headwind to propel the ship of state forward, the crew had little navigational experience, and choppy waters always lay ahead. Nevertheless, Yikeber was an unabashed, unapologetic optimist. He had great faith in the emerging Ethiopia, and as one of the country’s newly minted professionals he had every reason to be, even if his wages still far fell short of his hopes. The Grand Renaissance Ethiopian Dam, almost 10 years in the making, would reduce the annual flooding of the Blue Nile and deliver hydroelectric power to a nation of 100 million—even if it rankled downstream countries like Egypt, which also depended on the river for the same. In 2019, the country’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed Ali, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in bringing Ethiopia’s decades-long conflict with neighboring Eritrea to a virtual halt. Anywhere else such a distinction would have sent national pride soaring, but in Ethiopia protests erupted, with accusations that Ali had turned authoritarian, stirring dark memories of former leaders, and fallen short in delivering benefits to all Ethiopians. In a fit of pique, Egypt even threatened war if its needs were not met. “The main thing we have to do is bring up the level of education,” he continued as we strolled under a burning sun. “The government knows this. It has set a goal of attaining one hundred percent enrollment in seven years.” This sounded impressive, and not mere delusion. In the remotest parts of the countryside it wasn’t unusual to see young children lugging firewood and five-liter plastic water jugs, but spotting a foreigner they would squeal, “Pen! Pen! Pen!” hoping to dash off with a prize more precious than a piece of penny candy or ragged bank note. “We now have half a million students in universities,” Yikeber continued, “and that’s only in the state universities. If you add in the private universities you have another hundred thousand.” I didn’t want to burst Yikeber’s bubble, since he was intent on getting as much mileage out of the education promise as possible, and his vision was much more than a pipedream. In the central village of Lalibela I had the opportunity to tour a high school, guided by two students I had met in the center of town. The classrooms were overcrowded and ramshackle, but the eyes of the students were fixed on a teacher lecturing before a well-worn chalkboard. Back in Addis one afternoon I wandered into the courtyard of the state university while searching for the entrance to Ethiopia’s national museum. Students were lolling about between classes like students would at any institution of higher learning, but others were immersed in textbooks to catch up on required reading. Ethiopia had 15 universities, and its national university had set up satellite campuses in several cities to make higher education more accessible. Still, a sober question remained: were there jobs for all of the graduates? And could the country keep them? Many of Ethiopia’s best and brightest were being siphoned off by European companies offering dazzling salaries—by Ethiopian standards—and their weak bargaining power made them much easier pickings than the choosier native born. One night at the Yenshi Coffee Shop in the Piazza district of Addis I met three young professionals working in Germany. Stuttgart, Munich, and Hamburg were equally represented. All of the young men were back for their annual holiday visit. All would be returning when the month was over. None were planning to ever return to Ethiopia. I tried to look at the glass half full: with all the building going on in the city, weren’t there plenty of jobs for engineers, architects, construction firms? A new rail line connecting Addis to the ports in Djibouti had been completed, reducing the travel time to ship goods for export from two to three days to 10 hours. Previously state-owned industries like energy, communications, and aviation had been turned over to private interests. In a country of 100 million, wasn’t this only the beginning? Now even perennially optimistic Yikeber was a little downbeat: “The problem is investment. Projects start and stop, and then sometimes the money, well—it disappears. A few years ago the finance minister was caught with a million dollars in cash in his house—the finance minister!” We were now back at the hotel, and Yikeber phoned our bajaj driver for a pickup. We waited in the shade of the driveway trees, and Yikeber assured me there was no question he would come back: we hadn’t paid him, a guaranteed five-dollar fare was well worth the 10-minute drive from the center of town. “Sure, there are pessimists,” Yikeber went on. “They say it will always be this way. People who have opportunities outside the country will leave. Half the money that comes in will keep going into people’s pockets. They don’t think things can change.” In the driveway of the Lake Kuriftu Hotel and Resort there was evidence to back up Yikeber’s claims. Few of the cars were owned by middle-class weekenders out spending their newfound “wealth.” Two bore blue-and-white U.N. license plates, while others were part of the diplomatic fleets from several of the capital’s foreign embassies. It was a simple survey, and a random one, but the results were far from promising: few of the benefits of any trickle-down theory had reached the Kuriftu Hotel and Resort. “There is another way,” Yikeber went on. “The pessimists are right in this respect—the top-down approach doesn’t work. Too much money disappears into people’s pockets. Wealth has to be generated from the bottom up.” “You sound like a policy wonk from the World Bank.” “Wonky or not, it’s true.” “You mean—?” “Microfinancing.” On cue, our bajaj driver swung into the driveway. But the Pandora’s box our conversation had opened couldn’t be closed. In Ethiopia and other parts of the third world, “microfinancing” had become more than a buzzword. It was the beacon that would light up hamstrung economies, and Yikeber was intent on showing me the wonky term in action. He led me up the main thoroughfare to a Ping-Pong table set up under a thicket of trees. Young men were whacking the white plastic ball across the tiny net, as they had been doing for hours on a listless Saturday afternoon. It looked like a scene of weekend idleness, but no, Yikeber assured me, this was grass-roots entrepreneurship, Ethiopian style. “Someone owns the table,” he explained. “They rent it out and the players pay to use it, a fixed price per game.” How much prosperity could be generated from pickup Ping-Pong matches on weekend afternoons was dubious to say the least, but in Ethiopia’s grass roots economy the soil was not very fertile and yielded what it could. This was an ironic contrast to the countryside, which was green and lush and glowed with promise—but in both cases the roots ran deep. I told Yikeber about my flight from Dubai: that perhaps 90 percent of the passengers were women, and almost all of the men were foreign tourists. In the departure lounge it was clear that virtually all of the women were working in the Gulf as housemaids and in other forms of domestic servitude. Even though Ethiopia is less than half Muslim the majority of the women were wearing Islamic headscarves, because Muslim housemaids were preferred by Gulf employers. What was most striking was amount of luggage many had pushed toward the check-in desk—trolleys piled with five and six extra-large bags, each one cavernous enough to ship gifts and goods for an entire family. “Before they return they shop for all of their family and friends,” Yikeber explained, “and with the money they earn many of them come back and start small businesses. They partner with family members or friends, or invest it. Very few of them are uneducated girls from the countryside. They have educations, but they can earn more working as maids in the Gulf than anything they can do here, so they go for a few years, save their money and come back.” Now we were sitting on the second-floor terrace of one of Debre Zeyit’s fancier hotels, drinking Bedele beers and watching the action on the street below. Another sign of Ethiopia’s new economy was in view all around us: several customers were making use of the hotel’s wi-fi to surf the Internet on laptop computers worth an average year’s salary. But the scene raised questions of the trickle-down theory’s effectiveness: only the middle class could gather on a hotel terrace to sip beer and surf the Internet. Our drinks finished, Yikeber walked me up the street to the spot where I could catch a minibus back to Addis. On the way we stopped at a local market. I wanted to pick up something to snack on for the hour-and-a-half ride, but also see what was for sale in this semi-prosperous city. The shelves were disappointing. Almost everything was bundled in large bulk packaging, wrapped in simple plastic with minimal labeling, and in the distinctive Ethiopian alphabet. There were tubes of Colgate toothpaste, small boxes of laundry detergent, and plastic bottles of dish soap, but everything else had come directly from wholesalers to the shop, bypassing the middlemen who would have only driven up costs. Individual packages of nuts or potato chips, especially of an imported brand, were beyond the reach of the average Ethiopian, even in Debre Zeyit. My stomach rumbled a bit on the way back to the city, but a far better dinner awaited me than most Ethiopians would enjoy that night. I had been to many poor countries, in Africa and elsewhere, and there were always small corner kiosks where the locals could buy cheap snacks, candy bars, and cigarettes. The products were rarely international brands, yet they offered locals the simple luxury of a snack in the middle of the day, and a local label, rather than an international brand, glowed as a symbol of national pride, even on a bag of potato chips. In Addis, the absence of these simple treats indicated a far deeper level of poverty. Call it poverty squared. It was like the trash, or absence of it, all over the city, and Debre Zeyit was no exception. There was very little trash because nothing was thrown away, because nothing could afford to be thrown away. It was as simple as that, yet it yielded a dark irony: the poorer the country, the cleaner the streets. When we reached the edge of the city four young women got onboard, chicly made up for a night on the town, no doubt on an Ethiopian budget—the price of the entire night the same as that of a single drink in a Soho nightclub. As we lurched through the traffic they immersed themselves in their mobile phones, texting and chatting with abandon, just like club-hoppers in London’s Soho. For the “New Ethiopia” this was the Soho lifestyle brought home, or at least an imaginary substitute. The next day Ethiopia faced off against African powerhouse Nigeria in a World Cup qualifying match. Outside the stadium near Meskali Square fans had gathered shortly after sunrise for a chance at a steeply priced $4 ticket. Hours before the coin toss, the stadium parking lot was still crammed with young men hankering for a ticket. I watched on the terrace of my hotel, within a thicket of guests and locals gathered in front of a wide-screen TV. Ethiopia “scored” the first goal, sending the terrace fans into a frenzy—but it was denied by a referee who ruled that the ball had not crossed the goal line before it was batted away by a defender. Replays from several angles, however, showed otherwise. Nigeria would score twice as the match progressed, and Ethiopia lost, 2–1. The defeat was sadly emblematic of the Ethiopian condition: “victory” was ever palpable, but the route to it was littered with miscues of fate that could deny it at any moment. The world was not level playing field, and never would be.