Impressions from Ethiopia

We are in an Italian restaurant called Castelli Ristorante. In our room it is me, my colleague Allison Coady, and our Ethiopian host, Ato Berhanu. There is a group of British guests and a small team of French people, one of whom is a journalist.

“It’s good to visit an African country where things work,” says the French journalist. “It’s good to be in a country where people keep time. If your driver says he will pick you up at six o’clock, rest assured he will be there at six. It’s good to have drivers who are so educated that they also act as tour guides!”

He was talking about the land where the fossilised remains of “Lucy” were discovered in 1974, giving evidence that human life probably began in Africa. Here legend has it that the Queen of Sheba had her capital in the now famous tourist city of Axum a thousand years before Christ.

Legend also has it that Menelik I, the son born to Solomon by the Queen of Sheba, brought to Axum the Ark of the Covenant from the Temple in Jersusalem. In that way Menelik founded the Solomonic dynasty of Ethiopia, whose last Emperor was Haile Sellasie, “The King of Kings” and “The Lion of Judah”, deposed by Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1974.

The last time I had been in Addis Ababa before I visited this October was in March 1982. The following features struck me about Addis then: streets full of beggars, a run-down city of contrasts with some modern buildings such as the Hilton Hotel completely surrounded by shacks; a city famous for its “sex workers” or prostitutes, notorious for servicing diplomats in hotels and holy pilgrims on sacred feast days.

This time I made a point of listening to what people said about the government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. There were critical voices — some even claiming that the government had rigged the last elections. When we got to Tigray in the north, support for the government was evident. But one thing seemed clear from Addis to Tigray: All conceded there was something good happening in Addis and in Ethiopia generally.

For sure, driving in Addis is still as mad and chaotic as ever. But while beggars and prostitutes are still there, they are much less evident than they were in the 1980s. What is more, new buildings are going up everywhere in Addis; new highways are being erected; the Old Airport area, which previously featured many old buildings and shacks, has now been modernised and boasts good roads and modern buildings.

While in the smaller towns the donkey is evident on the streets, Addis Ababa is bustling with life; the Lion of Judah is rising to his feet, and the city is booming and blossoming and living up to its name, which means “The New Flower”.

Catholics constitute 0,7% in a population of 80 million of whom about 33% are said to be Muslims and the rest members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The Catholic Church runs some of the best schools in the country to which many senior government officials send their children. The University of Addis Ababa is said to have been opened by the Jesuits. The Church does more by way of technical and agricultural education.

Among the most outstanding things I saw was Holy Saviour cathedral in Adigrat. I have seen St Peter’s basilica and other beautiful churches in Rome, but none of these have made the kind of impression as Holy Saviour Cathedral. It is awe inspiring, a monumental piece of sacred architecture and art in a town that does not boast beautiful buildings.

But there is more. In this town Orthodox Christians, Muslims and Catholics work together on religious and social projects. When Holy Saviour cathedral is celebrating its annual feast, Muslims and Orthodox Christians participate in the celebration. Presently all three religions are fundraising for the building of a new church hall at Holy Saviour!

This says something about the open-mindedness of the Catholic clergy in Ethiopia. It was this open-mindedness which made senior clergy and lay leaders participate so enthusiastically in the workshops I ran with Allison on behalf of the Denis Hurley Peace Institute on the topic “Leadership, Family and Conflict”.

Would our own clergy in Southern Africa flock in their numbers to workshops presented by lay people on such a topic?

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