[From contemporary African diaries]
1995 August: Monday
2pm: Woke up to the sound of a very heavy rainstorm outside. Only two hours sleep but felt better. The internal phone rang – it was the hotel manager welcoming me and adding that they had decided to change the first night to Wednesday. This was fine with me as it allowed Tuesday night off but I wondered how they would square this with the audience. They would have to change the advertising fairly rapidly?
Still, I’d done it! And I was here! Ye Gods, what was next? At least the trickiest bit, I presumed, was over. Hailu DID arrive at the airport, and the hotel WAS putting on the show. None of this was certain back in London – it was all so vague. God – if no one had been there to meet me and then Africa – right in your face! A pretty frightful prospect.
Spent most of the afternoon reading the Lonely Planet Guide to Ethiopia. One section was titled ‘Annoyances’:
‘Walking the streets of Addis after dark is not safe….Armed robbery is mainly confined to the countryside….Robbers tend to block the roads with large stones, which is why buses only travel between 6am and 5pm.’
It also advised avoiding salads and vegetables because of liver fluke – and meat because of tapeworms. What the hell was left to eat?
Then it turned really odd. Ethiopia has thirteen months to each year. Then again – why not?
Looked out of the window at the road traffic beyond. It was still raining – trucks and some cars but mostly groups of men in long white cloaks prodding dilapidated goats. Earlier, Hailu told me that they did not have mosquitoes in Addis. I seem to have wasted about £80 on anti-mosquito nets, creams, sprays, etc. Damn it. Checked out the array of medical bits and pieces in the suitcase. It looked like a hypochondriac’s wet dream.
‘5pm: Hailu arrived with a tall man aged about thirty called Tadesse. Tadesse was his old university friend and an economics graduate, also a Protestant Christian who abstained from alcohol and cigarettes. We returned to the restaurant where Hailu introduced me to the manager, a short bespectacled man who spoke quite good English. I didn’t quite catch his name though – it sounded like ‘Magoo Thatcher’.
Also spotted the advert for the show:
‘OSCAR WILDE. TO BE PERFORMED IN MID AUGUST’.
No wonder they were not bothered about changing the date of the opening night. I mentioned the lack of dates or times to Hailu. He shrugged it off:
“No problems. We will tell the people’.
I tried out a local lager – fairly weak stuff. Hailu told me that the show was the first time that a one-man performance had ever visited Ethiopia. In fact, usually all they got was British Council Shakespeare. He said that he had visited the British Embassy last week and spoke to a British Council official in an attempt to drum up support for the show. Hailu said that the man was patronising and aloof and didn’t really listen to him. The only question he asked was:
“Tell me, this Oscar Wilde chappie – this Neil Titley – is he black?”
Hailu: “I don’t think we shall get much help from that lot.”
Tadesse questioned me closely about ‘the necessary alienation of the artist to the perceived conceptions of the norm’. He was a bit heavy going. Hailu suggested a walk.
The sky darkened towards dusk as we strolled towards the main road. There were no pavements here – it was just a choice of dodging the mud piles or dodging the traffic. A few children, seeing my white skin, tried to beg, but were intimidated by my companions. We reached the main and crowded Bole Road and turned left towards the centre. Hailu led me into what he described as a top range supermarket. It was actually quite sparse and oddly I could not recognise any of the products on the shelves – unusual in these days of worldwide marketing. If this was top of the range the rest must be pretty rough.
We talked as we walked. Tadesse said that Ethiopia was the only country in Africa that was never colonised except for five years under the Italians. They were not in the country long enough to have any real effect, except for building an opera house and introducing pasta. He seemed to be quite fond of the Italians. During the rapid twilight the rain started to fall again and we sheltered in the doorway of a block of flats. It looked dangerously jerry-built.
Tadesse continued – he told me that the country has been Christian since 400 AD despite being surrounded by a sea of Islam.
“We were monophysites – the philosophy of live and let live – so we never persecuted the Moslems. Because of this we were declared heretics by the European church. Our civilisation is ancient. It was our Queen of Sheba who went to visit King Solomon.”
It also turned out that St. George is not only the patron saint of England, but also of Ethiopia – despite actually being a Palestinian by birth.
We entered the Keberzuche Restaurant where Tadesse ordered the food:
“It must be traditional.”
I ordered beer. Our meal arrived in a huge bowl about two feet wide, the base of which was covered with a sort of brown omelette with lumps of meat on top. There were no cutlery or utensils – the habit was to eat with one’s fingers. I was about to plunge in when Tadesse stopped us to say a prayer to the effect that it was wonderful that we were all here together and that God had brought me to Ethiopia. Rather touching. Then we broke off bits of the omelette and picked up the lumps of meat with it.
There was also a ferociously hot spicy sauce on top called ‘wat’. I was thinking back to all those Lonely Planet warnings about health and food, etc. And the first thing I was doing was to eat a meat meal. Tape worms ahead? Oh well, what the hell – I gingerly chomped on.
On a side plate there was something that looked like one of those rolled hot flannels that airlines and Chinese restaurants distribute to cleanse the hands and face. Hailu said that it was the Ethiopian national dish called Injera. An image crossed my mind.
I remembered a story that some people in a London Chinese restaurant had been presented with their hot flannels and had proceeded to try and eat them under the impression that they were Shanghai delicacies. Now, surely the opposite must have happened? A visitor arrives in Addis and wipes his face with the Ethiopian national dish?
We ate on, as I hesitantly picked at the meat. They were both intelligent young men who had never been outside Ethiopia. They pumped me for information about England and Tadesse asked what ‘cold’ is really like:
“I hear you have to wear gloves!”
I admitted that this was true which caused much hilarity. Drank more beer.
The conversation turned to Mengistu, the former communist dictator and his Derg Party. Hailu and Tadesse loathed him.
“During the war 70% of our GNP went on war materials.”
The Derg regime collapsed in May 1991 when the Islamic army from the northern province of Tigre marched into Addis allegedly to install capitalism. Mengistu fled and now lived in Harare – the Zimbabweans felt that they owed him a debt because of all the aid he gave them during their independence war.
The meal finished, Tadesse stood, shook my hand, and left. Hailu and I settled down for more beer. He also accepted a cigarette but I felt that he was breaking a code – both fags and booze. Maybe he was also a Christian? He downed half a bottle of wine and I could tell he was not used to it. He remembered my money and handed over 700 birr (the exchange rate was seven birr to one pound). I insisted on paying the bill – it came to less than four birr for the three of us.
8pm: “Come, let us have entertainment.” Hailu waved down what he called a ‘people’s taxi’. He muttered:
“The whites never go in these but you will be all right.”
I bloody well hoped so! We climbed inside a transit van packed with a driver and about ten locals. As the vehicle jolted off, a ten-year-old boy hung precariously from the sliding side door before climbing over the passengers to collect our fares. After ten minutes, Hailu shouted to the driver and we climbed out somewhere into the darkness. On our right I could make out three huts that were set back about 100 yards from the road.
Hailu: “The Karamara Club”.
The club seemed to consist of three conical circular huts standing about 15 feet high with straw-thatched roofs. It looked very African. We were ushered inside by a tall man in a red uniform. The room was surprisingly large with a raised dais on one side and a bar at the other. There were about thirty people already here – mostly Ethiopian but some Italians. On the dais were two musicians, one playing drums, the other some type of zither, who were joined by a tall female vocalist. The music consisted of Arabic singing mixed with African drums – very enjoyable. They saved it from being monotonous by subtle changes of rhythm. Gradually the place filled up.
10pm: The music changed to a faster tempo and a girl of about eighteen with a slim athletic body took front of stage. She was the star dancer and after a couple of minutes I could see why. She started to shake her breasts at the audience while also wriggling her hips and shoulders – add to this, a set grin and a curious neck jerk movement forwards and backwards. The different parts of her body appeared to be moving independently – and this went on for over an hour on one dance. Unbelievable stamina. Hailu said that they used to do all this naked ‘but now they are very prudish.’
Eh? If this was prudery what the hell did it used to be like?
She was joined for the last five minutes by a male dancer and finally ended by bending backwards like a taut bow and frenetically jerking her belly towards us. It was mesmerising. Hailu added that they were the best dancers in Ethiopia. I replied that if she performed this in a London club, they’d close the place down. Ordered more beer.
The club was now fairly crowded and uniformed waiters dispensed drinks to the tables. Old fashioned photographs of past musicians hung on the walls. Black umbrellas dangled from the ceiling. I was really getting into this place.
Two women joined us at our table – elaborate jewellery, spectacles, long shapely faces. Stately Nile princesses – we nodded hallo – a dignified acknowledgement. The music restarted.
The star dancer now began to move through the audience, still with the bobbing breasts, the constant neck jerk, and fixed manic smile. Each man she approached rose to his feet to dance with her for a few moments before thrusting some money between her breasts. She arrived in front of me.
Now, the only dance I’ve ever had the least prowess at is a passably good impression of Mick Jagger. Here, I was useless. I was just no good at shoulder waggling. I managed to shift from mysterious stranger to Western Wally in the space of thirty seconds. I thrust some money vaguely in the direction of her breasts and she moved on – the manic grin stayed fixed. Thankfully I regained my stool and beer.
The Karamara was almost tourist territory except that there were very few foreigners here – the majority seemed to be Ethiopian yuppies. In a way, it was too innocent to be tourist.
The music pounded on but our female companions left. Hailu was starting to look decidedly pissed and despite the fact that he kept introducing me as ‘the Great British Comedy Star’, I don’t think they were too impressed. He had taken to leaping up and yelling encouragement to the band. As for myself – well, the beer was too weak, but I was loving this scene all the same.
At the table nearest the band, a fight broke out between two women. Their male companions stopped it by standing with their backs to the girls and pushing them back against the wall – the girls continued to spit and claw at each other. Discos, the world over.
11pm: We decided to leave and I paid the bill – £10 for the whole evening. As we left, Hailu approached a group of young Italians. I was thrust forward again as ‘The Great Comedian’. They promised to come to the show.
By now Hailu was well away and hailed another taxi. I presumed that we were heading back to the hotel, but we passed the Ibex road turn and drove on into Addis. We drew up outside a tin shack that looked like the shebeen from hell. Inside, there was a long rectangular room with the patrons, currently consisting of about fifty girls and ten men, sitting along the walls, thus providing a square central dance area. There was no music as yet. I was the only white there. Hailu claimed that this was the top night club in town. It looked more like a barn dance in Kettering.
11 30pm: A troupe of dancers emerged and started performing to the music – the same routine as at the Karamara but this time it was three girls and two boys. The smallest girl was quite outrageous – the same neck jerk dance but much less clothing. She danced up to me. I shoved ten birr between her breasts before I could be hauled up to dance again. She wriggled her bottom at me then moved on. This crowd had turned sex into an art form. Hailu stumbled off to join some sort of conga line.
Two men sat down on the far side of my table – very laid-back characters. They asked politely where I was from. I didn’t sense any anti-tourist or anti-white feeling here – just a sort of natural interest. I wondered whether this stemmed from the lack of colonial residue and also because there were so few whites here.
1am: Finally got back to the hotel and dispatched the tottering Hailu off home by taxi. Lay back on the bed in my room. Well, I’d just blown about £25 on the best scene in ages. Some people know the value of everything and the price of nothing. One hell of a night. I was falling for this town already and I felt glad that I was here. Thought back to my trepidation about coming to Addis – and then all this tonight! Well, the optimist is always in for an unpleasant surprise and the pessimist for a pleasant one.
God, to think of that horrendous famine back in the mid-1980s and then to think of those girls tonight. All in the same country. Drifted off to sleep at 2am.