45th Post: 3rd ETHIOPIA – The Cross and the Umbrella

[From contemporary African diaries]

A Lalibela Church – carved out of rock

 1995 August: Tuesday

Woke at 9am feeling a bit shattered. Tried unsuccessfully to figure out how the shower worked. The interest of travelling is that every action becomes an adventure – even buying a loaf of bread if you don’t know the language or which shop sells it. This train of thought intensified when the phone rang. It was Hailu:

“I’ll meet you at eight o’clock this afternoon.”


It turned out that they had a different time system in Ethiopia – two periods of twelve hours starting at 6am and 6pm. Therefore eight in the afternoon counting from 6am means 2pm. Obvious really?

1pm: Having dozed off for an hour, I was woken by the phone again. A message from reception that there was a journalist coming to interview me at nine that afternoon. Presumably 3pm? Ah, the responsibilities of an international star!

Ate lunch in the restaurant – spicy spaghetti – another result of Mussolini’s colonial ambitions. A pianist attempted to entertain the luncheon-ers – a girl of about fifteen who plink-plonked her way earnestly through some tunes. I think the saddest sound in the world is ‘Yesterday’ played hesitantly.

3pm: Hailu arrived suffering from a hangover – we were both somewhat subdued. Then the journalist arrived – Lullett G Michael of the Monitor. She was about 24, spectacles, demure – intelligent. Magoo Thatcher bustled up and ushered us all into a private lounge – a waitress arrived with tea. Lullitt asked why I was in the country. As I was not entirely sure myself, I covered up with a cascade of spiel about Wilde. Hailu put in an odd word. I emphasised his contribution but he seemed unusually reticent, (later he said that he was trying to keep a low profile as he didn’t want the rest of the police to know too much about what was going on.) I liked Lullitt – she was a nice girl.

[Afterwards I found out she was a brave girl as well. Three months later she was arrested and held in prison for a time simply for reporting that an assassination attempt on Mengistu had taken place in Zimbabwe. Her newspaper was temporarily closed down. Journalism can be a dangerous pastime in Africa.]

5 30pm: Hailu and I went for a walk along the ‘Ibex’ road. Passed a tin shack that doubled as a grocery; it had a whisky advert above the entrance:

‘Don’t Be Vague – Ask for Haig’.

A wonderfully ancient slogan – I think it was current in the 1950s or even earlier.

Addis shopping centre

Near the scene of the previous night’s experiences at the Karamara Club, Hailu led me to another conical hut. It was a bar called, unbelievably, the Magdala. Unbelievable because it had the same name as my local back in London!  They were both named in memory of the Battle of the Magdala in 1867 when the British Government annihilated the Ethiopian Emperor. It was back in those palmy Palmerston days when the British Government would send a gunboat if a Brit had had his pith helmet stolen. It appears that some Ethiopians fought on the British side which is why they now commemorated an apparent defeat.

The interior of the bar was basic – just a circular bench around the wall and a stack of beer crates in the centre. Hailu gestured to an elderly ‘barmaid’ and ordered a mineral water to help cure his hangover. He started to talk about the old Emperor Haile Selassie, the medieval feudalist who represented 5000 years of recorded emperors, who was first ousted in 1936 by the Italian incursion, then lived in the English city of Bath during their occupation, was restored to the throne, and then finally ousted for good in 1974 by the communist revolution. Hailu is too young to have known him but is fond of Selassie’s memory.

Hailu: “We were a proud people in Selassie’s time – proud of ourselves.”

Then along came socialism and the browbeaten egalitarianism that went with it. Now, there was the alleged ‘free market’ which they didn’t seem to know how to handle. I could sense it with the waitresses – they were unsure how to act. Whether to be proud, sullen socialists or smiling subservient capitalist fodder. But behind either alternative I suspected there was a natural laughter and grace.

The city of Addis Ababa was only founded in 1886 and was almost abandoned because of the lack of firewood. It was saved by the importation of eucalyptus trees from Australia – these trees were now ubiquitous.

There were three main tribes – the Amharics, the Gallas, and the Tigreans – and eighty-seven different languages and dialects in Ethiopia. Hailu said he preferred the Tigreans, especially their music. The Amharic script, the one in everyday usage, was related to the ancient Phoenician language.

He also gave me the reason why I was feeling so tired all the time. Addis was 8000 feet above sea level, so I was only getting about 80% of the oxygen I’d get in London.

“We’re used to it. That is why we are such good runners” he smiled.

The Magdala Bar, Addis Ababa

We were joined by a 50-year-old Englishman called Bill who worked for a water company in Addis. He said that he lived in an area called the Golden Gulag. It seems that the communist leader Mengistu thought that all whites were spies – probably correctly. His suspicions included his Russian backers. As a result he made them live in a large compound – a very comfortable, even luxurious, compound – but still a compound. Hence the ‘Golden Gulag’ tag.

7pm:  Bill offered me a lift back to the Ibex Hotel – it was the first intact car I’d seen in Addis. Invited him to the show, then waved him off.

For a while, I stood outside and watched the African night descend – a quick dusk, dark green trees, dank air. Wailing from a minaret somewhere – the Moslems were now in charge.

Strolled back to the bedroom – with a performance tomorrow, it was vital to have a quiet night tonight. Turned on the TV – no response. Browsed through the Lonely Planet again – it appeared that the date in Ethiopia was now 1988, whereas in the rest of the world it was 1995. Hmm?

 8pm: Dinner in the restaurant. The lights were low and a five piece band was playing some quite good jazz. A large selection of self-service food, with about thirty different dishes. I steered clear of all salads and vegetables. I’d got enough problems with possible tapeworm from the meat last night without adding liver fluke to the list. Took pot luck with the rest – I reckoned the injera was OK. It looked like I would have to survive on hot flannels.

The maitre d’ looked exactly like the old blues singer Muddy Waters. I kept expecting him to burst into a chorus of ‘I’m a Ma…an’ over the dessert trolley. The rest of the diners were Ethiopian middle class.

After the meal, I moved to the bar area. It was empty and I settled down to read. Half an hour later, a very good-looking girl in a magnificent African dress and long ear-rings entered and sat on her own in a far booth. It occurred to me that she was probably on the game and looking for custom. However, there was no chance that I would get involved. In my estimation, having random sex in Africa would be like playing Russian roulette with a faulty sub-machine gun. Quite apart from that, my anti-malarial precautions, which include chewing garlic and covering myself in copious sprays of an insect repellent called ‘Jungle Fresh’ (a misnomer if ever there was one), would deter even the most resolute of lovers.

Returned to the bedroom at 10pm and read till midnight. Hailu told me earlier that there was no longer a curfew in the city but they still seem to sleep early here.

Ibex Hotel, Addis Ababa

1995 August: Wednesday

9am – the day of the opening night. Breakfast in the restaurant – marmalade and toast – I presumed that you couldn’t go too far wrong with that. Unless Ethiopian marmalade contained beri-beri or something. Must check Lonely Planet.

The only other guest was a strange European dressed in a white suit and dark glasses – looked like Peter Lorre taking a break from ‘The Maltese Falcon’. We politely ignored each other.

2pm: After a morning rehearsing lines, started out on an afternoon walk. This time I turned to the right going away from the city. This road eventually ended up in the Sudan – mountains in the distance.

Passed two monks each carrying their obligatory umbrellas – the umbrella seemed to have a sacred role in the Coptic religion here. We have the crucifix – they have the umbrella. Well, why not – a damn sight more useful.

After walking for about a mile, I came across a wrecked tank, presumably a casualty of the recent conflict. It was rusty and lying on its side with the gun barrel pointing at the sky. A mangy dog scampered away from the smashed turret. A stark souvenir of war.

6pm: Woken from a doze in the hotel bedroom by wailing from a minaret. But much more so by genuinely rolling thunder. I’d never heard it like that before – it just didn’t stop. It just echoed round the circle of the sky and then started again. So that was what Bob Dylan meant by his ‘Rolling Thunder Tour’.

As Hailu said: “The Ethiopians love it. It means rain and brings life to our country. Without it, we die.”

Coptic Priests on the road, Ethiopia

Next Tuesday, April 17 – the first show in Addis.

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