[From contemporary African diaries]
1995 August: Friday
5pm: Hailu and I left the National Theatre and struggled back through the beggars to the taxi rank – not even his police status could keep this lot off. Drove back out of the centre. As we stopped at some traffic lights, I raised my camera to take a photo of street life. Four men started to run towards us shouting angrily.
Hailu hissed: “Put the camera away.”
It turned out that people in Addis were paranoid about cameras in cars because Mengistu’s secret police used to spy on them this way. Thankfully the lights changed and we shot off.
7pm: While setting out the props in the restaurant, I had a word with Magoo Thatcher and told him to ask Muddy Waters to lay off on the laughter tonight. Returned to the bedroom with the information that I would definitely be able to start on time at 8 30 this evening.
8 50pm: Hailu arrived to say that the Poet Laureate had not turned up but he thought we ought to start. As I waited in the wings, I felt very tired – almost rocky, in fact. My head swam a couple of times. God, I just hoped I didn’t fold up on stage. About fifty audience, including a group of whites at the central table.
Braced up to the music cue and strolled out. After an initial stumble, it went fairly well – a bit fast but not too bad considering. A couple of Ethiopians sloped off but the rest seemed hooked. The ending was damned good and there was a lot of applause on the curtain. I swept out and got a ‘Too very good’ from the receptionist.
As I changed and cleaned up, the tiredness returned with a vengeance. ‘Doctor Theatre’, that blessed surge of concentrated adrenaline that can conquer virtually any physical problem, lasted the length of the performance but no longer. As opposed to all the thespian drivel about not whistling or mentioning Macbeth, Doctor Theatre is the one true myth of the stage and I was very grateful to it tonight.
10 30: Sat and drank beer in the bar with Hailu and Magoo Thatcher. One of the Somali bodyguards nodded to me. I smiled and gave him a thumbs up sign. He didn’t look too pleased about it. The thought suddenly hit me about what the thumbs up sign might mean here. Had I just implied to a war lord’s bodyguard that I intended to allow my camel to have unnatural intercourse with his grandfather? Thankfully, Hailu said that it was OK.
10 45pm: A tall, elegantly dressed man invited me to join his table. His name was Levon Fiacci and was half Ethiopian and half Italian. His companions were a Canadian couple, a Dutch woman, a Kenyan official and his young son, a Libyan businessman, and an attractive brunette English woman aged about 22. It was difficult to talk because the folkloric group (no dancers this time) had let loose a barrage of music from about twelve feet away. The brunette signalled to me to sit by her to chat.
It turned out that she was doing a Ph. D at Magdalene College, Oxford – this hotel seemed to have more Oxbridge guests than the Garrick Club. She told me that she’d just had her first bath in six months. She’d been living rough in the desert near the Sudanese border studying the tribes and had just arrived back today.
She complained that the modern world was threatening the old way of life. It appeared that there was one nomadic tribe who for centuries had been moving from summer encampments to winter ones on a specific day of each year. It was based on a social and religious pattern. This year, however, they had delayed their departure for one week – so that they could catch the last episode of the TV series ‘Dallas’.
She took a drink then added:
“It’s extraordinary what you are doing here. It’s strange enough doing it as a lone visitor but you’re doing it as a lone performer as well. You’re not only coping with culture shock but you’re actually giving the Ethiopians some culture shock in return. I was amazed when I heard you speak about religion in the way you did. Right here – in the midst of so many churches and so many religious fanatics. You really are courageous.”
Oh ye gods and little fishes! I took a hasty gulp of whisky to soothe my suddenly rattled system. In London if a civil servant tells a British politician that his decision is ‘courageous’, it is Whitehall code for suicidal. I muttered something about ‘professionalism’ and nervously scanned the room for monks or mullahs. Bloody hell, what had I walked into now?
Hailu signalled me back to the bar:
“We need to work out the money with the management.”
He grumbled that Magoo Thatcher was deliberately delaying us so that we would drink here rather than going to the Karamara Club. I was more worried about assassins.
Levon Fiacci and his group rose and waved farewell. Hailu said that maybe we should repeat the shows in October when most of the ex-pats return. Then he shook his head and said that he didn’t think that we’d make much money this time. We agreed that we were doing it for the sake of Art. I told him:
“In any case, I have already made a large profit. In happiness.”
As I stood to leave, one of the waitresses walked up and smiled.
“I love your play, sir. For three nights you have turned our restaurant into a palace.”
She kissed my cheek, then turned and left. I was really touched.
As I passed the hotel office, the receptionist signalled for me to go inside. Moges Kifle, Magoo Thatcher, the Old Man of the Mountains, and the Heavy Accountant were all sitting at a table staring up at me. Hailu followed and we waited in silence. This was the real summit meeting. The Sacred Amharic Ceremony of the Passing of the Money. Kifle watched beadily while there was much muttering between Magoo and the Heavy Accountant. Finally the Accountant turned to me and announced:
“999 and 70.”
Did I owe them or did they owe me? It turned out to be my profit. Almost £500 – much larger than expected, plus they had given me free hotel accommodation and food. Very relieved.
I thanked them for their hospitality and for ‘sticking out their necks’ in presenting the shows in the first place. The meeting broke up with great aplomb and goodwill. The Old Man of the Mountains raised his tribal stick and gave me some sort of blessing. At least I think he did?
12 40am: Felt absolutely shattered and crashed out on the bed. Spent the night with guts ache, a sort of fever, and an utter inability to sleep. Bloody nuisance – many trips to the lavatory – slipped into a sort of malarial doze at 7am.
1995 August: Saturday
8am: Woken by the return of Hailu. Struggled to get up – only one hour’s sleep and I had to get to Zimbabwe today, feeling dreadful.
Oddly though, after half an hour, my condition stabilised a bit. Made it to breakfast but could only down mineral water. As I packed, I suddenly remembered the large stash of Ethiopian money in my pockets. What the hell to do with it? The currency regulations were so draconian that I dare not smuggle it out. Plus the fact that the birr was worthless outside Ethiopia. And the hotel had no hard currencies with which I could exchange. Sent some cash to the hotel staff to share, and gave Hailu some more of it.
9 30am: Collected my gear and carried it out into the compound. Looked around for a taxi but found that Magoo Thatcher had provided me with the hotel Landrover and driver free of charge – a real honour.
As I waited for it, a shoeshine boy aged about eleven wandered up and gazed imploringly. I nodded and he knelt in front with his brushes. It then struck me.
As he gave my shoes a final polish and stood with his hand out, I passed over my remaining 800 birr. His eyes shot wide open, as did his mouth – he stood stock-still in shock. It was about the equivalent of five years’ shoe-shining.
Maybe if I came back in a decade I’d find that he was the owner of the Oscar Wilde Memorial Shoe-shine Emporium?
Gave a last look at the Ibex Hotel – I would miss it. Drove off and turned right on to the Bole road.
10am: Arrived at the airport – not so crowded or as scary as Monday – I’d acclimatised. We headed through the first three preliminary ticket checks as Hailu waved his police pass. At the next check in the departure lounge, he got some hassle from two soldiers – this was the limit of his police powers.
I turned to shake his hand. A tear trickled down the side of his nose. He grasped me in a crushing bear-hug, turned quickly, and walked away.
And if anybody thinks that being wept over by an Ethiopian policeman isn’t moving, I can assure them it is. Passed on through the check-in.
11 30am: Deciphered a garbled announcement and headed on through two more checks. Eight so far – not the easiest place to stow away. At one of them, I was asked whether I was carrying any money in birr. Rather ironic in the circumstances.
12 30pm: The plane took off an hour late. To be fair, Heathrow had its delays as well, but not when there was only one plane in the airport and a clear blue sky above.
Settled into the seat. It had been too helter-skelter to really take in much about Ethiopia. All the same, in a very short time, I’d felt a real affection for the Ethiopians – they were a good crowd.
Addis had been a financial blank, a useful acting warm-up, and an unforgettable experience.
Ho hum, in the words of Bob Geldorf after Live Aid. Oddly enough, I hadn’t met anybody here who had ever heard of him.
Watched as the roofs of Addis Ababa faded away.
[The Poet Laureate Tsegaye Gebre-Medhin, left Ethiopia for New York in 1998 to undergo dialysis treatment. He died there in 2006 without returning to his homeland. In 2002 one of his poems was chosen by the African Union as its anthem.]