Tales from Addis Abeba

Ethiopian Christmas 300 1
Between rebuilding my engine, waiting on a Sudan visa, then undergoing medical treatment to my neck, I spent over two months in Addis Abeba. Christmas - both Western and Ethiopian two weeks later - came and went. If I had to be stuck anywhere, I was delighted to have spent the time there, where the living is cheap, the food varied and good, the weather clement, and great coffee.

Bike goodies from home
A brief visit home for my parents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary, allowed me the fortuitous opportunity to source replacement parts for my poor damaged bike. After spending €450 in Joe Duffy Motors in Dublin on a new radiator, hoses and gaskets, I was very grateful for the generosity and support of a friendly BMW bike mechanic there, Aidan Myburgh, who volunteered a cylinder, cylinder head, and piston he had as salvage in his garage at home. This would have bumped the bill up into the thousands if purchased new. Aidan was extremely supportive, offering email backup as well. I was touched by the offers of help by many, some, like Aidan, who had never even met me.

Together with a set of tyres – once again generously sponsored to me by Iggy from
BMT (and a replacement visor for my excellent Arai Tour-x helmet from Extreme 45 in Swords) – I arrived back into Addis Abeba airport with my booty. Even at 3am the Customs officer's eyes lit up with excitement when he saw me, taking out his invoice book and sharpening his pencil. I had anticipated this however, and produced my Carnet – the bike’s ‘passport’ – successfully making the case the parts were only temporarily being imported into Ethiopia, and thus avoided paying duty.

Concelebrants in white 530 1

How serious is the patient’s condition?
The task was to see if the bike could be put back on the road. With the replacement cylinder, head and piston there was going to be a heart transplant. And as it was to turn out, further major surgery after that. My underlying anxiety was that the damage was too serious. I was no mechanic and there was no convenient BMW workshop to turn to. Could I find someone here competent enough to help me? I had to consider the possibility the bike was going no further. (What would be the options then – a small and cheap Chinese bike, could it get me home?) Perhaps naively, I couldn't seem to contemplate the possibility of having to give up.

I had been given the name of an Ethiopian/ Italian named Flavio who was the KTM bike dealer for the country (not a big market - he had sold the sum total of two bikes the previous year) and was, I was told, a European-trained mechanic with a workshop. That is all I needed as I had both the BMW manual, and a demonstration DVD on my laptop.

I learned from Flavio. He was careful, thorough and methodical as we slowly rebuilt the engine. I had been careful to keep all the bits and pieces together from when the cylinder had been taken out the few weeks previously. After four days of us slowly following the manual, the heart transplant was complete, and the bike was ready to start. To my amazement it did.

But then inexplicably stopped. What could it be? And a problem with the gears emerged as well – they wouldn’t engage. This wasn’t good, and now Flavio was unavailable for the next month as he had to attend to his business – guiding an Austrian group taking a tour to the south of the country on his KTM’s.

Were the engine failure and the gear problem connected? What could it be? The answers I got back from a few bike mechanics I had emailed were not encouraging, though none recognized the symptoms described. To Flavio it was a mystery. I was on my own.

Bike disembowelled 350 1
What next?
Showing the bike to the Addis police bike mechanic – I had noticed the traffic cops used old BMW R65’s – he said he couldn’t help. So it looked like I’d have to take it on myself – with some help from a friendly car workshop and one of their mechanics… and my indispensable laptop with F650 Manual and Demonstration DVD! After the previous two sessions first taking out the cylinder then replacing it, the engine was becoming less and less of a foreign country to me. After a week, we had disassembled and rebuilt the engine again (I was getting fairly familiar with this now) and sorted both problems. I remember well the feeling finally riding my bike out of the workshop back to the hotel, not quite believing it, nervously wondering would the gears stay aligned. YES! My bike was back on the road!

here for further details of the problem… and how it was solved.

Ultimate crew 530 1

Ireland Ethiopia Friendship Association
At an exhibition of Non-Governmental Organisations (NGO’s) in Ethiopia at the massive new conference centre near the airport, I wandered around getting an idea of who had a presence here. There is a mind-boggling one hundred and eighty NGO’s, some homegrown, most international. Each had a stall to explain what they did, handing out leaflets to the many young Ethiopians who I imagine would see a job with one of these outfits as the Holy Grail.

A short, balding gent in his late fifties came scuttling out from his tent and asked me, in a Dublin accent, where I was from. “From the same place as you,” I responded with a laugh. How did he know? Did I look that Irish? Founder of the Ireland Ethiopia Friendship Association, John O’Brien had been coming to Ethiopia for a number of years. When not attending to his day-job selling cars in Rathmines, he drives around Ireland in his van to collect unused wheelchairs and crutches from hospitals, fills up a container and ships it to Ethiopia. A local charity then distributes the equipment.

White beard 350 1
John introduced me to a resident Tony Hickey, who is apparently Irish (I caught one muttered claim to have been “in Burntollet in ‘69”). A tall, imperious individual with a sandy-coloured bushy moustache, I met Tony first in his restaurant, where he was a charming host, chatting in English to a small collection of ex-pats before comfortably switching to Amharic for the other customers. He’d fetched up in Eritrea thirty years ago, and one thing led to another, as he put it. During the Derg years from 1974 to their overthrow in 1991 – when Ethiopia was governed by a Stalinist type military ‘committee’ headed by the notorious Colonel Mengistu – Tony had been involved in some capacity with one of the resistance movements, the TPLF, based in Tigray in the mountains to the North. Their leader was the present Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi. Tony, now married with kids, operates as a tour consultant, facilitating groups such as film or documentary companies visiting the country. His and John’s present project, with Brody Sweeney from the successful ‘O’Brien’s Sandwich Bar’ franchise, is the ‘Connect Ethiopia initiative, an attempt to bring over successful business people in Ireland to invest or present training seminars in Ethiopia.

Ethiopia was the first country in which SELF HELP started back in 1984, so had an established track record at this stage. One of the major principles of the charity is sustainability – helping communities to help themselves - and I was keen to see, over twenty years down the line now, how effective had been their presence in Ethiopia. And so it was I found myself bumping along in one of their 4x4’s heading out to the rural area of Uruta, about three hours east of Addis.

Thank teacher 350 1
As we left the asphalt the terrain got hillier, with very poor dirt roads. Fields of ‘teff’, the grain used to make Ethiopia’s staple food, ‘injera’, stretched to the horizon. The first project we visited was a school funded by ONE51 in Ireland, and implemented by SELF HELP. Two hundred and seventy high school students from a 5-10 km radius attended the recently completed school. Previous to this, the nearest secondary school was up to 15 kms walk away - which actually meant most kids didn’t get a chance beyond primary level. I was duly impressed. The new concrete buildings with twelve classrooms, library and the rest of it appeared much needed.

After the visit I explained to Tagen, the project area manager, I wasn’t a donor come to inspect how the money was spent, that my interest was more in seeing the results of Self Help projects – after the charity had done their work and gone. How had Self Help’s presence made a difference?

Over the next number of hours we visited four what are called, ‘model’ farmers, someone motivated to participate in new initiatives, who is supported by Self Help with training, innovative ideas on marketing their produce, new basic technology, etc. Through example, this farmer then influences the community, when the benefits are demonstrated. Others take up similar practices and as a result the communities boost their output and income.

Tidy plot 530 1

The farms we called into were all characterized by an impressively tidy and organised use of the small area they had, typically about half an acre. I saw carefully drilled beds of various vegetables, deep green, lush and abundant, drip irrigated from a large covered tank dug into the earth (and fed by pedal power!); raised shade-houses for storing seed potatoes, neatly constructed using the ubiquitous eucalyptus timber; and displays of produce such as ripe tomatoes, eggs, grains and potatoes. A few of the model farmers were proud to show off their new house, larger and sturdier looking than the crumbling hut - the former home - next to it. Invited into one low house with a hardened dirt floor, we sat down and were served slabs of bread (unusual in this land of ‘injera’) on one plate, firm lumps of sticky yellow honey on another. I do not take to honey, but was hungry so tried it. Absolutely delicious – and had to ask, “where can I buy this?” The price I was told is about $3-4 a kg. The traditional beehive could typically produce 15 kgs of honey a year, the design introduced by Self Help can generate up to 120 kgs.

“We calculate about nine thousand small farmers are improving their income, following the example of the model farmers,” claims Tagen, the area project manager in his broken English. The introduced practices include buying in dairy cattle to fatten before selling on; diversification into more high value crops such as haricot beans, garlic and onions; increased yield through simple improvements such as rainwater harvesting and drip irrigation; and information on the market – what is selling and what the prices are.

SACCO 350 1
We also called into SACCO, a ‘Community Co-operative’ run by local women, and I was introduced to the Chairperson, the Treasurer, and various others with some responsibility (pictured left). My understanding is it operates along the lines of a co-operative – the members have to build up a savings record before applying for a loan – but all loans are underwritten by the community. In other words if someone defaults, can’t make his repayments, it’s his community that loses out. Which seems to me quite an incentive for responsible borrowing and use of finance.

It was very useful for me to see the SELF HELP initiatives at first hand, and to see how people’s, farmers’, lives were being improved. On such a brief visit it was of course difficult to get an idea of how sustainable these changes were, could they stand on their own feet. It appeared yes. What couldn’t be denied though was I was seeing examples of people’s lives being improved through very little money or new technology. It was rather through new farming practices, and gearing for what would sell at the market thus improving income and moving the family away from a subsistence lifestyle.

What couldn’t be observed or measured however, which I imagine is a huge benefit from the support Self Help gives to these communities, is the hope that improvement brings. That the farmer can provide a life for his family.

Tidy plot3 530 3

One Laptop per Child (www.Laptop.org)
While staying for a short while in Mr Martin’s Cozy Place, a quiet, clean and comfortable guesthouse in Addis, a cross section of ex-pats passed through the place. The Danish policeman and his Dutch political consultant colleague on R&R from duty in southern Sudan; the American college students who’d spent the past month camping in the Bale mountains to the south studying the behavior of Gelada baboons; Canadian Bob the recently retired UN Army officer who loved Ethiopia so much he was back on holiday; and the usual variety of NGO staff, usually young, maybe German, and I'm sure, well intentioned. With whom I didn’t make as much effort to mix as perhaps I should.

Three characters that I’m glad I did engage with were Horst, Marco and Dieter, ‘Media Systems Design’ students from Darnstad University in Germany doing research on the introduction of the
One Laptop per Child (OLpC) initiative in Ethiopia. Through Sean my brother, I had been aware of the development of a lightweight and robust laptop for use by impoverished communities around the world, which could get its energy from being wound-up with a little handle, or paddle. From an information leaflet, I read the government here is aiming to provide every one of the seventeen million primary schoolchildren with one of these laptops.

Cool in white 250 1
The one I was shown was a bubblegum green in colour and about the size of a slim lunchbox. It looked like a child’s toy, which apparently is exactly the idea. It had to appeal to children. “And as well as being tough enough to be dropped from a height of two metres, it is water and dust proof too,” claimed Horst.

I got a quick demonstration in the direct Addis sunlight, and was amazed at the clarity on the swivel screen. Incredibly the pdf file I was looking at was as clear as a written page. Marco pointed out the camera to me. “Connectivity is important. Linked through the school server, the kids can use the webcam to chat with each other, work on projects together, or share information.”

The name Alan Kay, Sqeek, Etoys and Logo were mentioned, which went over my head. Though software is still very thin on the ground for this laptop, what I was shown using a turtle motif, seemed to my uninformed mind ideally geared for children. It avoided linear progression and written instructions, going more for more obvious cause and effect features, each turtle leg for instance a different basic function, which in turn offered further options when selected by the easy-to-use trackpad. (This reminded me of the successful approach the brother Sean had emphasized all those years ago in developing Pisa Graphics – the more intuitive ‘building block’ approach.)

The whole concept of OLpC was designed by American computer icon Nicholas Negroponte with Medialab and the MIT. Google, Ebay and Quanta, a Taiwanese company responsible for building three quarters of all PC’s sold, are also involved, in an attempt to make information technology more widely accessible in poor countries. It is a non-profit project and has been termed the $100 laptop. And what the guys were explaining to me was that the idea behind this was not “do kids need laptops. But do kids need education. This is not a Laptop project,” emphasized Marco. “It’s a tool for education.”

Young celebrants 530 1

This was all very exciting. Of course as fast as the guys were explaining the idea, my sceptical mind was coming up with questions.

What about security? Typically if someone gets something for nothing, value isn’t put on it. And what’s to stop the recipients – or rather their parents or siblings – selling the laptops?

“We like to think of this in a another way. For example instead of concentrating on security tricks – of course there are a few – we hope it will be identified with kids, preventing adults from openly having one. And most of the technology is solid state so cannot be cannibalised. Anyway,” Marco added with a smile, “as an internet tool it can only be used within range of the server which will be at the school.

Development Aid has a long history of technology given to needy communities, left rusting away as there was no-one trained to fix it/ too expensive for parts/ the driver left the area. The old question of sustainability – who maintains or repairs it?

“90% of problems can be fixed easily, you know, by one of the kids in class with an aptitude for it maybe. Could be re-attach a loose wire for example. Look, this is all there is inside,” Horst demonstrated by opening up the laptop. “And 9% of problems can be fixed by a hardware technician in the nearest town, or someone with some training. Besides,” he smiled wryly, “this is not like commercially produced PC’s nowadays. These are not designed with a short life in mind.”

And government. I had been in enough oil and mineral rich, but poverty stricken countries (I was thinking of Angola as an example) where funding for Education had understandably a fairly low priority. An educated, informed electorate might just not accept how the country was being run.

“Yes, that is a good point,” agreed Horst. “We don’t know how many countries will take this thing on. It looks like Ethiopia is committing to it. I think the Ministry of Capacity Building – its not Education that is looking after the project – realizes information technology is fast advancing. If they don’t do something soon they will lose too much ground.” He paused before adding that Peru and Bolivia had introduced the scheme, and the OLpC Foundation were eagerly awaiting a report on its success.

It seemed the IT industry surely would see the mass introduction of cheap laptops as a threat to their potential markets?

“Of course they can’t be seen to object openly to something like this that benefits a child’s education. But I will tell you what happened in Nigeria,” said Horst. “Nigeria had ordered one million laptops. Then after the recent elections Intel and Microsoft put pressure on the new government and the order was cancelled. Microsoft are now offering them their product called, I believe, ‘Classmate’.”

So of course politics and the amoral, ugly world of big business will play its part. But to me this scheme sounded so unbelievably positive with so much potential. The latest information technology becoming accessible to the most disenfranchised. Was this fantasyland? What were the downsides? Was it that simple? Probably not. I recalled one of the basic principles about Development Aid I was becoming more convinced about - that African problems need to be solved by Africans themselves. Not by Europeans coming over with good intentions and technology. The solution is not
owned then by the local community and does not stand a fair chance of succeeding.

Where does OLpC fit in there? What about support? Its one thing providing all these laptops, but who is going to write the software, bring the teachers up to speed, show the kids how to use it?

I liked Marco’s response. “We also think like that. We are not here to sell the idea. The Ethiopian government and GTZ (the German development agency) are the principal parties there. We are only here to listen to teachers, parents, show it to kids and hear what they say. We say to people, this is a tool. It can be used in many ways. How do you want to use it? The day we arrive, we lend it to the boy of the hotel manager, and ten minutes later he is an expert!” He laughed.

“Also to answer your question. You know this piece of plastic is useless without software. Well the operating system is based on Linux, which, because it is open source means anyone can write software for local use. It would be nice to see software developers in each country designing programs for use there. And of course making money from that. It is just the Foundation that supplies the laptops that is non-profit. It can be a
big market.”

An Addis Abeba story.
Rahel 350 1
And a strange story from Addis Abeba, an extraordinary coincidence. Shortly before leaving, I was pickpocketed. In over twenty years traveling, this was the first time I had been successfully targeted. (I recall one time in a market in China, managing to grab a suspect, search his pocket and retrieve my money before he slunk away, with a “nearly” smirk, into the crowd. Another occasion was in Addis’s notorious ‘Merkato’, a marketplace hundreds of years old, kilometres of narrow walkways, a warren of covered stalls and milling crowds. A rough looking fellow bumped into me, grabbed my hand in apology, but didn’t let go, holding it firmly. Suspecting something, I yanked my hand free, looking around. He and his pal behind me melted off into the throng.)

It has to be said Addis Abeba has a reputation for being one of the safest capitals in the world. I have felt absolutely no sense of threat walking around the city. One of my first nights here walking back to the hotel in the early hours, I was passed by a European man in sports gear and shorts, jogging! I didn’t stop him to ask, but presumed it suited him better with empty streets and no traffic fumes.

This story starts on a Friday morning. Strolling down the road from a visit to the neurologist concerning my neck problem, I passed a pretty girl, half turning towards her with my rigid supportive collar and smiled. She gave me a dazzling smile back. Not realising it was probably at the sight of my awkwardness and the strange white neck collar, I began chatting. Fifty metres further she reached her destination, a pharmacy, and I asked if she’d like to go out for something to eat maybe the following evening. She gave me her phone number, which I saved into my mobile, and I continued on with a spring in my step. Wow, I was thinking, she is lovely.

An hour or two later I was at one of only a handful of ATM’s in the city as I knew I was running low on cash. My wallet was missing. Patting my other pocket for my mobile phone I discovered with a sinking realisation I had been pickpocketed. It didn’t take long recounting events of the morning to figure out where. Earlier I had hopped into a minibus taxi. (All respectable tourists would have been warned to stay away from these forms of public transport. Usually a Toyota Hi-Ace kitted out with bench seats, up to fourteen passengers can be squeezed in. ‘Contract’ taxis, the regular ones for hire, were not expensive – an average of about $3-4 for a ten or fifteen minute trip – but I had been using the minibus taxis most of the time as they were much cheaper.)

In this one there were a handful of other passengers, and I was directed to the seat opposite the sliding door. The ‘conductor’, the guy who yells out the window touting for passengers and collects the fares, was trying with difficulty to slide the door closed and perched on the edge of my seat to get a better angle, shifting me closer to my neighbor. At this stage the minibus was apparently stalling, doing little kangaroo jumps. I looked at my neighbor with bewilderment. One side of the metal strut he was holding across the back of the drivers seat, came away in his hand. ‘Ah, here!” I said to the conductor. “I’m getting out. Warraj!” and good-naturedly demanded my 10 cents back, bemused at the strange carriage. (I subsequently heard of John O’Brien having exactly the same experience a week later, losing a lot more than me. “Jayz, they should be brain surgeons! I didn’t feel a thing.”)

Luckily for me it was more an inconvenience, there could have been more cash in the wallet. What really annoyed me though was losing the mobile phone. Probably the only time I had met an attractive woman in circumstances like that, and now the possibility of following up the meeting was gone. I couldn’t believe it. I even went back to where I’d last seen her – Rahel was her name – and questioned the pharmacist with no luck. Resignedly I accepted I had lost the phone with all my numbers and began checking out the price of a replacement. Fortunately a replacement SIM card was free.

Downtown Addis 530 1

The following day Saturday I accepted the invitation of Rene, a Canadian overland biker I had met in Kenya, to meet another traveler in the busy Piazza part of town, five kilometers away. After chatting a few hours, we left the sheltered hotel grounds in search of some lunch, strolling a few blocks downhill until we came upon a suitable spot. On the return, I told the lads to go on as I was going to check out a couple of mobile phone shops nearby, that would be cheaper than the Bole Rd part of town where I had been looking the previous day.

After looking at a few new models, I asked were there any second hand phones, and was directed over to a stall opposite where an assistant took out a white plastic bag from under the counter and pulled out a few. “Any Nokia?” I asked as I still had my Nokia charger. He rummaged some more.
And pulled out my phone. I knew it was my phone as the original cracked case had been replaced in Kenya with a gaudy orange and yellow one. And I recognized my original keypad, which had been left in.

Not quite believing I was holding my phone, I told the guy it was mine, pointing out the replacement case. Now, how was I now going to retreat to the safety of the main street! By this stage two of his pals were beside me, so affecting some certainty and assertion, I beckoned them “Come, come. We go to police,” making my way to the exit. On the street we were joined by another one of the crew who blocked my way, insisting we wait while he called the person who sold them the phone. “I am very angry,” I retorted. “If I see that man who stole my phone, I will…” and I made a gesture of holding him by his shirt collar with my fist. “Come, come,” I repeated. “We go to police,” as I turned confidently on my heel and headed uphill towards the main thoroughfare and the crowds. Striding along, I couldn’t casually glance back as the neck collar was too restrictive. I felt like a horse with blinkers not knowing what was behind me.

Of course reaching the Piazza there were no police to be seen, and I hurried in the direction of the hotel where the lads were, eventually pausing to turn around. No sign of being followed. A few minutes later I excitedly burst into the hotel, and related the story to the disbelieving two. In a city of six million people, miles from where my phone had been stolen, it had been offered to me by chance!

Later that evening over dinner, Rahel, a student nurse, looking even prettier than I had remembered, happened to mention her twenty sixth birthday on February 25
th. The same date as mine! What was going on here?

Addis church 530 1

Further obstacles to the journey continuing
Applying for a Sudan visa was the next hurdle. Notoriously unpredictable, I was counting on my nationality being in my favour. After getting a Letter of Introduction from the nice folks in the Irish Embassy requesting a Transit visa for their citizen, an Egyptian visa (painless) to show I would be leaving Sudan, various photocopies and photos, my application was accepted. Then after a week long Muslim holiday, then Christian holidays, and a number of further visits to the embassy – not always easy, there was nearly a riot one busy Monday with a charge from a large crowd of Ethiopian hopefuls beaten back out the high iron gate with batons, punches and kicks – and paying my sixty dollars, I received the visa.

Christmas 530 1

However in the meantime I had developed a debilitating pain in my neck (receiving a few reminders from friends that this had always been apparent!). And it worryingly didn’t go away, making even sleep difficult. (A lovely Christmas Day pictured above, spent with good friends Guy, Marleen and Rene, great food and decent South African wine. The neck problem makes it look like I have a poker up my backside.) The constant nuisance of the neck, and not being able to ride the bike, was becoming demoralising. Eventually, after a few weeks visiting a chiropractor, physiotherapy sessions and many massages – all to no avail - Dr Awul, the head of the Self Help office in Addis got me in to see Professor Rada, a personal friend and the most eminent radiologist in the country I was told.

After an MRI scan, Rada’s recommendation was to give up the journey and return to Ireland for more specialised attention. And again I was on the long flight back to Dublin, luckily paid for by my
Travel Insurance. In Dublin, the news wasn’t good. An injury to the fifth and sixth vertebrae that had put me out of rugby over twenty years ago, had been aggravated by a year riding on African roads, damaging the nerves feeding my left arm. I was put on a course of drugs over the next few weeks and told that was the end of the bike trip for me. I took the radiologist’s recommendation seriously, but somehow could not accept this was the end of the road (though much thanks to Drs Niall Tubridy, Sean Dudeney, and Risteard O’Liada in St Vincents Hospital).

I pursued any avenues of opinion I could until eventually one respected orthopaedic consultant (to whom I am so grateful) stepped aside from his cautious professional position and said to me, “This is important to you isn’t it.” He knew I was going to try and finish the journey anyway. All I was looking for was some reassurance that I wasn’t heading for serious long-term damage. “Go ahead,” he said. “But be very careful. Don’t come off the bike.” It was probably unlikely I could avoid that, but I had got what I was looking for. It was February 25
th, my birthday.

On The Road Again...
After the months of uncertainty I was elated. This was the first positive news since I rode the repaired bike out of the workshop in Addis Abeba two months previously. James Allen, the Leinster Rugby physio, readily grasped the situation and with a reassuring manner, gave me an intensive program to follow over the following month to build up again and fortify the neck and core muscles that would support me. And before I knew it, I was back in Addis Abeba making preparations to continue the journey after a long break. I was raring to get back on the road.

Addis priests 530 1