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Live Aid anniversary: Unknown Ethiopia

July 15, 2010


This week is 25 years since a bunch of bouffant-haired pop stars staged the most ambitious concerts of all time to help millions of starving people who had never heard of them.

Live Aid, organised to raise money to stop Ethiopia’s catastrophic 1984/85 famine, was a huge success by some measures. An audience of more than 1.5 billion tuned in around the world to watch simultaneous live concerts from London and Philadelphia — an incredible technological feat for the time — and a staggering $230 million was raised for the emergency.

The world had never seen an outpouring of charity — of compassion — like it. Many of the people who handed over their scarce cash had never even heard of Ethiopia. One elderly woman gave organiser Bob Geldof her wedding ring after telling him she had nothing else.

It is estimated that 1 million Ethiopians died back then because they didn’t have enough food to eat. Most experts agree that Live Aid, and the Band Aid single that preceded it, saved many, many more from meeting the same fate.

Others are critical of how the money was spent and wonder why Ethiopia still relies on aid. Last year 13 million people from a population of 80 million were fed with foreign money. The fact that there are now 80 million Ethiopians (almost double the number in 1985) is part of the problem.

But things have improved, too. A “safety net” scheme that acts like social welfare for people whose harvests often fail should ensure that what happened in 1984/1985 is never repeated. The economy is growing. And a middle class is slowly but surely emerging.

Most Ethiopians, and development experts, agree it’s time to move away from the food aid model and become self-sufficient. Investment in developing countries like Ethiopia is now considered by many the best way for people to pull themselves from poverty.

DAVOS/AFRICAStreet hawkers walk past office blocks under construction in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa January 27, 2010. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

But there will be many more detailed articles written this week about the famine, its legacy and the complex challenges Ethiopia — a country with huge potential — still faces. That’s important. People need to know. But one of the things I most often hear from Ethiopian friends is that they are frustrated that starvation is all most foreigners know their country for.

So, on this terrible anniversary, here are just some of the things Ethiopians tell me they wish people knew. And, in a week in which the gut-churning images and footage from the 1980s will be published and screened again and again, some alternative images and video clips of Ethiopia — the type all too rarely seen outside of the country.


* It’s green. No, really. That’s one of the things that most surprises foreigners when they come here. Ethiopia is a huge country with both striking green highlands and parched lowlands, hosting many different climates. A fledgling horticulture industry is doing well, with exports of flowers, fruit and vegetables to Europe, the Middle East and Asia growing every year.

ETHIOPIA-FLOWERS/A woman harvests roses in a greenhouse at the ET Highland Flora flower farm just outside Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa,  February 12, 2008.  REUTERS/Michael Tsegaye

* It is unique. Ethiopians are fiercely proud that theirs was the only African country to successfully repel European colonisers. That lack of foreign interference has perhaps helped the country to retain its distinctive character. Its languages, traditional dress, music and foods are found nowhere else. The staple food is a sort of spongy pancake called injera.

ETHIOPIA-MILLENNIUM/Women dance in Addis Ababa. REUTERS/Radu Sigheti

* The country also follows a unique calendar that squeezes 13 months into every year, and it entered the 21st century seven years after the rest of the world with huge celebrations in 2007. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi called it a “glorious new page” in Ethiopian history.

ETHIOPIA-MILLENNIUMFergie of the Black Eyed Peas entertains the crowd during celebrations for the Ethiopian Millennium in Addis Ababa, September 12, 2007. REUTERS/Barry Malone

ETHIOPIA-MILLENNIUMPeople cheer behind a security line as the Black Eyed Peas entertain the crowd during celebrations of the Ethiopian Millennium in Addis Ababa, September 12, 2007.  REUTERS/Barry Malone

* Its distinctive brand of fusion jazz is going through something of a revival, too. Here’s a wonderful performance by Mulatu Astatke, often called “the father of Ethio-jazz”.

* It has 11th Century churches carved by angels. Or so Ethiopians will tell you. Legend has it that the fabled, red rock-hewn churches in the town of Lalibela were sculpted after God ordered King Lalibela to build churches better than any in the world and dispatched the angels to help him. The 13 churches are now a UNESCO world heritage site and well worth a visit.

ETHIOPIA/People pray around Saint Giorgis, one of the 13 rock-hewn churches in Lalibela, September 16, 2007, an ancient site that draws tens of thousands of foreign tourists every year. REUTERS/Radu Sigheti

* It is said to be the birthplace of coffee. The story goes, that more than a thousand years ago, a young Ethiopian goat herder named Kaldi was astonished to see his goats frolicking through the night, standing on their hind legs and generally acting crazy after eating some berries. Curious Kaldi munched on a few himself and, suitably exhilarated, ran home to tell his wife of his discovery. The pair then presented the berries to a monk and told him of their strange effect. “It’s the devil’s work!” the monk shouted and threw the beans in the fire.

The resulting beautiful aroma drew other monks who took the now roasted beans and, adding them to hot water, invented coffee. Ethiopia is now Africa’s biggest exporter of the bean.

SCHROEDER AFRICAFormer German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder (L) receives traditionally brewed coffee from an Ethiopian woman during a visit to the German Church School of Addis Ababa on January 19, 2004. REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay

* It has one of Africa’s most successful airlines. Ethiopian Airlines flies to more African destinations than any other and also flies to Europe, the U.S, China and India. It has stayed profitable while other international carriers are foundering.

* It is a great place to come on holiday. There are ancient religious sites, untouched areas roamed by nomadic tribes, great bird watching trips, trekking holidays through stunning scenery and more than 3,000 years of fascinating history to explore.

ETHIOPIA-TOURISM/Ethiopian tour guides chat at a valley in the remote Mequat Mariam, northern Ethiopia, November 29, 2008. REUTERS/Barry Malone

Have a look at this video from Tesfa, a charity that that brings tourists to Ethiopia for trekking holidays. Locals, who manage the business and earn money from the tourists, then take over. They look after the visitors as they trek from one place to another, each village providing a service, with a donkey to carry their luggage and a guide to come along.

* After the discovery of 3-million-year-old skeleton named “Lucy” in 1974, Ethiopians started to call their country the cradle of humanity. Then “Ardi”, a 4.4 million-year-old hominoid, was found in 1994, reinforcing their claim.

ETHIOPIA-FOSSIL/A group of Spanish tourists view a replica and reconstruction of the remains of a more than 3-million-year-old female hominid known as “Lucy” at the National Museum in Addis Ababa, August 7, 2007. REUTERS/Barry Malone

* It is the source of the Blue Nile which, along with the White Nile, is one of two Nile tributaries. But it is Ethiopia that provides 86 percent of Nile waters – something Ethiopians are immensely proud of. They call the river “a gift of Ethiopia”.

ETHIOPIA-HUNGER/Ethiopian farmer Eshete Eneyew threshes maize in Abay, north of Addis Ababa, October 21, 2009. REUTERS/Barry Malone

* It produces some of the world’s best athletes. Actually, you probably did know that. But what you might not know is that, here in Ethiopia, they are worshipped like Gods. And the Daddy of them all, and arguably the greatest distance runner of all time, Haile Gebreselassie, is a respected ‘elder’ and often steps in to help solve political disputes. He is also one of the most successful businessmen in Ethiopia, employing more than 600 people. The charismatic legend — who never stops smiling — just opened a hotel (the Haile Resort) by a lake near Addis Ababa. ‘Haile’ is to be emblazoned on a nearby hill, Hollywood sign-style.

ATHLETICS-MARATHON/BERLINEthiopia’s marathon runner Haile Gebreselassie crosses the finish line to set a new world record at the 35th Berlin marathon in Berlin September 28, 2008. Gebrselassie clocked 2:03.59. REUTERS/Tobias Schwarz

This list is by no means meant to be exhaustive – it’s simply a brief snapshot of a complex and fascinating country. Ethiopians, and friends of Ethiopia, are welcome to add more things they think people should know in the comments section below.


We agree 100%, this is just a snapshot. Ethiopia is a very fascinating country and people of genuine hospitality. Friends of Ethiopia Global Network -Ethiopia/245347308562

Posted by friendsofethiop | Report as abusive

Some people (mainly men) are getting in touch to say I’ve left out that Ethiopia is home to the world’s most beautiful women. Quite right. I apologise for the inexcusable omission.

Posted by barrymalone | Report as abusive

Ethiopians living in Ethiopia (as opposed to disgruntled and embittered exiles), business people, investors etc like to talk the country up, and emphasise the positive.

It is unfortunate that most aid agencies do the opposite, talk the country down, and emphasise the negative, since their bread and butter depends on creating and perpetuating these types of images.

Posted by hayahulet22 | Report as abusive

The initiation is very much appreciated. I trust this is an introductory part of Ethiopia, as there are a lot to be shown to the international community to know about the country. For sure, I’ll be part of those who contribute to this page about Ethiopia. Thanks

Posted by Wossen | Report as abusive

Ethiopia is one of the fastest growing countries in the world as well.

Posted by mamina | Report as abusive

Love it! What a great article (and great research for when I’m up to ‘E’ in my A country in Africa’ series.

Posted by lyrian | Report as abusive

Barry already hit many of my favorite aspects of Ethiopia, but here are a few more. The traditional dancing is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Each tribe has a different style. My favorites are the chest pumping and shoulder dancing, which I’m pretty sure are Amharic. They’re incredible to watch and pretty funny to try. I’ve also often noticed a seemingly innate poise that many Ethiopians possess, particularly in women. Not only are they exceptionally beautiful, but many carry themselves with a wonderful, natural grace. Lastly, I’ve met people who have made such an impression on me that I will always remember them: Bishop Tesfaselassie of Adigrat is the wisest, most well-spoken man I’ve ever met; Muhammed stunned me with his joyful eagerness to shine shoes to pay for his education, having jumped four grades in two years; Teklu Hadgu has got to be the spryest 88-year-old farmer on earth with a very green thumb; and my Ethiopian colleagues always amazed me with their commitment to development work, their extraordinary successes, and their joyous welcomes and laughter.

Posted by DebbieDeVoe | Report as abusive

Though not from the Muslim community, which accounts more than 40% of Ethiopian population, let me add to the list

Al-Nejashi Mosque, Negash, Tigrai region: Ethiopia

The historically significant mosque, Al-Nejashi Mosque in Negash, Ethiopia, is built
in the town of the famous King Nejashi, who gave asylum to the early followers of Islam
when they were being perescuted in Makkah.

The kind King Nejashi resisted the attempts of the Quraysh, who tried in vain
to have the Muslims deported to Makkah, and instead gave them
security and a homeland in Ethiopia.

The old medieval walled city of Harar
A city of mosques, minarets, and markets, a center of Muslim learning, a city which once struck its own local currency, and still has its own unique language has long been regarded by the outside world as a city of mystery and romance. Situated on a high escarpment overlooking surrounding plains, which extend as far as the eye can reach, it enjoys a balmy climate and a fascinating history.
Its a blessing to share your values without making a religion an issue of dissagreement. You can learn this from Ethiopians.

Posted by Biruk | Report as abusive

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