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Twentieth Century Africa Travelogue

Volume 16, Issue 2  | 
Published 06/11/2019
Diana Lee-Smith

Diana Lee-Smith is a Kenyan who has lived and worked here for the last 50 years as architect, activist and international development consultant

June 2019

Ethiopia 1983-1985

Roots of my African Travelogue

Crossing the border between Kenya and Ethiopia was a revelation in the 1980s. It meant going from an ex-colony still dominated by British culture to an African state with a three-thousand year literate history.  Ethiopian self-assuredness is legendary and seems to be due to Ethiopians having never been colonised (except for about six years of Italian military domination in the mid-twentieth century).

As I went to work each day at the Ethiopian Science and Technology Commission I got a taste of it. The boss there had a chronic cough and I learned many people in Addis Ababa suffered the effects of living in a bowl of mountains where the air settles and a cement factory was also located. I asked about this on a subsequent trip and was told simply “We moved it”. This was clear thinking and capacity for action I was not used to coming from Kenya.

My first trip there lit the fuse in my mind that someday I would have to write this travelogue. It has taken over thirty years to get around to it. I think documenting everyday observations can counter the dominant narrative on Africa. Piecemeal and personal, my travelogue seems to me like a picture emerging from the scattered bits of a jig-saw puzzle.   

Responding to Ethiopian history

Christianity took root early in Ethiopia, whose written history pre-dates it. King Solomon’s liaison with the Queen of Sheba (recorded in ancient religious books) is alive in modern Ethiopians’ awareness.

Agriculture has been practiced there for millennia, coffee being one of many crops that were first domesticated from the wild. I found people roasting, brewing and drinking it in a traditional domestic ceremony, with sweet grass spread on the floor.   The traditional food, spiced with berberi, is eaten from a common dish, and paintings depicting these customs are popular and part of the culture, as is weaving on looms that produce the cotton cloth people have worn for centuries.

Typical entrance to a KEBELE in 1983. These were the revolutionary neighbourhhood governing units that ran everything including justice, food access and education.

I was leading an evaluation of Canadian support to agricultural and other research. The Canadians refused to support research on improving the staple food, teff, a tiny grain that is fermented and eaten daily. “No-one else eats this except Ethiopians so it’s not worth it” they said. I met the woman who actually did the genetic research that was carried out anyway by Ethiopians. She shrugged when I asked her what she thought about that. Some years later when I was in Canada visiting the same organisation I noted that teff products were being sold in the shop where we got our food, right outside their head office.

 My remit to evaluate research effectiveness included a social science project to build capacity for population surveys. There had never been an Ethiopian census. Two graduates were supposed to get PhDs in the subject but neither completed so the project was judged a failure according to the files in Ottawa.

I was using a method of collaborative self-evaluation however. And I quickly found out that, while not completing their degrees, the two had in fact carried out the first Ethiopian census. It had been thought that the national population was about 30 million, but they showed it was actually 40 million. So the project was reported in the evaluation as a success. But the dramatically growing population (despite the famine) had other effects in Ethiopia.

There was a Marxist revolution in 1974, the main outcome of which was that land in Ethiopia was handed to the farmers who work it. This followed centuries of rule by feudal landowners. The Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown, imprisoned and killed in his palace, though he remains alive as a living god to Rastafarians. Many Rastafarians, the majority from Jamaica, later migrated to Ethiopia where they were given land by subsequent government action.

Experience of a revolution

I worked with people living through the post-revolutionary period, when the schools were open non-stop, changing the literacy rate from six to sixty percent in under a decade. If a literate person failed to show up for their shift of teaching they were imprisoned in the make-shift cells that local revolutionary committees ran. “A couple of years back she would have been shot” I was told of a colleague who failed to show up one day because she had been jailed. She had a cold so missed her shift teaching in the middle of the night. Later, long after other traces of the revolution were swamped by waves of neo-liberalism, the new local government structures of kebeles remain in the country. 

That is how Ethiopia exited centuries of feudalism and military rule by powerful families. This military control of the Empire was based on ethnic divisions being unified through agreement among the elites. Ethiopia has about 88 different ethnic groups and the coming of literacy after the 1974 revolution created a new awareness.

I witnessed the reign of terror – but also hope – that accompanied that. I met the ex-Mayoress of Addis Ababa who had been imprisoned for two years. From the Emperor’s family, she ran projects in the Addis slums after her release, and was extremely effective in bringing about change there. Her name is Jenber Teffera. I publicised her work through our Africa-wide Settlements Information Network Africa (SINA) and we remained friends.

The history of writing

Visiting a camp feeding people after the 1984 famine I also witnessed children being taught to read under trees out in the open. I was intrigued by the structure of the alphabet used and have tried to find out its origins. The children seemed to be learning many letters or sounds and I saw they were arranged in seven columns. There were 26 rows for the basic letters or sounds and each was modified across the seven columns, creating 182 letters (called syllographs). The same system of letters was used on car number plates, and I even learned to recognise a few, so I could tell if a number was from Addis Ababa.

The history of writing, according to the internet and a current exhibition in the UK, starts with the Sumerians in the area now known as Iraq about three thousand years or so BC (five and half thousand years ago). But this fails to take into account that the hieroglyphics of ancient Egypt may be much older – about seven thousand years old. Sometimes dismissed as “pictograms” and not really writing, the structure of these written symbols can nevertheless be linked to the start of both Latin and Ethiopian scripts. Perhaps the earliest origin of writing is African then?

The evolution of Ethiopian script from ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs

The Sumerian script of course can be traced through history (Phoenician, Minoan and Greek) to be the precursor to Roman or Latin letters and thus modern Western civilization. By contrast, the Ethiopian script is not seen as of the same historical importance. Yet it is known to be at least three thousand years old, from about the same period as Chinese script.

Writing changes in the twentieth century

While I was working at the Ethiopian Science and Technology Commission, my friend Getaneh Yemane told me the story of IBM recently coming to set up digital communication and computing systems in Ethiopia. They had wanted to introduce the Latin alphabet for keyboards and proposed this to the Ethiopians. He had the same expression on his face as the plant scientist who spoke of her research on teff. The Ethiopians had said the equivalent of “Hell, no!” All the keyboards I saw had Ethiopian characters.