Saturday, 20 November 2010

This is Ethiopia

Before I came to Ethiopia, all that I knew about the place was that it bordered Kenya, had a famine about 20 years ago, and produced a multitude of the world's top distance runners. For those of you, who like me have little knowledge of the place, I've done a little research (in other words I've got a few bits from Wikipedia), and what follows should give you a bit more of an idea about Ethiopia and its people.

Ethiopia has more than 80 different ethnic groups and tribes, and a different language to go with each. The country's official language is Amharic (with it's own crazy squiggly alphabet, called Fidel), though, as I mentioned earlier, English is becoming more widely spoken, and is even used by the government.

A poster in the Ethiopian Tourist Office in Meskel Square reads: 'Ethiopia - 13 months of sunshine!' At first we were unsure if that was a genuine mistake, or an exaggerated comment to emphasise just how much sunshine there is in the country. Later I learned that it was neither. I have known for some time that Ethiopia does not operate on the Gregorian calender like most of the rest of the world, and that it is actually some years behind the rest of the world - 7 years to be precise - but what I didn't realise is that it's months are actually different too. In Ethiopia each month is exactly 4 weeks, and the remaining 5 days (6 in leap years) are bundled into the 13th month (called Pagumen). The Ethiopian new year isn't when we would expect it either, it's 11th September (or 12th September in leap years) and today's date is actually (Hidar 11, 2003). As if being stuck in some sort of a time warp isn't enough, their daily clock is different too. Time starts at about sunrise (6am our time), and so lunch time is 6 daylight hours in Ethiopian time. The Ethiopians have definitely tried to be different!

The 2010 census estimates the population of Ethiopia to be just over 85 million people, making it the second most populous country in Africa. The area of the country is 1.104,300km squared, and is the world's 27th largest country. Ethiopia is divided into 9 ethically based administrative countries and two chartered cities. Addis Ababa, or Addis as it is known locally, is the capital, and in 2007 had a population of just under 3.5 million. As with all other developing countries, people flock to the city to make their fortune, and thus the inhabitants of Addis cover every ethnic group within Ethiopia, and some from outside. Addis is where the African Union is based, and thus is often referred to as the Capital of Africa.

Ethiopia is a land of natural contrasts, with spectacular waterfalls and volcanic hot springs. Ethiopia has some of Africa's highest mountains as well as some of the world's lowest points below sea level. The largest cave in Africa is located in Ethiopia at Sof Omar, and the country's northernmost area at Dallol is one of the hottest places year-round anywhere on Earth (Dallol currently holds the record high average temperature for an inhabited location on Earth, where in an an average annual temperature of 34°C was recorded between the years 1960 and 1966). The country is also famous for its rock-hewn churches and as the place where the coffee bean originated. Currently, Ethiopia is the top coffee and honey-producing country in Africa, and home to the largest livestock population in Africa.

Ethiopia, which has Africa's second biggest hydropower potential, is the source of over 85% of the total Nile water flow and contains rich soils, but it nevertheless underwent a series of famines in the 1980s, exacerbated by adverse geopolitics and civil wars, resulting in the death of hundreds of thousands. Slowly, however, the country has begun to recover, and today Ethiopia has the biggest economy in East Africa (GDP) as the Ethiopian economy is also one of the fastest growing in the world. This is clearly evident from the construction of roads, house and office blocks on the suburbs of Addis where I was staying.

Ethiopia has close historical ties to all three of the world's major Abrahamic religions (monotheistic faiths emphasizing and tracing their common origin to Abraham or recognizing a spiritual tradition identified with Abraham; Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). It was one of the first Christian countries in the world, and though it still has a Christian majority, a third of the population is Muslim. Ethiopia is the site of the oldest Muslim settlement in Africa at Nagash. Until the 1980s, a substantial population of Ethiopian Jews resided in Ethiopia. The country is also the spiritual homeland of the Rastafari religious movement, and I saw many rastafarians around Addis during my stay. Rastas claim that Haile Selassie I who was the Emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974 is the resurrected manifestation of Jesus Christ. They also claim that he will lead the righteous into creating a perfect world, called "Zion"

The climate of Ethiopia is predominantly tropical monsoon, with wide topographic-induced variation. The Ethiopian Highlands which cover most of the country have a climate which is generally considerably cooler than other regions at similar proximity to the Equator. Most of the country's major cities are located at elevations of around 2,000–2,500 metres above sea. Addis is built on a series of hills so the altitude varies depending on which part of the city you're in, but were we were living and training was approximately 2,400m.

With daily temperatures averaging between 20 and 25 degrees, Addis has fairly uniform year round temperatures. The seasons are largely defined by rainfall, with a dry season from October–February, a light rainy season from March–May, and a heavy rainy season from June–September. The average annual rainfall is around 1,200 mm (47.2 in) - more than 50% greater than the annual rainfall in Ireland!

Ethiopia is also one of the oldest sites of human existence known to scientists today, having yielded some of humanity's oldest traces. Among these are the remains of Lucy (or Dinkenesh as she is known locally), the common name of A: 299-1, several hundred pieces of bone representing about 40% of the skeleton of an individual Australipithecus afarensis. Lucy is estimated to have lived 3.2 million years ago.

When Africa was divided up by European powers at the Berlin Conference, Ethiopia was one of only two countries that retained its independence (the other being Liberia, founded with the support of the USA for returned slaves). Knowing this, I wrongly presumed that Ethiopia hadn't had much contact with the Western World. This contributed further to my surprise at the progressive nature of the country and the widespread influence of Western life in modern day Addis.

From my experiences, Ethiopia is definitely a country of contrasts; a place of cultural diversity; and a land of hope and opportunity. I look forward to returning in the future, not only to see what progress has been made, but also to travel beyond Addis and to delve further into Ethiopia's rich history and culture.

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