The award-winning author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time recently travelled to Ethiopia with Oxfam. Here's the full story of his trip - in his own words.
Late last year I flew to Ethiopia with Oxfam. The whole thing still seems unreal, partly because it was unlike anything I've done before and partly because of the drugs I had to take to get me there. It changed my life and not in the obvious way.
Photos: Petterik Wiggers/Panos
I've been terrified of flying for at least twenty years. I try very hard not to fly but when I'm forced I feel sick and frightened and angry for several weeks beforehand, I spend my time abroad thinking constantly about the inevitably fatal return journey and when I get home I suffer a mild form of PTSD in which I find even the sight of an aircraft upsetting. In the last few years my wife and our two boys have started to go on holiday without me. I console myself that I have a very modest carbon footprint but I dream of visiting Iceland or the Canadian
Rockies and increasingly I'm haunted by the idea that I'm going to find myself lying on my deathbed knowing that I've spent one life on one planet and that my cowardice has made it so much smaller.
Some years ago Oxfam asked me if I wanted to visit one of the projects they helped fund then write about it. So I travelled by bus to the Migrants Resource Centre in Victoria SW1 and, despite meeting some extraordinary people and hearing their extraordinary stories, there has always been a small part of me which believes I never quite stepped up to the plate.
So I went back to Oxfam last year and asked if I could do it again, but this time visiting one of the projects they helped fund overseas. It would be like sealing myself into a barrel several miles upstream of Niagara Falls. Once I'd agreed to go there would be no escape. I would fly further than I'd ever flown before, I could go on holiday with my family again and hopefully, at some future date, die a happier death.
I would pay for my own ticket. It seemed wrong for Oxfam to foot the bill for what was, basically, psychiatric treatment. But if I wasn't too incapacitated by the fear and the Valium I'd write an article like this.
Lys Holdoway, the press officer at Oxfam, asked if I'd like to visit and write about some of the agricultural projects in Georgia or Ethiopia which Oxfam fund (as a travel agency they don't give you a great deal of choice). I chose Ethiopia because it was on another continent, because it was the focus of so many aid myths after the terrible famine of 1983-5 (Do they know it's Christmas?) and because I'd be able to visit Lucy, the Australiopithecus who walked on two legs in the Rift Valley 3.2 million years ago and whose skeleton was now kept in
the National Museum of Ethiopia and who had loomed large in my geeky childhood.
Taking to the air
I felt sick and frightened and angry for several weeks before the flight and settled into a fatalistic, walking-to-the-scaffold calm for the last few days. I started taking the Valium with my porridge so I don't recall much about travelling to Heathrow and meeting up with Lys who was coming with me to hold my hand and see some of Oxfam's work in Ethiopia for the first time. I do remember walking to the gate and seeing, through the window, the Ethiopian Airlines plane and thinking, as I always do, 'It is not physically possible for 70 tonnes of metal to stay in the air,'
and 'I am going to burn to death in there'. Also it was painted green and yellow which are just not proper scientific colours.
I felt sick and frightened and angry for several weeks
But the cabin crew were reassuring and soothing music was played during take-off and landing, a practice which should, I think, be adopted industry-wide. I gripped the armrests during the climb, counted hard, sweated heavily, put my headphones on, turned Mogwai up to 11, took some more Valium and stayed awake the entire night to make sure the pilot didn't do something stupid while everyone else was asleep.
It was grey and drizzling when we landed in Addis Ababa, which caught me off-guard. Grey and drizzling in the way that Slough can be grey and drizzling. I'd assumed that, being Africa, it would be hot and sunny or, possibly, hot and rainy, partly because I'm an idiot and partly because I hadn't read the Bradt Guide in my rucksack because I was going to die before I got there. I'm fairly sure I saw two soldiers walking through the airport hand-in-hand wearing turquoise camouflage gear, but I can't be absolutely certain. I was really very
tired by this point.
Lys and I were picked up in a yellow taxi driven by a cheery young man whose name I have completely forgotten along with many other useful journalistic facts about the morning on account of the drugs and the giddy thrill of being unexpectedly alive. We drove into the great, grubby sprawl of Addis via the bus station which wasn't much more than several hundred damp people standing on a small muddy hill. Or maybe that was later in the day. There were miles of indecipherable Amharic script. There were shoals of elderly blue and white minibuses vacuum-packed
with human beings, there were clouds of exhaust fumes and black kites circling overhead, there were damp concrete skeletons of half-completed buildings waiting for construction to restart at the end of the rainy season, some covered in wooden scaffolding like giant games of pick-up sticks, others covered in yellow plastic sheeting blown ragged by the wind. The entire population seemed to be on the street in spite of the drizzle.
We checked into the Amania Guesthouse where I passed into a brief, deep coma. I woke just before lunch, took a few minutes to remember who and where I was, then belatedly skimmed a few useful facts from the Bradt guide. 1) Addis Ababa is the third highest capital in the world, hence the grey and the drizzle. 2) You may get mugged in the wrong part of town but they'll do it nicely and you won't get hurt. And 3) they did in fact know it was Christmas but they had to wait another fortnight because Ethiopia runs on a modified version of the Coptic calendar
and their Christmas falls on our January 7th.
We went out for lunch with Petterik, a local photographer, who was going to join us on our whistlestop tour, and Mark Blackett from Oxfam (interesting fact, 160 people work for Oxfam GB in Ethiopia: 1 Sudanese, 2 Kenyans, Ugandans, 2 French, two Brits and 153 Ethiopians). Then we all headed over to the National Museum to see Lucy. I'd expected her to be radiant. I'd expected to stand there and feel a door opening into our deep past. But she turned out to be a rather meagre collection of bones in a rather dowdy glass box not much different from the other nearby collections
of bones in dowdy glass boxes. It turns out that the biggest door to our deep past was located in the school library at Eldean Primary in New Duston, Northampton c. 1971.
We left the museum, Lys and I returned to the guesthouse and I fell into a second, slightly longer coma.
The following morning we got into an Oxfam 4x4 and headed south to Ziway and the Rift Valley - me, Lys, Fassil from Oxfam and Tedla our driver. I'm embarrassed at having to write 'our driver'. I'm embarrassed by the slightly regal aspect of the whole trip, to be honest, but more of that later.
Driving long distances in Ethiopia, however, does seem to be a specialised skill. People inexplicably use the concrete barrier in the middle of dual carriageways for conversations and dates and catnaps.
Driving long distances in Ethiopia, however, does seem to be a specialised skill. Children play on the tarmac. People inexplicably use the concrete barrier in the middle of dual carriageways for conversations and dates and catnaps. There are donkey carts held together with string and monster trucks en route to Djibouti and every conceivable vehicle in between. Horses stand in the traffic because the gusts of wind from swerving trucks keep the flies away. Sometimes the trucks fail to swerve. Over three days I saw five dead dogs, one of which had burst as it was run over. When it gets
dark a third of the vehicles turn their headlights on, dazzling you and rendering the other two thirds completely invisible. Like many other places, in Africa, I guess, like many other places in the world, but I'm extremely relieved that I wasn't behind the wheel. And Tedla was perfect, not even a dog-swerve.
We drove through scruffy Wild West towns where everyone was still on the street despite the rain, walking or waiting for a bus or just plain waiting. There were breezeblock houses and rows of tiny shop-shacks selling oranges and cheap Chinese mobiles and plastic sandals. People sat on garden chairs under home-made tarpaulin gazebos. There was a prodigious amount of rusty corrugated iron. Between the towns there were gated Chinese industrial compounds giant plastic greenhouses where roses are grown for export. But mostly there were sweeping grasslands
punctuated by termite mounds and spreading acacia trees and smoke rising through the grass-roofs of conical houses, the highlands blue in the distance. Every so often Tedla stopped to let boys drive cattle or goats across the road.
It looks like National Geographic Africa but it's a new landscape. There's no useful stone here so wood is used for building and for fuel. As the population has risen the forests have shrunk. Between 1972 and 2000 the Great Rift Valley lost 80% of its forest cover and there's no reason to believe the rate has slowed. And as the population has risen resources have been stretched progressively thinner and thinner. Those cattle and goats are now too expensive for many people to buy. As a result many communities have turned to agriculture to feed themselves, but with no real
knowledge of how to run farms, no source of decent seeds and no equipment. Imagine a group of stockbrokers being dumped on a remote Scottish Island and told to feed themselves. Add malaria and regular droughts and you start to get a sense of why so many people here are so desperately poor.
Projects and progress
After four hours of driving we pulled up at the dusty, dog-eared office of the Rift Valley Children and Women Development Organisation (RCWDO), a local group which Oxfam funds to do the hands-on running of the projects we were going to visit, and met its director Berhanu Geleto who looked like a young Desmond Tutu on dress-down Friday and radiated the same relaxed good will.
Disaster relief I understand - clean water, sanitation, shelter, food, medical supplies. Campaigning I understand - access to health and education, fair trade, women's rights. But I've always been hazy about development.
An embarrassing confession: despite the fact that we have been giving money to them for many years I know very little about Oxfam's development work. They send supporters regular updates and the pamphlets look lovely and, unlike the ones from Amnesty, they don't contain pictures of people who have been horrifically tortured, but they do tend to stack up unread on the radiator in the downstairs loo.
Disaster relief I understand - clean water, sanitation, shelter, food, medical supplies. Campaigning I understand - access to health and education, fair trade, women's rights. But I've always been hazy about development.
Because it's not sexy. It doesn't get onto the TV news. It doesn't get onto the front page of the paper. It rarely gets into the back of the paper. In truth much of it is slightly dull, but bear with me because it also turns out be rather wonderful.
Berhanu lead us inside and gave us a Powerpoint presentation about the RCWDO's work. Of which I remember absolutely nothing except the wall it was projected on which was a rather lovely wall with flaking pink and green paint and cracks and the tattered remnants of peeled-away posters. But the company was very pleasant and the kolo and the clove tea were delicious. In retrospect I now wonder if I was still experiencing some of the after-effects of the flight.
After the Powerpoint we were allowed out and Berhanu drove us to the nearby Haleku irrigation scheme, one of the projects he'd been talking about. At the end of a muddy road we walked into a clearing to be welcomed by twenty men and woman sitting in dappled sunlight on the kind of tiny benches I remember from PE at school. There were false banana plants and yet more corrugated iron, a bicycle, an old motorbike… The women were dressed in headscarves and bright shawls. The men seemed to have walked into a second hand shop and grabbed clothes at random - sandals, brogues, wellingtons,
shorts, tracksuit bottoms, dapper jackets, T-shirts… (talking to people later on it turns out that this is precisely what they'd done; everyone wears a single set of cheap Chinese second-hand clothes until it falls apart, then they buy another, the women are just a bit more discerning).
Berhanu introduced us to everyone and with the aid of a flipchart, Mohamed, the head of the co-operative, gave us a short lecture in Oromo about diesel pumps and concrete channels and investments and yields with a running translation from Berhanu.
It was a bit like being the queen. The smiling, the handshakes, the formality, the photographs, the translation. It made me uncomfortable. I was expecting to sit down with people and chat but chatting was clearly not going to be an option.
It took me several days to realise that the formality was important and that I wasn't. I was just some bloke with no obvious role who seemed to be muscling in on too many of the photographs. Mostly this was a chance for the villagers to show Oxfam and the RCWDO people what they'd been doing.
Because here's the slightly wonderful thing. There are 60 households or thereabouts in the Haleku co-operative. A couple of years ago these people needed government food aid to stop them starving. But since then the RCWDO has taught them how to row-plant crops and irrigate fields and build concrete water channels. They've loaned them two water pumps and arranged access to microfinance. The villagers have been given nothing. They've borrowed small amounts of money at interest and paid it back. But all the adults now have a bank account, every household has two oxen and every
house now has a corrugated iron roof. Dame Gamedo is growing onions and mangoes. She can't read or write but her eight children have all been to school. Alemu Kufa is growing cabbages. His seven children are at school. He and his wife have moved to town and they now have a proper toilet and drinking water.
We stopped in a nearby town for lunch. Fassil, Berhanu and Tedla ordered chunks of raw beef cut from a carcase hanging in a little booth. It's a man thing, apparently. The more white fat the better. I asked Fassil if it ever makes him ill and he admits that you do have to go to the chemist and buy tapeworm pills every now and then. I had injera with Shiro Wot, one of the vegan fasting dishes Orthodox Christians eat on Wednesdays and Fridays. Injera is a large, damp, cold flatbread made from fermented tef flour which is eaten pretty much every day by pretty much every family in
Ethiopia. It arrives at the table rolled into strips looking like a small non-slip bathmat. I don't want to say anything against any country's national dish but after a day or two I did get a powerful craving for a warm granary bap.
After lunch we visited another co-operative in Golba Village, where 48 women were using microfinance loans to buy goats and grow haricot beans. The Ethiopian government doesn't allow Oxfam to do any advocacy work in the country or to become involved in politics. It can't promote women's rights, for example, or campaign against female genital mutilation. But these 48 women hadn't known one another before joining the co-operative. Now they met regularly to talk without men around. Thanks to the goats and the haricot beans they all had bank accounts. If the co-operative is
as successful as the others we visited then their sons and daughters would go to school. Sometimes women get rights without the phrase 'women's rights' ever being spoken.
Yobo Nure, one of the co-op members, took us to see her new house - concrete walls, three separate rooms and a shiny corrugated iron roof. We all crowded inside, Petterick getting the kids to hold his flash and chatting away to them in Photographer's Esperanto. Yobo and I posed in front of her rough, handmade dresser with its rows of glasses and yellow plastic cups, a little pagoda of cooking pots, an orange thermos, a green plastic jug and a ceramic tin plate decorated with a red rose. It was the most beautiful thing I'd seen since arriving in Ethiopia. Most
of all though we were smitten by Yobo's mother in law, Bullo Roba, who wasn't doing the formality gave us all hugs and talked earnestly to us in Oromo and was, I suspect, in the very nicest way, a little crazy.
Yobo's kitchen was now an old hut some way from the house, where her daughter Lomi was cooking injera. We stepped inside and could hardly breathe for the smoke. In the old house they used to do this in their living space, as many other families still do. It kills a lot of people and it makes a lot of people seriously ill and it's the women and children who suffer disproportionately. We think of condoms and clean water as things which save lives. It turns out that corrugated iron is pretty good, too. I Googled the World Bank's latest available
measures for wealth inequality. Ethiopia comes in at number 15, the best result in Africa. The UK makes number 44
That night we stayed in a fancy hotel in Hawassa because Fassil knew the owner and had wangled us a discount. I stood on the room's fourth floor balcony, looking down at the looping blue fairy lights someone had strung through the trees in the park across the road and found myself wondering briefly how a hotel like this could exist so close to so much poverty. Back home a few days later I Googled the World Bank's latest available measures for wealth inequality. This is the Gini coefficient, a standard measure of the gap between the rich and the poor in any given
country. Denmark, Sweden and Norway are at the top of the list, predictably, being the countries with the most equitable distribution of wealth. Ethiopia comes in at number 15, the best result in Africa. The UK makes number 44 and the US trails behind us at a woeful number 119. In short, Ethiopia is not one of those countries where a group of people have become hugely rich at the expense of the poor. And we have to look at ourselves very carefully before occupying any moral high ground.
Self-reliance, not charity
Next morning we visited a maize-growing co-op in Keraru village where Aliyi Meisso, the chairman, showed us their new concrete-floored grain store which meant they could now club together to protect their crop from termites and store it and transport it to market when the price was high. There were 103 households in the co-operative. That's about 800 people. Most members now earnt £300 a year. Like the farmers at Haleku, a couple of years ago they were dependent on government food aid just to survive. I asked Tegene Tadesse what they spent the money on. Savings first, he said, then
a new house, then school for the children, then a proper bed, then running water and medical expenses because if someone gets malaria they have to be driven 50 km for treatment which costs anything from £70 upwards.
Barite Hayato was growing tomatoes. She had a son at university, three married daughters and three grandchildren living with her. Four years ago she was living in a shelter made of plastic sheeting and sticks. Two years ago she joined an irrigation scheme and was able to build the little concrete house next to it where her oldest son Gemechu now lived. Recently she'd moved into the third house which stood beside the other two. It was pink and turquoise and had fifty sheets of corrugated iron on the roof. And this, too, was a beautiful thing. In the next few years she wanted
to turn the front room into a café. By this point I was starting to think that our vocabulary is out of date. Aid, charity, donation… these weren't the right words for what was happening here
By this point I was starting to think that our vocabulary is out of date. Aid, charity, donation… these weren't the right words for what was happening here. None of the people we met had been given money. They haven't been given anything. Even the seeds they had been given by the RCWDO had to be paid back in kind the following season. This was about people who had never previously worked together forming co-operatives to make everyone safer and healthier and more secure. It was also about self-reliance and support for small business. I think that in their own ways, both Karl
Marx and Norman Tebbitt would be equally impressed.
There's a memory from my childhood. Just a snapshot, really. My father is giving money to a woman and her two children sitting by a hedge. I remember them as gypsies though maybe I've given the image a storybook gloss and they were just homeless. I remember feeling embarrassed and uncomfortable. A shadow of that same feeling returns whenever I see someone begging in the street, and one of the reasons I hand over money is to ease that discomfort.
It's a difficult transaction, the giving and receiving of money. It makes people feel vulnerable. And that includes the person doing the giving. There is always the suspicion that you're being cheated or taken for granted, perhaps even laughed at. It's this feeling, I suspect, why so many people are wary of giving to charity.
No-one says this. They say that staff salaries are too high, or that not enough money goes to the recipients, or that too much money ends up in the pockets of corrupt governments, or that the money should be spent closer to home… But those same people rarely ask the same questions in Sainsbury's. How much does the managing director of Birds Eye earn? How much do farmers get paid for growing these cauliflowers? How much of the money I'm spending on this tank of petrol will end up in the pockets of a government that tortures its citizens? Why am I paying a farmer in New Zealand
for this lamb?
It's the giving that makes people uneasy, not where the money goes. Spending is easy. Even losing is not that bad. Paradoxically, I think that there are many people who would rather see a pound coin roll down the drain than put it in a collection box.
What if it wasn't called 'charity'? What if you weren't giving aid but funding a scheme to stop people needing it ever again?But what if the people at the other end weren't taking your money? What if it wasn't called 'charity'? What if you were paying a local organisation like the RCWDO to set up a string of small businesses? What if you weren't giving aid but funding a scheme to stop people needing it ever again?
After lunch we drove for several hours to Gambelto village in Asri Negelle district. Without my noticing, we'd gained over two thousand metres in altitude. Back in Keraru village, the problem was drought in the dry season. Here the problem was too much water in the rainy season. The place was gloriously green. If you ignored the giant cacti and the puffball trees you could almost be in Somerset.
The village is 5km down a road so rutted and muddy we realise we'd be walking home if it carried on raining (some years ago a race was mooted between Jeremy Clarkson and one of the Oxfam drivers on these roads - I still have my fingers crossed on that score). They were growing potatoes here. The RCWDO had given them good quality seedlings and helped them build a storehouse. Everyone in the co-op now took 200 kg of seedlings away for planting, gave 200kg back after harvesting and still had 1,000 kg to take to market.
I've always assumed that most people in industrialised nations (e.g. me) have lost touch with nature and that people who live in rural areas in the developing world (e.g. the villagers of Keraru) have an intimate connection with their surroundings. But deforestation and population growth have forced these people into a completely different way of life and robbed them of much of the knowledge their parents and grandparents had. Throughout the whole trip I'd ask people for the name of this tree or that shrub or the name of the bird making that particular
noise, but no-one had an answer. In Kofele talking to Gazali Kedir and Sambate Dibisa in the storehouse Lys and I realised that we knew more about potatoes than they did, precisely because we'd grown up around them. We were trying to work out the English name for the potatoes they were growing. King Edwards? Charlotte? And suddenly I was back at 288a Main Road New Duston, six years old with a wooden dibber, helping Dad plant Maris Pipers between the rhubarb and the runner beans.
Lys was trying to persuade Gazali that you could eat the skins but he was having none of it. They were going to stick to mashed potato and false banana for the moment, thank you. We didn't even broach the subject of baking. Then Lys and Sambate started talking about dresses and jewellery and finally we found a way through a little crack in the formality and it was like talking to the new neighbours on the allotment except that I don't have an allotment and these particular neighbours were starving a few years ago.
Back to the UK
The following morning we drove back to Addis, took our leave of Berhanu, Fassil, Tedla and Petterik and checked back in to the guesthouse. We ate and slept and woke at midnight and took a taxi to the airport for the night flight back to Heathrow and I sat in departures a little less convinced than before of my impending doom.
No starvation, no epidemics, no drama. Which is good news, of course. Just ordinary people finally able to lead ordinary lives.The kind of things every person on the planet should be able to do.
I gripped the armrests hard during take off but when we levelled out I was capable of human speech and helped Lys with the crossword. I discovered that red wine and diazepam go exceedingly well together. I put my headphones on. To my astonishment I slept, and when I woke dawn was coming up. Everyone around me was still asleep. Out of the window I could see the actual curve of the planet.
It was the flying which changed my life. You don't realise how heavy that kind of fear is until you stop carrying it around. And I'll see the Canadian Rockies before I die.
The time in Ethiopia? In truth it had all been rather humdrum. No starvation, no epidemics, no drama. Which is good news, of course. Just ordinary people finally able to lead ordinary lives, growing tomatoes, sending the kids to school and having a decent bed to sleep in. The kind of things every person on the planet should be able to do.
Commander Chris Hadfield said that after orbiting the earth a few times in the International Space Station the idea of 'us' and 'them' starts to seem rather ridiculous. I reckon sixteen hours and 37,000 feet is more than enough.
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