“Ethiopia: an enigma wrapped in a conundrum enfolded inside a mystery”
Hailé Selassié (apocryphal)*
So… you’d like to understand Ethiopia?
You are an armchair traveller (or a visitor to Ethiopia). You could be a farenj living in Arat Kilo (or a Minnesota dwelling Ethiopian). And you are interested in all things Ethiopian. But as to understanding Ethiopia…
Perish the foolish thought! Give up why you still can… Understanding Ethiopia will require years of patience (but years alone will not do—I am told that many Ethiopians born and bred are yet to understand what makes their country truly tick. And since you ask, yes, I was told that by many an Ethiopian).
Should you embark on such a quest you will also need a knack for reading between the lines (they call it wax and gold). And, whatever you do, do not attempt to learn Amharic—for you will surely fail).**
But still—you really would like to understand Ethiopia.
You should. Ethiopia is more in the news than ever before in its history. That’s because what happens in Ethiopia is vital—to the well-being of Ethiopians, certainly. And also to the future of Africa… and for Europe/the world.
Ethiopia has 105 million people. But, rather than exporting refugees, Ethiopia currently shelters the 2nd highest number of migrants in Africa (and the 5th highest in the world). That could change rapidly in the case of drought/climate change/unrest (and these possible/likely factors are all compounded by the one certain element in the mix: Ethiopia’s rapidly expanding population).
[Eritrea, on the other hand, provides one of the largest group of people on the Mediterranean migrant route with a grand total of… 5 million inhabitants (although some estimate that up to 30 % of ‘Eritrean’ migrants are in fact Ethiopian).]
My Way or the Highway
So, what will it be? Which story should we read/listen to? Surely—there is nothing to worry about: Ethiopia grew at the astonishing rate of 8.3 % in 2017!
The writing is on the wall for Ethiopia with the worst fall of any country in the world in the Fragile States Index (also in 2017).
Ethiopia is an exmple of a democratically elected African government? (Barack Obama said so).
Demographics & Economics
Or could it all be down to those stratospheric demographics?
1914: 15 Million
1974: 32 Million
2017: 105 Million
2050: 170 Million
2100: 240 Million…
But is Africa (and Ethiopia) overpopulated—or in fact underpopulated?
And what about the boost to growth of those rising populations?
As the late prime minister of Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi, sagaciously retorted when queried about Ethiopia’s population increases:
“People are not born with just a stomach; they are born with a pair of hands to work with.”
Ah, yes—Ethiopia’s greatest asset: its large (and low-paid) workforce.
So will it all work out in the end?
If we are to believe Ethiopia’s economic growth figures, the answer is straightforward, and the official mantra goes like this:
Textile and shoe factories, new electric trainlines and boosted agricultural productivity will all contribute to jump-starting the wealth elevator used by the likes of Singapour, Taiwan, South Korea.
Ethiopia—An African lion in the making?
Ah, but will it? And is a huge workforce still an asset—or a burden?
To quote just three of the findings from the CGD article by Shahid Yusuf:
“Rapid structural change that transfers labor from agriculture to the urban sector might not provide a productivity boost if most workers end up in unproductive informal jobs as is happening in most African […] economies.
For some countries (…) modernizing agriculture and developing agro industries (…) might offer better growth prospects.
For the majority it [Manufacturing ]will be a minimal source of growth, of jobs, of exports. […] the industrializing trend has gone into reverse.”
Do read the whole article, and pay attention to footnote 16: Ethiopia at risk of losing 85 % of jobs to automation and AI.
Also read The Force of Automation – A Grim Outlook for Emerging Markets, by Nicole McMillan:
“(…) emerging market countries that have been positioning themselves to be the next great manufacturing centre may need to reconsider their options and shift focus.
being more domestically focused, particularly on services sectors, for instance, tourism and health care (…)
Read the whole article here.
Has anyone seen the Ethiopian middle road?
Versus/Or… (could there ever be an Ethiopian middle-road?).
We really should understand Ethiopia.
Luckily, you’ve come to the right place: after many years belabouring in the penumbra of the Library of Mount Abora, I can now read between the lines of Ethiopia. Backwards. In Amharic (in the secret Language of the Birds).
Well—no, not quite. But I do understand a thing or two about the country, and I can give you a few pointers. You could start with some indispensable books.
Here’ s a reading list, but if you have only time for two, then read:
- Understanding Contemporary Ethiopia edited by E. Ficquet and G. Prunier
- Wax and Gold by Donald Levine (dated but still a favourite of mine)
Ethiopia, in a word (or two)
Ethiopia on the web
Ethiopian blogs/current affairs websites are far and few in between. They (nearly invariably) represent extremely polarised views (and you can skip the comments section in all Ethiopian online publications: more invectives and lies couched in foul language are difficult to find anywhere on the web).
Click with caution. Read between the lines.
(As Welde Hiywet could have said: “Believe nothing you read on blogs, unless you study it and find it to be true.”)
If you do read a third book about Ethiopia, you could do worse than read…
“Yves-Marie Stranger, a writer and translator, has compiled a collection of extracts of fiction and non-fiction about Ethiopia of a rare depth.”
Ethiopia through writers’ eyes – the anthology of all things Ethiopian, from Herodotus to Emperor Theodoros, by way of Evelyn Waugh and Afewerk Gebre Yesus (and Edgar Allen Poe & Mussolini – anthologies do make for strange bedfellows).
Here, you will find an assortment that provide a rich and diverse array of Ethiopia through the ages. 80 authors, six introductory essays and a chronology. You can buy the book with its publisher Eland, or here on Amazon. You can even purchase it on Kindle.
But, perhaps you’d like to delve deeper into the abyss of Ethiopian Studies – how do politics proceed in Ethiopia? How is Ethiopian society evolving as it urbanises at a giddy speed? (and what indeed are Ethiopian Studies?).
* “A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” was Sir Winston Churchill’s charaterization of… Russia (the only other country to ‘have never been colonized’).
** Amharic happens to be my Ethiopian language of choice, but you can substitute any of the other… 80 languages. I am planning a post on this very subject: How to learn any Ethiopian language in 15 years. Perhaps there’s an angle: Slow Language Learning TM, anyone?!