“Ethiopia: an enigma wrapped in a conundrum enfolded inside a mystery”
Hailé Selassié *
“There are very few people who understand Ethiopia—I will now explain how to do so…”
Albert Einstein (apocryphal)
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.
In fact—you’d like to understand 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 (an Ethiopian told me that).
Ethiopia—a conundrum—even for its native sons…
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 a fascinating multilayered country (Layers of Time, was Paul Henze’s moniker for his history book).
You really shouldn’t: too vexing, too intricate—too many of those pesky layers…
Still—we do need to understand Ethiopia.
But can it be done?
It must be done.
It will be done
But how? Surely—understanding Ethiopia can’t be rocket science?
Which brings us back to Einstein…
Ethiopia reminds me of a book on the theory of relativity I once attempted to read. I (only) remember the first line. It went something like this:
“Only half a dozen people in the world understand Einstein’s theory of relativity—this book will explain it to you.”
I was not convinced (and I still don’t understand relativity). But what’s this got to do with Ethiopia, I hear you say?
One needs an angle—with relativity, or with Ethiopia, mine was horses:
“For of course, in Ethiopia as elsewhere, asphalt and modern transport ring the knell of the true horse culture. It’s just that here it is happening much later and much slower: this is still a country where you measure distances in hours covered on two, or four legs. In countless markets over the highlands, horses –and donkeys and mules- are the only transport available.”
What will your Trojan Horse be?
You have to chose an angle—all those layers, you see.
James McCann’s angle is the plow (an essential tool of Ethiopian state building).
Indeed, whatever your vehicle—all roads lead to Addis Ababa (or Finfinné, for that matter).
You could, of course, acquire the monumental Encyclopaedia Aethiopica itself from the Hiob Ludolf Centre for Ethiopian Studies… but then you may never venture back out out of the labyrinth ever again.
For my part, after many years belabouring in the penumbra of the Library of Mount Abora, I can now read between the lines of Ethiopia…
In the secret Language of the Birds…
—Those Abyssinian ponies may be short but they sure do afford great views on Ethiopia!
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.
And here are three books which are more analytical in their thrust:
- Understanding Contemporary Ethiopia edited by E. Ficquet and G. Prunier
- The Horn of Africa, State Formation in the Horn of Africa by Christopher Clapham
- Wax and Gold by Donald Levine (dated but still a favourite of mine)
(Or perhaps you could read Understanding Ethiopia… Geology and Scenery, by Frances M. Williams)
Now, as to…
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).
Perhaps Ethiopia is rocket science after all?
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—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?
And, despite the headlines about the new Ethiopian industrial parks, it’s good to remember that 80 % of Ethiopians continue to live in the countryside, the vast majority of them making a living from smallholdings.
(It’s also worth noting that these industrial parks ‘only’ provide at best a few dozen thousand jobs. Ethiopia needs… what? 3 million new jobs per year?)
This reality seems to be recognized in Ethiopia’s ‘Industrialization led by Agriculture‘ model. Because agriculture—and likewise in Africa at large—is still very much where the future lies.
Michael Lipton’s Income from Work: The Food-Population-Resource Crisis in the ‘Short Africa’ makes for exellent reading:
“The short Africa’s swelling young workforce; its food farming that stubbornly lags far behind achievable levels; its threatened soil-water base: these faced Asia in 1965 too. Like all crises, they offer not only risks of disaster, but (as Asia’s green revolution and demographic transition showed) great opportunities too.
Being behind offers a chance for quick catch-up: not to large capital-intensive farms, ideal in America and Australia but costly and often disastrous in Africa, but to skilled smallholder intensification, with controlled, carefully managed water and fertilizer.
Such farms prevail in most of Asia, and parts of Africa too, but past failures show that small-holder-led development in Africa is not a soft or easy option. How might Africa have a good crisis?”
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.
Ethiopia, in a word (or two)
Economics not your thing? Here are some thumbnail sketches:
Yelidj Mazeya (የልጅ ማዘያ)
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…
Ethiopia Through Writers’ Eyes
“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 broad 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 on Amazon. You can find it on Kindle. You can even purchase it in… Ethiopia (BookWorld and Mega).
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’). Another country foreigners are forever misreading.
** 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.