Ethiopia Revisited

by Jerry Knowles (Addis Ababa 63–65)

FULFILLING A GOAL I have had for a long time, I returned to Ethiopia some 38 years after finishing my Peace Corps tour of duty in 1965. My Peace Corps stint was from 1963 to 1965, and I taught at the College of Business Administration of what was then Haile Selassie I University.

My wife Debby and our son Larry accompanied me on the two-week vacation. Neither had visited Ethiopia before.Our basic itinerary centered around Addis Ababa where we stayed at the Hilton (gasp); however, we did have time to fly north to Gondar and drive south to Awash National Park. I thought it might be interesting for readers of The Herald if I set down some of my impressions and experiences from our brief trip.

I have a major caveat in this undertaking, and that is that I only spent two weeks in the country and most of my impressions were formed from observations from my limited travel, anecdotal evidence from talking to Ethiopians as diverse as drivers, guides, and university professors, and reading the local newspapers. In other words, I do not hold myself out as any kind of “expert” on the real issues that face the country.

I also will apologize for the “bullet point” nature of my prose but that’s the result of spending most of my career in the business world. Paul Theroux I’m definitely not.

  • The university is now called Addis Ababa University, but it is still located at Arat Kilo and Sidist Kilo. There has been a lot of new building especially at Sidist Kilo, with a new Law School currently under construction right next to the old one. The former College of Business Administration was folded into the Faculty of Social Sciences under the Communist regime and, in the words of a former student and a former colleague of mine (both of them former Deans), it survived by maintaining a low profile and by changing some of the course names. For example, “Marketing” was renamed “Distribution.” After the overthrow of the Mengistu government in 1991 the College was spun back out of the Faculty of Social Sciences, was relocated to the former Crown Prince’s residence just off Sidist Kilo and is now called the Faculty of Business and Economics. It seems to be doing quite well.
  • Whereas there were only a couple of universities in existence in 1965 (I can think of Haile Selassie I U and Alemayu, the agricultural college) there are now many more spread throughout the country with varying specializations.
  • The country suffers in a major way from what Ethiopians refer to as the “brain drain.” A very high percent of Ethiopians who go abroad to study find a way to remain there. This is seen as a major impediment to successful development of the country.
  • Addis Ababa in many ways has not changed that much since I left, but there are a lot of new buildings and of course two new luxury hotels catering to foreigners – the Hilton and the Sheraton. There are also many more clubs and restaurants and several new beer brands. The airport was just re-built and looks very attractive and workable.
  • In the city, a foreigner still gets the occasional “ferengi” moniker plus a few well-chosen English epithets, but rare.
  • The Ethiopian flag has been re-designed with the addition of a five-pointed star on the traditional background, each point supposedly representing one of the ethnic constituencies of the Country. As I understand it, the Government is promoting the concepts of “pluralism” and “federalism” and is prepared to grant a fair degree of autonomy to different regions of the Country.
  • According to the newspapers there are currently two epidemics in Ethiopia – HIV/AIDS and malaria. The media and the government seem to be quite open about both of these. There seems to be a major educational and advertising campaign being conducted with respect to HIV/AIDS. With respect to the malaria epidemic, which is confined mainly to lower-lying areas in the South and the West, the main problem seems to be a lack of up-to-date medications available to the populace at an affordable price.
  • Educated Ethiopians are quite sensitive to the image of the country portrayed by the international media: a place of war and of famine.
         While we were there 50 people were killed in the town of Gambela in what was said to be an incursion by the OLF and Eritrean rebels. Or if you believe the British fellow we ran into at the Hilton who had just been evacuated from Gambela back to Addis, more like 350 people were killed.
         Regarding the famine, all I can say is that we didn’t see any evidence of it, and people we talked to said that rainfall was plentiful last summer and that famine was not at that time an issue. From my personal observation, there seemed to be plenty of land under cultivation and, as we drove southeast toward Awash, lots of piles of tef being stored along the way. I can’t help but think that perhaps the periodic famines are more related to inadequate infrastructure, ineffective management and perhaps politics. However, I have to say that this is a very unstudied opinion.
  • Our trip to Gondar was by air and from there we hired a driver and four wheel drive vehicle and drove to Bahr Dar. Neither town nor the stretch in between seemed to have changed much over 38 or so years. The road is still dirt/gravel and was in terrible shape. The good news, however, is that that particular stretch is being made into paved road with an estimated completion date of 3–4 years hence.
  • The Blue Nile dam at Lake Tana now has a hydroelectric plant.
  • There is a fair amount of road work currently in progress in the country. A new “ring road” around Addis has just been completed. The Chinese seem to have all the contracts.
  • As far as economic development is concerned, it is my feeling that the 17 or so years of the communist regime really set the country back. I don’t believe that foreign institutional investors feel that the country is yet ready for substantial investment. A bright spot is the financial commitment to Ethiopia being made by Sheik Mohammed Hussein Al-Amoudi, a Saudi citizen whose mother and wife are both Ethiopian. He has apparently conceded that his investment may come “more from his heart than his head,” however he and his company MIDROC Ethiopia Group are making some major financial commitments in agriculture, mining, real estate, health care and manufacturing. He is a major investor in the Sheraton.
  • The issue of land ownership, seen as one of the impediments to economic and social development, appears to have gone nowhere since 1965. Whereas back then the land was evidently owned by the royal family and other elite members of society, it is now owned by the Government. The situation currently is somewhat confusing to me, as I know one citizen who does own some land up north — perhaps grandfathered or something — but basically it doesn’t seem possible to own land outright. A long-term lease (say 99 years) can sometimes be negotiated, but the rates charged are considered to be high.

Our trip was an unqualified success. No hassles, friendly and gracious people, no discernible anti-American sentiment, minimal bureaucratic holdups and of course ideal weather. Is it time to bring the Peace Corps back?

Jerry Knowles now lives in Providence, Rhode Island.
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