The first record I ever owned was ‘Do they know it’s Christmas?’. I clearly remember the pictures of the starving African children on the cover, contrasting with the happy Victorian festive scene. It was too much to comprehend back then as a small child myself, but I knew it made me sad. Many people feel sad when they think of Ethiopia; they think of the news reports, the aid work, the conflict – but they generally think of Ethiopia as it was in 1984 when Geldof and Ure amplified the world’s attention to its plight.
This year marks 30 years since the start of the famine that lead to that song, and then Live Aid, and I’ve just got back from seeing the country for myself, discovering how it’s changing. With three old friends from university, we spent a weekend in Addis Ababa where we impressed the locals with our dancing skills, first honed at the Birmingham Student Union 18 years before. We then took the short flight north to the highlands, where we undertook a 100km hike, which included the 4,300m peak of Abuna Yosef; the country’s second highest mountain.
The days were filled with challenging walking as our legs and lungs searched for the energy and oxygen to keep ascending but they were also filled with the most breathtaking scenery I have ever seen – the landscape was vast, it seemed to go on forever. At dusk the sky would melt into a golden pool that would illuminate the industry in every corner of the land. As we had arrived just as the rains stopped, farmers were in their fields in numbers, gathering their crops and driving their livestock to market. Every impossible inch that could be cultivated was being worked by hand.
From one peak we spotted a group of around 500 of the endemic gelada baboons and from another, bearded vultures enjoying the full soaring powers of a 9ft wingspan. It seemed the perfect vantage point from which to reflect on how our own species had first evolved in these valleys.
As we passed through and stayed in tiny settlements, eating the local enjera bread, coffee and honey, people would come and sit with us and proudly discuss the new school being built and their hopes for the next generation. (Invariably, they also wanted to know if we preferred Arsenal or Manchester United…) By night, we’d talk about university days and where life had taken us all since then. People and places all grow up.
The heavy NGO and charity presence in Ethiopia (including the significant investment being made by the British government) reflects the work that is still needed and it has not been without its recent conflicts, but the country is now a hub in the region for business and is the permanent home of the African Union.
The trek finished at Lalibella – home to 11 UNESCO-protected monolithic rock-hewn churches, dating from the 12th and 13th Centuries. When you stand inside one, you get dizzy with the scale of the achievement. You try to imagine how they went about carving them, but it’s impossible – it’s too much to comprehend. But, just as with your reaction to the people you meet, you feel in awe.
Ethiopia has a history of confusing me, but at least my emotional attachment to this place is now more reflective of where the country is today, and where it is going.