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September 02

Letter from Ethiopia
Andrew Rogers
...ferenj do not travel on buses, they go by Landcruiser

Anything important must be done early. Very early. And a bus journey to Addis Ababa is important, since its not just all literal roads that lead there. So by 5.45am I am standing in front of a vehicle that with generosity could be described as a bus.

It is still dark, the people milling around the bus are not able to detect the presence of a ferenj (white person), particularly since I have my trusty multi-purpose patterned cloth (dust shield / tablecloth / skirt / curtain / blanket / pillow / sunhat) wrapped around my shoulders. I fondly imagine this to create a certain aura of ‘traveller-chic’, although some stay-at-home friends have declared it ridiculous. The fact that I’m not supposed to be there also helps me to remain unnoticed – ferenj do not travel on buses, they go by Landcruiser.

By 7am the bus is nearly full. Sacks and random chickens are fitted into any remaining legal spaces. The really wonderful thing about public transport in Ethiopia is that the law is strictly enforced regarding the number of passengers. Everyone must have a seat. The yang to this legal ying is that Ethiopians believe a breeze to be quite deadly. Windows are firmly shut on the hottest of days. Given the unshakeable British faith in the value of fresh air (Skegness is so bracing after all), this is something of a trial.

An Orthodox priest walks down the aisle, encouraging the passengers to place a donation for the church in his upturned, red and gold braided umbrella. So that we may fully appreciate the righteousness of his cause, he has a megaphone attached at the waist. Light sleepers know to their cost that religious devotion in Ethiopia is measured in decibels.

The actual departure has a few false starts, and we have yet to be visited by the boys selling ‘soft’. That is, packets of tissues. It is a mystery how the market for tissues is sustained, given the vast roadside retail industry that depends upon this humble product. Having declined a number of tissue transactions, I start listening to a man standing in the aisle who is telling his life story. Apparently he fought in the war with Eritrea, walked home when it finished, lost his government job, now his wife has left him, he has many children to feed, and there is no pension. Given the well-worn story and the already benevolent passengers, his polished speech receives the high accolade of a ‘Notes-only’ collection.

Finally we are on the road. The curtains are hastily drawn to block out the morning sun, and all hands turn to the serious business of closing windows. To my delight, and everyone else’s horror, the window next to me refuses to shut. Many ‘soft’s are quickly produced to be used as wedges, but the window knows its rattling business and resists all attempts at closure. To balance this small triumph, the in-bus entertainment system kicks in, effortlessly drowning out my walkman with the world’s best distortion.

The ‘bus conductor’ starts the first ticket inspection of the day. Our conductor is very gobez – a word somewhere in the vicinity of strong and feisty, with a sound that captures its meaning perfectly. His technique is simple and impressive. A few passengers are surprised to discover they need a ticket. They are given a (very) brief moment to explain their lack, in which they choose silence. The bus then slows down, the door is opened, and they are ejected. A hushed awe descends upon our community-for-a-day. Truly gobez.

We reach a small town in the middle of the floor of the Great Rift Valley (mostly rift at this point). Twenty minutes to drink the best coffee on earth. The only other ferenj on the bus is a Frenchman who speaks almost no English, and judging by his appearance has been travelling for a while. He lights up a cigarette, then appeases his conscience by pointing out that since I am eating meat, our karma equation balances. The language barrier turns out to be a blessing, since Jean-Claude (or whatever his name is) moves onto spiritism and the benefits of urine therapy (with gestures). I look for the bus.

Not to be outsmarted by Ethiopian timekeeping (a strange and confusing mix of punctuality and laissez-faire), I return to my seat which any right-thinking buttocks would condemn as ‘cruel and unusual punishment’. A uniformed woman appears and starts a less than rigorous patting of all the bags on the bus, apparently searching for ‘contraband’ smuggled across at the Kenyan border. Today’s token search does not expose any Kenyan/Ethiopian crime syndicate however.

An age later, we enter the cloud of fumes officially known as Addis Ababa. A woman preparing to leave the bus rummages around behind a large sack on the luggage rack, and removes a fine collection of shampoos and beauty products. I think I last saw such brands in Kenya.

The conductor asks for my ticket (again). I am bewildered by this request: we have been together for an eternity and this is the fourth time of asking. He replies (so my creative interpretation would like to have it): ‘This is my kingdom’. Fair play to him.

© Andrew Rogers October 2002


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