Africa Hash 2011

May 9th, 2011


I have been so busy with packing-up things and wrapping-up work, so I am glad that I decided not to have any big farewell parties. I scheduled my departure just after the Africa Hash, so I knew that I could treat this as my unofficial finale. Well, this last big hash has been fun!

Map of the Run with Photos


May 5th, 2011

I finally made it out to the hot spring spa in the middle of Addis (behind Sheraton). Supposedly the city of Addis (which is just over 100 years old, would have developed on the other side of Mt. Entoto from Menelik’s Palace, but Queen Taitu discovered the hot spring on this side of the hill and wanted to settle in this direction. I am not sure how long the hot springs have been open to the public, but today, the spring feeds two giant spa facilities and also heats the pools at the Sheraton and Ghion Hotels, supposedly.

I went to the bigger spa place on the Sheraton side of the road. I have only heard it go by the name Filwuha, but since this literally just means “hot water” I assume there is some other name to the place. The facilities are a bit old, as you can see in the picture, but still functional and clean enough for most people. It only cost a couple dollars for 45 minutes in a private, enclosed tub area. They provide towels and soap and you get to fill the tub yourself. After living in Japan for years, I am a big fan of hot springs, but I think others would enjoy the experience as well. Check it out!



Ethiopic Script

April 29th, 2011

Recently someone mentioned that there are less than 20 really unique writing systems in the world. I found this rather unbelievable, but after a little research, I found it is basically true. Although there are 200 countries and maybe 2000 languages, only about 20 ever came-up with a way to write things down without borrowing a writing system from somewhere else!

That is why the Ethiopic Script is so amazing. As far as I know, everyone in sub-Saharan Africa uses the Latin or Roman alphabet except Ethiopians. Actually, most Ethiopians also use Latin or Roman because only Amharic and Tigrinya languages use Ethiopic Script. Although Amharic has always been used by the central government, the current government allows education in a number of regional languages like Oromo, which is written in Latin/Roman.

Ethiopic Script (Ge'ez) in Perspective
Apparently Ethiopic (Ge’ez above) was partly derived from old south Arabic according to this cool line-up of old writing systems in the region. Still, I think it is amazing that Ethiopia has had a writing system for over a thousand years while others were passing their history and sharing knowledge only by word-of-mouth.

Banking in Addis

April 24th, 2011

One of the sticking points in Ethiopia’s attempt to join the WTO is the fact that its financial sector is closed to outside investors. There are a number of local banks operating throughout the country, but so far no foreign banks. ATM machines are still pretty new and uncommon but the bigger banks have a few set-up around town. Only a couple of the ATM networks is connected to the outside world, and that is how I get my cash.

Yes, Ethiopia is almost completely a cash-based economy. People who are paid locally generally have an account at a local bank. People like me whose salary is deposited in a bank back home are at the mercy of these few ATM machines around town. For those with some business with the embassy, there is a cashier there who can cash checks from US banks and provide local currency.

I have used my credit card at the Sheraton and a couple other nice hotels in the countryside, but many places charge extra if you are using plastic. Many foreigners would never use a credit card in Ethiopia or elsewhere in Africa, but I use mine when I can and I have never had a problem with fraud.

Watching Movies in Ethiopia

April 9th, 2011

Throughout my travels, I have often considered whether I could live in this city or that city, and one thing I often consider a “must” is access to a movie theater. Ethiopia has a strong local movie industry so there are a number of theaters playing these films in Amharic. However, I was happy to find that there is also one decent theater in Addis that shows international films.

Edna Mall ( has three modern screens with the requisite popcorn and drink sales to go with them. Movies are less than 2USD and popcorn and drinks are very reasonable too. The theater has often started new Hollywood films on the same day they debut in the US and elsewhere. Since there are limited screens, the movies turn-over pretty quickly and the theater generally only screens blockbusters, children’s films or something with black people in it.

I think one reason the films come to the screen so quickly is because the film makers are always trying to beat the bootleggers. Still, on the day of the opening you can generally find illegal DVDs for sale on a nearby street corner. The DVDs also run about 2USD, and at least a third of them are “screen copies” (someone pointed a cheap video camera at the movie screen for two hours) which are not worth the hassle. They seem to come to Addis from Russia, Asia, or elsewhere, but I don’t really understand the supply chain.

There are also creative ways to get original DVDs into the country for your home viewing pleasure. I have a projector at home, so I try to trade, borrow, and beg when I can. After having my movies cut-off due to power outages a number of times, I finally decided to get an uninterrupted power supply (UPS or just a big battery) to keep things running until the generator kicks-in. Another slice of life from Addis!

Going to Bolivia

April 3rd, 2011

It is hard to believe that I have already been in Ethiopia for two years, but that is what the calendar says. Two years is the normal assignment for my organization, so a few months back I started looking around for my next challenge. Since we are in development, there aren’t many glamorous places on the list of possibilities: Nigeria, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, etc. I wouldn’t mind to try another country in Africa, but after assessing the realistic possibilities and zeroed-in on Bolivia and finally got my official assignment for four years in La Paz.

I may leave Addis Ababa as early as May 9, iff everything comes together in-time. That means that the next blog will be about Bolivia, so no need to begin guessing about my new life already, right? Well, I thought I would share some of the surprising similarities between Addis Ababa and La Paz, Bolivia.

At around 2400m above sea level, Addis is one of the highest national capitals in the world, but La Paz is the highest of them all. The airport (which sits on a plateau above most of the city) is around 4000m! Both cities are surrounded by mountains, forests, and endless outdoor options.

Both Ethiopia and Bolivia are landlocked and a bit remote, thanks to their rugged geography. The upside of this is that they are less influenced by European colonizers than their surrounding neighbors, but the downside is that they are less developed. Bolivia is the poorest country in South America.

Another benefit of their remote geography and independent history is that each country has some really unique cultural aspects. Ethiopia has distinct food, music, dancing, language, etc and Ethiopians are proud of that. From what little I know about Bolivia, it seems like Bolivians have a lot to be proud of as well.

Amazingly, these countries are almost the same size as well. Ethiopia is slightly larger, but both are about 1.1M square kilometers. However, Ethiopia packs 80 million people into this space while Bolivia has only about 10 million.

Finally, and most amazingly, the countries have almost the same flag, just in reverse. Ethiopia’s three stripes are green-yellow-red while Bolivia’s are red-yellow-green!

Of course there will be plenty to see and learn in Bolivia, but it may be interesting to compare my new home to Ethiopia, as a reference. For example, even though Bolivia is the poorest country in South America, at almost $4500 GDP per capita (PPP-adjusted) its citizens should look super wealthy compared to the paltry $1000 GDP per capita in Ethiopia.

Chat Quat Khat Gat

March 29th, 2011

Here is another topic that I don’t think I covered before: chat, khat, quat or whatever. It is a green leaf that acts as a mild stimulant if you chew enough of it. Apparently it is illegal in the US and some other countries, but it is legal in Ethiopia and some other countries in the region. It is very popular here, but Ethiopia also exports some to its neighbors, which is a little ironic when you consider the food shortages here.

Chat seems popular with younger people, particularly students, truck drivers and others who have a need to “burn the midnight oil.” People claim that in addition to keeping you awake it actually makes you alert and helps you concentrate, but I don’t see how that could be true. Others chew it on the weekends just as a pastime. On Saturday, you can find lots of people on Gojam Road chewing chat with friends while enjoying the view of the city.

I have never tried the stuff myself, but one of my visitors did. He bought the leaves from a shop along the road and then realized that he had a problem because he needed to clean each leaf in order to avoid any stomach bugs. After a while he managed to chew on a couple leaves, but he never felt much effect from it. I think you have to consume a lot of this stuff to get any benefit, but that doesn’t discourage men all over the country.

Field Visit

March 26th, 2011

I don’t usually write much about my work, partly because there is not much to say about accounting for a foreign aid organization in Ethiopia: I just count the money. However, for the first time ever (and nearly at the end of my two-year assignment), I was able to join a day of field visits and a day of meetings in the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples Region. As the name suggests, SNNPR includes some of the most remote, undeveloped, and exotic land and people of Ethiopia. The capital city of Hawassa, by contrast, is the most accessible (four hours from Addis) and possibly the most modern of all the regional capitals, so it was chosen for a gathering on the progress of our education projects.

I have been to Hawassa three times before on weekend trips with friends and I have explored a bit of the surroundings as well. I often see schools from the road and read about the progress of our projects, but it was interesting to finally get out and see some of the work. We visited a couple primary schools, one alternative basic education center, and one college of teacher education. At some points in the day I was so impressed with the work being done, but other times I felt a sense of hopelessness as well. It is amazing that Ethiopia seems poised to basically meet the Millenium Development Goal of universal primary education (up from recent enrollment of less than 30%?), but I was not impressed with the way the teachers were introducing new words in English.


When you think about English, for example, you wonder if any of these kids will ever use what s/he is learning. I suppose that kids in any country never use calculus or chemistry, but society agrees that general knowledge, and the process of learning itself, is beneficial. Still, it makes me think back to when I was studying economic development in grad school and I started to think about the timing, sequence, and substance of various components of “development.” Building roads too early can be a waste. Super advanced health care may not be right priority either. A stable and fair government seems important. It is not surprising to me that most of the world still struggles with the right formula for economic development. Luckily, for now, I am just the accountant!


March 26th, 2011

I only eat Ethiopian food a couple times a month, but I enjoyed a visit to this old restaurant recently.


International Women’s Day

March 8th, 2011

For many people, today is a day to reflect on the progress of Women’s rights over the past hundred years, but according to a story a friend told me, today is also a reminder of how far there is to go. An Ethiopian friend has been telling me about the long saga of her sister’s quest to become a flight attendant for Ethiopian Airlines. 

First of all, flight attendants here are officially known as hostesses, but apparently some women suspect that they are just overdressed prostitutes. I know that doesn’t sound nice, so I have to remind you that I am only repeating what my friend told me. Anyway, so her sister has been through a series of five exams or interviews during which time she was tested in English speaking and basic geography, but also her appearance was judged in detail including visual inspection of her breasts (by women thankfully). 

Today was supposed to be her last meetings before possibly getting a mob offer. Among other things, the Ethiopian Airlines staff made a point to ask the cause of some very small blemishes on her arm. She explained that she had some allergic reaction in the past but that she is fine now. I am not sure if that is the answer they were looking for, but the whole evaluation process seems to indicate that in many instances women are more highly prized for their appearance than anything else. Think about that as you celebrate Women’s Day.