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An Ethiopian Wedding

20 Feb

Last weekend I crossed off a Peace Corps bucket list item – attend an Ethiopian Wedding. And boy was this a wedding. Probably one of the biggest events in Gondar after Timket, this was the wedding of one of the Four Sisters. If anyone has been here and eaten at Four Sisters Restaurant, they know how big a deal these ladies are in Gondar. My friend Helen got married to an Australian man named Anthony, who looked a little overwhelmed by the mobs of chanting men at his wedding to be honest. But everyone had a great time, not least due to the copious chunks of raw meat delicacies being offered (I politely declined, been there, done that.)

My invitation on a scroll

My invitation on a scroll

so many people

so many people

Laurissa, Myself, and Morgan

Laurissa, Myself, and Morgan

The wedding lasted for about three days of festivities with my guestimate of over 1,000 people attending at some point during the event. T’ej (honey wine) flowed freely, and it was pretty fun being the some of only white people on the bride’s side. I put on my hasbesha libs (Ethiopian dress, borrowed thanks to Morgan) and we drank and danced. Gondar’s big wigs were all out, almost everyone in the tourist or restaurant or hotel industry was there. Giant tents were set up for the guests and the street kids were out in full force, getting in on the siga wot (meat stew).

so much confetti

so much confetti

Helen and Anthony

Helen and Anthony

This was an interesting event since it was both distinctly Ethiopian, but also she was marrying a foreigner. A white wedding dress, bright pink bridesmaids dresses, and the usual pound of makeup on the women made it a hybrid high school prom, mosh pit situation. We were lucky enough to run in to each of the four sisters as they ran around the guests, though only able to get a photo with Aiden (the youngest, a university student and one of the smartest women I have met).

Myself, Aiden, and Morgan

Myself, Aiden, and Morgan

It was great to mingle with friends and strangers, taking in the spectacle while also a part of it. It typified the existence of a volunteer here. While I was invited and welcomed warmly, there are some traditions I will never quite understand. Both at the party and outside the party, all I could think was, weddings are weddings, in America or Ethiopia. It’s a giant party.

Timket 2.0

11 Feb

Living here for two years you get a few chances to see holiday celebrations. Is this craziness typical? What exactly is a tobat? Do I really have to get up at 3am? These are the questions you have a year to mull over before diving in to the second time on a holiday. This is my second Timket in Gondar. And it’s just as crazy as last year.

watching the parade

watching the parade

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on the way to the bath

on the way to the bath

Priest with an i-pad... yup.

Priest with an i-pad… yup.

Per usual, we started the day before with a parade of the arcs of the covenant down from the 44 Orthodox churches in town. Though not as much of a spectacle as last year, there were just as many people walking right in front of my house.

A priest pouring holy water float

A priest pouring holy water float

We woke up at 2:45am (learned our lesson from last year) and went down to the baths to get good seats on the rickety platforms. Lucky for us, this year they reserved seats for tourists so we just pretended not to speak Amharic for a day. Last year I was right in amongst the crowds, but this year we were more separated. I’m glad I got to experience both. Being in the thick of things last year was a great introduction to my community and the culture. This year, after living her for a while, ya…. I deserved the breather.

dawn prayer

dawn prayer

Fasil Bath at Night

Fasil Bath at Night

waiting for the service

waiting for the service

The rickety platforms

The rickety platforms

Timket in Gondar!

Timket in Gondar!

Timket is Gondar at its best and worst. People travel from all over Ethiopia to worship at the baths, as well as see the sights. A bazaar is set up the week before, tour companies pick up all sorts of business, and professional pickpockets from Addis come up to take advantage. The ceremony is both spiritual and chaotic. Young men jump in with no thought to the significance – one almost fell in before the water was blessed. But as the ceremony moves from religious to more generally cultural, we still get to experience a very unique part of Ethiopian life. This year many of the PCVs who visited jumped in to the pool! I declined, knowing from last year how cold it would be.

 

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jumping in!

jumping in!

the first jumper! right after the priest blessed the water

the first jumper! right after the priest blessed the water

in the holy water

in the holy water

so. cold.

so. cold.

climbing the trees to get a good view - too bad they aren't sycamores, that would have been perfect

climbing the trees to get a good view – too bad they aren’t sycamores, that would have been perfect

Seeing this holiday for the second time, I’ve come to realize how much I really have integrated into life here. Hearing the questions other tourists were asking their guides, I felt pretty knowledgeable. We knew where to go, when to go, and who to schmooze. I ran in to many many friends and acquaintances. It really is a community holiday, and on some level I’m really part of the community now.

so many visitors

so many visitors

priests at service

priests at service

Playing Tourist – The Rock Churches of Lalibela

21 Jan

Christmas Day I walked through the bowels of hell to come out into the light on the other side. Dramatic, non? Well, that’s just how you get around in Lalibela, Ethiopia – tunnels, trenches, on your knees in caves and alcoves. Heading East after the first few days in Ethiopia, my family and I set out to see some of the most impressive monolithic architecture in the world. This is national Geographic stuff people.

At Bet Giorgis, the most famous rock hewn church

At Bet Giorgis, the most famous rock hewn church

through the trenches of Lalibella

through the trenches of Lalibella

my dad at one of the entrances

my dad at one of the entrances

The columns were carved so straight in lines

The columns were carved so straight in lines

Over two days we toured the three compounds of the rock churches in Lalibela, monolithic ones (freestanding), ones that had three sides exposed and one wall attached to the “mother rock,” and cave churches (similar the buildings in Petra, Jordan). Though the monolithic churches were impressive, the passageways, trenches and sheer number of buildings (11 built in just 24 years) made the whole experience unbelievable. King, or Saint, depending on who you talk to, Lalibela built his 11 churches as a 2nd Jerusalem, a place of pilgrimage for African Christians in the 6th or 7th century. Most certainly religious in nature, these churches are still active (with the pilgrims to prove it). The architectural and engineering feet brought the center of Ethiopian political power to Lalibela during that time nonetheless. Today, Lalibela is still a small town, boasting only about 35,000 people, but during holidays like Genna (Ethiopian Christmas on January 7th) the town grows to accommodate 3, 4, even 5 times that size.

praying on the wall, including an ancient swastica style cross

praying on the wall, including an ancient swastika style cross

A priest with his cross

A priest with his cross

around sunset the lichen glows yellow on Bet Giorgis

around sunset the lichen glows yellow on Bet Giorgis

typical Ethiopian Orthodox painting of Mary and Jesus

typical Ethiopian Orthodox painting of Mary and Jesus

wax candles

wax candles

My family and I visited over Christmas, the ferenji kind, December 25th, so not that much was going on. Pilgrims were starting to come in to the town for the big event two weeks later, but really we got a front row seat to these churches. Though orthodoxy really doesn’t come close to my family’s version of Protestantism at all, it was still a powerful experience to walk through and see all the devotion.

an orthodox priest who told me that visiting Lalibela would mean 7 generations of my children would be blessed because it is the 2nd Jerusalem. When I told I had been to the 1st Jerusalem, he changed that number to 14 generations.

an orthodox priest who told me that visiting Lalibela would mean 7 generations of my children would be blessed because it is the 2nd Jerusalem. When I told I had been to the 1st Jerusalem, he changed that number to 14 generations.

A priest with his cross

A priest with his cross

wind erosion

wind erosion

me and the brothers

me and the brothers

priest's drums to accompany the chanting. The leather lashes represent the lashes of the whip on Jesus' back.

priest’s drums to accompany the chanting. The leather lashes represent the lashes of the whip on Jesus’ back.

some amazing carvings and an old Star of David. There is a lot of connection to Jewish history in Ethiopia

some amazing carvings and an old Star of David. There is a lot of connection to Jewish history in Ethiopia

a hermit on pillgrimage

a hermit on pillgrimage

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these trenches provide paths and drainage

these trenches provide paths and drainage

On our second day in Lalibela we took a drive up to Yemrihane Kristos monastery about 40 km north of the town. The monastery is still active as a religious school and houses a few different buildings in a large ivy covered cave.  The priest showed us the carvings by candlelight, bringing us back to when they were first built. Just living in Ethiopia tends to bring you back to Biblical times, with farmers threshing wheat by hand, livestock running over the open air markets and huts that make my theater sets look sturdy. But going through the same unchanged churches and monasteries that people have worshiped in for centuries really brought me back in time.

Ancient Tukul Bets raised and made from stone. Usually they are sticks and mud.

Ancient Tukul Bets raised and made from stone. Usually they are sticks and mud.

our van needed a little help on the sandy roads

our van needed a little help on the sandy roads

Yemrehana Kristos Monastery is in that ivy covered cave

Yemrehana Kristos Monastery is in that ivy covered cave

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Mummies in the monastery

Mummies in the monastery

Yemrehanna Kristos by candelight

Yemrehanna Kristos by candelight

Very different from the historical tours in the Gondar, this was the last stop on our Ethiopian tour. In total we spent just under a week in Ethiopia, which my mom called the “real Africa” part of the trip. Considering how different the culture here is from the rest of Africa, it’s an interesting moniker, but I get what she means. Tanzania was luxury and animals. In Ethiopia I threw my family into the thickest of Ethiopian culture, history, food and even a little language. Recently Ethiopia has been popping up all over the place on top travel lists and best bang for your buck tourism. My home is open!

Nations and Nationalities Day

12 Dec

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Last Sunday was the national celebration of diversity in Ethiopia –Nations and Nationalities Day. There are 87 individual languages and as many cultures in Ethiopia. Most of these are tribal languages that you find on the southern border with Kenya where National Geographic worthy communities like the Hammer Tribe live in the Omo Valley.

But even up north in the more homogenous Amhara region, where I live, there a regional differences and a lot of pride. On the west side, Orthodox Christianity reigns supreme, as well as the typical white cotton dresses. Most cities have their own meskel or “cross,” and the Gondar one looks more like a floral diamond.

Lalibela on left, St. George, and Gondar crosses

Lalibela on left, St. George, and Gondar crosses

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The other common costume is a forest green outfit with white buttons for men. Typical of both the Gondar region and south of us in the Gojam region (which surrounds Bahar Dar) these outfits are traditionally the fancy fare of farmers.

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Amhara has been the seat of power, culture, and ecumenical influence for a significant portion of Ethiopian history. Amhara and Tigray (to the North) are seen as more “traditional” Ethiopia, while the south is more tribal. Tigray boasts Axum, said to hold the Arc of the Covenant, while Amhara has both Gondar and Lalibela for historical and religious clout. Natural beauty also abounds – The Simien Mountains, north of Gondar, and the Blue Nile Falls, south of Bahar Dar are breathtaking and unique.

Amhara Flag

Amhara Flag

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Tigray has the rock hewn churchs of Hauzen, the columns of Axum, and a desert like landscape. Oromia, the largest region in the center and the political rival for the last century, has the lush Awash National park, Wenchi crater, and a lot more beads on their clothing. The South has the Bale Mountains (featured in BBC’s Life), and the most cultural diversity of the regions. Apparently the shakala tibs (charred meat dish) are best down here too.  Afar and Somali regions are majority Muslim, nomadic and have landscape as tough as the lifestyle. Somalia just had a polio outbreak, and I randomly met up the CDC team as they prepared to head out that way… shmerrr. In Afar, the Danakil Depression is the hottest point on earth with lava literally bubbling out of the ground. We can’t visit it as volunteers, but it’s definitely on my list for afterwards!

Muslim student carrying the Ethiopian Flag

Muslim student carrying the Ethiopian Flag

Addis Ababa, Dire Dowa, and  Harar boast their own city principalities, and per my previous post, Harar has an interesting and unique twist to its history.

Other regions in our “no-go zone” include Gambella and BG, on the border of Sudan and South Sudan. I don’t know much about them, besides the refugee camps, but I heard they have giraffes! There is definitely an elephant sanctuary out by Jijiga in the East.

So there’s a quick and dirty run down of the some of the cultural and natural diversity in Ethiopia in honor of Nations and Nationalities Day.

Genderisms and Why I Always Have My Camera

5 Dec
All the painted nails, boys and girls alike

All the painted nails, boys and girls alike

On Monday morning this week I was invited to speak to an undergrad gender empowerment class at the University of Gondar. The degree program is Gender Studies, and graduates end up mostly in government jobs working towards mainstreaming gender issues in development work and other policies. It’s a lofty goal, and I was pleased to see the room about half men as well. It’s about gender, not women. It’s about economic development, real strategies on the ground, and not just “empowerment.”

During the course of the morning I was asked about almost everything under the sun gender – from “are you a feminist?” to “why are you so passionate about these issues if compared to Ethiopia women in America are so empowered?”

Am I feminist? No, not really. Not of the 1960s militant theoretical variety anyway. Though the older I get, the more places I live, the more feminist (or mindful of gender inequality) I become.

Why am I passionate? Because we still have issues in the US as well. Because health is one of the strategies to bring women up or keep them down. In Ethiopia, too many women die in childbirth because they didn’t have access or weren’t allowed to go to a health center by family pressure. In America, I won’t even get into the slew of conservative state law going on the books this summer. Because my mother had to deal with a man’s world of upper management. Because I get harassed on the street. Because I lived in Jordan. Because I live in Ethiopia. Because I have had a lot of opportunities these Ethiopian women have had to fight so hard to get. Because I know I’m lucky, and I want those opportunities for others.

So how do you move towards a more equal society? You encourage education, especially for girls. It starts in the family. I certainly wouldn’t be here without the support of my family, and I certainly wouldn’t have made the education and career choices I’ve made if my family didn’t think I was just as capable as my brothers. And that’s a generational, long term answer. It’s exciting because I really think this generation in the universities now is going to be great role models for its kids. Women are on a precipice here, it’s this generation that will get to see that change.

There are still pockets of families in the US who would rather encourage motherhood and housewifery instead of college or work. But as gender norms go, that’s not too bad. And many women choose that path, but at least they had a choice. Some families in Ethiopia are still encouraging early marriage and high rates of female genital mutilation. I’ll take “make me sandwich” any day.

But to switch gears a bit, if gender norms here can be incredibly stiff, gendered symbols are not at all. In America, pink is for baby girls, blue for baby boys. Girls get barbies, boys get tonka trucks.

In Ethiopia, I was sitting in a café that afternoon after talking to the class and two deaf streetkids I know came up to say hi. The boy was wearing a dress and pink rainboots, and his sister had a dark green sweater, no shoes.  He got the rainboots, my guess, because he was the boy – colour be damned. My sitemate and I were painting our nails and offered to the kids. No matter, he went for the bright pink. She thought the blue was great.

Men drape over each other in cafes and hold hands or link pinkies as they stroll down the street. Women can be very shy and quiet, even meek, but still wearing the tightest ,most stylish pants. Short hair for all kids is a must during rainy season – better to keep an eye out for head fungus.

So poverty, practicality and no cultural significance to westernized gendered symbols can mean an interesting mix of cultural norms.

So encourage those women in your life. Encourage the men in your life. No matter where they live, they probably face some preconceived notions. And always have a camera, in Ethiopia, it can mean a very fun gender neutral afternoon.

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One of my grassroot soccer streetkids

One of my grassroot soccer streetkids

She was holding bottlecaps in her shirt

She was holding bottlecaps in her shirt

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this woman wanted us to paint her baby's toenails

this woman wanted us to paint her baby’s toenails

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Video

Interviews with Ethiopian Girls

21 Oct

Over one week I interviewed 17 Ethiopian high school girls about what they hope for their own futures, the future of their country, why we need to support each other, and what makes them strong women. The girls were from big towns and small villages. They were as young as 13 and as old as 18. They were Orthodox and Muslim. They responded in English and Amharic. But they all wanted to see change. They all had big hopes and dreams. I’m excited that this is the generation of girls who will get to see the changes many have hoped for, who will create change, and really pull Ethiopia towards bigger things.

Here’s what they had to say:

An Ode to American Toilet Paper

15 Sep

WARNING – this post is rifled with too much information on bathroom habits, and just a little bit about culture. Proceed with caution if you have a weak stomach, or at any point you ever thought I was attractive.

First, do NOT send me toilet paper. I can buy a roll here for the equivalent of 50 cents at any suk on the side of the road, and that space would be much better served housing a chocolate bar. BUT, when one of my friends left for America after finishing up her research here last week she dropped off a bag of goodies – Clorox wipes, a few shirts, some olive oil, and… American toilet paper.

Oh the joys of double ply quilted. I always knew ye, but I had forgotten. When I got a cold last week, you were there, not chaffing my nose. When I had “the gas” that injera eaters know all too well you were a comfort. When I reveal too much information about anything body related on my blog, you will still be there, soft and … well, soft.

Ironically, toilet paper here is called “soft.” It’s not. But, like I said I can get a roll for the equivalent of 50 cents… you get what you pay for.

Toilet paper is funny. To an American, the first thing I would update in a home would be the bathroom, or kitchen. To an Ethiopian, the first thing they would update is the main room or bedroom. I have been to so many houses with mud walls, rat holes, and a tarp ceiling, with a giant maple cabinet that holds their china dishware. I don’t get it. I would have put in a toilet, or a water heater, or a propane stove.

But, toilet paper is the metaphor for priorities – most Ethiopians don’t use it anyway, and they probably think I’m super gross for not using water… though a little water, tp combo does the trick. I really think it’s a North American thing. I’ve used squat latrines in Italy for pete’s sake.

The point is, small pleasures are so worth it. And I’m pretty sure an American grocery store is going to blow my mind when I get back. Multiple brands of toilet paper?? That I can buy in bulk?? Don’t even take me to the toothpaste aisle.

So for now I’ll use the roll Kristin left for me. And when it runs out, I’ll go back to “soft.” But the few weeks I could mooch off Morgan’s hot shower when she was homeless (rats… don’t ask… or do) was heavenly, and I only wanted to die a little bit taking that first cold shower again.

These are never the reasons people have a hard time. I’ll take power outages, pit latrines, and water scarcity over harassment any day. But that small feeling of home, reminds me I’m not living here forever… and I think I’m ok with that (sorry Peace Corps).

Maybe when I go back, I’ll appreciate the toilet paper (read everything) a little bit more.

 

 

 

13 Months of Sunshine

9 Sep

Melkam Enkutatash! Happy Ethiopian New Year! If you harken back to my post on the craziness of the Ethiopian time keeping system and calendar, you will remember that the New Year starts mid September (September 12 to be exact, this year), after a 6 day month called Pagumae. And it’s 2006.

So Pagumae is a 6 day month that happens as rainy season winds down to bring in the New Year. Since the other 12 months are always 30 days, this 13th month fluctuates between 5 and 6 days (depending on a leap year) to keep the system on track. So if you count the 2 sunny days we had during rainy season, it’s true – 13 months of sunshine. A tourism slogan’s dream.

The Ethiopian Orthodox calendar follows the orthodox christian (originally Coptic) calendar, so really orthodox Christians the world over will be celebrating New Years on Wednesday.

If you told me in 2006 that I would be living in 2006 in 2013 I would have been like…. does the Dolorian exist? Where we’re going we don’t need roads! Ironic, since there aren’t many here.

Anyways, Happy New Year and bring on the sunshine!

Hyenas and Harar

31 Aug
Showa Gate to the Old City of Harar

Showa Gate to the Old City of Harar

I just returned from a quick weekend trip to the old city of Harar on the East side of Ethiopia. Close to the Somalia border, Harar is the 4th Holiest City in Islam and the root of much of Islamic culture in Ethiopia. Having lived in a highly Orthodox area for the past year, it was a nice break and a trip down memory lane to my time in Jordan. The old city of Harar had a much more middle eastern feel and some more recognizable market spices.

Harar is the site where a part of the Umma (original muslim community in Arabia) immigrated for refuge from the Mecca – Medina conflict in the late 600s. The ruler of Ethiopia (then Abyssinia) opened his doors to the Muslims and started the tradition of religious tolerance in Ethiopia. Islam is the second largest religion here after the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian Church.

Harar is the 4th holiest city in Islam - the old city boast 88 mosques

Harar is the 4th holiest city in Islam – the old city boasts 88 mosques

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Representing Peace Corps as I walk through Showa Gate

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Women selling chat – a leaf chewed by many Ethiopians with the equivalent effect of the cocoa leaf. It is very common in Muslims communities.

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A huge pile of dried kariya peppers, the main spice in berbere

A huge pile of dried kariya peppers, the main spice in berbere

Picking up a guide for a tour of the old city we walked through ancient city walls and toured some of the local homes and more famous residents of the town. Haile Selassie used to have a “palace” here (Ras Tefari’s house), and the interior decor of the homes was famously “Harari.” Tasting street food along the way (I am in Peace Corps after all), we finished the afternoon  with some Hakim Stout – the local brew.

Ras Taferi's house (later, known as Haile Selassie)

Ras Taferi’s house (later, known as Haile Selassie)

Carmen, Kristin, and Me at Ras Tefari's house

Carmen, Kristin, and Me at Ras Tefari’s house

A typical Harari home

A typical Harari home – these pots get taken down to entertain

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Bajajes and Blue Donkeys are common all over Ethiopia

Bajajes and Blue Donkeys are common all over Ethiopia

The main attraction in Harar though are the famous “hyena men.” These local guys sit outside the city walls every night around sunset to feed wild hyenas fatty camel meat. These hyenas have basically been domesticated over years of guaranteed food, and consistent feeding has made them huge! I did not realize just how big these animals would be. I thought big dogs, the reality was more like small bears. But, I screwed up my courage and we all volunteered to feed them ourselves, with help from the hyena man.

A very clear "what the hell am I doing with my life" face

A very clear “what the hell am I doing with my life” face

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Carmen is BRAVE!

Carmen is BRAVE!

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This is one of my first trips outside my immediate region, and it was great to see a very different part of Ethiopia with different culture, food, and infrastructure. After Harar I headed down to the Southern Nations to do a training in a city called Butajira for the new group of education volunteers. So over a few days I was able to see the Harar region and a part of the south, expanding my understanding of Ethiopia as a whole.

What IFS?

16 Jul

Using software algorithms to predict the future, the good people at IFs (International Futures System) sent me some Ethiopian themed fortunes.  Actually, the good people at IFS is my friend from the Pardee Center at Korbel, and Ethiopian themed fortunes are a combination of fertility rates, HIV prevalence, education, and infrastructure data that are mathematically calibrated to give you pretty graphs:

Ooh, multiple population scenarios!

Ooh, multiple population scenarios!

The IFS software is used in some of the world’s most influential documents (lips are sealed) and works very similarly to the United Nations predictive algorithms, though we at Korbel like to think IFS is more accurate (more factors go into the system). It is a long-term predictive software that has been used on research from national security to rate of water conflict, to just a great source for international big data. Just for funsies, and because I’m a nerd, I asked my friend to pull up some Ethiopian data to give you all a broader look at the country, where my work fits in, and more international and sub-Saharan African trends.

As most people in this field know, the population of Africa is set to grow at the highest rate than any other region in the world over the next 5o years. That means that by 2050, 1 in 4 people of the world’s population will be African. What drives this growth? A myriad of factors, but mostly high fertility rates on the continent, with sub-saharan Africa having some of the highest in the world. Interestingly, the correlation between fertility rates and female education is clear (more education means less babies), and as these nations (Ethiopia included) work towards the Millennial Development goals you will see fertility rates drop:

Fertility rates through 2009

A significant drop over the past decade

Of course, right now, all these babies mean a pretty sizable youth bulge in the population distribution. And for anyone following the news, youth bulges, especially unemployed youth bulges, tend to be the foundation for revolution (see Egypt, Tunisia, Syria).

Now

Now

Soon

Soon

Later...

Later…

It also means that the largest segment of society will in theory be at their most productive age over the next few decades. The question is whether that talent will be wasted in a one-sided economy (agriculture makes up 85% of the workforce here) or if innovation and job creation will be fostered.  The private sector is one of the smallest in Africa, with stringent national laws allowing only majority Ethiopian owned enterprises to be registered. That’s one of the reasons that even in a big city like Addis you don’t see worldwide chains that you might see in Nairobi or Amman.  It’s the “import substitution” mentality of 1980s Latin America applied to small business growth… and it’s a bet I wouldn’t have made. We will see if it works in the long run, though history tends to say otherwise.

Ethiopia’s infrastructure is also leaps and bounds behind the rest, and the communal good is really slowing down growth. Rainy season all but kills export in some areas of the country when the roads are impassable. Though Chinese investment, specifically in road construction, has been ramped up over the years. It’s a tenuous relationship, the local perception of the Chinese investment here is less than positive even if the photo ops say otherwise. Though Addis Ababa is slated to be home to Africa’s tallest building soon with help from a Chinese construction company.

But that’s enough graphs for now…  the broad trends are interesting even when I’m working at the most rootiest of grassroots levels.

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