May 08, 2005

Long entry

I apologize for the really long entry. I've been saving up stories while the internet has been down in my neighborhood. As it so happens, however, the Addis Ababa Rocking Fun Zone was discovered and reported on in one of the local dailies - now I'm compelled to post. Enjoy. Even if the internet is down, I'll try to use other connections in Addis to be more regular.


Okay, okay, okay. What’s happening? Trying to bring my peops up to date. Sometimes I hate the Christmas coloring of Microsoft Word’s autocorrect. “Peops” is apparently not in the dictionary at this point, though I can add it if I choose. That reminds me, I was thinking this morning about a grammatical concept I learned from Microsoft Word. It’s the only concept I’ve learned as the software actually acts as a crutch preventing you from learning how to write (in my opinion). Anyway, the thing I learned was to use “that” instead of “who”. It’s not a precise science – I’m not totally sure when to use it, but I think I’ll error on the side of Microsoft when choosing between “that” and “who” in prefacing my auxiliary clauses.

‘Nough Microsoft bashing. I know there are a lot of programmers out there who have real gripes with Microsoft. Unfortunately, I’m not sophisticated enough in my computer knowledge to understand what these technical shortcomings are. I do, occasionally, have trouble with formatting bullet points in a Word table. Other than that, I feel pretty unaware of the gross inadequacies of the software I’m working with. Ignorance is bliss.

Speaking of “Ignorance is Bliss", my wife and I had a final showdown with the Matrix last night. I came home with “Matrix Reloaded." At the end of it, I couldn’t help but return to the video store to watch the final movie in the series. One thing I noticed last night was how much the character “Morpheus” changes once his expectations of the prophecy are not fulfilled. He really loses his “raison d’etre” – at the end, I’m not really sure whether he’s happy or not.

That said, the Matrix went over well in this Ethiopian household. I think it’s well liked in others as well. A big tip of the hat to the Waichowski brothers, though if I am honest with myself, I think I’ve switched allegiances to the whole “Bourne Identity” thing.

Not much happening in terms of politics or the election. At least, not much that you can see. Televised debates concluded last week, I believe. The poll is May 15 or thereabouts. No new election observer hassles as far as I can tell.

Big news. A couple of days ago, the first piece of the Axum Obelisk, taken by the Italians during their brief occupation, was returned to Ethiopia. To get it back, Ethiopia first had to convince Italy to return what they had taken. These negotiations started in the 1960s, if I’m not mistaken (things move slowly here and Italy might still have been smarting about its failed colonization). After that, they had to deal with the logistics of transporting such a large stone object. This was done by a cargo liner and, as I said, only the first piece has been returned to date. The runway at Axum had to be extended simply to handle the airplane required to transport the obelisk.

In other news, my wife and I visited the Construction Bank to investigate getting a home loan. At about this point in our lives, in the U.S., we would probably be heading to any one of the large banks in Seattle – Washington Mutual, Key, Bank of America, etc., to secure our first mortgage. Here, things work a bit differently. I don’t fully understand all of the details at this point, but let me share what I know.

Although other banks have the ability to offer home loans, it’s not the norm. Only the Construction Bank is in the regular business of providing loans to home seekers. Loans for construction require 30% collateral, which has to be in the form of a house or business. Cars are not collateral. I think they do things in installments as well, so you need 30% collateral to build a foundation. Once the foundation is built, it acts as collateral for another loan (strange).

Taking out a loan to buy an already constructed house is problematic because the bank will often far under assess the value of the home. For instance, right now a lot of junky old homes sit on extremely valuable real estate. Because all land is the property of the government, the Construction Bank does not include the value of the land in its assessment, only the property on the land. Therefore, you might get a loan from the bank for a house valued at 40,000 Birr, but no one would consider selling the whole package – land plus house, for less than 1,000,000 Birr. It’s an unworkable system. That, or you have to buy a house that’s newly built so that it has a high value, but still, you will only get the value of the house in your loan, not the land it sits on, so you need to have a lot of capital on the side.

Strange. It seems like this would be a great nitch for private banks to fill. But private banks don’t feel like they have enough capital to toss around or that there is the legal infrastructure to regulate loan payments, defaults, etc. What you get is an excessive demand for capital and subsequent high interest rates. The Construction Bank loans at about 8% annual interest, which is obviously very high when compared to the U.S. If you seek capital from private banks (who, like I said, generally don’t offer home loans), the rate can climb to as high as 15%, so I’m told. Makes buying a house a real problem.

I think what people do is live at home for a long time, then rent and rent, all the while saving money, and in the end, buy a house. Foreign capital might be a real use in this situation, but capital is the most regulated thing in Ethiopia, and for good reason. Ethiopia’s goal is to remain as Ethiopian owned as possible. Foreign capital could certainly help with some short term needs, but would mean giving up ownership, something the government and people loathe to do. But then you end with situations where business, construction, ownership, etc. are hamstrung. I’m going to side with the government on this one, as I think maintaining ownership of resources, capital, etc., is fundamental.

Anyway, we are exploring our options. I’ve have some possibilities because of my investment activities, if I can justify borrowing in order to establish operations. This is highly unlikely, now that I think about it, because my registered capital as an investor is so darn low. Possibly the U.S. Import/Export Bank might be more fruitful, again for business development. Who knows? It is fun to try to figure out the system. As an American, with access to credit sources not available here, I’m probably in a good position to profit from things as they stand. Other people, not so much.

Bank loans aside, I have other news. I’ve finally become serious about learning my wife’s mother language and have hired an Amharic instructor. We are on lesson 3 tonight. He’s an old man, probably 70, dresses like he’s getting ready to deliver a lecture (very nice), and has a very serious manner. I like him. In the two lessons we’ve had, I’ve been able to systematize some of the words and phrases I hear floating around in conversations. I don’t know what he has in store for me tonight. Hopefully, more verbs and pronunciation. What I like most is repetition of the most basic elements. Adjective, noun, verb. Change the subject of the sentence.. Adjective, noun, verb.

It’s not my fault I’m unable to post blog entries – some contractor was digging with a backhoe and severed one of the telecommunication lines for our area of the city. Our house is in good company – the World Bank and a number of NGO's and businesses are also down. Maybe they need to post some of those signs that say, “Call this number before digging here." That might take care of the problem in a jiffy.

I’ve been reading the Grade 12 history book for Ethiopian students. It’s very interesting. Although printed and approved by the Ministry of Education in 2002, it includes very little discussion of the current party, which has been in power since 1991 and which is also something I’d like to read more about. At a minimum, I’ll get a good look at the history of the Derg (Mengistu Haile Mariam). The book contains much discussion of World War II, though presented from an Ethiopian perspective. The actual discussions of the war follow generally accepted knowledge, but you get so much more when learning about the Ethiopian case.

I jumped in about 1/3 of the way through the book, where the Italians were making their initial overtures towards Ethiopia, sometime in the late 1800's. The book moves quickly to the Battle of Adwa, where Ethiopia scored a decisive victory against the Italians that led to their withdrawal (until World War II). Some of the language is very colorful, which I will detail. One note I found particularly suspect indicated that “the Ethiopian army lost heavily in dead and wounded, but with no losses in prisoners”. Not a single lost prisoner. My wife pointed out that this could be because the Italians killed any hostages. Also, since Ethiopia won, prisoners would not have been taken. Maybe it is accurate, but I suspect there might be a small touch of myth involved in this version of history. After all, present day Eritrea was colonized and many of the fighters in the Battle of Adwa were Eritrean conscripts. Is it so hard to believe that maybe a few Ethiopians were conscripted?

As we’ll see later, the language surrounding the Ethiopian defeat prior to World War II is equally stark – it’s described in terms of a “complete loss”. But first, some of the language describing the significance of the Battle of Adwa should be interesting. “…Adwa seemed to have drawn the attention of the international community to Ethiopia, the country that scored the first major black victory against the whites.” “Adwa was considered a symbol of black independence for its lesson of the possibility of victory against colonialism…At face value, [the movement that developed] was…an attempt at fighting white domination”.

I love that kind of stark language. It seems to me accurate. In the world at the time, race was a dominant issue. Ethnicities were defined in terms of color and the black race was seen as the most inferior. It is essential to not underestimate the importance of Ethiopia’s victory at Adwa and its independence from colonization in the minds of previous generations and present day Africans. Ethiopia is a symbol of black equality with white. Ethiopians may be largely unconcerned about their role as a symbol for sub-Saharan Africa, but the country’s role is critical. If you look at the flags of most West African and a number of sub-Saharan African countries, they include the green, yellow, and red of Ethiopia’s flag.

Anyway, to continue with the book, it seems to be balanced in its assessment of Ethiopia’s fate, whether ultra-nationalistic when describing the victory at Adwa or starkly realist in describing the defeat immediately preceding World War II. “…In the campaigns of 1935/35, the Ethiopians were utterly defeated”. Following the occupation, Ethiopia was able to evict the Italians with military assistance from the British. I asked my wife if there was a difference in the conception of Ethiopia’s victory at Adwa and their victory in 1941 – I thought the fact that the British assisted Ethiopia in dislodging the Italians might have cheapened the victory. She says no, that in Ethiopian history, the Italian occupation was just an extension of World War II and that Ethiopia allied with the British to force the Italians out. Good to know.

I’m going to finish the history book later and will report to you on what I find. Right now, I’m just entering the Cold War. Can’t wait to read about the rise of the Derg.

In other news, we visited our first prospective house yesterday. I will take the steam out of the engine right now and tell you we have no possibility of buying it, but for a short time, it was a nice thought. The house is owned by one of my father-in-law’s friends. When we arrived, after winding our way back through a lot of bumpy, dirt roads, I was surprised by just how big the plot was. Turns out it was 1135 square meters which I’m assuming is a little over 1 hectare. It was a beautiful piece of land, prime for building a large addition or huge yard. Even the house was cool, something from the 1960s, with wood floors, a nice porch, and big rooms.

So much of the discussion took place in Amharic between my father-in-law and his friend. Ethiopians, and Africans in general, are so skilled in the art of nuance. At one point early in the discussion, the owner said that someone had offered him 1.3 million birr ($160,0000), which he refused. That was about 30 minutes before we all sat together to discuss price, in which he came out with the figure of 2.0 million birr ($225,000).

This is a really difficult system in which to buy a house. Given my wife’s and my earning power, a bank in the U.S. would offer us a loan for $225,000, albeit probably with a fairly high interest rate. Even then, I would have jumped at the opportunity to own such a good piece of land so close to the city. Here, though, there is no such thing as a home loan unless it is for the construction of a house. I’ve been trying to think of this in terms of national-level economics, and the only thing I can come up with is that the government wants to use the capital collected by banks for its own development purposes. Given the shortage of capital available in this country, because of its strict approach to foreign involvement, it is almost required that the government obtain all private capital for its own purposes.

At the same time, you are allowed to take out loans from the government for the construction of property. I’m not sure why that works, except that maybe the government makes revenues off home construction whereas it makes not money from the sale and resale of already constructed houses.

Anyway, we’re not going to take the house for a couple of reasons. One, as I said, it’s out of our capital range at this point. You’ve basically got to have 100% capital in order to purchase. This means that people 45-50 are the ones buying houses, though young people with means may be able to construct. Additionally, there’s a problem here with imminent domain, the process in which governments take possession of private property for the construction of public goods. Since all land is the property of the government, they only value the house when offering compensation, which means that people often get substantially lower rate from the government than what they can find in the private market. Because we don’t know what the city’s plans are for that neighborhood, we can’t be sure that our property wouldn’t be taken at some point.

One of the results of this imminent domain program is that people are building up – constructing large apartment complexes that house 30-40 people rather than building a large house for 3-4 people or even a small house with an open piece of land. Large pieces of property where a lot of people would be displaced are apparently left alone by the government.

I really don’t have any strong feelings on this issue. Compared to 99% of the population, my wife and I are in such good positions financially and in terms of future opportunity. We may have to wait a bit for our turn, but so few people our age are even considering home ownership; we are pretty lucky. I think, for now, we will continue renting and maybe construct a house that we will sell in order to make a bit of money. I’m pretty content with where we are for now, so maybe we’ll just stay here.

Well, next week my colleague and I are off to Kampala, Uganda, to visit an organization we are trying to copy. It’s run by one of my wife’s colleagues from the fellowship program. We’re hoping to get some good ideas that will help us get off the ground here.

Take care.


I’ve been really occupied with work the past few days. Let this stuff slide, and it all builds up at the end, just like being back in school.

I recently came into an excellent employment with my friend Dr. W, one of my wife’s co-Fellows from the U.S. We knew each other well over there and now things have continued here. Anyway, I’ve been working on a project at the Health Communication Partnership for the last month and just last week, Dr. W came on board as well, on the same project. Our job is to work together to move the project forward, each using our own skills. It’s definitely a desirable work situation.

Yesterday and the day before, we worked in the morning, had lunch at the Greek restaurant below us, then went back for a little more work in the afternoon. Dr. W has strong ideas on the way he thinks the project should be implemented. I have equally strong ideas, so that can make things a bit challenging at times. But all in all, it’s a huge plus for both of us.

Our tickets for Uganda are finalized. Our hotel arrangement has been made and we have transport to and from the airport. At the recommendation of the secretary over there who’s helping us, we are staying in a bit nicer hotel than we expected, but we’re sharing a room. I guess that means we can afford a bit nicer hotel.

The rains have started in earnest here. You wake up to see puddles in the roads, little streams running through the neighborhood. I love it. Everything is so fresh and clean. What’s more, I love looking up at the sky and seeing variation instead of the straight blue. When it’s clear, you always know what you are going to get, but when the clouds come, you don’t know how much rain or lightening they will bring to your area. And, unlike my Alaskan hometown, you aren’t always stuck with a slate of grey than can be just as monotonous as pure blue. I like it.

Like I said, though, the rains have started in earnest. Two days ago, seventy people were killed in Eastern Ethiopia when a river overflowed its banks, trapping a lot of people who’d built their homes on the river’s edge. Given that there’s no ocean here, very few people can swim and most have a mortal fear of water. Maybe if they’d been able to swim, more would have survived. Anyway, it’s a pretty big event – my friend heard it on the BBC and I read about it in one of the dailies, but there was no mention of it on the television. Some people suggested that might be because of the election, but I’m not sure.

I must commend the politicking of the ruling party. They are damn smart. The entire Axum Obelisk has been returned to Ethiopia, just three weeks before the election. There’s nothing better arousing Ethiopian patriotism. Something that became so culturally symbolic to Ethiopia, the theft and return of its artifacts (in the case of the obelisk), is sure to take some of the steam out of the disaffected.

Our new dog is holding up pretty well, but he’s what we call “hiyalena” which means “wild” in Amharic. He’s a tough dog for a 4 week old puppy. Whenever I feed him chicken or beef bones, he starts growling like a crazy dog, even if no other living thing is close to him. And he growls loudly. We can hear him from the inside. I think he’s going to make a great guard dog and not such a good pet, although you can see signs of him softening. On occasion, rather than biting my hand or pants, he offers to lick them. I think this could be positive. I’m a little concerned about having a baby with a dog like him, but we will just keep them separate until the baby is a child of 10 or so.

He’s a good dog. So intent to be older. Already at four weeks, he’s trying to jump up on the couch and on the ledge of our front porch. He’s so cute when he tries. He’ll stand back about six inches, then launch himself. Because he’s so far back, he loses his maximum trajectory before his claws are close to his target, but he’ll get the hang of it. For now, it’s a nice source of amusement for my wife and I.

Boy, I had an encounter the other night that made my blood boil. It wasn’t so much an encounter - I was the subject of an Amharic-language exchange between a couple of people that my wife told me about afterwards. I wasn’t even so much the subject, as it could have been anyone with white skin.

My wife and I were at the public baths for our bi-monthly “sweat-a-thon”. In this semi-cold climate and with our water heater being out of action, I like to go at least twice a month to warm-up, as well as to really scrub down. We were sitting in the open-air corridor along with other waiting guests for our turn to get a private room. In all fairness, the public baths here are horribly disorganized. If you go at peak times, you could end up waiting as much as four hours for a 45 minute session. It can be really frustrating and sometimes tempers can flare.

The other night, it wasn’t a case of tempers flaring so much as a young guy showing off for his girlfriend. The attendant announced that a room opened and that we could go in. Apparently, this guy and his girlfriend had been there before us, left, and come back. When the lady offered us the room, he got upset and made the comment that the order was not determined by color of skin.

I couldn’t hear anything and it was only after they’d walked off that my wife told me what they’d said. My wife, preferring to remain a good customer, as we’d received such good treatment from the staff before, said nothing. But I got mad, though in hindsight, I don’t really see why. Who cares if some young punk wants to show-off for his girlfriend? In the end, he’s the only one that ends up looking stupid. Still, at the time, I was pretty peeved and told my wife that if I’d understood I would have exchanged words with the guy.

His sentiment is not entirely unique here and not always without justification. Take, for example, security searches when entering a building. Unless the guard is overly-efficient, I almost never get searched while whoever is with me, if they are Ethiopian, gets a complete rub-down. That’s the best example I can think of, but it probably happens in businesses where employees or owners assume that I have a lot of money to put down. I can see how that would get up resentment.

Well, let me sign off there and get back to work. I’ve been without automobile for a few days now that my wife is taking her vacation. Just like the cell phone, once you have it, it’s hard to go back. In terms of the latter, in the U.S. I never owned a cell phone. Now, when I’m even heading out of the house on a Saturday, I think, “what if somebody needs to get in touch with me”? Have I become that important?


Yesterday my brother-in-law and I went suit shopping. Not for me, for him. I’d been threatening for a while to embargo his monthly salary for the purpose of getting him some professional clothes. He resisted, but its entirely my right in this culture. As my brother-in-law, technically, he’s required to work for me for free. I choose not to do this because it would lead to lower quality work and besides, it’s not too much money here – good to get him started.

So yesterday, we met at the suit shop. I was ticked because he was a couple of minutes late, I had a busy day, and I thought that since the occasion was for him, he’d be early. Turns out he was – he was at the branch across the street.

Initially, my brother-in-law was resistant to the idea of a suit. For him, it was too low on his list of priorities. Many times over the last month, he told me how he was getting ready to purchase some gold with this month’s salary. I thought that was pretty dumb, but there was no shaking him (there never is), which led to the embargo. Once he actually tried on the full suit, however, he was very happy with the decision and even offered to contribute next month’s salary. We got him a gray 3-piece, with some black shoes and I must say he looks very attractive. A good purchase.

I was motivated to get him a suit for work. I want him to begin acting as my agent around here. By the way, let me interject to say that I am actually making progress on business – this is such a confusing, challenging, unpredictable environment to operate in. To give you an example, I sent my brother-in-law to speak with a tannery about purchasing some finished leather on Thursday. We’d met previously three or four times with the tannery manager, his son, and the sales office. Everyone seemed to be clear that we are a start-up and as such, need a small amount of leather for sample making. When he called me after his meeting, he told me that the tannery’s machinery was in the process of changing and that we’d need to make a minimum purchase of 4,000 square feet in order to get started, at about $2.50 a square foot. That amount of leather is not inconceivable at some point, but like I said, we are in sample production and need closer to 40 square feet than 4,000.

Anyway, back to my brother. It’s that kind of business activity I want him to conduct. Meet with managers, make purchases, process customs and government stuff. Essentially, act as a manager. Unfortunately, until yesterday, he didn’t have a suit which would allow him to look like a partner or representative. So we took care of that. Now, I expect superior performance.

The shopping was fun. I felt like my mom – she gets a big grin on her face when taking me and my brother shopping. She enjoys buying things for us, knowing how useful they will be to us. I sat on the bench as my brother-in-law tried on a few styles and colors. In the end, we went with a grey affair with quite a long drop on the bottom of the coat, which both of us didn’t like until he put the pants on and everything seemed to come together.

The girls in the sales shop – I couldn’t figure out if they were on a commission or not. When they didn’t have the right size of the color we wanted, they gladly sent us across the street. At the same time, they were definitely acting like commission sales-people, really talking the suit up. My brother-in-law, surrounded by young, attractive women, was sold on whatever they were offering. I was able to be a bit more reserved.

All in all, a fun experience and now I’ve got a legitimate partner, hopefully. Next week, while I’m in Uganda, he’s got some pretty high-level assignments – meeting with the General Manager of a tannery to negotiate a purchase, hopefully not 4,000 square feet.

Today is the second day of the Easter celebration. The fast ends on Sunday. Yesterday was a ceremony for the Crucifixion. All weekend, the Orthodox Christians will be doing something about their Easter. Today, I go with my father-in-law to buy the sheep which we will eat on Sunday. I’ve never spent any time alone with my father-in-law, so this should be interesting. My wife tells me that he’s never taken any of his own kids to buy the sheep, so it’s an honor for me. I guess it’s because I’m a full man, his junior equal, so I get to be in on the sheep purchasing. Have no idea what we are going to talk about, but I’m glad that I get to do it.

In other news, my Amharic is progressing nicely. My teacher reminds me of John Travolta from Saturday Night Fever – I suspect he may go out discoing after we finish our lessons, even though he’s an old man. No, he doesn’t disco. But he looks like he might. Our conversations in Amharic are limited to the present-continuous and commands. That said, I’m amazed how much knowledge about me he has acquired over the past two weeks. If only I knew how to ask questions, I start taking it out of him.

Sheep-shopping with my father-in-law was a good experience. I think I learned a few things about how to select, pricing, and a bit about bargaining, though in my case as a white foreigner, there’s only so much that good bargaining technique can do.

We set out from the house on a mission to get a sheep. Along the way, we stopped to buy a chicken. 35 Birr or about four dollars for a large, live chicken. Based on my memory of the United States, that is a lot cheaper, though the bird does require some prep work to get it ready for eating. I enjoyed watching my father-in-law from the car as he picked up one bird, put it down, grabbed another, and repeated the process a handful of times. I couldn’t see a difference in any of the chickens, but he seemed like he knew what he was doing.

With the chicken securely hog-tied in the back-end, we set off for the sheep market, which turned out to be a small grassy area off the side of one of the roundabouts leading to the ring road. My father-in-law was disappointed at the number of sellers. In the past, he said there had been seven or eight different vendors with probably 30-40 sheep apiece. Yesterday, there were only three, though as we were driving away from our initial negotiations, another vendor was just crossing the road with his flock.

Like I said, I think I learned a few things about selecting a sheep. You’ve got to lift its tail to get a good look at the back legs. Unlike sheep I’ve seen previously, the ones here have long tails that totally cover there back sides. You really have to lift it up to get a good look at the back legs. Not that I’d know what I was looking for – something like the uniformity or size of the legs, but at least I know the technique. I won’t look like a total novice if I ever have to select for my own family.

The next trick was to feel the sheep’s back right over the back legs. Apparently, there’s a nice store of fat and muscle there in a good sheep. Both my father-in-law and the vendor repeatedly touched that part of the sheep, my father-in-law to suggest that it was entirely inadequate on the sheep he wanted and the vendor suggesting that this was probably the best sheep he had based on the quality of that area.

Next up was the negotiation. Again, I observed this whole process from the car. My father-in-law invited me, but I had no idea what my role was to be. I asked on the way to the sheep market and he said I would stay in the car. That was fine with me. But, I did observe a few of the negotiation tactics. When things weren’t going my father-in-law’s way, he got back in the car and instructed me to drive around the round-about and head back the way we’d come. I think he was hoping the vendor would run into the street when we doubled-back, but no such luck, so we continued on.

We stopped about 200 meters away, around a bend and out of sight of the sheep market. There, I was instructed to turn the car around and pull to the side. At that point, my father-in-law inquired as to what I thought we should do. The vendor was coming in 40 Birr over the price he had suggested. What’s more, the sheep was a good bit larger than previous sheep he’d purchased, so the total cost was a bit higher than the usual range. Not knowing what to do, I offered to contribute a few Birr, but this was rejected by a firm grasp on my forearm as I held the steering wheel.

Not five minutes later, we were back at the market, having conceded to the vendor. The final price worked out to be about $60 for a full, live sheep. It, too, was hog-tied and tossed in the back with the chicken. After that, we set off for home. My father-in-law took me on a route I’d never seen, passed a hill with some houses on it and then past the city’s garbage dump. Although I’d seen developing-world garbage dumps in videos and National Geographic, it was still a shock to me to see people crawling over the surface looking for discarded goods. Sad.

We got the sheep and chicken back to the house. Earlier that day, someone had died in the house that stood at the entrance to my in-

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