May 14, 2005

May showers, may ababa (flowers)

Maybe just a brief note before I run out of the house. Our cat is getting on everyone’s nerves. The incessant meowing, as soon as she hears activity in the house, is enough to drive anyone up the wall. Although I appreciate her efforts to sometimes alter the tone and pitch of her meow, mostly, it’s just annoying.

I’m coming to this sentiment a little bit late. Everyone else, from my wife, to the maid, to the occasional house guest we’ve received, decided long ago that the cat was totally useless. There was even discussion over one coffee ceremony of leaving the cat on the far side of Mercato to fend for herself. I strongly rejected these suggestions, but I’m not sure I wouldn’t mind if she just went away for a bit.

It’s just the meowing. And, actually, the theft of food, which is an especially grave offense for my wife. One time, we had a guest over and had unthinkingly left a steak on the table. It was only when I heard the cat growling to ward off the dog that I saw she’d taken one of the steaks off the table. No good. I was going to eat that for lunch the next day, which really chapped my behind.

So, she may be on the outs – it’s hard to say. The dog, on the other hand, is a true champ and will hopefully be a member of the family for some time to come.

In other news, I visited the man in charge of my wife’s housing association yesterday to pay for an additional 20 square meters of land for our plot. While talking, I learned that our plot size was going to be quite small – something like 70 square meters (including the additional land I was purchasing). Any land is obviously great, especially because the policy of the government here is to encourage people to build up, but that’s a pretty small plot. Maybe if we put the car park under the house we will gain some additional space. Who knows?

“Oi Veigh”, to quote a famous Rabbi. What a nightmare. I gave this guy my telephone number in December and we tentatively agreed to meet. He called often, but I never had time. Eventually, he stopped calling. Then, on Ethiopian Easter, I received a text message on my mobile wishing me a Happy Easter. I couldn’t help but respond and even offered to meet for a beer. My mistake. Ever since then, it’s been calls off the hook.

It all started a fateful day in December when I was just getting to my car in the Sheraton parking lot. Inside, I’d introduced myself to an American/Ethiopian couple and we’d had a nice conversation. I guess it was the mood that had drawn down my defenses – usually I reject all comers before they can even get past “how are you”. But, it was sunny, the job fair seemed successful, and I’d met that couple – I was gracious.

He said he wanted to meet to practice his English. He seemed presentable, had on nice clothing if my memory serves me, and I said all right. Oh, injustice, why did I agree.

Anyway, now we zoom forward to today where the calls have been repeated since after Easter. I’m actually getting a little ticked because I’m giving plenty of signs that I don’t have time to take on a new friendship. It’s just a little too persistent. Right now, I’ve got my phone on silent and no vibration. I’m thinking about text messaging to request that the individual stop calling me. I know that’s rude, but I have to set limits. I suppose I haven’t been clear and it’s a little unfair, but for the sake of the good Lord, anybody should be able to pick up some signals.

Oh well. For now, I’m hiding in silent/no vibration mode. I’ve got the phone turned on its side so I can see the light blink in case my wife calls. This is no way to live. Oh the horror. The inhumanity. The injustice. It’s hard. If you let people in even an inch, they will try to take a mile. Believe me, this guy is being persistent because he hopes to get something out of me. In fact, that was his request that day in the parking lot. Be it English speaking, some kind of assistance with American universities, or whatever, there is definitely an angle. After all, he only met me for about 5 minutes – no time for a friendship to develop. I believe one of the guidebooks has a word for this type of individual – “Plonker”.

Well, I’ve had just about enough “plonking”.

In other news, I received a last-minute reprieve from a four-day field trip thanks to the intervention of the Country Director who thought my services would be better needed around Addis. As such, I didn’t have to be away from the home front, a welcome relief. I’m definitely not a field man. I know there are people in the NGO community who really like getting down to the community level, in with the farmers and housewives, where they think their impact is greatest. They may be right, but I’ll trade impact for the comforts of Addis any day. Besides, there’s always somebody who’d prefer to be outside of the capital. All of us exist in a natural equilibrium.

So, instead of having to attend a two-day workshop in the south of the country, I’m staying here to work with the director on a couple of other projects. Today, in fact, I had what I believe was the first working lunch of my life. Great invention. All that time you spend in the restaurant waiting for your food to arrive is saved. When the food is ready, it arrives in your office, end of story. Beautiful.

Well, my Amharic instructor is here – got to study.


After that “bang-up” description I gave of my “friend”, you are not going to believe this. I actually had a great time meeting the guy. He was really cool, kind of a nerd, but obviously extremely ambitious. Not at all what we expected. In fact, depending on the way things go, there may be a future for this guy in my work. Even my wife was impressed.

It was a real shock. My wife came home and I complained to her that this guy had been calling all day, something like nine missed calls in total. I told her I wanted to send a text message asking that he stop calling. She decided that instead we should meet him together and that would put a stop to things. I liked her thinking, so we went ahead and agreed to meet.

Even on the way to the bar, my “friend” called to ask if we were coming. I was so annoyed at that point, but confident that after at most an hour, I would be relieved once and for all of this Mr. S. Almost the second my wife saw him, her suspicions faded and she realized he was just a young, very earnest and ambitious guy. It took me a bit longer, because I couldn’t really tell what my wife was thinking and she was my bellwether in this instance. I continued conversation pleasantly. We had one really long pause in the conversation right at the beginning, but after that, things were rolling – I think I was even giving a lecture on Ethiopia’s banking system by the end of our meeting.

Turns out, the guy is really young. My wife, having grown up in the system here, was able to piece together very quickly just what level of school he was in and what that equated to in terms of age. I couldn’t tell. The first time we met, he told me he worked in a bank and was getting his MBA. In my experience, that would equate to somebody 25-30, but my wife thought much younger.

I think that was it – he was just a young, very earnest guy and I have to say I was pretty impressed with his vision and persistence. If he was trying to put me on in order to get something like, maybe working for me, then it would be worth hiring him anyway because he must be brilliant. In fact, he’s pursuing his MBA with a plan to pursue international business, either B2E (Business to Ethiopia) or E2W (Ethiopia to World). He’s paying his way through school – formerly, his bank would have paid his education, but no longer offers this benefit. However, the bank does pay for his language training. Right now, he’s studying French and Italian. Like that ambition.

As I mentioned, somehow I got off on the subject of banking. (Incidentally, I’d like one of my kids to be either a banker or a lawyer. Finance is so interesting and challenging. Forget economics – finance is applied economics, and besides, economics is the hottest trend in college degrees thanks to the idolization of Allan Greenspan.) Anyway, I started talking about Ethiopia’s currency controls, system of loans, etc. and my admiration for the guys who work at the Central Bank for their ability to resist the outside pressure of globalization which must be considerable. Our friend told us that their goal is to allow the private Ethiopian banking system time to mature (it’s only like 10 years old), and then they plan to allow in foreign competition. Very brilliant – go Ethiopia.

Maybe that’s why I fit well here. I really appreciate everything Ethiopia does to preserve its independence. No question, the costs are considerable, at least in the short-term, but I believe that over the long-run, Ethiopia will benefit by having such a protectionist agenda. Look at China, the emerging power of this century. Until 10-12 years ago, making investment there was extremely difficult. China was setting up it’s structure and capacity so that it could take investment on its own terms.

I don’t know – I’m slightly nervous writing things critical of economists and economies. Might be a bit out of my range. At the same time, I occasionally get the suspicion that economists are just snake-oil salesmen, trying to sell stuff that really doesn’t have much of an impact on their lives, though I’m not intelligent enough to decipher all their jargon and gooblydegook to be sure. It just makes sense that a country should protect what is its own. Take time. It seems like free-marketeers and globalizers are trying to tell countries that they have to get into the market yesterday or they will forever miss their chance. Maybe, but even then, would you really want to jump into the market if you have no chance of competing? If, in the end, that means you lose your independence and become an outlet for British banks, South African mobile phone companies, and U.S. retailers, would you really want that? You might even say it would be better to remain poor, but free.

Hogwash say the skeptics. How can I possibly speak for the poor, famine-starved individuals of Ethiopia who might be better off under a system of globalization and free markets? One, I think that’s a dubious assertion – it’s not clear that exposing yourself to foreign interests will remedy problems like poverty and famine. Maybe, because large foreign interests benefit from predictability – they ensure a level of stability necessary to their own success. (There did seem to be a lot less visible poverty in Kampala.)

I can’t really reconcile that other than to say it’s my gut feeling that the kind of abject poverty present here must be addressed, but not at the cost of giving up ownership of Ethiopia. Ethiopia, like large foreign interests, will benefit from a modicum of stability, but it should be Ethiopian generated stability, not the false stability provided by outside interests. Period.

That was Ken’s expose on economics, justice, and the destiny of the poor world. $39.95 on audio-cassette (listening to Ken rant and rave on audio is just so much better as you can practically feel the fire-and-brimstone as it spews forth).

Okay, I better get off here before my wacky mind runs off in another unhelpful direction. Ciao.

Back home after a night on the town. First stop was a dinner with my oldest brother-in-law. After that, it was off to the public baths where, thanks to our strategic tipping the previous few times, we were given an hour and twenty minutes to soak rather than the customary hour. A good night. Things are good, except I have to be in the office tomorrow on a Saturday.

Well, the biggest news around here is the election. The actual event takes place Sunday. I’ve heard conflicting reports of when the final results will be announced. One person said Tuesday, another Monday, and another 3 weeks from Monday. I don’t know who to believe or if the confusion is deliberate. Depending on the turnout, outcome, etc., there may to be recounts, legal proceedings – who knows?

I had a really interesting conversation today with a colleague. He’s a good friend I’ve known since the fall and we usually have interesting political and cultural discussions. Today, we talked about the potential for disruptions following the election. My friend was largely unconcerned, but said the possibility for large-scale uprisings was real. Possible, but unlikely. That was his conclusion.

Turns out, he’d been in Madagascar in 2002 during that country’s election when things descended into civil war. Everything started over an election. When the government was forced to make a recount, the recount revealed that the opposition had in fact won. A number of international observers certified this fact and a few weeks later, foreign governments, including the United States, recognized the opposition party as the legitimate government. (It apparently took a few years for the African Union to recognize the opposition party because the ousted president had friends in high places in the African Union and asked them to pull some strings.)

Anyway, we mostly talked about the potential for trouble here. I indicated that I’d stocked up on a few essentials like water, kerosene, and vegetables. He said he planned to do the same. We are both scheduled to travel to the south of the country on Tuesday, two days after the election, for a workshop. He said he’d check with friends in the south to see if there were any troubles on the road. My biggest concern isn’t the travel – it’s getting down there, having difficulties crop up after the results are announced (could be any time), and being stuck in the south. Not the place I want to be – not for safety concerns, but because I don’t want to be stuck in the south.


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