As a teenager I read Life of my Choice by Wilfred Thesiger, one of the last great explorers, whose elegant prose painted Abyssinia (as Ethiopia was called then) in a mighty and majestic light. That, together with Bono’s Band Aid, more or less summed up what I knew. But for the past six months I’ve been working on a project out in the South and West of the country, and here’s a few things I’ve learnt since.
1. In Ethiopia it’s currently November 2010 (I’m writing this in February 2018!). You check out the local date and time, here.
2. If the date hasn’t confused you enough, the day starts at 6am, which if you think about it really makes sense. So if you want to meet someone at 9am, then you need to suggest 3 o’clock in the morning.
3. Ethiopia is perhaps the only African country that was never colonised. Yes it was occupied by the Italians for a few years, but they never succeeded in controlling the entire country.
4. Ethiopia is Africa’s second most populous country after Nigeria and just ahead of Egypt. Current estimates are around 103 million people.
5. Addis Ababa is the world’s 5th highest capital city at around 2400m. Every now and then if you leap up a few flights of stairs, it’s noticeable!
6. Spend any time in Ethiopia, and you’ll quickly encounter ‘fasting’, which is a key part of Christian culture. As well as every Wednesday and Friday, there a several longer periods including the 55 days of Lent. Fortunately, fasting doesn’t always mean total absinance from food, and as a result there’s some amazing vegetarian creations. Here’s one I encountered in Gurage.
7. Ethiopia is the likely origin not only of humans, but also three important crops: Coffee, Teff and Enset. The last of these, totally unknown outside of Ethiopia, is the staple for 20 million people living in the South and West. It’s what I’ve spent the last six months studying.
8. The African Union is based in Addis Ababa – and they have a very nice new shiny building built by the Chinese.
9. Ethiopia has huge Christian and Muslim populations living together. Just in case you thought it might be – It’s literally, not even a big deal.
10. Ethiopia has fantastic endemic wildlife. From the legendary Ethiopian wolf, the Gelada or Bleeding-heart monkey to around 30 endemic or near-endemic birds.
11. On account of it’s altitude, Ethiopia has a very low incidence of malaria – but this could deteriorate with climate change.
12. Across the country some 88 languages are spoken – which makes fieldwork a little bit tricky. After some work, I can now say hello in four of them, but that’s it!
For more about fieldwork in Ethiopia, follow my Instagram feed.