Travels in Africa (part 3)



The region we are headed for is Quacha Birra, a remote, densely populated community that requires a more than 315-mile drive to reach. Nearly half of the drive is over dirt roads.

The plan is for us to leave Nairobi at 8 p.m., for the two-hour flight to Addis, then make the nearly seven-hour drive to Quacha Birra the next morning. Woody Allen once said that if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. Africa, we soon learn, has a similar sense of humor.

PHOTO BY WILLIAM MARSH Jerry, writing in his notebook at Nairobi's Kenyatta Airport, waiting to fly to Ethiopia.
PHOTO BY WILLIAM MARSH | Jerry, writing in his notebook, at Nairobi’s Kenyatta Airport, waiting to fly to Ethiopia.

The nine of us arrive at Nairobi airport with plenty of time to spare. We have gotten to know one another well and we are in especially convivial spirits as we wait to board the jet. We sense something is awry when the plane begins boarding and we’re not invited.

We learn that Ethiopia Air has inexplicably resold all of our seats. Despite the heated protests of our World Vision guides, the flight leaves without us.

As we begin to spread suggestions of devious conspiracy (the most popular: Ethiopia Air had the opportunity to sell our seats to walk-ons for much more than we paid) David Jones smiles and spontaneously sings us a child’s song on the virtue of patience. Our irritation and disappointment melts into laughter and we assemble a choir to serenade the terminal.

Our rendition mangles the lyrics badly and we howl with laughter when an irritated traveler on the other side of the terminal chastises us, shouting out the corrected verse. It occurs to me that the dark moment of disappointment was handled exactly as one would have hoped for a group of pastors. I feel lucky to be traveling with them.

We return to Safari Park Hotel for another night’s stay .

Late the next morning, as we finally depart for Addis Ababa, the staggering beauty of Africa’s landscape and the heart-breaking scope of its social inequities is plainly seen.

As we ascend from Nairobi’s airport, I recall reading that 80 percent of the city’s people live on only 20 percent of the land. This fact is made clear as we fly over dozens of expansive home sites, surrounded by stone walls and elegant white fencing.

Our flight affords us a sensational view of the Great Rift Valley, the geological phenomenon that stretches from Syria in the Middle East to Mozambique. From newspapers and conversations with workers at the hotel in Nairobi, I am absorbed in the idea that Africa’s astounding beauty would provide a rich tourism industry if only parochial thinking and thieving governments could be brought to bear on simple problems of infrastructure.

A hotel porter with a degree in business administration had smiled when I showed him a headline declaring that more than half a million Kenyan shillings were missing in a fresh government scandal. “It’s no matter. Africa just needs more friends to come and see it, and it will be alright,” he said confidently.

I wonder about the source of that optimism. Despite no ruinous freeze-thaw cycle, Nairobi’s roads are treacherous ribbons of bowed asphalt and potholes. Its infrastructure remains rooted in its colonial past.

Although luxury shops lined one corridor of the airport, the main terminal’s faded linoleum tile and dingy walls look as though they have not been updated since Kenya’s 1963 independence from Great Britain.

As we soar into Ethiopia, little do I know that Kenya’s tourism is a raging model of success compared to Ethiopia’s.

There is an almost cartoon comedy to Ethiopia’s tourism promotion. At more than 20,000 feet, the sculpted brown of the Great Rift Valley floor slowly gives way to three large and distinct lakes. Just as the tourism brochures had said, these three lakes—though situated close together—each have different colors. One is silver-gray. One is azure blue. One is the color of coffee with milk.

PHOTO BY JERRY SCHARF Ethiopia's celebrated coffee-, silver- and blue-colored lakes.
PHOTO BY JERRY SCHARF | Ethiopia’s celebrated coffee-, silver- and blue-colored lakes.

Although the brochure text describes the lakes as exquisitely beautiful—and they are—it then notes with a tone of exoticism that only one of the lakes is open to swimming. The other two are contaminated by a dangerous parasite.

Ethiopia’s old tourism slogan was “13 months of Sunshine!” It celebrated the fact that Ethiopia is one of the few countries in the world that has not adopted the Gregorian calendar. It still uses a form of the Julian calendar, which has 13 months. Consequently, the country is officially in the year 2000.

As the jet descends, the land seems to eagerly rise to meet us. Actually, that is exactly what it is doing. We are approaching the edge of the valley and the tan land suddenly gives way to terra-cotta clay and then lush, irregularly-shaped grassplots of green—moss, olive, Granny Smith apple and malachite. The excited buzz that began with the plane’s descent is hushed by the sheer beauty of the landscape.

A woman’s voice with a Mid-western twang speaks our mind from several rows back: “Well, ah shore didn’t expect this.”

It’s a little-known aspect of African cities that many are been built in the mountains to escape equatorial heat and insects.

Nairobi, which lies just south of the equator, is at an elevation of more than 5,300 feet. Addis, which lies just north of the equator, stretches from 6,000 feet to more than 8,000 feet up the Entoto mountains.

PHOTO BY JERRY SCHARF Verdant fields surround Ethiopia's capital city of Addis Ababa.
PHOTO BY JERRY SCHARF | Verdant fields surround Ethiopia’s capital city of Addis Ababa.

As the jet’s tires hit the runway, the starboard passengers gasp at the sight of a jetliner sitting in the grass alongside the runway. Its fuselage is broken in half. Inside and outside of the wreckage, people are casually lounging about. Some of the plane’s seats have been torn out and are now arranged in conversational circles. Men, their arms relaxed over their heads, are chatting with one another as though sitting in a living room. As we speed down the runway we see more people stretched out in knee-deep grass, not 50 feet from the roaring jet engines, ignoring the landing as they converse with one another.

The airport terminal in Addis Ababa is an elegant structure of white steel and glass. Spotless floors of polished stone reassure us as we march toward expansive and sparsely populated customs gates. This is immensely comforting to the men in our group. Owing to the timing of breakfast and our departure from Nairobi, we are, to a man, in urgent need of a restroom.

Despite the short lines, we spend 20 minutes waiting in customs, then do a comical walk-race to the men’s room. What greets us prompts a mix of crestfallen sighs and outright cries of desperation.

The crisp, cleanliness of the airport’s public areas disappears as we step inside the men’s room doorway. Inside, our group joins a whimpering chorus line of four other men in a shifting dance of one foot to the other in front of one stall. Two other stalls are empty because the toilet seats have been torn out. The sheer filth of the toilets ends any thought of ignoring the missing seats and forging into the empty stalls.

It’s like a scene out of the movie Trainspotting and, frankly, “the worst restroom in Scotland” has nothing on the first restroom we visit in Ethiopia.

As we stand there, morosely considering the scene, the occupant of the sole functioning stall whimpers, groans and then forlornly announces through the door: “there’s no toilet paper in here.”

We bolt for our luggage, claw it open, grab the rolls we had been instructed to pack, then rush back to the lavatory. With six men in line ahead of me, I decide to break out in search of another restroom. I find one, but it is even worse than the first. It, too, has only one working stall.  It’s occupied, but at least there is no line.

I wait for 10 minutes until, with no flushing warning, the door slowly opens to reveal a dirty and disheveled man using tiny steps to back out. His eyes widen when he sees me, revealing milky-white cataracts.

He falls into a low, subservient bow and begins moaning in apologetic tones, his fingertips stroking the cuffs of my pants as he backs away from the open door. It takes 10 minutes and a quarter of my roll before the toilet is made, barely, usable.

This sidelight may strike you as boorish, irrelevant and irreverent. But it represents a fundamental problem in Ethiopia. Eight out of 10 Ethiopians have no access to toilet facilities.

That is not a misprint. Eighty percent of Ethiopians relieve themselves in the great outdoors—over latrine grates at best, though usually wherever a little privacy is afforded.

Outside of Addis, even at prosperous, middle-class restaurants, lavatory facilities can be well below the American standard. It seems to be something that many Ethiopians simply fail to take seriously.

This can be disappointing for the American traveller in an Ethiopian restaurant.

But for those living in poverty, this poses horrendous sanitation problems that alone account for more than half of the country’s infant deaths.

In a very short time, my delight in Ethiopia’s surprises of verdant landscapes and colorful—if deadly—lakes, had again given way to sullen wondering. How, I thought to myself, can a civilization that is 5,000 years old be so ignorant of basic sanitation?

How can the people whose ancestry goes back to King David and the Queen of Sheba have, in the 21st Century, a life expectancy of just over 40 years?

What is wrong with this country?

The answers to those questions are surprisingly simple. They reveal Ethiopia’s greatest strengths and deepest curse. The answers are waiting, in abundance, where we are headed.