NB After 14 months’ successful shielding to avoid COVID-19 in Cape Town – thanks to scrupulous hygiene protocols observed by Sampson – I succumbed within 14 days of arriving in a coronasceptic house here in Cabo Verde. I tested positive in the first week of May and Ruby in the second. We are both blessed to have experienced relatively mild symptoms, avoiding severe respiratory challenges, but I’ve been even more exhausted than usual. So forgive me for not managing more than one installment this month. If you can, please help me to complete the Africa Clockwise story via Patreon.
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The city of Addis Ababa lies between 2300m to 3000m at the foot of Mount Entoto, a few miles west of the East African Rift. It is so high that, despite being so close to the equator, no month has a mean temperature of above 22˚C. We were there more than 3 weeks, met some wonderful people and a fabulous family opened their hearts and their home to us. But quite bizarrely for me, it was also one of the most physically challenging times on the trip.
Big Reg had been burning fuel at a faster pace than usual over the mountains from Lalibela, so replenishing our tanks with WVO was our main priority. Sampson had sent a raft of emails from Gondar hoping to get collection underway in advance, and we were thrilled to be welcomed so enthusiastically by staff at the Marriott Executive Apartments, Addis’s premier longstay hotel, who already had 140L oil ready and waiting for us! What’s more it was the cleanest WVO in Africa because they change the oil in their fryers every 24-48 hours. Special shout out to Nino Constantinou, the kindest General Manager so far, and his right hand woman, Director of Sales Tigist Juneydin.
It was phenomenal to have access to the internet once again and to be able to work on the wifi in their plush foyer. I was astonished when a concerned Marriott staff member rushed to bring an extra winged chair especially for my backpack.
“In Ethiopia, we believe that if you leave your bag on the floor, you will lose your wealth as your money leaks into the ground.”
Maybe that’s where I’d been going wrong!
I got rid of the depressing countdown calendar on the wardrobe with Ruby’s leaving day on it and wrote a new one – it was 2 months exactly until we were due to pick her up from the airport in Mombasa! We were all missing her.
The day after she left, Monday 16th April 2018, we went back to school. After a morning gym session with Sampson, Zola made a good start on term 2, until an English lesson challenge to make an ‘unprepared speech’ pulled him up short; he point blank refused to stand up or even begin to consider what was ‘unique, special, weird or wonderful’ about him! Despite me pointing out his freakish natural ability for unicycling and juggling, or the fact that he’d travelled half way round Africa before becoming a teenager.
The next morning, as his Dad was on the roof filtering oil, Zola’s sheer anger and frustration at the prospect of being forced to enter the hotel alone to get to the gym caused him to punch his bare fists repeatedly into the surf locker. Sampson’s less than diplomatic response caused a ridiculous escalation, but Zola gradually calmed down and stopped obsessively writing out Despacito lyrics.
I was beginning to grasp that my son was going to need more constructive help to develop strategies to cope with his increasing social anxiety. I was thankful that he wasn’t in a formal school situation, being labelled or bullied for his reserve. Even if he was at the very mild end of the spectrum, we had enough time to help him find his way to empowering himself before returning to a classroom the following year.
Later that day, I engineered a talk with both of them about sharing responsibility for emotional labour. Once Zola got going he was impressively articulate: he spoke about his initial blanking that paralyses him from speech (like a stammer); how the voices in his head make it difficult for him to speak; how he feels overwhelmed being surrounded by such fluent talkers in this family. To his Dad he added, “Mom never makes me feel stupid but you and Ruby…mock me”.
We spoke about how the vileness of being 13 going on 14 is pretty standard for everyone but that we appreciate Zola’s situation is particularly hardcore, trapped in a box with his parents. Sampson asked if he could try and help us help him by explaining his frustrations whenever he can? I underlined that we hoped we were being cruel to be kind, constantly exposing him to strangers on this trip, as it was building up his capacity to engage. Rather get used to it now, with us, than be forced to do it alone later in life? We were very proud of how that evening he screwed up his courage to ask Chef Yonas to enter the code to open the gym door for him. That night I spent a couple of hours fixing his chlorine–ragged dreadlocks and gave him a little hug before bed; we were all feeling much better.
On Wednesday, Zola and I had really special day together. We had a breakthrough with some Maths and the prescribed English lesson was so dull, I rather set him to write about yesterday. Initially he resisted but in the end wrote eloquently, explaining that he can’t hear us talking in the midst of his rage, that his anger seems to unlock a deeper well of “hopelessness and loss”, that he fears a pressing imperative to hurt himself and dreads the future. I responded by speaking about the possible effects of profoundly suppressed feelings: of being taken from his mother at birth, losing the chance of an easier life perhaps, less exposed as a Black child at the heart of a Black family.
A Brief History of Ethiopia part 6:
Menelik II’s chosen successor, his grandson Iyasu V, was deposed, so his daughter Zewditu was made Empress in 1916 while her cousin, Ras Tafari Mekonnen, was made regent. On her death in 1930, the Ras was crowned “His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, King of Kings of Ethiopia and Elect of God.” Haile Selassie set out to modernise Ethiopia, abolishing slavery and establishing schools and other educational institutions.
For 6 years from 1935, Ethiopia was under Italian occupation as part of Italian East Africa, as Mussolini sought revenge for the Battle of Adwa. During this time Ethiopians were subject to atrocities such as use of mustard gas in aerial bombardments in defiance of the Geneva Conventions.
Haile Selassie was exiled to Britain until the Allies drove the Italians out of the country in 1941. Ethiopia and Eritrea united in a federation, until Haile Selassie made Eritrea a province of Ethiopia in 1961, precipitating the 30-year Eritrean War of Independence. In 1963 he helped establish the Organisation of African Unity.
Haile Selassie was overthrown in 1974 when the socialist military junta, the Derg came to power. The 83 year old Emperor was murdered, either strangled or, it was rumoured, smothered with a wet pillow perhaps by Mengistu Haile Mariam himself, and dozens of church and state officials were executed without trial.
With the assistance of Soviet and Cuban forces, a Somalian invasion was pushed back in 1977. Communism was officially adopted and from 1977-78 the Derg government tortured or killed hundreds of thousands of suspected enemies in the Qey Shibir or Red Terror. Amnesty International estimates the death toll could be as high as 500000.
The collapse of the People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia was hastened by famine in 1984 that affected 8 million and killed 1 million people. Civil war resulted in the fall of the Derg in 1991 and President Mengistu fled to Zimbabwe, where he received sanctuary from his friend Robert Mugabe. He was found guilty of genocide in absentia in 2006 and was sentenced to death in 2008, but to this day has not been extradited.
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As is my habit, I tuned into local radio to get a feel for the city. After listening to news of the Pan African University planned for Adwa on Afro FM, I was suddenly electrified at the prospect of doing a PhD on the pride- and identity-building potential of a PanAfriCarnival circuit showcase, like a Carnival Olympics (as previously discussed with my colleagues in Guinea Bissau).
We were stupidly excited to visit the Abadir supermarket on our way to the Sheraton Addis, as we had nothing left in the food cupboard but tomato paste. But after unloading a stack of tins, I had a nasty turn – a muscle spasm clamped my heart so rigidly, I couldn’t breathe for a minute or two. The following day I woke tireder than expected, feeling vaguely like I was on an aeroplane: struggling to breathe, with blue hands. People with ME have low blood flow to the brain to begin with, and I began to wonder if it was the altitude that was causing more strain?
Sampson drove the truck down to the Sheraton kitchen delivery entrance to load 500L used oil – our largest ever single donation. Many thanks to Director Eng. Solomon Abebaw and Chief Steward Daniel Tesfaye plus water treatment technician Yitagesu Tefeva pictured below. Even General Manager Anthony Wade “from Teesside” made time to pop down to see us.
While the boys did a huge amount of physical labour, filtering all that oil into the tanks, I was writing a history of M.E. into a blog on Greece in between making lunch and supper. I had recently read a eulogy for Mag Friel who took her own life after living valiantly with severe ME for 25 years and had decided I had a responsibility to start telling it like it is. (As I’m writing this up, three years later, there’s news from another ME suicide inquest: 23 year old skater Dan Sterling from Plymouth who’d been ill since he was 16.)
When the rain came down, I made hot tea for the Sampson boys beavering away on the roof. As I got colder and achier, I reflected how ridiculous it was that my arm muscles felt as sore as theirs were after shifting dozens of 25L oil containers around, although all I’d done was type and chop vegetables.
We did an SABC interview with delightful Kenyan Colette Wanjohi and her Ugandan cameraman Eodes Sekyondwa. Even Zola managed a few words! (Looking back now, I can’t believe how much his voice has dropped since.)
The Sheraton was huge and terribly grand, with immaculate lawns popular for wedding photos. The rest of that week, Zola and I enjoyed exploring the grounds on our morning walks.
We also wandered around inside, perusing the magnificent African art displayed on the lobby walls. My favourites were the woven bamboo and goatskin piece Culture 1997 by Zerihun Yetemgeta (born 1940) with the Amharic inscription ‘A lucky culture is life’s honey’ and an exquisite Klimt-esque oil painting Before Hunting 2010 by Getahun Assefa Balcha (born 1967). l adore his work.
I made the most of the excellent wifi, did a PR push to four Ethiopian newspapers and got commissioned by monthly listing magazine What’s Out Addis. While doing a bit of research on new Prime Minister Dr Abiy Ahmed, I realised he was in the Sheraton at that very moment, meeting with business leaders before continuing his tour of the provinces – he was off to Gondar the next day.
Friday Night Treats included chicken fried in traditional Ethiopian herb butter with broccoli and culminated in the first episode of The Crown – shoo, Downton deluxe! I love how Zola loves this escapist historical drama nonsense as much as me; he just grins and relaxes completely.
At 2am on Sunday he puked spectacularly off the end of his bed onto a pile of shoes below. Despite his vomiting and high fever, we drove across town to the International Community School, as recommended by the SA Embassy, to meet middle school Principal Elizabeth Johnston.
The next morning, Monday 23rd April, Sampson performed the Africa Clockwise interactive show in the ICS’s superb lecture theatre to Grades 3, 6, 7 and 8. The videos went down particularly well, they loved the ‘Waster’ sign and we ran out of time for kids’ questions. The first was from Matthew Hokoma: “Is your son called Zola? I think I was at school with him in South Africa!” Small world.
Sampson set up for a second session with youngsters from the environmental group before being joined by the rest of Grade 4 and 5. When he asked about greenhouse gases, Sampson got schooled by an 11 year old who knew more about methane than he did! He was also utterly charmed by Anouska Hall from 5D who’s lived in both South Africa and Rwanda as her British mum gets posted around the world by DFID.
In between the first and second show, super-friendly drama teacher Jo King asked if there was anything we wanted or needed? Simultaneously, Sampson said “chocolate” and I said “laundry” – she took 2 bagfuls off me.
In the middle of all that, Afro FM breakfast DJs Hawi Negusse and Dawit Betsah turned up – the ICS kids were starstruck! The boys chatted to them while I gave the 2 minute truck tour to around 200 kids and staff in groups of 5 or 6 over lunch time. Zola did so well to cope with that lot!
When we got back to the hotel carpark, I was so shattered I managed a 4pm nap before dear Jo arrived bearing gifts of clean washing and chocolate slabs! We showered and changed into our sprucest outfits for early Freedom Day celebrations at the Sheraton that we’d been invited to by the SA Embassy. There were only 150 people in the vast ballroom but after the speeches the atmosphere warmed up quickly, thanks to a stunning performance by the Sweet Voices of Africa tenors and copious catering, much of it cooked by Embassy staff themselves. Only at a South African celebration overseas do nostalgic NikNaks get served on a silver platter!
And only at a South African formal occasion do the dignitaries break out into choreographed dance moves like pop stars! The Ambassador himself led the dancing as the DJ spun classic SA tunes from Ma Brrrr to Mahlotella Queens to Thandiswa Mazwana. (This was way before Jerusalema swept the social media world, but our diplomatic corps was way ahead of the game!)
You can tell how much Zola enjoyed the boerewors/pap/steak/chicken/droewors feast by how much he’s smiling. There wasn’t a thing there I could eat safely, so I came home desperate for a second helping of soup. We got to bed at 11, and I woke at midnight with cramp so bad it made me scream. I swallowed half a bottle of revolting magnesium salts I’d had in the fridge since France and it abated, thank God. That’ll teach me to join in the dancing…
It was at the Freedom Day celebrations that someone told me about Julia Alba, a fabulous 80 year old woman driving from Cape Town to London in a 20 year old Toyota Conquest. I started following her blog – over the next few months, Julia’s speed was to put us to shame!
The next day, the fumes of burning plastic waste were so bad, we drove round the corner to the Hilton. They ended up donating 100L WVO – many thanks to Director of Operations Julian Reynand, Chef Yvonnick Jegat and Security Chief Mr Sileshi Tesema.
While Sampson was stressing about his forthcoming trip to the UK for his brother’s wedding and I was writing, Zola was becoming fascinated by music theory time signatures. After supper Jo came by to collect 6 more bags of washing – what a darling!
On Thursday we were up at 6am for our Afro FM interview (thanks to producer Mr Solomon). I enjoyed listening to the breakfast DJs playing vintage Stevie Wonder and all the buzz about Beychella as I got in shower. Hawi herself came to the Hilton with their driver to fetch us – she was incredibly glamorous even at that time in the morning. Sampson told some great stories, making DJ Dawit laugh uproariously at his “Lagos is like Jo’burg with menopause – hotter and more violent” routine. Zola couldn’t give more than one word answers, but DJ Hawi played Boss by Fifth Harmony for him anyway.
Sampson’s menopause knowledge was based on facts. By now, I was having so many hot flushes, they were waking me hourly through the night.
On Friday 27th April itself, Sampson did another presentation for the YNCCC (Youth Negotiation on Climate Change Convention) at Addis Ababa University. Our contact there, Yared Abera, is a climate activist of note: in 2015 he toured 9 universities to raise awareness in the run up to COP 21 in Paris. Since 2016, he has been the YNCCC’s Communication and Media Director, and even accompanied Ethiopia’s Environmental Minister to COP 23 in Bonn.
Sampson enjoyed talking to this smaller but very enthusiastic group – special mentions for IT whizz Yohannes, Joachi in the purple waistcoat and the quiet girls. Zola sat at the back but definitely felt more comfortable with this older crowd. Afterwards we bumped into a posse of students who had come to campus dressed in traditional garb to celebrate a ‘Many Cultures of Ethiopia’ day – Sampson was proud to be called into their photo shoot as he was sporting his new favourite Lion of Zion T-shirt!
As we were so near, I insisted we visit the Ethnological Museum which was also on campus. It was officially established in 1963 to collect information on Ethiopian civilisation: history, cultures and languages. We parked right outside.
The Institute of Ethiopian Studies is housed in what was formerly the Gännäta Le’ul or Princely Paradise Palace, constructed in 1934 for the Emperor Haile Selassie and his family. In 1936, when Italian forces occupied Addis, the Fascist Viceroy Rodolfo Graziani moved in. The palace became the center of international attention when two Eritrean nationalists attempted to assassinate the Viceroy, and Graziani responded by initiating the Yekatit 12 massacre where up to 30000 civilians were killed.
Behind the flag is a spiral staircase built during the Italian occupation. Each step marked a year of Mussolini’s rule and was meant to symbolise Fascist domination. Upon the restoration of Haile Selassie, the Lion of Judah statue was placed atop the staircase.
Following liberation by the Allies, the palace became the (unofficial) headquarters of the Empire. It was also the site of the failed coup d’etat of 1960, which marked the beginning of the Ethiopian student movement, with public demonstrations against the government for political, economic and social change.
His mother had been an active supporter of Ethiopian independence since the Italian invasion in 1935, and Richard grew up knowing many Ethiopian refugees. Sylvia was a friend of Haile Selassie and published Ethiopia, a Cultural History in 1955. In 1956, she and Richard moved to Ethiopia. She died in 1960 and is the only foreigner to be buried in front of Holy Trinity Cathedral in Addis, in a section reserved for patriots of the Italian war. Richard founded the Institute in 1962.
The museum has a permanent collection in five fields of study: anthropology, art, ethnomusicology, numismatics (the study of coinage) and philately (the study of postage stamps). It has objects dating back to the early Axumite period.
In a frank interview in 2001 he said:
“the loot taken by the British expedition to Maqdala in 1857-8 can easily be identified, and should be restored to Ethiopia. It is my belief that the British Expedition had, in international law, no justification whatsoever for looting Tewodros’s citadel, and that the looting of the church of Medhane Alem was in fact an act of sacrilege.”
Only in Ethiopia did we see bold truths about colonial pillage stated unashamedly in the labelling of missing national treasures:
“Gold Chalice with Amharic inscription states ‘Emperor Tewodros’, currently housed at Victoria & Albert Museum in London…
Silver and bead 19th century necklace. Looted by British troops 1869…
The Charm of King Tewodros II, which was taken by the British soldier from his neck on 13th April 1868 and returned in November 2003.”
On and on and on. All props to the Rev. Knowles and parishioners of Pepworth near Stratford, who had the decency to return an early 18th century brass cross in 1969:
The ground floor of the palace, originally a banquet hall, is now the site of the library. The Emperor’s bedrooms and study on the second floor are part of the Ethnological Museum. Somehow it felt intrusive entering these fusty rooms, bearing witness to the Emperor’s surprisingly small bed and the bidet in his crumbling blue bath room, next to the Empress’s pink-tiled boudoir. It was the same way I once felt as a small child, accidentally stumbling upon my grandmother’s false teeth in a glass of water. Surely such intimacy was inappropriate?!
Although I’d only had time to eat half a tin of baked beans for lunch, I was determined to see as much as I could. I found the ethnological floor engrossing, but was getting too tired to take it all in, so took lots of photos of the expositions of cultural traditions of both highlands and lowlands to read and digest later at my leisure.
It was particularly interesting that the museum had chosen to devote a whole section to Russian-Ethiopian links including the fascinating (though false) assertion that Pushkin‘s great-grandfather was Ethiopian! (Apparently he came from Cameroon.)
I ended up missing most of the top floor art gallery because I kept having to stop and rest along the way and because it closed early at 4.45pm – I was gutted because I knew I’d never make it back there again. The few photos I did take just hint at the unique treasures contained there:
The Big Green Truck got tangled in overhead wires on a very narrow street on the way to Jo’s house, so we gave up and went back to the Marriott. Sampson and Zola got picked up and taken for supper but I’d already done way too much so stayed home alone and ate leftovers. I spent the following day in the lobby quietly researching the medical profession’s approach to M.E. from the 1980s till now.
I was genuinely gobsmacked. I already knew psychiatrist Sir Simon Wessely was an arrogant, patronising, wilfully-deaf-to-physical-evidence pain-in-the-proverbial but not the extent of his influence and how he had dominated the direction of research and funding. I realised my whole life, and millions of others, had been blighted by one man’s hubris. I was so knocked back by this, it was like I’d taken a physical blow.
For all the richness of art, culture and history we were exposed to in Addis, by far the best memories come from the time Zola and I spent with the enchanting Enenetie-King family. We took up the open invitation extended by laundry heroine Jo when Sampson decided the time had come to redo the vinyl flooring of the truck. He thought we’d be there a night or two from that Sunday, but it took 5 days for the poisonous glue fumes to clear.
Our first evening there, a sudden hail storm made our experience in Gondar seem tame – these lumps were as big as ice cubes, battering the tin roofs like an artillery attack!
Sussex girl Joanne King studied English at Aberdeen, taught TEFL in Thailand and Italy and met her Ethiopian husband Enenetie Bayabil working together at an NGO. Jo has a Masters in Human Rights focusing on the reproductive rights of young women as well as a US teaching qualification. Obviously we got on like a house on fire and talked way too much, but it was so wonderful to make a new friend and to be offered an insight into their life in the heart of Addis.
Nete runs his own IT company and is a huge Arsenal fan. Their delightful sons Luca and Pascal attend ICS and play a lot of table football. Zola was amazed I beat him on our first attempt. (My superiority didn’t last, but I cling to the glory.) Expert Pascal thrashed me comprehensively the following day. It was a testament to their gentleness that Zola immediately felt so comfortable with Jo and Nete’s boys.
We were accommodated in the guests’ annexe. It was amazing to have a Room of One’s Own – so tidy and calm, even with Zola sleeping on the floor. There was a grassy spot to do T’ai Chi and a lovely sunny room with lime walls to do school. But the chairs were stiff and upright compared to the truck; I lasted till 2pm then had to go lie down.
Wrestling Wessely into something digestible for the blog was taking me much longer than anticipated. The hot flushes were relentless and more social interaction than usual meant I couldn’t stand up by evening.
Tuesday 1st May was a public holiday so Jo took Zola and the boys to swim at the Sheraton. I lay down all day researching the lives of young women who have died from ME: Merryn Crofts, Sophia Mirza, Emily Collingridge, Alison Hunter, Vanessa Li. I cried for them all.
On Wednesday, as I continued to devote all my energy outside teaching to online research while I still had wifi access, my diary was blank apart from a quotation from Jen Brea: “I don’t want to be an activist. I have to be an activist.”
By Thursday my dizziness was so extreme I began to wonder if there was something else affecting me – some hidden mould in the annexe perhaps? At lunchtime, I stood up to make French rice cakes and a stirfry for supper and nearly passed out. I could not breathe enough and my heart was really struggling. I had to lie down and put my feet above my head. After lying on the sofa for a while I felt better, but my body was definitely not coping sitting upright, it was bizarre. What was going on? Why this sudden decline in capacity? Was this hypoxemia the cumulative effect of a few weeks at altitude?
I wasn’t imagining the impact – our shampoo bottles had exploded when opened there. I’d only ever experienced that after going on a plane. But why was it so markedly affecting me and no one else? In these comfortable conditions, I was struggling to write when it should have been easy, but it felt like a race against time to publish the blog as I became more and more groggy.
This week made me realise that medical profession has a long way to go in defining the full spectrum of cognitive impairment. I felt myself slide from ‘brain fog’ to ‘brain fug’ to ‘brain asphyxiation’. Something was causing the suffocation of my mental capacities, as surely as if my brain was slowly being strangled.
I had not fainted since Egypt, as I’d got more adept at managing my POTS, but this escalated so rapidly I was left gasping in all senses. I was properly scared, feeling I could have heart failure at any time. I began to feel that my body really needed to get out of Addis. With great sorrow, I realised I couldn’t stay there another week, let alone a few years to do a PhD.
It was such an irony to have the best time with the loveliest family while feeling at my absolute worst. I don’t quite know how I got through that week. I felt weedier and weedier, fainter and fainter, like a Victorian heroine being slowly murdered by being laced too tightly into a corset. Apologies Jo and Nete for how the quality of my conversation declined over the week – please don’t think it reflected a lack of enthusiasm, just a lack of oxygen. This photo is as blurry as I was feeling. Thank you so much for the generous hospitality we received in your lovely home; your beautiful family proves that “Love is the answer”. Look how gorgeous you are! And the love you have created!
Meanwhile, back in Big Reg, Sampson was making progress: here’s before and after:
When we finally made it back to the truck, while Zola was still deeply asleep, I told my husband of my weird weakness and dizziness the last few days, the difficulty I’d had getting my breath, the awareness that my heart was under severe strain and liable to conk out any minute. He responded by diving outside to change the kitty litter. Not a word of comfort, nor even a touch. This complete lack of compassion made me cry – surely anyone confiding such fears deserved more, but especially your wife? What had happened to the sensitive guy I married? Was he deliberately avoiding me because he couldn’t accept my reality?
Saturday 5th May was Ethiopian Patriots Victory Day, commemorating Haile Selassie’s entrance into Addis Ababa at the head of the liberators in 1941, after 5 years in exile. Zola celebrated with Pascal and Luca by watching a dodgy copy of Black Panther at last!
Sampson said he’d had to stop reading the blog I’d loaded on Friday (detailing the suffering and the suicides) because he was crying and I was so touched – until I realised he’d only got as far as Monte’s puppy pics.
I was lifted by a brilliant voicenote from Ruby laughing for a solid minute trying to explain how the Penguin’s real name had sparked such hilarity amongst her friends when they found out it was “Oswald…(snort, choke)… Cobblepot!”