“Once Ethiopia is developed, it will be the best country in the world”, a young man tells me, as I sit reflecting on a step in our hostel courtyard after a long day in the sun. The stars are starting to peep out above us in the town of Adi Remets, nestled in the enchanting mountain range we are cycling through, pole-pole. This man’s proud optimism is beautiful and reflects the attitude of many others we have met in this Northern region of Tigre. What are the Ethiopian qualities that makes this man and others believe so strongly in its potential? What do people envision when they speak of the time when Ethiopia is “developed”? This gorgeously mountainous region is where our understanding of the answers to these questions begin to form – sprinkles and drops of special experiences we hope to develop into a fuller body of knowledge as we continue our journey. You may know that Ethiopia’s GDP is growing the fastest of all African countries. Impressed development economists look on as poverty rates decline year on year. The state led development with its pro poor policies has also allowed for greater economic equality than similar countries and achieved much in terms of agricultural development. With the new president, political freedom is fast becoming a reality. These are exciting times for the country. Ethiopia is, however, still a poor country in a monetary sense. I say monetary because people here, from our perception, are rich in so many other ways. These riches, I think form the base of optimism for the potential people believe in.
The first people we engage with on a deep level live in a town at the foot of the mountain range. After a full morning’s cycle, we look left and right along the colourful street lined with bright houses, restaurants, small clothing outlets and tailors selling bright clothes. We look left and right for somewhere to stop and eat and rest. Our attention is caught and our peddles stilled by two sweet children sitting on the step of their front door, framed by a wall of turquoise green. Their father is near by, giving them all his loving attention. Fanta, their aunt, sees us and invites us into her living room for a cup of coffee – soon followed by the njera her brother brings us (if you have an Ethiopian restaurant in your neighbourhood you should try this delicious staple!). We chat with them. We tell each other how glad we are to meet each other and really mean it. We’ve quickly learnt it’s normal here to tell a stranger you love them, that you appreciate them and we exchange these words too. In English and Amharic. We ask the family and some friends that have gathered in their home what makes them happy. This is a simple question but says so much about the kind of societies we should be “developing” towards. It would be an odd question to ask someone of European culture soon after meeting. But none of the people here are surprised – it seems to be normal to chat about these kinds of things. Or maybe it is just so strange to them that we spend hours in the hot sun on bicycles, that nothing we could say would surprise them. Anyway, they happily answer our question – all giving similar responses. Fanta’s brother starts and says he is happy. Interestingly, most Ethiopian people say that they are when we first ask them. This is despite Ethiopia’s ranking 100 of 127 countries on the 2019 world happiness report. What is missing here? Fanta’s brother goes on to say although he feels happy, he cannot be completely happy because he has no work. And work is what people need to be happy here, he says. The tailor sitting near him with his friend’s arm wrapped around him, as friends do here, says he is happy because he has work. Fanta is roasting another small batch of coffee on the coals. The incense that is an integral part of the Ethiopian coffee ceremony swirls in front of her. What makes her happy, we ask? Her work, making coffee, she says. Has her happiness changed over the last 15 years? Her children are alive now and so she is happier now. But back then, her husband was alive. He passed while working in South Sudan. What can we say but squeeze her hand as the pain brings tears to her eyes? She continues with her work. Tragic experiences like hers are usually less common with economic development. There is less need to travel to far and dangerous places for work, as local economies thrive and there is more healthcare available to prevent unnecessary death. And so with Ethiopia’s rapid economic growth, we can expect good change with regard to these aspects. More work. Less conflict. Better health. With good governance and direction of financial flows, we can expect rapid good change in these areas.
Friends giving each other love in Fanta’s home
Looking up at the magical stars above me in Adi Remets, I think: the hardship people experience must dim the magic of the sky here – where the lack of electricity would otherwise make them shine bright. The gorgeous birdsong and wild flowers here make our hearts sing as we cycle along. Surely, when people here have their basic needs met, the exquisite nature will do the same for them?
View from high in the mountains
Even now, there is a great appreciation of natural beauty here. I see this when some children take me skipping up the hill above Adi Remets. We run up together – how free I feel escaping the adult world of strict dressing and church going, to laugh our way to the top. They eagerly point to the green folds of fields beneath us. “Konjo!”, they say, “Beautiful”. They also point proudly to the grand-looking new hospital and their school. These are government funded assets greatly valued by this community. Part of their vision for a developed Ethiopia, I am sure. This current degree of development seems to be enough for the children to live happy free lives. For now. They aren’t yet thinking about whether they will be able to find work when they are done. For now they are happy. They have more freedom than many children – without walls and fences they can go where they like. Their parents know there will be an adult’s eye watching them from afar wherever they choose to play – as happens in communities where people know each others’ children.
The children’s school teacher is also taking a stroll along the hill top. He asks me what I think of Adi Remets. As an awestruck tourist, of course I reply that it is wonderful. He says that it is still developing. It is not wonderful yet. He describes the tall buildings and industrial development that must exist for it to be better. A few people we’ve spoken to seem to have images of Dubai in their minds as the ideal. I have to stop myself from shuddering at the thought, reminding myself that I have never truly lived in lack of basic comfort. I do hope that if Adi Remets looks like Dubai one day, the children will still have space to play. Also that the city dwellers will still be able to buy fresh, organic food produced by the farmers down the road.
Some more details of the picture people are expecting for Ethiopia’s future are filled in by two young men we meet later that day. They have just graduated from economics and management masters degrees respectively. They seem to be enjoying free time with friends as they sit in a circle, chatting and drinking coffee. In their picture, there will be plenty work available and everyone will work hard, after they have studied hard. Everyone will work all day and all night and that will make people happy. There will be no poverty and no conflict, which is greatly troubling for their people in Ethiopia. They tell us how important it is to create jobs to reduce conflict: when young people have work, they won’t sit around with nothing better to do than cause trouble. They tell us also about the building of roads and giant living complexes that the government is working on. These are the kind of things Ethiopia needs to become developed, they say. Not necessarily because of the value of the road or the living comfort of the complexes, but because of the employment these projects generate.
The two young men passionately telling us about their perspectives on development
We’d seen one of these projects just the other day. We travelled to Adi Remets on a dirt road in the process of being tarred. Massive machinery moving massive pieces of mountain working alongside strong Ethiopians, women and men, moving quarried rocks with their bare hands. Yes, this road is valuable because it will allow farmers to get their goods to market and better access to household necessities. But right now, it is bringing wages to the people, allowing them to improve their own lives. It also struck me that when the road is done, it will be the people who live here and put their sweat into it, who can say “this is ours. We made it.” And I suppose it’s the same pleasure that the other people we spoke to derive from their work: they see the final value of their efforts. The tailor sees people enjoying walking around in his clothes, the coffee maker sees friends gathering to share a drink, the farmers see their produce nourishing the families in their communities they know well. This pleasure was termed “productivity” by Marx in his criticism of mass production capitalist economies where workers spend all their work hours using machines to make a tiny component that fits into a final product they don’t see as their own creative effort. I think of the office jobs so many people hate in developed countries and hope that Ethiopians here will retain their sense of “productivity” as Economic development continues. “Productivity” is a beauty of a small economy. It’s a rich for sure that currently belongs to Ethiopian people, even without monetary wealth. I greatly believe that when people know the origin of the product or are the producers themselves, they are much more likely to want to gift each other, rather than exploit each other in transactions. Here people understand the hard work that has gone into producing a single tomato or mango and relish this treasure. Here people know the person buying their produce. I think this may be why it is normal for sellers in the market place to add an extra something to your shopping bag on top of what you have paid for. It’s just not as special shopping in a big supermarket at home.
So these were just some thoughts, jotted down from a few experiences. They may be misinformed and I may have misinterpreted. But I feel strongly that with the foundation of Ethiopian cultural pride, the great affection they show each other, the natural beauty that surrounds them, the close connection between community members, the hard work people are willing to put in for better lives, the great spiritual component of life here, the time that parents have to give wholly to their children, Ethiopia will “develop” into one of the best countries in the world.
Given all the beauty that exists in the simple way of life where human engagement is so prominent, I can’t help but think that the views have been influenced by Western ideology. Fed through school systems, aid programmes, tourists who reinforce that the Western way of life is good. That we should live in isolated concrete, with luxuries that we need economic growth to buy. This life looks happy on television, on adverts where everyone is smiling and all is perfectly neat and bright. What the advert watchers aren’t seeing is the loss of culture, of communities that provide for each other that have come with the age of mass consumption from impersonal market places. When we asked the two young men about what made them personally happy and what they thought was good about Ethiopia, it was church – a spiritual component of life and Ethiopian culture that is hospitable and generous. I may be wrong, but I felt a much stronger emphasis on having work to do than on the money that comes with work. We had to really dig to get them to say that work allowed them to buy things like bicycles and cars. People can see the results of their work. Marx. It connects them to people in their community. Quite distinct from the fruit of ones efforts in a large corporation that are invisible.
But imagine a time when the people here don’t have to worry about basic needs. When they have hospitals and schools nearby and access to farming technologies that allow them more free time. When resources for each are enough so that conflict ceases. If gaining these things doesn’t come at the cost of destroying the environment or unsettling communities, this would be paradise. Invitation without hesitation.
And so according to statistical history, Ethiopia’s self reported rating of happiness will rapidly improve with its economic development. And maybe – if policies makers make the right choices – Ethiopian happiness will one day rise above the countries we call “developed” in their happiness rankings. I think it’s completely possible.
Within a few shorts months, Ethiopia has witnessed a dramatic transformation. The new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, signed a peace agreement with Eritrea after years of simmering tensions. He has also granted pardons and amnesties to thousands of individuals and organizations once branded terrorists; all opposition groups based in Ethiopia or elsewhere have been invited to join in a peaceful transformation; media organizations are able to report more freely; legal reform councils and working groups have been established to review laws that were instrumental in the suppression of civil and political rights; and half of the prime minister’s cabinet is made up of women.
This unprecedented and rapid change comes against a more disconcerting backdrop of unrest. Ethiopia is a multiethnic giant with around 100 million people (belonging to more than 80 ethnic groups and speaking many languages), giving its transformation greater regional significance.
The people we meet are far from random in the way a quantitative study would require but as we bumble along on our adventure, without seeking anything specific, we learn a lot of from a handful of fairly random experiences.