When I told my friends and colleagues of my mission to Ethiopia, I received two kinds of responses. “You must be crazy, it’s a dangerous place, people are dying there of hunger and disease”. Generally, people think of Ethiopia as a land of barren deserts and starving people. However, another reaction was: “How lucky, I love Ethiopia, it is such an enchanting land, I’d love to work there some day”.
I have heard of people who fell in love with Ethiopia: explorers, writers, photographers, reporters, linguists, history and religion scholars, aid workers, business people and ordinary travellers.
Ethiopia is the only African country never colonised by Europeans, its history spans more than two millennia from king Menelik, said to be the legendary son of Solomon and the Queen of Sheeba, to Ras Tafari, better known to the West as Haile Selassie, who ruled until his overthrow in 1974. I read twice The Emperor, the masterpiece by Poland’s leading foreign correspondent, journalist and writer Richard Kapuscinski. I remember being totally enthralled by the descriptions of the mood of the palace in Ethiopia under the rule of Haile Selassie. I could see and feel the insanity and chaos that Selassie created and nurtured in the palace and throughout his country.
Ethiopia is a land where huntsmen still hunt with spears and where many villagers have resisted the advances of the modern world. It is also a land where, in the third century, two shipwrecked Syrian boys converted Emperor Ezanas to Christianity, making Ethiopia the first country to accept the new religion. The famous Ethiopian ancient, monolithic, rock-hewn churches from the 7th to 13th centuries are dated to the reign of the Zagwe king Gebre Mesqel Lalibela.
Ahmaric remains Ethiopia’s official language, although Ahmara people comprise only twenty five percent of the country’s 118 million people. The diverse cultures include the Oromo-Borena peoples Tigreans, the Somali people, the Omotic and Nilotic people, the Welayta, Sidama, Gurage, Hadiya, Gumuz, Mursi , Agaw and others.
I have met several Ethiopian people in my home town Adelaide and have recently spent hours talking to them about Ethiopia. Their stories filled me with sadness as their homeland has been ravaged by wars, manipulated by despots, military rulers, and a communist regime. Ethiopia has often been affected by harsh weather, droughts, infectious diseases and poverty. Today, complex ethnic conflicts have overshadowed recent economic achievements and the progress made over the last 20 years, with new schools, universities, roads and other infrastructure that improved job opportunities and the livelihoods of many Ethiopians.
All the Ethiopian people I have met so far were strikingly beautiful, with large eyes and high cheek bones, smiling showing perfect white teeth, warmth and generous hospitality. I am looking forward to engaging with their communities on my UNICEF mission to Ethiopia. I hope I will be able to work with the local humanitarian networks on improving access to education, learning and the safety of civilians in Ethiopia. The challenges will be many but I will try to make a small contribution to the work UNICEF is doing there.