Glorious international foodstuffs 3: kitfo


(c) San Diego Reader


I’m not particularly carnivorous in my eating habits.  I like chicken and fish but I’m sure I could survive if I was never allowed to eat red meat again, though probably I’d be tormented by an occasional craving for a bacon sandwich.  Thus, when I was first in Ethiopia, and when I was first out in a restaurant with my new Ethiopian colleagues, and when I first had a dishful of the local delicacy known as kitfo placed in front of me, I seriously wondered how much – or how little – of the stuff I’d be able to force down me.


Yes, kitfo can be intimidating for people who aren’t big eaters of red meat because it’s a dish consisting almost entirely of minced ox-meat – which, more intimidatingly still, comes uncooked.


However, its rawness is offset by the aromatic tastes of the things added to it – a spicy seasoning called mitmita and a ghee-like butter called niter kibe.  In fact, these offset the stark raw tang of the meat deliciously, and the dish is made yet more flavoursome by the ayib, a sort of Ethiopian cottage cheese, and gomen, collard greens, that it’s commonly served with.   And this being Ethiopia, where knives and forks are in short supply, it’s customary to eat kitfo by hand.  You scoop it up with torn-off strips of injera, the local, sour, spongy flatbread.  So you also get the taste of injera vying for attention in your now-crowded palate.


Thanks to these flavourings and accoutrements, I had surprisingly little difficulty eating that first helping of kitfo and during the following two years I became quite addicted to it.  And I missed it when I returned home to Scotland where, needless to say, Ethiopian restaurants are pretty thin on the ground.


Actually, I suspect that if you ordered kitfo in an Ethiopian restaurant in Europe, what you’d get would be leb-leb, which is kitfo in a lightly-cooked form – the rawness of the original being deemed a little too much for wimpy Western sensibilities.  But I’m sure a true connoisseur of Ethiopian cuisine would demand kitfo in all its visceral, uncooked glory.


I thought kitfo was great but I admit to having difficulty with kurt, another raw-meat staple of the Ethiopian food world.  Kurt is chunks of flesh freshly cut from a carcass in a sega-bet, an establishment that’s part restaurant and part butcher’s shop.  And… Well, that’s all you need to know.




For me, the big difference between kitfo and kurt was that while the former meat-dish had any fat removed before being minced, the latter was served up with scraps of fat clinging to its outside and seams of fat lurking within it.  And it wasn’t the meat itself that dampened my enthusiasm for kurt, but those interminably-chewy, fatty bits I had to contend with.  (It didn’t help that my colleagues liked to entertain me with grisly tales of folk having tapeworms approximately half-a-mile long, which they’d presumably acquired whilst eating kurt in the sega-bet, extracted from their anuses.)


One condiment you get with kurt is a mustardy sauce called senafich and I’d slather the stuff with that to take my mind, or more precisely my taste buds, off its discomforting fat-content.


My local sega-bet was also the source of the cheapest tej in the neighbourhood.  Tej is a kind of smoky Ethiopian mead that I was extremely partial to.  So munching my way through half a freshly-slaughtered ox, fat and all, was the necessary evil I had to put up with in order to guzzle large quantities of Ethiopian honey-wine.


How did Ethiopians develop a fondness for eating raw meat in various permutations?  I’ve heard claims that at some point in history it grew out of a military necessity.  When Ethiopian fighters were on the move, they didn’t want to give their position away to the enemy and so they got into the habit of eating their meat raw.  This spared them having to light fires to cook on, which would produce tell-tale plumes of smoke.


RIP the Taitu




Some sad news reached me last month regarding one of my favourite haunts in Ethiopia.  The Taitu Hotel, which has stood for more than a century in the Piazza district of Addis Ababa, caught fire on the morning of Sunday, January 11th, and suffered severe damage to its main – and most historic and characterful – building.  One foreign tourist staying there at the time told journalists that the fire brigade turned up in “about ten minutes… but it was really gone by that time.”  From the photograph of the fire’s aftermath that I saw in a report in the Guardian, ‘gone’ is definitely the word for it – certainly as far as the upper half of the unfortunate building is concerned.


The Taitu Hotel was the place I stayed in most often when I visited Addis Ababa during the two-year period – from 1999 to 2001 – that I worked in Ethiopia as a volunteer.  And when I returned to Ethiopia in 2009 to research a dissertation for a Masters’ degree, I resided there during my whole time in the city.  Its main building was a lovely, atmospheric old structure with a varnished wooden floor and wooden furnishings and walls that were adorned with historical and cultural bric-a-brac.  I even remember its upstairs landing doubling as a small art gallery.


However, because I was a volunteer, the rooms in that main building were out of my price-league and so I would stay in an annex building at the back of the premises, where the rooms were cheaper, though inevitably scruffier.  At least that didn’t stop me from frequently sitting with a bottle of Bedele beer in the restaurant / bar area of the main building – or, when the sun was out, sitting on the terrace immediately behind the building and enjoying the view of Addis Ababa down the hillside below – and pretending I had money.


During my volunteering days, there was also a bar / dance-floor, complete with a DJ’s booth, at the side of the yard in front of the main hotel.  Its draft beer was very cheap indeed and I spent many a leisurely afternoon or evening there, wasting my time in the pleasantest way possible.  Actually, my memory of that bar also has a darker association, for it was while I was in there that I first learned about events in New York on 9 / 11.  My girlfriend of the time and I had been up late the night before, enjoying the festivities of Ethiopian New Year, which falls on September 11th, and we wandered into the bar early the following afternoon hoping to dampen our hangovers with a ‘hair of the dog’.  We couldn’t understand why so many staff-members of the Taitu Hotel were huddled around the television set there, which was tuned into CNN and showing scenes of carnage on an epic scale unfurling against a familiar-looking cityscape.  I remember my girlfriend’s first reaction being that the TV must be showing a modern version of Orson Welles’ famous War of the Worlds hoax.


When I returned to the hotel in 2009, I discovered that the bar had disappeared.  The hotel’s owners must have sold the side-building off because it was now occupied by a bank.  Meanwhile, more budget rooms were being created at the back of the hotel and its rear premises were screened off by giant sheets of canvas, behind which construction work was presumably going on.  Needless to say, this ruined the view from the terrace.  In another effort to attract more budget travellers, the management allowed people to park their 4x4s at the back and sleep overnight in them – I saw one group of westerners turn up in a land rover and then stay inside a tiny tent that they erected on the land rover’s roof.


The cheaper quarters seem to have survived the conflagration.  The hotel’s website stresses that 75 rooms remain ‘operational’ and I assume they’re all located at the back.


It’s especially sad to see the Taitu Hotel, or at least the old part of it, vanish in smoke because it constituted a genuine piece of Ethiopian history.  It was named in honour of the formidable Empress Itegue Taitu Bitul who in 1896, a few years prior to the hotel’s construction, had led Ethiopian forces into the Battle of Adwa with her husband Emperor Menelik II and defeated a would-be Italian invasion force.  It was one of the most venerable buildings in Addis Ababa and, although its sombre, dignified presence felt a little out-of-place in the surrounding neighbourhood of Piazza, which is overflowing with noisy cheap-and-cheerful bars, the hotel certainly deserved its status as one of the city’s landmarks.


(c) Penguin


The Taitu had literary as well as historical significance.  When Ethiopia suffered its second invasion by the Italians in the mid-1930s – the Italians were successful this time, largely because they had something their 19th-century predecessors lacked, military aircraft – the Taitu became the base for the foreign journalists and photographers who were covering the conflict.  Among these correspondents was Evelyn Waugh, working for the Daily Mail, and he later used his Ethiopian experiences as material for his satirical novel Scoop (1938).  In Scoop, the African country in question becomes the fictional nation of Ishmaelia and the hotel containing the hordes of foreign pressmen is renamed the Hotel Liberty.


I can’t say I’m a big fan of Waugh’s work.  I’ve always considered his other famous ‘comic’ novel Vile Bodies (1930), which is populated by the bright young things of England’s upper classes, to be a pile of chinless, double-barrelled tripe.  Scoop begins equally unpromisingly, with jokes about crusty old lords, elderly nannies, eight-year-old child prodigies who recite Virgil and dynamic young ladies who crash their motorcars down the steps of underground public lavatories because – haw-haw-haw! – women don’t understand anything about machines!  No doubt the likes of Stephen Fry or Julian Fellowes (or come to think of it, Boris Johnson or Jacob Rees-Mogg) would throw up their hands and chortle in delight at such aristocratic japes, but I find them about as amusing as toothache.


Scoop, however, improves immeasurably when its timid hero William Boot, who pens an innocuous weekly countryside / nature column for a newspaper called the Daily Beast, gets sent, in a case of mistaken identity, to the conflict-ridden Ishmaelia to serve as the Beast’s war correspondent.   The absurdities that follow, with none of the European correspondents knowing remotely what is going on but prepared to invent anything and everything in order to justify their presence there (and justify their expense accounts) suggests that little has changed in the workings of the news media during the 80 years since.  Incidentally, Christopher Hitchens was a big fan of Scoop and, indeed, he wrote the introduction to the edition of the novel that I have.


The racial epithets Waugh uses to describe the Ishmaelians – the ‘c’-word, ‘d’-word and, yes, the ‘n’-word all see service – make for queasy reading at times, though in his defence I suppose I should argue that he was merely using language and expressing attitudes that were commonly held and accepted among 1930s Westerners: the book was of its time.  And he does present the Western characters as being much bigger dolts than the African ones.


The Liberty Hotel in Scoop, with its ‘bare boards’, ‘tin roof’ and every bedroom having ‘a leak somewhere in its iron ceiling’ seems a much less hospitable place than how I remember the Taitu Hotel being 15 or five years ago.  Mind you, if the real hotel had been full of leaks letting in ‘the monotonous splash and patter and gurgle of rain’, it perhaps wouldn’t have gone up in flames as quickly last month.


The Hyena Man of Harar




While browsing through the BBC’s online news magazine the other day, I happened across the following article about the nuisance increasingly posed by hyenas in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa.  Apparently, the spotted, scavenging and sometimes predatory beasties are crossing the city boundaries and venturing into the city’s night-time streets, just as foxes once did when they were colonising the urban spaces of London.  The difference between hyenas and foxes, however, is that the former have jaws powerful enough to splinter bones – and they aren’t terribly particular about what they bite hold of.


Actually, the article didn’t come as a big surprise to me.  I worked in Ethiopia from 1999 to 2001 with the organisation Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) and from time to time I heard scary tales about hapless drunkards in the capital city who, on their way home, had keeled over and passed out and then woken up later to find themselves minus a hand or a foot or even an arm or a leg.  (In the most extreme versions of these stories, they didn’t wake up at all because they’d become minus a head.)  At the time, though, I suspected these were urban myths, perhaps told as warnings against the evils of consuming copious amounts of beer, tej and arake and enjoying the company of saucy bar-girls in the drinking holes of Addis.  From the information in the BBC article, however, it seems that the hyenas are no longer an urban myth, if they ever were one.  They’re now presenting a real threat to Addis Ababa’s population of rough-sleeping beggars and homeless people (as well as, presumably, to its drunkards.)


Reading the BBC article made me remember one of my most interesting experiences in Ethiopia.  This happened when, in the company of some friends, I visited the city of Harar in the country’s east.  There we encountered the Hyena Man.


For my money, Harar is – or at least was, because I went there in 2001 and a lot can change in a dozen years – the pleasantest and most interesting city in Ethiopia, pleasant and interesting though some other Ethiopian cities are too.  Harar is the geographical centre for Ethiopia’s Muslim population and it’s ranked by many as the fourth holiest city in the Islamic world, after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem.  Indeed, the square mile of Harar’s old city – a labyrinth of alleys and passageways ringed by a medieval wall – is said to contain about a hundred mosques.  (I heard conflicting figures about the number of mosques there and it seemed that nobody had ever managed to do a final, authoritative count of them all.)  An extensive modern district has sprung up on the western side of the old walled city but, when I visited, there wasn’t much standing on its eastern side.  When you walked along the outside of the eastern section of the wall, there were places where you had unobstructed views across fields of sorghum.


Harar has several good markets and museums and inside the old city it boasts a couple of historical landmarks.  These include an ornate, rather oriental-looking mansion that was allegedly inhabited by the French poet Arthur Rimbaud when he lived in Ethiopia during the 1880s – the trades by which Rimbaud supported himself there included gun-running, coffee and photography – and another, now very dilapidated house that was allegedly inhabited by the young Ras Tefari, later to become Emperor Haile Selassie.  (I write ‘allegedly’ because the claims about who lived in each house have been disputed.)


Despite its religious significance, I got the impression that the city was, paradoxically, quite the place for living things up.  It was well endowed with pubs and restaurants and there was even a brewery on the city’s edge, responsible for producing a lager called Harar and a stout called Hakim.  Mind you, when I returned to Ethiopia in 2009, I didn’t see its wares on sale in any of the bars and off-licences, which suggests the brewery may be no more now.


In 2001, however, the city’s most unusual attraction was the Hyena Man, an eccentric – in the Bradt Guidebook to Ethiopia, author Philip Briggs described him as a ‘nutter’ – who after dark each evening ventured out to Harar’s eastern fringes, summoned the hyenas from the neighbouring countryside and hand-fed them pieces of meat, not caring if his fingers got close to their toothy and powerful jaws.  Over the years, these nocturnal feeding sessions had become a popular tourist draw.


When I first made inquiries in Harar about where and when to see the Hyena Man at work, I was puzzled by the conflicting accounts I got about him.  The Hyena Man photographed in the tourist brochures was an old, decrepit-looking fellow.  However, when I was in Rimbaud’s House – or as the local street kids call it, Rambo’s House – there were several local paintings on display, including one that depicted the Hyena Man.  The young dreadlocked guy in the painting was definitely not the pension-age guy in the tourist-brochure photos.  I could only surmise that once upon a time, like Santa Claus, there’d been one original Hyena Man.  Nowadays, just as the forces of commerce have necessitated the existence of lots of Santa Clauses, in department stores and elsewhere, so the Harar tourist industry has encouraged than one person to play the role of Hyena Man.


We finally got instructions about where to see a (if not the) Hyena Man and one evening, as the sun sank behind the western side of the old city, we headed along a series of tracks and through a warren of rickety wooden houses on Harar’s easternmost edge.  At a spot where the last houses gave way to fields, we found the young dreadlocked Hyena Man who’d featured in the painting in Rimbaud’s House.  He had an assistant with him, who was busy cutting up joints of meat with long, lethal-looking knives.  Around the site, meanwhile, huddled a crowd of onlookers.  Also present were several big four-wheel-drive vehicles that, presumably had ferried groups of Western tourists along from their hotels.  (In Harar you can book holiday packages whose itineraries include an expedition to see the Hyena Man.)  Thanks to the headlights shining from those vehicles, hyenas could be seen slinking in from the darkness that shrouded the fields.  Their eyes glinted eerily in the light before their bodies became visible as anything other than black silhouettes.


I’d seen hyenas from a distance before and assumed they were little more than big, wild dogs.  What surprised me seeing them up-close while the Hyena Man fed them was how un-canine they looked.  They seemed more like bears – rather skinny bears, admittedly, but strangely ursine nonetheless.  While they were out in the darkness, and as they emerged into view in the vehicle headlights, they emitted yowling sounds that were so eerie they defy onomatopoeic transcription.


The scene was not high on drama, although the audible crunching of bones as the hyenas chomped on the meat was memorable, as was a moment when the Hyena Man held a fragment of meat in his mouth and a hyena came and bit the other end of it.  (Looking at the pictures that appeared when I typed ‘Hyena Man of Harar’ into Google Images recently, I noticed several photographs of people who were clearly Western tourists performing the same meat-in-mouth feat with hyenas at the feeding site.  I hope the insurance in their holiday-package contracts covered them for getting their faces bitten off.)


We had arrived late during the Hyena Man’s performance, so that it finished about 15 minutes later.  After that, the Hyena Man and his assistant went around the crowd of spectators collecting payment.  They demanded the full viewing fee from my friends and I, although we’d seen only part of their show.  A young Englishman in our group took umbrage at this and insisted on arguing with them until they lowered the fee.  I have nothing but admiration for the English sense of fair play that will make a young man dig in his heels, stand up for his rights and argue the toss with a pair of guys who are carrying an alarming array of long, sharp meat-cutting knives.


Unfortunately my camera equipment that night was primitive and non-digital and the photographs I took of the Hyena Man and his hyenas were poor in quality.  So here is a picture of a Hyena Man (not the guy whom I saw) I’ve filched from the Lonely Planet website.  Well, over the years, I’ve spent a fortune on the products of Lonely Planet’s publishing empire, so it’s about time I took something back from them.




Cale-Ethiopian Road



The Caledonian Road in Islington, London, runs north from near the side of King’s Cross Station.  It takes its Scottish-themed name from the fact that it was once the location of the Royal Caledonian Asylum, which housed the children of poor Scottish migrants to the metropolis.  Nowadays, though, the street feels a lot more Ethiopian than Scottish.  The last time I checked, there were at least five Ethiopian restaurants operating on or near to the street: the Addis Ababa at numbers 40-42, the Marathon at 193a, the Merkato at 196, the Menelik at 277 and the Kobeb at 45 Roman Way, just off the street’s northern end.  I’ve eaten in three of them and they’ve all been different shades of ‘very good’.



If you haven’t yet eaten Ethiopian food (and if you like your cuisine to be spicy), you should track down your nearest Ethiopian restaurant and eat some immediately.  It’s delicious – its the best food on offer in the Horn of Africa, if not in all eastern Africa.  Kai-wat, doro-wat, kitfo, tibs…  The very thought of such delicacies makes me dribble at the mouth, just as Homer Simpson does when he thinks of Duff beer.


Talking of which, Ethiopian beer isn’t bad, although the expatriate Ethiopian restaurants seem only to have St George, which I think is one of the blander options.



St George is as important a figure in Ethiopia as he is in England and his image is everywhere there, often depicted slaying the dragon – as he is on the St George beer labels.  In Ethiopia, though, St George is always shown to be black.  I find that ironic, considering the English far-right’s fixation with the saint.  (There was at one time a fascist organisation called the League of Saint George, and the St George’s cross has often been brandished at marches by the English Defence League, British National Party and National Front.)


Haile highly successful in Glasgow


In 2009, eight years after I’d finished working there, I returned to Ethiopia to research an MA dissertation.  It came as no surprise to me then to discover that the Asmara Road, one of Addis Ababa’s main arteries, had been renamed the Haile Gebrselassie Road.  This was in honour of the country’s greatest athlete, long-distance runner and twice-Olympic-champion Haile Gebrselassie.


When I lived and worked in Ethiopia from 1999 to 2001, Gebrselassie had already been accorded national-treasure status.  I remember attending a conference at Addis Ababa University while the 2000 Olympics were taking place in Sydney.  At one point a lecture hall I was in went ape-shit because it was announced that Gebrselassie had just won a gold medal in the 10,000 metres for Ethiopia.   However, adored and acclaimed though Gebrselassie is, the diminutive (five-foot-five) athlete has never allowed things to go to his head.  From all accounts he’s a humble, unassuming sort, mindful of his origins as the son of a subsistence farmer in Asala who first got into running by jogging eight kilometres every day to the nearest school.  He also does much for Ethiopian charities, including education, health and clean-water ones, and has even donated his Olympic medals to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church of St Mary in Entoto.  I hope you’re reading this, Usain Bolt…  And making notes.


Last weekend, Haile Gebrselassie – who seems to have been around for so long now that I almost assumed he was getting near pension-age, although he’s actually only forty – made it to Scotland to take part in the Great Scottish Run in Glasgow.  Not only did he win the thirteen-mile half-marathon, but he ran it in an hour, one minute and nine seconds, making it the fastest half-marathon win ever seen in Scotland – clearly, Gebrselassie had kept away from the chips, Scotch eggs, white puddings, whisky and deep-fried Mars bars while he was sojourning in this dreich nation of ours.  It was also good going for a man who’d announced his retirement in 2010 after withdrawing from the New York City Marathon with an injured knee.


Incidentally, my sister ran in this year’s Great Scottish Run in order to raise money for a Motor Neuron Disease charity.  She completed it in two hours and fifty-six seconds and, I think, can be proud of herself for doing so in just under twice the time set by the mighty wee Haile.


Such was Gebrselassie’s popularity that, while I was in Ethiopia, local pop star Teddy Afro recorded a song about him.  Here it is, a dozen years later, on youtube – the song isn’t very good, but at least it’s not very good in a nice way.



Barcelona, by George


Last week I was in Barcelona for a short holiday.  On April 23rd, two days after my arrival there, the citizens celebrated St George’s Day.  Now I’d known the dragon-slaying saint was held in high esteem in quite a few places – he’s the patron of England, obviously, and he’s also much admired in Ethiopia, where I’d lived from 1999 to 2001.  I hadn’t known, however, that the Catalans think a lot of him too – Sant Jordi, they call him.  In fact, last week, I saw them make a big deal of his day.



St George cakes and chocolates were on sale in shops and at street-stalls, as were Disney-fied toy dragons.  Playing up the romantic side of his legend, in which he slays the dragon to save a princess — which makes the story seem like a retelling of the Greek myth of Perseus and Andromeda — April 23rd has also been turned into a Catalonian equivalent of St Valentine’s Day.  Roses were on sale everywhere, and in the evening I scarcely saw one lady heading homewards through the streets or on the subway who didn’t have a St George’s Day rose in her hand.



The other gimmick used in Barcelona to market St George’s Day is… books!  Yes, every street corner and stretch of pavement above a subway exit seemed to have a stall piled high with good, solid, traditional volumes of reading matter.  There wasn’t an e-reader in sight.  This is because, I was told, April 23rd is also the day that both William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes passed away — although when I Googled Cervantes later, I learned that he’d actually died on April 22nd.



All this is in contrast with England, where every year around this time the newspapers have a right old moan about the English not doing enough to celebrate their patron saint – and by extension, their own Englishness.  After all, the Irish have profitably turned St Patrick’s Day into one of the biggest hooleys in the world’s calendar.  And while the Scots and the Welsh make less of St Andrew and St David, they at least – thanks, perhaps, to devolution – have a greater sense of their own identity nowadays.


The English media also sees an annual debate about how they should celebrate St George’s Day.  Should they play a little cricket?  No, that’d be boring, surely.  Should they indulge in some Morris dancing?  No, that’d be way too embarrassing.  Meanwhile, liberals voice their suspicions that making more of St George’s Day would encourage nasty groups on the far right to crawl out of the woodwork.  After all, the St George’s cross has often been visible at gatherings by the likes of the English Defence League, British National Party and National Front, and there’s even a neo-fascist organisation on the go called the League of St George.


Well, the Catalans provide two examples of how St George’s Day can be peacefully celebrated, in a romantic manner with roses and in an intellectually stimulating manner with books.  Mind you, in this era of Catalonian nationalism, when speculation is rife that Catalonia might soon secede from Spain, I suspect they use St George too to differentiate themselves culturally from the Castilian Spaniards.


Incidentally, during my week in Barcelona, I think the only time I saw a Spanish flag was when I was in the Place Sant Jaume.  Compare that with Edinburgh, where the most prominent flag in the Scottish capital is the Union Jack flying high above the ramparts of Edinburgh Castle – a none-too-subtle reminder for the Scots that the real power still resides in London.  Cheekily, someone used St George’s Day in Barcelona to hang this banner on the façade of the Banco Espanol de Credito building at Plaza de Catalunya:



Regarding the English far-right’s fixation with St George, when I lived in Ethiopia I found it ironic that the saint’s image could be seen nearly everywhere – and often he was depicted slaying that pesky dragon.  This being Ethiopia, though, St George was black.  And why shouldn’t he be?




Finally, it was a pity that the enthusiasm expressed in Barcelona for St George, or Sant Jordi, didn’t inspire the local football team to give a better account of themselves that day.  April 23rd saw Barcelona FC get gubbed in the Champions League, 4-0 by Bayern Munich.



How much malice was there in Meles?


On the moral spectrum running from ‘good’ to ‘bad’, it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact position of Meles Zenawi, president of Ethiopia from 1991 to 1995 and thereafter its long-serving prime minister, who died on August 20th and was buried last weekend.  Some Ethiopians I knew loved him, or at least claimed to.  Others I knew loathed him, though they did so discreetly.  And I suspect like many foreigners who have lived and worked in Ethiopia during the past two decades – I was there from 1999 to 2001 – my feelings when I heard of his death were decidedly mixed.


A medical student in Addis Ababa in the mid-1970s, Meles’ studies were curtailed and his career plans took an unexpected swerve when Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown and a Marxist regime with brutal military strongman Mengistu Hailemariam at its head took over the country.  (Not until 20 years later would Meles return to the matter of his education and, courtesy of Britain’s Open University and the British Council, he studied for and got a Masters in Business Administration.)  Meles joined the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which along with the similarly northern-based Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) provided the main opposition to Mengistu, and by 1979 he’d become the TPLF leader.  In 1991, when the Ethiopian Civil War ended with the defeat of the Marxists and the flight of Mengistu, Meles was the obvious choice to take charge.  From then on, his influence on the development and fortunes of Ethiopia was immense and some of that influence, at least, was good.  Unfortunately, when you focus on each of the positive aspects of his legacy, there often seems to pop up a corresponding negative one – an evil twin – that cancels out much of the good with the bad.


With general elections in 2000 and 2005, Ethiopians were given a range of parties to vote for and got their first-ever taste of democracy – something denied to them during the reign of the internationally respected but domestically out-of-touch Haile Selassie and during the cruel Mengistu years.  (In the best general guidebook about Ethiopia, the Bradt Travel Guide, Philip Briggs writes that such was the malevolence of the Mengistu regime that it forced the families of its victims to pay for the cost of the bullets used in their executions.)  But these elections were dogged by allegations of intimidation, vote-rigging and other irregularities.  The 2005 result was particularly contested, to the extent that riots broke out in Addis Ababa and elsewhere.  International observers grudgingly accepted that Meles had won the election, and pointed out that the opposition parties who’d kicked up such a fuss had hardly been angelic in their behaviour either – but Meles’ reaction to the riots, which saw 193 people die and tens of thousands of others get locked up, was condemned as being unnecessarily heavy-handed.  (  It’s noticeable that criticism of Meles among those international observers seemed to lessen the closer they were to the United States, which had been a major ally of Meles’ Ethiopia since the early 1990s.


He recognised and tried to address the fact that Ethiopia is a patchwork of ethnic groups and languages by creating a system of ethnic federalism, devolving power to the regions, whose cultural and linguistic identity and political and economic needs are often different from those in the country’s centre.  This seemed to chart a sensible course between the pan-Ethiopian groups advocating centralised control and the factions like the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) wanting to declare full independence for their territories (as the Eritreans had done in 1993, using the EPLF’s major role in the overthrow of Mengistu to bargain for Eritrea’s secession from Ethiopia).  Meles’ government also introduced a policy to the country’s primary schools that allowed most children, most of the time, to be educated in their native languages.  Schooling with one’s first language as the medium of instruction might seem like a no-brainer, but it’s a rare commodity in sub-Saharan Africa.  (Alas, enlightened though the Ethiopian approach to first-language education looks on paper, its execution has been less than perfect.)   


Unfortunately, Meles, who was of mixed Tigrayan and Eritrean parentage, upset a lot of Ethiopians with his bias towards the north of the country.  Tigrayans were put in positions of power nationally and locally and Tigray region seemed to benefit from a suspiciously generous amount of government spending.  When I got around to visiting Mekelle, the Tigrayan capital, in 2001, it looked pretty plush by Ethiopian standards – several leagues more developed than equivalent towns I’d been to in the south. 


The treatment the Tigrayans received under Meles contrasts with what was sometimes doled out to other ethnic groups.  In the country’s west and southwest, allegations about the repression, harassment and imprisonment of the Oromo people – often carried out in the name of suppressing the ‘terrorist’ OLF – formed a constant background mantra during the 21 years of Meles’ rule (, while in Gambela region in the country’s far west, during a period of ethnic tensions in 2003 / 2004, Ethiopian troops were accused of complicity in the slaughter of members of the Anuak group ( In the east, many Ogadeni civilians have reportedly died during counter-insurgency operations against the ONLF since 2008 and there have been claims that the Ethiopian government deliberately withheld food aid from hungry areas there (, ironically a tactic that Mengistu used against the Tigrayans in the 1980s.


Meles did much to promote education, building new schools and colleges, recruiting new teachers and generally boosting school enrolment – in 2003 / 2004 nearly nine million children were attending primary school, compared with less than four million 13 years earlier.  The overall literacy level of the population saw a healthy jump too.  But the system left much to be desired in terms of facilities, materials, teaching standards and class-sizes.  Too often in Ethiopian education, as in everything else, the aid money that Meles was so skilled at in obtaining from foreign donors seemed not to percolate down to those who needed it most.  I remember visiting primary schools in the town where I worked and seeing classrooms lacking electricity and without glass in their windows, full of broken furniture, so overcrowded that some kids had to sit on the floor (among gaping holes in the floorboards).  The teachers used stubs of chalk to scrawl things on blackboards that weren’t always attached to the walls.  Later, when I visited the offices of the educational bureau in the region’s capital, I saw well-groomed officials sitting behind smart new desks in carpeted and air-conditioned offices, working at computers.  Sometimes those officials would gather in seminar rooms equipped with whiteboards and overhead projectors. 


And though the government made noble efforts to expand and improve teacher-training, it undid much of what it’d achieved in Ethiopia’s high schools by imposing on them a system of ‘education by plasma’, whereby students watched their lessons on classroom televisions, beamed by satellite from South Africa – a technocratic quick-fix solution to the immensely complicated problem of how to educate the nation’s youth with limited resources.  Teachers were reduced to the role of menials, turning the TVs on at the beginning of classes and turning them off at the end; and the success of the televised lessons depended on the students’ questionable ability to follow South African English and on there not being power cuts depriving the televisions of electricity.  (In Ethiopia, there are a lot of power cuts.)


Economic growth was impressive after Meles came to power, reaching 9% in some years, though obviously it started from a low base.  However, the old spectre of unemployment never went away and a new spectre, inflation, has appeared in recent years.  In additionally, there was disquiet about his government’s means of obtaining foreign investment.  Particularly controversial was the enthusiasm for clearing land of its original smallholders – through ‘villagisation’ resettlement schemes – and then handing the resultant empty tracts to foreign investors (


Meles granted Ethiopians their first-ever experience of a free press – but afterwards seemed to spend much time clawing back that freedom from journalists, newspapers, websites and bloggers.  The violence following the 2005 election seemed to particularly rattle him and he became increasingly paranoid about media criticism – imposing censorship in the name of ‘national security’ and fighting ‘terrorism’, a trend that was cemented into law with the passing of an Anti-Terrorism Proclamation in 2009.  Meanwhile, in 2008, a Charities and Societies Proclamation was passed that, according the US State Department’s 2011 Human Rights Report, “prohibited charities, societies and associations… that receive more than ten percent of their funding from foreign sources from engaging in activities that advance human and democratic rights or promote equality of nations, nationalities, peoples, genders and religions” – in other words, a handy way of preventing the likes of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International from poking their noses into Ethiopian affairs.  Earlier this year, Meles caused controversy – or at least his government did, since Meles himself was possibly very sick by that point – by sentencing the noted journalist, editor and blogger Eskinder Nega, to 18 years in prison ( and imposing a ban on the use of Skype among Ethiopians, again in the name of national security (


In summer 2009, I returned to Ethiopia to conduct research for a dissertation I was writing as part of a Masters course in Education and Development.  When I visited the Ethiopian town I’d lived in, I hardly recognised some of the neighbourhoods that eight years before I’d walked through daily – such was the amount of building that’d been going on.  Streets whose sides had contained only a sporadic shop were now lined with little businesses, including ones whose signs advertised computers and Internet access (though getting online was often a time-consuming business – it took me nearly an hour to get into my Hotmail account on one occasion).  Much of the main street was undergoing an overhaul – it’d been dug up, creating a massive trench six feet deep in places.  The work was being supervised by a Chinese foreman in overalls and a cowboy hat who spent much of his time on a bicycle, pedalling from one work-party to the next.  Three years earlier, a new university had been opened on the town’s edge and my arrival there coincided with graduation day for its first-ever batch of graduates.  Hence, I got off the bus to be greeted by the spectacle of young men and women wearing smart suits and dresses, mortarboards on their heads, picking their way carefully around the muddy heaps and ditches where the street had been excavated.  (However, three years after it’d officially opened, work on the university had not yet finished.  Parts of the campus resembled, and indeed were, a building site.)


In many ways in 2009, then, Ethiopia seemed like a happening place.  But I wondered if life had got any better for its people since 2001 – for its ordinary people, that is.  (There were impressive-looking housing estates springing up around the edges of Addis Ababa, but to be able to live in those you needed serious money.)  For months, power cuts had been taking place with numbing regularity – every two or three days – and businesses that could afford portable generators had them parked outside their front doors, chattering and belching smoke.  Often, those businesses without generators couldn’t function when the power was off.  Inevitably, I heard a variety of explanations for the cause of these power cuts.  Some Ethiopians said much of the electricity produced in the country wasn’t being used for domestic consumption but was being sold over its borders, into Kenya and Sudan.  I heard theories that the power cuts had been staged deliberately, to soften up public opinion before Meles signed agreements with the Chinese about the building of new hydroelectric dams in the country.  One man told me bluntly that the power cuts were Meles’ way of messing with people’s heads – he was organising them to show people who was boss.


A lot of old Ethiopian friends I met up with in 2009 seemed to spend their time complaining about property and house prices.  At times, I wondered if I was actually in Ethiopia at all and not in modern-day Ireland.  In other words, there wasn’t a lot of joy to go around.


 According to Meles’ Wikipedia entry (, he told a reporter in 2005 that he didn’t want to be remembered as one of those ‘Big Man’ African leaders who remain in power until the day they drop dead – or are overthrown in a coup d’etat – and that one day he would like to step down.  If only he had stepped down, while he still commanded some respect – rather than hanging on to power, and succumbing to the maladies that sooner or later afflict such Big Men, their paternalistic instincts about doing the right things for their countries (provided they have such instincts in the first place) gradually giving way to intolerance, paranoia, ruthlessness and cruelty.


Among Africa’s Big Men leaders, Meles Zenawi certainly didn’t belong in the same category as Uganda’s Idi Amin, mass butcher and self-styled Last King of Scotland, or the ludicrously corrupt Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, a man notorious for hiring Concorde from Air France when his family wanted to go on shopping trips.  He offered better and fairer leadership than what most Ethiopians had experienced before and he left in place institutions and policies that were for the country’s good – though if you’re, say, an Oromo, an Anuak or an Ogadeni, you have understandable grounds for disagreement.  However, there were worthy things he was capable of delivering, but didn’t deliver, and there were bad decisions that he should have had the sense and integrity to avoid taking, but did take.  I feel that at the end of the day Meles Zenawi was a leader who should have given a better account of himself than he did.