Kenya: Of Beautiful People in Ethiopia and Us
By Eric Wainaina,The star
Of beautiful people in Ethiopia and us…
‘It’s amazing how even the ugly people in Ethiopia are beautiful,’ I think to myself as we land in Addis. Everyone is such a specimen of near royal perfection. It’s not surprising to me that Haile Selassie had the effect he had on people in Jamaica.
You throw a crown onto any Ethiopian, ask them to stand in profile and light them right you have a royal. The only other place in Africa where there is an equal pervasiveness of general beauty would be Senegal where my wife said to me ‘It’s OK, just look. I’m looking too!’
The flight to Addis is uneventful. As uneventful as a flight should be when it is scheduled for 5:30 a.m., meaning you have to be at the airport at 3:30 and the cab is picking you up an hour before.
I’ve also endured my day’s dose of ‘Kitu Kidogo’ jokes from the yellow- sweatered security officials at the airport. ‘Kitu kidogo iko wapi?’ asks one guard.
A colleague looks up from the baggage-screening computer adding ‘Umekuja na Ketepa? Hahahaha!’ And they laugh heartily impressed by their own wit. If I could sell a CD for every ‘Kitu Kidogo’ joke I could pay Kenya’s national debt from my petty cash.
On arrival in Addis, as with most airports in Africa, the Customs Officials are on the lookout for travellers with lots of baggage. We’re travelling as a band.
So we’ve got keyboards, guitars, percussions, the works. And of course we look foreign. As a man taunting for a fight scrutinizes our passports we see sharp-featured Ethiopians casually strolling past with flat screens as large as tennis courts, still in the box, just off a flight from Dubai. This wise guy starts to pound on my percussionist’s conga with one hand holding all our passports in the other.
‘What is the reason for your visit to Ethiopia?’ he asks landing hard on every consonant. I think of several snappy comebacks. But the prospect of becoming one of the many inmates in the country who couldn’t hold his tongue I reply,
‘We’re here to play music. That’s what the guitars are for.’ But when you think that there is a robust music tradition in Ethiopia created with indigenous instruments and ridiculously dexterous vocal pyrotechnics maybe ‘guitar’ doesn’t necessarily translate to ‘music’.
An official from Selam Festival, our hosts, comes in to save us, gently extricating our passports from the talons of officialdom and we walk into the arrivals lobby.
It’s another one of those instant buildings-in-a-box-just-add- water-and stand-back Chinese affairs with high ceilings and flying white steel buttresses and glass roofs. It’s magnificent.
It’s my second time in Addis. Stepping into the early morning light the cityscape is one huge construction site. There are billboards honouring Meles Zenawi everywhere.
I ask our guides, ‘Is Ethiopia over his death?’ ‘I don’t know about Ethiopia, but we are.’ ‘So, Kenyan girls. They’re really great,’ he says. ‘They can really grind on the dance-floor.’ ‘You think they’re hotter than Ethiopian babes?’ asks one of my band members?
‘Oh yes,’ is his certain reply.’ ‘I’ll mention that to the Kenya Tourist Board,’ I say. Grass is always greener…But it also it seems to be a staple with countries that embrace socialism at some point in their political histories that for every spanking new car there is an old one that would shock the original manufacturers, like they’d seen a ghost of an long-departed great grandfather.
I see a Mercedes 200 that was surely used by the Emperor himself. It’s a sleek, navy blue machine that could tell a thousand tales of pomp and glory, of Guards of Honour mounted for now dead sovereigns.
There are more original VW beetles per square kilometer than The Italian Job. I even see a Ford Mustang parked at a petrol station. There are a million Fiat Ladas with a blue band that make up Addis’ taxi corp.
Unfortunately, since time stands still in Addis so do the waiters, and the bank tellers, and the room service. It takes us an hour to change $150 into Birr, (pronounced with no vowel-’Brrrr’) with every dollar being painstakingly inserted into a currency reader which shifts the note back and forth in some sort of coital dance before either passing it through or rejecting it like a jilted lover.
It’s normal to walk into the dining hall in the hotel where we are staying, serve ourselves from the buffet, sit down and exchange friendly glances, even smiles, with the wait staff without any of them realizing that that you have no fork, no knife, no coffee.
But maybe they are just impressed that we are brave enough to eat there and regard us more as special beings that need to be approached with respect, O Ye Of The Iron Stomachs. You see, ordinarily Ethiopian food is delicious. Visit Habesha in Nairobi or Red Sea. It’s to die for. But not in this hotel. Oh no.
The festival is held on the hotel’s spacious lawn- a coup of efficiency by the organizers. But in a post-show conversation when we tell the Kenyans who’ve come to see us play that we’re staying at that hotel they are horrified. ‘It’s a GOVERNMENT hotel!’ they say, eyes wide open in horror as the bats fly by and the wolves howl in the distance.
And we nod in understanding. It is all clear now. I mean what would you expect from a hotel run by, say… POSTA? The hotel has all the outer trimmings and exaggerated grandeur that shouts ‘SERIKALI!’. But the lifts don’t work. When you open the closets, the wood is rotting, and is that the skeleton of a dissident politician whose been missing for decades?
Then there is a grand piano tucked away in a corner of the lobby, a remnant from the day a long-time dead president and a visiting Italian pianist shared a hotel and someone drunkenly said, ‘Why don’t you play the president a song?’ and a piano was ordered on the spot. An impromptu concert. Much applause. Sweeping declarations of how music is the great unifier. Grand promises of how music should be emphasized in the curriculum. Then everyone went home. The piano and the aged barman are the only witnesses of that night and neither has been tuned for decades.
The nights in Addis are unbelievably cold. The Swedish ambassador says to me, ‘It must be 7 degrees or so colder than Nairobi,’ in the way that wazungus always know these things. We’re at his official residence where he’s giving a reception for all the artists to meet with sponsors, diplomats and other interesting and interested folk in Addis.
The ingredients for the bitings have been flown in from Sweden- salmon and dips. The wine flows generously. Within ninety minutes most guests are on the other side of 5 glasses of wine and things can only go south from here. As the reception fades to an end and we stand outside the Residence on a slight incline waiting for one of Addis’ many, many, Fiat Lada cabs to take us to the next conquest I suggest to the band members with the clarity that comes from several glasses of alcohol that we should race up the hill- from where we’re standing to ‘that car over there’.
It’s going to midnight and in Addis’ equivalent of Muthaiga there are 6 Kenyan men running up a hill, shouting in Swa and Sheng. There’s diplomacy and then there’s us.