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October 22, 2017

Getting a first hand taste of the rough and tumble of Ethiopian street life - Ethiopian Journey - Post 13.

God's own "Sun Burnt People"
Watching us from the side was Tadesse Getahun the hotel Manager. He was very friendly. During one of his conversations he told me that he had visited Delhi, India. I asked him what he liked and disliked. Tadesse gave it a serious thought “Most things I liked, population is very big, very crowded and people are very smart. Every one appears to be busy and Indians are hardworking”.

He took a deep breath and blurted out “Delhi was pretty rude to us. They called us Darkies!”. “Darkies” He sputtered “We Ethiopians are not uniformly dark. Some of us are fairer than you Indians. In fact I find many Indians darker than us” It was good reasoning. He also added “Indians call our Country Ethopia or even worse Utopia. It is  not either. Our country is Ethiopia and we are extremely proud of it”. He stood tall and was strutting like a peacock, I liked his attitude. 

Tadesse told me a story that was both amusing and illustrative at the same time. God was busy baking human beings.  The first set of people came out pale and very light skinned. God did not like these people and in a fit of rage threw them on earth. The fair skinned landed in Europe and USA and they became the modern fair skinned Anglo Saxons. God baked a second set and it was over cooked. They were very dark skinned, had squat features, thick lips and were a thick set of people. God in fury threw them on earth and they landed in Africa.

The third time around god was extra careful and lovingly baked a third set. They came out perfectly. “These are the perfect human beings” God exclaimed.  He searched an area on earth to place them. The high lands meant that the second set of people could not fall in Ethiopia. So god lovingly placed the perfect set of people in Ethiopia and fondly called them “Sun Burnt people”. Not too dark not too fair! I think that was a wonderful tale from a crafty and skillful story teller, Tadesse Getahun!

Getting bored in the hotel, I stepped out. Outside the scene was crowded and quite chaotic. There were many small children and young men loitering around. There were at least twenty to thirty shoe shine boys and they all had customers ready. Getting Shoes shined, it looked was the national pass time in Addis Ababa!

Shoe Shine Boys 
The minute the children and the young men saw me, they got triggered. They hollered “Babuji, Hind”. This was repeated with deafeningly increasing decibel levels. Others were not to be put down. They kept screaming “Firanj, Firanj, Shah Rukh Ka, Rani”. I tried to ignore them. The small ones knew their game, They kept saying “You, You, You, You,……..”. It was disheartening and very irritating. I tried to get used to it but these kids were on, continuously. The attention was totally unwanted and unwarranted. Now I know how the celebrities feel when they are chased by the paparazzi.

I came back to the hotel and asked my friend what it all meant. Tadesse heaved a deep sigh “Ethiopians are very poor. We have very high rate of unemployment and even when both the parents work, it is difficult to make both ends meet. Government School system is not very robust and most private schools are unaffordable. All this means that the children are left to themselves and they get amusement by teasing the foreigners.”
Ethiopian kids and Foreigners 
I asked him what all the terms meant. Tadesse explained “Babuji is from Indian movies and even could be a reference to Mahatma Gandhi. Hind is a short form of Hindustan. Firanj is an Amharic word for a foreigner”. According to Tadesse, Hindi movie blockbusters had a huge impression and they would refer to Indian men as Shah Rukh Kha and Indian women as Rani as in Rani Mukherjee.

shah Rukh Ka and Rani 
“Wow” I said  “Not bad to be compared with Shah Rukh Khan” I started preening myself. Tadesse brought me to earth with his crushing reply “My friend. For these kids all Indian men irrespective of age, colour, hairy or bald, lean or fat, all of you are Shah Rukh Kha and all Indian women are Ranis”. I was truly deflated.

Foreigners in India are treated as demi gods. We ogle at them and go out of our way to please. We accost them and ask questions like “Where are you from? Are you married? How many children do you have? Is this your husband/wife? What is your salary?” We go out of our way to make them feel important. Their fair skin makes us feel that they in some way superior to us.

Ethiopian behaviour is exactly in reverse. As they were never colonized they harbour a healthy dose of distrust and skepticism for foreigners. Foreigners are not put on a pedestal. They are infact teased to no end. It is as if to say “You came to my country as you did not get good opportunities in your in own”. Even after four years, the constant ribbing on the roads was a big pain. You get used to it but the attention is never wavering and we always had a set of children following us and yelling “You, You, You”. All the time!

Blue and white taxis
Local transport is very unreliable in Addis Ababa. Most people rely on mini taxis or minibuses. These minibuses can seat at most twelve people but enterprising owners can squeeze upto fourteen by using small stools. Most travelers bear with the discomfort as the distances are short and city buses are overcrowded and are quite irregular. Two people are responsible for each taxi, the driver and a Weyala who collects fares and calls out the taxi's destination. The Weyala would hang out precariously from the mini bus and scream “Arat Kilo, Arat Kilo” a land mark in Addis Ababa. He would briskly spell out the fare “hamsa ammest” or 55 santim. (One birr = 100 santims).

The blue and white mini taxis or mini buses were beat up trucks that were imported from the Middle East. Most of them were past their sell by date, needed lot of servicing and frequently broke and caused trouble and heart burn to the bus owners. Luckily by 2009, 2010, local entrepreneurs introduced the three wheeler autos from India. As they have never seen three wheeler autos the Ethiopians started calling them ‘Bajaj or Bajaja’ after the company that markets them – The Bajaj company!  

Bajajas are so popular in Ethiopia that they are slowly but steadily replacing the aging mini buses and they are now the life line of Ethiopian local transport. The Bajaja drivers are a grateful lot as Bajaj three wheeler autos are maintenance free and give good income to their owners. India should be proud for providing these three wheeler autos and help solve the transport problem of Ethiopia. At the same time Bajajas are providing livelihood to many Ethiopians. The only thing that I would miss is the lively, impish and cheeky Weyala! 

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