Since we arrived in Kenya and especially during our three stays at Jungle Junction, the well-known overlanders campsite in Nairobi, people again and again have asked us for an account of the experiences we made in Ethiopia. Most overlanders at the moment seem to start in South Africa and don't plan to go further north than Kenya but still some are planning to go through Ethiopia soon and are mainly interested in road conditions and rumours about begging and stone throwing children. Had they asked us these questions a year ago after our first four weeks of Ethiopia, we would have been a bit more positive about these topics.
Last time we took a plane to get there, stayed at the non-touristic town of Adigrat, most of the time volunteering for a German NGO in a kindergarden. This way we were integrated, drove around with locals in local cars and bajaj and were being appreciated for bringing knowledge to the country. Because of these positive experiences and deep personal relationships we were able to establish, we actually decided to go to Africa instead of going to South America as initially planned.
This time while overlanding in Ethiopia, our experiences are different. This might be due to many causes. Certainly the quite exhausting travel to Ethiopia through the desert instead of boarding a plane makes a huge difference and can be one point in the list concerning this aspect. Another one is that for the people next to the road, we travel in our own car with a foreign license plate and thus obviously are rich tourists. We don't work at one place but go sightseeing and have a completely different "status" now. As one of the participants of Mischa's free English lessons at Agoro Lodge in Adigrat quite openly stated, before she had worked in the tourist business, "Ferengi" (foreigner) were only "dollarnotes on two legs" for her. Now, overlanding here, we have to endure continuously begging children at all the sights we visit and even whereever we stop along the road. In Adigrat we really enjoyed the liveliness, but this time we really have to endure the negative sides of Ethiopia's overpopulation. Juliane, suffering from diorrhea, has to cope with a group of more than six children watching her while she has to find a place to relieve herself (the rest you can imagine!).
Still, also on this trip, with nearly all adults we meet we experience the sudden and non-expecting help from locals, such as Dr. Hayelum (who has 16 family members living on what he earns and who don't feel they have to go to work to bring in their share), who treats Juliane without accepting any payment ("You will do the same for me when I visit your country!" was what he replied). Also, well-educated locals were a great help in bridging the language barrier gap due to poor English skills of most Ethiopians. They translated and explained a lot.
A major negative aspect definitely are the the road conditions on some main roads which are really bad if you compare them to those in the southern part of Africa. Many roads have been cheaply "Made by China", and thus, roads are sometimes full of potholes, deep wheel ruts and sometimes whole parts of the roads have gone down the hillside. Generally, we feel that Europe and the "western world" in general still doesn't have a correct picture of Africa in their heads ... which leads to the Chinese (and Indian) governments and businessmen freely and rather successfully following their neo-colonialist policies. We hear that the African Development Bank has given all countries in East Africa money to improve the road conditions on the road between Cape Town and Cairo so that in the future the complete road will be tarmac. This at the moment actually leads to hundreds of kilometres of completely unstructured chaotic roadworks, also because the foreign contractors (China and India again!) building the roads simply don't care about the locals who have to use these road-wrecks in their everyday lives.
In addition to the road conditions there are constantly a lot of animals and people on the roads who are not following any rules, simply because they don't have private cars and just don't understand how to deal with traffic. If in this traffic-chaos somebody by accident kills a pedestrian, he will immediately be sent to prison (if guilty for at least seven years). Policemen at checkpoints usually are not at all interested in us. But at one incident, the rope (i.e. the barrier across the road) is lowered, we go through ... and all of a sudden people come running, yell at us and push us back behind the barrier waving their guns at us. We respond too quickly and bang the Land Rover into a concrete pillar next to the road, which did not really lead to a more relaxed atmosphere!
We would definitely recommend a proper 4wd car for anybody who is intending to visit Ethiopia! Don't ever drive at night and during daytime, be extra careful and never speed! An on-board toilet might be a good thing to add to the list of equipment!
"But, after these many negative aspects stated, is it really worth traveling to Ethiopia at all?" We can give a definite "Yes!" as an answer!
"Yes" because the cultures in Ethiopia are so unique in Africa and in so many respects so very near to "us" in Europe and closely related (i.e. the story of the "ark of the covenant" which is kept in Axum, the churches in Lalibela and the century-old connections between Ethiopia and the Jewish, Christian and Muslim world) and at the same time other cultures in the country are so extremely different that it seems really unimaginable that we live at the same time on the same planet with them. Another "Yes" is closely related to the cultures, because there is one thing nearly all Ethiopians have in common: if you get to know people and make friends with them, you are treated as a family member and they will give everything for you even though they sometimes have so very few material wealth to share. We can learn so much from their humble and even-temperes manners!
There is no "Yes" if you want to go to Ethiopia for game drives watching impressive African wildlife, but a definite "Yes" if you are interested in impressively beautiful and magic landscape á la Grand Canyon, Monument Valley et cetera. The only "thing" Ethiopia is missing actually is the sea.
Next time (and there definitely will be a "next time"!), we will have to see the Danakil depression and the Erta Ale lava lake. At the moment our two daughters simply are to young for this adventure!
What are our hopes and visions for Ethiopia's future?
Ethiopia has an impressively high touristic potential which so far has not been used to its full potential at all. Instead the rather "colonial" tourism mentality simply has spoiled the Ethiopian society by many tourists throwing candies out of their windows as if traveling Ethiopia was a visit at the carnival in Cologne. Tourists are freely giving away pencils and even footballs and by that downright instigate the kids to go on begging for more whenever they meet tourists. What has worked once so fast becomes a habit, especially with young children! This does not help at all but causes dependency which in Omo Valley leads to the situation that if you want to take photographs, you have to pay some dollars per photo you take (we heard of US$5 per photo). As the "models" know exactly how to position themselves, all photos look the same, just compare them on the internet and you know what we mean. Most of them even have the same people portrayed. The photographer does not capture a special moment but here we simply speak of a mass product! This is why we did not want to go there. We wanted to avoid the "Disneyworld-atmosphere" because for us, cultural experiences have to be reciprocal and taken seriously which includes respect from both sides.
Then, "help for Ethiopia" should and can not be achieved by anonymous money or donated items and dependency resulting from this, but by personal commitment by PEOPLE like you and me transfering education, knowledge and personal encounters in all imaginable fields (hygiene, education without the use of violence, effective teaching at schools, economy et cetera). In this, the local traditions and customs should definitely not be ignored. A new approach to foreign aid can not mean creating "German" schools, kindergartens, farms or factories in Ethiopia. The traditions are so very much deeply rooted here, deeper than in many other cultures, that this aspect has to be taken care of intensively! But especially these deep roots and this deep connection to history and land is what gives Ethiopia this unique charme, which is the base of the immense tourist potential and which makes every visit extremely interesting and also rewarding for the traveler in spite of all challenges and obstacles that may appear.
What tips for other travelers would we pass on here?
Take your time, stay a while at places and get to know the locals.
Get into personal contact with the locals and please don't worry eating with them from one commonly shared plate using your hands - only this way you can really experience the traditional ways of living and begin to understand this wonderful country and it's peoples even rudimentarily.
Do not expect to be able to have a life like it is at home in Europe and reduce all expectations concerning hygiene, electricity or water supply, proper milk products (no butter, cheese and milk to be found normally!) et cetera and instead of insulting employees at restaurants, hotels and lodges or being annoyed, just prepare and have bottled water with you, use solar torches and buy local sim cards for telephoning or internet (you will be surprised how good the coverage in general is!).
Try to prepare from a medical point of view as well. Train your body in advance, vaccinate, bring with you desinfectives, medication and use probiotics to reduce the chance or duration of diorrhea (it worked wonders with us!).
And: Please, whatever people tell you, go to Ethiopia, be open and make your own experiences. You will not regret it!