- Get to know the city. Yes, traffic and smog in Addis are terrible and pedestrians are practically always forced to walk on the street between cars rushing by on the one side and heavy construction happening on the other side. However, walking is not absolutely terrible and in my opinion still the best way to get to know a city – especially since something like an official map does not exist. I also urge you to figure out the system of blue and white mini vans as soon as possible instead of relying on taxis. Taxi drivers are often as helpless as you are, meaning they do not know the directions, they will try to overcharge you and are intoxicated in the worst case. Also, do not get into a cab by yourself if you see another guy sitting in the passenger seat, really don’t! The system of mini buses might seem very confusing and inefficient at the beginning, but you can handle it! The bus boys are usually yelling the destination and in case you do get lost, stay on until you get to the final stop. There are usually other vans waiting, just get onto one with a destination that you are familiar with and take it from there.
- Routine. Whenever I move somewhere new, I try to adapt bits and pieces of my usual daily routine to the new surroundings. Little things, such as starting the day with my usual breakfast, going to the gym after work or watching series before going to bed, have an immensely comforting effect on me. If you get restless without a regular workout, join a gym. If Yoga helps you relax, find a Yoga studio. While Addis may feel overwhelming and maybe even a bit depressing in the beginning, you will soon find out that it offers many of the amenities that you will find in any bigger city (although you might have to cut back on the quality a little). Also – splurge! Addis is comparatively cheap, so I would say that even a weekly dinner at a fancy restaurant, brunch at a cozy bakery (i.e. Munch in Bole) or a hotel, and massages or beauty treatments are within a student’s budget.
- Electronic detox. While probably everyone of us agrees that the constant lack of WiFi was the main hindrance to getting work done, I decided to see it as a chance to delink from my social media obligations for a while. While I was fighting my addiction hard for the first couple days weeks, I eventually got used to not being able to check my social media apps every minute. And after my iPhone got stolen, which happened about a month into the program, I finally learned it the hard way (meaning, I learned to enjoy excursions and trips without constantly staring at the lens of my camera). I recommend you bring a lot of books or your Kindle!
- Attitude. Yes, constant power outages and water shortages are annoying, So is the insane amount of street harassment and the inability to express yourself in Amharic. However, constant complaining sucks you into a downward spiral of feelings, it makes you miss out on a lot of good moments and eventually brings down everyone around you. Do not take yourself too seriously in every situation, keep the mood light and your spirits up. Remember that you have chosen Ethiopia for a very specific reason, namely to live and work in a developing country. Play “thorns and roses” with your housemates in the evening to talk about the joys and hassles of the day, allow yourself to rant a little and then have a glass of wine and let it be.
- Make friends. Obviously, socializing with locals will enrich your IFP experience tremendously. But I am particularly talking about your fellow IFP students. Spending two very intense months abroad as a group, living together with probably very little personal space, accommodating to each other’s needs and habits, touring the country and sharing exciting, adventurous and emotional moments together will definitely bring you closer. As much as I value the IFP for the professional experience, I probably value it even more for the bonding with my housemates and travel buddies. I am sure that the connections I made over the last two months are the GPIA friendships that will last the longest.
The list of random ramblings
We are already four weeks into the program and, according to the world traveler’s rule of thumb, should currently be in a downward spiral of emotions and feel sick of everything (not only literally sick of the spicy “habesha” food). For my part, I think I have directly moved from being sick in bed to accepting Addis Ababa and all its peculiarities with stoic calm. I gave up trying to keep dry since I never have an umbrella ready when the inevitable rain shower hits. I have changed my DocMartens for Birkenstocks and accepted that my feet will probably never ever be clean again due to these puddles of mud that are especially wicked in our neighborhood. And I feel the urgent need to punch someone in the face for constant street harassment, which ranges from guys yelling “FORENJI FORENJI FORENJI” (foreigner) to “I LOVE YOU I LOVE YOU I LOVE YOU” to “FCK YOU FCK YOU FCK YOU”, only every other time.
This is a list of observations (not the smartest, I admit) compiled over the last four weeks.
- In case you feel helpless because you have never seen a city map – don’t! The average taxi driver is at least as helpless as you. Due to the lack of street names any address is more of an approximation, i.e. “to the left behind the parking lot of Hotel XX”. And due the lack of mobile Internet, i.e. Google Maps, even taxi drivers get lost. In case you’ve been driving in circles for half an hour interrupted by random stops in order for the driver to ask pedestrians for help, I recommend you get off, yell at the cabbie, run off without paying, obviously, and try your luck with another taxi.
- By now I am already a pro in taking mini buses and getting off at the right street corner. Every street is practically congested with these little blue and white vans where you squeeze in with a dozen other people and then get nauseated from this very distinct mix of body odor and exhaust fumes. The radio blasting Ethiopian spiritual music and the busboy’s constant yelling of the destination, i.e. “BOLEBOLEBOLE”, “HAYAHULETHAYAHULET” or “KAZANCHISKAZANCHISKAZANCHIS”, will also leave your ears ringing.
- However, I still find Addis to be a somewhat walkable city – this is if you’re not afraid to walk ON the street, usually between heavy construction and cars rushing by. I am very thankful these days that the GPS on my phone does not require Internet.
- Everything that is supposed to convey the feeling of up-scale urbanity has this distinct 70s-charme. The locker rooms at my gym, for example, or the restaurant at the Italian Juventus Club, a sports club and major expat hub.
- It’s hard to believe, but Addis has apparently turned me into an early bird (yes, me!). Since I have a very light sleep, I’m usually up at 4am when these hordes of street dogs start howling to the call to prayer at some nearby mosque. By 5am the roosters start their concert. By 6am some stupid birds usually start bumping against our windows and I’m wide-awake.
- A safe recipe for stomachache (or relief, depending on your condition) is a breakfast consisting of the darkest blend of Ethiopian bunna (coffee), a huge mixed juice and an unidentifiable Ethiopian cigarette for 3 Birr.
- I am constantly taking pictures of donkeys and goats that are wandering along the streets. Some of these goats look like they have just escaped the butcher. And there are butcher shops literally everywhere with whole cadavers spread and nailed to the wall and grim looking butchers cutting off pieces during the day. Since all the dogs are playing with gigantic bones, I am pretty sure that most goats or other animals get slaughtered right behind the stores.
- There are massive security checks whenever you enter a building. On the one hand, this it totally understandable after the Nairobi bombing, on the other hand, one could definitely argue that Ethiopia has features of a police state. The other day, for example, we were at a festival and the minute the show was over heavily armed policemen appeared making sure that everyone was leaving and preventing people from further gathering.
- It is also these guards that do not seem to question hierarchies or their orders at all. For example, after walking in and out of the university institute where I work for over three weeks now, the security guards still insist on keeping my ID. And I am still afraid every time that they will lose it because putting it on a rock beside their guard post does not seem to be a very safe depository.
All the hassles aside, there are so many little things that make me really happy to be here. Like being able to get a freshly brewed bunna in every door entrance. Like finding this really good bakery with almost reliable Internet. Or celebrating the first International Day of Yoga with free a practice and Indian breakfast at the Hilton. Or meeting this very respectable mama in the sauna and coincidentally finding out that her brother is the one and only professor for Amharic and Ethiopian history at Vienna University. (She then invited me to come over for dinner some time and said she’ll have me deliver packages to her brother when going back. Small world.)
Here’s to another exciting month in Ethiopia!
About freedom of speech in Ethiopia
Earlier this week I had a very eye-opening discussion with one of the graduate students at the Center for Human Rights. He was practically pouring his heart out about how he wants to use his degree in Human Rights to promote change within the political system and how he feels that yet his hands are tied with regard to the current system of corruption, bribery and the negation of human rights violations. The only chance of getting an inside view into political decision-making processes is to be involved with the ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front. Simultaneously, however, this rules out any opportunity for critical engagement.
In this moment it really hit me how people struggle to live under Ethiopia’s illiberal democracy where people are afraid to talk about politics in public spaces and where even students who are studying the very subject of human rights do not always succeed in accessing blocked websites.
Ethiopia has been on the radar of international human rights organizations, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, for a while now – mainly due to the increasing repression against independent bloggers and journalists.
Since the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation and the Charities and Societies Proclamation, which I have discussed in my previous blog post, were passed in 2009, freedoms of expression and association as well as human rights advocacy work have been heavily restricted. According to Human Rights Watch, at least 60 Ethiopian journalists were forced to leave the country over the last five years and a number of independent publications were forced to close due to harassment by the authorities. Currently, Ethiopia is among the top three countries in terms of the number of exiled journalists.
More precisely, the government uses the very broad definition of “terrorist acts” under the 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation to mute critical voices in politically motivated prosecutions. Most notable is the government’s attempt to silence the activists of the Zone 9 blogger collective. Six out of the nine bloggers and three independent journalists were arrested in Addis Ababa on 25 and 26 April 2014 and have been jailed ever since.
According to Reporters Without Borders, they are charged under said Anti-Terrorism Proclamation and are accused of “organizing themselves into covert groups to overthrow the government by contacting and receiving finance and training from two terrorist groups”, a charge that could lead to up to 15 years in prison. Western media as well as human rights observers criticize the trial as being severely unfair and neglecting the defendants’ rights to a due process and a fair trial.
In the 2015 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index Ethiopia is ranked 142nd out of 180 countries. The independence of its judicial system was rated 2.9 out of a best possible score of 7 in a recent report by the World Economic Forum.
Strangely enough, the international donor community seems to be relatively oblivious to these continuous human rights violations in Ethiopia. In their World Report 2014 Human Rights Watch mentioned that this is possibly due to Ethiopia’s role as an ally against al-Shabaab, its involvement in UN peacekeeping missions, and its mediating role between Sudan and South Sudan in 2013. Furthermore, Ethiopia is well-positioned within the African Union with their headquarter being located in Addis Ababa.
However, the questions that my friend at the Human Rights Center raised keep resonating in my head. How can these well-educated young professionals indeed engage in human rights advocacy in Ethiopia’s illiberal democracy where the rule of law seems to depend on the whims of the political elite and where the fear of being jailed is very real?
A first Glance at Human Rights Advocacy Work in Ethiopia
I have spent my first days at the Center for Human Rights at Addis Ababa University reading through their publications on a broad range of human rights issues in Ethiopia, about the establishment of the Human Rights Commission in 2004, the role of the Ethiopian Ombudsman Institution in the promotion of Good Governance, about land-grabbing issues and women’s rights. In today’s blog post I would like to give you a brief insight into the legal constraints that human rights organizations face in Ethiopia.
While NGOs were limited to the sphere of humanitarian assistance and immediate relief during the Derg Regime (remember the flood of humanitarian assistance during the famine of 1984/85), they were able to extend their scope when the new constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (FDRE) was adopted in 1995. The new constitution does not only guarantee a range of human rights to Ethiopian citizens but initially also conceded a number of freedoms to civil society and non-governmental organizations. Consequently, the number of both national and internal civil society organizations and NGOs increased rapidly. The numbers rose from 240 in 1998 to 600 in 2000 to 2305 officially registered organizations in 2007.
However, the Civil Society Proclamation of 2009 brought about some major restructuring measures: all the already-existing CSOs/NGOs were required to re-register under the new legal arrangements.
The Civil Society Proclamation distinguishes between Ethiopian Charity/Society, Ethiopian Resident, and Foreign Charities and Societies. Foreign NGOs and domestic NGOs that receive more than 10% of their budget from a foreign source are not allowed to engage in the promotion of human rights and good governance. By 2011, 1500 out of the 1600 organizations were registered as Ethiopian resident or Foreign Societies/Charities, which means they are actively excluded from human rights advocacy (including advocacy for gender equality or the rights of disadvantaged groups). Additionally, Ethiopian Charities/Societies are prevented from forming consortia with Resident or Foreign Charities/Societies, which actively discourages any collaboration in human rights concerns.
Organizations that have been active in the field of human rights in Ethiopia include the Action Professionals Association for People (APAP), the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association (EWLA), Forum For Street Children (FFSC) and the Organization for Social Justice in Ethiopia (OSJE). The new regulations under the Civil Society Proclamation do not only disable any significant foreign impact on human rights issues, but also put major financial constraints on Ethiopian organizations, such as the Human Rights Council or EWLA.
According to various sources I came across during my initial research this week, the Ethiopian government is concerned that foreign NGOs might politicize human rights issues and overly emphasize human rights abuses in order to make their presence indispensable and secure flows of donor money from the West. On the other hand, the Ethiopian standpoint also seems to be that the promotion of human rights has to come from within the country and should not depend on foreign funding that might be subject to budget cuts.
The relationship between the CSO/NGO sector and the government is strained. Its peak was reached after the national elections in 2005 where a consortium of different NGOs raised funds for election observations and ended up being hindered in their work. The ultimate éclat was the arrestment of two human rights advocates from Action Aid Ethipia and OSJE.
While I am of course still making myself familiar with all the details concerning the delicate situation of human rights in Ethiopia, these initial readings gave me a good overall impression and have only intensified my interest in conducting individual research on the issues raised in this blog post. In the course of my two-month stay here in Addis Ababa, I would like to consult with a number of NGOs that a) are registered as Ethiopian Resident or Foreign Charities/Societies, b) have been active in the country prior to the enactment of Civil Society Proclamation of 2009, and c) work in the field of women’s empowerment and gender equality. In my research paper I would like to particularly focus on the constraints that women rights organizations that fall under the external-donor clause face in Ethiopia, identify the major causes of human rights violations against women and explore how the Civil Society Proclamation of 2009 affects their work and their relationship with the Ethiopian authorities.
 All facts and figures can be found in: Asfaw, Seife Ayalew. 2014. Collision of Norms – Domestic Politics and International Human Rights Standards: Commentary on the Ethipian Charities and Societies Proclamation. In: Benedek/Pippan/Woldetsadik/Yimer (Eds.). 2014. Ethiopian and Wider African Perspectives on Human Rights and Good Governance. NWV Verlag.
As I am currently sitting at this fancy FroYo place in Bole, trying to keep this insane amount of dust from my laptop and slowly getting used to my new hairstyle (hello braids; is this still cultural admiration or already appropriation – this thought keeps nagging me), I guess there is no excuse to postpone this blog article any longer.
The first week here in Addis has been nothing but amazing so far. It definitely does not compare to anything I have ever experienced and I would not necessarily compare Ethiopia or Addis to any place in Latin America that I have been to.
Aside from my really lovely birthday (thanks to Mark and Yosef for the cake) I had the best time visiting the women self-help group. I honestly had a hard time not starting to cry (as I always do when I see solidarity in action) when these women shared their stories with us. Nothing compares to actually seeing (contentious) practices such as micro-finance projects being implemented and having people talk about their experiences. It was such a powerful experience to see the strength of their community and how they provide an inclusive environment for HIV positive women.
In addition to that, I was also very impressed with the students at the Human Rights Center and how all the women stressed that they were especially interested in women’s rights. I guess my feminist heart felt very delighted to see how people here actually care about women’s empowerment, not only because it is so conducive to development but also because it is a welcoming change from the mainstream Western perspective where women’s rights are treated as a given fact and people are fed up with feminism.
I cannot wait to start my internship on Monday and find a topic I want to do research on for the next couple months.
On the other hand I have definitely felt uncomfortable in a lot of situations where it was so obvious that we as the rich “forenchi”(like right now, sitting in a nice café in Bole with MacBooks all over the table looking like the most obnoxious Westerners) come here to help and assist in “development”. I have been asking myself whether I will eventually overcome this feeling or whether this is just something that comes with fieldwork in general. I assume that this is the overarching question in development work anyways, namely how to pass on your knowledge without forcing Western practices upon locally owned organizations.
I also cannot stop wondering where all these international people that are supposed to be around the city are hiding. Do they just go back in forth between their work and apartment? Is there some kind of secret segregation going on that I am not yet aware of?
So did I experience “culture shock” so far? Probably not. I am also not quite sure what that means. I suppose if I weren’t comfortable with living in places where power cuts, water shortages and the like are common, I would not study what I am studying. Of course, it has mainly been due to the kindness and warm-heartedness of the Ethiopians we have met so far seem that the process of adjusting felt (and feels) so easy. In my eyes the most important thing is to simply keep up your spirits, laugh at the little things and, most of all, do not take yourself too seriously (but I guess this is not particular to our current IFP experience).
However, I would definitely want to force every single white Western person to live abroad in the Majority World for a while to, you know, check their privileges. I want every single white person to understand that reverse racism does not exist because reverse power structures do not exist (speaking on a macro level; all organizations we have got to visit apparently depend on external donor funding) and that visiting or working in an African country comes with the responsibility of doing everything to avoid perpetuating the imagery of the “white savior”.
I expect the whole stay to be a very humbling experience. By the end of these two months I really hope to have a clearer picture about my career aspirations, whether I want to pursue a career in research or work on the ground.