Ethiopia Unplugged

Janine Lazarus
Janine Lazarus

JANINE LAZARUS goes back in time

It’s official. In the land of the fabled Queen of Sheba, I am not yet 50 – in fact, I am barely over 40 years of age. You see, in Ethiopia with its own calendar of 13 months, the New Year falls in my birthday month of September. This means that it is now only 2007 – and that I am a whole eight years younger!

Mission accomplished! The team celebrates a successful day of learning.
The team celebrates a successful day of learning.

Coca Cola Sabco invited me to the birthplace of authentic coffee to facilitate a session on Communications and Executive Presence as part of a Management Talent Development Programme to accelerate capability development.

The serenity of Lake Hawassa at sunset.
The serenity of Lake Hawassa at sunset.

The week-long programme conducted in Ethiopia, geared to provide 19 delegates from Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and Ethiopia with a high impact learning experience, involved fun, work groups, action projects, and exposure to other markets.

On the way to the market: A donkey cart with women and children. There are more than 80 ethnic languages spoken – Amharic is the most common.
A donkey cart with women and children. There are more than 80 ethnic languages spoken – Amharic is the most common.

But getting to Hawassa – the location of the event – was no mean feat. Just 270km away, but 10 hours in road travelling time, five hours there and five back. Here you see the real Ethiopia in all its verdant greenery in contrast with dire poverty levels.

Child-herded cattle – the bull at the front almost always bigger than the little boy or girl herding it – veer dangerously into oncoming vehicles, as do the emaciated donkeys and horses worked to the bone.

Religion plays a critical role. Here an Ethiopian Orthodox Church stands out in the middle of a brown shack land.
Religion plays a critical role. Here an Ethiopian Orthodox Church stands out in the middle of a brown shack land.

These beasts of burden, I’m told, labour way past their prime, then are discarded like so much rubbish when they get too old to work.

Like other African countries I’ve worked in; the stray skeletal dogs rummaging for food is heart-breaking to witness.

Bananas for the long road trip from Addis Ababa to Hawassa. Agriculture is the backbone of the Ethiopian economy with/about 90 percent of the population earning a living from the land mainly as subsistence farmers.
Bananas for the long road trip from Addis Ababa to Hawassa. Agriculture is the backbone of the Ethiopian economy with/about 90 percent of the population earning a living from the land mainly as subsistence farmers.

While Western perception dictates we can judge a society by how it treats its animals, in Africa where poverty bites hard, those norms are meaningless.

Many of the women are fine featured but teeth stained by khat – leaves from flowering evergreen shrubs kept in balls on the inside of their cheeks – mar their striking beauty. Their blackened teeth bear evidence of overuse and addiction to this “mild stimulant”.

The closest I could get to meeting Haile Gebre Selassie who is regarded universally as the greatest distance runner of all times. He owns the Haile Resort on Lake Hawassa.
The closest I could get to meeting Haile Gebre Selassie who is regarded universally as the greatest distance runner of all times. He owns the Haile Resort on Lake Hawassa.

The sprawling hothouses of giant Ethiopian roses exported by tonnes on Valentine’s Day mushroom around thatched roofed huts, naked babies playing in the dirt, and the odd smattering of ornate tombstones that appear now and then in the middle of nowhere.

As poor as the 10 villages are on this smoggy, gridlocked road between Addis Ababa and Lake Hawassa, the locals become indignant if you photograph them without paying for it. Sitting on donkey carts, they vigorously rub forefingers and thumbs in the universally accepted sign language for Birr – the local currency.

The sublime tranquillity of Lake Hawassa and the view I woke up to.
The sublime tranquillity of Lake Hawassa and the view I woke up to.

While six million farmers grow vast green fields of mealies and teff grain across Ethiopia, this barely meets local food needs. Despite these circumstances, the gentle people are tactile, invariably linking hands, or walking together arm in arm.

The process of brewing coffee in Ethiopia is taken as a sign of respect and friendship. Once the beans are roasted, they are grounded in a wooden mortar and then slowly stirred into a jebena – a black clay coffee pot with a straw lid.
The process of brewing coffee in Ethiopia is taken as a sign of respect and friendship. Once the beans are roasted, they are grounded in a wooden mortar and then slowly stirred into a jebena – a black clay coffee pot with a straw lid.

The Rasta village of Shamshemenne – home to many Jamaicans – is one of the largest towns before the serene vista of Lake Hawassa with its fish eagles and abundant bird life – a perfect setting as a learning environment. And learn we all did!

One thing has always stood out for me over the years I have facilitated training programmes in Africa – the unquenchable thirst of its people for knowledge. They take criticism in their stride and use it to better themselves. Each opportunity to learn is embraced and tackled with an enthusiasm often lacking back home. We’d do well to embrace this spirit.

  • Discover more about what Janine does here