Ethiopia: Where absolute power corrupted absolutely
There are certain countries that loom so large in my imagination that I think I’ll never be fully complete until I’ve visited them. Ethiopia is one of those countries. I guess it has something to do with its legendary ability to remain uncolonised by the marauding Europeans despite the germs, guns and thirst for blood and treasure that they brought with them. Perhaps it is because it embraced in the 4th Century BC and thus has some of the oldest churches in the world. Perhaps it is the food, so hard to make, so delicious to eat. Or perhaps it is its links to the living God who came in the form of his Imperial Majesty Hailie Selassie — one of the foremost figures of Rastafarianism, a religion I’ve always found to be fascinating (the term “Rastafari” derives from “Ras Tafari Makonnen”, the pre-regnal title of the late Haile Selassie).
It was with sadness, therefore that this week’s book The Emperor by Ryszard Kapuscinski so successfully reveals that the man behind the myth was a cruel, self-obsessed mortal who should be remembered with scorn. His list of evil seems endless… he was the kind of man who believed that the weak deserve to suffer and that “people will always starve”. Such philosophies gave him the excuse to ignore people starving in the North even though it was his policies that had led to the crisis. I still believe there was a time, early in his life when he supported the weak and battled unjust power, but once that power was in his hands it was the beginning of the end of Ethiopia millennia of leadership. It may even be argued that the present Tigray war can be traced back to Selassie’s uncaring governance and the world’s inability to put things right…
…But perhaps it’s the West’s constant attempts to “put things right” that needs to be challenged. After all, our book about Democratic Republic of Congo (King Leopold’s Ghost) taught us that the colonisation of this great kingdom was justified as an attempt to end slavery. Maybe instead of trying to save the world, people would be better placed trying to save their neighbourhood, their friends, themselves! And it is this philosophy that underlines this week’s film, Lamb, the story of a little kid who loves his lamb so much he will do anything to save it from becoming a stew. It is a slow and beautiful film full of long panning shots of the countryside which helped destress me such that I described it as the filmic equivalent of lying in bed with a cup of sleepy time tea getting your feet massaged. If you are going to watch one Ethiopian film today, make it this one.
This Ethiopian trip has been, despite the traumatic subject matter, one of the most relaxing ever, as I finally accepted that my life would be far better and my stomach far happier if I were to buy rather than make this week’s food! And so it was that I went to not one, but two Ethiopian restaurants, where I drank not one, but two Ethiopian drinks! First of all I went to the Blue Nile in Ladywood, a filthy, dated restaurant with an old VHS tape of Ethiopian music playing on a loop. It seemed so strange to have our ears tortured with the same warped songs when Ethiopian music is varied and perfect for eating. I nearly suggested they put on my Ethiopian playlist instead, but luckily I do have some shame! The food was delicious though and they serve Habesha beer, a drink with one of the best lids in the world. It would be hard to say how what we ate differed from our Eritrean meal as it consisted of heaps of injera (a kind of sour fluffed up pancake bread), topped with various curries and salads. I would suggest you go and try it for yourself, but the restaurant has since closed, hopefully for the renovation it sorely needed!
The other restaurant I tried was the distinctly more upmarket Kokob, in the heart of Brussels. The Kokob food is the same, but the atmosphere is different, the waiting staff are on point and the drinks include an incredible cocktail made of Tej — an Ethiopian mead — and Prosecco. And so it was that my week in Ethiopia came to a blurry end on a bench near the Mannequin Pis! Next week we finally leave the E countries behind and head to beautiful Fiji!