Touria Prayag's Blog

Left behind?

Posted in Uncategorized by touriaprayag on February 24, 2013

“Chewing gum,” the small boy with the smiling face and skinny legs offered as we walked into the Ethiopia National Museum. “No, thanks.” – “Later?” he insisted. “Not really. Thanks.” – “Maybe when you come out,” he said as he was walking away.

Hope when there is hope, hope when there is no hope, hope against hope. That is the spirit of Africa. And that is why there is every reason to be optimistic about Africa.

It is not our intention to romanticize Africa. Ethiopia is still a heartbreakingly poor country and the rather comfortable – luxury is still an alien concept here – hotels of Addis Ababa overlook slums which display indescribable poverty and malnutrition. And, until recently, 45% of Ethiopia’s GDP was swallowed by war. But that is a side of the country you already know as the western media has made it its stock in trade to highlight all the misery year in and year out. The fairly well developed infrastructure, the wide roads and spacious pavements, the buildings which seem to be springing up from everywhere, the leaps made in health and education, the peace and serenity which engulf the city are not sexy enough to report on. And that is what we invite you to discover with us.

The city wakes up early. A young and vibrant city. Life is not moving fast but things are happening quickly. The scorching sun starts to pierce its way through the dry, icy morning. Many of the boys who used to sell chewing gum are now selling telephone cards. Still a terrible verdict on youth unemployment but an indication nonetheless as to the way the country is moving. The shoeshine boys – and surprisingly girls too – offer to shine your shoes before they dismiss you with a smile. They are not pushy or violent, and crime is incredibly low in spite of the rampant poverty. And there is not a single cop in sight. People simply seem to be too busy trying to eke out a living against all odds to think of crime.

The weyalas (conductors of minibus taxis) have half of their bodies out of the window calling out at stops to get as many commuters as they can, at times arguing with other weyalas to get more passengers. The worn out clothes sported by many of these passengers are a manifestation of a lack of the basic necessities. But the smiles do not fade, neither does the pride they have in their history, culture and country.

Late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s photo adorns the streets, office buildings, hotels and shopping centres, at times accompanied with messages of affection. There isn’t a single photo of the current prime minister, Hailemariam Desalgene, who took over a few months ago in what the world hailed as a smooth transition – in fact smooth only in appearance. He has not been seen or heard anywhere but Ethiopia today is among the three fastest growing economies in the world! Surely that did not happen by accident.

The opportunities this country has to offer the world are unlimited. And, while we are still talking about fine-tuning our Africa strategy, the Chinese have made the place their home. They are everywhere. Many are selling vegetables in the markets!

Being the gateway to Africa, we opened the door for many investors in Africa, waved them goodbye and good luck. While we stood and watched, they seized the opportunities we did not dare jump on. Today, in hotels and restaurants, the menu is written in English and…Chinese! While we are wallowing in our prejudice and inaction.

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