Ethiopia

     
One of the largest, most populous and economically strongest countries in Africa, with quite a distinct cultural history from the rest of the continent. In fact, someone I know who used to work there said the Ethiopians don't even consider themselves African (but as “something better”, with no small dose of aloofness). Its 20th century history includes enough dark chapters, as well as natural phenomena with a dark appeal, to make the country a veritable destination for the dedicated dark tourist. And I nearly went on a trip to the country at the end of 2018, but for various reasons was forced to postpone. I hope to pick up this plan before long, though, and these specific places will be my top priorities when I do:
 
  
  
  
  
 
   
Ethiopia is an ancient culture and the only place on the African continent that was never properly colonized, although Italy had a dabble at it when Mussolini's Fascist regime decided they, too, needed a colony as a hallmark of a proper world power and occupied this part of East Africa from 1936.
   
Italian East Africa, also comprising of Eritrea and Italian Somaliland, didn't last long though, and by 1941 the British and American Allies of WWII pushed the Italians out. Liberated Ethiopia was returned to monarchic rule under the reinstated emperor Haile Selassie.
   
Eritrea, to the north of Ethiopia proper, was initially left under British administration, but was lumped together with Ethiopia by the UN shortly after. Thus having access to the sea, Ethiopia became strategically important for the interests of the USA in the region, who used it as a military base, while turning a blind eye to the subjugation of Eritrea and Ethiopia's general lack of development and democracy (a familiar pattern in so many parts of the world where the Americans have “interests”).
    
Ethiopia wasn't dependent on outside powers to earn its place on the dark history map, though. It was also perfectly capable of the home-grown variety of terror and devastation:
    
Revolutionary resistance developed from the 1960s and in 1974 the monarchy was overthrown by the Derg, a socialist-inspired paramilitary organization, which proceeded to subject Ethiopia to a ruthless and deadly authoritarian regime under quasi-dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam. Its time of repressions and atrocities became known as the “Red Terror”. The regime had some support from the Soviets and Cuba, but there was also lots of rebel resistance, especially in the northern region of Tigray through the organization TPLF ('Tigrayan People's Liberation Front').
   
One particularly nasty incident was the aerial bombing of a market at the Tigrayan town of Hawzen by the Ethiopian air force in 1988 in which 2500 civilians were killed.
   
And as if civil-war-like conflict wasn't enough, eastern Ethiopia was also hit by a devastating famine in 1985 – which gave rise to Bob Geldof's mega charity concert Live Aid. To this day many people in the West primarily associate Ethiopia with famine and assume it must be parched desert country. In actual fact, however, only the lower-lying regions in the east and south of the country fit that bill. The majority of the country on its high mountain plateau has always been green and fertile.
   
When communism fell in Europe in 1989/1990, culminating in the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, the Derg found themselves without the support of its former socialist allies, and the regime quickly crumbled. Mengistu Haile Mariam fled in 1991 to Zimbabwe (where that country's dictator Robert Mugabe granted his buddy a safe exile). In Ethiopia a transitional government was formed, while Eritrea voted for independence, with a resounding referendum result, and was granted full sovereignty again in 1993.
   
Yet that didn't mean the end of trouble, and border disputes between the two countries eventually led to full-on military conflict in the late 1990s. A ceasefire was brokered in 2000 and a UN peacekeeping force sent in. But for the best part of two decades, relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia remained strained, and the border closed. Northern parts of Ethiopia remained unstable, and that also affected tourism. In the Danakil Depression, in the remote northern Afar region that borders Eritrea, tourists were even targeted (and a few killed) by rebels, so this was a somewhat dicey part of the world to travel in.
   
Note also that Ethiopia is surrounded by a host of other problem zones of Africa, especially Sudan and South Sudan to the west and Somalia to the east. The whole region has long been especially troubled.
   
For Ethiopia, however, things have changed for the better a lot in recent times. Economically Ethiopia has become a powerhouse with growth rates in double figures and rapid development. This is still ongoing, this time also with a lot of Chinese investment (as elsewhere in Africa), for instance into the re-establishment of a railway line between Ethiopia and neighbouring Djibouti.
   
Then in 2018, a newly elected government in Ethiopia initiated a thaw in relations with Eritrea, diplomatic contacts were resumed and even the first flight connections between the two countries set up. So things looked very much up and on a solid road to peace. Yet, with the complex make-up of the population from over a dozen different ethnicities, there remain tensions – and again protests led to street violence in the capital Addis Ababa in September.
   
I had planned to visit Ethiopia at the end of 2018 and into early 2019, but I never had any replies from the three agents/tour operators I contacted, so time for pre-planning began running out. And with the recent violence boiling up again I eventually decided to postpone the trip and monitor developments further first. I've meanwhile been given contacts to more reliable operators in Ethiopia and so may try again with those for a trip at the end of 2019. Yet so far I haven't made any concrete moves. But watch this space …
   
Getting to Ethiopia will for almost all travellers mean flying in, and the national carrier Ethiopian Airlines is actually one of the best airlines in Africa. If you fly in with them you are also eligible for massive discounts on domestic flights, which can be useful, as the distances in this vast country can simply be too great for overland travel, unless you have a lot of time. Otherwise getting around is mostly by road (except for that Djibouti railway), and these are also improving rapidly. Some parts of the country can be done independently, but for a few destinations you will have to go on guided tours. The latter applies in particular to the north, especially the Danakil Depression and Erta Ale, which can only be visited by group tours in convoy accompanied by armed guards.
   
Climate-wise there are great contrasts too. While the mountains can be reasonably cool, the Danakil Depression is infamous as the hottest region on Earth, where summer daytime temperatures frequently exceed 50 degrees Celsius, and even in the winter reach well into the mid-30s.
   
Culinarily, in terms of food & drink, Ethiopia is, again, unique and very different from the rest of Africa. The staple is called injera, made from a grain called teff, which is turned into spongy soft flatbreads used both as “plates” and to scoop up dishes placed on it, often spicy stews. Ethiopians are very fond of meat, including raw meat, but vegetarians are also well catered for.
   
Ethiopia is famously the country of origin of coffee, and it's still a major cash crop. The Ethiopian coffee ceremony is a vital part of the local culture too.
    
As Ethiopia is predominantly a Christian country, there's alcohol too, and the country even makes its own wine, though typical lager beer and local honey beers and other such concoctions are more common. Interestingly, even Muslim Harar is far from dry, though locally the Arab/Yemenite drug of choice, qat, is popular (leaves you chew to extract a mildly narcotic effect, though it's said to taste foul and not be particularly inebriating, so I would definitely give it a miss, personally).
   
Ethiopia is also a cool country for wildlife watching, though some of its endemic species are decidedly rare (especially the Ethiopian wolf). Much more commonly seen are the Gelada monkeys that are most numerous in the Simien Mountains, where they form the largest troupes of any primate on Earth. A rather special animal in Ethiopia is the spotted hyena, and the habituated cackles of hyenas at Harar are also a highlight of a visit to Ethiopia and constitute arguably a darkish kind of attraction.
   
The vast majority of tourism in Ethiopia, however, is historical cultural tourism. The mainstay of this takes in those famous rock-hewn churches, the most prominent ones being those of Lalibela. Visiting the isolated animist tribes of the south is also a highlight for many.
 
     
NOTE: the photo at the beginning of this chapter, taken at the sulphur depsits found in the Danakil Depression, was kindly supplied to me by Howard E. Sawyer.  

 

  

 

 

 

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