Thursday, 1 December 2011

Ethio-Postcards (1) - Emmanuel Iduma

Panaroma - Ala Kheir (Ethiopia)

Thirteen Months of Sunshine
Do not be carried away, the thirteenth month is imagined.

But it is this form of imagination that easily morphs into reality, so that it is difficult to tell if there is a thirteenth month or not. And so, upon our entry into Ethiopia, after we witnessed the unspeakable beauty of the country as we drove through the Goha Tsiyon-Dejen road, it made complete sense to have ‘Thirteen months of sunshine’ written on a T-shirt and placed conspicuously in a restaurant. Thus, ‘sunshine’ becomes a metaphor for something other than sunniness, for the weather is as cold as London’s. It seems that Ethiopia, having been uncolonized, defined itself by itself in several ways. Not to mention that the Ethiopian calendar says we are in 2004, and the time is six hours behind London time. Clearly, there is a thirteenth month of sunshine, and it exists only in Ethiopia. Perhaps we are obliged to discover what Nirvanaian space this month is carved into.

Bus stop like every other
Aida Muluneh, Director of the New Museum of Modern Art, waited for us at the bus stop, with her cousin. The bus stop was no different from parks in cities I have lived – it looked, for instance, like the CMS bus stop in Lagos. And it is interesting to consider why we expected a different look, as though cars and buses are not cars and buses. There is no point blaming anyone for this – not Jumoke who sounded disappointed with her first view of Addis Ababa. It is commonplace for us to seek the Different – it exists in capital letters in our heads, supposedly. We continually search for markers that point to the things that are remembered from our comfort zones, contrasting and presenting it in the face of the things we meet in less comfortable places. (Which is why we convert Birr to Naira before buying anything). How do we exist in Ethiopia and accept the difference we encounter without surrendering the comfort/homeliness we feel when we are in Nigeria, Ghana and Sudan?
            And this city is also like every other in many ways; hopefully, subsequent posts will be dedicated to proving this sameness. Yet, there is every reason to point that an Ethiopian-sameness is different from a Sudanese-sameness, for instance. It is like saying: we are the same, but we are not the same.

The omnipresent ghost of Gebre Kristos Desta
In the New Museum of Modern Art, Gebre Kristos Desta’s art has brought him back to life. The fact that the Museum is also known as The Gebre Kristos Desta Centre shows how he influenced contemporary art in Ethiopia. I considered that his work was the guardian spirit of the Museum, when we entered and found the walls covered with his paintings. We had gone to the Museum for a meeting with Aida and local photographers and writers in preparation for the work we had to get done while in Addis. There is no forgetting the remarkable work Aida is doing for contemporary art in Ethiopia, which suffices as an Ethiopian contribution to trans-Africanism, the idea upon which our project was conceived.
            Desta’s words are instructive in this regard: “…there are many urgent needs…my choice happens to be art. Art needs development, too. And I don’t consider it an easy way out of all...To be a professional artist is not easy in any country, I suppose. Certainly, it’s not easy in a country like ours. You have to sacrifice, you have to fight, you have to face many difficulties and discouragements. It would be much easier, in a way, to do the more obvious development thing. But I do the thing I feel I’m best fitted for, and I consider it as important in its own way as the other types of developmental work.”

Get a partner, work out your way
We have adopted a different work pattern, many thanks to Aida. Now we have been paired with local photographers and writers to take us around the city and to assist us in establishing contacts for interviews. How wonderful! Wonderful because Addis seems to be the city where our work is internalized, first, before externalized. Yes, our work pattern was as good as was necessary in Jos, N’djamena, and Khartoum. Now, I believe our necessities have shifted – we are in need of enough spaces for introspection in order to put finishing touches to the work we began, and which is coming to a close.
            And if this new work pattern was not defined, it would have been impossible for Nana and I to take a walk from Addis Ababa University to our hotel, Ankober, a 20-minute walk. Our walk was possible because our respective partners had done their bits for us. We might not have achieved Sebald or Cole’s articulacy in the process; yet I trust that if we do it more often, few more times before we leave, Addis will mean a different thing, and appear intricately significant.

Neighbourhood of corners
Where our hotel is located, thank goodness, is not the rich area of Addis. Clearly, a rich locale affords so much insularity from a direct confrontation with a city. In Piassa where our hotel is located, houses and shops are clustered. There are several hotels, bars and guest houses. And to make up, perhaps, for the few residential houses, a night walk will reveal people curled up in corners of buildings, sometimes beside gutters and oozing dirt. These people, always in their world, might be beggars or not, they might be homeless or not, but their comfort always seems out of the question. It might be a question of survival. I struggle not to consider these ones in need of pity, which explains how unsure I felt while taking out all the coins in my pocket to give to a man who was curled up beside the road, asking for food money.
            I remember that Nana almost gave out her socks to a girl with bare feet who watched us when we stopped just before entering Addis on Sunday.
            How do we render assistance without being condescendingly pitiful?

The Ethiopia of shoes
Will it matter if there is an ending remark about how mostly everyone wears shoes here?