Skype Banned In Ethiopia, Punishable By 15 Years In Prison

Skype, EthiopiaA new law passed in Ethiopia has banned Voice Over Internet Protocol services such as Skype, Al Jazeera reports. Use of such services is punishable by large fines and up to 15 years in prison. The law was passed with little fanfare on May 24 but has only just become noticed by international media.

The government-owned Ethio Telecom has a monopoly on telecommunications but the country is filled with cybercafes where people can make low-cost phone calls over the Internet. Ethiopians complain that Ethio Telecom’s international calling rates are unaffordable and Internet calls are their only option. This move blocks such competition.

Another probable reason for the move is to quash internal dissent. Several ethnic groups such as the Oromo and Somalis have armed independence groups inside Ethiopia. These groups get support from abroad and so the government may be trying to cut their lines of communication and funding.

Use of the Tor Project online anonymity provider has also been banned.

Having spent several months in Ethiopia in 2010 and 2011, and being in regular contact with people in the country since, I can attest to the difficulty in using the Internet there. Service is slow, and sometimes gets cut off entirely when there’s a skirmish with one of the rebel groups or a meeting at the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa. These cutoffs are invariably called “equipment malfunctions.”

Emails from abroad often don’t make it to people in Ethiopia. Those with business licenses always seem to get their email, but private citizens often don’t. Ethiopians have told me this is because of government security fears. Many people use Facebook for email because the government can’t block direct messages on the site. I myself have resorted to using Facebook for most of my communication with Ethiopian friends and colleagues.

And in case you’re wondering, our emails have nothing that could possibly be construed as a security risk. Emails about archaeology, historic preservation and simple hellos have gone missing. This is a shame because Ethiopia has a growing educated class that has a lot to say and is thirsty for contact and information from the outside world. Opening up the lines of communications could very well bring on an Ethiopian renaissance from which we’d all benefit.

Ethiopia’s government bills itself as a bastion of democratic stability in an unstable region and as an ally in the War on Terror, but laws such as this show that the current regime is anything but democratic.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

The n-word, the g-word and the hidden perils of travel

n-word, Ice-TLiving in Spain, I get a lot of questions about the United States. One of the most common, and certainly the most disturbing, is if it’s OK to use the N-word.

Let me just say from the outset that I think the term “N-word” is silly. By using it you immediately think of the word I’m trying not to say so, in a sense, I’ve actually said it. On the other hand, if I actually used the word n—–, Gadling would fire my ass, and they’d be right to.

N—– is getting more and more common on American TV shows that get broadcast here. The Wire uses it in almost every scene. Most Spaniards realize it’s a bad word, but are confused to hear it used on TV by whites and blacks alike. I’ve had to explain on more than one occasion that it hasn’t become OK. At least it isn’t OK with this white boy. I don’t think it’s OK for black people to use either, but they’re probably not interested in my opinion.

Now anybody with two brain cells to rub together knows TV isn’t reality, but if you’ve never been to a country before, TV is probably the main way you know about it. The average European has spent far more time watching American TV than talking to actual Americans. Like the guy I met in a bar who was about to go to the U.S. for the first time and used n—— during our conversation. He wasn’t a racist, he just thought the word was OK now. I’m glad I got to talk to him before he got his butt kicked.

I had a similar experience when I spent two months living in Harar, Ethiopia. I was researching a book on Ethiopian history and kept coming across a name for a tribe called the G—-. This word appears in many English-language books about Ethiopia, including many modern ones. One day I was chewing qat with my friend Mohammed Jami Guleid (harartourguide @gmail.com) a local guide and historian, in a small village near Harar. Casually I asked him, “Who are the G—-?”

Mohammed gave me a look like I had just farted in a mosque.”Where did you hear that word?” he asked in a low voice.

“It’s in a lot of books. Some mentioned that the G—- live around Harar.”

“We’re in an Oromo village!” he said, eyes wide.

“So?” I said, confused.

Mohammed shook his head and explained, “It’s an old term for Oromo given to them by the Emperor Menelik. Don’t use it. It’s very insulting. It’s the most insulting thing you can say.”

So insulting, in fact, that I’m not writing it here. Of course, Gadling wouldn’t fire me for using the G-word because the Oromo don’t have any political power in the United States, but respect is respect.

Menelik conquered Harar in 1887 and proceeded to starve the surrounding Oromo clans into submission. About half the population died. Needless to say, the Oromo don’t think very highly of Menelik, even though he’s a hero to many other Ethiopians because he smashed the Italian army at the Battle of Adowa in 1896. Different people see history differently because they experienced it differently. Something to remember the next time Black History Month rolls by.

So when preparing for a trip, it’s important to do your homework and understand the different ethnic groups in that country, otherwise you may inadvertently cause offense by saying something you heard on television, or in my case read in a bunch of history books written by people who should have known better!

If you’re going to Ethiopia and are worried about the G-word, drop me a line privately and I’ll fill you in on the word you can’t say. And if you write out the full word for n—– or G—- in the comments section, I’ll delete it as soon as I see it.

[Photo of Ice-T, who uses the n-word waaaaay too much, is courtesy Steve Rapport]

The Argobba: visiting a little-known African tribe

Argobba, argobba
Ethiopia is home to dozens of different ethnic groups and tribes. Some have populations numbering in the millions, while others have only a few thousand. One of the smallest tribes is the Argobba, a Muslim people scattered in villages across eastern Ethiopia. The Argobba number only about 10,000, yet they’re determined to be counted in Ethiopia´s government and are fighting to preserve their heritage.

The closest Argobba village to Harar is Koromi, and is one of the easiest and most enjoyable day trips from Harar. This village of about 700 people is an hour’s drive through rugged mountains south of Harar. I went with Mohammed Jami Guleid (harartourguide @gmail.com), a local historian and guide who wrote a government report on the Argobba back in 1997. Each ethnic group and tribe is guaranteed a seat in the Ethiopian legislature, but before Mohammed’s report the Argobba were lumped in with the Harari and had no separate representation. His report proved they were a distinct culture and ensured them a seat in the legislature.

It’s easy to understand the government’s mistake, however. The Argobba and the Hararis share a lot of culture and history, as I was to learn when I visited Koromi.

We set out in a Landcruiser early in the morning, taking the road towards Ethiopia’s Somali region before heading onto a dirt track leading uphill. As we trundle along we pass villages of the Oromo, the region´s largest ethnic group, and big fields of qat plants the size of trees. Qat and groundnuts are the main sources of income for Argobba farmers. They’re especially good at growing qat and make lots of money selling it to qat-loving Hararis. We passed several lines of women walking to market. Considering that a trip from Harari to Koromi takes an hour by car, these women must walk most of the day.

%Gallery-120765%We continue up the dirt road, constantly gaining altitude and getting sweeping views of the surrounding countryside as we pass herds of donkeys and camels bringing water in bright yellow plastic jugs from the area’s rare springs to distant villages.

A good stop on the way is Aw Sofi, an important shrine to a Muslim saint. Shrines to Muslim saints dot the countryside around Harar and there are dozens within the walled city. Legend says Sofi was one of the 44 original saints who founded Harar. While others developed the city and its unique way of life, Sofi stayed in the countryside teaching Islam and founded the first madrasa of Harar. The shrine is within a walled enclosure and is a tall, whitewashed dome gleaming in the sun.

Koromi is about a half hour further along the road atop a narrow ridge surrounded by terraced farmland. The low, flat-topped houses blend into the pale brown of the rock and only the brightly colored front doors stand out.

As we pull into town our vehicle is immediately surrounded by a crowd of children. The men are all out in the fields working and the village is left to the women, children, and one old man. As we walk down the main street, a dusty trail between clusters of houses, we’re followed by almost fifty kids and a couple of curious women. Most women keep an aloof distance, looking at us with only mild interest or ignoring us completely.

Nobody speaks English so it’s up to Mohammed to translate for me. The Argobba say they arrived in Ethiopia more than a thousand years ago, just about the same time Harar was being founded. They originally lived well to the north, where some Argobba villages remain, but when the Ethiopian Emperor Yohannes tried to force them to convert to Christianity in the 17th century, most fled to the Muslim enclave of Harar and its surrounding countryside.

This is the Argobba version of events. Scholars differ as to where they came from. Some say they were simply rural Harari whose ways changed over time from the city dwellers. Others say the Argobba are more recent arrivals. In fact, nobody knows, and the Argobba’s own story is probably the most accurate.

We are invited into a home and I immediately feel like I’m back in Harar. Once my eyes adjust from the glare of the sun to the dim interior I see it looks like a traditional Harari home. Only the colorful baskets that adorn Harari walls are missing; stainless steel cookware hang from the walls instead.

This blend of cultures is typical of the Argobba. The women wear traditional Argobba jewelry but otherwise dress like the Oromo, the main ethnic group in this region. Also, while the Argobba have gained political representation, they’re still struggling to preserve their language. Most of those who live near Harar speak Oromo, yet in Koromi they speak Harari mixed with a bit of Amharic, the national language. Only a few villages in the north still speak the Argobba language. Hopefully the Argobba will fight to preserve their heritage and keep their language from going extinct.

As we continue to explore the village I feel a bit frustrated. The children are too excited to have a serious conversation, and most of the women get shy after a few questions. This is not how I like to travel. I prefer what I have back in town–hanging out with Hararis all day getting into deep conversations about their history and culture. Here in the village I feel like both visitor and locals are on display. I’m wandering around taking pictures while being an object of entertainment and fascination for all the local kids. Fun, but not too informative.

What I do learn, though, is that Ethiopia is more than just the main ethnic groups that get represented in the media. The Amhara, Oromo, Tigrinya, Harari, and Somali that I and other visitors spend most of the time with are only a fraction of the rich diversity of Ethiopia. After four months I’ve only scratched the surface of what this county has to offer.

Don’t miss the rest of my Ethiopia travel series: Harar, Ethiopia: Two months in Africa’s City of Saints.

Coming up next: Hyenas in Harar: a strange relationship between beast and man!

Oromo villagers fight to preserve their heritage

Oromo, oromo, Harar, Harla, Ethiopia, archaeology, archeology
A week ago I talked about exploring the ancient civilization of Harla near Harar, eastern Ethiopia. The modern Oromo village of the same name sits on the site and of course farmers come across ancient artifacts as they work in the fields. Harla ruins are scattered in between modern buildings and even the favorite tree for kids to climb is growing out of an ancient ruin.

While this makes for a picturesque village, it’s also dangerous for the ruins. There isn’t much knowledge of historic preservation or archaeology here and heritage is always in danger of new development. A Muslim shrine was destroyed in 2004 when the Chinese put a new highway through the area.

The villagers of modern Harla, however, want to protect their past. They trace their lineage to the ancient Harla people and they want to honor their ancestors by preserving their remains. A few days ago Sheikh Omar of Harla visited Harar to talk with historian and Harar tour guide Mohammed Jami Guleid (harartourguide @gmail.com) and discuss how best to protect the artifacts they have. I got to meet him and interview him about what they’re doing.The Sheikh already has a locked cabinet in his house filled with artifacts the farmers have turned up-pots, bits of jewelry, and small silver coins with mysterious designs on them. They’ve also stopped a local farmer who was selling artifacts to antiquities dealers. They’ve isolated him in the community. In a small village like that, being socially spurned is a big punishment. The Sheikh’s cabinet isn’t big enough for all the artifacts that have turned up and so the villagers reburied many of them. He says he has enough to fill a large room with displays.

Now Sheikh Omar is trying to raise funds to build a small museum in Harla to attract tourists. Mohammed is acting as an adviser and there’s at least one European investor who has expressed interest in funding the project.

It’s great to see these Oromo villagers taking interest in preserving their heritage. I worked as an archaeologist for ten years and I saw way too many cases of locals ignoring or even deliberately destroying archaeological remains. I’ve also seen way too many villagers selling artifacts to antiquities dealers who illegally export them to sell on the international market. The villagers get very little money for these artifacts and they permanently lose their past and the possible tourism development they could earn from it. I hope Mohammed and Sheikh Omar manage to get funding for a museum and develop Harla as an interesting day trip from Harar.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Harar, Ethiopia: two months in Africa’s City of Saints

Coming up next: Qat culture in Harar!

A visit to an African market

African market, market
One of Africa’s best attractions are its markets. Full of vibrant life and color, an African market always makes for a fascinating visit.

Harar has one big and several smaller markets. There used to be one at each of its five gates, but some have dwindled to barely half a dozen women selling tomatoes and potatoes. The only big gate markets now are at Assum Gate, where there’s a busy market for qat, Africa’s favorite narcotic leaf, and at Asmaddin Gate, which has a huge market–Harar’s biggest and some say the second biggest in Ethiopia, with only Addis Ababa’s famous Merkato being bigger. Merkato is unfair competition since it’s the biggest African market of all!

The markets are dominated by the Oromo, a different ethnic group than the Hararis. The Hararis live in town and the Oromo farm the surrounding countryside. Most sell fresh produce and you’ll see piles of fresh vegetables as well as sacks of grain. People also sell manufactured goods, mostly cheap Chinese imports such as shoes, blankets, radios, and pretty much anything else you can think of.

The Oromo have a strict segregation of the sexes at the market. Only women sell food, while men will often sell manufactured items. Men never sell qat. In his Eating the Flowers of Paradise, Kevin Rushby tells a story of an Oromo man whose wife had died. Needing money, he went to the market with a bundle of qat. He was laughed out of town and even years later he was known as “the man who tried to sell qat.” Nobody could explain to me why this division of labor exists; it’s just the way it is.

%Gallery-119721%The markets start at daybreak and Oromo from the more distant villages set off from home well before dawn, sometimes carrying their produce for miles. The women balance amazingly heavy loads on their heads, keeping their backs perfectly straight and walking in neat lines along Harar’s narrow alleyways.

Prices for food are pretty much set, although you can always haggle a little bit. For manufactured goods expect a long struggle as you and the vendor clash over the price. It’s not a frantic as Arab markets but it’s still an amusing battle of wits.

Inside the walls of the old city are a few major streets lined with shops and one open-air market called Gidir Magala. It used to be the largest in town but now it’s only a few dozen covered stalls selling produce. Next to it is a firewood market and a meat market. Oromo women lead donkeys loaded with wood from this market to deliver to private homes. Women who can’t afford a donkey carry giant bundles of wood on their head. There’s also a huge blue water tank where people fill twenty-liter yellow plastic jugs. With Harar’s water shortage, porters are busy carting piles of these jugs on wheelbarrows to people’s houses.

Women also sit by the sides of the major streets and squares selling food. One cooks up delicious samosas. Several more sit behind piles of peanuts, selling packets of them for one birr (six cents) each. Others sell bananas. You don’t have to go far to find a snack.

Besides the markets, there are wandering vendors selling everything from posters to perfume. It’s a hard life, walking around all day trying to sell things people generally don’t want. These folks don’t make many sales but they manage to contribute a little to the family income. One guy who is a common sight in the Old City carrying the same three bottles of perfume should get an award for persistence. Every day for the past couple of weeks I’ve asked him if he’s made a sale, and every day he shakes his head sadly. Yesterday, though, he strode up to me, looking a foot taller, and announced that he had sold a bottle.

One item that does sell well are lottery tickets. I guess I’m not eligible to win because the lottery guys are the only street vendors who don’t try to sell to me. Everyone else keeps trying, even the perfume seller After a month in town, the shoeshine boys in front of my favorite café are still trying to shine my Gore-Tex hiking boots.

I hate shopping at home, but shopping is never dull in Africa!

Don’t miss the rest of my Ethiopia travel series: Harar, Ethiopia: Two months in Africa’s City of Saints.

Coming up next: Harla: Ethiopia’s lost civilization!