It was almost a throwaway line. I had bumped into my old boss, the publishing magnate John Brown, on the Portobello Road. ‘Why don’t you come out to Ethiopia?’ he had said, mentioning something about a charity and the Simian mountains. I made enthusiastic noises, but not much more than agreeing to ‘Let’s have lunch’, then cycled off.
Back at home, however, I decided to look up Ethiopia. I searched for images of the Simian mountains, pored over pictures of extraordinary, vast landscapes and eyed up the Ethiopia’s rickety-looking capital Addis Ababa. Pretty soon I was hooked. I emailed John to tell him I was in, and here is the diary I kept from that moment on.
Two months before departure
All I know about Ethiopia, at this point, is what I learnt from Live Aid: famine and Bob Geldof saying ‘fock the address’ and Phil Collins playing at Wembley then jumping on a plane and drumming somewhere in the States. Time for some internet research: while the Simian mountains look amazing, the food looks less inspiring. I spy something called njera (a bread that looks like a sponge that needs a deep clean), which appears to be a staple.
Is it tactless to wonder about the quality of food in a once famine-hit nation? As a food journalist, it’s something I don’t want to consider, but I also know I won’t be able to help myself.
Ten days to go
I visit John at his smart Notting Hill pad and meet the others who are coming on the trip. There are financiers, publishers, bankers, investors. The trip mainly involves some trekking, a bit of camping and insight into the work of the charity Camara. The idea is that businesses donate old computers, which are refurbished by Camara and then shipped around the world, have software added and are installed in schools. We’ll visit some schools and see how computers can help improve and change young lives. We sip delicious wine, dip breadsticks into lush beetroot dips and munch handfuls of parma ham.
Five days to go
My visa application has stalled and I’m summoned to the Ethiopian embassy off Hyde Park. A man interviews me in a bleak room with dark wooden furniture and half-empty bookcases. He asks me about my trip and my intentions to write about it. He writes down what I say in a little notepad, then tells me about the Ethiopian fox and how wonderful the food is, especially njera. I nod enthusiastically and then my passport is stamped.
We fly into Addis Ababa and drive through the city to our hotel in two small buses. The place looks unfinished: knackered buildings, grey cement skeletons held up by bamboo scaffolding. Here and there are large, shiny, almost plastic buildings; our hotel is one such. The Ethiopian football team are staying here and their WAGs and kids are in the pool on the roof.
I have breakfast of black coffee and a dull croissant (no njera so far) and read the local paper, which has the insignia of someone being hanged top left and the main story of a car crash, together with the photograph of the person who has smashed through
Later we visit the Jerusalem Primary School. There are simple, single-storey buildings around a dusty courtyard and we are ushered into one such room where, on the outside on a piece of paper, the words ‘ICT Room’ are written. Children cluster around desks looking at computers — a mixture of old-looking, thick-backed Dells and the like.
The assistant headmaster welcomes us. ‘We have 50 students per class,’ he says. ‘Our school is very crowded. But we are very grateful to Camara, which has given us 25 computers. But we expect more,’ he adds with a cheeky smile and we all laugh.
The computers are offline, but each one has Wikipedia loaded on to it, as well as numeracy and literacy games. It gives pupils who have almost no books access to knowledge; in a school with few teachers, the games enable the kids to do tests and get automatically marked. This is a remarkable transformation for such a place. I learn the staggering fact that in the huge city of Addis Ababa only ten schools have computers.
One of the reasons we are here is because John Brown, who is chairman of Camara UK, will on this trip celebrate the twentieth container arriving with computers. Across Ethiopia that means that soon 6,000 computers will be delivered into 1,500 schools, while across the world 50,000 computers have now brought 21st-century skills to some 700,000 children.
On the steps of the school I chat with Irishman John Fitzsimons, CEO of the charity. ‘There are three things that bind us all together,’ he says of his fellow travellers, those respectable and successful men and women I first met that night in Notting Hill who support the charity. ‘Poverty is unacceptable, education is the best chance to help you escape it and technology is the key to that transformation.
This year we will have dispatched 3,000 computers into schools and that will have an impact on some 65,000 Ethiopian children, who will all get a better education and key skills to help them get jobs and a better life.’
Back in the classroom I chat to one student who is searching through Wikipedia. ‘Computers are important to us because they make the world a smaller place,’ he says.
Next we gather under the shade of a large tree beside the warehouse, where the computers arrive and where they are cleaned and sorted. A government minister swaggers over in a large brown suit and makes a speech. ‘We are a poor country,’ he says. ‘And only through education can we improve. But you can’t have quality education without ICT.’ Large frothing pints of beer are handed around. There’s a buffet with spicy chunks of lamb and rice — but no njera yet.
Next morning, in the early darkness, we drive to the airport, where I eat a divinely soft omelette spiced with green chilli and a wonderful deep and rich cup of coffee. We are flying to Gonder — the town that acts as the gateway to the Simian mountains — over lush plateaux, with a disorderly mishmash of fields, all different shades of green and brown. This is not the famine-ridden country of Live Aid fame. I learn the statistic that Ethiopia enjoys the same level of rainfall as London. (Before the floods of recent months!)
We drive to Gonder past green fields, even lusher close up. Some corn is being harvested and they must stagger planting and reaping throughout the year. The grain is threshed by oxen turning steep circles, attended by farmers who carry pitchforks fashioned from wood. On the road we pass groups of people, some carrying large bushels on their heads, others driving cattle.
Soon shacks and houses surround the road and we are in Gonder, where we collect passes for the mountain. We have lunch in a café and I eat beef curry and (finally) njera. I study the latter when it arrives, considering this so-called bread definition. It’s not like any bread that I’ve encountered.
It comes rolled up and is grey and rubbery; as well as looking just like carpet underlay, it also has what I assume is the same flavour. The beef curry is a pot of meat in a dark sauce where small bits of bone mingle with chunks of chewy meat — too chewy to eat and coursing with hot spice. So I don’t eat.
Then I consider where I am and what I’m doing — here in a country whose poverty is so evident wherever you look, whose people have struggled to feed themselves, so much so that every Christmas the radio plays a song about their plight. Who am I to spurn plates of food lavishly spread on a table in front of a crowd of vastly richer folk who talk about and dismiss restaurants without thought? I feel guilty for my privilege and guilty for having the luxury of guilt.
After an interminable tour of the town’s ancient forts a small party of us spend the evening in a bar, where it’s open-mic night. As each song pounds with a pulsating, hypnotic and loud rhythm, people around the room dance, wobbling their shoulders at extraordinarily ferocious speed.
Next day and we’re trekking. Up into the mountains and I’m at the front, following a guide who carries an ancient rifle and an even older and more powerful goatish smell. We follow quite a well-worn path, along the crest of a mountain whose side plunges down hundreds of metres to my left. The views then cascade out in the vast distance to mountains, plains and very little sign of life.
We stop for lunch, where vultures start to hover above like some terrifying scene out of Lord of the Rings. You glimpse a flash of shadow as one attacks and steals your sandwich, which is no bad thing considering the dryness of the bread (not njera this time) and the toughness of the meat. We quickly move on.
Four hours later and we arrive at camp. I find a makeshift shower, a trickle of freezing mountain stream water. Dinner is around a campfire. We sing songs, drink whisky and then find our tents for a cold and sleepless night.
Next day, as we scoff solid omelettes in a chilly tent, I gather that while I may not have slept much, others had a more charmless night, with stomachs churning and fraught dashes out of the tents and into the woods. As the sun comes up and warms our backs we walk for a few more hours, past beautiful grassy plains, before taking the bus to Lalibela. This is where you’ll find ancient huge churches carved out of rock. We visit twelve of them, though I feel two would have been plenty.
Then we visit another school. We arrive just as break-time ends and I catch the extraordinary sight of teachers in white coats brandishing and then actually attacking pupils with large canes as they ‘encourage’ them back to their classrooms.
As I pass the window of one schoolroom, some teenage lads call out to me. We have a ‘where are you from, can we have your email?’ type conversation until one of the boys is hit on the head by a plank, wielded by his teacher. I hasten on to the ICT room.
Here I meet a sixteen-year-old girl who greets our group in her schoolroom dressed smartly in the national costume of her country. ‘My name is Geaeteleawlmesai,’ she says. ‘Welcome to our school, St Lalibela Secondary School. My favourite subject is physics.
One day I would like to be prime minister of Ethiopia. I work hard in this school and so do all my friends. We want to achieve good things and to make our country a better place, independent of help from the rest of the world. But we need your help. We have very few books, not many pens and not many teachers. But now we have some computers and I want to thank you for that but ask you if you can help get us some more.’
Before dinner I go jogging and am soon joined by eight other children — Forrest Gump-style — who take me down the mountain and then on a crawl up the side of the hill back to my hotel, to which I worry I will never return.
That night we have dinner in a restaurant that looks like a rusty edifice out of Mad Max. The place is run by a Scottish woman called Mad Susie and seated around a fire we wolf down cottage pie. Cooking is a struggle, she tells me: ‘I can’t get milk, cheese, cream, butter or fish.’
So to help her kitchen, she has planted pomegranate, olive trees, banana plants, avocado and papaya. Her place is called Ben Ababa (Hill of Flowers) — and we eat the best food of our trip. Tomorrow, home to Parma ham and beetroot dip, which won’t ever taste quite the same again.
Camara welcomes large volumes of donations of computers from companies and organisations