I had a White People Problem in Africa

I finally stepped out of the airport, breathed the fresh air and looked up at big, blue African skies. Three seconds later I lowered my gaze and was surrounded. This wasn’t unexpected because I’m a very charming man apparently, and people are naturally drawn to charming men such as myself, usually outside airports for some reason. Small children, teenagers, grandmothers, taxi drivers… competing for my attention, offering to shine my sneakers, sell me sunglasses, or to be my personal guide and helpfully keep all those annoying shoeshines, street-hawkers and other personal guides at bay.

This isn't actually me (photo for illustrative and satirical purposes only) Photo: Catholicnewsagency.com
This is actually some other guy (photo for illustrative purposes)
Photo: Catholicnewsagency.com

That wasn’t the white person’s problem of which I speak however.

I was about to be ripped off, again, which for some reason continues to annoy me. This wasn’t the problem either though. I decided to have a nice cup of coffee first (Ethiopian coffee is very, very good). I declined a dozen rather insistent offers to carry my bag to the coffee shop, twenty feet away.

It is a statistical fact I just made up, that airport taxi drivers are the worst people in the world. Strengthened by caffeine I stood up, braced myself and cheerfully settled into a fifteen-minute argument with four guys at once, eventually securing a shared taxi for the three kilometer drive, for less than an average local weekly wage.

That wasn’t the problem either though. That’s just airport taxi drivers.

I checked into the hotel, having navigated the visible security presence and airport metal detectors and x-ray machines. Apparently this wasn’t the swankiest neighbourhood in town… then took a stroll along Addis Ababa’s famous Bole Road. Immediately people began asking me for money. Some offered goods and services I didn’t want, in exchange for that money. A confident tyke of about twelve swaggered up and tried his best to sell me a cheap belt, before warning me that this wasn’t the swankiest neighbourhood in town, and to be mindful of all the people on the street… except himself of course. Finally concluding he wouldn’t be making a sale he smiled broadly and wished me luck, which, as a white man in this neighbourhood, he seemed to think I might need.

None of this was really a problem though, and the neighbourhood didn’t really look that rough.

Hotel Security, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Photo: Peninsularity Ensues
Hotel Security, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Photo: Peninsularity Ensues

I concluded that the hotel’s metal detectors, x-ray machines and imposing yet good-natured security presence were mostly for show, to give nervous western tourists an illusion of security and safety they didn’t actually need, considering some of the less visible exterior walls had no need of security, as evidenced by the fact that the walls themselves were somewhat absent.

Fresh air and a view. Photo: Peninsularity Ensues
Fresh air and a view.
Photo: Peninsularity Ensues

The next morning I set off early. I walked randomly through the city, taking photos and politely but steadfastly refusing to buy sunglasses, sim cards, or to have my shoes shined. The market and street traders were quite persistent, though I found them to have a softer edge than in other places such as Morocco or Turkey, where the souq workers and street traders are often not so much persistent as downright aggressive. I quickly discovered that the Ethiopians are a very proud people, and simply acknowledging the traders with a smile and polite ‘no thank you’ generally resulted in an easy smile in return, and that was that (try that tactic in Marrakesh…).

It was a beautiful day for a walk. I remembered the words of one of my colleagues when I told him I was going to Ethiopia for my vacation. He had asked why I would leave one dusty barren desert to go and spend time in another. One problem with stereotypes is that they are often terribly outdated. The Ethiopian capital is rather greener than I had imagined.

Suburban Addis Ababa, 2015. Photo: Peninsularity Ensues
Suburban Addis Ababa, 2015.
Photo: Peninsularity Ensues

In the dusty streets I did see grinding poverty. The dust itself wasn’t the same as I remember seeing on TV a generation ago though, swirling around desperate starving children. The dust in the streets of Addis Ababa today is largely concrete dust from the never-ending construction projects.

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Photo: Peninsularity Ensues
Bole, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Photo: Peninsularity Ensues

I walked and walked. One enterprising local entrepreneur sidled up and asked if I needed any help. I said I was fine. He asked if I needed a girl. I said I was fine. He asked if I needed a boy. I said I was fine (this is all pretty standard). He asked me if I needed any weed… and my slightest pause here was enough to have his company for the next ten blocks. We saw churches, shopping malls and one very welcoming-looking North Korean embassy.

Medhane Alem Church, Addis Ababa Photo: Peninsularity Ensues
Medhane Alem Church, Addis Ababa
Photo: Peninsularity Ensues
North Korean embassy, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Photo: Peninsularity Ensues
North Korean embassy, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Photo: Peninsularity Ensues

Everywhere people wanted money, which isn’t unusual. They assumed that, as a white man I was obviously insanely wealthy, which comparatively speaking I am. Ethiopia has been one of the world’s fastest growing economies in recent years, which speaks volumes about the challenges facing Africa. As in so many cities around the world, abject poverty in Addis Ababa is undeniable, but the horrific Ethiopian famine of 30 years ago was, well… 30 years ago.

Ethiopia, 1985
Ethiopia, 1985
Also Ethiopia, 2015 Photo: Peninsularity Ensues
Also Ethiopia, 2015
Photo: Peninsularity Ensues

Walking back to the hotel in the evening light, I felt that something wasn’t quite right. The pedometer on my phone said I’d walked about 16 kilometres, and my feet were a bit sore. The street people outside my hotel were waiting to try again to sell me crap I didn’t want. These things weren’t the problem of which I speak though.

Something just didn’t feel right… and walking into the hotel I suddenly realised what it was. As it happens, I live in one of the hottest countries on Earth. So, it was great to walk around in sunny Addis Ababa, where, at 3,000 meters above sea level, the weather was lovely. It hadn’t occurred to me (since Oman is so ridiculously hot we just stay indoors for much of the year) that the altitude-induced cool breezes of Addis might fool me, which they had. I had severe sunburn.

Have you ever wandered the streets of a North African city, in and out of the stores… asking if they happen to sell sunscreen? Then have you attempted to explain (largely with gestures) what sunscreen is… then attempted to explain what sunburn is? This, as it turns out, is not easy.

It struck me then that I was literally having a white people’s problem. I chuckled to myself about this, which hurt my face a bit. I trudged back out of the hotel on a new mission.

The two young women at the corner grocery store didn’t speak English, but did their best to help me. Perhaps my gestures were not as concise as I’d hoped, because after some rapid deliberation they decided that what I required was dog shampoo. Free market economics is a funny thing. It mostly boils down to supply and demand. Apparently people like to keep their pets clean in Ethiopia as elsewhere, though as it turns out, sunburn is not a common ailment there, and sunscreen is something of a specialty item. This, I was about to reaslise however, was not going to be a problem.

I had noticed that something else wasn’t quite right… and this particular new situation was quickly deteriorating into something very fucking wrong. I made it back to my hotel room just in time to confirm that I did indeed have food poisoning.

Searching for an upside, I realised I wouldn’t have to worry about exacerbating my sunburn, as, for the next two days I ventured from my hotel bed only as far as the bathroom. I did make that journey around a hundred times though. At least I was keeping busy. There was also time to stare out the window at the parade of melanin-abundant, salmonella-free life passing by.

Ethiopian Wedding procession. Photo: Peninsularity Ensues
Ethiopian Wedding procession.
Photo: Peninsularity Ensues

I recovered of course, just in time to head to the airport for my flight home. I did still have an hour to spare though, in which to go and see “Lucy” (Australopithecus) the 3.2 million year old fossils of an upright-walking pre-human hominin famously discovered in Ethiopia in 1974. The taxi driver smiled and took me to the wrong museum. The grounds of the national university were quite nice though I guess, and there was now only time to collect my things and return to the airport. Of course I saw the correct museum from the next taxi… the one with the “Lucy” coffee shop… no time to stop.

Yep… not a spectacular success, this particular jaunt. Can’t win them all though, and as fails go, at least this fail was pretty epic, as they say. I did get a good vibe though from the Ethiopians. They are a friendly people and proud, not least for having never successfully been colonised, unlike the rest of Africa. It says a lot about the nation’s resilience. Yep, definitely a very interesting part of the world. I hope I have a chance to check it out sometime.

72 COMMENTS

  1. Great read as always, PE! Actually thinking of jaunting on down to AA soon…that is after a stop over in Oman. What are you up to next weekend? We have Thursday off for a three day holiday.

  2. Lol. Great piece…strangely, I get slightly sun burned when scuba diving. Not sure why esp as Im even more ‘melanin-abundant’ than the Ethiopians are. So I guess its not totally a white persons problem.

    • Thanks Seye! …and I know what you mean. Just the other day one of my black mates at work was laughing about getting sunburned for the first time. Totally unraveled my WPP theory. haha

    • Well, hotels are always hit and miss Kathy, haha. It was actually the hotel that gave me food poisoning. Should have stuck with the street food. That’s generally the better option.

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