Return from Africa

Returning from Ethiopia after only a fortnight when some of our group will be joining a tour of the tribal lands of the South of the country around the Omo River leaves me feeling as if there is so much more to see and understand here. As I said on my arrival, things may also be very different as one gets closer to the borders of the West (Sudan), North East (Eritrea) and South East (Somalia) where tribal differences and the influence of some hard line Islamist groups have tensions bubbling up worse than ever.

Much as I loved what I saw, both culturally and historically, and as splendid as the welcome was it is impossible to ignore the difficulties that make this one of the worst performing countries in the world for literacy among young adults with a female/male disparity challenged only by Afghanistan. On the subject of education for women I was able to speak candidly to a couple of people on the ground (so to speak) as I am always a little distrustful of the estimates published by the NGOs, especially the ones working remotely from the countries concerned. In towns the girls usually start school along with the boys and, judging for the number of barefoot youngsters running along the roadside with their schoolbooks (all kids run in Ethiopia), hopes often start high.

But even the girls who do attend are taken out of school much earlier and, especially in rural districts, married or promised in marriage at a very tender age. Twelve not uncommon although some studies claim substantial improvements. Despite the high proportion of young women I observed in uniform (museum attendants as well as police and military) in the Capital, employment of women outside the home or farm is not particularly common. The country is undergoing an economic downturn which has made jobs scarce for everyone and so tended to reverse any recent gains made by women in the job market. It is at least heartening to see how many women have taken up the recent fashion for setting up “coffee ceremony” stalls along the roadside. Considering how important the leisurely partaking of coffee is in Ethiopian home life, it is surprising how recent this phenomenon is. The extremely pretty girl serving coffee in my Aksum photogallery is in fact a college graduate who has so far been unable to find work. We joked with her (through an interpreter) about all the over-qualified youngsters working in the coffee bar chains of Europe and America. At least she is her own boss.

All the guide books will tell you that prostitution is rife in Ethiopia but that doesn’t prepare you for seeing it so openly negotiated in the big hotels with the apparent collusion of all concerned. Despite what you read, HIV infection rates in urban areas are still in the low percentages but both parties in the transaction must be aware that they are playing a form of Russian roulette. It is a very complex problem with no straightforward answers but perhaps if the girls had learned a little more arithmetic they might at least have a chance of understanding what they risk. On the health front there was no opportunity for me to speak privately to any women or girls so I am stuck with what I can read up in the International arena. Ethiopia comes out very poorly for infant and maternal peri-natal mortality. Yes, there are some countries in Africa where they fare even worse (and Afghanistan makes it up near the top of the list again) but that does not excuse such inadequacies in a predominantly Christian country which is supposed to be at peace and has been the recipient of squillions of dollars in International aid in recent decades.

Individuals like Ethiopian Bogalech Gebre who recently won the King Baudouin prize in Belgium for her work in dramatically reducing the incidence of female genital mutilation in some of the Southern tribal regions have shown just how much progress can be made. Here we are talking about a reduction in rates of “cutting” from 70% to 3%: close to the “eradication in a generation” that the Orchid Project advocates. She and others like her seem to have had most success by engaging and educating whole communities, men as well as women, and achieving a consensus that this horrific and life-threatening process must stop. Compare that, if you will, to the widespread NGO approach of a couple of decades back which, in an attempt to appear “culturally sensitive”, advised that FGM be allowed to continue provided that sterile instruments were used.

Travel guides and travel writers, even the most popular ones, sometimes need to be reminded to act more responsibly. British broadcaster Michael Palin actually made jokes about the subject in his TV series about the Sahara and a brief paragraph in the Lonely Planet explains that: “reasons given in the Horn for genital mutilation vary from hygiene and aesthetics to superstition that uncut women can’t conceive. Others believe that the strict following of traditional beliefs is crucial to maintaining social cohesion and a sense of belonging, much like male circumcision is to Jews. Some also say that it prevents female promiscuity”. Well, that’s all right is it? The World Health Organisation states that “It has no health benefits and harms girls and women in many ways” and goes on to explain in eye-watering detail. The young girls of East Africa need to overcome residual ignorance in their own countries but they should not have to contend with it in ours.


Categories: Africa


  • ET says:

    Welcome back! ET

  • Legese says:

    Dear Nicola!!

    Warm Greetings
    Many thanks for your email and letting me your progress after your recent trip to Ethiopia. I know you are busy settling things after your Ethiopian Holiday. I had a a nice time with you and the Group and enjoyed sharing experiences. I know you liked Ethiopia and Glad to know that you may come back one day in the future.

    I learned your concern for women around the world especially in developing countries such as Ethiopia. Ethiopian women have so many problems related with Gender issues , culture , Religion and ETC. I think we all have to contribute in tackling the problems. I appreciate your concern an effort.

    Recommendation for my company . your recommendation is very helpful for me in many ways. I appreciate if you mention my company Eureka Ethiopia Tours and its website and email address and

    Nicola Many thanks for your help and kindness. I will keep in touch and exchange ideas with you my sister.

    please pass my greetings and regards to our Graham

    Best regards


  • Stephen A (the Ozzy in flip flops) says:


    I did not blog South Ethiopia or Madagascar because there was so little access to power let alone internet. Accommodation here is much lower standard than Northern Ethiopia and if they are looking to increase tourism will need to improve this.

    However, South Ethiopia was interesting to say the least due to the complete lack of concern for woman. At the jumping of the bulls the females in the potential grooms family are beaten with whips (sticks) until the blood is streaming down their backs. They strut around proud of their bleeding scars that will be formed. In fact some woman give the men the sticks to beat them. When talking with them later they were proud of the scars and not worried about the pain. Another traveller that I spoke to was extremely agitated about it and was saying this could turn into a sex tourism where people go and video the girls being whipped and then sell the video so people can get their jollies on the internet watching. A little extreme I would have thought although I felt anyone going to watch the woman get beaten was a bit sick.

    Then the Mursi women stick massive plates in their lips and knock out their front teeth so they can only eat soft gruel like food just for their men.

    I have no doubt as education is improved in these areas that this type of mutilation will be stopped but legislating wont stop it as they already ignore the polygamy bans.

    Finally, at the museum there was a women’s story section where some women were saying that unless they were circumcised they weren’t beautiful to men. Education cannot come fast enough down there.

    Madagascar though was everything I expected and more. Firstly my guide was a woman and she went out of her way to take me to women’s collectives for art and health etc. The lemurs were amazing and got to see dancing lemurs multiple times although the reserves were much better viewing than the National Parks where we walked for 5 hours in the rainforest on muddy trails up sides of mountains to find Red breasted and Bamboo lemurs. The night viewing was brilliant though as we saw heaps of chameleons and frogs and lemurs even though it was raining.

    The accommodation was five star at 3 star prices even when camping where were had generators for 3 hours a day. Everything else was solar including the cooking.

    Glad you will be able to spend more time together now that Grahame has retired, particularly with your mother being unwell. Keep well.

    I am planning my next trip to Iran and Turkmenistan later next year.

  • nicola ainsworth says:

    Dear Stephen,

    Thank you for being so candid, I can’t tell you how grateful I am not to have taken the extension trip to the South of the country: I would have been enduring nightmares about it for years to come. These barbaric practices against women cannot be justified on the basis of cultural self-determination and, after many long fought battles, no International medical or aid agencies will continue to endorse them. It fills me with horror to think that some might be coming BACK into vogue because of the opportunities for tourist revenue.

    Ms Bogalech Gebre deserves not just a prize but a sainthood.

    I’m so glad that Madagascar was such an enjoyable experience for you.



  • Maria from Edmonton says:


    I read Stephens comments on your blog, he is not exaggerating. Our group went to the bull jump but not the whipping, thank god, I don’t think I could have stomached it. Ethiopia has a long way to go for women’s rights, the south was pretty much the same as the north where women do most of the heavy lifting and the men carry sticks and mind the herds. You would be proud that I found one small shop in Addis that takes women off the streets (so to speak) and teaches them to weave scarves and hand bags to earn money vs. collecting and selling firewood which is back breaking work.

    How can we change the world to make it a better place for everyone? I do not know…short term solutions are not the answer.

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