Ethiopia / Photos / Writing

En Vino Rastafari

When I heard that the organization that I’ve been working with here in Ethiopia was going to have an “annual review and retreat,” I did not know what to expect.  We have employees stationed all over Ethiopia and for one week everybody was to funnel into a hotel somewhere for a series of meetings, reviews, presentations, dinners, and general conferring.  This event is in a different town every year, but I’m new enough to the organization that this was to be my first one.

Back in America this is the sort of thing that terrifies people.  At least people unfortunate enough to find themselves in a job consisting of cubicles, monitors, scrunchy blue coffee-stained carpet, formal attire, and very little interpersonal interaction outside of e-mails and elevators.  If I had to go on a retreat like this for my last stateside job I would have actively pursued contracting mono.  Or maybe I even would have thrown myself in front of a vehicle moving just fast enough to put me in the hospital for a few weeks without resulting in too much long-term damage.  I imagine the mood to be this awkward blend of business etiquette mixed with holiday attitude and I would never know how many drinks to have at dinner.  In December of last year my previous boss gave me a generic holiday season gift in the form of gourmet sausage and cheese.  At that point in time I was strictly vegetarian.  It came in a little box complete with an adorably miniature paring knife and a card with snowmen on it.  At least I think it was snowmen, but it could have been a picture of me from middle school with gelled hair and acne all over my face.  It was that awkward.  I ended up giving the sausage to a rather rotund woman who worked security at my building’s front desk.  No innuendo here.

To me, that box of sausage is a tangible metaphor for what a weeklong company retreat would be like.

So it went that the more I thought about it, the more I started looking forward to the retreat.  It’s always nice to get out of Addis for a while and all of the food would be free.  In case you’re wondering there is no such thing as bad Ethiopian food.  The vast majority of the population here can’t really afford to eat out, so most of the women have been cooking all of their lives.  Men don’t really cook here because there’s too much chat chewing and sitting around to be done.  A lot of these women end up as paid cooks somewhere.  The result of this is that almost ubiquitously, local food is high in quality, whether you’re eating at a fancy restaurant on the top of a hotel or in the musty basement of a shitty bar that happens to have a stove and some pots.

I became more excited about the retreat when I heard that the town chosen for the event was Shashemene.  I think to most Ethiopians Shashemene is just another town of average significance and average interest, but to Rastafarians far and wide, the place is notorious.  It’s a moderately well known fact that the roots of Rastafarianism are in Ethiopia.  The central Rastafarian figure is Emperor Haile Selassie, King of Kings who ruled Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974.  In Amharic, “ras” literally means “head” and often serves a sort of dignified title.  Haile Selassie’s birth name was Tafari Makonnen.  Combine “ras” with the Emperor’s birth name, “Tafari”, and you get Rastafari.  To save space I won’t elaborate, but over the span of Selassie’s reign Shashemene became the African home for Rastas and the hub for the Rastafari movement.  I will point you to the wikis however: Here’s one for the Rastafari Movement, and here’s one for Shashemene.  So if you wish, you can read about how Shashemene came to be associated with Rastas, reggae, and reefer.

I’d actually been to Shashemene a number of times for work, but never for longer than a day or so.  It’s not crawling with Rastas and it’s not enshrouded in a cloud of pot smoke.  In fact, the only Rasta related thing that I noticed while casually moving through the city was the Rastafarian Museum.  It’s not an inherently special building, but it’s painted in green, yellow, and red and has a marvelous painting of the Lion of Judah on its exterior front wall.

A week before the retreat it was suggested that I only come for the last two days.  The better part of the week was to consist of departmental meetings and conferences.  Out of the roughly 150 people who work within the organization here in Ethiopia, I am the only foreigner and the only one who can’t really speak business-style Amharic.  My boss didn’t want me to spend three days sitting in various rooms listening to random syllables for hours on end.  I must say that I found his logic impeccable.  I ended up driving to Shashemene on Wednesday night and leaving, with everybody else, late Friday morning.  A lot of insanity happened in between.

***

 Wednesday was relatively uneventful.  I got to the hotel around seven or eight o’clock at night.  Now, my genetic make-up dictates that my skin lacks certain pigments and reflects different wavelengths of light than the skin of most Ethiopians, resulting in me having a lighter skin tone.  This apparently means that I’m entitled to really nice hotel rooms.  The room that I was assigned was a bit more expensive than the other rooms in the hotel because it had a television and a really decorative white pillar in the middle of floor, supposedly meant to conjure up images of palaces.  As it turned out, a leaky pipe meant that there was no water in my room, the lock on the door didn’t really work, and the television electrocuted me when I tried to turn it on.  I don’t really care about these things, but I can definitely appreciate the irony of spending the most money on the shittiest room in a hotel.  CLASSIC AFRICA, right?

Thursday morning was also relatively uneventful.  I rose around 5 o’clock in the morning because the priests in the church directly across the street felt that that was the best time to blare the word of God from it’s rooftop loudspeakers for all to hear.  You just have to be earlier and louder than the Muslims.  It means you love your God more.  Around seven I joined some co-workers for a breakfast of t’ibs and firfir.  T’ibs is typically goat or sheep meat cooked in oil and served with injera and a few peppers.  Injera is a spongy sour pancake made from fermenting a cereal crop called teff.  It typically comes in a big disk, the size of a respectable pizza, on which food is piled.  Firfir is shredded injera served with injera and a few peppers.  Firfir seems a little ridiculous because it’s redundant; it’s like putting scrambled eggs in an omelet.  But I’ve reached a point where I find both of these dishes mouthwateringly delicious.  If you’ve haven’t noticed the contradiction, I am no longer a strict vegetarian.  The meat industry is a little more wholesome here, I think.  And also it seems that, wait, I don’t have to explain myself.

During breakfast I learned that the plan for the rest of the day was a final series of presentations and discussions followed by a dinner party at the hotel complete with a live band and dancers.  Live Ethiopian music is really amazing and the dancers are usually mind-blowing.  I was really looking forward to this until one of my colleagues asked me the following question:

“So, Matt.  You are going to sing for us tonight, right?”

You shut your mouth right now.  Right now!  I love playing music and I gladly would have sat in on any instrument, but singing is just something I don’t do.  I would rather get up in front of a crowd and try to play an oboe for the first time than get up in front of a crowd and sing.

“Haha, no way,” I said, acting amused.  “We Americans are terrible at singing.”

Everybody laughed at this and as the chuckling was dying down I abruptly stopped and shot a look at my inquisitive colleague that I hoped conveyed something like, “If you ask me that again I’m leaving the country.  Tonight.”

He didn’t get the hint and for the remainder of the day word sort of spread that the white person was going to get up and sing with the band.

* * *

Thursday’s meeting was long.  The hotel was chosen, I’m assuming, because it featured a conference room.  The room was a little on the small side, but it has chairs and electrical outlets, so this is where most of the day was spent.  The morning consisted of some presentations and an activity or two.  It was all in Amharic, so I couldn’t follow much of the dialogue, but the Power Point presentations were in English so I had at least some idea as to what was going on.  Around eleven it started getting hot.  A lot of the Ethiopian landscape is mountainous highland, but Shashemene is in the southern rift valley and its typically dry and hot there.  There were close to 150 people crammed into this small room and the amount of radiating body heat was easily overcoming the effects of circulation provided by the one or two operable windows.  The break for lunch was welcomed by all, and I joined the same group of people that I ate breakfast with for food at a nearby restaurant.

At lunch I learned two things: those little dust devils that you see twisting around dry landscapes are actually extremely powerful, and the composure of older, dignified Ethiopian men completely breaks down when professional wrestling comes on television.  The particular restaurant that we selected had a television and was screening a WWE event.  We sat down and immediately everyone at the table (professional, smart, well-dressed Ethiopian men in their 40’s and 50’s) started talking giddily about pro wrestling with a staggering level of knowledge and interest.  On the television The Rock (whose apparently still around?) was spewing some hardcore smack, center ring.  While he was in the middle of his self absorbed rant some rival snuck into the ring and smashed a chair into the back of his head.  I expected everyone at the table to start yelling or throwing food at the sight of this injustice, however, nobody really reacted because apparently we were watching a re-run and, no shit, everybody had seen it already.  We continued to eat food and watch wrestling.  At some point a dust devil slammed into the restaurant and knocked pretty much everything down, for the venue was mostly one big outdoor patio.  Everybody regrouped, picked up anything that fell over, and trained their eyes right back onto 260 pound men in Speedos body slamming each other.

Following the same logic that resulted in me only attending the last portion of the retreat, I skipped the talk that immediately followed lunch.  It was to be a question and answer discussion session without the aid of Power Point, so I was told that it would be alright if I read a book or watched more wrestling for the next hour or so.  I ended up sitting in my hotel room reading “Siddhartha” of all things.  My hotel room was cool and dark and I was reluctant to leave it because the environment outside was getting very oppressive.  It was about 2 PM and hot, bright, and sweaty.

I walked over to the conference room, which was actually a separate little building, pulled back the curtain and walked into a legitimate sauna.  I am really not exaggerating when I say that it would have been completely possible to strip naked, sit on a chair, and comfortably dump water over your head every few minutes in this room.  Everybody was sweating and fanning themselves with books or folded paper.  Water bottles were everywhere and the air was so thick with perspiration that it actually felt viscous.

I sat in this room for the next four hours listening to talks about agricultural development and watching award presentations.  The conference ended with an impassioned and emotional speech from our country director and then a sweaty stampede of out of that goddam room.  After a few minutes taking in the evening air and cooling off, everybody wandered back to their rooms to get ready for dinner.

“Hey, I hear you’re going to sing tonight, Matt,” said another coworker as we were heading off.  Others overheard and looked at me, hopeful.  In the insanity of the sauna/conference room I had forgotten all about this.  “We’ll seeeee,” I said.  I walked off considering faking an illness or jumping off of the hotel roof.

***

I ended up attending the dinner.  I sort of had to.  The hotel was a five or six story building with a huge patio in the front, where the dinner was to be held.  There was a fountain with brazen cherubs centered among fluorescent colored lights.  The band was setting up.  My room was on the first floor right on the edge of this patio.  If I wasn’t careful about how I positioned my curtains, everybody at dinner would be able to see into my room.  I went to dinner hoping that everybody would just forget about signing white people.

The dinner was huge.  Dozens of tables outlined a vacant section of patio set aside for dancing.  There was a diverse buffet with both Ethiopian Orthodox Christian and Muslim sanctioned fare.  Between my organization, the hotel staff, the band and their roadies, and the people who just stopped off from the street to see what was going on, there were probably over 200 people occupying the patio.  The band consisted of a bassist, a saxophonist, and a keyboard player (who also operated a drum machine).  There was a male and a female singer who switched off every few songs.

I got my food, sat down and was immediately force-fed Ethiopian wine by several of my colleagues.  Ethiopian wine is like the opposite of Ethiopian food: culturally offensive and disgusting.  Again, because of the epidemiological qualities of my person, I was chosen to be the first one to dance with the female singer.  She approached me as I was trying to sneak bites of food into my mouth during breaks in the wine assault.  I got up and danced with this woman, who was actually an incredible singer; smooth, sultry and very comfortable with her bouncy figure.  This broke the ice and after a few minutes everybody else was up and dancing.

The food was gone, the wine was flowing, the music was without pause, and everybody was dancing.  Eventually, a troupe of traditional Ethiopian dancers came out and just went to town on that tiled patio.  Everything started mixing together.  It was the greatest work related event I’d ever been to.  Keep in mind that most of my coworkers are no younger than about 35, and most of them look to be somewhere in their 40’s.  A few of the drivers and mechanics are around my age, but the under 30 crowd was definitely a minority here.  Then the music stops.  Shit.  The enthusiastic colleague from breakfast walks up to the singer and asks for the mike.  To be honest, I don’t really know what he said, but it ended with, “Okay, Matt, come on up!”  Everything goes quiet and literally everybody shifts their gaze to my chair.

What do you do?  What do you do when over 200 Ethiopians have their heart set on watching you, the only white person around, get up and sing?  I had a hand grenade that I had decided to keep with me just in case this sort of scenario occurred, but alas, I easily misplaced it among all of the luxurious embellishments of my hotel room and it was nowhere to be found.

Luckily, I was pretty tipsy at this point in time and I just marched right up there and took the mike from my “friend”.  But that was as far as I had planned.  I turned to the band.  Blank stares.  Christ.  Ethiopians love Michael Jackson, so I asked if they could whip up some sort of Billy Jean or Beat It type of beat.  Those songs are also outrageously hard to sing, but I wanted a goddam challenge.  Nope, they didn’t know any Michael.  That was probably a good thing.  It’s still quiet and everybody is watching me like I’m some sort of magician who can just spew music out of my face.  Then I looked around for a guitar.  Maybe I could just sit down and sing them some heartfelt acoustic sort of number, if I could pull one out of my mind.  Will Ethiopians like Pigs on a Wing?  What about New Slang or In the Aeroplane Over the Sea?   I will never know the answers to these questions because there was only an electric bass and just me singing with an electric bass would be absolutely ridiculous.  Should I just start beat boxing?  That though literally crossed my mind.  Really though, how many Americans do you know who have been up in front of a crowd of East Africans about to say, “Fuck it, I’ll just beat box”?

Wait, WAIT.  Bob Marley.  Obviously.  Here I am in Shashemene, Rasta Capital of Africa, in front of ten-score Ethiopians – the band must know some Bob Marley.  If not, I was just going to sing the Pledge of Allegiance and sit my ass back down.  I asked.  The band couldn’t specifically play any Wailers song in its entirety, but they were able to churn out a reggae melody and beat combo very similar to that of One Love.  Bam.  So that was it.  I started singing One Love to a crowd of wine-drunk Ethiopians in the middle of Shashemene.  As it turns out, I don’t know much more than the chorus of the song, so I just kept singing that part over and over again.  I must have gone on like that for about three hours, maybe four.  FINALLY, the band slowed up, we came to a nice sort of fade out and that was that.  Mission accomplished.  Sanity in tact.  Ego, slightly jumbled and off-kilter, but in tact as well.  Relief.  Cheers.  Tears.  Thumbs up from the panel of judges.  I sat back down to a scene of hugs and handshakes, and more apparently mandatory wine.  In the span of a few short minutes I went from Matt Roberts: Humble and Reserved Web Designer to Matt Roberts, Party Machine.  Thanks, alcohol.  And thank YOU peer pressure.  But most of all, thanks to Bob Marley and the Wailers.  Seriously, what the hell would I have ended up singing if those guys hadn’t essentially invented Reggae and become worldwide sensations attaining particular popularity in Africa?  I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America…

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