When the government proposed social distancing and staying at home as measures to combat the spread of COVID-19 crisis, there came, as usual, an online war between the introverts and the extroverts. The introverts contended that this was their time to thrive, that they would now be operating at their optimum. The extroverts posited that human beings are social beings and that even the introverts will begin suffering the psychological effects of isolation.
I, of course, took sides with the introverts because I identify as one. I felt that this was a chance to hole myself up in my house and write and write and write. However, three months into staying at home and I am questioning whether or not I am actually an introvert. Were the extroverts right in saying that we all needed some form of socialisation for our mental well being?
Now, as month three of staying at home closes, I am asking myself whether the government should have considered physical distancing as opposed to social distancing. I mean, I could maintain a healthy physical distance but remain socially connected to my family, friends and colleagues.
As I was reflecting on this, I recollected that, though I detest crowded (I take personal space seriously), there are times when I do enjoy actually being to a crowded space like a restaurant, pub or night club. Just being in one space with friends and total strangers, listening to good music, talking, dancing, eating and drinking sometimes can be a lot of fun.
A few months ago, for example, before COVID-19 landed in Africa and before we were urged to stay at home, I enjoyed a wonderful night on the town with friends and colleagues. We were in Addis Ababa, attending one of those formal events that can be physically and mentally draining. We had spent several days holed up inside a conference room and on the third day of the event, we felt that we must break out of the four walls of the hotel and have a feel of the tastes, sights and sounds of the city. How could we come to a city rich in history and culture like Addis Ababa and stay indoors the whole time?
We were a large group, maybe nine or ten of us, who decided to break the bondage of officialdom and just be human beings. We gathered at the reception of the hotel and decided that the first thing we would do was visit the famed leather markets. It would have been interesting to visit the museums and other historical sites but most of them were too far.
The leather market, we were informed by a very eager receptionist, stayed open very late into the night.
“Did you know that Ethiopia has the largest population of livestock in Africa and the tenth largest in the world?” she asked. “We have over 57 million heads of cattle!”
“That is higher than the human population in Kenya!” I observed.
“You will enjoy the leather market,” she continued. “The items there are very affordable. By the time they are exported to your countries, the prices may have tripled.”
We were immediately sold to the idea of going to the leather market. We hopped into two taxis, to accommodate our numbers, and drove to the leather market. Now, for some interesting reason the leather market in Addis Ababa is located at the stadium. When the receptionist told us this, we assumed that she meant that the market was in the general vicinity of or near the stadium. But no. The market was in the actual stadium, located in the concessions stalls on the ground floor thereof.
On arrival, we alighted from the vehicles and made a beeline to the stadium, only to be confronted by three menacing looking young police officers wielding long wooden rungus that looked like they had been snatched off their mothers’ jembes. One of them asked us a question in Amharic and we responded in English, stating that we did not understand Amharic.
He then told us in English, “There is an ongoing football match and we will not allow anybody to access the stadium.”
“Why,” we asked. “Isn’t the match inside the stadium and the shops outside the stadium?”
“We have closed the shops,” the police officer said. “The fans can be very violent.”
Disappointed we walked off. Just a few feet away from the stadium, near a petrol station, a man accosted us and informed us that he could get us into the leather market. Without thinking about the consequences, we agreed to follow this guy. He led us into a few shops that were open. The shops smelt of leather and were full of all sorts of leather goods; handbags, wallets, belts, laptop bags, backpacks, jackets, shoes. The whispered bargaining and quick exchange of money had the feel of some underhand illegal deal. It was thrilling. Purchases done, we again sneaked out of the leather market avoiding the menacing police officers.
Next stop was a souvenir shop which sold Ethiopian traditional dresses, jewellery and other interesting handcrafts such as African dolls, baskets and pottery. Nothing really interesting happened here, save for the bizarre fact that the proprietors were reluctant to state the prices of their wares upfront. For example, if you asked how much a dress cost, the proprietors would say, “Choose many, choose five, ten and then we bargain price.”
You would insist that you only wanted one item and the same response would come like a pre-recorded message, “Choose many, choose five, ten and then we bargain price.”
Despite their reluctance to disclose the cost of the items, we managed to make a few purchases. We returned to our hotel room to keep our purchases in a safe place before we embarked on the next phase of experiencing the city; tastes and flavours.
For the second time that evening, we gathered at the reception and asked the eager receptionist for a place where we could enjoy good traditional Ethiopian food. We wanted a place that was a walking distance from the hotel as we did not want to spend any more money on taxis. We had quickly come to learn that most places in Ethiopia do not have “Process Data Quickly” or PDQ machines where one could pay by credit or debit card. You had to have cash. Secondly, it was near impossible to buy back US Dollars once you had bought Ethiopian Birrs. The government has a policy or retaining foreign exchange. You therefore had to convert your US Dollars sparingly lest you have to return to your home country with Ethiopian Birrs that you cannot use.
The concierge recommended a restaurant called Fantu Sidama Cultural Restaurant.
“The cuisine there is good, good,” he assured us. “You will more than enjoy.”
We asked for directions to the place and he said, “This is very near this place. When you walk out of the hotel, you turn left and then walk a few meters to join Cameroon Street. Walk for a few hundred meters along Cameroon Street until you will see City of Refuge Church on your left. Take that road on your left and after a short distance you will see Fantu Sidama Cultural Restaurant on your Right.”
The directions seemed straightforward enough and we set off. Night was approaching and as darkness fell upon us, we had to rely on the street lights to identify the landmarks. After walking for more than a few hundred meters and not seeing the City of Refuge Church, we stopped and asked a couple of ladies for directions.
“Excuse me miss, we are looking for Fantu Sidama Cultural Restaurant,” one of my colleagues said.
“Fantu Sidama?” one of the ladies asked confused. She proceeded to consult her friend and they had a very long debate in Amharic. We all but gave up.
At last she turned to us and said, “We don’t know Fantu Sidama Cultural Restaurant. Never heard of it. Is it in Addis Ababa?”
“Yes,” confirmed my colleague. “We have been led to believe that not only is this restaurant in Addis Ababa, it is actually on this street.”
“I don’t know it,” the lady said. “Even my friend doesn’t know it. However, I can show you a good cultural restaurant which is not far from here. Just walk straight like this and you will see it.”
We were not going to trust directions anymore. The lady just had to take us there. We knew it was a long shot for a woman to agree to accompany a group of strangers at night, but blessed be Jesus and his Virgin Mother, she agreed!
The lady and her friend led the way and we followed. Some of our male colleagues engaged them in conversation, out of which we learnt that the two ladies worked for a bank and that they were going home from work. We continued walking down Cameroon Street. The two ladies were walking very fast, which was surprising because they were both in high heels. Those of us in flats were finding it difficult to keep up.
Dear reader, we walked and walked and walked. How could a street be so long? Hadn’t the two ladies said that the restaurant was just here? What did they mean by just here? We began having doubts about their intentions. Where were they leading us to?
At last we approached the end of Cameroon Street. We could see the airport lights ahead of us. There was even a road sign that said “Bole International Airport”. Had we actually walked all the way from our hotel to the airport? We began hypothesising that maybe, we were being deported. Being led to the airport to be unceremoniously shipped out of the country.
Just as we were voicing these thoughts, one of the ladies stopped and told us goodbye and then continued on her way. The other lady led us ahead for a few meters and then we suddenly turned left, off Cameroon Street and onto a side road. There were no street lights here. The street was unpaved. There were several bars and ‘massage parlours’ lining both sides of the street and a few drunken patrons were staggering up and down and across the street.
We hankered closer together, held on to our purses and began calculating our chances of escape in case of an attack. We were about nine people. That was a good number. We were also very tall and very large compared to most of the Ethiopians we had seen. This would work to our advantage against any mugger or thug that the lady was leading us to. You can imagine that by now, we had reached the point where we knew that we could not walk back to our hotel. The point of no return, so to speak. Flight was out of the question and we were preparing for fight.
Thankfully, this rough, dark, unnamed street turned out to be quite short, for presently, we emerged onto the well-lit and significantly busy Airport Road. It was a multiple carriageway and crossing it was a nightmare but the lady led us expertly across. Our reprieve of being on a well-lit major highway was short lived for a few meters later, the lady turned off the main road onto another poorly lit side street to our left.
We again, clutched our belongings and huddled closer together. We were now actively regretting going against good sense and following a stranger in a strange city on a dark night. What had we been thinking? We decided to get into the very next taxis we saw and get the hell out of this place.
Suddenly, the lady stopped and beckoned to those of us who were dallying to catch up with her. When we were all there she said, “This is Desalech Kitfo. Their main attraction here is the kitfo, which is a traditional meat that is eaten raw and spiced. Kitfo is mainly form the Gurage tribe who mostly inhabit the south-western part Ethiopia. They also have very good cultural music.”
She led the way in and told a man standing at the entrance that we wanted a table for ten. The man led the way inside and got us a place to sit. Dear reader, the interior of this place was other-worldly. There was a raised wooden stage at the front where traditional musicians and dancers were performing live. The furniture was very authentically traditional with low tables covered in woven reed mats and handcrafted wooden seats.
We settled down and a waiter, dressed in the traditional Gurage attire came for our orders. We ordered ye chekena tibs for our dinner as we weren’t adventurers enough to eat the raw meat that is kitfo. A hostess came and had us wash our hands by pouring water out of a long necked, long spouted kettle.
The food came, served on a colourful woven basket that was lined with the broad leaves of the ensete plant, a banana-like plant. At the centre of the basket was the ye chekena tibs sizzling in a hot cast iron pot. Ye Chekena tibs is a finely chopped beef that is sautéed dry with green peppers and onions. There was also injera, the pancake-like fermented flat bread made from a grain called teff. Alongside the injera was kocho, another fermented bread that is a staple of the Gurage people. I found the kocho unpalatable but the injera was nice and accompanied the tibs very well.
The waiter then returned for our drink orders. None of us was bold enough to try tej, a local wine made of honey. Instead, some of us went for local Ethiopian beers and the others for local wines. Of course, I was in the local wines group. We ordered a wine called Axumit. It is a bold full-bodied semi-sweet red wine with fruity aromas and a smooth finish. Dear reader, let me not go into the description of this wine for fear of digressing and turning this into a wine review.
The traditional dancers and the musicians were experts in their art and very entertaining. The women had this long curly hair that bounced this way and that as they danced. The men danced like they were boneless. Every act was met with a booming applause from the audience. One of the acts was particularly very interesting. It was a guy on a traditional drum. Drumming and dancing. He drummed until he bent over backwards, and I mean all the way back until his head touched the ground. It was quite acrobatic. Then using his head like a limb, he moved forward and back, all this while still drumming. Dear reader as much as this act was extremely amazing, it is very difficult to describe it to you.
The drinking and the dances progressed with the dancers coming off stage and picking one or two audience members to dance with them on stage. The acrobatic drummer picked on me to go and dance on stage. Try as I may, my shoulders refused to move like a boneless being.
As the night wore on, patrons started leaving and the musicians started winding down their acts. We felt that it was also time for us to leave. However, the band had a surprise for us, the belted out “Hakuna Matata,” we jumped on stage and danced. They followed this with “Maliaka” and a few popular Swahili songs. Night made!
By this time, most of the patrons had left, including the Ethiopian lady who had been kind enough to bring us to this place. We thought that ours was the only group left in the restaurant but there was a couple seated in a corner drinking. The lady was Ethiopian and the man Indian. For some unknown reason, they came and joined our party. We finished our drinks, cleared our bills and prepared to leave.
Dear Reader, I have surpassed my word count for this blog and so I will stop here. Do not be upset as it is the rule of blogging that a story should not be too long. The reader will lose interest. Some “expert bloggers” sat together in a room or met online, who knows, and came up with these rules. They then informed us that a blog should have at least three hundred words and not exceed one thousand words. They went on to dictate that an expert blogger could write up to two thousand, five hundred words and still connect with their audience. Dear Reader, I am not an expert blogger and this post is now at two thousand, eight hundred and eleven words. I am a stickler for rules and will therefore stop writing. You can catch up on the rest of the story next week.