African diary - Addis Ababa | St. Louis Public Radio

African diary - Addis Ababa

Jun 20, 2008

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: June 20, 2008 - Editor's Note: William H. Freivogel, director of the School of Journalism at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and a professor at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, went to East Africa earlier this month. He traveled through Ethiopia and Uganda with journalism colleagues as part of a State Department grant. They conducted workshops with local journalists, government officials and representatives of aid agencies. He wrote a diary of his observations during the journey. You can read his letters from a trip a year ago at the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting :

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia - When I first visited Africa a year ago, I was struck by the friendliness of the people toward Americans, the vivid poverty of everyday life and the yearning of African journalist s for free expression.

Now, on a return visit to Ethiopia, I've experienced the friendliness again. The other night, we shared a traditional coffee ceremony in a young journalism instructor's apartment and then hopped from tiny bar to tiny bar where young women perform a traditional dance encircled by clapping men.

My other two lessons from last year are undergoing some revision. The poverty of Addis Ababa, the capital, seems even worse than I remembered. Maybe this is because we spent time walking through the stench of neighborhoods with open sewers. But on a trip to Bahir Dar, a regional capital, the poverty somehow seemed more bearable in the university city's rural, lake setting at the source of the Blue Nile.

The journalists who attend our workshop cautiously describe the limitations they face in a country where dozens of journalists were among the hundreds of people arrested after closely contested elections in 2005. But even though the journalists seemed to envy the freedom of their visitors, they also deeply resent the negativism of the Western press toward Africa.

They are angry at what they see as one-sided coverage critical of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe and the constant refrain in the BBC that Ethiopians are starving - a refrain renewed recently when the BBC reported a U.N. prediction that 6 million children face near starvation. Yes, there may be starvation, the Ethiopian journalists say, but that shouldn't always be the West's frame on Africa.

Luxury Hotel

The trip from St. Louis -- through Detroit, Amsterdam and dusty Khartoum -- to Addis Ababa takes two days on the clock. By the time my colleagues make it through an hour-long line to get their visas, it is nearly midnight on the second-day of the trip. Maybe the jet lag or the fatigue or the altitude (7,500 feet) contribute to my negative observations about life in Addis. But I think we're just getting a closer look at the lives of ordinary people in the ramshackle neighborhoods just off the few wide boulevards where the Western hotels are situated.

We're staying in the Sheraton here, Addis' finest. Apparently it was built by a sheik who is part Ethiopian and part Saudi Arabian. It makes the Hilton, where we stayed last year, seem shabby.

People are excited about Barack Obama, whose father was from adjacent Kenya. As the bellman helps me to my room he asks what I think about Obama's chances. He thinks Clinton will be vice president. I tell him I don't think so.

The Obama victory celebration in Kenya is the lead story in the morning paper. The paper reports that Kenya's prime minister - Raila Odinga - was "rumored" to be related to Obama. Odinga was the opposition leader who appeared to win last December's election there and ended up as prime minister as part of U.S.-brokered compromise.

Looking out my window, I have a nice view of the mountains around the capital and can see the beautiful gardens around the hotel. I also can see a shantytown just over the high concrete wall that surrounds the hotel grounds. The slum goes dark after sunset, while the hotel gleams like a jewel.

In the hotel bar in the lobby, well-heeled Africans and westerners puff on big cigars and sip expensive Scotch. A colleague and I join in the latter pursuit.

I'm living in parallel universes: the luxury of the hotel grounds and the squalor of city shops and neighborhoods. We walk the mile between the Sheraton and the Hilton, cutting through what looks like a typical neighborhood. The sewage running down a concrete ditch along the side of the dirt road makes the smell hard to take, even for a guy who can't smell. Off to one side of the road, a man is throwing up alongside one of the tiny shacks for which corrugated metal services both as a roof and walls.

Poverty

The moment we leave the hotel grounds a teenage boy comes up to us striking up a cheerful conversation. He walks along for about half a mile before he gives up on us as a source of revenue. Moments later, a little boy, about 6, takes his place at my side. We walk by a nice-looking park in the center of the city that is surrounded by a fence. The boy peers through the fence at colorful playground equipment that no one can use. He looks up at me and says "fun, fun" - something children can't have in this padlocked park. The boy drops off as we enter the Hilton grounds.

Children and adults come up to westerners every minute or so. The little children grab your hand and look up in your face with big, dark eyes, stretching out the other hand. It's very hard to say no, but you learn pretty fast to be heartless. Boys also hawk shoe shines, men peddle maps of Ethiopia, and mothers with tiny babies beg along the side of the road.

As a whole, the women seem busier than the men, sweeping streets, bending over pots, grilling ears of corn for sale along the side of the road, carrying huge, heavy bundles of firewood on their backs. Some women travel for hours by foot to forests outside Addis to collect the wood - against the law - and walk it back to the capital.

Men gather on street corners, some waiting for a taxi fare, others with nothing to do. Some estimates of unemployment run as high as 70 percent. About 80 percent of Ethiopians exist on $2 a day, making this one of the poorest countries in the world.

Many of the streets are packed with tiny shops selling jewelry, crafts etc. A typical shop is only about 6-10 feet wide and deep. Many are built like the shacks that people live in. The shopkeepers themselves seem better off than the beggars and hangers-on outside. They haggle with tourists over prices. One of my traveling companions, Jyotika Ramaprasad, grew up in India and loves to bargain. She is deft at walking away when she can't get her price. "Wait, wait" the shopkeepers call after her, giving her the deal she wants.

This is Third World capitalism in a former Soviet client state where a big, concrete monument with a red star atop still occupies a prominent place in the skyline.

There is one city block downtown that is developed on a New York theme, brightly lit at night with signs for a lingerie store and a tattoo parlor. Another block is on a Parisian theme. But one of Ethiopia's biggest problems is there is little foreign investment.

I had a huge breakfast and am not very hungry for lunch at an Italian restaurant that seems to have a house of prostitution on the second floor - at least women are looking out all of the windows. The food isn't that great.

Role of the Press

My colleagues and I have a variety of views about the role of the press in a developing country. I'm an unreformed American newspaper guy. I never learned the various media models that my communications colleagues study. To me, there is one model of the press that works everywhere - a fiercely independent free press that challenges the government, conventional assumptions and social injustice.

Jyotika, the leader of our group, is an authentic professor, instead of a recycled journalist. As we conduct journalism workshops, she explains that many scholars believe that "development," or "communitarian" or "public" journalism are better able to bring about social change in the developing world than the Western libertarian model of a watchdog press.

I'm enough of a contrarian that the terms development, communitarian and public journalism make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. A decade ago, I had a bad experience with a practitioner of public journalism who just about wrecked the St. Louis Post-Dispatch where I worked. He was so busy convening the community discussion that he forgot we were a newspaper. When Jyotika brings up public journalism, I try to control my urge to vent.

One the newer approaches that puzzles me is "peace journalism." I'm no hawk. In my newspaper days, I wrote editorials favoring the war in Afghanistan and opposing the war in Iraq. But I don't think straight news should be slanted toward a particular outcome.

The third member of our group, Jan Thompson, is a TV documentarian who once shot sports figures in Chicago such as Michael Jordan. Mention of Jordan impresses the workshop participants. They like Jan's direct approach and are eager to learn her TV skills. Jan - like Jyotika and the African workshop participants - doesn't like the negativism of much of Western journalism. She produced a series of documentaries for PBS on the hidden beauty of countries, a portrait at odds with the negative pictures painted in daily news accounts.

At the end of the afternoon we're back at the Sheraton drinking rich coffee by the pool. You could almost forget that beyond the tall blue wall with a colorful mural is that neighborhood with the sewage in the ditches in a city where vultures circle overhead.