Ethiopia has an image problem. Say the word “Ethiopia” to many people, and the images that spring to mind are not from vacation brochures – but from decades-old news reports. This vast nation, the “cradle of humankind”, with phenomenal architecture and over 70 languages – boils down to a few minutes of heart wrenching footage of the “biblical” famine of the 1980s.
For a rapidly developing nation with a huge tourism potential, this is tricky. Why would anyone want to go on vacation to a sun-baked desert full of famine-ravaged, fly-swatting children? But as crucial as those images were at the time in sparking the biggest fundraising effort the world had ever known, they have sadly condemned Ethiopia to live in the shadow of its past.
There are several problems with this depressing stereotype. Firstly, the arid region was a tiny part of a country four times the size of the UK. Secondly, while Bob Geldof’s impassioned lyrics may have inspired people to “give them your f***ing money”, they hardly presented a nuanced image of this enormous country. There are rain and rivers – and even navigable lakes. There are snow dusted mountains, and yes – in a country where Christianity predates the religion in Europe – there was Christmas. The song also conveniently glossed over the fact that drought was just one cause of a famine which could have been avoided if the militant ruling Derg had assisted this stricken region – rather than imposing politically-motivated agricultural reforms which resulted in starvation.
Admittedly, a tune about enforced resettlement programmes and civil war may not have been quite as catchy, but it would have been more honest. News reports showed the hungry children – but failed to ask why they were starving to death. Ethiopians today express frustration about the continued misrepresentation of their country, the ignorance of their forests, endemic wildlife, highlands and culture.
As Eskinder Hailu, Ethiopian founder of our supplier Highway Tours, says, “The country needs to be better known by the rest of the world. People know this country for a famine that happened in the 1970s and 1980s – that is the only thing that comes to mind, which is unfortunate. Ethiopia has so many things to offer. Every tourist, every client I talk to after the trip – they are amazed, and they always say the rest of the world should know about the better sides of this country too.”
So – go to Ethiopia, and give them your flipping money – not out of charity, but in exchange for the extraordinary historical, cultural and natural treasures they have to offer. And when you come back, share your pictures and stories as widely as you can to dispel the famine myth that has ravaged this nation for decades. It’s time to move on.