WB00948_.GIF (8344 bytes)

A Wonder of the World

In Northern Ethiopia, 8000 feet above sea level, sits the eighth man-made wonder of the world and one of the most incredible sights I've seen on my trip. Within the village of Lalibela are twelve churches cut directly out of the bedrock, each intricately carved with windows and doors and fully sculpted interiors. Some reach four stories in height and all are a marvel to behold. It has become a place of pilgrimage for Orthodox Christians. According to legend, Ethiopian King Lalibela had a dream in which God ordered him to build a holy city to rival Jerusalem. The story goes that the King was aided by angels in constructing the churches. In the face of such incredible craftsmanship, I didn't doubt it. There was even a Mount of Olives and a Jordan River.

The one thing I didn't see in Lalibela was the flocks of tourists you might expect gathered around such a sight. Had this wonder been anywhere else in the world, my guess is that there would be a line people waiting to get even close to the churches, maybe a ticket booth charging as many birrs, the local currency, as people would pay. Guards and guides would be buzzing about the site. After all, I'd been to the Great Wall in China and the Taj Mahal in India and seen the crowds and bus loads of people that pour in.

At Lalibela, I was able to walk right into one of the churches. I sat down inside and had a chat, heavy with hand gestures and smiling, with an old priest. I even read over a sacred biblical text, all written in Ge-ez, an ancient Ethiopian language. It's hard to describe the immediacy and history I felt as I wandered around this 800-year old treasure. It's as if I had walked into the Vatican and asked the Pope if I could peruse his scriptures. But then again, that's what so many experiences are like in Ethiopia, a place where everything feels undiscovered, untouched. It's one of the most unusual countries I visited on my trip and certainly unlike any African nation I've ever been to.

Ethiopia is a pure and isolated land. Sitting on the horn of Africa's Northeastern coast, it's a mountainous and lush terrain. Despite the arid image that most Westerners have of the country, Ethiopia is covered in grasslands and rain forests. Called the "ceiling of Africa," two-thirds of the country sits on a plateau, between six and ten thousand feet above sea level. Throughout history, such a rugged terrain shielded the country, the fourth largest country by size in Africa, from foreign influences that overwhelmed neighboring nations. In fact, Ethiopia is the only country in Africa that has never been truly colonized. Italians took control of Ethiopia in 1936 under Mussolini, but the British forced them out in 1941. Both Haile Selassie, the emperor who ruled off and on from 1930 to 1974, and the socialist government that ruled until 1991 had little to no interest in inviting foreign influence of any kind. They shielded their country from outsiders like so many other closed cultures -- Albania and Burma, to name two -- have done in the name of protectionism.

In 1640 Ethiopia actually banned all foreigners and virtually none visited for the next 200 years or so.

Not surprising, such isolation has had a profound effect on the country's evolution. It's certainly helped this ancient culture survive the test of time. There are roughly 70 different languages and 200 dialects spoken. It has it's own alphabet and calendar. Ethiopia's breed of Christianity, cut off from foreign influences over the centuries, evolved into its own distinct form. It's certainly Christianity but not necessarily the same kind one might find in New York City or even Buenos Aires.

As we drove North through the grasslands, we passed through many villages where no one had ever seen outsiders. The open markets we passed through were certainly primitive. We saw people were selling hand-made cooking utensils and molded containers used to store and eat food. We saw camels coming into from the desert carrying loads of salt, which is still used as a measure of value in Ethiopia, just as it was in ancient times. We even saw women wearing and trading coins bearing the name of Maria Teresa, the empress of the Austro-Hungarian empire in the eighteenth century. I'm quite certain that these coins don't find their way into markets or stores in any other country besides Ethiopia.

The downside of isolation has been a stagnant economy. In 1998, Ethiopia ranked as the second poorest country in the world. It's gross domestic product per capita totaled about US$ 100. Ethiopia never developed a manufacturing base and it's economy is still centered around agriculture. In fact, agriculture accounts for half of the Ethiopia's GDP and 90 percent of its exports. Over 80 percent of the workforce are in farming and farming-related services. Coffee is the staple of Ethiopia's agri-economy, contributing 10 percent alone to its GDP. Other exports include live animals, hides, tobacco and oil seeds. There are proven mining reserves, such as platinum, nickel iron ore, and even gold, but little has been done to exploit such resources.

The country's infrastructure is a shambles as well. During their brief tenure in power, Italians built bridges and roads. That was over 60 years ago and today, most of the roads have been destroyed or fallen apart. What roads that do exist are terrible and often flooded out during rainy season. At one point it took us ten hours to cover a stretch of road 72 miles long. The only roads that have been of built or repaired of late are those used to facilitate the fighting on the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea, where a dispute over territory has brewed on and off for years.

Despite all the talk of drought we saw little evidence of it on our journey. We obviously couldn't cover the whole country but everywhere we went there was water to be found. In fact, we found one enormous water tower in a town that was leaking water by the gallons. One man told me that there was a serious drought in the Gondor region in the North. His church had been sending food and water regularly. I asked if he had ever been there and he said no, it was too difficult to reach. He wasn't wrong about that - the roads were dreadful. But he was wrong about the drought. We couldn't find any evidence of one.

Ethiopia's population of over 60 million - the 3rd largest in Africa -has also become hopelessly reliant on aid. We saw acres and acres of arable land that lay fallow as we drove through the country. No one wants to farm because everyone is aware that they can get the same thing that they would grow for free at the monthly food distribution. A whole generation of Ethiopians is growing up with little to no knowledge of how to farm because they have never had to do it. Making matters worse for those people who do farm is the fact that many people often pick up food at the distribution centers and then sell it cheaply on the open market. We saw men carrying off bags of grain, delivered from world hunger organizations and aid relief outfits, and then take the food and sell it at a nearby village market. No farmers can compete with competition that has no costs or upkeep. Faithful readers of my columns know that I have long believed that organizations like the IMF and World Bank can often do more harm than good. Such groups often create a cycle of dependency that can ultimately cripple an economy and culture.

Making matters worse is that many people are also using the relief that flows into the country for their own greed. We met one man who ran an orphanage in a nearby town. When we went to visit him, we saw dozens of kids. t was a truly depressing sight. But when we returned later, uninvited, there were no children. There was no orphanage. The entire operation was a front to get Westerners like myself to funnel more and more aid and money into certain people's pockets. It's a common problem in Africa and one that benefits no one, not the country who gives the money or the country that "receives" it.

In 1992, the government launched a new free-market oriented economic policy with reforms designed to stabilize the economy and point Ethiopia in the right direction. Ethiopia's first parliamentary elections were held in 1995 and the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front won 98 percent of the vote. I talked with a number of government officials and they certainly seemed to want the right things for Ethiopia. A new constitution was ratified in 1994. This constitution allows any of the Ethiopia's nine different regions to secede and become independent at any time. Personally, I think this is a stroke of genius on the part of the Ethiopian government. World history of the last 200 years has been a period of building nation-states. Everyone wants to get bigger. As a result, war has been breaking out if one region or ethnic group wants to leave. Look at what happened in Yugoslavia. The Ethiopian model seems like a plan that all countries should consider a model to follow.

In terms of the economy, those in power are certainly saying all the right things. They are talking about privatization and transparency and accountability. These are the rights words. There's much talk of cleaning up the bureaucracy and encouraging foreign investment. In 1999, the government signed $1.4 billion joint venture to develop a natural gas field in the Somali Regional State. They are try to lure the best and brightest of their country to come back to Ethiopia and invest and get involved with the rebirth of this vital country. One government executive told me that if I had a good idea for a business he could have it approved in a week. Still, there are odd restrictions on certain types of businesses. For instance, I can open a bank in Addis Ababa but I am not allowed to own a barber shop. I can start up a phone company but I can't be a tailor. This is clearly a holdover from the communists who didn't like anyone but locals working in the service industry. But it's also this kind of ridiculous and archaic bureaucracy which can turn off foreign investors like myself.

We encountered other bureaucratic problems along the way. When we entered the country, we were required to fill out a currency form, a document stating how much foreign currency one is bringing into the country. These forms, however, have long been abolished. Still, the customs officer insisted I fill one out. When I got to Addis Ababa, the capital, I told a government official and he told me he never had any problems with his friends who fly in and out of the capital. I told him that his friends ought to try crossing the border some time and see what happens. His own customs officials had no idea the laws had changed. But that's the downside of isolation. One hand often doesn't know what the other one is up to.

With the tension between Ethiopia and Eritrea quiet for now, many countries and corporations have tried to step in and help the Ethiopian government with its economic transition and recovery. BMW gave Ethiopia a fleet of motorcycles for their police force. A Western government flew in a planeload of medical supplies. How did the Ethiopians return the favor? By charging both companies customs duties on their gifts. That kind of gratitude won't get them much help in the future.

And when I started to talk to local businessmen, I discovered that the much ballyhooed privatization being touted so much by local officials is a bit of a fixed game as well. They told me that unless you were connected with the government it was virtually impossible to get a piece of the action when an industry was privatized. Many complain that, while Ethiopia is a culture of dozens of ethnic groups, one Ethnic group from the North controls the government and keeps appointing members of their own tribe. This could create more problems in the future and put that constitutional caveat about secession to the test.

It's clear to me, though, that there are tremendous opportunities in Ethiopia. For entrepreneurs willing to come to this country, it's an open field. The Ethiopian economy needs just about everything. Labor is incredibly cheap. Unlike other countries where you need to gain the approval of ten different committees before you can make a money, the Ethiopian government is trying to make it as easy as possible. The government has set up a kind of one-stop shopping service for foreigners looking to invest. And for investors looking for a market that is still unspoiled, nothing compares to Ethiopia. Ethiopia is finally trying to open to the outside world after centuries of going the other way.

Updates are available at www.jimrogers.com.
E-mail:  jim@jimrogers.com


Back ] Home ] Next ]