Little Steps: Underground Activism in Ethiopia

Addis Ababa appeared almost like a mirage, spreading out along the valley below from the crest of a climb through the mountains. All of the riders were a little on edge by the time we reached the city, having spent five days cycling through picturesque but grueling gorges and mountain passes. It was slow and arduous work, and Addis represented a place of rest and sanctuary.

For me, Addis was also the first place where there was a good chance of contacting some of the LGBT rights organizations that I was hoping to meet along the cycle. While Cairo has a thriving underground gay scene, there wasn’t enough time at the start of the trip to make connections; in addition, the political climate has turned increasingly dangerous for LGBT people in recent months. In Sudan, there wasn’t even a question of meeting with an organization. LGBT people in Sudan evidently come to Ethiopia – which, as we’ll see below, isn’t exactly a safe haven.

I was in luck. A friend from Yale and his wife invited me, some of the other cyclists, and several of their friends to their home for a delicious and greatly-appreciated pasta feast. One of the guests knew just the person I should meet: a young Ethiopian who was starting an underground project to deliver essential education and health care to the LGBT community in Addis.

I met Haile (which is not his real name; I’ll use pseudonyms throughout the post) the next evening at a coffee shop downtown. He invited me to come to dinner at his house, which he shares with a number of other gay Ethiopians who are working on the advocacy project. As we walked, I asked him about the gay scene in Addis. Everything is undercover. There are no gay clubs; although when Haile and two dozen of his friends show up, the club gets pretty gay pretty fast. Some establishments are more tolerant than others, but few places encourage frequent visits.

Haile’s circle of friends mostly consists of men, although he does know several lesbians in the city. He doesn’t know anyone who is transgender. He told me that, while the gay population in Addis is no doubt as large as one would expect for a major metropolis, the community exists in a plethora of isolated pockets. Most men develop friendships within a tightly-knit circle that they form through online connections. These groups generally have some overlap with other groups, but it isn’t extensive.

The online fora that are most useful for meeting people include a handful of gay dating sites and Facebook. While the Ethiopian government censors the internet extensively (porn sites, for instance, are blocked), for some reason the government hasn’t yet figured out that Manhunt is not a website about missing persons. Grindr also works, probably because it only requires a cell network and not an internet connection. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Grindr, let’s just say that it’s enormously popular but subject to abuse. It’s not necessarily the safest way to meet people, especially in a country where the stigma against homosexuality is high and where being openly gay is dangerous.

Gay men in Ethiopia are subject to jail sentences of up to 15 years for homosexual acts (even longer if there is transmission of HIV). Lesbians can no doubt be similarly persecuted; but as is true for several African countries, the criminalization statute is vague and arguably does not apply to women. It was unclear to me how frequently women have been prosecuted under the penal code.

Indeed, Haile didn’t know anyone personally who had been subject to prosecution or a conviction. But he pointed out that the real effect of the law was to remove any form of legal protection for the gay men he knew. If someone is raped or robbed during a sexual encounter, there’s nowhere to turn. The threat of blackmail is high, as people are extremely and understandably worried about being outed. Citizen arrests are also a problem, as hotel workers and others feel that the law allows and perhaps even obligates them to expose what they see as illegal activity. Most importantly for Haile, there are no public health services. People are fearful of seeking medical advice for any conditions that might require a revelation of how that condition was obtained. In a country where the HIV rate is still high, let alone the prevalence of other STDs, the inability to obtain education and treatment is devastating.

imageHaile and a group of around a dozen of his most trusted friends decided they needed to do something about what they felt was a public health crisis. They formed an underground organization dedicated to educating the LGBT community about important health issues and providing a space for counseling, outreach, and eventually treatment. The name of the group is Dana, which is Amharic for “little steps.” The group also refers to itself as 1Zega. Zega, which means citizen, has become a code word that gay men use to identify themselves in Addis.

I met seven members of Dana that evening at Haile’s house and chatted with them as we shared a spicy salad and a hearty tomato pasta. The group is diverse, highly educated, and clearly passionate about the project they are creating. Their members include a doctor and a public health worker, as well as a graphic designer and a filmmaker.

I asked them several questions about what it was like to be gay in Ethiopia. Most of the guys are not out to their families, although there seemed to be a few instances where the truth was understood but never acknowledged. One of the men, Mule, lives with his boyfriend Boche. Mule was buying a new mattress with his sister one afternoon when and she remarked that he might want a bigger mattress so Boche could fit on it. Other than that offhand comment, the subject of Mule and Boche’s relationship never came up between Mule and his sister – despite the fact that Mule first overheard a discussion about homosexuality between his parents. They were speaking about Mule’s stepbrother, who was also gay. I asked Mule if his stepbrother, unlike his sister, had been more open to a discussion about sexual orientation. Mule shook his head: “He committed suicide before I could come out to him.”

The group communicates with each other in person and over Facebook. All of the members have two Facebook accounts: one with their real name that they use for work and family, and one with a fictional name that they use for their personal lives. When I asked whether most gay men in Addis had a face Facebook profile account, one of Haile’s colleagues corrected me: “I wouldn’t say it’s a fake account. It’s the only place where I can really express myself.”

imageMuch of the motivation to form Dana occurred as a reaction to an anti-gay rally that was to be held in Addis last April. The rally was sponsored by a group of religious leaders, such as Dereje Negash, the head of a group associated with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Negash said that the rally was not designed to harass gay people, but to advocate for stricter criminalization of gay sex. Haile and his cohorts orchestrated a series of responses to the rally that exposed the contradictions in the statements made by Negash and other organizers. The government eventually cancelled the rally when the Orthodox Church withdrew its support, although it’s not entirely clear what caused this sequence of events. In any event, the solidarity created between Haile and his friends in response to the rally was a motivation for them to take further steps to address the public health crisis they saw in the gay community in Addis.

Many of Dana’s efforts are in the trial stage. Just a week before my arrival, the group had its first training and outreach session. The session involved around thirty people divided into two groups: sixteen came to Haile’s house, the others met privately with members of Dana wherever they felt most comfortable. Haile said that they had originally planned to host the training at one of the European embassies in Addis, an embassy that I won’t name but which has lent some support. Unfortunately, the embassy withdrew the offer for space at the last minute, perhaps because it was concerned about diplomatic repercussions with Ethiopia. Haile shrugged off the disappointment and said it was for the best: a private home is more conducive to discretion anyway.

imageThe goal for the training session was twofold. First, Dana wanted to test the materials it has prepared to disseminate public health information. Second, the group was hoping that the trainees would feel empowered enough to take the instruction back to their own circles of friends and discuss health issues with a larger community. Dana targeted people from diverse friend groups so it could extend its outreach as far as possible. Needless to say, all the people who attended the first training session found out about the event through private invitation and word of mouth.

In the future, Dana hopes to continue its outreach through a variety of methods. It has a Facebook page and is developing a website, which will facilitate an online clinic in which volunteer doctors can answer questions anonymously from people who have concerns about their sexual health. The group is also in the process of editing a short film which will describe the daily lives and struggles of gay Ethiopians.

Not surprisingly, Dana could use increased funding to pursue these projects. Out in Africa Ride is currently looking at ways to get money to the group, which is much harder in Ethiopia than in other countries. The main obstacle is the Charities and Societies Proclamation, which limits the funds a group can receive from foreign sources. We’re currently studying the law to see if there are possibilities for working around this requirement.

Dana works in dangerous territory. From all accounts, the current government is just as repressive as previous regimes, and it is unclear what would happen to members of the group if they were discovered. Beyond formal punishment and legal action against them, many members could face ostracism from their families and from their work.

Nevertheless, they have each other. Even from my brief meeting with the members of Dana, the closeness and solidarity of the group was apparent. It is, perhaps, the one silver lining of oppression: a recognition and appreciation of a shared humanity in the face of a common enemy. When I explained to the group how gay men can be judgmental and snide to each other in other cities – how I have heard many gay men make racist, sexist, anti-lesbian, or transphobic remarks –, I was met with blank stares. In places where rights are better protected, how do we forget so quickly that there is far more that brings us together than keeps us apart? The interactions between members of the group and the dedication and courage with which they are trying to make Ethiopia a better place for LGBT people were an inspiring reminder for me of the little steps we all must take towards greater understanding, greater empathy, and greater kindness.


Mountains Beyond Mountains

I’m stealing the title of this post from Tracy Kidder, who used it for his excellent and highly recommended book on Paul Farmer’s work in Haiti and elsewhere around the world. Kidder, in turn, stole the title from a Haitian proverb: Deye mon gen mon, or beyond mountains there are mountains.

The words are as meaningful and appropriate for Ethiopia as they are for Haiti. We’ve been cycling here for over three weeks and there are mountains everywhere – both geographically and psychologically. As soon we’ve conquered one challenge, a new one presents itself; but each obstacle brings new vistas, new insights, and a raw beauty that accompanies the sweat and blood.

Ethiopia has always been the country on the tour about which I felt most excited and most apprehensive. It has one of the most unique histories of any country in Africa, a story to which we’ll return in the forthcoming Ethiopian history post. It has its own national language (Amharic, although many other languages are spoken), its own script, even its own clock and calendar. The Ethiopian clock starts at sunrise: six o’clock corresponds to six hours of sun, or noon. Meanwhile, Ethiopia never converted to the Gregorian calendar, so it’s currently 2008 here. I’m not making any of this up.

imagePerhaps it’s not surprising that a country with such fascinating features should also have more worrisome attributes. We joked at the beginning of the trip that “Ethiopia” was the answer to all questions concerning any hardcore aspect of the trip. Where are the hardest climbs? Ethiopia. Where do the riders get the worst gastro problems? Ethiopia. Where are you most likely to be pelted with stones? Ethiopia. My mental picture of the country before I arrived was one in which I was on the side of a gravel road with a 45-degree incline trying to change a flat tire while vomiting and being beaten by stick-wielding children.

That vision was, of course, somewhat exaggerated. The inclines aren’t that steep. But the most disastrous parts of my time in Ethiopia tell only part of the story. While the days have been hard, they have also been fulfilling; processing and overcoming the difficulties has been a highlight of the trip so far.

In terms of the challenges, the real trouble is the way that all of them hit you at the same time. You’ll be struggling up the last few kilometers of a massive climb and really feeling the altitude when suddenly the road gives way to rough gravel and a bevy of children comes running toward you, loosed from some hidden font. Pedaling any faster could have catastrophic consequences for a bowel situation that is precarious at the best of times, so it’s better to continue trucking along and go into whatever happy place, if any, is still available to you. I like to replay old Carol Burnett sketches in my head.

Here’s the thing about the children. We hear the dulcet tones of these sweet cherubs incessantly, from the moment we hit the road: “You you you you you! Where are you go? Where are you go?” Which is a lot of existentialism before I’ve had a second cup of coffee.

Some riders try to endure the onslaught with stoicism and a stony gaze, resorting to harsh words when the ululations are accompanied by sticks or stones. I can sympathize with that impulse, but I’ve found that engaging with the kids is a more productive tactic. True, this approach is easier to conceptualize than to enact, especially during the last 20 kilometers or so of a long day; but it seems to be somewhat effective. It also feels better.

Engaging with the kids gets harder as the day goes on because conversations with them tend to be extremely repetitive, mostly because they all ask the same questions. The consistency with which Ethiopian children can recite the following basic phrases in English, right down to the grammatical errors, is eerie; after three weeks, I started wondering if these words were part of the national curriculum:

  1. “You you you”
  2. “Where are you go?”; sometimes “Where are you come?”
  3. “Money”; or “Give us the money”; or (advanced) “You must give us the money”
  4. “Pen”
  5. “Faranji” or “Faranj” (foreigner, specifically a white foreigner)

One of these phrases comes at me somewhere between ten to thirty times per kilometer. Given that we cycle over 100 kilometers each day, you can see how saying “I’m going to Kenya” several thousand times can get old. Nevertheless, I find that many kids (and adults) are genuinely interested in a response. The “you you you” or “where are you go?” introductory salvo comes across as somewhat aggressive, but a reply often elicits a thumbs up or a “welcome to Ethiopia.”

imageMany interactions are extremely rewarding. If you’re in the right mood, the energy can be infectious and some of the smiles the kids have beaming across their faces are unforgettable. The adults can be equally delightful. I passed an old woman once and said “Seulam” (hello). She pointed at a gaggle of children nearby who were engaged in the standard “you you you” ululation. She mimicked them for a second before bursting into a fit of laughter that shook her body so hard I almost thought she would end up on her back.

Some of the interactions are more problematic. Saying you have no money or pens or ignoring the request entirely can result in a stone to the back or, if you happen across one of the rare kids that are truly malicious, the head. There are bad children everywhere, of course, but these bad kids have really good aim. Sometimes the stones come flying from the side of the road without anyone in sight. Or a group of kids may surround you on a climb and try to reach in your pockets or grab your bike. In one town, a dozen or so different teenagers all yelled “Fuck you” at me, despite my widest smile and enthusiastic greeting.

We’ve had some close calls. One rider missed a large rock by mere inches while hurtling down a steep incline at over 80 kilometers per hour. Another rider got a rock to his derailleur; as a result, he had to sweat two days over the mountains to Addis Ababa with only one functional gear. Teenagers can be especially angry: besides the swearing, I’ve been spit on numerous times, although perhaps they were merely expressing their disapproval of the color-coordinated Spandex. Even when the children are just energetic and inquisitive, the incessant yelling wears you down quickly.

So where does all this come from? And why Ethiopia? We’ve had a few similar incidents in other countries, especially in southern Egypt, but nothing on the scale of what we encountered daily in both the northern and southern sections of Ethiopia. I imagine someone with a better internet connection than I currently have might be able to give more accurate answers, but here are at least some ideas.

First, the interactions we’ve had are clearly colored by previous encounters with aid agencies. There are a number of these agencies at work in Ethiopia – NGOs, UN-sponsored groups, religious organizations – and many have attempted to address several serious famines that have hit Ethiopia since the 1970s. The agencies are a favorite whipping post for lots of criticism; I’ve heard people suggest that all the money does is buy more white SUVs for aid officials. True, we’ve seen a number of these vehicles (in fact, they make up the bulk of non-commercial traffic on Ethiopian highways, as everyone else walks), but other than my own observations I have no way to verify this criticism. My guess is that many of these groups are doing useful and important work, even if some of them may be mismanaged.

Regardless, the constant presence of the agencies creates a dynamic in rural areas that we haven’t seen elsewhere. The children associate white people with things – money, pens, books – and they may get understandably confused and frustrated if a group of Westerners come through empty-handed. I also imagine that many aid agencies distribute essentials like food simply by driving through town and handing out supplies. This is totally a guess, but the “you you you” cries may have originated during times of famine to signify “me me me; I’m here, I’m hungry, I need food.” The cries are truly piercing, and they’re effective attention grabbers.

The poverty of the regions we’ve passed through may also contribute to the problem. Even the least expensive bike that one of us is riding is worth over a year’s salary to many, if not most, of the people we’re passing. With the lack of development and job opportunities in some of these areas, there’s no doubt a frustration that comes with seeing others in motion when you feel your own life is standing still.

A third factor that may be at play is the history of Ethiopian resistance to European colonization, especially against the Italians. Ethiopia was the only area of Africa that successfully avoided foreign annexation during the Scramble for Africa in the 1890s, famously beating back the Italians during the Battle of Adwa in 1896. Italy eventually occupied the country for five years from 1936 to 1941, a period that saw a series of resistance movements and brutal suppression of those movements by the Italian occupiers. For instance, thousands of innocent Ethiopians were killed in retribution for an attempt on the life of the hated Viceroy Graziani in 1937; a memorial to these victims still stands at a busy roundabout in Addis Ababa. Given this history, it’s no surprise that some Ethiopians may still have negative feelings towards faranjis.

Even if the people we’ve passed have no memories of old Italian atrocities, the fact that many of these Ethiopians are poor and rural does not mean that they are ignorant of world history. And that history, of course, is in one in which white Westerners have been responsible for a seemingly unending list of appalling practices against black Africans. Even under occupation, Ethiopia has proudly maintained its independence through all of that history. I may be mistaken, but I believe that as of 1900 there were only two nation-states under the power of black rulers: Ethiopia and Haiti. It may be that much of the animosity we’ve experienced stems from that proud tradition.

I had the opportunity to accompany our tour director to a meeting with the Minister of Tourism while we were in Addis to discuss the stone-throwing problem. I thought the Minister’s response was eye-opening. He was quite concerned about the issue and interested in brainstorming solutions, but he also noted that the stone-throwing was not necessarily a top priority for the tourism department. “After all, no one is being lynched.” The comparison to a brutal chapter in America’s history is telling. I can imagine a number of people objecting that the comparison is inapt because lynching happened “such a long time ago.” These are similar voices to those that think twenty years is long enough for South Africans to move past apartheid; or that Ferguson isn’t really about race.

I disagree with these voices. It seems clear that the violent histories of slavery, segregation, colonialism, and apartheid continue to color interactions between different racial groups in Africa and elsewhere today, especially between black and white people. The anger our group of white cyclists has experienced has surprised some of the riders, but it is a surprise born of the naiveté that comes from membership in a racial group that has been historically privileged. In almost every other situation on the ride, our skin color advantages us in ways that are both overt and sometimes more subtle; in this one instance, white skin marks us apart in a way that is a disadvantage. I hope the experience helps open my eyes and the eyes of other riders to the reality that people of other racial groups have lived historically and continue to live on a frequent, if not daily, basis.

As I said before, I may be terribly wrong in my analysis of why we’ve experienced the troubles we’ve had in Ethiopia. But regardless of the underlying causes, the remaining question is how to cope on a daily basis with the psychological and physical stress.

imageOne of the best strategies has been to ride with a partner or a group. I’ve been riding most of Ethiopia with Ben and the Duchess, whom you may remember from a previous post. There are actually other riders on the tour and I promise to tell you more about them some day, but Ben features prominently here because Simon and the Duchess have such similarly idiosyncratic riding styles in Ethiopia. They both like to hit the climbs hard before grannying their way down the other side; they also have little appetite for speeding along the rough roads and are perfectly content to let the bikes with front suspension whizz past. Needless to say, neither Simon nor the Duchess are at all impressed by the gravel roads and construction that have popped up throughout the southern half of the country.

Ben shares my philosophy of engagement; between the two of us, we’re sometimes able to out-wave and out-greet the children. “Seulam! Seulam! Seulam!” we shout. “Deuna neuh? Deuna nachu?” (Hello! How are you? How are you all?) It turns out that learning a few words of Amharic works wonders, which isn’t really much of a shocker. Unfriendly frowns generally turn into beaming smiles as soon as you show that you’re making an effort, even if your accent is as horrible as mine.

Unfortunately, when the kids chase us up a hill (or, as Ben says, when they irritate us up a hill) they often exhaust my limited Amharic fairly quickly. At first I tried singing to them, but immediately found that it only exacerbated the wailing. Instead I sometimes strike up nonsensical conversations with them in English that go something like this:

Nine-year-old child: “Money money money!”
Me: “Listen, when we first met things were going really well. Our chats were full of witty repartee, the melodic tones of your voice thrilled me, I thought we hit it off. But lately something’s changed: the spark’s gone out, the fire just doesn’t burn as brightly. I think we should start seeing other people.”
Nine-year-old child: “Pen?”

I also find it helps to imagine that I’m in a parade, possibly bedecked in a fabulous outfit in the middle of San Francisco Pride. This takes less imagination than you might think, especially because I’m already dressed in Lycra and there are kids that come running from hundreds of meters away across the fields just to stand by the side of the road and scream like mad. A handful of beads and I could be in New Orleans.

Most importantly though, the best way I’ve found to cope is to keep some perspective about the problem and where it comes from – which is why I’ve tried to explore some possible theories above. I’m reminded of Albert Camus and his discussion of Sisyphus, the man in Greek mythology who is condemned to push a boulder to the top of a mountain only to have it slip from his grasp and roll back to the bottom. According to Camus, Sisyphus has gained clarity and lucidity about the absurdity of his condition, and this allows him to be happy. There’s something Sisyphean about getting on the bike each morning and mustering a smile and an energetic response to questions that you know will be repeated endlessly throughout the day. But maintaining a sense of humor about the situation is immensely valuable, as is a consideration about the source of the issue and how it resonates and connects with deeper questions of poverty, development, and race.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is not the kids but the other riders. Not surprisingly, everyone has experienced some psychological trauma over the past few weeks and people have different ways of processing those difficulties. I’ve heard some horrendous things in camp, including the comment that the next time there’s a famine in Ethiopia, “we should just let them starve.” Needless to say, my head almost exploded. I’ve found it hard to muster the energy to confront people expressing those sentiments in a productive way, even though I know it’s important to bear in mind how these comments come from a place of stress and exhaustion.

imageAfter all, the kids would be difficult enough even without the strenuous climbing, the altitude (we’ve generally been hovering around 2500 meters or 8000 feet), and the illness. In case you thought I’d escaped unscathed from the bugs that have been circulating amongst the riders, I should point out that gastro problems continued to be a disaster for me throughout Ethiopia. I have little dignity left at this point. Here are just a few of the lowpoints of the trip: explosive diarrhea in a pit toilet infested with dozens of cockroaches; a similar incident in an open field where the onlookers were nine extremely impressed children; uncontrollable vomiting through my nose while hunched on all fours in a grassy section of a motel courtyard during a rainstorm. I should point out that all of these incidents included getting up the next morning to ride 130 kilometers or so on rough roads. Everyone says Kenya is much better, perhaps because there’s evidently no food other than carrots and potatoes until we get further south.

Given all this, it’s safe to say that Ethiopia has been the most challenging country on the tour so far. And yet paradoxically, it’s almost certainly one of the countries that I’m going to miss the most. It’s not just the breathtaking scenery that rewards you at the top of a climb, or the distinct aroma of Ethiopian coffee and berbere spices. It’s the thousands of positive interactions with people on the road that counteract the few negative ones. It’s the unique history, and culture, and food, and dancing, and language. It’s also the energy of Addis Ababa, a city that blends the amenities of a modern metropolis with the feeling of a rural village, and a place where I had the good fortune to meet an inspiring group of Ethiopian activists whose activities I’ll detail in my next post. Mostly though, it’s the way that the challenging aspects of the country provide such fodder for thought, for growth, and for deeper understanding. I don’t think I’ll miss the “you you you” cries of the children or the constant harassment. But some mornings I may find myself wondering what happened to the parade.



Gun-Wielding Bandits in Northern Kenya!
It’s Fucking Hot Again!
Crossing the Equator Cross-Dressing Party!