Though now a democratic republic, Ethiopia still has some of the earmarks of its centuries as an empire. With more than 100 million people and a land area larger than Texas and California combined, it has some 80 ethnic groups and includes 80 percent of all the African land above 10,000 feet.
The Simien Mountains, where we hiked for three days, top out at nearly 15,000 feet and occasionally see snow. A hailstorm halted our effort to climb one of the highest peaks. To the east, the many-colored and dangerous (from both bandits and sinkholes) Danakil Depression is the hottest and one of the lowest (more than 400 feet below sea level) valleys on Earth. Nearby is another of the many Ethiopian oddities—a volcano that has continuously spouted lava since 1964.
The country has animals that are like baboons but aren’t baboons, and animals that are like monkeys that aren’t monkeys. It has ibex related to the white ghosts of the Sahara, Ethiopian wolves that are the rarest of all canidae, and Swayne’s hartebeest, an endangered antelope seen nowhere else.
Its people are as unusual as their environment. An example is the close relationship between children and adult men. Elsewhere—and not only in Africa—men when not physically absent tend to be emotionally distant. Not here. Here, many men are good at mothering. I frequently saw a man walking along a road carrying a child on his shoulders or in his arms.
On a desperately overcrowded bus, a young man sitting on half a seat next to me took a crying baby from his young mother and cradled him in his lap. He let the strange baby sleep there for hours.
The kids, however, could charm the coldest heart. Passing me on a city street or a mountain trail, kids touch my skin, caressing it shyly because it is different not only in color but also in texture from anything they’ve known. Their eyes are huge and wide, set in small faces, sometimes on shrunken bodies. Fat kids are even more uncommon than obese adults. The children almost never cry or complain, no matter how tired or hungry or miserable they feel.
They take joy in the smallest things, and make toys out of everything. A few sticks become a sailboat. A rolled-up rag becomes a ball. Everywhere, the earth is their playground. Piles of dirt are diving boards or ramps for summersaults and cartwheels. Kids 8 or 10 years old carry younger siblings around on their backs.
The men of Ethiopia are different in other ways besides parental reflexes. When two friends meet, they greet each other by bumping shoulders and sometimes kissing.
Ethiopia is not an easy country for a foreigner to identify with. It is extraordinarily religious, and its Orthodox religion, with its myriad feast days, rigid separation of the sexes and vast assemblies of pilgrims, is difficult to grasp.
Ethiopia has experienced three revolutions since the 1970s. The first kicked out Emperor Haile Selassie and his retinue of retainers straight out of the Middle Ages.
The second revolution rid the country of the radical Stalinist dictatorship called the Derg that replaced the emperor. The revolution brought to power a Tigray-dominated coalition that ruled with brutal, corrupt, autocratic efficiency for more than two decades.
The third, which happened only last April after several years of mounting protests and violence, handed power to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the new rock star of Africa. The Economist Magazine designated him the world’s outstanding leader of 2018.
In a mere few months, he has pardoned more than 13,000 political prisoners, ended a war with Eritrea and reopened their closed border. He ended censorship and allowed a free press to blossom. He stopped torture. He jailed dozens of corrupt leaders, bellicose generals and vicious members of the security services.
He started to prepare for the nation’s first ever free elections by bringing back the exiled leader of the opposition and putting her in charge of next year’s election.
If Abiy can manage to survive, he will have transformed a nation. In his first months he escaped an attempted assassination with a bomb and an attempted coup by hundreds of soldiers who invaded his office.
As the centralized police state has withered under Abiy, regional conflicts have filled part of the power vacuum. There are now periodic fights between ethnic groups, 3 million internal refugees and heightened interethnic tensions.
These are the principal threats to Ethiopia’s future and to Abiy’s reforms. The loose ethnic, federal structure of nine regions seems to encourage squabbles. Constitutional change is much discussed but remains on a future agenda.
Almost everything about Ethiopia strikes an American as odd. On farms, teams of oxen or donkeys are yoked together and slowly walk in endless circles, threshing grains such as tef or barley the way it has been done for millennia. Going endlessly in a circle is not a bad metaphor for the direction of most of Africa. However, unlike other countries, Ethiopia has a chance now to break out of this desperate, futureless circle and go its own way. The country is like nothing I’ve seen anywhere else in the world. If a new Africa does emerge, Ethiopia will be its harbinger.
THE END OF AFRICA JOURNEY