There is a growing consensus among archeologists and anthropologists that the human species originated in Ethiopia. In 1994 the oldest human remains ever discovered, the 4.4 million old bones of Homo Ramidus Afarensis, were found in Ethiopia’s Afar region - the previous record was held by "Lucy" or "Dinkinish" (Amharic for "wonderful"), who at 3.4 million years was a relative youngster.Ethiopia has extensive historic sites, particularly in the north of the country, where the visitor can see constructions dating from the first millennium BC, the stelae and tombs of the Axumite kings, rock hewn churches dating from the 4th century, the monasteries of Lake Tana and the 13th century monolithic rock hewn churches of King Lalibella in Wollo. In the east, the 1000 year old city of Harer, with its 99 mosques, is the fourth holiest place in Islam, after Mecca, Median and Jerusalem. South of Addis Ababa there are a number of Neolithic sites, including the 1.5-1.8 million year old site at Melka Kunture (Oromia Region) and the 400 stelae at Dilla in Sidamo (Southern Region). Elsewhere in the southern region there are remote, medieval monasteries and in Jimma, in Oromia, there is the recently resorted palace of Abba Jiffar, the last independent king of the area.
Country Ethiopia has every variety of scenery, from the peaks of the Simien mountain in north Gondar to the Dalol depression in the Afar region, tropical forests, lakes, savanna and deserts. In Bale National Park in Oromia, home to many endemic mammals and birds, visitors can see unique alpine fauna and flora, volcanic lakes and trout filled streams. For big game safaris, there are the Omo and Mago National Parks in the Southern Region, with their fascinating Mursi and Hamer villages.
Recent History In 1974 the monarchy of Haile Selassie was overthrown, following a series of demonstrations and strikes in the towns and land seizures in the countryside. But the popular demand for democratic government (and modernization) was thwarted when a clique within the military under the leadership of Mengistu Hailemariam seized power. Ethiopia was then subjected to 17 years of bloody repression, war and famine.Throughout Ethiopia and in Eritrea, people took up arms against the dictatorship. Of the resistance movements within Ethiopia, the most successful was the Tigreyan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) which in 1989 joined with other forces to form the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).By May 1991, EPRDF forces had succeeded in toppling the dictatorship, and Mengistu fled to exile in Zimbabwe, from where the Ethiopian authorities have so far unsuccessfully sought his extradition on charges of crimes against humanity.Within a month of the EPRDF victory, a national conference was convened, representing more than 30 political parties and ethnic groups. The conference adopted a National Charter, based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and guaranteeing all the fundamental freedoms, of speech, the press, of association and perhaps most importantly in the case of Ethiopia, the right of all nationalities to self determination.
Ethiopia has more than 80 ethnic groups, and the lack of national and cultural freedoms had caused endless conflict, including the 30 year old struggle in Eritrea. (Eritreans voted for independence in a referendum organized in May 1993).
The conference set up a Transitional Government, to prepare the country for national elections, which took place in May 1995. A number of opposition parties, mainly based in the USA among Ethiopian communities there, boycotted these elections but international observers, representing foreign governments, international organizations such as the UN, EC and OAU, and various non-governmental organizations, found them to be free and fair.
Before the elections, a new constitution was drawn up and submitted to more than 26,000 local councils for discussion and ratification. Under the new constitution, Ethiopia is a federal republic, consisting of 14 Regions, essentially based on ethnicity. In southern Ethiopia, Regions 7,8,9,10 and 11, with more than 40 separate ethnic groups and languages, have combined to form one Region with Amharigna as its official language.
The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) won most of the seats in the National Parliament, while member or allied parties won control of regional assemblies. The next elections will be held in 2000. In its program for government, the EPRDF is giving priority to agriculture, where nearly 90% of Ethiopians earn their livelihood.
At peace with itself and its neighbors, Ethiopia now has the chance to devote its energies and talents to development. Food production can be increased through the extension of irrigated agriculture and the adoption of more efficient farming methods. There are export markets in the Middle East for Ethiopian fruit, vegetables, meat and dairy products. There are proven reserves of natural gas and coal, gold, copper, tantalum, potash, zinc, ironore, nickel and marble. Ethiopia has the largest number of cattle, sheep and goats in Africa, and is now expanding its leather industry.
Ethiopia only uses a fraction of its potential hydro electric power. The Blue Nile, which has its source near Lake Tana, contributes to 80% of the main Nile flow and plans to increase existing power generation are being implemented. In the Oromo and Afar Regions, projects have started to exploit geo-thermal power.
However, Ethiopia’s immediate prospects while finding its feet depend on good harvests (which mean good rains) and a good price for its coffee (60% of foreign currency earnings).
The current government believes that real development can only take place in a democracy. It has also stressed that democracy cannot be installed by decree, but is a process which involves the development of a democratic culture and institutions, in which all citizens must play a part. While the process will take decades, so far the extension of human, democratic and national rights has been truly revolutionary, and for the first time in Ethiopia’s long history, a government has been set up which genuinely represents the regions and Ethiopia’s many ethnic groups. Perhaps alone among African countries, Ethiopia is acknowledging that it is a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic society.
Security Despite years of war and brutal massacres carried out by the previous regime, in terms of crime and robberies, Ethiopia is still a very safe country to visit, and Addis Ababa is still one of the safest capitals in Africa. Visitors should of course take the usual precautions, not carry large amounts of money with them and leave particularly valuable items with hotel reception. Both men and women visitors should be careful about hand or money bags, keeping them close at hand in crowded places.Like everywhere else, pick pockets and snatch thieves like to create some kind of diversion before making their move, so visitors should walk purposefully and be cautious about sudden introductions in the street.In Addis Ababa, such incidents as do occur tend to happen in the city center, in a circle linking the Ghion, Ethiopia and Ras Hotels.
Greetings Handshaking is the usual mode of greeting, although friends or family who have not seen each other for some time will kiss on each cheek. (Displays of sexual intimacy, kissing or hugging, will arouse embarrassment among most Ethiopians.)
Ethiopia’s misfortunes over the last 20 years have created large numbers of destitute people, and this is particularly noticeable in Addis Ababa, the population of which has trebled in recent years. The end of the war, demobilization of the massive standing army and reduction of staff in many of the parastatal industries has created large scale unemployment. With may people, begging has now become a business, and one sees women carrying babies about, begging from people in cars and passers by.The regime sponsored famines of the 1980s, and the high profile deliveries of western aid, Live Aid and Band Aid, have had their impact on people’s customs and traditions and have undermined values of self reliance and pride. Since foreigners are seen as dispensers of charity and aid, children routinely ask them for money, whether they need it or not. Unfortunately, begging is on the increase in many of Ethiopia’s historic sites.There is no easy answer to the question of whether one gives to beggars or not. At the end of the day it is up to the individual to decide whether to give or not, but giving young children money does contribute to the formation of negative habits. People who have been crippled (often as a result of the war), the blind or the very old are obviously deserving cases. You should be aware however that if you give to one person, a flood of others will come running up.
Although there is a service charge in most hotels and restaurants, visitors might like to leave a small tip, of around one or two Birr, depending on the size of the bill.In some of the tourist locations young children and adults rush to provide services for visitors, such as looking after shoes when visitors are inside churches, carrying bags and cameras. Over tipping can end up doing harm; in too many tourist locations around the world, young children are lured away from their education by the possibility of earning what seems to be a lot of money. As time passes, and they are replaced by other youngsters, they remain uneducated and often unemployable. There is also the damaging impact socially of young people receiving in a day what their father might earn in a week.Again, there is no easy answer to this, and inevitably visitors when confronted by poverty, will want to help in the most immediate way possible. However, giving money to individuals does not really address the problem. EET has good links with indigenous self help and development associations, as well as with local councils in tourist locations and is always happy to facilitate donations in cash or kind, for school or clinic building for example. In contributing to such projects, visitors will be helping the entire community.
Visitors should be sensitive about intrusive photography, people should be asked for permission before their photographs are taken. Generally, there will not be any objection but in some areas, particularly among nomads, among Afar and in the Omo Valley, people will often ask for money. Photography in churches is allowed, but in many areas of tourist interest, particularly in the north, there is a charge for video photography. (This also applies to the Blue Nile Falls.) As elsewhere, there are laws and regulations about taking photographs in sensitive areas like airports and around military camps.
Currency The currency is the Birr, the rate of which is fixed against the US dollar every two weeks following a foreign currency auction.There is no limit to the amount of foreign currency that can be brought into Ethiopia, but visitors must declare all currency in their possession on arrival, and change foreign currency in banks or authorized foreign exchange dealers.On leaving the country, visitors will be asked to surrender to customs officials the currency declaration filled in on arrival.
There is admission fee to Ethiopia’s historic sites, varying from 10 Birr in some places to 100 Birr for the churches in Lalibela, and 50 Birr to all National Parks.
There are differential rates for visitors, resident foreigners and nationals in admission fees and also in the state sector and some private hotels. This is to ensure that access to Ethiopia’s heritage is affordable for the domestic tourist, while a reasonable income is made from foreign visitors.
Souvenirs Most of the arts and artifacts in Addis Ababa (and certainly along the Historic Route - Axum, Lalibela, Gondar and Bahir Dar) reflect the Orthodox Christian tradition: silver crosses, icons, paintings on animal skin, and woven garments - items with a Christian motif. A well stocked shop will also be able to offer Harari silver and basket work, and wooden carvings from the south and south west.
Other things visitors might like to bring back are filigree work and silver and gold, woven carpets, amber and of course coffee - the very name comes from Kaffa in south western Ethiopia. If you are looking for larger mementos, you can buy Ethiopian stools, chairs and other furniture from private shops and from the state sector Ethiopian Tourist Trading Corporation, next to the airport.
Like many countries, Ethiopia is facing a problem with the theft and illegal purchase of national treasures. Visitors should only buy what appears to be antiques from authorized shops, ask for a stamped receipt, and if in doubt, check with the National Museum in Addis Ababa whether the item may be exported or not.