Millenium Development Ride Just another WordPress site Sat, 23 Feb 2013 23:01:58 +0000 en-US hourly 1 ‘Africa Rising’ Tue, 28 Feb 2012 10:16:40 +0000

By Brian Gillis

FEBRUARY 2012 – ADDIS ABABA, ETHIOPIA:  “Ok, now you are in Africa.”  After a longer than anticipated stay in Egypt waiting unsuccessfully for Sudanese visas, we had at last arrived by plane in Ethiopia and were, we were told, finally in Africa—at least according to two of my friends, one of whose sociopolitical savvy prompted her to consider Egypt culturally disconnected entirely from the rest of Africa to its south, and the other whose cartographic cluelessness conversely lead her to believe that perhaps Egypt was on a different continent altogether.  For the record, despite a definitive presence as one of Africa’s most populous nations and economically robust nations, Egypt is often associated instead with the macro-cultural identity known as MENA (Middle East, North Africa), and many ethnologists, historians, and authors continue to view Egypt as much (if not more) a part of the Middle East than Africa. It is an association that can be no more obviously illustrated than during the recent events of Arab spring, during which we all witnessed African countries like Tunisia, Egypt and Libya lumped seamlessly with Middle Eastern Arab nations (technically Asian from a continental standpoint) such as Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain, which though not on the same continent nor geographically contiguous are nevertheless extremely close on sociocultural lines (and political lines for that matter as Egypt and Syria for 3 years—1958 to 1961—were actually the same country, the United Arab Republic).

So, this is all to say in a very longwinded fashion that yes, if there were any doubts before, we were now finally in Africa. We had exited the Pharaonic capitals of the longest-running ancient empire—in many ways one of the premiere cradles of civilization—and now found ourselves instead in Ethiopia and the great East African rift valley, the very cradle of humanity itself (as Lucy would attest). Although Dave had been to sub-Saharan Africa several times before (just as I this was not my first trip to the Middle East), it was my first time south of the Sahara, and I was unprepared for the ubiquity of need I was about to encounter—countless pleas for food, dozens of handicapped or severely crippled men and women inhabiting the sidewalks, young boys struggling to buy a shoe shining kit so they can make a bit of money cleaning the broken leather shoes of the have-littles. Although beautiful in its landscapes and hospitality, its traditions and religious festivities (we arrived on the eve of Ethiopia’s Timket/Epiphany), Africa seemed on first glance to be in quite tough shape.

Shining shoes in Addis Ababa

I found myself asking questions—chief among them: how did Africa become this way? Scouring Addis Ababa’s bookstores for Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Guns, Germs, and Steel” (a highly acclaimed historico-scientific explanation of this very question), I instead stumbled upon the headquarters for the UN Economic Commission of Africa (ECA)—one of the largest UN buildings on the planet.  Although I had been drawn there by reviews of its bookstore, I found instead an architectural and artistic masterpiece—its magnificent murals depicting Africa’s struggle for independence, marathon runners flaunting the banners, and visages of countless African revolutionaries and leaders (of note: among these visages was a single nondescript outline, symbolizing the unfortunately common coup d’etats that have characterized African political history).

In the end, I left the ECA bookstore with a copy of the Economist. Its cover headline simple and intriguing:  “Africa Rising.”  The bookstore manager, who had during his break taken me on a tour of the building, handed it to me enthusiastically. “If what the ECA is doing doesn’t make you optimistic about the economic situation of this continent,” he said, “perhaps this will add a little more hope.”


It is well-known that optimism about Africa is hard to come by. New stories seem ever-focused on the region’s entrenched corruption, chronic poverty, recurrent coups, extensive famine, and persistent infectious diseases that are all but exterminated from Western society—reinforcing the assumption that Africa is a place of overwhelming problems, insoluble by individuals and exacerbated by governments. In light of this, I was excited to see the Economist’s rather optimistic spin on Africa—not the least bit because of the periodical’s rather negative view on the continent just over a decade ago, when columnists labeled it “the hopeless continent” (The Economist, cover story, 13 May 2000). Moreover, I hoped the journal’s new take might spark a change of opinion among the tens of thousands of ‘movers and shakers’ also reading it who have to date shunned investment in the continent.

Although the magazine begins with a stern reminder that optimism in Africa’s economy should be held cautiously as much changes on a regular basis, it nonetheless provides an overwhelming amount of cause for hope. For anyone well-versed in the stagnant national growth rates experienced in the wake of 2008, it is encouraging to learn that over a dozen African nations have economically expanded by more than 6% per anum for the last six straight years or more. While the rest of the world claws its way out of recession, African inflation has dropped 14%, foreign debts have declined 25%, and budget deficits have droped by 66%. Ethiopia itself, which was “once a byword for famine” now ranks tenth worldwide in production of livestock, and has seen remarkable improvements in its historically devastatingly unequal income distribution. And not just in Ethiopia. Across Africa, a “genuine middle class is emerging.” It is estimated that in the next five years alone, the number of Africans earning over $3,000 a year (admittedly not much, but in many African nations this is a comfortable income) will jump from 60 million people to over 100 million, while the ‘lower middle class’ making $700 annually (economically vulnerable but nonetheless capable of some consumption beyond simple subsistence) now make up over 300 million people in the continent.  The IMF feels this is not a halted progress, expecting the continent’s growth to exceed 5% in 2012—and for some countries over 10%. The World Bank concurs, indicating Africa is “on the brink of an economic take-off” not much unlike China three decades ago and India two decades ago.  Could the 2010’s be Africa’s decade?

While the likelihood of an autocatalytic wave of foreign investment (encouraging growth, thereby encouraging more investment and subsequently more growth) itself lends support for these ambitious forecasts, so too does Africa’s demographic distribution. Historically, regions with declining birth rates have found strong advantage when their ratio of working -age citizens increases with respect to dependents (children, elderly). In fact, this so-called “demographic dividends” was essential to the explosive economic growth of the US and subsequently Asia and soon could have explosive impact in Africa as well. Although by some estimates the population of Africa may double to nearly 2 billion in just 40 years, birth rates are in fact dropping (though not as consistently as one would hope, and not in the strongest economic zones of the continent), and just as the roaring Asian tigers rose a generation ago on their backs of cheap working-age labor, the roaring “African Lions” may see there boom as this generation’s children and adolescents mature.

The world is taking note of these trends. In the last 11 years alone, non-African trade with Africa has increased by 200%. Among some of the world’s newest economic powers (Brazil, Russia, India, China—the so-called BRIC), trade has increased from 1% to 20%, with the possibility of continuing to nearly half of all African trade partnerships as the BRIC countries themselves continue to grow and increase in their demand. The Chinese in particular have responded to the ripe economic environment in Africa, and many Chinese have now permanently moved to Africa and are providing a novel foreign-gone-local band of entrepreneurs.

Construction underway in Addis Ababa

The Economist certainly has many of its own theories on why Africa has seen such growth in the face of otherwise near-global recession. They cite a strong trend towards privatization (Nigeria alone has made more than 100 concessions to the private market in lieu of state control), more “pro-business policies” (per the World Bank’s Doing Business report over three quarters of African governments have made pro-business reforms), and the elimination of trade barriers within regions. Although poor road conditions continues to limit trade even between some neighboring nations (a la Kenya and Ethiopia), intra-African trade has nearly doubled in recent years, particularly with the formation of regional trade entities such as the Economic Community of West African States or the East African Community, which initiated a common market just last year. Political changes have also helped the macro-economy, with the elimination of apartheid alone contributing a 1% rise in the continent’s GDP growth, according to some estimates.


Despite all the hope—not just the statistics, but also the roads being paved, the high-rises going up, the cell phones being bought, and the banking going mobile—I couldn’t help but ask the seemingly glaringly obvious question that the Economist nevertheless failed to ask: what does this mean for Africa’s poor? Sure direct foreign investment has skyrocketed to $55 billion, nearly five times what it was in 2000, but is that really going to help the poorest rural communities in Ethiopia’s Somali or Tigray regions? Can trickle-down economics save the urban slums quicker than they are growing? As foreign investment fuels growth of new industries, and new industries demand skilled labor, what does this mean for the vast numbers of unskilled individuals whose access to primary and secondary education has been limited if present at all? It’s great that Chinese and Indian immigrants have invested so heavily in Africa, but with their increasing presence on the continent, will they simply fill domestic demand for cheap and skilled labor while reducing the urgency to correct the failed public education systems that have facilitated the shortage of skilled African labor? My fear is that the signs of hope touted by the Economist will remain only for signs for the hedge funds in New York seeking exotic new investments, and the foreign and domestic businessmen receiving their funds. “Foreign investment” sounds great and makes for great bar graphs, but will it really help the man who is selling otherwise-free Ethiopian Airlines toothbrushes to passersby, even while he noticeably lacks sufficient means to maintain adequate dental hygiene himself? Will the rows of Ethiopian shoe shiners see any change? Or will ‘Africa rising’ simply mean an increase in the quality of leather they polish?

Will he see a benefit from Africa rising?

GDP growth is great, but it is not the be-all, end-all. Africa must aim to leverage its economic growth for a leap forward in the much more important Human Development Index (HDI), so that real change can be seen not just in Africa’s profitability but by its people. Perhaps this is why the ECA exists. But beyond the UN, Africa’s governments (which have become increasingly stable compared to prior more pessimistic decades) must more emphatically push for more sizable and sustainable change in the lives of their poorest denizens. Only then, I believe, will we truly see Africa—all of Africa—rising.

Scenes from Ethiopia

Scenes from Addis Ababa

[ADDITIONAL PHOTOS: Visit our Flickr Photostream by clicking here]


]]> 0
Life in stride: Triza’s saga & the Ethiopian Higher Ed experience Mon, 13 Feb 2012 18:25:58 +0000

By Dave Silvestri

[Names changed to conceal identity]

[DATE] – ADDIS ABABA, ETHIOPIA: Triza was not just a hotel receptionist, though I first met her in that role. As I would learn, she was also a primary school teacher of Amharic language, and a student attending a distance learning program at Addis Ababa University. Her mother had passed away during her childhood, and her dearest brother had fallen to leukemia just one year earlier. She has a complex story, a sad story, and one that unfortunately highlights many of the challenges of life in a nation that is starting to run before ever learning to crawl.

When Triza’s brother first fell ill, they took him to Black Lion Hospital. Emotionally, physically, and financially, they drained themselves to look after him during his inpatient stay, to provide for his chemotherapeutic medications, to watch him at bedside. In the end, he died of a hospital-acquired infection. It was perhaps just one of several unnecessary deaths in a hospital still lacking adequate isolation precautions (see my post on rounding at the hospital), but for Triza and her family it was tragedy. They had not wanted to bring him to Black Lion Hospital—they knew it remained grossly underfunded despite being affiliated with the country’s preeminent medical school—but they had no choice. Leukemia was expensive, and like so many other Ethiopians, this was the only place they could afford.

Black Lion Hospital

Triza was noticeably saddened when she talked of her brother. There wasn’t a day that passed when she did not think about him, and most days she wept with his memory. Even a year after his passing, it was clear she was still flirting with depression, and her inability to express her sorrows at home likely exacerbated her pain. Her younger sister was the boy’s twin and even more devastated by the death than she. Her father was too stoic, emotionally hardened since the passing of his wife a decade earlier. Her mother’s friend—Triza’s best and perhaps only true friend—urged her to ‘be strong.’ Like so many others, she had only the church. Every morning she would rise early to go to the icon-laden Cathedral of St. Mary to pray and to pour out her sorrows to the consoling church Father. Just weeks earlier, the Timket holiday (Ethiopian Orthodox Epiphany) had not just been a time of joy and celebration, but one of spiritual revitalization as well. Faith for her was real and dynamic, an essential foundation for a life seemingly too difficult to endure without it.

Timket Celebrations in Addis Ababa

Ethiopian Timket a spiritual day for many

Reaching for Holy Water at Timket

Triza’s older sister had moved to Dubai to work as a house maid. Nevertheless, Triza still talked to her nearly daily. It was her second job since leaving Ethiopia two years earlier. At that time, she had lined up like so many hundreds of others in front of the Immigration Office in downtown Addis, just a stone’s throw from the very hospital wards where their youngest brother would ultimately breathe his last. She had waited patiently all day in that enormous queue, only to finally receive her passport and approved paperwork needed to depart. After her first contract in Beirut ended, she had returned to Addis for two months before departing for Dubai. It was a life shared by many of Ethiopia’s women—many of them rural, uneducated, and without any English background, but soon to self-teach themselves Arabic—headed to oil-fueled capital centers of burgeoning wealth across the Middle East: Bahrain, UAE, Lebanon, and Yemen (see my post on Dubai’s Mall). Although she did not enjoy her work particularly, the family was nice, and it paid her well enough that she could continue to support her family back home in Addis. It was this sister who paid for Triza’s distance education, and after their father’s retirement, it was she who also put food on their table. She did not get to shop at the Dubai Mall; the Burj Khalifa’s sky deck remained out of reach as she sent earnings back to Africa.

Queues at the Immigration Office

Unlike her sister, Triza did not want to leave Ethiopia—though in desperation she had nearly sought employment in Nairobi after her brother passed. Instead, her dream was to become a journalist. Toward the end of secondary school, she had joined every other senior across Ethiopia in taking the nationwide standardized exam that would determine university admission. Like all of them, she had then submitted her ranked list of her eight preferred university departments, and like all of them, she had waited in anticipation for the results. Most students had inevitably selected medicine as their top preference, while others had opted instead for ‘other health sciences’, ‘engineering,’ or ‘veterinary medicine’. Triza joined the masses hoping to make the university cut-off altogether. In a nation where the first university was founded in 1950, where tertiary enrollment totaled just 4,500 in 1970, and where not until the 1990’s did the government finally develop a comprehensive action plan for higher education reform, university seats remain limited.

Triza did not make the university cut-off, though I imagine she must have been close. Instead she took a position at a technical college offering training in teaching. It was not what she wanted, but at least it would prevent her from remaining idle; she intended to try again for university entrance after completion of college. Yet, when she did, again she was again denied entrance to the journalism degree program—this time because they were not accepting students from teaching colleges. She was instead assigned as a primary school teacher in Amharic language—a difficult and undesirable job for her, not anywhere near how she wanted to spend her life. Yet she complied, and has been working in this role for two years. Although she plans to quit at the end of the year, she is uncertain where to go next. All her options seem equally distant from her dream. With a sigh of resignation, she accepts that she had missed her opportunity by way of a secondary school exam, and would never see another chance.


Windowsill flowers at the feet of an Ethiopian Orthodox church icon, where hundreds like Triza come to pray

It made me sad to hear Triza’s story—not the least because I grieved for her family at the loss of her brother, or was angered by her accounts of senior clinicians objectifying him as a ‘fantastic teaching case’ even in the final days of his short life (a problem that plagues medical education around the world, I might note). Equally tragic, I felt, was the fact that even such a bright and motivated individual like herself (or the tens of thousands of high-achieving individuals like her across the nation) might never be given the opportunity to pursue a career that brings her joy.

Whereas across America we take for granted that tertiary education students can select from an entire menu of ‘majors’ or ‘minors’ (often with the opportunity to switch at least once thereafter, and not infrequently also with the opportunity to pursue careers in entirely unrelated fields), in Ethiopia eighteen year old secondary school seniors watch and wait as their entire livelihood gets dictated by the singular outcome of a single-day standardized exam. For some, the outcome is positive; the top scorers receive their first choice of field. But for most others like Triza, the news is disappointing—a second or often third choice, or sometimes no admission altogether. Transfers are possible for the brightest students, but immobility is the rule for the rest—stuck doing ‘education’ instead of ‘journalism’, ‘engineering’ instead of ‘medicine,’ ‘veterinary medicine’ instead of ‘dentistry.’

Although as an outside observer it might be easy to cast blame on the rigidity within Ethiopia’s higher education system, to the government’s credit, they have come a long way. A very long way. After long-time Emperor Haile Selassie was deposed by a military coup in 1974, he was replaced by a council of junior military officers (the Derg) who systematically either killed, imprisoned, or scared into exile the vast majority of the nation’s educated elite and educators. On the university campus, security surveillance increased, student organizations were outlawed, and mandatory courses on Marxism were instituted. Dissent was repressed, campus intellectual life withered, and those who could flee usually did. It was not until 1991 that dictator Colonel Mengistu Hailemariam was finally ousted by a unified Ethiopian People’s Democratic Revolutionary Front, but by this time, the nation’s higher education system had become crippled, short-staffed, and largely isolated from the western world. When the newly elected government took office in 1994, it was faced with the challenge of rebuilding one of the poorest higher education systems in the world.

And yet, the Ethiopian government has responded. Recognizing the importance of highly-trained individuals for Ethiopia’s long-term economic growth strategy, the government put expansion of higher education at the forefront of its national agenda, devoting nearly a quarter of its education budget to higher education (surpassing even the World Bank recommendation of 15-20%). As a result, in the first decade after the fall of the Derg, Ethiopia posted the world’s highest growth rate in higher education enrollment (28% annual average), fueled by a large increase in the number of universities and technical training colleges, including the nation’s first private institutions. Ethiopia became the first country to form a Ministry of Capacity Building; its newly-founded University Capacity Building Program has broken ground on thirteen new universities (mostly rural) to bolster enrollment another 120,000 students once completed. Since the 2003 Higher Education Proclamation, reforms have been made to enhance the autonomy and managerial environment of tertiary training institutions, as well as their long-term financial solvency, staff mix, and student demographic make-up.

Nevertheless, despite the government’s colossal achievements—indeed, in some cases because of these efforts—significant problems remain. Despite rapid macroeconomic growth in recent years (>8% annually since 2004), the vast majority (85%) of Ethiopia’s labor pool still engages in agriculture (much of it subsistence), with just 15 % engaged in industry or civil service. Thus, with the rapid enlargement of tertiary student enrollment, demand for Ethiopian university and college graduates has not been able to keep pace with supply. Moreover, as class sizes have swelled, quality of education has consequently waned—since facilities and staff have been slower to build. As a result, the job market remains highly unfavorable in most fields (health sciences being a notable exception), as employers seek higher-quality applicants with significant work experience.

So what do graduates do? Some wait. Others try to emigrate. Most do both. Nearly all of them have applied for a ‘Diversity Visa’ to the United States, hoping to be among the lucky ~3000 selected each year for entry to the US (a lottery only open to individuals with a tenth-grade diploma). Triza is among them. She has missed it two times now; this year will be her third attempt. For those who don’t make it (nearly everyone, given the odds), like Triza they accept unrelated or low-paying jobs with little other alternative. The result is felt nationally, as well; as university and college degrees go under-utilized, the nation reaps a poor return on its sizable higher education investment.

The Ethiopian government should be commended for reviving its crippled higher education system and bringing it to new and remarkable heights, such that it is now producing some of Africa’s and the world’s brightest leaders and professionals. Yet, as Triza’s story exemplifies, it should not stop wondering how many more of these leaders might be produced if the existent quality gaps, inefficiencies, and rigidity can be reduced—nor should it stop working to achieve such important reforms.

Addis Ababa University Campus

Exciting growth at Addis Ababa University

[ADDITIONAL PHOTOS: Visit our Flickr Photostream by clicking here]


]]> 0
Solomon’s story (Part 2) Mon, 06 Feb 2012 18:29:07 +0000

By Dave Silvestri

[A continuation from Solomon’s story (Part 1); Names changed to conceal identity.]

FEBRUARY – ADDIS ABABA, ETHIOPIA  When Solomon’s mother finally left home for the last time to return to her after-hours vocation at Gondar’s bars in Northwestern Ethiopia, she left her son to the care of her step-mother—the boy’s step-grandmother, his grandfather’s second and much younger wife. Solomon was six years old at the time, and just beginning primary school. His step-grandmother’s youngest son, Zelalem, was just one year Solomon’s senior, and she planned to raise the two together. But if Solomon expected to receive the same treatment as Zelalem, he soon found a far different reality.

Although by no means acceptable, the reasons for Solomon’s inferior treatment by his step-grandmother at least discernable. Solomon’s mom had been the black sheep of the household, the only remaining daughter of her father’s ex-wife, the stubbornly resentful house maid in her own home, the rebellious daughter who continued to risk bringing shame on the entire household through her after-hours occupation. From the first month of his life, Solomon had been an obligation to his step-grandmother. If she was not rescuing him from attempted infanticide, then she was busy searching for his emotionally-unstable and negligent mother. Yet she had seven children of her own. She had not wanted another, and his very existence was draining the resources that she wished instead to commit to her own kin. And so while she resigned to care for six-year-old Solomon now that his mother had definitely left home, she was not about to treat him like her own child.

Every day, Solomon and Zelalem would prepare for school, only to end up in far different classrooms. In the family car, his step-grandmother would take Zelalem to Gondar’s top private school, where he would attend classes all day. Solomon, however, was left to walk twenty minutes to a government school, where classes lasted just the first half the day in order to accommodate a different batch of students in the afternoons. Whereas Zelalem received a specially-cooked meal for lunch every day, Solomon would instead be given the family’s leftovers—typically no more than a half roll of injera. His step-grandmother never encouraged him in his classes, never invited his friends over, never washed his hair like she did Zelalem, never even bought him a school uniform. Solomon had to sell ‘tala’—a home-brewed mildly alcoholic Ethiopian traditional drink—even just to buy a school uniform required for matriculation.

Scenes from urban Ethiopia

Confused at his situation—at a mother who continued to abandon him, a step-grandmother who treated him so inferiorly, a school where he didn’t learn and had no friends—Solomon found solace in his tears. But crying just brought more pain. Zelalem would kick him, and Solomon—helpless to retaliate against the darling child—would simply cry more. Although Zelalem’s older brother would occasionally lash out at Zelalem by kicking him, such protectionism simply angered Solomon’s step-grandmother, who hated such retribution for her dearest son. Eventually, she had had enough, and sent Solomon out of the home.

He was eleven years old at the time, and was still in the third grade. He had repeated the first grade twice, the second grade once, and would soon learn that he would need to stay back yet again before advancing to the fourth grade. Rejected from the home where he had never felt at home, Solomon went instead to live with his aging grandmother—Solomon’s great grandmother, and one of the only women who still truly cared for him. After she passed away just two years later, Solomon’s grandfather invited him back home again—back to reside in inferiority—but it was only three months before this man, too, fell sick and died.

Throughout these childhood years, Solomon had continued to visit his mother periodically. Although he knew that she had often used his wide community appeal for her own private gain, he nevertheless loved her deeply. “Because she’s my mom.” And so it rocked him when he was called out of class at school one morning to learn that she had fallen very sick; he must come quickly. It was TB. Her bar job had finally caught up with her, and she had contracted HIV, a virus that at the time (1997) was still widely regarded as a divine scourge for sinful life and meant an inescapable death sentence to most of sub-Saharan Africa’s rapidly growing infected population.

For the next two years as she slowly lost her prolonged battle with death, Solomon was her primary and often sole caretaker. Only Solomon would carry her mattress across town to his step-grandmother’s home, risking personal humiliation through association with the skeletal sex worker. Only Solomon would eat off her plate; only he would drink from her cup. Only Solomon would touch her. Only the thirteen-year old boy would bring her to the city’s charity hospital. And through it all, he would cry, confused.

His father, too, had died, Solomon had learned. For years the man had repeatedly rejected Solomon, had claimed he had no son, feeding lies to his wife and daughter. Only the man’s father—Solomon’s paternal grandfather—held onto the truth, ashamed at his son. Yet this grandfather’s efforts to reunite the two proved futile. In thirteen years, Solomon had seen his father only once, and at that time he had been rejected face-to-face. Solomon was left alone. His closest friends continued to be his own tears.


Somehow, throughout all this, Solomon has continued to hold his faith, and continues to feel moments of Providence amidst a life disproportionally burdened by challenges. It was in one such moment—at a bank in Gondar one morning just a couple months after his mother’s death—that Solomon met Sandy. Theirs was an unlikely friendship to be forged. Thirteen-year-old Solomon was still in the third grade, and could speak only minimal English. Sandy was an elderly ophthalmologist from the UK who was working at Gondar University. Solomon seemingly had no future; Sandy would soon found the internationally reputed Gondar Ethiopia Eye Surgery charity. Solomon had come to the bank to deposit a paltry sum; Sandy had come to withdraw enough to buy a car for the hospital.

Their interaction that day was limited, but it planted a seed that would ultimately transform Solomon’s life. Looking at the young Ethiopian orphan’s bag of homemade bracelets and necklaces, the esteemed British physician bought one. They exchanged simple phrases. Sandy trusted his belongings to the young boy as he went to the counter. Solomon watched them as if they were his own. The two left together, exchanged a photo, and then nearly as soon as it began, the interaction was over.

Solomon wouldn’t see Sandy for another three months, and when he did, it was because Sandy had sought him out. He wanted to help the young bracelet maker. With the help of a hospital translator Sandy learned of Solomon’s struggles with Zelalem and his unloving step-grandmother, and decided to pay for the boy’s rent, furnishing, and food so that he could live alone as he had so long desired.

Although Sandy would return frequently to the UK and only return to Gondar for short intervals, he would always make sure Solomon had sufficient means even in his absence. He would encourage the boy to work hard in school. He would push the boy’s English. Over the next six years, he would become for Solomon the father that he never had.


Now advanced in years, Sandy has since ceased returning to Ethiopia, but not without first permanently impacting the life of one orphan in Gondar. It has been another six years since Solomon moved from Gondar to Addis Ababa, joining the ranks of scores of thousands who migrate each year to the nation’s capital in search of better prospects at employment or education. When he landed his first job as a cook, Solomon called Sandy to tell him of the good news. The boy cried; the man congratulated him. It was the last time the two spoke.

Sandy's picture as a sign of appreciation on Solomon's wall

Solomon remains deeply appreciative for Sandy’s unsolicited generosity. In his humble one-room apartment, a photograph of the elderly physician hangs alongside orthodox crosses and traditional Ethiopian paintings. “I have two fathers,” Solomon tells me. “First is God, then comes Sandy.” For five nights, I stayed with Solomon in that simple apartment—with its outdoor bucket sink and pit latrine—sharing stories with him as I continued my daily research work at Addis Ababa’s nearby Black Lion Hospital. In Addis Ababa’s cobblestone back alleys, it became my own home, the neighbors became my own, the store vendors no longer surprised to see me. Solomon had taken me under his wing, becoming my close friend, and showing me a piece of the generosity he had first been shown over a decade ago.

Solomon's neighbors

Solomon's neighborhood became my own

Although he no longer works at the Taitu Hotel—the paltry 1000 birr ($60) monthly salary too low to save any sizable sum of money—he remains endeared by all his coworkers there. His attitude, now refined by years of tribulations, remains impossibly optimistic. And yet, life continues to throw him challenges. To advance in his profession as a chef—his only hope at saving for the future in Ethiopia’s increasingly inflationary economy—Solomon must first train at a government chef school, but even before that he must have a full ten years of schooling, three more than he was ever able to complete in Gondar. Although he has no lack of determination and perseverance to finish such schooling, he lacks the savings to weather three years of rent and food with only partial employment during this time. And so for Solomon, the future remains uncertain.

It was a sad when I left Solomon, as I headed onward from Addis Ababa toward Nairobi, leaving him to his daily job search. Sad for me to leave so many friends I had made in my stay there, and sad to leave so many stories unchanged. I admired Sandy for the impact he had made on Solomon, and hoped dearly this was not the end of Solomon’s story. Together, we are waiting, hoping, praying for Part 3.

[ADDITIONAL PHOTOS: Visit our Flickr Photostream by clicking here]


]]> 1
Solomon’s story (Part 1) Sat, 04 Feb 2012 15:13:28 +0000

By Dave Silvestri

[Names changed to conceal identity]

FEBRUARY – ADDIS ABABA, ETHIOPIA: As night falls in Addis Ababa, they take their places in the shadows at the sidewalk’s edge. Not dozens—hundreds. Most in their teens or early twenties. Like statues, they wait. Hands buried in their pockets, hooded sweatshirts and jackets hinting at the long cold night ahead. Their handbags, tight-fitting blue jeans, glittering jewelry and make-up seem out of place in the dark dirty peripheries. They are Addis Ababa’s street girls, and where beggars and homeless families lie by day, they make their workplace at night.

In the international literature, they are referred to as ‘sex workers’—a term that, though more acceptable than ‘prostitute’ still largely ignores their profound humanity. To many of their clients, they are merely ‘bitches.’ To most other passersby, they are simply an unfortunate but inevitable reality that cannot be changed in a nation still grappling with poverty. But take a closer look, and their stories are much deeper than would be suggested by these casual conclusions.

Piassa before the sun goes down

Many of these girls come from outside Addis—some even outside Ethiopia. For a variety of reasons they flock to the city, some at the encouragement of their families, others at their admonition. Still others have no families. Their education is limited; most speak no English. If they do, it is likely self-taught. Some seek love, most seek an escape from poverty, using among their only skills to earn a paltry 200 to 300 birr a night ($11-$17). Some enjoy this work, but most barely tolerate it. Too frequently they turn to alcohol or chat (a cheap and mildly psychoactive plant) to get through the night, developing dependencies that reinforce their need for cash. Although their pampered veneer and enticing calls suggest otherwise, most in fact harbor deep-seated rancor toward their masculine clients. Many have been hurt at one point or another by sweet-talking ex-lovers—charlatans. Some are rape victims; others will be so soon enough. They are among urban Ethiopia’s most marginalized demographics. Outcasts, inferiors. And yet, as I walk past them on a nightly basis en route to my hotel, it is hard for me to ignore their moonlit stares just meters away.

In Addis Ababa’s historic Piassa, every night is a weekend, and the bars on all sides are playing music—a unique blend of traditional Ethiopian beats, contemporary local reggae artists, and imported Western tunes. Walk inside, and you are faced with a barrage of dancing high heels and short dresses—a stark contrast to the stationary counterparts in the cold outside. Don’t be confused, though; these girls mean business as well. Although their wardrobe may target a different type of customer, their aim is the same. Here—inside the bars—they don’t wait for customers; they go after them. Hang at the bar too long, sit in a booth too long, and one will approach you.

Where did they come from? Where are they going? Do they have families? Sisters? Brothers? Dreams? Where will they be in five years? Still in Addis? Still on the streets?


I first met Solomon when he was working as a chef at Piassa’s Taitu Hotel, Ethiopia’s oldest hotel and a common and atmospheric stopover for budget travellers. Over a beer and a complementary pizza, we had talked casually into the late evening about all topics—my research, his latest tourist customers, stories of America, stories of his home city of Gondar, stories of his recent failed attempt at procuring a US visa. Several weeks and many conversations later, we had become close friends, and as I gradually learned of his past, I was yet again dumbfounded by an unexpected and impossibly trying story of tribulation and perseverance. It was the clarity that I was seeking, the backstory to Piassa’s afterhours businesswomen.

His mom was a bar girl—a ‘sex worker,’ a ‘bitch.’ But she was also the only remaining daughter of a deceased mother, the black sheep among seven step-siblings being raised by a condescending and resentful step-mother. Her biological brother had sought refuge in alcohol; her sister had found escape in Israel. A second-class citizen in her own home, she had sought independence, and so she turned to the bars for employment. At first, Solomon’s dad had merely been a customer, then a repeat customer, then a lover—she hoped. The two spent many nights together, and as familiarity and trust between them grew, precautions diminished. When Solomon’s mother first discovered she was pregnant, his dad accepted the news graciously—encouraging her to quit her job so that he could provide for them. He was a doctor after all, the nation’s most respected profession. But by the time Solomon was born, the promises had all but dissipated. The dad had abandoned them, found another girl, and left Solomon and his mother with no choice but to move back in with her disapproving father and step-mother.

After Solomon was born, his grandfather forced his mother to quit her bar job to look after her baby boy. Although she had not particularly enjoyed her night job, even worse was remaining at home surrounded by a demeaning step-family and a newborn scarlet letter reminding her of her inferiority. At the bar, at least she could drink, smoke, escape. She could pretend to find the love that had been stolen from her. At home, though, the baby’s cries simply encouraged her own. Solomon was hardly four weeks old by the time his mother tried to kill him with rat poison.

To this day, Solomon owes his life to his step-grandmother’s fortuitous discovery—the soft cry of a distressed infant not far from where she had retreated to relieve herself. To Solomon, though, it was not luck; it was Providence. The cross around his neck today speaks of his gratefulness. Needless to say, if Solomon’s mother felt unwanted before her attempted infanticide, she certainly did not feel welcome thereafter. Although exhorted by her father to remain and care for her boy, she nevertheless attempted again to forge a new life—this time by fleeing to nearby Bahir Dar. They found her, though, and again brought her back to Gondar. This time she stayed. And for the next six years this ex-bar girl worked instead as a house maid in her own home.

Ultimately, she would resume her bar job again. It was a last attempt at independence; the bar had become her identity, her social network, her only means at financial independence, her only chance at love in a world that otherwise only showed her contempt. Not surprisingly, her father had had enough, and kicked her out of their home, keeping Solomon to be raised by the boy’s step-grandmother. Although it was the last time Solomon would live with his mom, it was not the last time he would see her. Over the next several years, he frequently snuck off to visit her, to celebrate holiday lunches with her, and to care for her as she grew sick—a victim of HIV acquired in years of business.

She had become an untouchable. As Solomon held her wasting body in his arms, her glazed eyes would gaze up at him emptily. Confused and alone, Solomon would gaze back. She could hardly hold her own body weight now, and so Solomon would single-handedly carry her mattress across town thirty minutes to his step-grandmother’s house, where he would care for her. It was here where she ultimately passed away after a protracted battle with tuberculosis. Solomon was just thirteen. She never found the love she had hoped for, just familial rejection and an eventual death sentence. She hated her life, and had sunk into depression. An emaciated untouchable, the only love she had found—the only care she received—was from a son she had once tried to kill. When she died, Solomon grieved deeply.


As Solomon and I walked the streets of Piassa, he would unravel bits of his story to me even as we passed the very girls who today work as unfortunate heirs to life his mother had endured just a decade earlier. I was just the second person to whom he had told his story since moving to Ethiopia’s capital nearly six years ago—and the first in English. I couldn’t help but feel that such stories need to be heard, and on a much larger scale. For Solomon, his mother’s tragic past was just a part of his complicated history, but it was an important one—a vital starting point. For me, this opening chapter was particularly enlightening, shedding light on an existence too easily relegated to the shadows—on the life of Ethiopia’s urban street and bar girls, on their silent social struggles, on their addictions and on poverty, and on the ramifications felt by their families and posterity.

[Continue to Part 2…]

Making homes on the sidewalk's edge

Piassa in Addis Ababa

Addis Ababa

Piassa in Addis Ababa

[ADDITIONAL PHOTOS: Visit our Flickr Photostream by clicking here]


]]> 0
Morning Rounds at Addis Ababa’s Black Lion Hospital Wed, 01 Feb 2012 12:38:25 +0000

By Dave Silvestri

JANUARY 24, 2012 – ADDIS ABABA, ETHIOPIA: My research was nearing completion at Addis Ababa University Faculty of Medicine, and having just spent nearly three weeks planning, administering, and collecting questionnaires in the classrooms and administrative offices of the school’s affiliated Black Lion Hospital (the largest public hospital and major referral center in Ethiopia), I decided to spend a morning in its patient wards. I had been invited to join my colleague and friend, Daniel, in his morning rounds as an intern on the internal medicine inpatient service. Although this was not my first exposure to health care in a developing setting—having volunteered in hospital and clinic settings in both Africa and Central America in the past (and having been a patient now twice during our travels)—my recent medical and business education now gave me a different perspective of the patients, their illnesses, and their stories.

Black Lion Hospital in Addis Ababa

As I had expected, the burden of disease was tragic, the facilities were basic, the stories were all heartbreaking. A teenage girl suffering from end-stage heart failure because of the severe valve disease she had acquired as a complication of untreated strep throat. It was clear to everyone in the room why she hadn’t sought antibiotic treatment in the first place for such a mild throat infection; for most Ethiopians, a visit to the doctor (if even an option at all) is costly, reserved only for refractory ailments for which time and a trial of traditional remedies prove ineffective. By the time she would have presented for antibiotic treatment, her throat symptoms had already resolved—but not before triggering the silent sequence that would ultimately irreversibly damage her heart.

Back in Nashville where I attend medical school, such a severe case of Rheumatic Heart Disease would be unusual—perhaps a handful of cases in the hospital at any given time. Here, they are routine. An older woman just down the hall was suffering from the same heart condition, from the same cause. With her heart unable to pump blood forward as effectively, she had developed a blood clot in the stagnant back chambers of her heart. It had gotten loose—as they frequently do—and become lodged in the vessels of her leg. Although the hospital team had succeeded in breaking this first clot before it had caused any damage by blocking circulation, she had in the meantime developed another clot in the stagnant blood just distant to the first one. When I met her, she was on intravenous blood thinners awaiting the next ultrasound assessment of her leg. The hospital team would no doubt get this one too, and perhaps then she would be free for discharge. But with her heart (the source of the first clot) still irreversibly dilated, she would need lifelong daily blood-thinning treatment, as well as the even more expensive routine blood tests needed to ensure that her medication did not creep to dangerously low or high levels. What might have been treated by a single self-limited course of inexpensive antibiotics had instead ballooned for this poor woman into an exorbitant hospital bill and a lifetime of costly medical management. With no insurance system available in Ethiopia to help offset out-of-pocket expenses, I imagined the ripples would be felt far and wide through her family.

In the room next door, another young girl lay emaciated with her family at bedside. All across her exposed extremities, the telltale maroon lesions of Kaposi’s sarcoma served as a scarlet letter of her advanced HIV infection. Her miliary tuberculosis would do the same. I wondered what her story was. Had she been one of the many young girls who spend their nights waiting in the shadows for a customer on the sidewalks of Piassa and Merkato? Had she like so many other disadvantaged and disempowered girls suffered rape? Or had she had her heart broken by false pretenses of love? I dared not ask. Nobody in the room was aware of her infected status—neither the patient, nor her family. I wondered—after they had somehow mustered up the funds to cover this growing hospital bill—how they would afford the treatment to give her a chance at life.

Next came a young boy recovering from leukemia. He was finishing up his second month at the hospital, and—lucky for him—he now had his own hospital room. It was not this way for every chemotherapy patient, I learned. Most other rooms in the hospital were at least double-occupied, with immunosuppressed patients frequently left exposed to the pathogens harbored by their roommates and unmasked visitors. It was the unfortunate reality, Daniel told me. Although the major public hospital and chief referral center in Ethiopia, the hospital revenues had put toward more pressing investments than best-practice isolation precautions. I shuttered to think of the tens of thousands of Ethiopian birr that a child’s family might spend on chemotherapy treatment only to lose the battle to a pathogen introduced by an expectorating roommate. Even the medical teams would walk freely without masks.

At last we came to a woman no older than my mother with terminal primary lymphoma of the brain. She had presented to medical attention with symptoms of a central nervous system lesion, but had delayed on obtaining a CT scan of her head due to its cost. Now, of course, the cancer was inoperably extensive, and she likely had only weeks to live.


Amidst such tragic stories, I found it hard to believe that these patients were in fact the lucky ones: they had managed to make it to medical attention. The vast majority of Ethiopia’s largely-rural and rapidly growing population continues to reside in areas where traditional healers far outnumber formal health practitioners, where false healers masquerade as real ones, and where vulnerability to disease and premature death are an accepted and inescapable reality. In a nation of 84 million people—with nearly 40% living under the national poverty line and an average life expectancy of just 58 years—there remain just 2 physicians per 100,000 population (ranking 187th worldwide) to help address such health needs. Most are concentrated in the urban areas like Addis Ababa, Gondar and Hawassa, and most spend the bulk of their time in private practices only accessible to individuals with sufficient means. In 2006, there were just 638 physicians in Ethiopia’s public sector—just 1 per 118,000 population: over a fourfold decline since nearly two decades earlier. The nation’s most populous regions continue to average just a handful of physicians per hospital (from 3.6 in Tigray to 6.1 in Oromia), with nearly half of all regional public hospitals lacking more than three general practitioners and over 80% with less than two specialists. In the two decades leading up to 2006, nearly three-quarters of all public sector physicians left the nation or found alternative full employment in the private sector/NGO’s. Today, the vast majority of Ethiopian public sector physicians work at just a handful of hospitals, and Addis Ababa University’s Black Lion Hospital is chief among them. Its facilities are lacking, capacity limited, but its minds are among the nation’s brightest. And yet, for every one patient I saw during those morning rounds, I imagined countless others without similar access to medical attention.

Passport covers for sale to aspiring emigrants

Although the government is taking significant steps to expand the quantity of physicians being trained—establishing new medical schools and tripling class sizes in existing ones—it remains unclear how many of these new physicians will remain in the public sector, or in Ethiopia at all. International collaborations such as Addis Ababa University’s Medical Education Partnership Initiative take aim at retaining students, increasing their exposure to rural areas, and building capacity in medical education. Yet, here too, it is unclear whether the result will be benefit the nation’s populations in greatest need—the financially- and geographically disadvantaged.

And yet, one truth will continue to give reason for hope: physicians remain the most highly-respected job in society, nearly every secondary school student’s dream. If Ethiopia does succeed in adapting its medical education system to build capacity and enhance retention (and I believe there are significant additional avenues of opportunity, which I hope to explore in a future post), there will be no shortage of supply of individuals eager to enter this workforce. Although the present need can often seem overwhelming and the problem too vast, I believe this gives reason for encouragement—that the next decade will be an immensely exciting one in the transition of Ethiopia’s health care system. As collaborations bring new knowledge and resources, as research illuminates new opportunities, as national attention strengthens political will—and as Ethiopia’s economy, business climate, and foreign investment continue to grow—it may be possible for Ethiopia to emerge as a guiding light for sub-Saharan Africa, a paradigm for how a deeply impoverished, highly populous, and landlocked nation with a history of internal and international conflict can nevertheless rally through progressive leadership and effective partnerships to forge a new future for its deserving inhabitants.

Shoe-shiners in AddisCarrying firewood down the mountain to market

Rural peripheries of Addis Ababa

Carrying firewood down the mountain to market

SOURCES:  (1) World Bank, 2012; (2) Berhan Y. Ethiop Med J. 2008 Jan; 46 Suppl 1:1-77.

[ADDITIONAL PHOTOS: Visit our Flickr Photostream by clicking here]


]]> 1
Hers is a longer road than ours Thu, 26 Jan 2012 12:16:23 +0000

By Dave Silvestri

[Identities have been altered to preserve the anonymity of individuals represented.]

DECEMBER / JANUARY – CAIRO, EGYPT: It was Day 1 in Cairo, and after waiting in line for what seemed like several hours, Brian finally made his way to the passport window at the crowded Embassy of Sudan. The Embassy itself was nothing as we had imagined. No gated entrance, nor guards. No regal architecture or proudly displayed flags. Just a small dimly-lit two room flat accessed by two inconspicuous doors on one of Cairo’s Garden City side streets. But by all our preparatory planning, this very embassy was our best chance of getting entry visas to Egypt’s southern neighbor. Although reported to take a minimum of six weeks back in the United States, here we had read reports of individuals obtaining visas in just 48 hours. We were optimistic; we had to be.

Dressed in a neatly pressed silver suit and bearing a scar on his forehead from years of five daily prayers, the consulate officer behind the counter did not look enthused to see Brian. Seemingly impatient and aggravated that a foreigner might be wasting his time—the ultimate irony, of course, as Brian had just waited far longer for him—the man took a glance at Brian’s worn navy passport.  “Sudan does not issue visas for United States of America.” Short, snide, and supreme. No explanation, no offer of assistance. End of conversation; on to the next waiting applicant. A morning waiting hour in line, all for a fifteen second interaction.

Noticeably disheartened and still in disbelief, Brian looked helplessly at the others still in line. They returned his gaze, their eyes speaking sympathy, their apologetic expressions offering solidarity. Although most probably spoke no English, they seemed to understand exactly what had just happened. Yet, unable to communicate and with their own applications on the line, they were helpless to assist. Except for one. Out of the crowd she emerged, her eyes offering similar condolences, but her mouth speaking seeds of hope.

Her name is Zena, and she had been coming to the Embassy for several weeks now. So much so that it had almost become her second home. Sudanese herself, she now lived in Cairo along with her children, and would hopefully soon be taking them all to Belgium to be permanently with her husband there. She knew some friends working back in Khartoum; she would ask them to help us. With an official letter of invitation to the Sudan Ministry of Foreign Affairs itself, perhaps we might just get our visas. Insha’Allah.

Reality mocked optimism, though, and despite Zena and her friends’ invaluable and selfless help—none of which we deserved, never mind expected—after three weeks we were still without visas. A letter from the UN could not go to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but had to go to the Ministry of Tourism. The Ministry of Tourism required a $100 ‘processing fee’ (on top of the $150 visa fee). The application had to be cleared from the Ministry of Tourism, and then had to be sent to the Sudanese Intelligence Agency just to await another lengthy queue and review process. Government offices were closed Friday and Saturday, on Christmas and New Year’s holidays, and open only during the morning on any other day. For our own sanity, we tried to avoid thinking of the likely work pace during those four hours.

As we continued to wait, Zena waited with us. She became a guardian. More than that, she became our close friend. As we sat and waited (and waited, and waited), we learned volumes about her mother country, about its greatest beauties and its deepest flaws. We heard her perspectives on the United States, on the Egyptian revolution, on Islam and on Muslim culture. Perhaps most importantly, we learned her story.

Waiting in Cairo

Zena was too selfless to tell us her story, but perhaps she should have. We had to pry it from her, and once we did, we were left speechless. The middle daughter of nine, she had grown up in a conservative Muslim family in urban Sudan. She married young—as many Muslim girls do—and had three young children.  But after a Bachelors in Khartoum and Masters in Cairo, she began to feel distanced from her conservative upbringing, and no longer saw eye-to-eye with her family—with their stubborn adherence to tradition, the way they consistently subjected women to lower status, their complacency with government corruption. Still in Cairo, she began the process of divorcing her husband. She no longer loved him, no longer agreed with him, and felt he was a poor caretaker for their children—whose health was steadily deteriorating in her absence. Returning to Sudan to try to take back her children, she met a male-dominated judicial system that ruled she needed her husband’s approval. He would not give it.

What ensued for Zena is a tale of utter resilience and motherly love: one woman taking on a male-dominated behemoth of a bureaucracy and winning. Having exhausted all legal options of reclaiming her children, she planned to take them out by force and wit. They needed passports, but it would not be possible to obtain them through official avenues, as their father’s permission would again be needed. Thus, working with her lawyer to engineer two new birth certificates—using fake names for her children and listing her cousin’s name as the father—she applied for the new passports in Khartoum, stating that she and the kids had all lost them. Playing the role of husband and father, her cousin came with her to provide the requisite male approval. The ploy worked, the passports were issued, and the fatherless family was soon headed back to the land of the Pharaohs—trained to respond with their fake identities until safely through.

Scenes from Cairo

Scenes from Cairo

When we met Zena, her saga was not yet over. Months deep and somehow still smiling, she now had to get her children out of Egypt and on to Belgium—home of her now-husband, whom she had met in the meantime—where they could at last begin their new life. But her challenges have continued, and despite multiple attempts and unparalleled ingenuity, she has consistently run into the same impossibly large roadblock: she needs their father’s approval.

Brian and I spent nearly one month in Egypt, yet for the government of Sudan it was not long enough; we never obtained our visas. Although it was disheartening to have to fly over Sudan—particularly because of stories of unprecedented hospitality we have heard from other cyclists—our disappointment was tempered by our appreciation of Zena’s much more difficult quandary. Throughout her struggle, Zena has grown more and more disenchanted with her mother government, more saddened by its inefficiencies and corruption, more frustrated by its male dominance and intransigence to change. Like so many others, she cannot trust her government, nor anyone involved in it. To her, it is all corrupt, and anyone who spends long enough in it also becomes corrupted.

Emotionally-charged though Zena’s reflections may be, they highlight an important and underappreciated reality of Sudan. Although international news has often dwelt on the admittedly tragic ongoing violence and warfare in Darfur, the horrific civil war and border disputes with the newly-independent and still unstable South, or the plight of millions of refugees in surrounding nations, the stories paint only a partial picture of the oil-rich desert nation: one of ethnic violence and entrenched corruption. Long-neglected have been the stories of a younger generation of hard-working and educated men and women like Zena, whose frustration with the status quo has driven them to seek asylum elsewhere—in Africa as in the West. It is important that these stories be recognized, for I believe they hold a key to Sudan’s redemption. No nation can improve—no nation can replace ethnic hatred with tolerance and corruption with transparency—if its brightest and most virtuous citizens are frustrated into exile. These young men and women are the ones who will encourage honest business development, political reform, and interfaith and interethnic dialogue. These are the ones who will ultimately pressure societal and cultural change, who will challenge disempowering norms, and will finally topple the colossus of corruption. As long as they find no home for themselves in Sudan—as long as they are obstructed in pursuing their own dreams and values—they will leave their homeland to an educated elite that is content to continue drinking from the siphons of inefficiency and vice. Like Zena’s, their stories will be ones tinged with disappointment, their remittances will be limited, their aspirations for repatriation minimal.

We left Zena as she continued her Sisyphean battle. She was Sudanese and yet had become our closest friend in Egypt. Hugging her and her children, we bid farewell and boarded a plane over her homeland. It was sad for all of us—sad that we were leaving, sad that she was staying, sad that the country had not issued us visas, sadder that it still faced many obstacles to progress, and sad that we would not have the opportunity to meet the many individuals like Zena across Sudan who are their nation’s hope. Although we would not step foot in Sudan—at least not this time around—we felt that we had met a piece of her in Zena, and an important piece. Without it, the nation’s puzzle cannot be complete.

Scenes from Cairo

Scenes from Cairo


NOTE: Much of our conversations with Zena dealt with the corruption rife within her home country. Although corruption remains a significant problem in Sudan, it has been notoriously difficult to quantify. Government officials at all levels demand bribes for services for which their clients are legally entitled. Those who are suspected of bribery and fraud are rarely investigated by the nation’s Auditor General, creating an expectation of impunity among perpetrators. Poor record-keeping and budget handling facilitate these practices, and make them more difficult to prosecute, while lack of legislation providing public access to government information limits transparency and societal pressure for reform. Although corruption is but one problem holding Sudan back, it tends to be a central one—as the individuals with the greatest power to effect change also tend to be the very ones impeding it in order to retain authority. For more on components of corruption and their measurement in various nations, see Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.

[ADDITIONAL PHOTOS: Visit our Flickr Photostream by clicking here]


]]> 0
Alexandria’s New Lighthouse Sun, 22 Jan 2012 16:40:19 +0000

By Brian Gillis

JANUARY 4 – ALEXANDRIA, EGYPT: Alexandria is often described as the world’s most historical city with nothing left to show for it.  People who travel long and far to see the palaces of Cleopatra or the mighty Pharos lighthouse—one of the original seven ancient wonders of the world—will sadly be disappointed to see almost all of Alexandria’s pre-Islamic history (with the exception of a single pillar incorrectly attributed to Ptolemy and a recently discovered Roman Amphitheatre) either turned to rubble or claimed by the slowly encroaching waters of the mighty Mediterranean.

However, those coming to Alexandria for her past, I think, miss the true headline of this city. If the metropolis is proud of its ancient history, then it nevertheless has decidedly focused on the future, rather than antiquity, to forge its identity. Although perhaps a surprise to most, Alexandria was a virtual ghost town until the 18th century, when an influx of people—rediscovering its prime economic and cultural location—flushed back into the city in the wake of Napoleon’s Egyptian invasion.  Thus, this ‘ancient’ city is actually quite modern, at least by Near East standards. One only needs to walk amongst its youthful, artistic and creative communities to appreciate how truly avant-garde this city aspires to be.  It is an inspiring story to be sure—a new, modernizing, burgeoning cultural center in a country long prevented from the progress it has deserved.

Alexandria’s modern identity is perhaps best exemplified by its superlative library. Like its former lighthouse, ancient Alexandria was also famous for its library—the first of its kind and, to many historians, the beacon and pinnacle of learning and knowledge in the entire Hellenistic world. The ancient library’s destruction, fostered piece by piece by the Romans and then the Byzantines (who destroyed the back-up library in an anti-pagan purge), was the final death knell of the ancient city’s cultural prominence.  Yet, nearly a millennium and a half later, the new modern “Bibliotheca Alexandrina” is truly a sight to behold. Deemed a second sun rising over the Mediterranean, its innovative and architecturally award-winning silver disc shape cuts through the coastal Alexandrian skyline, while its solar motif is reflective (both literally and figuratively) of the city’s goal to make Egypt a beacon of knowledge in the world once again.

The hemispheric library rises like the ancient Egyptian sun-disk

The facility is truly state of the art. With the largest reading room in the world, it can contain up to eight million volumes and is well lit by a multitude of “eyes” (each window is fashioned to have an interior “eyelid” tempering the piercing light and an exterior “eyelash” to divert rain water away from the window itself) fenestrating its circular roof above. Ancient motifs that once lined the walls of the ancient library—such as pigeon holes used to contain scrolls—make their return in the modern edifice, this time to buffer sound and ensure that the large vacuous room maintains a level of studious silence. Even the blue and green lighting has been set to optimize best settings for reading.

Perhaps most impressive of all, though, is not the building itself. As beautiful as they are, its walls and windows do not provide any encouragement for the city’s future. Indeed, throughout our travels, we have encountered numerous state-of-the-art libraries, museums, and cultural centers donated by well-meaning wealthier nations to promote knowledge and appreciate heritage among the local population. However, often these top notch institutions seem only to perpetuate a level of intellectual gentrification as—for those that don’t lie vacant—they often become the haunts of expats, foreigners and local elites, rather than a haven for the average citizen. Alexandria’s library is different. As I strolled among study tables and reading rooms, I was amazed by the throngs of young Egyptians feverishly studying, amassing knowledge, preparing for the competitive and ever-changing Egypt into which they will mature: a woman dissecting circles and pondering trigonometric formulas, a couple on a homework date, countless scores of students pouring over textbooks. It was the greatest compliment any library could ever seek to have: it is being used!

The reading room and eyelid windows

Although tourists and expats still make their way through the library’s basement museums—marveling at marble busts from Pharonic, Ptolamaic and Roman periods while bemoaning the end of Alexandria’s glory days—the halls above are filled by a growing number of local Alexandrians hell-bent on sculpting a new renaissance for their city and nation. Despite the setbacks of political despotism, economic stagnation and the troubles that come with growing up in the underdeveloped world, Alexandria is becoming known for its growing educational clout, for its hard-working and unified youth, for its interfaith commitment to creating a harmonious future, and for its thirst for progress.

Alexandria, I believe still has a lighthouse, and it really is a world wonder. The lighthouse, however, is no longer perched atop the eastern harbor. Rather, it is found amongst the positive and progressive spirit of a young and optimistic hardworking Alexandrian youth. A reading room of potential. A library shining the way into the future.

Alexandria's sun-disk library

Many world languages are represented as a sign of Egypt's desire to be an intellectual lighthouse for the globe

[ADDITIONAL PHOTOS: Visit our Flickr Photostream by clicking here]


]]> 0
2012: Can Egypt learn from Nepal? Sat, 21 Jan 2012 19:42:00 +0000

By Dave Silvestri

DECEMBER 24 – CAIRO, EGYPT:  It was Christmas Eve, and we were in Cairo. Having been delayed in Amman, Jordan until our oversized bags arrived from Delhi, we now quickly found ourselves stationary once again—this time awaiting the processing of our Sudan entry visas, a procedure that just months earlier had consistently taken just 48 hours from start to finish, but now in the wake of the Sudanese partition (July 9, 2011) would take an ominously unknown duration. Sidelining the concern about when or even if we might get our visas—as well as our frustrations with the overtly anti-American sentiments and obstructionism offered us by the sole Sudanese Embassy passport officer—we directed our attention instead toward Egypt’s capital around us, a place spilling with both ancient and contemporary significance.

After having spent our first day in Cairo meandering through its quaint Coptic quarter, one of the city’s oldest areas and the spiritual home for a dwindling population of ever-unwelcome Coptic Orthodox Christians, we were excited to spend our Christmas Eve at arguably the country’s most renowned ancient sights: the pyramids at Giza.

Departing the Giza metro station, we were greeted by a mob of enthusiastic taxi drivers, all soliciting our business. Wary of becoming prey to inflated prices and by now fairly adept bargainers, we negotiated a reasonable fair, and set off at once for the main entrance to the Giza Pyramids… or so we thought.

Stables line the fenced Giza Pyramid complex

Mesmerized by the ever-growing pyramids approaching out our window and still in disbelief that we would at last get to see them in person, we hardly noticed our taxi driver pull off the main road into a labyrinth of narrow dirt back roads. As we wound past several stables, our attention was more on the dozens of camels and horses grazing peacefully along the street’s shoulder than on the curious lack of tourist coach buses and private minivans. But when we at last departed the taxi, there was not another foreigner to be seen, and indeed no sign of any ticket office or main entrance. Contrary to what he had told us, this was not the main entrance, nor could you buy entry tickets here at all. In fact, the only stable even offering entry tickets was the one at whose door our driver had conveniently dropped us. And even then, these tickets had to be purchased along with their more expensive package—including a minimum two hours by horse. Suspicious and reluctant but without alternative (except walking two hours to the real main entrance, as the taxi had long since departed with commission in pocket), we forfeited the price and entered on horseback.

* * * *

Disappointed by the inauspicious start to our day, we were nevertheless determined not to let it taint our impression of Egypt’s ancient wonder. The vistas were magnificent, the juxtaposition hardly describable by words—the colossal Old Kingdom monuments set to the backdrop of Africa’s largest metropolis, ancient stones in front of modern minarets. As I imagined the thoughts and conversations that must have transpired among the masses of masons and manual laborers who assembled the ancient tombs, Brian in his Egyptian galabeya and Jordanian scarf pictured himself Lawrence of Arabia—the eighteenth century British archaeologist, soldier, adventurer, and writer whose chronicles of the Middle East won him international repute.

Giza, at the footsteps of Cairo

Brian (left) approaches on horseback

Yet, far from the romanticized musings of our imaginations, the horse ride itself served more to remind us of the imperfections in our current world than permit us to escape to another one. The coarse brown hide of our undernourished mares rolled gently over their sharply protruding hips, as they labored with each step through the thick soft sand. A poorly-dressed old man waiting at a panoramic viewpoint thrust a bottle of Coca Cola into my hands—opening it and demanding an inflated payment before I even had the chance to decline. Our guide seemed to side with the overzealous racketeer.

Perhaps most egregious, though, was our ultimate realization that the stable had, in fact, not purchased us entry tickets, but had rather taken our money and bribed the police at the complex’ back entrance, pocketing the remainder as margin. In retrospect, it all seemed so obvious. No wonder the stable manager had offered us a reasonable price despite having a monopoly on our business, no wonder he could still pay our taxi driver commission, no wonder he had insisted we be accompanied by a guide, and no wonder this guide had tried to keep us from the main sites. Without an original entry ticket, not only were we barred from entering any of the pyramids or Sphinx, but we were not even legally allowed to be inside the complex itself.

Realizing our dilemma and wishing not to reward such dishonest business, we turned the reigns and galloped toward the main gate—our guide reluctantly trailing behind us, perhaps sensing his imminent discovery. As we explained our situation to several individuals at the entrance, it was one man—the chief of the tourism police—who finally took us under his wing. Noticeably aggravated by what he considered an affront on “his tourists” the officer personally filed a report on the fraudulent stable, while also forcing our guide to pay for our new (and for the first time true) entry tickets—knowing that this cost would ultimately find its way back to the management that had engineered the scam.  With this somewhat unconventional but nevertheless enlightening start to our day, we set off now for the second time to see the pyramids—this time by foot.

After an eventful day, sunset at the pyramids

* * * *

Although grateful that this morning scam had had a fortunate resolution, we nevertheless remained conflicted about the events that had just transpired, and the circumstances that had led to them. We knew these were tough times for Egyptian tourism, and we understood that this scam was in reality nothing more than a disingenuous attempt to cope with the radically diminished demand since the Egyptian revolution sent shockwaves through the tourist supply chain in late January 2011. Just one year earlier, tourism had been Egypt’s second largest revenue source, accounting for over 11% of the nation’s GDP and considerably higher in the most popular destinations of Luxor, Aswan, and the Sinai peninsula. Yet while the nation had expected 16 million tourists in 2011, the events of January 25 doomed this projection, triggering a mass exodus that has been slow to reverse. In Luxor, home to the famed Valley of the Kings and Temple of Karnak, hotel occupancy dropped precipitously from 61% in mid-January 2011 to a meager 4% one month later, and in Sinai’s scuba-diving haven Sharm el-Sheik from 70% to 8% (according to the Egyptian Tourism Chamber of Commerce). In Cairo, our downtown hotel was eerily empty—save for the company of a solitary Syrian businessman seeking refuge from his nation’s tumult, a thrifty Korean backpacker, and a gregarious Pakistani businessman awaiting a visa to Gaza.

But the hotel business has not been the only one to suffer. In early 2011, Egypt Air was forced to ground nearly half its fleet, sending ripples not only through the company’s massive workforce but also to the hundreds of independent booking offices lining the streets of downtown Cairo. And as is so often the case with economic downturns, it has been the independent workers and small-businesses that have been hurt the most. Souvenir shops cannot turn over their inventory, forcing family-run alabaster and sculpture factories and their suppliers to shut down operations. Restaurants vie for limited customers, forcing their serving staff to seek supplemental employment. Freelance guides wait futilely outside Egypt’s illustrious museums, wondering how else to employ their multilingual skills. With dried up income, these individuals with the fewest reserves have been forced to tap into them the deepest.

The revolution has left its scars on Egypt's tourism

The story is no different in Luxor —a city to which we have traveled since our pyramid fiasco but prior to the writing of this post. If anything, the city is even more tragic. Of Luxor’s 200+ boats that used to ferry visitors across the river to the ruins on the Western Bank, only 25 remain in operation. Only the most senior of all boatmen have been retained by the boat owners, leaving all others to seek alternative employment. But where? The dozens of horse-drawn carriages that line the sidewalks are all empty. The souks (marketplaces) are ghost towns. Selling sunglasses in the square hardly seems profitable. And so unemployment grows, hustlers abound, and it seems only logical to try for the extra buck or two when the precious opportunity arises. And if the opportunity doesn’t arise, they engineer it—calling from all directions at any pedestrian, offering assistance in hopes that we might turn, engage them, and thereby give them a chance to make a sale. In a desert, one can’t wait for rain.

Horse-drawn carriages no match for the coach bus

* * * *

Truth be told, there are still tourists at Giza’s pyramids and in Luxor, but the overwhelming majority remain inaccessible to those who depend on their consumption. They come and leave within the confines of a coach bus, going only where they are told by their tour guide… They fill one boat, leaving 24 empty. They frequent one independent souvenir shop, leaving an entire marketplace empty. They follow instructions and ignore street souvenir vendors. One of these vendors—a young man selling postcards in the parking lot outside the Valley of the Kings—complained to me how these coach buses were his worst customers, as the Egyptian tour guides would often blacklist him before he even had a chance to make a sale. Of course, later these same guides would make a hefty commission by steering their coach instead toward a private partnering souvenir shop—leaving the more numerous and needy street vendors with only with the leftovers: independent, experienced, and often budget travelers, whose wallets afford fewer purchases and negotiation skills drive margins down.

Alabaster shop: closed for the high-season

* * * *

As late as April 2011 it was estimated that Egyptian tourism revenues might suffer as much as 25% by the year’s end, but with the recent and inopportune onset of ‘Revolution 2.0’ at the dawn of this newest high-season (October – May), it looks as though even this might be unviable optimism. Unless something changes, these problems will persist—perhaps even worsen as desperation grows.

On the one hand, I am saddened by the undeservedly poor reputation Egypt has received abroad. Even in the height of ‘Revolution 2.0’, Egypt has not seemed dangerous to us. We walk the streets of Cairo at night without concern, travel taxi’s and minibuses with only-Arabic speakers without misgivings. The ‘protests’ have more resembled something out of ‘occupy wall street’ than some violent uprising. Mind yourself and keep your camera at bay, and Tahrir Square is no more dangerous than Times Square.

And yet, with the scams and the hustlers, Egypt can admittedly be quite an overwhelming place for the independent traveller. But the solution (as I see it) is not to shelter those few precious tourists behind the protective shield of a coach bus or tour package. By consolidating their revenues amidst only a few, this just amplifies the problem. Rather, the solution (as I see it) is to re-brand tourism in Egypt, to make this nation a place where tourists feel welcome—where interaction with the people is just as pleasant as  snapping photos of the pyramids. Just a month earlier, this is exactly what we had found in Nepal…

It may seem illogical to draw a comparison between Egypt and Nepal, or to suggest that a vast Muslim nation of desert might have something to learn from a small landlocked and mountainous Hindu one in Asia. Yet the differences between them are not as different as one might think. Whereas Egypt has ancient wonders, Nepal boasts some of the world’s most beautiful natural wonders. In place of Egypt’s revolution, Nepal is recovering from its own civil war, which by its end in 2006 had left over 15,000 people dead and another 100,000+ internally displaced. In the past year, both nations have had prolonged active travel warnings by the United States Department of State. In many regards, Nepal should be doing worse; it is a poorer nation, its health indices are worse, it has had far less foreign investment over the last decade than Egypt. And yet, somehow it has overcome these difficulties. How?

Recognizing the need to jumpstart its stagnating tourism industry, the Nepal Tourism Board consulted with private sector enterprises, entrepreneurs, and media partners to launch its “Nepal Tourism Year 2011.” Although the campaign served to develop tourism infrastructure and diversify tourist activities, much of its focus was on internal and external promotion. All across Kathmandu, in Pokhara, and at the Indian border we saw signs proudly pronouncing “NepalTourism Year 2011.” Pins and stickers helped individuals feel a personal identity with the campaign. A culture emerged wherein which scammers became unwelcome, harassment was kept to a minimum, menus were issued with fixed prices, and conversations with locals could transpire devoid of any financial transaction. It would seem that such a campaign launched by the Egypt Tourism Authority might have similar success in 2012. After all, even in the middle of its civil war, Nepal was able to reach peak tourism volume through its similar “Visit Nepal Year 1998” campaign. If it could work then, why not now—when the confined protests of revolution are but a faint echo in comparison to the minarets’ melodic call of peaceful prayer?

Kathmandu: "Make Nepal Tourism Year 2011 Grand Success"

Branding 'Nepal Tourism Year 2011' in Kathmandu

Tourism in Egypt needs to be redefined—both to those on the inside as well as to those from afar. Millions stand to benefit: tourists and Egyptians alike. Launching such a campaign would be difficult but by no means impossible. After all, an example has been set in Nepal—twice. And like Nepal, Egypt’s primary tourist populations remain fairly concentrated and easily identifiable—Cairo, Luxor, Aswan, Alexandria, Sinai. Starting here could help change a culture, a rallying point for Egypt Tourism Year 2012.

Luxor, Egypt – the ancient and modern

[ADDITIONAL PHOTOS: Visit our Flickr Photostream by clicking here]


]]> 0
Reflections on a Revolution Sun, 15 Jan 2012 19:07:11 +0000

By Brian Gillis

DECEMBER 22 – CAIRO, EGYPT: He was my best friend in Egypt. Of course, this isn’t saying much given that I had only been in the country for two days, and that he knew that I was about to hand over four Egyptian pounds for a hefty and delicious breakfast of whole wheat pita, foul (Egyptian styled beans) and hardboiled eggs. But he was a friend nonetheless.  I had only ordered from him once before, had a pleasant “conversation” with his eleven year old daughter (mainly just smiles and broken English), but here I was a repeat customer. When I had returned, he had immediately embraced me, kissing me on either cheek and excitedly handing me a small stack of pitas.  Ahmed is the jubilant, kind owner of the food cart on Taalat Harb Street, and I became a regular amongst his breakfast crowd, joining the host of familiar faces all huddling around the heat of the baking beans in the surprisingly brisk Egyptian winter morning.

Ahmed and his foul stand

Ahmed is but one of many windows into the everyday lives of Egyptians, a self-starting entrepreneur who has now been handing out the same foul, pita, and eggs for over a decade—and always, he will point out, at a fair price.  He earns his customers’ loyalty. His mile-wide smile, exposing a few broken teeth, gives us all more warmth than the simmering beans just feet away. As I got to know Ahmed, I learned from him bits about life for Egyptians, the challenges posed by political corruption and the exciting ongoing developments of the Arab spring.

Although his food cart, just a stone’s throw from Tahrir Square (the epicenter of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution) has seen business decline due to the demonstrations, he is glad that there is such a strong movement to reclaim Egypt for the people. Like all Egyptians—particularly the more disadvantaged—Ahmed has much at stake in the recent political developments of 2011. Despite nearly a fourfold increase in GDP over the last three decades (and persistent growth even during the financial crisis), little of this national macroeconomic progress has been passed on to the bulk of Egypt’s population. Though rich in natural resources and tourist attractions, the wealthy have often hoarded the resultant revenues. Jobs have continued to be scarce, and a growing population of young adults has grown restless in unemployment. Rising food prices have forced the average Egyptian to spend more of a third of his income on food.

It is no surprise that Mubarak was a huge problem in this tangled web, funneling so much of international aid to feed his private corruption machine than produce jobs and national development. But even with the former president gone, there are many economic challenges that Egypt now faces. The revolution cannot possibly solve them all of them overnight—and indeed it has exacerbated some (as Dave will soon blog about)—but Ahmed’s optimism is inspiring. As I take another bite, we nod our heads in agreement that the events of January 25 were a good first step.

Signs of a revolution: graffiti atop a road blockade

Our conversation was quieting down to less spirited topics when we found ourselves interrupted by a loud screech followed by a rib-rattling crash. About twenty meters away, a motorbike tumbled down the street leaving two bodies rolling on the pavement nearby, as cars sped by them just inches away. A white Volvo sat there, too, stalled and with a huge dent in its front—but engine still running.  Screams, and then swarms of people from the sidewalk started storming the street to aid the injured. Amidst utter chaos, it was inspiring to see dozens of people stop what they were doing to rush to help. One of the bodies on the ground had gotten up, holding his arm gingerly, and yelling what could have only been Arabic profanity at the Volvo driver. The other body was still on the ground, writhing in pain.

What I noticed next within the melee confused me at first. I knew not the identity of the man on the ground, but assumed he had been ejected from the Volvo. After all, two of the Volvo passengers (businessmen in suits) had hurried to place him back in the car. Despite the protesting motorcyclist, the car had exited quickly, pushing through the frustrated crowd being held back by outnumbered police. No numbers were exchanged, not even names, and I began to wonder what had just transpired. Had the car just left without penalty? Had the police assisted the getaway for the obviously wealthier party? Had the elite Volvo driver really just sped away without concern for the totaled motorcycle or its driver?

Perhaps such a collision of class may have transpired prior to 2011. Before the revolution, the police were indeed often the facilitators for the wealthy, easily corrupted by the supplemental income or status offered by the privileged. Fortunately, though, this was not the present case. Absorbing the undercurrent of Arabic yelling that went far over my head, Ahmed explained to me that the Volvo driver was in fact not making a quick escape but was, rather, transforming himself into an ambulance and rushing to the hospital to help this total stranger with their broken leg. The wounded individual had also been on the motorcycle; perhaps the crash was even partly his fault. Yet, now he found himself in the helping hands of the very individual who should be most angry with him. Amidst our collective concern for the injured motorcyclist, it was encouraging to know that the first thing this driver had thought of was not his car, his commute, or even getting the information of the motorcyclist.  All that mattered for that person was that there was an injured fellow Egyptian, regardless of socioeconomic class or relative fault, that needed to get to the hospital.

Tahrir Square: December, 2011

The events of January 25 have perhaps put Egypt on a positive trajectory. Perhaps in the future, the long-oppressed will find opportunities. Perhaps the sacrifice of a caring Volvo driver for his fellow Egyptian will find countless parallels across society. But if the future holds greater promise for an egalitarian Egypt, it does not mean the present will be without turmoil—growing pains of a society too long held at bay. Even as the Volvo sped away, spontaneous infighting emerged from the melee. Perhaps the passions of a revolution and their sometimes regrettable violent expressions have spilled into everyday street life. Perhaps the people are still impatient, a calmed storm ready to burst again at any point. After all, few have seen any real change; few have felt any padding to their pockets. With law enforcement weakened, perhaps this is the outcome to be expected when a promise is not delivered in time. In the confusion of the crash, a child had seized the opportunity to steal from a local shop. He now found himself being chased down by a woman and two young boys, their arms waving sticks as they descended upon the boy. They caught him, and beat him. They did not stop kicking. It was only after what seemed like a merciless eternity that the other onlookers began to peal the overaggressive triad off the boy.

Still aside Ahmed, both of us watching the events unfold, I was conflicted. On the one hand, I was inspired by what was right about Egypt: its revolution, the assistance given to the wounded motorcyclist, the spirit of Ahmed’s determination to run a business in harsh economic times, the resilience of the people whose patience must be growing thin. And yet, I could not help but see in the very same events how many challenges there are to overcome—the unemployment, the residual corruption, and the economic disparity that forced a child to risk a physical beating for a loaf of bread. Egypt has a long way to go, but in the end, I agree with Ahmed’s optimism: it is heading in the right direction.

Military tank behind barb-wire blockade

Growing frustration with the presiding Supreme Council of Armed Forces

Cairo, Egypt – city in transition

[ADDITIONAL PHOTOS: Visit our Flickr Photostream by clicking here]


]]> 1
Consumption in Dubai: but at whose expense? Sat, 31 Dec 2011 07:36:14 +0000

By Dave Silvestri

NOVEMBER 27 – DUBAI, UAE: Although merely an extended layover for me en route from South Asia, for many Dubai is a place of escape. Step into the international airport, and you are bombarded by luxury boutiques, leather sofa high-class cafes, indoor palm trees, and elaborate holiday decorations. Jumbo LCD displays inviting the impatient queues awaiting passport stamps to “come and play” in the city of luxury. Rows of ATM machines encouraging the same.

In many ways, Dubai is an urban celebration of man’s victory over nature. A place where manmade islands unfurl like fronds into the Persian Gulf, where pulsating fountains shoot pristine water skyward, and gardens sprout from desert sand—their seemingly miraculous existence sustained by a serpentine matrix of irrigation tubing. Looking down, it is a place where you can see your reflection in the polished granite sidewalk. Looking up toward the horizon, it is a place to leave even the most architecturally-ignorant observer absolutely speechless. Although each member of the Dubai skyline could independently be the gem of any city’s silhouette, instead they all bow to the Burj Khalifa, a modern day Tower of Babel, the tallest structure our species has ever built.

After a morning run from my hostel through the city’s downtown, I ended there, at the Burj Khalifa and the Dubai Mall that forms its base. For a pretty penny, tourists can rise half a mile heavenward to the skyscraper’s summit. Or relax at any number of high-end cafes or restaurants if wearing appropriate attire (i.e., not running clothes). In the Dubai Mall, there is virtually everything you could want in a retail hub—a waterfall, an aquarium, a supermarket, a fashion catwalk, a cinema, an ice rink, a thrill park. With no sales tax, thousands flock every day to frequent its electronics shops, jewelry and cosmetics stores, gourmet confectionaries and fashion boutiques. I came to observe.

In some senses my afternoon in the Dubai Mall was an ethnic recapitulation of my last several months, and a prologue of the ones to come. East and Southeast Asians, Indians and Nepalese, Africans from all corners—all converged in this single colossal building at the intersection of continents. Some were buyers, others sellers. A symbiotic coexistence in this ecosystem of consumption.

But in many ways, this was unlike anything I had experienced on our travels thus far. The hundreds around me now were nothing like the thousands around me before. Everything about them seemed designed to advertise wealth. It felt excessive, an isolated world of consumerist extremism. With my headphones still singing soothing Sikh melodies from Delhi, I decided to meander around the mall for a deeper look…

A stocky middle-aged European man in unblemished white pants and blue suede shoes strutted past with full shopping bag, alongside a similarly-aged woman decked in a short glimmering gold dress, leather handbag dangling from her cocked elbow. Not far off, another couple hurried with excitement into one of many diamond stores, seemingly unable to restrain their thirst. Into the dimly lit hallway along the mall’s three-story aquarium, three African young men sauntered in—flashy sneakers, black leather coats, flat-brimmed backwards hats, shades down. Around their ringleader’s neck hung a diamond-studded cross, its gold chain dangling in front of his shirt’s vulgar message, which similarly sparkled with sequined block letters: “Nice legs. What time do they open?” Laughing, they struck poses in front of mobile smart-phone cameras, and then moved on. Only to be replaced by a young boy, his iPad held to the glass to record the same fish-filled backdrop.

Outside the mall, a slightly worn Mercedes Benz had seemed sorely out of place when it rolled past security into the valet queue—already full with new Rolls Royce’s, Ferrari’s, and BMW’s. Inside the mall, a custodial worker stopped to sweep up a lone piece of trash, and then to scrub a solitary scuff from the reflective tile floor. From the fourth and top floor, I leaned against the railing and gazed down at the open atrium below, watching hundreds of shoppers scramble in all directions below like squirrels collecting nuts. My thoughts turned instead to those individuals who were glaringly absent in the consumption chaos below… What I would give to see a rickshaw wala pedal his squeaky cycle over those immaculate tiles—his dirty plaid skirt and sweaty collared shirt hiding his thin frame, his eyes scanning the sea of wealth for a potential customer. Or to watch a pair of Nepalese grandmothers in old wool sweaters silently and methodically pace their way across the mall’s open atrium, their wrinkled foreheads bearing the weight of enormous loads of chopped grass and wood kindling on their backs. What about the Laotian children calling greetings from their stilted homes? Would they still call with such jubilee, or would they similarly stare speechless at such exorbitant wealth? How would the Dhaka slum girl react to her American counterparts decked in dresses and heels? And where were the lame beggars dragging themselves along the ground?

Remembering Nepal from the Dubai Mall

Remembering Dhaka from the Dubai Mall

Remembering Laos from the Dubai Mall

Remembering Delhi from the Dubai Mall

Dubai can indeed provide an escape. But if escape means ignoring or intentionally forgetting the way the vast majority of the world lives, I wonder if it is helpful. Overwhelmed, I took refuge in one of the mall’s many restaurants, taking a seat aside the aquarium. Amidst all the man-made beauty around me, it was the natural movement of the sting ray’s fins, the synchronized turns by schools of fish, the shark sleeping peacefully on the tank’s floor that I found most beautiful in that place.

The restaurant was nearly empty, affording me a chance to strike up a conversation with my server, a young Filipino immigrant on a two-year work contract. Back home, his background was in the sciences, not the hospitality industry. But like so many others, he had made the leap to Dubai in pursuit of greater purchasing power. Although the city’s exorbitant cost of living kept him from nearly all of the luxuries enjoyed by his customers, his work contract did cover transportation, basic housing, and a modest food stipend—allowing him the chance to save his wages in preparation for his return home in over one year’s time.

It struck me how different his story was to the individuals parading their wealth around that same mall. How different it was to my own. Born with relative opportunity but into a nation still economically underdeveloped, he had literally done all he could to achieve financial success. But back home, even his university degree could not guarantee his economic prospects. And so, leaving friends and family, abandoning linguistic and cultural familiarity, and putting his intellectual passions on hold, he had sacrificed virtually everything he knew—all to obtain just a taste of the purchasing power that has become essentially a birthright for most Westerners, and for virtually all of the mall patrons. Now, I wondered how he perceived their exuberant consumption, and the seemingly carefree (even proud) manner by which they parted with thousands of dirhams (roughly 3.7 dirham per dollar), a sum that at home would represent several months’ salary. At the same time, I wondered how many of them perceived his story—or the similarly complex histories of the countless migrant workers across the city.

It is possible that under different circumstances Dubai might have seemed to me what it is today to so many others—a relaxing getaway, a chance to let loose amidst objectively beautiful man-made comfort. But after having spent three months in Southeast and South Asia—it was more a disturbing reminder of how easily we can disregard other members of society. Although not what I had expected from the city, I was grateful for this rather serendipitous opportunity to reflect on my own Western culture of consumption. The problem, as I saw it, was not that we consume—indeed, some level of consumption is necessary for achieving the advancements in living standards that we seek to replicate across the world—but rather that we so frequently and too easily consume with blinders up. We spend without regard for those (out of sight) in far greater need, and we too easily disregard the very humanity and complex history of the individuals who sell to us.

[ADDITIONAL PHOTOS: Visit our Flickr Photostream by clicking here]


]]> 1