On Modernity: Tumbling Grandmothers and the Way Forward
I begin with an extended and embellished aside: the first thing that comes to mind when I think of modernity and Ethiopia are the mad dashes my father and I would have to make through Heathrow Airport to save someone's Ethiopian grandmother from the perils of the moving walkways. The women were usually fresh from an Ethiopian Airlines flight from Addis and on their first trip abroad.
"I see one in the distance, and she's almost at the end," I'd yell, breaking off in a full sprint - sometimes lugging some sixty pounds of cumbersome carry-on luggage (standard issue for all in my family for these trips; I was often the keeper of what must have been the sole remaining Betamax video cameras in use, which weighed in at about twenty-five pounds). It was an inevitable part of my yearly trips home to Ethiopia during the late 1980s and 1990s; lending a hand to someone's Emama who had become overwhelmed by the strange new world she had just entered. One where the ground moved…and she didn't.
My family's dedication to the cause stemmed from our inability to get over the horrific event we witnessed in the summer of 1987. We watched helplessly as Weizero Guenet (we learned her name later as we tried to nurse her) tumbled with a "Wui, wui, wui!" off the moving walkway. She never stepped off it safely as it came to an end. The pile-up of her friends, who suffered a similar fate, only magnified the tragedy. I was a young boy at the time and would not wish the sight of a pile of confused and moaning grandmas on even my worst enemy. Okay, maybe that son-of-a-bitch Ahmed, my mortal enemy from the eighth grade.
The moving walkway must have seemed benign to Weizero Guenet at first, providing her with a welcome respite from the long distance between the gate and immigration/customs in Heathrow's Terminal 3. To be sure, moving walkways are not the flying cars envisioned in those 1950s classroom films about the future, but they are a useful technological innovation for men and women who have spent a lifetime on their feet, working diligently and tirelessly to provide for and nurture their families. As Weizero Guenet glided through the concourse, I could only imagine what she was feeling; I take these conveniences for granted. There was a sign before the end of the walkway, but it was in a language that was foreign to her…and me, for that matter. What exactly does "Mind Your Step" mean? It was only familiarity that saved me from that British English gibberish.
Obviously, Weizero Guenet and the others knew what to do; it was just overwhelming. Scary. Most of the times my father and I would rescue the grandmothers from the walkways, we were more counselors, soothing and reassuring the women that it was all right, trying to loosen their steely grip on the handrail and holding their hands and arms as they took one giant leap into a new world. Often, it was just in the nick of time, the rubber matting of the walkway only inches away from the immobile carpet floor beyond. Now, my father and I can sit back and remember it with some humor over a cold beer, but believe me, back then, the dangers were real.
Weizero Genet survived her fall, but my family dedicated itself to trying to ensure that the grandmothers’ first taste of western modernity did not come at a high price. Inevitably, helping them off the walkway led to helping them reach their hotel during the overnight layovers, which led to helping them get to the airport and onto their flights the next day. We were their first new friends in a new world, something everyone needs to help them make sense of a world that seems both wondrous, dangerous, and to some extent, absurd (particularly if the hotel they stayed in had a bidet).
My grandmother only made the trip once to visit us, and being a walkway victim was either a private tragedy or somehow, alone or with someone's help, she managed to survive unscathed. Or maybe she just walked.
In any event, aside from that memory, I think it makes more sense for me to explore the practical side of modernity. One could get into a meta-philosophical debate about what modernity is, means, etc., but that would take way too long and be about as productive as an exegesis on the meaning of Midi, Maxi & Efti's song "Masinqo Man." In any event, such analysis is best left to someone a bit more qualified; I spent the few philosophy courses I took in college drawing cartoons to amuse myself.
The unfortunate bottom line for Ethiopia is that modernity means starting first with the basics that we expatriates take for granted: safe drinking water, advanced medical care, and infrastructure development (roads, rail, electricity, telephones). Being a results-oriented person, I began noodling about how Ethiopia could take tangible steps to become more modern. The general answer is quite simple: capital. How to acquire it is a separate matter.
We shouldn't be forced to beg for western hand-outs. Bono and Paul O'Neill recently visited Ethiopia and debated the same, tired top-down aid theories that have failed in the past (more or less direct western aid coinciding with the stamping out of corruption, etc.) - albeit with a little more zip and pop appeal (thank goodness for Treasury Secretary O’Neil, whose coolness and devil-may-care attitude counterbalanced the preachy Bono quite nicely). But we have heard it all before, which probably explains why most Ethiopians ignored Bono and O'Neill and spent more time sweating Rush Hour- and Rush Hour 2- star, Chris Tucker. We have to be willing to think outside the box and find creative and innovative ways to generate the kind of capital necessary to address the basic needs and set a foundation upon which to build. And we need to figure out how to do it on our own, with our limited resources.
A couple of suggestions:
1. Privatize the Country - Wait, it is not that ridiculous. A friend of mine is very involved in the movement in some U.S. states to privatize what are normally government functions. Before you put too much stock in my friends, I am also friends with a guy named Crazy Manuel who once ran for a city council seat as an "philatelist" because he felt like the rights of stamp collectors were being ignored. The other friend is very interested and tangentially involved in the recent privatization of some of Philadelphia's overburdened, under-performing school system. The state is bringing in a private corporation to run the school system efficiently for a fee. Who knows what exactly that will entail (will they downsize under-performing students?).
Perhaps that is the kind of radical fix Ethiopia needs. I imagine some mutually beneficial arrangement, such as a large Japanese zaibatsu contracting with the government to provide all government services. Perhaps the Japanese could recapture their economic magic of the seventies, when they made everything cheaper, smaller and more efficient. I imagine Ethiopia becoming more punctual and people eschewing the wax and gold complexity of Amharic in favor of efficient, one-word sentences. The absurdly excessive cake bEt resources in the country will be somehow reallocated to manufacture something useful like paper clips, scotch tape or transistors.
2. Increased Marketing As A Basis For Raising Capital - The country should focus heavily on marketing and branding as a way of leveraging its inherent value to subsidize future growth. We should think about a corporate naming deal, which has been used by professional sports teams here in the U.S. to bring in hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising revenues. And that is for some puny local team. A naming deal for a country could bring in billions that could be used to build roads, schools and hospitals. Perhaps we should make such a deal with a pharmaceutical company, one that includes much-needed free medicines. "Merck's Ethiopia" has a kind of strange appeal to it. And it doesn't have to stop there. Imagine greeting your relatives at "BPAmoco Bole Airport" or having your visa renewal brought to you by Mitsubishi.
And how about a catchy slogan? We should rethink the confusing "Thirteen Months of Sunshine" slogan, and use a focus group-tested slogan that speaks to the 21st century world (e.g. "With Thirteen Months, Ethiopia's Bringing You A Little Something More"). In any event, we really have to make better use of the extra month advantage we have over other countries, which is currently going to waste. Even if we do not adopt a new slogan, an amusement park featuring the thirteen months of sunshine theme and many animal characters/mascots (Abinet the Ostrich, Giorgis the Gazelle, etc.) could be nothing but profitable.
3. Develop a World Class Soccer/Sports Program - The World Cup just concluded, and many young players are made their debuts before the world. Those who have done well, will get multi-million dollar deals to play for an elite European club team. For example, in the early 1990s, African players like Liberia's George Weah or Nigeria's Kanu made millions of dollars as stars in European club leagues and have contributed significantly to their respective home country’s economy. That kind of success got me to thinking about how we can profit from our talents and skills by gaining lucrative employment in the West, and how much money there is to be made in the soccer world.
Our whole marathon/long distant running thing is great and hip-ly unique, but it lacks both flash and cash. We have a population somewhere north of 60 million; surely, we can identify and develop 100 future soccer stars! A bunch of millionaire soccer stars could provide a substantial amount of tax revenue to help fund literacy and public health programs. It may sound like a simplistic solution, but we shouldn't toss aside quick fixes if they can help stimulate further economic development. For example, Dikembe Mutumbo has built something like 387 hospitals in Congo. Eventually, the sophisticated schools and health care developed with these tax revenues will graduate scientists and artists that push us to the next level.
We'd be like a Gulf state, but instead of oil, it'll be people who can dribble a ball with skill and pace. The bustling economies of Argentina and Brazil are clear testament to the success of such an endeavor. Argentina is so politically sophisticated and open democratically that they change Presidents more frequently than most of us change light bulbs, and all without all that unnecessary pomp and circumstance. In fact, you may have been the president of Argentina for a week last November without knowing it.
But, where are all the Ethiopian soccer stars? The Ethiopian Under-20 team did reach the Under-20 World Cup Finals last year. They didn't win any games, but there were some promising players, such as striker Yordanos Abay and midfielder Ashenafi Girma. And there are others not on the youth team who are also impressive, such as Mulualem Regassa. They all play in the Ethiopia Premier League, however, and have not made as big a splash internationally.
When I was in Ethiopia during the 1994 World Cup, Ethiopian soccer experts predicted that Ethiopia could field a World Cup Finals team in 16 years. Also that year, for some inexplicable reason, there was this commercial in heavy circulation on ETV for this green sludge called "Veggie-Boom" that was being hawked by someone who I think was a Senegalese soccer star (who seemed nervous about even touching the stuff and spoke in a tentative cadence). This stuff was supposed to provide indescribable benefits. I was concerned that aspiring young Ethiopian soccer players, seeking to get an advantage in their play, may have taken the Senegalese soccer star's advice and started using this mysterious Veggie Boom; it wasn't clear if Veggie-Boom was something you eat, apply to the skin or use to lubricate large turbine engines.
Eight years later, I set out to do some research to see how close we are to achieving the World Cup finals target. My enthusiasm for this plan to develop Ethiopian soccer superstars crashed back down to Earth when I checked out the FIFA world rankings. Currently, Ethiopia is ranked 134th in the world soccer rankings. One hundred and thirty-fourth! Was the Veggie-Boom somehow to blame?
To put this all into context, we are ranked behind Rwanda. Rwanda, who lost half of its population in an ethnic massacre several years ago. And St. Kitts and the Grenadines, an island with something like seven inhabitants. We are ranked below an island nation that could not field an 11-person squad. What do you have to do to get ranked behind Mauritius (127th)? Not play a friendly game for 20 years?
Moreover, I have serious doubts about whether there even are 134+ countries in the world. For example, we also rank below something called the Faroe Islands (119th), clearly some sort of made-up island. We have to be careful that we don't get surpassed by the 141st place team from "Andorra" (isn't that the name of the home planet of an alien race on "Star Trek"? Are teams from other planets allowed to compete for a World Cup Finals spot? Wasn't that also the name of Samantha's mother on the 60s sitcom "Bewitched"?). Or how about the 148th place "Maldives Islands" (when I asked a friend what the "Maldives" was, he said that he thought it was either some type of tangy spread or a sort of skin condition treatable by a variety of over-the-counter ointments - perhaps Veggie-Boom???).
There are a variety of other sports out there that Ethiopia also sucks at (hockey, tennis, rugby, golf), but if we hone the skills of a few raw talents, there is some serious cash to be had. Richard Williams watched Wimbledon once, saw how big the winner's check was, and promptly put a racket in the hands of his two daughters. Fifteen or so years later, the Williams sisters - who first learned tennis on public courts in Compton - are now sharing their prodigious talent and infectious goofiness with the world. It goes to show that all you need is raw talent, a ball, whatever extra equipment that may be necessary, and a pushy know-it-all, like a Richard Williams, who believes in the kids and thinks they know everything about any given sport. My phone lines are open.