Musings on life in Ethiopia for a middle aged IT professional...or "Dilbert goes to Africa"

I will be working on a major upgrade to the Budget and Expenditures application for the Ethiopian Ministry of Finance during most of 2009 (I have been in Ethiopia since October, 2008). What follows are some somewhat random thoughts about life on a new continent.

Send me comments or feedback at JohnJeunnette (at)

Italian Connection

We celebrated "Victory at Adwa Day", an Ethiopian national holiday, a couple of weeks ago... So what or where is "Adwa"? and what "victory" are we celebrating? (Clue: it has something to do with Italy.)

First, as usual, some history: Emperor Menelik II was a big deal in Ethiopia during the second half of the nineteenth century. He unified most of the country, founded Addis Ababa (at the urging of his wife), brought in modern conveniences like electricity and telephones, and discovered eucalyptus trees. Things were going along pretty well in East Africa.

In other parts of Africa, European countries were collecting colonies and building empires. All but Italy, that is. The Italians were feeling left out of the "let's grab parts of Africa" thing and they wanted some empire, too. At first, they negotiated with Menelik and got what is now Eritrea, but, acting like colonial powers did, they wanted more. By 1895 things were set up for a confrontation. The decisive battle happened at a town named Adwa. Menilik shocked the world by resoundingly defeating the Italians. (Get it? "Victory at Adwa" Day.) Even St. George, the patron saint of Ethiopia, got involved when they carried his icons on to the battlefield. It was one of the biggest and most significant battles in African history - one of the very few occasions when a colonial power was defeated by a native force.

The Italians stuck around in Eritrea but Ethiopia went on its way as an independent country. Emperor Hallie Salassie came along (more about him one day) and East Africa was reasonably peaceful.

By the 1930's Benito Mussolini was claiming the racial and political superiority of Italians and really wanted to show those Africans who was boss. Exploiting the murky political climate in Europe in the thirties, Mussolini looked for ways to provoke conflict with Ethiopia. On October 3, 1935, Italy attacked from Eritrea and Italian Somaliland without a declaration of war. This time St. George was outmatched by Italian armaments and a willingness to use chemical weapons. Italian forces entered Addis Ababa on May 5. Four days later, Italy announced the annexation of Ethiopia.

In June, Haile Selassie made a powerful speech before the League of Nations in Geneva decrying the Italian use of chemical weapons. The emperor stirred the conscience of many and was thereafter regarded as a major international figure. Britain and France, however, soon recognized Italy's control of Ethiopia. Among the major powers, the United States and the Soviet Union refused to do so.

Italian colonial rule was not a happy time for Ethiopia. After a failed assassination attempt against the Italian governor in 1937, the colonial authorities executed 30,000 persons, including about half of the younger, educated Ethiopian population. (The Yekatit 12 monument near my office commemorates this atrocity.) Some large-scale public works projects were undertaken but the African population was definitely second-class citizens in their own country. Ethiopian resistance had little outside support until Italy entered World War II on the side of Germany. Finally, with the assistance of British troops, Hallie Selassie reentered Addis Ababa in May, 1941.

So the British stuck around as advisers for a few years and Hallie Salassie became a big deal in African politics but the Italian connection had been created. It must have been pretty grim to live most anywhere in Africa or the Indian sub-continent during a colonial period. The only possible advantage I can come up with is the infrastructure investment and trade framework set up by the colonial powers. Ethiopian colonization was relatively short but Italy invested heavily with thousands of Italian workers imported to work on roads, dams, and other infrastructure improvements.

So, sixty plus years later, what is left of the Italian colonization?

  • A neighborhood in Addis Ababa called "The Piazza". Lots of jewelery stores, a few hotels, and at least one place called "Island Breeze" to get a good hamburger.
  • Espresso machines everywhere to take advantage of the great Italian coffee. Siting in the shade with a machiato is a delightful way to spend a morning.
  • Pizza and pasta dishes are on just about every restaurant menu. Some of the pizza is even cooked in a real stone ovens.
  • The trading networks with Italy set up to support the colonization must still be in place because it seems like much of the processed food I see in the grocery stores comes from Italy. (I wish I could read more Italian so I know what I was buying.)
  • There are lots of old Fiats running around the streets.

Historians will argue for years over the impact of the whole colonization thing. Africa has definitely suffered politically and is still struggling to build effective and responsive governments. Ethiopia had a relatively short term occupation and other unfortunate things have happened since the Italians left the scene so it is hard to point to specifics but there is definitely an Italian "flavor" to society in Ethiopia. (For example, "Ciao" is a standard "good by".) I'm a bit surprised that any remnants of the Italian period are still here.

The picture of the "Oracle Pizza" sign struck me as a good way to close this journal entry. (For the non-programming folks out there, "Oracle" Database is the database management software that I work with, "Pizza" is left over from the Italian occupation.)


Other Entries:
December 2009
   12/27/2009:   Snowboarding in Breckenridge
November 2009
   11/22/2009:   The Great Ethiopian Run, Take Two
   11/14/2009:   Mule
   11/01/2009:   DV2011
September 2009
   9/27/2009:   Meskel
July 2009
   7/31/2009:   People
   7/12/2009:   Traffic
May 2009
   5/03/2009:   Bubble wrap quest
April 2009
   4/18/2009:   Options: Electricity
March 2009
   3/01/2009:   Blue Donkeys
February 2009
   2/14/2009:   Eucalyptus Trees
January 2009
   1/31/2009:   Story
   1/25/2009:   Security
   1/21/2009:   Obama and Lions
   1/13/2009:   Orienteering in Addis Ababa
   1/07/2009:   Merry Christmas and Goats
November 2008
   11/30/2008:   Ethiopian Road Construction
October 2008
   10/05/2008:   Ethiopia Introduction

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